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The paradox of the hedge

An 8-foot-high stand of ficus is a friendlier wall, but it's still a wall. And there are more than two sides to it.

May 22, 2005|Greg Goldin | Greg Goldin is the architecture critic at Los Angeles magazine and a contributing writer to L.A. Weekly.

In the middle of the well-groomed block on South Ridgeley Drive--a self-assured, composed neighborhood in the Miracle Mile district--there is a two-story Monterey-Colonial duplex for sale. The postcard the Realtors mailed out to advertise the property presents an image of half a house. On view are a pair of plantation doors flanked by shutters opening onto a pink-hued second-floor balcony. The first floor is entirely hidden behind an 8-foot hedge. Which, it turns out, is the point of the photograph. No one can see in, or out, for that matter. The postcard makes this clear: "Gated with hedges, intercom entry."

From the vantage of the street--the real, living street--the 8-foot-high, 40-foot-long hedge eclipses everything around it. It crowds the sidewalk and consumes the air. Its mass and scale trigger an instinctive shrinking, and the impulse to move on quickly, to leave. There is an inkling of something watching, perhaps even lurking, beyond the defensive green line.

That hedge is emblematic. Los Angeles is being cordoned off. Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, frontyard by frontyard. You can stand in your own frontyard, or idle at your neighbor's, and almost watch it happen. Hedges are growing, everywhere. They're growing tall and they're growing dense. On busy thoroughfares in Hancock Park, on shaded retreats on the steep alluvium of the San Gabriels in Altadena, on communal walk streets in Venice, on innumerable east-west and north-south streets of the Cartesian grid in the flats of L.A. proper, fast-growing trees, usually Ficus nitida but occasionally Ligustrum texanum or Pittosporum undulatum, are planted in a row to close off what previously was open. The clear vista of a manicured lawn, perhaps punctuated with a serpentine boxwood and lined with bedded flowers and pruned shrubs, is being cropped by 6-, 8-, 10- and 12-foot-high hedges. The unpredictable texture of ornamental trees and broad canopies is being replaced by featureless uniformity. Unvaryingly green, thickly foliated and impenetrable, the hedges sprout practically where the sidewalk ends and private property begins. The animated public right of way, scented, colorful, dappled, is being rendered stolid and still.

These new moats both evoke and provoke the divisions between public and private, embrace of the urban spectacle and retreat from it, the creative conflict arising out of proximity and the tranquility born of solitude. It's hard to say which side of the hedge is more besieged. But what is certain is that, in the words of John Chase, "Hedges are the sleeper hot-button issue in civic affairs."

Chase speaks from experience. As the urban designer for West Hollywood, he witnessed firsthand what happens when a city enters its residents' frontyards. West Hollywood, like many of the cities that surround it, had a 42-inch height limit for hedges, which was often flouted. In May 2001, the city drafted a rule that would have permitted taller hedges, with the proviso that homeowners first apply for permission. The idea was to maintain the feeling of an "urban village." It was, in other words, a matter of communitarianism. Or so the city's planners thought. But when word got out, the citizens of West Hollywood were outraged. "I have to get a permit to grow a hedge?" they cried.

"The spaces are as important to people as their pets," Chase says. "It was as though you rang their doorbells and said, 'We're taking your dog.' It's an indicator of how people feel about the city. Does the gaze of passersby defile your space?" The City Council immediately withdrew the height limit and retreated from regulating hedges altogether.

Last year, hedge wars broke out in Santa Monica, where the citizenry continues to skirmish. When residents complained that their neighborhood looked like "an armed camp," the city started to stringently enforce its own 42-inch rule, on the books since 1948. A staff report presented at a June City Council meeting explained: "Open front yards contribute to the neighborhood aesthetic and are enjoyed by the entire community even though they are privately owned.... This connection with neighbors creates a sense of community and, in Santa Monica, is one of the factors that make this city a desirable place to live and work."

But homeowners along plummy Adelaide Drive, overlooking Santa Monica Canyon, rebelled after being threatened with fines of $25,000 a day for not trimming their hedges. The ensuing dust-up launched the City Council candidacy of Bobby Shriver, a Kennedy clansman who, until then, hadn't given a thought to public office. Last November, he won. And now hedge height enforcement is on hold while the Santa Monica City Council deliberates on whether streets lined with enclosed private spaces will be enshrined in public policy.

Elsewhere, as in the city of Los Angeles, which also has a 42-inch height limit, which is also routinely flouted, the illegal hedges just keep growing.

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