Legislating Civility

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New Wilmington is a charming, tree-lined hamlet of century-old homes that history has been kind to. It's town center is lined with quaint shops and restaurants much the same as it was in the early 1900's. The bells in Westminster Chapel's gray stone tower still ring faithfully, a reminder to residents that though time moves steadily onward, time-honored values can remain. One of the most unique features of this western Pennsylvania town is the Amish community that has flourished for 150 years on the rolling farmland of the surrounding county. This hard-working, God-fearing sect that has resisted the decadence of modern conveniences still plows the fields with horses, builds fine furniture with hand tools and sews intricately designed quilts. On market day New Wilmington traffic slows to accommodate scores of horse-drawn buggies driven by bearded, black-hatted men bringing their families and produce into town.

But all is not as harmonious as first impressions might suggest. A recent issue of the New Wilmington Globe reported a troubling controversy that has erupted in this usually peaceful village. It seems that a group of new residents who have moved into the area from Pittsburgh are distressed by the horse droppings the Amish leave on the streets. These big-city newcomers, who are restoring several of the historic homes and operate a number of upscale shops, have become quite vocal in their concerns about the smell and appearance of horse dung outside their places of business. Current city sanitation efforts are insufficient, they claim. They are even questioning the health implications that manure exposes to the public. They are lobbying city council to impose an ordinance requiring all horses to wear diapers when entering city limits.

These gentry from Pittsburgh raise an interesting issue. How important, after all, is tidiness to the health and well-being of community life? A little horse manure on the street doesn't really constitute a health hazard to the town's citizenry, does it? But it is obviously an offense to the eyes and nostrils of the new arrivals. Should the village establishment just assume a "get over it" posture or is there a more substantive matter at issue here?

The New Wilmington manure crisis is not unlike a dilemma that is surfacing in communities all across our land - especially in urban areas. As adventuresome gentry acquire dilapidated treasures to transform into charming bungalows, loft studios and gourmet eateries, they bring with them values that conflict with long-standing community practices. In no time at all, these confident young professionals will organize neighborhood clean-up campaigns, yard of the month awards, and loitering ordinances. Soon they will take aim at junk cars, sound pollution, outside storage and unleashed pets. Owing to their vigilance and activism, an un-mowed lawn can bring down the full weight of city government on a homeowner. In my neighborhood, thanks to these new-comers, dog owners now pack plastic gloves and baggies on their daily dog walks. I ask again, how important is tidiness to the health and well-being of community life?

Dog droppings are no more a health risk to my neighborhood than horse droppings are to New Wilmington. But they may be an affront to civility. An overgrown lawn doesn't hurt anyone but it may signal an area's decline. And who is to say at what point an inoperable vehicle becomes a reflection of community neglect? When it is abandoned on a vacant lot? Or sitting on blocks among three others in someone's back yard? Or merely parked in someone's driveway? At some difficult-to-define point where individual freedoms compromise the well-being of one's neighbors, personal behavior enters the public domain.

"Quality of life" seems open to immensely broad interpretation. A spirited basketball tournament on the community court may at once engage youth and families in healthy play while irritating other neighbors by the noise. Is recreation or peacefulness to be the prevailing value? Whose preferences should take precedence? Perhaps in a remote, rural setting one can still live without worrying much about what his neighbors think (though I still remember how upset my Aunt Gladys would get over the stench from a mink farm upwind from her place). But for the rest of us in this urbanizing world, we have little choice but to deal with the tastes and proclivities of neighbors different from ourselves.

Is there a standard, an ideal code of conduct for healthy community life? Certainly cookie-cutter uniformity is not the answer. We have seen how sterile and boring homogeneity can be. Diversity interacting well is clearly a better alternative than sameness. Nor do I suspect that decibel level alone is a fair measure of peacefulness. The sounds of children on the playground, lawnmowers droning, carpenters' saws buzzing, are sounds of vitality. Negotiating appropriate neighborhood quiet times is more the stuff of peace. There is no doubt a place for ordinances to regulate noise, animal excrement, junk cars and the like. But respectful communication and consideration for others is surely a higher road than legislated civility. Perhaps if I asked myself how I like scrubbing dog poop out of the treads of my shoes after I have mowed my front lawn, I might be more careful about my own dog-walking practices.

Excuse me for just a minute - I'm having trouble concentrating. The booming bass from my neighbor's car is reverberating through my entire house. I've asked him before to keep it turned down. He must think everyone likes rap as much as he does. I guess I'll have to go over and say something to him again. There ought to be a law!

Bob Lupton

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