The Best of Andy Rooney

(This classic Andy Rooney column was originally published May 31, 2003.)

There are times when I yearn for a czar or dictator. It would have to be me because I'd disagree with the dictates of any other.

Today I'm thinking how badly we need someone with absolute power in charge of controlling the buildings people erect. I'd not only want to control new construction; I'd also want the power to tear down some of the buildings already up. I'd like to have the power to drive through our small town in Connecticut and mark certain homes and commercial buildings for demolition.

There are monstrosities in every city and town in America. The construction of many of these buildings could have been prevented if we didn't have this perverse notion that people can build anything they want as long as they own the land they put it on. Clearly there should be a law against some buildings. Fair-minded people who object might ask who would decide what could be built and what could not. I'll decide, that's who.

The accepted idea is that what someone does with an empty lot is strictly his or her own business, but that isn't true. It's the business of everyone who lives anywhere nearby. An unattractive building intrudes on their lives every day they pass by and are forced to look at it. You could say no one is forced to look at an ugly building, but this ignores the magnetic attraction anything unlovely holds for our eyes.

The construction of a home or business in a town should not be taken lightly. Buildings last. An ugly house is practically immortal. Badly built office towers often stand for 100 years and the rent is still rising. A house may get painted, added to or subtracted from, but once one is built, it's there for good as far as our lives are concerned.

There's not a community in America that doesn't have buildings so unattractive that they should be leveled and carted off to the dump in small pieces to raise the value of others in town. (It is incumbent upon me to say here that our house might be considered by some to be a candidate for destruction on grounds of its aesthetic shortcomings.)

"Developer" is a dirty word. Developers are moving in on open fields, wooded hills, vacant lots and even back yards everywhere. In many wealthy communities, they're tearing down perfectly good $500,000 homes to put up $5 million display houses. We need de-developers to un-develop places that were developed badly. As building dictator, I would prohibit the intrusion of one brick or 2-by-4 on a back yard for the purpose of enlarging an existing home. A back yard is more important than any additional bedroom or two-car garage.

The disappearance of back yards in city and suburb followed the demise of the front porch 50 years ago. There was a time when half the population of small-town America sat on its front porch watching the passing scene from a comfortable position in a hammock, swing or rocking chair. No longer. The inaction has moved inside to a position in front of the television set in the living room. People don't live in the living room, they watch there. It has become the watching room.

A city back yard is an oasis cordoned off from the parade of machinery passing by in the street out front. There can be quiet, grass, flowers, peace and tranquility just a short distance from the frenetic world of moving machinery. In a back yard, flowers do not rush to grow, grass does not have a horn to blow, or radio to blare out. As the population multiplies and the demand for space increases, back yards, like front porches, will become a thing of the ancient past. They'll be replaced by brick and steel with no personality but a life expectancy of 500 years unless, of course, I am appointed the first czar of deconstruction.

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