Excerpt from Valley 101: A Slightly Skewed Guide to Living in Arizona, a collection of Clay Thompson’s columns for The Arizona Republic. (Originally published November 2, 1999.)
Q: What is it with the “wall phenomenon” around here? Who invented the idea of backyard concrete-block fences and why?
A: Funny you should ask.
We are just back from a trip to the ancestral estate in the Midwest, and one of the first things our charming traveling companion asked—after she asked why Grandma didn’t get MTV—was why nobody had fences around their yards.
We were taken aback by her question, because we hadn’t really noticed until she asked. (We were also taken aback by a rather alarming shortage of pie in Grandma’s refrigerator, cupboards, car, closet, under the beds and everywhere else we looked, and we are wondering if, in addition to not rocking out on MTV, the sainted woman has abandoned rhubarb. We had to make do with cookies.)
Anyway, your query was on our desk when we got back, and we immediately called Max Underwood, a professor of architecture at Arizona State University, who is really, really smart and whose specialty is Valley architecture, and we riddled him your riddle.
Thus spake Underwood: “If you traveled in the Southwest, if you went to Santa Fe or Tucson or the older areas where there was Spanish influence, there were walls. The walls were there for protection of livestock or for safety, but they were low walls so you could see over them.
“What transpired here in the Phoenix area is that many of the building codes and zoning regulations require these walls” for privacy, safety and to hamper the spread of fire.
Plus, a lot of homeowners’ associations require concrete-block fences, presumably for privacy — to keep you from seeing what’s going on in your neighbor’s back yard or to spare your neighbor from seeing what’s going on in your back yard.
Walls are a Valley — or at least Southwest — kind of thing.
“If you went to Southern California,” Underwood said, “you would find more chain-link fences or wood fences with vegetation or things that blended more with the landscape. Out here, you get The Wall.’’