Culture, Life

My neighborhood believes in walls and privacy, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed a week without a wall

Do good walls really make good neighbors?

I grew up in the suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa – more specifically, in a gated community, which frankly looks like something out of a movie about white utopia. I’m talking about immaculate green lawns, smiling, waving neighbors walking their Jack Russell dogs, with two white SUVs parked in each driveway. The only thing missing? The white picket fence. Instead, in their place, we have 10 feet high concrete or wooden walls.  

Earlier last year, the wooden wall that separates my parents’ house from their neighbors’ fell down due to a termite infestation. Both parties had known about the termites for years but neither wanted to do anything about it – hoping the problem might go away on its own. Naturally, “the problem” did quite the opposite and the rickety wooden wall that separates our gardens promptly collapsed. Horrified at the prospect of the neighbors “seeing in,” a plan for a bigger and better wall was quickly put in place. Unfortunately, building takes time, and it appeared that they would have to wait one whole week to have their precious privacy back.

When I spoke to my mom at the end of their wall-less week, I was expecting stories of fighting dogs and peering eyes but instead was met with a laugh, followed by “it was actually such a lovely experience.” My mom said the first thing that struck her once the wall had been totally removed was the amount of light that flooded into the garden, “we all felt such a sense of relief, there just seemed to be so much more space.” It turns out, the dogs made friends within minutes and the ominous neighbors had become real people.

We knew one as the eccentric artist that lived next door and her husband as angry and intimidating with his loud booming voice. My parents quickly realized that we had grossly misjudged them. Prior to this, they would only ever see each other in passing moments like the random conversation on the street. However, now with nothing to hide behind, they were all pleasantly surprised by how sociable the experience of having neighbors had become. During the week, they shared dinners, cups of flour, lemons and drinks in the evening – they had become fast friends. In fact, they so enjoyed each other’s company that they considered putting in a gate between the properties.

Unfortunately, the gate never materialized and the wall was reerected. Six months have passed and they haven’t seen each other since. This begs the question; why are we so hung up on privacy, when the reality is that we are happier without the walls and fences?

Yes, walls serve a purpose, they create a sense of security and privacy, but where do we draw the line? This notion of privacy is nothing more than a perception and when we have walls we make our own assumptions about the people that live behind them.