Tuesday, December 29, 2015

A winter's tale: property and placemaking

A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other's lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves. - Wendell Berry


With sidewalks running along two sides of the property, those of us who live on a corner lot owe the city a bit more civic duty when it comes to clearing snow. On one side of our lot is a long block where we share an equally long stretch of sidewalk with the neighbor who lives behind us on the next corner.

When the grass grows in the boulevard strip or the snow covers the sidewalk, we both know where our property, and thus our civic duty, ends. Pretty basic knowledge really, but it’s just the sort of thing that keeps the peace in any neighborhood. It’s the kind of understanding folks living in close proximity depend upon to keep the “civil” in “civilization”.

Simple as it is though, you pull on that thread and you risk unraveling the social fabric. Property lines are drawn. You keep to your side; and, you keep up with the upkeep. In the case of snow, keeping up means you have 24 hours to clear the sidewalk as per city ordinance:

72.02. Responsibility and Penalties. Subdivision 1. All snow, ice, dirt and rubbish remaining on a public sidewalk more than 24 hours after its deposit thereon is a public nuisance. The owner and the occupant of any property adjacent to a public sidewalk shall use due diligence to keep such walk safe for pedestrians. No such owner or occupant shall allow snow, ice, dirt or rubbish to remain on the walk longer than 24 hours after its deposit thereon. 

And so, there arises a web of personal obligations, social mores, and civil law that frames, defines, and dictates our right conduct as it pertains to homeownership and snow.


Several years ago, soon after we moved to Rochester, I was out removing snow from the sidewalks along our lot. I have to say I rarely do so with any real cognizance of the social and legal conventions that make it a duty to do so. The snow falls and then I go out and move some of it out of the way. I guess I know I am supposed to do this thing. Sometimes I am more inclined to do so than at other times - well, mostly less inclined.

I shouldn't complain. It’s not like I’m having to shovel the snow. I start up the Great Winter Wonder Machine and walk behind it as it hurls snow to this side or that. It’s not effortless, but save for the end of the driveway where the city piles its civil service, it’s pretty much just a trudge.

On this occasion, years ago, as I trudged down the long block we share with our neighbor, I kept going and cleared the snow down to the next corner.

I don’t now why I did that. Pretty sure it wasn’t altruism. I was probably just grooving to the rhythm of the trudge or maybe didn't want to rassle with turning around the Great Winter Wonder Machine to head back when I hit the property line. Whatever the reason, I had cleared the snow the whole length of the block.

The next snow came soon after. When I went out clear the walks I found that the sidewalk along the long block had been cleared already. I suppose I figured that my neighbor had returned what he thought was a favor, but whatever his reason there it was, done.

Next snow, I got out first and cleared the long block. Next time, he did. Over the seasons an unspoken compact formed: whoever gets out first, clears the walk. It’s nobody’s turn, it’s just who gets to it first. We’ve never spoken about it. There was a winter I knew he wasn’t well. That season I turned the corner down at his end of the street and cleared the walk in front of his house right up to where I gauged his property ended.

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