Coffee heat rising

Hallowe’en: “It’s the neighborhood”

Some time back, shortly before the real estate bubble started to blow up, I asked a Realtor why a house in the tract a block to the south of mine should be worth $60,000 or $80,000 more than my house, when mine is newer, its rooms are larger, its lot is nicer, and its interior had been updated more recently. She sniffed and remarked, “It’s the neighborhood.”

Sniff, indeed!

Well, there may be something to that. This evening I took Cassie for a walk during the height of the Hallowe’en tricking and treating and, as usual, walked down into that area. The difference between my neighborhood and that one was striking.

First, to get there you have to cross a feeder street, one that’s not so busy you can’t jaywalk across safely but that does carry some traffic. The road was hectic with people carting their kids in from the unsavory districts to the west and north, where no parent in his or her right mind would let the kiddies visit the local crack houses and meth factories in search of “treats.”

My neighborhood north of this asphalt dividing line had almost no children, but the slightly more affluent neighborhood to the south was alive with kids in costume.

In my neighborhood, almost every house had its front lights off (except for the occasional security light outside a garage) and the front windows shut up tight. In the other neighborhood, residents were out in droves, sitting at tables in front of their homes and doling out candy from big bowls. At three houses, the grown-ups were drinking wine and partying companionably on the front porch or driveway as the little visitors went from house to house to show off their outfits and collect their loot.

Think of that! The neighbors talk to each other! What a quaint idea.

Heaven help us, they also speak to poor folks. Now that is outré.

I walked over into La Maya’s part of the area, a block closer to the truly desirable addresses. Her house is worth about $150,000 more than what mine is worth—maybe more than that now, after Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum was given away for practically nothing at auction. Interestingly, that neighborhood was just as hermetically sealed as mine: most houses had their lights out, and none of the locals were to be seen in public. Precious few kids, either.

So there you go: what makes a neighborhood is the neighbors.

Maybe when you’re looking to buy a new house, you should wait until Hallowe’en and visit all your candidate areas. Look for one where the residents are outside enjoying the little kids and each other—that’s a good neighborhood!

Foreclosing on the neighbors

In an odd way, the foreclosure of Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum amounts to a kind of foreclosure for the neighbors, too. There’s the obvious effect that when the lender unloads Dave’s house at a bargain-basement price, our property values will drop into the basement, too. Actually, they were already headed for the basement: now they’ll just ride on down to the sub-basement without getting off the elevator.

But there’s a much larger effect: Dave has been financially distressed since he divorced a year or so ago, and his emotional depression has shown in a sharp increase in his native slovenliness. He never was into anything that might be called “pride of ownership,” but over the past year, his normally trashy lot has become a real eyesore. Also, as it develops, Dave has been cultivating a public health hazard.

SDXB came by this morning, and out of curiosity we visited the abandoned house. Both gates into the backyard, from the front and from the alley, are unlocked and easy to open. The backyard is chuckablock full of debris, old chemicals, bottles of pool acid, old batteries, and stuff highly hazardous to kids. We have, for example, these fine gasoline cans, located behind an open tool shed replete with bottles of old insecticides.

Mighty nice, eh? How would you like your kids to get into this stuff?

Ah, yes. Then we have the issue of the swimming pool. The pool has been drained; evidently has stood empty for quite some time. Though it’s enclosed within a wrought-iron fence, it’s easy to enter: the fencing ends at a screened porch whose two exterior doors have been ripped off, creating a nice corridor through which the curious may pass without obstruction.

Once you’ve passed through the aluminum structure, where, by the way, you’ll find a heavy-duty battery charger with enough juice to flash off big sparks and give you (or the kiddies) one heck of a zap, you come to this:

And at the bottom of this concrete-lined hole in the ground you find a collection of lost toys marinating in a fine little mosquito-breeding Okeechobee Swamp:

It explains where all the nasty little biters have been coming from for the past several seasons: straight from casa David to su casa.

Maricopa County, where we have been dwelling cheek-by-jowl with Dave, has a growing problem with West Nile virus, a disease carried by mosquitoes. And as we know, mosquitoes breed joyfully in standing water. Every year more and more people come down with this ailment, and every year we read of several deaths related to it. The most vulnerable to serious complications are the elderly.

Dave’s next-door neighbors are in their nineties.

I am in my sixties; many of the locals who have died of this disease were between 60 and 65. The most recent death I’ve read about was of a man in his 80s. My house and yard have been overrun with mosquitoes for months. This, evidently, is where they’ve been coming from. My house is clear across the street—imagine what the mosquito swarms have been like for the old folks next door to Dave!

After you’ve enjoyed the scenic view, don’t miss Dave’s old battery collection on your way out:

Maybe an enterprising kid can get a little extra mileage out of one or more of them, using the handy-dandy battery charger left on the back porch.

And as we say good-bye to Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum, we pass by the famous Weed Haystack, still gracing the front driveway as it has from time almost immemorial:

Dave's Weed Haystack

Always visible from the street and from front yards in all directions, this fine landmark remains as a symbol of everything Dave has done for his friends and neighbors in Royal Oaks.

Hm. Maybe I could sell guided tours.

Long before Dave’s lender foreclosed on him, Dave foreclosed on the neighbors. He foreclosed on our property values, on our safety, and on our health. I guess we have to say thank you to the irresponsible and unethical lenders who forked out $320,000 in loans against a property worth about half that and handed it over to a recently divorced man who hasn’t held a regular job in years. If they hadn’t sunk him over his head in debt, Dave and his pet mosquitoes would have stayed in that house forever.


Poor old Dave, proprietor of Dave’s Used Car Lot, Marina, and Weed Arboretum, is finally moved out, having spent a week and used the services of three male friends equipped with pickups, a flatbed, and SUVs to haul off his collected junk. He’s posted a do-it-yourself “For Sale” sign in the front yard (“Drastically reduced!”) and ridden off into the sunset, leaving his weed garden behind.

This afternoon some kinda seedy-looking guys climbed over the weed haystack in the driveway to ogle the peeling batten around the eaves. Evidently they were calculating what it would take to revive the decrepit house to its former glory…or at least to rentability. Early in the evening, a father came by in the wake of his toddler’s tricycle. Dad and son broke into the back yard through the side gate and disappeared into the weed jungle. The kid’s trike is gone now, so either they came out and went on their way or the cockroaches carried the hardware off.

Old Dave, as we learned, was foreclosed. My neighbor and I found that out when the notice was mistakenly slapped on her front door instead of Dave’s. He borrowed $320,000 against the place. Zillow values it at around $307,000. Even though it has a pool (soon to be a mosquito pond, no?) and a good-sized corner lot, there’s no chance it’ll fetch that much. Another foreclosure in similar condition around the corner sold for $268,000.

In a way, I’m sorry to see Dave go, despite the mess he lived in. The trashed condition of his property and his habit of parking a used-car-lotful of rolling stock on the front lawn affected the property value of houses all around him, and that was irritating. But at least Dave was quiet. I dread what’s going to end up in that dump next.

O.K. There’s a remote chance someone will buy the house for a song, fix it up, and live in it. More likely, though, some speculator will grab it out of foreclosure, throw a cheap coat of paint on the outside and some apartment-house carpets on the floors, and rent it out. This will add to the already thick population of rentals in the neighborhood. It will join the place that houses Biker Boob, a Hell’s Angel who roars up and down our residential street on his unmuffled Harley and who uses the garage to conduct a shade-tree mechanic’s operation, complete with LOUD heavy-duty shop equipment that he starts up at 7 a.m. every weekend and operates until after 11 at night, and the shack whose out-of-state owner rents to SEVEN unrelated adult men, all of whom park their cars on the front yard and none of whom is interested in hacking back the knee-high weeds on the property.

The other possibility is that the new owner will be yet another of those folks who buys on the cheap, thinking he’s found a bargain, without having a clue to what’s involved in maintaining a forty-year-old tract house. Once they get moved in and discover how much it costs and how much work is involved in taking care of one of these places, they just let it go to pot.

Either way, the result is the same: a run-down house on a run-down lot, dragging down property values in the our little six-square-block development. Add to this recurring phenomenon the City’s kind decision to rip out a whole row of houses to make way for the train tracks, and you can see if you want to move up but stay in town, you’re flat out of luck. There’s no way you can afford a comparable (or even a lesser) house in a better-maintained neighborhood that’s located in the central part of the city. The only way to get back into the middle class is to move way, way out into the sprawl on the outer fringes of the metropolitan area.

You, too, can drive two hours each way to work. You’ll love it. It’s the American way!

The Hallowe’en grinch

What do you do about Hallowe’en?

I get a big boot out of seeing the kids in costume. But I’ve become pretty curmudgeonly about having swarms of kids, teenagers, and even adults show up at my door asking for a handout. Several things make this custom problematic.

Most obvious, of course, is the cost of candy. You have to get the kids products that are individually wrapped, because many parents, wary of nut cases who lace treats with “tricks” of one sort or another, won’t let the kids eat it unless it’s in a manufacturer’s package. It’s pretty expensive, especially if you don’t eat the stuff yourself. Which I don’t. Any candy that doesn’t get handed out to trick-or-treaters gets wasted. I hate that. It makes me feel like I’m throwing money in the trash.

Next, there’s the issue of out-of-neighborhood families trucking their kids into more affluent areas in hopes of scoring fancier stuff. My neighborhood abuts a very tony district—we form a buffer zone between an area of upper six- to lower seven-figure homes and a couple of gang-ridden slums. So we get the overflow of kids being trucked into the swell neighborhood. Well, I wouldn’t let my kids run loose in the areas to the west and north of us, either, so I can’t blame the parents for bringing them to a part of town they may perceive as safer. But what you’ll see is twenty kids jammed into the back of a pickup and dumped on the street in front of your house. Some years, a hundred kids will show up at the door; some years, none. Just depends on which street the freeloading parents decide to use as a drop-off point.

I don’t mind giving candy to the neighbors’ kids, but…OK, ungenerously!…I resent having every kid in Sunnyslope show up at my front door demanding a handout.

When M’hijito was little, one friend’s parents used to keep a stash of expensive, healthy treats for the neighbors’ kids and a big bucket of the cheapest, grodiest junk they could get for the traveling freeloaders. Worked, I guess…but something about that doesn’t sit very well with me, either. Is it OK to rot little kids’ teeth and contribute to their budding diabetes just because the kids are poor?

And finally, there’s the safety question. This neighborhood has had three home invasions that I know of—probably more that haven’t been gossiped about. I don’t open my door to strangers. Really, you’re crazy to do so. Why should I make an exception for hordes of out-of-neighborhood candy tourists? Especially when many of them are not kids. I don’t feel safe doing that.

In my cranky old age, I’ve taken to turning off the lights in the front part of the house, which discourages people from ringing the doorbell. It’s too bad…but the cost, the abuse of hospitality, and the risk kinda militate against it.

Hallowe’en! Bah, humbug!


Wow! Major storm hits lovely uptown Phoenix

 Power is still out for tens of thousands of Phoenix residents. Just now, at 10:30 in the morning, it’s only 92 degrees on my back patio, but humidity is said to be 61 percent.

So, I account myself extremely lucky that here the power was down for only an hour or so, and even more extremely lucky that the devil-pod tree* did not snap off in winds clocked as high as 100 miles per hour. Nor did any of the other trees, all much in need of thinning: desert willow, Texas ebony, vitex, palo brea, palo verde, yellow oleander, and the moribund ash.

Check out this photo, baldly stolen from ABC News (Channel 15), of a large billboard bent all the way down to the ground! Don’t know how long that link will stay live: it’s worth a visit for the amazing slide show of 185 dramatic photos, among them some stunning shots of lightning.

Our associate editor e-mailed early this morning to say DON’T COME TO CAMPUS! She said trees were down and blocking the way into the building. To get into the office, she had to wade through a six-inch deep puddle. News reports show signals out at several of the major intersections I have to traverse, and so…I believe we’ll be telecommuting today. Unclear whether our offices, which occupy a condemned building (yes) (don’t ask) (it’s better not to know), got any water; I asked her to check, and, having heard nothing, imagine we’re O.K. Hope so. I don’t want to have to traipse two hours through impossible traffic and chaos to deal with that.

It took about three hours to clean up the back yard, though I hafta admit that a large part of that time was spent cutting back the red salvia that tried unsuccessfully to cannibalize the Myer lemon (salvia 10; lemon 98), the overgrown lavender, and the overwatered, rotting sage plant. Even the aggressive salvia was less than happy: we’ve had so much rain this summer that many of the Mediterranean and xeriscapic plantings I put in the yard are turning to black slime. The pool would have been OK — in fact, probably wouldn’t have needed any extra attention — were it not for the devil-pod tree. I pulled a good bushel of pods, pollen balls, leaves, twigs, and small branches out of the water.

I occasionally consider whether to have the tree taken out. That will cost almost a thousand bucks, on top of the thou’ it will take to remove the dying ash tree in front. Really, only in the summer does the tree turn into a real nuisance. The rest of the year it’s quiescent. On the other hand, I was alarmed enough last night to stay out of the bedroom, where the tree will hit if it decides to fall on the house. The wind came up again after I posted last night’s storm report; Cassie and I ended up sleeping on the living room sofa. Less than perfectly pleasing accommodations.

The tree has some advantages, not the least of which is that its thick foliage forms a privacy barrier between the pool and passers-by on the street. Some members of the public are given to using the shrubbery as their toilet, so…as you can imagine, these are not folks you want peering into the yard. It could take a couple of years or more to get something else to grow big enough to block unwelcome gazers. And it does put some shade on the concrete pad, which functions as a horizontal trombé wall to conduct heat into the bedroom all summer long. Removing the tree would make the bedroom even hotter than it is (which is plenty: it’s the warmest room in the house), jack up the summer power bills, and take a great deal away from the backyard’s privacy.

In terms of making the house affordable for retirement, though, getting rid of that tree might be the best thing to do. It would be one fewer tree that needs a professional to thin and groom it every year or eighteen months. Last year I spent about $750 on tree care, all of which needs to be repeated right now. And Matt didn’t even touch the devil-pod tree. Who knows what he’ll charge this year? If I’m to stay in this house, I’ll have to cut the costs of yard maintenance somehow.


* Satan and Proserpine, the previous owners of the House from Hell, planted this tree directly upwind from the swimming pool. They claimed it’s a weeping acacia. Unlikely. Whatever it is, the thing is a good forty feet tall, a height it has attained mostly in the five years since I moved in, and “low litter” is not the operative term: it drops leaves, twigs, pollen puffballs, and seed pods that stain the CoolDeck and the pool’s plaster. This was not a pair who understood much about plants: they thought the two(!) sissou trees they stuck in the front yard would never get taller than about 15 or 20 feet.

The show must go on!

It’s 4:20 in the morning. At 3:00 a.m., the dog got sick and demanded to go outside. While I was standing out there with her, a car drove up the alley with its lights off and stopped behind my back gate.

I called the police.

A few minutes later, I heard pounding and the sound of something breaking. I called the cops again. They sent an officer over, who discovered the perp is a Cox Cable worker.

That’s right. Cox sends guys with hammers and power equipment into residential neighborhoods to set up a racket outside people’s bedroom windows in the wee hours of the morning before dawn. The guy is still out there banging around.

Heaven forfend that some hapless viewer should have to wait until daylight to watch television!