ATLANTA — I've never had much use for neighborhood covenants. Sure, folks ought to be concerned about their property values, but inordinately persnickety rules can turn subdivisions into miniature police states rife with puffed-up, suburban Stalinites who like nothing better than to skulk about and look for violations on which to bust their less-than-eminent neighbors.
You think I'm exaggerating? Wait till you're facing fines of $3,400 like Doug and Ellen Henry of Lawrenceville, Ga., for having done something as innocuous as placing a couple of flamingos in their front yard. I'm still trying to figure out what's so horrifyingly wrong with pink flamingos.
Apparently, some people's overrefined aesthetic sensibilities are offended by such displays because they consider them - harrumph! - "tacky."
You might think that in a country obsessed with personal rights, people wouldn't tolerate such silly infringements on their freedom of expression. You'd be wrong because this is how millions of people live in subdivisions across the length and breadth of this land.
Here are some typical dos and don'ts taken from a typical 50-page manifesto of covenants that rival the Unibomber's manifesto in length and severity: "Keep the garage door closed at all times. Use only Bermuda sod in the front yard. Use only pine bark and not pine straw for mulch. Use only approved colors to paint one's house. Submit any flower bed plans for committee approval."
The list goes on, but you get the idea. This is what's become of the land of the free and the home of the brave - a vast archipelago of suburban gulags where individual expression is quashed in the name of collective property values. It's hard to imagine that life in Castro's Cuba is any more regimented. Sure, suburban affluence beats living in a hovel and chopping sugar cane on a collective farm, but can't we be free to express a little individuality on our own property?
I'm not talking radical, life-size statues of Elvis in a jumpsuit or some metallurgical masterwork that looks like it was yanked from the belly of a 19th-century boiler factory. But shouldn't there be enough tolerance for a couple of harmless, pink flamingos? Seeking enlightenment, I consulted with an acquaintance known to be sympathetic to covenants.
"Look," I said, "I can understand why people should mow their lawns and not have cars up on blocks, but what's wrong with pink flamingos?"
"It's all about property values," she replied.
"How do pink flamingos affect property values?"
"They make the neighborhood undesirable and that lowers property values."
"How do they make the neighborhood undesirable?"
"They're tacky, they're ugly. No one wants to live next to that."
"I wouldn't have a problem living next door to it."
"Bless your heart. You're more tolerant than most of us."
"I still don't understand why it would bother anybody."
"You have to look beyond simply the physical presence of what might seem like harmless flamingos and consider the caliber of people who display such lowbrow ornamentation in their front yards. Now do you see what I mean?"
I was indeed beginning to. As Southern comedian Jeff Foxworthy says, "You might be a redneck if...." Give in on pink flamingos, and the next thing you know you're going to be dealing with cockfights and moonshine stills, and there goes the neighborhood.
If nothing else, I've come away from this with my own idea for a book: "You might be an overweening snob if...." I won't run out of material anytime soon.
*Greg Strange is a meteorologist.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society