The paradox of the hedge

Greg Goldin is the architecture critic at Los Angeles magazine and a contributing writer to L.A. Weekly.

In the middle of the well-groomed block on South Ridgeley Drive--a self-assured, composed neighborhood in the Miracle Mile district--there is a two-story Monterey-Colonial duplex for sale. The postcard the Realtors mailed out to advertise the property presents an image of half a house. On view are a pair of plantation doors flanked by shutters opening onto a pink-hued second-floor balcony. The first floor is entirely hidden behind an 8-foot hedge. Which, it turns out, is the point of the photograph. No one can see in, or out, for that matter. The postcard makes this clear: “Gated with hedges, intercom entry.”

From the vantage of the street--the real, living street--the 8-foot-high, 40-foot-long hedge eclipses everything around it. It crowds the sidewalk and consumes the air. Its mass and scale trigger an instinctive shrinking, and the impulse to move on quickly, to leave. There is an inkling of something watching, perhaps even lurking, beyond the defensive green line.

That hedge is emblematic. Los Angeles is being cordoned off. Neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street, frontyard by frontyard. You can stand in your own frontyard, or idle at your neighbor’s, and almost watch it happen. Hedges are growing, everywhere. They’re growing tall and they’re growing dense. On busy thoroughfares in Hancock Park, on shaded retreats on the steep alluvium of the San Gabriels in Altadena, on communal walk streets in Venice, on innumerable east-west and north-south streets of the Cartesian grid in the flats of L.A. proper, fast-growing trees, usually Ficus nitida but occasionally Ligustrum texanum or Pittosporum undulatum, are planted in a row to close off what previously was open. The clear vista of a manicured lawn, perhaps punctuated with a serpentine boxwood and lined with bedded flowers and pruned shrubs, is being cropped by 6-, 8-, 10- and 12-foot-high hedges. The unpredictable texture of ornamental trees and broad canopies is being replaced by featureless uniformity. Unvaryingly green, thickly foliated and impenetrable, the hedges sprout practically where the sidewalk ends and private property begins. The animated public right of way, scented, colorful, dappled, is being rendered stolid and still.


These new moats both evoke and provoke the divisions between public and private, embrace of the urban spectacle and retreat from it, the creative conflict arising out of proximity and the tranquility born of solitude. It’s hard to say which side of the hedge is more besieged. But what is certain is that, in the words of John Chase, “Hedges are the sleeper hot-button issue in civic affairs.”

Chase speaks from experience. As the urban designer for West Hollywood, he witnessed firsthand what happens when a city enters its residents’ frontyards. West Hollywood, like many of the cities that surround it, had a 42-inch height limit for hedges, which was often flouted. In May 2001, the city drafted a rule that would have permitted taller hedges, with the proviso that homeowners first apply for permission. The idea was to maintain the feeling of an “urban village.” It was, in other words, a matter of communitarianism. Or so the city’s planners thought. But when word got out, the citizens of West Hollywood were outraged. “I have to get a permit to grow a hedge?” they cried.

“The spaces are as important to people as their pets,” Chase says. “It was as though you rang their doorbells and said, ‘We’re taking your dog.’ It’s an indicator of how people feel about the city. Does the gaze of passersby defile your space?” The City Council immediately withdrew the height limit and retreated from regulating hedges altogether.

Last year, hedge wars broke out in Santa Monica, where the citizenry continues to skirmish. When residents complained that their neighborhood looked like “an armed camp,” the city started to stringently enforce its own 42-inch rule, on the books since 1948. A staff report presented at a June City Council meeting explained: “Open front yards contribute to the neighborhood aesthetic and are enjoyed by the entire community even though they are privately owned.... This connection with neighbors creates a sense of community and, in Santa Monica, is one of the factors that make this city a desirable place to live and work.”

But homeowners along plummy Adelaide Drive, overlooking Santa Monica Canyon, rebelled after being threatened with fines of $25,000 a day for not trimming their hedges. The ensuing dust-up launched the City Council candidacy of Bobby Shriver, a Kennedy clansman who, until then, hadn’t given a thought to public office. Last November, he won. And now hedge height enforcement is on hold while the Santa Monica City Council deliberates on whether streets lined with enclosed private spaces will be enshrined in public policy.

Elsewhere, as in the city of Los Angeles, which also has a 42-inch height limit, which is also routinely flouted, the illegal hedges just keep growing.


typically, a hedge begins when a swath of grass is yanked out, by pickax and long-nosed spade, leaving a furrow of turned soil a few feet wide. The ground is fertilized, and then a truckload of one-gallon or five-gallon potted trees is unloaded. The trees are spaced about three feet apart, watered generously for the first year, and, if all goes well, overnight, in botanical terms, a hedge will grow. Other than an occasional swipe with power shears, the hedge may be ignored for decades. The Indian laurel, the common name for the ficus used in hedges, is virtually indestructible. You cannot water it too little; you cannot give it too much sun. And although it can be attacked by thrips (one of those pests so prolific that the singular and plural are the same word), it responds happily to being trimmed. In fact, you can trim a ficus into a ball, a lollipop, a football--just about any configuration you can imagine--but usually it’s just flattened and topped into a living wall. Ficus is also a thoroughly generic plant type, and thus calls no attention to itself. So it grows, ubiquitous as grass, and just as solidly unremarkable.

What invariably springs to mind when talking to people who live behind hedges is the line from Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” “Good fences make good neighbors,” the great New Englander wrote of a stone wall that has begun to crumble. Those five words resonate with almost perfect pitch among hedge-growers, who say, simply, “It’s another wall.” That’s what Michelle Sy said one recent spring morning while standing on the sidewalk in front of her modest stucco home on South Ogden Drive, near Fairfax and Venice. “It gives you a little bit more privacy.”

Or as Roger Sherman, director of Fresh Urbs, one of SCI-Arc’s postgraduate urban studies programs, puts it, “Hedges are a symptom of the fact that people would like to maintain the front porch, but only if they can maintain it behind a veil. They are advancing where the front door used to be.”

The advancing front door reflects an urban paradox. As Witold Rybczynski wrote in “City Life,” “We need both dispersal and concentration in cities--places to get away from each other, and places to gather.... “ The problem is that, more and more, the places we gather are being diminished by the forces of the marketplace, in the form of a mock piazza such as the Grove at Farmers Market, or yet another Starbucks replacing the formerly ramshackle hot dog stand at the beach. At the same time, our private lives have invaded these places, with the constant bleat and blather of cellphones and laptops. It is true, as a result of shrinking public spaces, that we long even more ardently for places where we may be genuinely free to pursue our wonts and cultivate our interests. Where else can we go, other than behind our front door?

But Frost also wrote in “Mending Wall”: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.” Here is an expression of the countercurrent: The urge for privacy always runs up against the urge for openness. Until recently, there was a broad social consensus about where public space ended and private space began. The open frontyard--perhaps with a white picket fence, perhaps with a trailing rose--although private, was an offering to the community. It also was an acknowledgment that each homeowner was a citizen among citizens. There was a tacit agreement, imported from Frost’s New England, that this kind of right of way stood for the democratic impulse, that everyone had a willing stake in the commonweal. Putting up a hedge signals, in John Chase’s words, “that you don’t want to be involved in human activity outside what you and your family generate.”

Michelle Sy instinctively grasps the difficulties her hedge poses. Among other things, her frontyard is the only one on the block wrapped in a veil. “When we first came to this neighborhood,” she says, “we wondered, ‘Are we closing other people off by having this hedge?’ But now I like having it. All these houses have big front windows, picture windows. If you look around, you’ll see that they all have drapes. We don’t have anything. It’s nice looking out at your own yard and not have to worry about anyone seeing in.”


Coincidentally, Sy’s next-door neighbor, Athena Jackson, has a frontyard that is all about seeing in. She has planted a boisterous garden, a work-in-progress that in late April is a riot of color and scent. Seersucker, lemon basil and pineapple sage are mixed with peppers, lilacs and chrysanthemums. Her garden is an outdoor gallery of surprises and unabashed dabbling. Jackson says “people just come by to stand and talk.” Here, the exterior and interior worlds are free to collide. In this zone you might conceivably trespass, but an invitation to enter isn’t required either.

Sy’s frontyard is powerfully indwelling and sedate--moods, in fact, that Sy says attracted her to the home in the first place. The small space, adorned with papyrus and variegated flax, is perhaps 12 feet deep from the interior line of the hedge. It is a tiny cloister, keeping the intrusions of the street--noisome traffic, prying pedestrians, visual clutter in neighbors’ yards--out. On the other side of the hedge, in a wide bed, fountain grass spills freely onto the sidewalk. Here, at least, you don’t have that feeling of imposition, as you do with the 40 feet of ficus on South Ridgeley. And the layers and changing scales provide visual interest that is missing from most of the grass-and-shrub frontyards up and down the block.

Still, as Chase says, “when someone comes along and puts up Fort Ficus, there is a jarring interruption.” The facade of Sy’s house, a 1920s Spanish-Colonial Revival, has largely disappeared from the streetscape, along with the unifying sense of place, and spaciousness, that characterized the block for decades. And the same is true almost anywhere a hedge goes in. Several blocks north, for instance, someone planted a ficus hedgerow to hide a black tubular steel fence enclosing the frontyard of a duplex near Pico. A featureless hedge hiding a featureless fence, but behind them stands an architectural gem: a 1940s building reminiscent of a Gregory Ain.

Jim Eserts, the architect who laid out Michelle Sy’s frontyard and sold her the home, is something of a pied piper of hedges. He is quick to point out, and rightly so, that “there are plenty of frontyards with no hedges that are disasters too.” His clients, he says, want them for “privacy, security, privacy.” But there are beneficial “side effects”--aesthetic and pecuniary--of converting “the frontyard into the front room.”

Eserts’ new home is on South Orange Grove, just around the block from Ogden. The street looks today as it did, perhaps, 50 years ago. From the corner of Airdrome, looking north, the view is unobstructed. You can stand there and count the front doors on both sides of the street. As you walk up the block, on a day like this, when the wind has scrubbed the sky blue, you can read the Hollywood sign. Eserts takes in this broad vista and says, “From a purely pragmatic perspective, a quarter of your property is completely underused. If you’re spending $750,000 on a house, why dispose of almost $200,000?”

On Ogden, standing on the sidewalk in front of Sy’s house--his former residence--he had explained how hedges ought to work. The ficus hedge there is deliberately set back from the sidewalk to “provide a sidewalk-scape. Otherwise it would have been unfriendly, unneighborly. The idea is to give something back to your neighbors.”


Now, pointing at a drawing of his latest conversion, he adds, “the real benefit of capturing the frontyard as another room is that your arrival gets pushed out. Portals define a level of privacy.” The blueprints show a series of entries before you reach the front door, which is roughly 25 feet from the sidewalk: the hedge, the front gate, the yard itself (divided into two “rooms,” one for entertaining and one for lounging), the original porch and, finally, the front door. “It’s arrival, arrival again, arrival still again, and arrival again-again after that.” What Eserts has designed is a ceremonial, choreographed entrance to guide you through deepening levels of privacy, the way a Mexican courtyard draws you from the zocalo to the bedroom.

Indeed, one of the ironies of the changing cityscape is that hedges are doing what walls would have done had Los Angeles remained part of the Mexican Republic: pushing homes directly onto the street. That urban imprint, typical of North Africa and the Middle East and perfectly adapted to a hot, dry climate, did not take hold here because the Midwestern speculators and homesteaders who dreamed up Los Angeles borrowed their ideal of the free-standing home floating on a patch of greenery from the suburban English countryside, via Chicago and Omaha.

Across town, Doug Suisman, one of L.A.’s preeminent urbanists, lives behind a fence screening his frontyard, his wife’s studio and his own office. Most of the houses on the block, a sliver of concrete clinging to a ridge above Santa Monica Canyon, are fenced or hedged. In fact, beach traffic--on foot and by car--got the street a special zoning variance, permitting hedges and fences to go as high as 6 feet. Suisman’s street is in hiding, which he defends. “A hedge is a friendly way to get privacy,” he says.

“The old idea of the street as the public room, and everybody gives a piece to that room, is, culturally, an anachronism. Nobody uses their front lawns. It’s gotten way too expensive; it’s gone way beyond the tithe. A hedge can be a gift to the street too--more than a lawn,” he says, echoing Eserts. “Besides, I don’t see how a hedge precludes the gregarious person from having a lawn.”

This is tough stuff from an architect and planner who has devoted himself to finding ways to make places such as downtown L.A. more urban, by, among other things, coaxing office workers onto their feet. His 1997 “Ten-Minute Diamond” plan is widely recognized as a landmark effort to make the civic center more humane, walkable and vibrant. Yet Suisman announces: “I don’t want pedestrians parading on my block.” He is speaking in hyberbole, but like most of us, he values his privacy and understands how difficult it is to safeguard nowadays. “I love being in this intimate community, but because it is so intimate, I want to honor the private realm by capturing my open space. People are having to live in denser and denser spaces, and they’re responding to that density by modifying their environment. Why shouldn’t they?”

Suisman walks out of his gate and wanders next door, where he dissects his neighbor’s hedge and fence. “An antisocial wall?” he asks rhetorically. “The double wooden gates are always open. You get a peek into this wonderful garden.” Inside is a Provencal parterre defined by low boxwood hedges. An arched, candy-apple-red front door provides visual surprise. The puckered, yellow fruit of a lemon tree hang over the white fence, while twin urns stand guard. The effect is of a veil, which beckons without revealing what it obscures.


At bottom, Suisman is arguing for a clear separation between the civic and the domestic experience. He is looking to produce within the metropolis what suburbia was originally designed to preserve outside it.

According to Robert Fishman, the author of “Bourgeois Utopias,” the suburban house was envisioned as a sacred refuge from the “intrusions of the workplace and the city.” The home, with its plot of land set on a shaded lane, was exclusively a “world of leisure, family life and union with nature.... [T]he modern family [was] freed from the corruption of the city, restored to harmony with nature, endowed with wealth and independence yet protected by a close-knit, stable community.” Suburbia was meant to be a community built on “the primacy of private property and the individual family.” How better to describe the essential qualities of a single-family Los Angeles home?

We want the public gaze. We want the veil. That is the tension between the two sides of the hedge, perhaps nowhere more pronounced than on the walk streets of Venice. Through nearly 100 years of fortune, misfortune and fortune renewed, the streets in the Millwood and Oakwood sections of Venice--roughly bounded by California, Venice, Lincoln and Electric--remained an enclave of shared space. The homes are on pinkie-sized lots facing public promenades, with the streets tucked behind. The houses peer at one another across a concrete strip no wider than the wheelbase of a Smart car. The front porches nearly kiss.

It is a bit like living on a township square. The tightly spaced frontyards, squeezed together between the tightly spaced houses, inscribe a discrete clearing. This kind of defined, protected aperture invites activity, use. Strolling along one of the walk streets, say, Nowita, you get the sense that you’ve entered one of those public gardens where everyone has his own plot to cultivate and no horticultural orthodoxy reigns, but where, too, everyone collaborates on tending the larger commons. The space is inclusive, not exclusive. As a pedestrian, you feel welcome. It is easy to strike up a chat with the people out on their porches or digging in their gardens. The interplay of the elements--the flowers, the trees, the low picket fences, the other people ambling by--becomes purely aesthetic. Although assuredly not Broadway in downtown, the walk streets still provide that key to a good jaunt: the spectacle. By design and by habit, these swaths are sociable--gregarious, as Doug Suisman said.

Until someone grows a hedge--which has happened, in a checkerboard fashion, up and down the length of these streets. The twist is: The very fact of openness may be why the hedge goes up. “As they use the property,” says Frank Clementi, an architect who lives on Nowita, “they start to see the front as indefensible space. To protect against that exposure, they close it up.” Like bars going up on windows, every new 8-foot hedge contributes to the notion that fortifications are necessary.

No one knows this better than Jay Griffith. A landscape designer, Griffith has gained prominence for the gardens he’s done for landmark Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra houses. His work is sere, and profoundly sculptural, and you can see this when you walk by his house on a double lot in the Millwood section of Venice. Griffith lives behind a dense hedge and a Lucite fence--a conscious dialogue between opaque and translucent. The plastic panels allow a silhouetted glimpse of Griffith’s garden, and they permit luminous colors and indistinct forms to radiate out to the street. This lantern effect is a subtle statement about the vagaries of public and private space. Griffith is enclosed, but he isn’t entombed--or, as he likes to put it, “inside a bigger womb.”


Yet, Griffith confesses, “I have plans to take down my fence. I love what it does for the inside of my yard, and I’m very proud of what it does on the outside. But I don’t like the precedent. Venice has more community spirit than many other neighborhoods. The community is falling apart behind the walls and hedges going up.”

“Most gardens are not really used,” he adds. “They are viewed. They have a calming effect. There is that thing of, ‘I can look out my window and I can see greenery. I’m not looking at the hood of a Studebaker, I’m not looking across the way at my neighbor’s McMansion.’ But the things that are being put up are a lopsided reaction. Soon there’ll be shards of glass on the top of them all, like Mexico City.”

Even without the broken glass and its exclusionary brutality, most enclosed frontyards simply become dead space. They go unused because they are realms of compression, not expansion; shadow, not light. Which are manifestations of the innermost qualities of hedges themselves, a subject that Pitzer College professor Barry Sanders has been mulling over. Buried deep in the idea of hedges, he says, is a fear of phantoms. “Spooky things happen there,” Sanders says, “nefarious stuff. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, all sorts of double-dealings were done on these edges, and the men doing them were called ‘hedgemen.’ This is where the seamy folks hung out.”

As it is to this day. Sanders gives an example: “Just the other day our neighborhood was taped off, helicopters were buzzing overhead, and police officers were shining their flashlights in the shrubbery. A couple of gang kids took shots at cops. The police announced, ‘We think they’re hiding in the bushes. Watch your hedges.’ It isn’t that they’re hiding in a wall; you can’t hide in a wall. But you can hide in the bushes. Hedges have that same connotation. They’re horror-producing.”

Across the street from the Monterey-Colonial on South Ridgeley Drive is a scene that brings into focus both sides of the hedge--what it walls in and what it walls out. In front of a two-story Normandy-style courtyard, a Chinese elm’s lofty, shimmering canopy shades a bronze-colored, stamped-steel bench. A mother, arms stretched, joyously dandles her baby overhead. Mother and baby, too, are made of metal, burnished with the patina of the ages. At first glance, the statue might be mistaken for a Duane Hansen, a deadpan depiction of the quotidian. No. This frozen portrait of filial warmth, set in an urban Eden, is an unintended riposte to the leafy cold shoulder it confronts. Here is a version of the frontyard as it is meant to be, but rarely is.