How yards and gardens express culture, identity and neighborliness

Courtesy of Bryn Mawr Gardens
Bryn Mawr has blossomed into one of the Twin Cities’ prime garden hotspots.

Carolyn Bastick has lived in Minneapolis’ Bryn Mawr neighborhood since 1986, in three different houses, and she loves her neighborhood.

“The neighborhood is close-knit,” she told me the other day. “Once someone moves in, they don’t want to leave.”

(It might have sounded sinister, like “the village” in Patrick McGoohan’s surreal ’70s sci-fi show “The Prisoner,” if Bastick hadn’t been so full of vim.)

But probably Bastick’s favorite thing about the neighborhood is the culture of walkable gardens. Over her 28 years, Bastick has watched Bryn Mawr literally blossom into one of the Twin Cities’ prime garden hotspots, and hundreds of people walk and bike through Bryn Mawr yards each year on the garden tour that she organizes.

“When I first moved in, really few people did much to their gardens,” Bastick told me. “Maybe there were a few tulips, but there was no garden that really stood out. But now, when neighbors walk by your place and you have created something that is beautiful, they stop and admire it. The more people that started to do this, the more people thought, ‘well hell I could do that.’ And literally, it was like a contagion. You start in a small way and experiment, and before you know it, all your front yard is cut up with flowers and shrubs.”

The social lives of yards

The emergence of the Bryn Mawr gardens is a classic example of what Ursula Lang calls a “yard culture.” Lang is a doctoral candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Geography Department who has spent years researching how people use their yards in Minneapolis. She believes that yards can tell us a lot about how people interact and build community.

“I am trying to understand how people’s yards behave along the scale of a city block,” Lang explained to me. “I was looking at how the yards interacted with one another, and how the neighborhood interacted through their yards.”

As she describes it, people use yards in many different ways. Gardening, in particular, becomes a great way for people to chat and create community through sharing knowledge. Lang spent time interviewing Minneapolis residents about their yards and how they use them in three different areas of the city.

“With gardening, there’s often one or two people on a block who become resident experts,” Lang described. ”There’s this whole exchange of plants and expertise and advice and a lot of that is really informal.”

The history of yards

At first glance, yards might not seem that interesting. A yard is simply the space between the house and its neighbors — the street, the alley, other homes. But particularly in smaller urban yards, a lot of invisible things happen every day.

As Lang describes it, yards have evolved and changed a great deal as our cities have developed over the years.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about what yards are in the early decades of streetcar suburbs,” Lang told me. “People hadn’t really settled on what yards are. There’s a lot of debate in these magazines about what yards are for. Even terms like “back yard” and “front yard” aren’t really settled at that point.”

Another of Lang’s turning points in the history of yards was the development of indoor appliances that opened up a lot of space around homes. For example, the development of indoor plumbing, electricity and laundry machines meant that clotheslines, latrines, and piles of coal ash disappeared from yards during the ’30s and ’40s. And after World War II, it became symbolically important to have demarcated private space, so that back yards became a new focus in American homes.

Differing yard cultures

As anyone who has lived in an urban neighborhood well knows, people can use their yards in widely different ways. Some people keep them well manicured; others don’t. Gardens can range from wild looking native plants to painted white rocks and astroturf. There are a thousand kinds of fences, and of course there are pink flamingos, yard butts and bathtub Madonnas.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke
Pink flamingos enliven this yard in St. Paul’s Frogtown.

These differences can add up, and are often amplified by culture, race and class to form what Lang calls unique “yard cultures.” For example, in East Los Angles, the urban planner James Rojas studied how Latinos use their yards in unique ways that are often perceived differently by different audiences. Rojas documented how, in Latino neighborhoods, people often used their ubiquitous chain-link fences as social gathering spaces, sometimes to hang up clothes for sale or to add decoration to their homes. (Here in the Twin Cities, our rich culture of summer yard sales performs a similar function.)

Yards can also serve as places of protest or artistic creativity. On Minneapolis’ South Bloomington Avenue, the artist Andrew Moore spent years working on a sculpture in his front yard focused on neighborhood gentrification and racism. The project was removed when Moore’s house was condemned last year, but similar kinds of yard expressions exist everywhere in the city in ways both large and small.

Photo by Steven Lang
Andrew Moore spent years working on an art project in his front yard.

(For the record, I have it on good account that Moore’s art has been safely secured “in an undisclosed location” by friends in the artistic community. Perhaps someday it might return to the street.)

How good yards make good neighbors

Walking down any sidewalk in the Twin Cities, you can start to appreciate the differences in the city’s yard cultures. Some of my favorites are the cultivated historic porches of Minneapolis’ Milwaukee Avenue and the lively stoops of St. Paul’s East Side. Though they look very different, in each neighborhood the yards are working in unique ways to foster community.

For Lang, yard cultures reveal some of the differences in identity across the city. For example, she contrasted the famous Prospect Park native plant gardens in Minneapolis with older trends like painted rocks or manicured turf grass. By looking at these differences, one can see yards express many different kinds of identity, often depending on the context of different race and class positions. And these differences can sometimes lead to tensions.

“Many of the native plant advocates and also the urban food advocates sometimes dismiss that kind of [seemingly artificial] yard as not desirable,” Lang told me. “But the people who cultivate their yards that way are still putting in a lot of effort time and attention. We in the  green, environmentally focused advocacy community need to be careful before we march in and say this is the prescription for what the new yard should be.”

Each reflects owner’s style

I asked Caroyn Bastick if Bryn Mawr has a unique aesthetic to its yards and gardens, but she surprised me when she said that there really isn’t one particular look to the neighborhood.

“That’s the charm of it,” Bastick told me. “Everyone’s garden really is different. The majority of the gardens are created by the individual home owners with few exceptions, and that is a crucial point. I am not interested in having people see gardens that are created by Bachman’s; that’s not what we’re about. This is why they are all so different and they reflect the owner’s personal style.”

To each their own. These last beautiful days of summer are a great time to walk around and explore the yard cultures of our cities. Be sure to stop and smell the flowers.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Holly Wenzel on 08/27/2014 - 04:01 pm.

    “yard butts”

    Just have to break my however-many-year silence on MinnPost to argue: They’re not “yard butts”; they’re “bloomers.” Back in the late ’80s, northern Wisconsin and the UP were a hotbed for purchased or homemade bloomers — there’s something about living along highways and country roads that makes people want to decorate for their ever-moving “audience” — and you’d see those pastel-colored dress hems rising above rolled-down nylons or white socks every few miles. You haven’t lived until you’ve debated with another passenger whether that’s an acceptable bloomer color and the bloomer suddenly stands up.

    • Submitted by William Lindeke on 08/28/2014 - 12:35 pm.

      thanks for speaking out on this important topic

      I stand corrected. Or rather, I bend at the waist corrected.

  2. Submitted by mark wallek on 08/28/2014 - 09:43 am.

    Know a rental…

    Here on the Northside, and generally just about anywhere, you can identify a rental property by the depressed state of the yard. And as an aid to these depressing yards, the Kingdom of Parks will assist by not cutting the weeds that pass for grass in many northside parks until after they go to seed. So yes, a yard says a lot about a property and a neighborhood.

  3. Submitted by Holly Wenzel on 08/28/2014 - 08:38 pm.

    you’re the best, Bill

    It’s a fabulous topic and one we don’t think about often unless there’s a “problem property” on the street. Maybe someone can do some social experimentation to see what kind of peer pressure is at work.

    Perhaps I’ll start.

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