Not In My Suburban Backyard, You Don’t

Sometimes taking a hit to your property value is the just the right thing to do.

During my junior year at Temple, I had an elderly professor who was memorable for three main reasons. The first was that over the course of the 50 minutes, a small puddle of drool would slowly accumulate in the left corner of his mouth, precariously pooling there as the class looked on. Around the 30-minute mark, it would begin to visibly quiver as he spoke, and by the 45th minute, students were violently ducking out of the way as he walked by, for fear of entering the splash zone. Occasionally, we were fortunate enough to see it drop by the end of class, our faces twisting in horrific amusement as it soaked into his sweater.

The second reason he was memorable was that he was an incredibly nice and knowledgeable man, despite his salivatory struggles. The third was his passing along a concept that has stuck with me since. “Politics is the process of determining who, gets what,” he said, squinting through his glasses to see if anyone was listening.

I think that’s the simplest definition you could come up with. Politics is a game, and the winners get more than the losers. Makes sense. However, over my time covering news in the suburbs, I’ve come up with a slightly altered version I think works a little better: Politics is the process of determining who gets what, in whose backyard.

This may sound a bit familiar to those acquainted with NIMBY, or “Not In My Backyard.” I knew the term, but it wasn’t until I recently sat down for a beer with a veteran co-worker that its accuracy really hit me.

Holy crap, do people in suburban Philadelphia not want things in their backyard—no matter how important it is for the greater good. Remember elementary school? Each afternoon, somebody had to take the chalkboard erasers down to the whirly machine and clean them. That way, we could all learn the next day, without having to worry about developing lung ailments from inhaling chalk dust. Somewhere along the way (likely between the awarding of the bachelor’s degree and that second masters, eh?) it seems many citizens lost the concept of taking one for the team. A standard example in the burbs:

Disgruntled Citizen A, in June: “We desperately need more businesses in our fine town to help take the tax burden off the residents. Do something, you governmental bums.”

Town Mayor, in July: “Today, we’re announcing a new strip mall on the corner of 2nd and Willow.”

Disgruntled Citizen A, in August: “The planned strip mall is an outrage; it is going to increase traffic 10-fold in my neighborhood! How could you do this, you governmental bums!?”

Take this formula and apply it to any number of things: school improvements, retention ponds, bike lanes, cell phone towers, gas stations, and the list goes on.

Now, I get it. When you buy a home, in most cases you are also making the biggest financial investment of your life. Every improvement made strengthens that investment, and every fight against a potential detriment is a protection of that investment. Perhaps those bright lights from the new baseball field that would shine in your living room every Wednesday from 7 to 9 p.m. wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it’s still fine and good to try to get them banned, right?

Well uhh … actually no, not really, because if everyone thought that way nobody would be playing baseball. In reality, you’d only be dealing with some extra light once a week, when you’re usually just watching TV anyway, so that a few dozen youngsters can go out there and enjoy a nice new field to play on.

The new strip mall is going to add five minutes to your commute, but prevent everyone’s taxes from going up three percent next year? Or once a week you have to worry about if the biker in the tight pink spandex is going to drift out of his designated lane (but not have to wonder about the shape of his anatomy), so that all of the townspeople who enjoy exercise can bike to work?

Suck, it, up.

There are absolutely cases where somebody wants to build something, and when people around town pick up the paper the next day to read about it, they collectively scratch their heads in amazement at its stupidity. Town thinking of allowing a seven-story hotel where old lady Roberts used to live on the corner? Neighbor wants to put a private drive-in theater in his backyard? In that case, go! Pack the next meeting, bring your protest sign, bring your neighbors, get your signatures, come up with semi-creative chants that are awkward for everyone involved, and fight the good fight.

But the key I’m getting at is, before you get your outrage on, ask yourself: If this weren’t in my backyard, would I think it’s a good thing? Do I truly think there’s a better place for it, or do I just want it anywhere but here? Is it really nobler to protect $500 worth of value on my home, or to support the needs of the wider community?