Sep 08 2005

The Informants Next Door


I’ve been infesting the Zilker neighborhood in North South Austin for quite a while, but I never take for granted that the tumbledown bungalows, a vast expanse of’em stretching as far as the eye can see, are pullulating with world-class eccentrics. I base this assessment on the goofiness of the crap they put out in their front yards. The natives’ rebellion against the authority of taste is the best thing about the whole zip code.

I more or less revel in this subversive live-and-let-live ethos. I’m afraid my exile in St. Louis scarred me for life. I lived in a yuppie ghetto of uptight liberals where a rigid orthodoxy of "neighborhood standards" was enforced by an Association. Its members — my neighbors — were a bunch of stuck-up passive-aggressive honkys who worshiped quaint historical anachronism. They’d been able to buy their beautiful turn-of-the-century three-story red brick mansions for a song because the neighborhood was surrounded on all sides by poor black people. Thinking of themselves as urban pioneers in much the same way that Columbus fancied he had "discovered" America, they stuck  "Celebrate Diversity!" bumperstickers on their Camrys and embarked on charming gentrification projects. Such as preventing a charity group from opening a women’s shelter nearby, and getting the basketball hoop removed from the tiny local park because it attracted scary poor black kids.

That Association. They were quite the class-conscious jive-turkeys.

In addition to ethnic cleansing, the Association also enforced community conformity. There was a rulebook, based on a compendium of Martha Stewart magazines, from which deviation was not permitted. Here’s how it worked: instead of calling you up and saying, "hey, your garbage can is always blocking my driveway, knock it off!" your neighbors would rat you out to the Association. If your grass got too long or if your paint was starting to peel or if your garage had a hole in the roof, the neighbors would rat you out. If you painted your front door lime green or if you didn’t rake your leaves for stupid House Tour Weekend or if your drunk bandmates had sex on your lawn at  3 in the morning, the neighbors would rat you out.  Those goddam neighbors were as ratty a bunch of diversity-celebrating stoolies as ever swigged a decaf Frappuccino.

Once you’d been ratted out, the Association would send you a threatening letter (or in my case, lots of letters) that read "Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated." They would "take legal action" if you didn’t "correct" your weeds/dogs/sexy bandmates in 30 days.

I never actually saw any of the Association’s henchmen. They worked by stealth, under cover of morning.

It should come as no great surprise that this perennial butting-into of the personal edifice by an amorphous, unseen authority lost no time in chapping the Twisty hide, and sorely. I doubt if anyone has ever breathed a deeper sigh of relief than I did when, having finally made good my escape,  I disembarked the stagecoach at the corner of Bluebonnet and Lamar in South Austin and fell into the waiting arms of the giant taco lady.

Which is why I am now so pleased, on my morning perambulations with the dog Zippy, to take in such sights as I took in this morning, which, for your convenience, I have reproduced below as visual aids.

Caution: if you belong to an Association, these pictures are too horrible for your delicate eyes.


Pictured is only a fraction of the wooden parrots nailed to this tree                            


This super-crappy eyesore-boat belongs to a nationally known musician


This yard has been covered in black plastic for over a year, without explanation


The Great Creepy Tiki Head of Barton Hills


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  1. Chris Clarke

    Tish Hinojosa has a crappy boat? Damn. I love her even more now.

    First thing we did when we moved into our current suburban neighborhood, with its pale white and ppale yellow tract homes, was to rip out our lawn and paint the house the color of an overripe persimmon.

    This is what I’m talking about, here.

  2. Twisty

    Holy crap, Chris. If that house were in my neighborhood they’d have a festival in your honor.

  3. cafesiren


    I have friends involved in a neighborhood association in a part of the formerly mostly pretty rough town where I live. I find them creepy, when they get on such kicks. Their idea of a fun time is inviting everyone (including those of us who don’t live in their neighborhood, and who are in fact property renters, rather than homeowners) over for a flier-folding party.

    No kidding.

    I would never tell them, but I am cheering for their neighbors — there much longer than my friends have been — who habitually hold noisy birthday parties for their kids involving live music and inflatable bouncy-castle things on the lawn.

    Now, StL has quirky stuff in the environs. Ever cross into Collinsville, IL, and see the “World’s Largest Bottle of Catsup”? I’d add a copy of the picture I took when I was there, if I knew how.

  4. Twisty

    The giant ketchup bottle is indeed a hoot. It’s the most famous thing in St. Louis after the Arch and toasted ravioli. I have gazed upon it in wonderment many times.

  5. Chris Clarke

    If that house were in my neighborhood they’d have a festival in your honor.

    In my neighborhood they call it “The Pumpkin,” and everyone asks us if we’re from Berkeley.

    We get some slack because the house was a vacant, rotting wreck when we bought it.

  6. miz_geek

    Have you been there at Christmas?

  7. WookieMonster

    Damn that looks like a fine place to live. I could never understand buying a house just so you could be told what you could and couldn’t do with it. Why not just rent an apartment and get it over with.

  8. ae

    …under cover of morning. Ha!

    I dig the parrots. Who could begrudge them a little sunshine-basking on that nice limb from which their homes hang? Only parrot haters.

    Chris, the persimmon is fantastico!

  9. deja pseu

    Love the parrots!

    Reminds me of a house in my sis’ old neighborhood in Redwood City that sported a few dozen plastic pink flamingoes in the front yard. It was breathtaking, and we used to drive by just to gaze in awe and longing.

  10. clew

    You found liberals in St. Louis? I never did.

  11. clew

    … I should probably be kinder than that. There were definitely people trying, but (excepting some unworldly solitairies) I thought they missed some important principles. They thought my description of Seattle mores was a joke.

  12. clew

    Oh! and the black plastic yard is probably ‘solarizing’, that is, killing the weeds now and getting around to replanting later. A year is unusually long, but the weeds will be dead dead dead.

  13. ae

    When we were looking for our house, and got nudged out of town because of the rich-white-people-only city zoning ordinance, we devised a highly technical strategy for our neighborhood search, involving proximity to goods & services & commuter routes, tax value, resale, quiet, etc., which we distilled and carefully explained to our agent thusly: no cheesy white people. It seemed to do the trick!

    No Creepy Tikis, as imagined by Edvard Munch, sadly, but we do have two mailboxes in the guise of big mouth bass (hell yeah!) and a nice deer family that lives in quiet repose in a front yard a couple of streets over. The whole family (of deer) look like Bambi and have antlers, including the does, but I’m chalking that up to artistic license. “Artistic,” as imagined by Thomas Kinkade, that is.

  14. Tapetum

    We lived in an HOA neighborhood for about a year – that felt like a century. EVERYTHING was reported. For about two months I was the only adult in the house, 7+ months pregnant with an active two-year-old. My dear neighbors reported me every time my garbage can stayed on the curb longer than the requisite 4 hours.

    Gee – waddling pregnant woman in 108 weather with a boisterous toddler – why wouldn’t I be hauling the garbage cans in at high noon?

    Same place, same time tried to tell me that my air-conditioning not working didn’t count as an emergency because the problem was in the fuse box, not the AC, as if that made any difference in how hot the house got.

    Lots of harrassment, no help with what they’re supposed to be helping with, I felt so welcome.

    Now we’re in a place where my husband’s beater pick-up can live in our driveway year-round. It’s heaven.

  15. mcmc

    beautiful place, especially the parrots, but I think the tiki is making jesus cry.

  16. East Side 4-Evah

    It’s like Disneyworld, but with antique junk shops, traffic circles, and Mexican bakeries!

  17. bitchphd

    Love the parrots, love the Tiki! And I’ve been planning to put black plastic on *my* yard…

  18. flat stanley

    Twisty–YOU ROCK!! Anal neighborhood associations like that drive me nuts. I lived in a neighborhood once that had an “active” neighborhood association and got the same letters that Tapetum mentioned about the garbage can being on the curb for too long. It wasn’t even my garbage can–someone who lived behind me would put theirs out in front of my house and leave it, and then I got the letters. Anyway, your blog makes me miss S. Austin. I used to live there, but now live in Missouri.

  19. Chris

    I remember the south Austin bumper stickers like

    Sout Austin: We’re all here ’cause we’re not all there.


    78704: It’s not just a zipcode, it’s a way of life

  20. alni

    Here is something fun on those lines:


    Be sure to read the following strips, too!

  21. Josef K

    Oh, God, I recently moved from somewhere that was “managed” by a “property management” company. Political posters in the windows at election time: unacceptable. Hanging washing out on the balcony: unacceptable. Grocery deliveries: unacceptable. Playing Frisbee: unacceptable.

    However, the property management company had no problem with flooding, toadstools growing inside the flats, constant building works and turning our water off with less than an hour’s notice.

  22. ~biting beaver

    hehehe…I love the Tiki! I want a Tiki for my house! *grin* Fortunately I live out in the sticks and frequently leave my trash cans at the curb for the entire day.

  23. TimT

    Dad used to work for the Coolah Shire Council, a local council here in NSW. One of the towns in the council was called “Dunedoo”, kind of a quiet, run-down place. Lots of farmers and not much else. Anyway, some councillors got a crazy idea in their head that it would be nice to get some more tourists passing through the town by having a GIGANTIC TOILET installed outside the town.

    It kind of makes sense if you understand the pun involved here on the Aussie word for toilet, “Dunny”. I can’t begin to imagine the conniptions some of the locals had at that suggestion!

    Got to say that this Liberal Association sounds terrible. There are a lot of idiots here in Australia with a similar attitude; only, instead of taking ‘legal action’, they usually inform the local council. There’s always a piece of paper SOMEWHERE that guarantees that SOMETHING your neighbour is doing is violating council ordinances.

  24. Sylvanite

    Is that a statue of St. Francis behind that tiki statue? Ha!

    Also, I have to say that if you live anywhere in the southwest or California, Chris Clarke, that ripping out the lawn is the sanest thing you could possibly do. I remember when we lived in SoCal, everyone had the green lawn with the sprinkler system. That sprinkler system was deadly to barefooted children (i.e., me). If I ever, heaven forfend, had to move out west, the lawn would be the first thing to go, along with the accursed sprinkler system, to be replaced with desert landscaping. I’m pretty partial to stone plants. And the spikiest cacti I can find. :) Along with some pretty, pretty rocks.

  25. norbizness

    Chris: I’m still trying to get my “78741: My zip code beat up your zip code” bumper sticker made up.

  26. Finn

    I’m crying laughing. Great stuff!

  27. Stephanie


    Love your patriarchy-blaming blog!

    As others have touched on, the black plastic is the no herbicide, no backbreaking-labor-in-the-hot-sun way to kill your sod so that it’s easier to pull out and replace with a garden or something. I’ve been doing it to my front lawn a piece at a time since I moved in. My neighbors don’t particularly approve, but there’s no association for them to nark me out to, since I live in an old, easygoing suburb. Swear to god, I met one of my neighbors for the first time when I was planting flowers in one of my new front beds. The first words out of her mouth were “What are you doing?” Rather astonished, I said I was planting flowers (duh!). “Why are you planting them in the front yard? The backyard was good enough for the Gibbons!” Moving rapidly from astonished to cranky, “Well, I’m not the Gibbons.” She asks, “Is that your husband? (sneering) “With the long hair?” I nod, she says “Well, tell him to trim those bushes!” Needless to say, the bushes between our houses remain to this day as gloriously shaggy and unkempt as Mr. Natural’s beard. And she really doesn’t like the tomatoes in my front yard. Tough, lady. That’s where the sun is, and tomatoes need sun.

    The other neighbors are nicer about it. In fact, my gardening guru lives two doors down from me. She has achieved my dream of having no grass left anywhere on her property.

    We have the usual assortment of garden gnomes and front porch geese (my husband and I keep talking about getting a front porch goose of our own in order to dress it in black leather and fishnets and name it Mistress Henrietta) in our neighborhood, but the real creativity doesn’t come out until Christmastime, when our neighbors try to outdo each other with wattage and sheer variety of kitschy glowing things.

  28. Stephanie

    And I deeply covet that tiki-head for my yard. I wonder where one acquires such things.

  29. ripley

    “That Association. They were quite the class-conscious jive-turkeys.”


  30. Chris Clarke

    I’m still trying to get my “78741: My zip code beat up your zip code” bumper sticker made up.

    That joke structure worked better before CafePress. Now it translates to “trying to remember to do it” or “tryiing to get my butt out from in front of the Daily Show to…”

  31. emjaybee

    You know, my dream is to get a statue of Lenin*, one of those Soviet style jobs, and dress it up seasonally, like people do those damn geese. Lenin in bunny ears at Easter, Lenin in a Santa hat, Lenin in a leprechaun hat….the possibilities are endless. Also, it would drive my neighbors crazy.

    *I have no admiration for Lenin. I started thinking about it when I read an article about the old Lenin statues getting torn down all around Russia.

  32. Chris Clarke

    Emjaybee, you’d like Seattle.

  33. Ancrene Wiseass

    The Taco Lady is lovely. So lovely, in fact, that I’d almost trade in my neighborhood’s neon-pink tiki god sign on the nearby strip joint for her. But I wouldn’t trade in the lighthouse tower on said strip joint for all the Taco Ladies in the world.

    Up with kitsch!

  34. Twisty

    Speaking of giant representations of famous Communists, I inherited from an old roommate an enormous, purple, signed Andy Warhol portrait of Chairman Mao which, rightly or wrongly, currently hangs on my bungalow wall to hide a crack. I don’t notice it anymore despite its being enormous and purple, but I think it gives the uninitiated a shock. Probably because I’m not generally expected to hang giant pictures of mass murderers on my walls.

  35. Christopher

    What’s the point of a neighboorhood where all the houses look the same? Didn’t these people read “The Big Orange Splot” by Daniel Pinkwater, published 1993?

    I guess I’ll just never get it.

    One of my brother’s friends is a hindu and keeps a big stone shiva head on his front lawn. I think he should get a tiki and an Olmec head to go with it.

  36. Mrs. Coulter

    Ugh. I hate neighborhood associations. We lived in a condo townhouse for a while and we had a neighbor who constantly narked on everyone else for the smallest things. When we first moved in, we did a whole bunch of remodeling and had to get rid of construction debris. The condo manager told me to call the hauling company, who told me that I needed a dumpster, so I ordered a dumpster. It was delivered on a Friday and picked up (full) the following Monday. I got a call from the condo manager who says to me “I KNOW you have a dumpster.” My response? “Well, yes. I told you I have a garage *filled* with construction debris, and you told me to call the hauler. What did you think they were going to tell me to do?” Of course, by the time she called me, the dumpster was gone, so there was nothing she could do except threaten to bill me for damage to the driveway, of which there was none.

    One of our other neighbors had a taste for tacky outdoor decorations (ceramic frogs, cherubs, etc.). Not my cup of tea, but if it floats her boat, whatever. Well, Mr. Narc was constantly complaining about her stuff, too.

    I never want to live anywhere again where someone else has to approve or disapprove my choice of screen door, or where clotheslines are forbidden (even though I don’t have a clothesline).

  37. Maud

    Parrots always perk up a neighborhood, I feel; real or fake, either way. The Tiki is really splendid, and seems not at all creepy to me, but rather elegant. He reminds me of one of the Three Tenors; he’s skinny, so he must be Jose Carreras. Very invigorating blog you operate here, Twisty.

  38. jc.

    I design and build gardens in sweden. The things you depict would be so impossible in Sweden. Sweden mostly seems to embrace group working class blandness or pretentious middleclass blandness
    But strange things happen even here, usually financed by taxes,sponsored by a cultural department and created by a “culture worker” for the artistic enhancement of the proles environment. I personally am aggravated by the “artistc” enhancement of a little park outside our subway. They´ve mounted speakers in the trees and play birdsong on a loop. The unnatural sound of bird twittering in the deep gloom of a swedish winter day is pretty irritating, especially as the winter is extremely long and the real birds have all gone south for the winter or don´t have much to sing about in their grim Darwinian winter struggle. During the rest of the year recorded birdsong is a pretty redundant effect. The birdsong loop is at times replaced by a monotone mans voice reciting boring poetry, the irritating surrealistic effect of this particular sound from the trees is hard to convey.

  39. Ron Sullivan

    JC, there must be a wire leading to that obscenity in your park, and those are easily interrupted by pruning shears. If you use Felco shears, as any rational gardener would, there’s even a wire-cutter notch at the base of the blade. Loudspeakers in a park. I’ve known some dreadful Swedes in my time (I’ll ascribe it to peculiar bad luck) but that tops my childhood dentist who didn’t quite approve of Novocaine.

    Near that Lenin statue in Seattle is the rocket referenced in the Roadside America page, and by the rocket’s red-and-blue glare is a store where I once bought a set of bear dentures out of a barrelful. Also nearby is this guy. And the Bridge Motel, whose calling card says, “Sleep off highway,” which I’ve always found to be sound advice.

    Archie McPhee’s has moved across town, but Fremont’s still a cool neighborhood.

  40. Chris Clarke

    What’s the point of a neighboorhood where all the houses look the same?

    If you’d like to be bludgeoned over the head with a metaphor by way of answer, rent and watch Pleasantville.

  41. shay

    Twisty, your blog kicks ass! May I suggest that these fascist, big-brotheresque, robo-gardening, neighborhood stalins be pranked to death!

  42. Ron O.

    I’ve renewed my vow. I’ll never live in a house governed by a HOA. I painted my house lime green fer crist sakes. (It is the same exact color as Jaritos lemon-lime soda or a granny smith apple.) The Puerto Ricans generally love the color, the white folks think it is garish.

    And if I’m ever the proud owner of an RV, I’m parking it in my driveway where it belongs.

    PS, I really like the goose in leather and fishnets idea. I wish I’d thought of that.

  43. Carol

    Amazing how many of us Texans are exiled to STL. Where did you live? It sounds just like where we were. University City where talk of diversity is celebrated as long as everyone looks and acts the same and all yards AND cars are uniform. No Pickup trucks were allowed where they could be viewed from the street. Seriously, it made me want to buy a truck. I couldn’t wait for my sister to drive up for a visit. I had a Texas flag on the front of the house (YEA!) and a bench from Smith & Hawken in the front yard. A nice bench and plant on the porch from which to watch the children play. We recieved a letter giving us one week to tidy the yard and get rid of all yard decorations and all the furniture. Come on, I didn’t have a couch out there for heaven sakes! They also told us we had to make the backyard look more “uniform”. We’re talking gardens, planter’s with tomatoes and skateboard ramps. WHAT!? Children’s toys! Until we moved in and our boys played outside, no one knew there were so many children in the neighborhood. No signs of them anywhere. Of my group of friends, there are 7 of us, only 1 is from there. Hmmm…
    I have since escaped, not back to TX yet, We’re in Maryland now, but at least we’re out of the midwest. My daughter lives in Austin so, I still have my connection to the greatest Country there is.
    And yes, the Texas flag is flying proudly in front of my Annapolis house.

  44. Twisty

    Carol, the hood to which I alluded in this post was Compton Heights, but at one time or another, you name it, I lived there. Soulard. The CWE. Shaw. And yes, U City. Although when I lived in U City it was a fabulous ungentrified hell-hole. I can’t imagine anyone telling anyone to get rid of anything in those front yards, except maybe when your pile of old syringes got high enough to block some crazy old crone’s view of the dumpster, whereupon she’d let you know by throwing cats at your windows.

    Surely you meant to say you lived in Parkview?

  1. Pandagon

    Something pleasant for y’all

    Twisty does a photo essay of South Austin. I live in Central East Austin, but I used to live in South Austin and once you have gone there, you heart is always there. Enjoy!…

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