It turns out that you can be a NIMBY even in the middle of the road.
STAY IN YOUR LANE. The Southern California town of Coronado, located in San Diego County, has always been a pretty bike-friendly place, with nice paths and a healthy number of two-wheeled commuters. But when it tried to paint bike lanes on some city streets in 2015, it unleashed an inferno of NIMBY fury: at one city-council meeting, residents deemed bike lanes “paint-stripe pollution“ and a “visual cacophony” that would “induce a dizzying type of vertigo.” Yet another local claimed that adding the lanes would be “very similar to personally taking all three of my daughters to a tattoo parlor and having them completely body tattooed.”
TIME TO REDRAW THE LINES. Though other residents supported the lanes, Coronado City Council bowed to anti-lane fury. Typical “bikelash,” says Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego Bicycle Coalition, who was at those meetings. “They may have been thinking that bike lanes were going to bring too many people to their city,” he adds, “when in reality bike lanes are protecting visitors and people in their own community.”
The grounds around Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, may be the park with some of the pettiest white people in America.
THE PARK OF PETTY. This past May, a white woman called 911 on two black men for barbecuing, making national headlines and earning the moniker “BBQ Becky.” Just a few weeks after that, a 38-year-old white jogger, later known as “Jogger Joe,” spotted the belongings of a homeless black man who had been sleeping next to Lake Merritt and, deeming them “trash,” stuffed them into a garbage can. He then flung the homeless man’s sleeping bag and clothes into the water (and was later charged with robbery, for stealing the phone of someone who tried to question him about it on camera).
TRASH, MEET TREASURE. Like much of the Bay Area, Oakland is experiencing a major housing crisis, with soaring rents and rates of homelessness. Jme McLean, an urban policy and organizational development consultant who works on issues of healthy, equitable, and sustainable development, feels this incident is emblematic of deeper issues. “For some, homeless encampments are an eyesore—litter in the street,” she says. “Jogger Joe felt entitled to remove this encampment because the sight of it made him uncomfortable. But for Drew, the man staying in this spot night after night, the items there, such as sleeping blankets, were necessities. Losing them literally could have been a matter of life or death.”
Good fences make good neighbors. But what about a fence so clearly useless that it spawned class warfare?
THE CITY BY THE BAY (BY THE FENCE). Spite houses are usually built by vengeful people to deny despised neighbors views, light, and a good quality of life. But not every spite structure is an actual residence. In the 1870s, California’s railroad barons started building mansions on what came to be known as San Francisco’s Nob Hill, buying up land from the residents to claim its panoramic views. In 1877, German immigrant undertaker Nicholas Yung refused to sell his property for the initial asking price to Charles Crocker, the fat cat who had moved in next door. Crocker, who pretty much had limitless money, did not want to offer Yung a better price. Instead, he erected a 40-foot-tall fence at the rear of his manse, cloaking his poorer neighbor’s home in darkness.
IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY! Yung had been asking for just a few thousand dollars more than Crocker wanted to shell out, but the rail baron decided he’d rather put that money into a fence, which cost about $3,000 (the equivalent of around $70,000 today). The fence quickly became a local cause célèbre, the site of prolabor protests that saw the towering wall of wood as a symbol of the excesses of the railroad robber barons of the time.
The creation of “spite houses,” structures that are made solely to anger neighbors or city officials, is a global phenomenon. Spite skyscrapers are a more recent innovation.
A VIEW FROM NOWHERE. When Buenos Aires’s Art Deco Kavanagh Building was completed in 1936, it was, at 31 stories high, the tallest skyscraper in Latin America. That also made it the tallest spite house in Latin America. Built by Corina Kavanagh, an Irish-Argentine heiress who (legend has it) had fallen in love with the scion of some local blue bloods, the Anchorenas, the building was constructed after the Anchorena matriarch forbade her son from marrying Corina, whom she considered too nouveau riche.
HELL HATH ... In revenge, Corina bought the land wedged between the Anchorena palace and the Catholic church they had commissioned—and instructed her architects to design a building large enough to block her nemeses’ view of their precious cathedral. If she couldn’t have her man, they couldn’t have their sightline. And, soon, they didn’t.
Excessive holiday decorations can make for annoyed neighbors—they bring burdensome extra traffic, for instance—but it takes a special soul to rage back.
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT. Every neighborhood has that family—the one that’s just a little too extra about the holidays. In Ross Township, Pennsylvania, this distinction goes to brothers Bill and Robert Ansell, who started mounting an elaborate Christmas display outside their residence in 1988, drawing hundreds of visitors and collecting donations in a box, which they said they gave to the Salvation Army and Children’s Hospital (and their own electric company).
GETTING SCROOGED. But around 2005, neighbors started to complain about the visitors clogging their small street and tried to get the township to shut down the Christmas display. In response, Bill Ansell tore down the festive decorations, and in 2010 replaced them with a display of rage: decapitated plastic carolers, a pissing plastic Santa, and crude signs, including the words “FUCK ROSS TOWNSHIP” spelled out in Christmas lights. “It was huge. It was probably four feet high,” Josh Keebler, a neighbor, told a local reporter. “I jokingly referred to it as the Hollywood sign of Ross Township. I mean, you could see it probably for a quarter of a mile when you come off the hill there.”
Lore has it that in the 1920s, a woman agreed to divorce her husband on one condition: that he build her a house of her own that was the exact replica of the one they already lived in.
HOME IS WHERE THE HEART WAS. Her husband agreed—but because she forgot to specify where the house should be, he built it in the worst place he could find: in the middle of a swamp on Plum Island, near Newburyport, Massachusetts, where it was impossible to hook up the plumbing system to fresh water.
NEW LIFE FOR THE ‘PINK HOUSE.’ It’s unclear whether the woman ever moved in, but a family did eventually come to inhabit the house full-time. What started out as a vengeful act has now, in keeping with the times, become the object of a crowdfunded campaign to “save the Pink House,” as it became known after it had been abandoned in the 2000s. A wildlife group that had taken over the island didn’t see the point in keeping the house around—it wasn’t doing much to save local avian life. For now, it appears to be still standing. Spite is hard to kill.
It’s one thing to fight the city demolishing your property. It’s another to memorialize that fight in perpetuity.
EMINENT DOMAIN? I DON’T THINK SO. By 1910, New York City was in a period of rapid expansion, including of its public transit system. As part of this, a row of buildings in lower Manhattan’s Greenwich Village was slated to be torn down for the Seventh Avenue subway extension. One landlord, David Hess, did not accept this state of affairs. When the city demolished Hess’s building and repossessed the land in 1914, he and his family were delighted to see they didn’t quite get it all—the city had somehow missed one little corner of the property, measuring no more than a few feet wide. And when the city tried to buy it from them, they refused.
MADE A MARK. The Hess family triumphantly claimed this forgotten wedge and eventually installed a mosaic plaque in the sidewalk that read, “Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated for Public Purposes.” They held on to that tiny triangle of land—known at the time as the smallest piece of privately owned real estate in New York—until 1938, and the mosaic remains today.