The NIMBYism of Neighborhood Life

The house adjacent to our back fence was a stately old matron, the very first in our entire neighborhood, or so we have heard. I used to admire it from the street on my walks when we lived several blocks away, its deep frontage sporting the year-round, unirrigated green lawn common to this part of the world, with its more or less 12-month rains that seemed another world altogether for this California-reared boy, used to that state’s annual May through September drought cycle.

The home played host to a family for the first couple of years after my arrival, three tow-headed children chasing after their dad and the soccer ball he used to fake keeping away from them as they all flailed and flopped about the yard.

One of those terminally creaky patio swings suitable for young (or old) lovers or multiple small children was off to the side, and just under the porch awning, a rocking chair.

Also off to the side and back, towering oak and other native trees that lent the .55 acre property a dignity worthy of its stature as the Northgate Park neighborhood’s oldest home.

At best, we cope with at least a temporary bruise, hopefully healed over time as the new landscape and neighbors come to make their own mark in the perpetual heave-ho of a world that refuses, militantly and naturally, ever to stand still.

It was built in 1931, the Great Depression still in its early stages. It would be a decade and a half before the soldiers returning from World War II helped create the stampede that pushed Durham to expand its housing supply and soon fill the neighborhood with mostly small to medium-sized homes, this one on the slightly larger end at 1,602 square feet.

Sometime before or early in the Covid pandemic, the family moved out during one of my extended visits to California, though it took me several months after my return to notice the home had been uncharacteristically quiet and devoid of human activity.

A year ago December, we moved into this home that shares a fence with the property and soon found out that sometime after the family’s move, the property owner had died in an accident. An extended probate followed, which explained why the grand dame had lain empty and forlorn for several years before it finally went up for sale with a $400,000 price tag last October. (Sorry, my California readers, feel free to grit your teeth for as long as necessary…)

Just four days later in this time of inflated interest rates and a steadily hollowing out middle class, the price was cut $10,000. Word on the street was that the home had suffered for lack of attention and would need a heap of it—along with money— to restore its former splendor.

Two months later, it sold for $300,000—to a developer.



It required just a few weeks to summon a bulldozer that made rubble of the home in under an hour.

All that living, the entries and exits of voices resounding through daily meals and holiday gatherings, bedtime stories, lovers’ passions and quarrels—lost to the winds that now moved unimpeded where once a home had blocked their path.

Followed the next week by the removal of every tree except one by the fence line in the deep right corner—at a safe remove from the now denuded landscape. That landscape will soon, we hear, see the building of at least three or four new homes, exact number still waiting confirmation.

All of this begat a certain kind of now familiar mourning or wistfulness for what had been lost. A slice of the neighborhood that had brought us joy was now gone, with change afoot, visible from our backdoor.

That feeling was accompanied by an acute awareness of the great conundrum almost every established homeowner feels when homes and trees, views and quietudes of a beloved neighborhood are literally rent asunder.

At best, we cope with at least a temporary bruise, hopefully healed over time as the new landscape and neighbors come to make their own mark in the perpetual heave-ho of a world that refuses, militantly and naturally, ever to stand still.

At worst, a permanent scar when the character of a property or entire block are altered in a way we are convinced—or we convince ourselves as we give way to our inner curmudgeon—is clearly for the worse.

It is at the opposite ends of that conundrum where the most troubling, deeply contradictory thoughts and feelings reveal themselves to us as we confront the age-old interior battle between stasis and change, self and community, greed and generosity.




I got my start in journalism covering city government in Santa Rosa, California, back in the mid-80s when it was just north of 50,000 population. With some of the prettiest land on earth just an hour’s drive from San Francisco but available at approximately half the cost, it was destined for a land use and population boom, and so it occurred. (2020 population: 178,000.)

I sat many long nights at planning commission and city council meetings back then, one contentious battle after another playing out between evil developers and righteous neighborhood activists bedecked in colorful t-shirts sloganing the local decision-makers to “STOP XYZ-Woods!” or whatever the developers had dubbed their project that rarely resembled a true woods and usually entailed removal of any trees that would have defined it.

Nevertheless, I use the adjectives “evil” and “righteous” above not in an objective sense, but only to underscore the overwhelmingly common NIMBY (“Not in my backyard”) narrative that got attached to most every story about urban and suburban growth then, and which largely persists to this day. Conjured usually by educated, socially and environmentally conscious activists, it goes something like this:

“Of course we need housing, prices are crazy, our kids can’t afford to buy a home here, but Project XYZ is only about lining developers’ pockets. It will bring too much traffic, noise, pollution and water and sewage demand, harm wildlife, and it will ruin our neighborhood—so it must be stopped! We’re not anti-development, but this is not the place. Build it, you know…somewhere else!”

Sure, many projects are ill-conceived and/or flat-out ugly, cookie-cuttering out boxy, tightly packed homes from a lovely stand of trees or wild grasslands we’ve come to think of as our own by some divine right of local residency.

That said, no matter the merits and need for any given project, is it possible for a city to grow in any way that will avoid the nostalgic kvetching of longtime residents and even those more recently arrived but suddenly with their knickers in a twist at those who dare to enter after them?

Bloody unlikely, I would say.

Humans crave sameness and predictability, bless our hearts. It’s in our very nature to cherish stasis as but one bulwark against the reality of death, and to hold onto memories of an idyllic time. And it hardly matters if that time wasn’t nearly as ideal as our memories gauzily suggest it was.

What does matter, though, is that stasis can’t possibly be sustained anyway, because change is built into the very structure of time itself, life passing to death, growth to decay.


The house behind our fence checked most every fantasy box begetting a nostalgic ideal, and the pleasure it brought us was real.

One problem it faced, though, was its status as an old building on a huge lot, placed there cheaply when land was plentiful and people scarce.

Now, land is more limited unless we want to pave over the open space beyond town, and people just keep coming, damn them! (Unless they’re friends or family we’ve talked into moving here.)

Another problem was simple timing. The home may well have sold at or near asking price and then been lovingly restored a year or two earlier, when both interest rates and inflation were lower. But as 2023 drew to a close, the market simply didn’t want it until the price plummeted enough for a developer to make it work (or so he thinks…) with an increase in density.

So now, rather than that half-acre plot housing one family with enough money to buff the tarnished jewel it was, the property can soon provide shelter for a handful of the many families coming in from far-flung, more expensive towns (like San Francisco and Santa Rosa…).

The rub being that despite the increased density from relaxed zoning standards and scores of high-rise luxury condos changing both the Durham skyline and its socioeconomics, the city is clearly on a trajectory to keep growing in population and driving up demand. And therefore, prices, too (another damn!).

So goes the natural cycle that sees the individual human activity of job-seeking, children-producing, home-buying consumers changing the macro environment to which all their behaviors contribute.

A good part of that cycle, in perhaps the ultimate irony, most benefits longtime residents whose homes have appreciated the most, who can best afford the dining, entertainment and cultural options that are far more plentiful than they have ever been before, and who are most likely to be the ones grumbling the loudest and most insistently that Durham just isn’t what it used to be.

And they are right, of course. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t both worse and better, though. The thing it can’t afford to be—and Durham definitely isn’t—is the same.

No place can really afford to be, because if it is—if change truly is minimal—chances are it is either doomed to terminal sleepiness that is attractive only to a precious few, or it is in a death spiral that will always see its best and brightest and most curious head for the nearest roads to Somewhere Else. And once they get wherever that is, they’ll face their own conundrums as the human pageant and its relationship to place continues shaping itself in previously unimagined, confounding, and often contradictory ways.


Had another song up here originally but reader Tom left a far more suitable alternative in the Comments section below and I realized I could just change it, and so I did! 


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8 comments to The NIMBYism of Neighborhood Life

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Time is a funny thing. It has so many faces. It can make us smile as we look back at a moment which rekindles joy and laughter. It can make us feel like crying again when, for some unexplained moment, the death of a dear one is brought back to life. It can muddy memories. I’m reminded of Gordon Parks’ autobiographical poem, “The Funeral.” Parks returned to Kansas, his boyhood home, for the funeral of his father, and nothing seemed the same. The mountains of his childhood were mere rolling hills. His great river had become a trickling stream. The highway a dusty road. One thing hadn’t changed. “Only the giant that was my father remained the same/ A hundred strong men strained beneath his coffin when they bore him to his grave.”

    NIMBYism has many faces, too. I love baseball but might find the noise and traffic of Little League fields disconcerting. I think about Lake Tahoe, an Eden now marred by neon-lit casinos and fast-food restaurants. Then, when my grandmother died in 1988, NIMBYism took a weird twist. My father inherited her home in Elkland, a poor town in western Pennsylvania. At one time, Elkland’s economic health wasn’t too bad. Its tannery, one of the largest in the United States, kept it afloat. However, the factory’s runoff turned the once clear complexion of the Cowanesque River into an ugly, pockmarked brown. Some sighed in regret. However, when the tannery went under, so did the sighs. The Cowanesque cleared, but Elkland dried up. After the funeral, my dad finally met with a real estate agent to discuss what to do with the house. I’ll paraphrase what this man said to my dad—I know the house isn’t worth much now, but I’d hold onto it because the state is going to build a state-of-the-art prison just outta town. A lot more jobs. I guarantee home prices should go up. My father laughed and decided there and then to gift it to a less-fortunate cousin living in Kane, a short distance away.

    I’ll conclude my comments on time and NIMBYism with a line from Phil Ochs’ “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”. “I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes as long as they don’t move next door.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Fine reflection, Robert, all of it. I well remember reading Gordon Parks’s memoir, “A Choice of Weapons” at an impressionable age, giving me a very early window into the struggles inherent to growing up black in America. I’m pretty sure it’s still on my shelf. I’ve read & forgotten countless books in my life, but not that one. Now I’ll be tracking down the poem you reference; sounds like an apt companion to the memoir.

      • Tom Bekeny  says:

        Enjoyed your article. The first part about the nostalgia that accompanies change, in this case, the loss of a house and all that may mean, is well captured in these two songs.

        This is from the latest Kathy Kallick Band release written by Kathy:

        And this is from Nanci Griffith written by Jimmy Webb:

        Hope you are doing well!

        • Andrew Hidas  says:

          Very happy to get these, Tom, and to share them with readers, thanks! That Webb/Griffith song struck a memory cord from the long ago once I started listening, but dang if I could retrieve it earlier when I was considering a song to accompany this post—even after a fairly extensive You Tube search. The Kallick song is also quite lovely; these make a fine pair of songs full of good and meaningful sentiment, may keep them close-at-hand for future exploration…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Stasis and the ongoing march of time in the human experience are, as you have noted, incompatible. We fret and commiserate over homelessness and the lack of sufficient housing, and yet lash out at housing development and demonize those “pocket-lining, heartless developers.” For many, baseball had become too staid and the ninth spot in the batting order (the pitcher) was a yawner as an automatic out. Put in a rule to address the issue with a designated hitter, however, and there is hell to pay for ruining the cherished traditions of the “grand ol game.” Policy and decision makers are on untenable ground as they confront changing circumstances and needs with human longings to hold on to what is familiar and tugs at heart-felt nostalgia for days gone by. Neither side (those who must implement change and those who cherish the bedrock of tradition) can emerge unscathed in this ongoing (and likely) eternal tension that comes with change and the passing of time.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Among other matters you prompt me to consider again, Jay: I can’t help but think that in so many ways—political, economic, environmental—we first worlders with a home and a retirement account are part of the very problems we often cite and blame on some other vague entity known variously as “outsiders,” “the wealthy,” “Californicators” (Oregonians have loved that one in the past!), “the man,” “the government,” “pointy-headed bureaucrats.” et al. The truth is that human beings are ravenous resource users, and almost without exception, I strongly suspect, the higher we go up the economic chain, the more ravenous we become. It’s in our very nature as crazily high-thinking and resourceful animals, but it will doom us as a species if we don’t come to grips with the inherent contradictions accompanying our limitless intelligence and imagination bestriding a limited planet.

      So I think that’s the larger point percolating under this issue of decrying what strikes us as the proliferation of new housing and ever larger communities bespoiling the tidy little communities we used to enjoy (many of us having contributed directly to the problem by relocating to those very communities). “Having your cake and eating it, too” is the maxim that applies here, I think, and it represents one of many conundrums that really live up to the definition of conundrum as “a confusing and difficult problem or question.” To which perhaps the best available answer is one left by a Facebook friend who responded to this post: “…whichever side you take, you should do it with humility.”

  • Moon  says:

    I got an early dose of change for expansion sake in Glendale, CA, living my 11 year old life with the impending tsunami of the 134 freeway coming to take my house without any recourse (you know, emminent domain and the good of the whole at the expense of a few). We landed on our feet in Eagle Rock, so it certainly was good for me, but I remember the outrage felt by the remainder of my family as we were ousted from the only place we had ever called home.

    Spence and Jay, the baseball analogies are spot on…now we have the football rules regarding safety and tackling. These are akin to blasphemy to the hard core fan base who loved the Jack Tatum/Ronnie Lott style of hitting! Time marches on, with some “hits and misses.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yeah, Moon, eminent domain is probably the most fraught and tortuous manifestation of ostensible community benefit at the expense of much cherished private property rights. Which perhaps wouldn’t be nearly as indefensible as it often has been in history if it didn’t lopsidedly affect the more modest and disadvantaged populations that have been carved up and pushed out to make way for the “improvements” benefitting the community at large. (It’s not for nothing that no freeway or shopping mall has ever been known to displace wealthy and connected residents in order to benefit “the community at large.”)

      Glad it worked out for you, and given the spotlight increasingly shown on this matter in recent decades, there may be hope that the need for “change” will be more equitably shared in the future (though I won’t be holding my breath).

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