When bad neighbors get worse

The other day, I posted about a local story in nearby Trenton, Michigan, about the neighbor from hell. Interestingly, my significant other and I had a continuing problem with our next door neighbors, but it was in no way as bad as the Trenton story… but it is perhaps illustrative of some of the problems of modern living, so I will post it anyway.

Short version: My partner likes a semi-wild looking garden with lots of native plants, vines, etc. I consider grass just a place for the dog to poop and have no lawn pride whatsoever, mowing only when absolutely necessary. The folks next door like their plants in neatly ordered rows and sorted by color… they are retired and the husband of the couple spends many hours every week manicuring and fertilizing his lawn.

Five or so years ago my partner had a native plant called “pokeberry” growing in the yard (on our side of the property line) which was one of her favorites. It grows fairly tall and has reddish colored stems; late in the year it puts out grapelike clusters of juicy purple berries that the birds love to eat (see pic at right). Apparently, the birds scattered some of the berries on the neighbor’s driveway and, after they stepped in the mess, some of the purple juice got onto the carpets inside their home.

One afternoon, my partner was out in her garden in late summer and noticed that all the pokeberry was wilting. She looked closer and saw that it appeared that someone had used scissors or a knife to cut off the berry clusters. Eventually, she found out that the neighbors had snuck over at night and poisoned her pokeberries because they were angry about the damage to their carpets (although why it should be our responsibility to check their shoes for berries before they walk on their own carpet is not clear to me). We were not happy about it, but they apologized and we decided to try to forget about it.

Each year, however, a similar event would occur. Other plants mysteriously died or were uprooted. The neighbors put in a fence but left scraps of lumber and concrete rubble in our yard until Annie reminded him that he had left all the refuse in our yard. Some of Annie’s flowers would ‘poke thru’ the pickets of their fence and this irritated them so they sprayed round-up through the fence and killed a foot wide swath of plants along the edge of our yard. I don’t dispute their right to clip or cut any plant that grows or hangs over the border, but once they started defoliating on our side of the fence I began to get very irritated.

The arguments grew less and less rational, but the neighbors seemed to follow a yearly policy of “poison plants in spring/summer, apologize later” almost like clockwork for about 4 years. Annie stopped gardening (an activity she loved) because she just felt uncomfortable about the folks next door looking daggers at her whenever she was out there.

The weird thing is that these people didn’t seem to want to leave us alone. Throughout our period of conflict, they always seemed to want to say, “Hello” and “Good Morning” and “Nice weather we are having!” even though they might have been sneaking across the property line the week before to poison Annie’s plants. Annie noticed that the more she pointedly ignored the neighbors’ greetings, the fewer incidences of poisoning/plant uprooting/etc., occurred. They didn’t stop entirely, but if we were nice to them during the daytime, it seemed as if they felt more comfortable doing whatever “covert garden control” they felt was appropriate on our side of the property line. Perversely, being nice and forgiving seemed to just encourage them in their bad behavior. We finally began to ignore them entirely.

After one poisoning too many, she called the local police and asked what to do. The officer was sympathetic, but said that unless we caught the neighbor in our yard, there was little he could do. He suggested we file a claim against them in small claims court.

We filed, went to court and both sides told our story. We showed photos of the dead and dying plants, photos of the ‘dead zone’ along the fence and a note from the neighbors that said, “I am sorry we poisoned your plants.” They showed photos of flowers poking through the slats of the picket fence and photos of our yard and admitted that they had done at least some of the poisoning, but they did it because our garden was “ugly.” The judge found in our favor and awarded us $350.00. Compared to the heartache and the aggravation of dealing with these people for 4+ years, the money seemed like a pittance, but it had a satisfying effect on the evil neighbors. The husband lined their picket fence with some sort of clear plastic panel to keep our plants from poking through the slats instead of continuing to spray herbicide.

I guess I feel like there are a lot of potential messages in my little story. One of them is to perhaps not underestimate the power of the craziness of some people. The fact that being rude to them (i.e.: pointedly not acknowledging their greetings) actually seemed to encourage them to behave seemed counter intuitive to me at the time. I wanted to believe that there is something good in most people and most problems can be worked out if people try to understand each other’s point of view and work out a mutually satisfying solution. I would have surmised that if my neighbor was doing me wrong, it would actually be a good strategy to be nice to him since that might make him feel bad about what he was doing. But my partner’s strategy (along with the lawsuit) were the only things that worked. “Forgive and forget” seems to have convinced the neighbors that the poisoning and garden vandalism was OK and they could do it again and again and get away with it. Rudely ignoring their greetings and dragging them to small claims court (which was a big pain in the ass and a huge karma suck, so I recommend it as a solution of last resort) were the only things that did work.

I don’t like what this story says about the nature of human beings.

2 Comments on “When bad neighbors get worse”

  1. Kinda makes you long for the days of the Old West … when you weren't rude to the guy at the end of the bar because he was probably packing and may be crazy.

    Funny how the very real risk of immediate violent response to rudeness had a way of defusing problems before they began.

  2. Chris Creel says:

    The Pokeberry or Poke Salad is a very common weed in the South East and I have never heard of anyone worrying about it to this extent. Any comments I've made about the Petrov family may also apply to your neighbors.

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