The Right to Have a Peaceful Life in a Quiet Subdivision
Lewis Greenberg's yard art. Photo from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
A Ballwin-area retired art teacher was sentenced to jail time on Monday for non-compliance with two city ordinances. The ordinance offender, Lewis Greenberg, is charged with littering and storing hazardous materials.
The photo above is of Greenberg’s offense. He maintains that the structures in front of, around, and behind his house are art. Although art isn’t easy, these structures do look like abstract sculpture. The tangle of wood and metal, Greenberg told the Post-Dispatch, represents the Holocaust.
Greenberg’s neighbors, however, don’t appreciate his yard art. And, they haven’t liked it for a long time. In 2007, a woman from the area blogged: “OK, so where does Greebergs right trump the neighbors right to have a peaceful life in a quiet subdivision?”
Writes a commenter on the most recent Post-Dispatch article, about Greenberg’s sentencing:
If he wants a yard full of junk – then he can move out in the country where there are no rules. In a town and a subdivision where there ARE rules – he is BREAKING THE LAW and it needs to go….
Well, not quite. Greenberg’s art is on his property. He isn’t breaking a law just because what he has built on his property is unusual and doesn’t quite fit in with the Ballwin-area aesthetic. There is no right to uniformity.
Some neighborhoods do have codes, such as the one enforced in Shaw, that can limit what individuals can do with their property. It appears that, although the City of Ballwin has an extensive housing code, Greenberg’s neighborhood doesn’t have a rule to protect itself against his abstract yard art. Instead, the city has charged him with littering and storing hazardous materials — charges that seem like a stretch.
A survey of the Ballwin City Code reveals that the term “litter” refers to substances that could injure a person’s feet or car tires, trash and debris, earth left from an excavation, and traffic obstructions. Clearly, Greenberg’s lawn art doesn’t fall into the first, third, or fourth definitions of litter. And, although commenters hasten to compare his art to junk, can items strategically placed in order to construct sculptures on a person’s private property really be classified as trash?
As for the hazardous materials charge, it could be argued that children could run onto Lewis’ property and hurt themselves. However, unlike a person keeping dangerous animals on their property, if anyone hurts themselves on Greenberg’s property, it is entirely that person’s fault. Furthermore, if a person did hurt themselves while on Greenberg’s property, that person could attempt to find recourse through the court system. It’s not the city of Ballwin’s place to stop low-risk accidents from occurring through prior restraint. If it were, the city should immediately crack down on the construction of swimming pools.
I suspect that the neighborhood’s problem with Greenberg’s lawn art is not one of danger, but one of annoyance. It is unfortunate that the City of Ballwin is claiming to protect the safety of “the children” in an effort to censor Greenberg. Instead of reacting in this negative way, the annoyed neighbors could have realized what Mr. Plumbean and his neighbors realized:
My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.