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  Where Death and Danger Lurk
November 5, 2003

As expected, last night’s City Council meeting drew some 500 vocal, mostly Latino, attendees, with over 60 signing up to make a plea for changing Richmond’s Zoning Ordinance to allow substantially higher fences in the front yards of residences. Since 1949, Richmond has limited front yard fence heights to 3 ½ feet. This is consistent with nearly every other city in the U.S., where front yard fence heights are typically limited to between 3 and 4 feet. The City of Richmond has not enforced the ordinance for years, and fences of 5 and 6 feet, or more, have proliferated in the City’s southwest flatlands, where crime rates are higher than average and where a large percentage of the City’s growing Latino population lives.

For some three hours, speakers pounded on the need for high fences to provide safety and security for their families and property in what they described as an outlaw city where drug dealers and users, prostitutes and thieves prey on residents, and police don’t respond.

Two speakers supported the lower fence height limitations but were loudly booed by the otherwise rowdy, applauding, whistle-blowing crowd.

Councilmember Jim Rogers (who lives behind a high fence in a gated community at Marina Bay) first moved to raise the maximum front yard fence height to 6 feet, citywide. I made a substitute motion to raise it to 4 feet citywide with 5 feet in high crime areas, defined as more than 20% over the City’s average. Seeing that my motion was headed for trouble, I reluctantly accepted a ”friendly amendment” from Councilmember Penn to raise the height in high crime areas to 6 feet. Both Rogers’ and my motion included provisions for amnesty of existing non-conforming fences.

My motion, which was voted on first, garnered one yes vote (mine) and an abstention from Mayor Anderson. Rogers’ motion passed 8-1, with mine as the only dissenting vote. Not even Councilmember Penn, whose friendly amendment I accepted, supported my motion. Now, anyone anywhere in Richmond can erect a 6 foot high fence in a front yard.

Even the planning director, who defied the Planning Commission direction and advocated a 5 foot fence height, was surprised by Rogers’ motion and its almost unanimous support.

After recovering from the shock and pondering this new era, I realized that this is not all bad. I was reminded of last week’s City Council meeting at which staff brought forward an initiative to “market” Richmond to potential businesses and residential developers. One of the objectives was to create a “brand” for Richmond, that is, create a theme that would be widely recognized and help “sell” the City.

Well, here’s an idea. We have all heard President Bush speak repeatedly about what a dangerous place Iraq is, but most Americans don’t really understand the concept, having never experienced it firsthand. We could create sort of a theme park in Richmond, where people can experience death and danger without traveling to some exotic country. A fleet of Humvees, driven by veterans and protected by veterans manning machine guns, would pick up visitors at the thriving Port of Richmond and guide them through the mean streets of Richmond where they could safely view hookers, thieves, murderers and drug dealers in their own habitat. Out of work police officers and urban anthropologists would act as tour guides and provide descriptive and informative interpretation. Art historians and out of work planners would lecture on the artistry and articulation of the astounding variety of six-foot high fences and regale the visitors with stories of how fences routinely stopped careening out of control vehicles from smashing into houses and repulsed giant rabid dogs who beat themselves bloody trying to penetrate yards to gobble up juicy kids and smaller pets. Richmond would jettison its “Pride and Purpose” motto for something more fitting, like “City of Crime and Circus.”  A competition would be held or new City logo.

The City government, of course, would solve its budget problem by taking a cut of the tourist action. Libraries would remain open, but there would no longer be any need for police. With all law-abiding citizens living behind 6 foot high fences (possibly Councilmember Rogers will next draft an ordinance allowing electrification and concertina wire – maybe even land mines), there would be no need for so many police. Lacking access to victims, criminals would have nowhere to turn, except to prey on each other. Before long, the criminal element would consume itself, and like a forest fire, burn itself out for lack of fuel. In an effort to preserve what had become a major business in Richmond, the death and danger tour operators would then have to turn to actors to play the role of criminals – thus providing employment opportunities for Richmond residents. In fact, Richmond’s famous Employment Training Department would obtain a grant from ChevronTexaco to become the first in the nation to launch a unique program to take ordinary citizens and teach them to look and act like criminals.

The city I heard described last night is not the city I have lived in for 30 years, nor is it the city I want to live in. I am finding myself, more and more, out of step with my colleagues on the City Council, who want to make Richmond a city where anything goes and where we adapt to the worst elements of our city. I do not intend to demean those who came last night to advocate for what they thought is the best way to protect their lives and property. I accept that the threat they described is real and the need legitimate. I am deeply saddened that the only approach the City Council considered is to encourage residents, city-wide, to draw further into themselves, give up on their neighborhoods, write off the police and adopt lifestyles that are more like the Middle Ages than modern America.