Building good neighbors
We built a fence last weekend, and now I feel guilty about it.
We’ve owned our house for a little over a year. There were several appealing things about it—it’s old, it needed work, and it has a large, fenced yard. We’re drawn to old things, Young Christian Mom and I, and wanted a place we could bring back to life a little, so it was important to get an elderly fixer-upper. The fence was just a bonus.
At the time we bought the house we had three very small children, with a fourth unknowingly on the way. The fence provided a small sense of security that maybe, just maybe, we could let the kids play in the backyard for 30 seconds by themselves without them wandering into traffic. (Note: This illusion of safety is really only possible until the children, like the raptors of Jurassic Park, learn to open doors/gate latches. At that point you have no guarantee of keeping children in the yard or ever having solo bathroom time again.)
But while the fence did create something of a barrier between kids and roadway, YCM wasn’t entirely comfortable with how exposed that portion of our yard was. We live in a walkable neighborhood so there’s a fair amount of foot traffic, and despite being two blocks from one of the local elementary schools there are some potentially unwholesome elements nearby. Combine this with the fact that our children have no innate sense of fear and it’s pretty clear the fence wasn’t much of a safety measure.
So we fixed that. And by we I mean mostly Young Christian Mom and The Guy, who is a teenage son of friends and someone our kids have taken to calling their big brother.
The goals were threefold:
- Create a visual and physical barrier to the sidewalk.
- Do it in the least expensive way possible.
- Make it happen over a weekend.
What’s needed to build a fence
Building a fence is really not that complicated. It’s good physical labor and the kind of project that looks like a big accomplishment when you’re done—a transformational to-do. If you’re fortunate enough to have an existing chain-link fence like we did, it’ll cut your active work time in half, at least, if you reuse the existing posts. Here’s a list of the supplies we needed for approximately 60 feet of fence (40 feet replaced chain-link, 20 feet was completely new). We were not prepared financially or physically to refence the entire property, instead focusing on getting one section of the yard completely contained.
- Fence pickets: 150, 6 feet, cedar. Always buy a few more than you need so you can toss/return any that are of poor quality.
- Metal-to-wood brackets: 18. You’ll see these called Simpson strong-ties or pipe grip ties. Essentially they slip over your metal fence posts, then you tighten them up and screw through them into your stringers. Make sure you buy the right size for the diameter of your fence posts! And be aware that the corner brackets can be tough to find; call ahead to your supply store to make sure they stock them.
- 2×4 fence brackets: 8. These were for the new section of fence where we installed actual new wood posts. If you pay more than about 75 cents for these each, you’re getting ripped off.
- 4×4 wood posts: 3, cedar, 8 feet. These were for the new section of fence that bisects the side yard, giving us a completely fenced-in portion of yard for the kids.
- Stringers: 16, mix of lengths as needed between existing posts, some 2×4 and 1×4, all cedar.
- Fasteners: 2 pounds of outdoor-rated screws. If you’re buying less than five pounds, it’s often cheaper to get them at whatever local hardware store still sells them by the pound out of a bin. I prefer torx-drive screws in most applications.
- Concrete: 8 bags for the three new posts.
Total cost: just over $600.
You can save a few bucks by using other kinds of wood or fasteners, etc. Our plan is to eventually make this fence a little fancier aesthetically when there’s money for such a thing, so we kept it simple but with certain quality components for now. One thing is for sure: Avoid buying your supplies at a big-box home store if you can. We purchased the pickets, stringers and brackets from a place called Probuild, which is geared more toward actual contractors and handymen (handyfolk?). They’re great people and saved us about 30% over the Home Depot prices.
How to build the fence
There are plenty of guides out there for more specifics, but here are the general steps.
Step 1: Get grandparents to help watch kids. Bonus points if they have extensive experience in DIY projects.
Step 2: Remove all the metal fencing. This is simple and not too time-consuming—a few bolts and untwisting some wire connections. List it on Craigslist for free and you’ll be rid of it by the end of the day.
Step 3: Dig some holes and level your posts; add bracing and fill in with concrete.
Step 4: Remind children not to touch the new posts or concrete.
Step 5: Attach brackets to fence posts; use one of your stringers to make sure they are level across the span.
Step 6: Remind children again not to touch the concrete.
Step 7: Attach stringers.
Step 8: Ask grandparents where kids are. Find series of lines scratched into still-wet concrete.
Step 9: Set pickets and secure with screws. It’s fast if you can get two helpers: one can hold the pickets in place (be sure to level every fifth one!) while you secure with one screw in the top stringer and one in the bottom. The other helper can follow behind and drive the remaining screws in all three stringers.
Step 10: Wash concrete off children’s feet.
Step 11: Admire.
And that’s it. Really not too hard. We did set one additional metal post in the middle of the longest span because it was nearly 12 feet, and I need to get the corner finished by ripping one picket to the proper width on my table saw.
As we looked out on the project at the end of the day, there was a great sense of satisfaction, of contentment, of safety. And remorse.
What have I done?
I’m glad the fence will help keep our kids safe. But that night I wondered at what cost that safety came.
You know the old phrase that good fences make good neighbors. Many people think of it in terms of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” but it was in use long before that, and it’s unclear, I think, to most people whether it’s meant seriously or with tongue in cheek, though if one were to judge by parenting forums and attitudes toward the Mexican border I think we can safely say lots of folks believe a good fence is the only proper way to be safe.
But I couldn’t help staring at that expanse of wood and wondering what we’d just cut ourselves off from. And what were we supposed to do? Did that wall cut us off from our neighbors in such a way that we were violating Jesus’ insistence in Matthew 10 that treating our neighbors as ourselves was right up there with loving God among the commandments?
I felt myself, as a father, being torn between two urges: Protect my family on the one hand, be an example of healthy neighbor relationship on the other. Are the two mutually exclusive? Young Christian Mom and I talk often about how to become a more integral part of our community. Neither of us is very outgoing, and the idea of walking through our neighborhood introducing ourselves makes me very nearly have an anxiety attack. We’ve discussed maybe holding a kind of open-house meal on a Saturday, putting up signs and just having the yard open and making a public picnic kind of thing.
But we haven’t done it. And why?
If I’m brutally honest with myself, the answer is I’m afraid of my neighbors. Not that they’re going to mug me at knife-point or, really, swipe one of my kids from the back yard as they walk by a chain-link fence. I’m not really afraid of them, but of how I’ll react to them. I afraid that they’ll be different from me, that English will be their second language or that they won’t have completed high school or that they’ll smoke two packs of cigarettes a day or that they’ll support Donald Trump or be insulted if I mention religion. I’m afraid I will think poorly of them for those things, that I’ll judge them, that I’ll have pity or disgust or anger or malice in my heart, and then I’ll have to face the fact that I am probably at least a little bit elitist and racist and I would prefer to think I’m not.
Like most people, I want to believe I’m a pretty good person and that I don’t hate or condemn others. I want to believe I see good in others and treat all people fairly and have the kind of love for my neighbor that the Samaritan had for the man by the side of the road in Jesus’ parable in Matthew 10—that I have compassion for others because it’s the right thing to do and not because I have something to gain from it. I want to believe I’m a good neighbor. But now there’s a physical barrier mirroring the emotional one in my heart, and they suggest otherwise.
The danger, though, is not that it’s a bad thing to prevent every passerby from seeing into a small portion of our back yard. The danger is that I will hide behind that fence, that we’ll hunker down and use it as a means to escape being part of the neighborhood, cutting ourselves off from the potential to be good neighbors to those around us and using it as an excuse not to love our neighbors and, according to Jesus’ parallelism, not to love God the way we’re commanded to. And I know, with my introverted personality and anxiety disorder, that it would be real easy for me to hide behind that fence.
But it’s also ridiculous to think that the visibility of 1/10 of my yard is the key to being a good neighbor. What does anyone gain from seeing back there? They can see the stack of wood along the garage, or the haphazard collection of kids’ bikes and outdoor toys on the patio. Aren’t I doing people a favor by hiding that mess a little? Maybe I’m actually being a good neighbor by sprucing up the property with handsome cedar instead of ugly metal fencing.
Or maybe I’m afraid and making excuses. What’s a Young Christian Dad to do?