Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense
— Mending Wall by Robert Frost
NOT SO LONG AGO American culture was symbolized by families sitting on their front porches in the early evening. We watched our neighbors stroll up and down orderly streets, framed by lawns, kitchen gardens, and perhaps waist-high picket or split-rail fences. We knew each other and chatted about local affairs, politics, gardening, and gossip.
Each householder maintained the front yard for the benefit of everybody. The landscaping matched the mood: open, communal, with a view that stretched to the horizon. It was all part of the middle-class, small-town, and suburban America captured by the painter Norman Rockwell. In the bygone era of our American dreaming — before television, air-conditioning, and the internet — neighborhoods were enveloped by a sense of togetherness.
Forty years ago on the large estates off Lee Avenue in East Hampton, back lawns were connected to a vast green-grass communal area. Children played there in the early evenings and at night, to the delight of their parents. Front yards were unobstructed acres of lush grass, shaded by huge elms, edged here and there with pachysandra or hydrangeas, or a privet hedge of modest height — not much more in the way of plantings.
In the small, quarter-acre lots of Beach Hampton in Amagansett, houses were surrounded by sand dunes, beach grass, beach plums, and rose hips. The kids — I was one of them — would wander from house to house unfettered by fences or hedges.
Even in the relatively close residential confines of upstreet Amagansett, Sag Harbor, and East Hampton Village — the lanes off Newtown Lane, for example — the lawns of the 1980s flowed one into another and vistas were broad.
Rarely did tall fences, stockades, privet hedges, or walls of shielding evergreens isolate one property from another.
The East End was, then, a place of wide-open fields stretching down to the water, glowing with that exquisite, reflected light that attracted so many great painters and inspired so many reams of prose.
Walls are not the American way. Walls are Old World.
Upper-class Europeans — the royals, the elite, the wealthy — in centuries past sought to wall themselves off not just from invasion but from the prying eyes of the hoi polloi. In the United States, our urge is for endless skyways.
And yet here on the East End — and, indeed, in many parts of the rest of the country — gates and fences and hedges like green fortress walls have proliferated over the last two decades. Behind these weapons of estrangement, blocking all possible human interaction, homeowners are withdrawing into their individual zones of privacy.
Why is this happening? The reasons are complicated and varied. Some of the answers given around here are security, privacy, and to fend off roaming and destructive deer.
“It’s all about the deer,” said Bob Wick, who moved to Amagansett permanently eight years ago. “People want to keep the deer out.” But, he said, since fences are strictly regulated, they “put up illegal fences and embed them in hedges.” But deer and an increasing technology-abetted self-isolation (see: Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam’s book about the collapse of community) don’t explain the 25-foot monster hedges rising to block the sun and shouldering out into public rights of way and roadside verges.
The truth is that privet hedges — known by the stunningly apt Latin name of Ligustrum vulgare — have become a symbol of wealth, power, and exclusivity.
One of my neighbors commented: “Everyone’s adopting a New York attitude where nobody knows their neighbors and they don’t want to know their neighbors and they don’t want their neighbors to know them.” On back roads, McMansions surrounded by hedges of privet, cedar, or fir have all but obliterated what used to be potato fields. Hedge mania has hidden many historical houses, whose loveliness was once shared by all passers-by. In Amagansett, a few houses away from my own, a simple old farmhouse on Abram’s Landing Road that had been hedge-less for 150 years sprouted a 15-foot hedge a few years ago.
Jackie Kennedy’s magnificent childhood home, Lasata, at 121 Further Lane, built in 1917, used to be surrounded by acres of green lawns. Today, it is almost completely hidden from view.
Indeed, there was a time, a century ago, when you could look south from Main Street, East Hampton, and catch a glimpse of the Atlantic. Even 20 years ago, you could still do the same from Further Lane. No longer. All two or more miles of Further Lane, from East Hampton Village to Amagansett, are almost one long hedge canyon, with privet rising 15 to 25 feet. The same can be said of the vistas along the once-rural streets that run parallel to the ocean in Sagaponack and Bridgehampton.
The new elite has eschewed the traditional aesthetic of the old rich, or even the Gilded Age rich, who — if not exactly throwing their gates open to hug the common man — wanted to display the lavishness of their living spaces. Today, hedge walls yell “stay away” to passers-by, transmitting a sense of shutting out, of exclusion: “We don’t want you to see our houses or our flowers or our lawns.” Hedges are nothing new in the Hamptons, of course. Introduced by the early colonial settlers, hedges spring from a traditional English landscape aesthetic in which Ligustrum was used as a decorative topiary, as a garden divider, and a dignified alternative to fencing. In that sense, privet is another of the region’s many links to its British roots, and it has become a symbol of the East Coast elite.
But the symbol has been super-sized, prompting complaints and a growing movement to regulate them. Fences of a certain height require permitting, why not hedges? “The problem is that there is no enforcement out here. None,” said Wick of Amagansett. “All these fences in hedges are illegal, but nobody wants to do anything about it.” Both South Fork towns, East Hampton and Southampton, have fence laws that set height limits, among other restrictions. Fence ordinances are accepted as good zoning practice around the world.
But there is no mention of hedges in local town codes. They’re not considered fences, even though many are embedded with deer fencing that reaches above the legal limit.
“Hundreds and hundreds of deer fences don’t have legal permits,” Zachery Cohen, who heads the deer management committee for East Hampton, said.
Many towns across the United States have a three-to-four-foot front-yard fence-height limit. Los Angeles, for example, has a law regulating “natural fences,” whose definition includes hedges or thick growths of shrubs and trees. That question went all the way to the California Court of Appeals, which ruled that “fences” should be construed to encompass vegetation.
In Great Britain, high hedges are covered under a section of the English Antisocial Behavior Act of 2003, which gives local authorities the power to require the reduction of hedges. More local laws on hedges have been enacted in Scotland, England, Wales, and Ireland. Under the Scottish High Hedges Act, neighbors can petition their local council and force high hedges to be cut down.
Oversize hedges in England have led to thousands of legal disputes, many of which have ended up in violence, and in one case murder followed by suicide, according to The Guardian.
The issue can be thorny for town officials.
“When do you consider a hedge a fence? The town code says we can regulate gates, fences, and berms, but says nothing about hedges,” said Richard Myers, chairman of the East Hampton Town Architectural Review Board. “It’s been a real anathema to us. Some people use every trick in the book to get away with higher hedges. . . . This is something that’s going to require a community discussion.” Walls, fences, and pergolas are regulated, Myers points out — so why not hedges, which can function as all three? The architectural review board has asked the town attorney’s office to craft changes to the town code to regulate front-yard hedge heights, but nothing so far has been proposed.
Robert Hefner, East Hampton Village’s historic preservation consultant, laments that today many historical homes are blocked from view. Hedges, he said, are in essence physically and psychically cutting visitors off from the community’s cherished beauty and history.
“It’s a question of view corridors for the whole community versus private property rights of homeowners,” said East Hamptown Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell. “I think it started before the deer came. Hedges have grown up because there are so many more people, so many more cars. But in some cases, with huge hedges and gates, it’s like egos on steroids.” Amen to that.