Rats! Don’t you hate it when they visit paradise?

Don’t you hate it when they visit paradise?

Chicago Tribune

In Chicago, we savor every warm sunny day in autumn. Last gasps of summer happen all over the globe, of course, but in Chicago each day of warmth and sun is one we soak up and store within ourselves. We’re like the late Leo Lionni’s Frederick, who uses those rays to sooth his fellow mice during the bleak, cold months of winter.

Chicago’s motto is “city in a garden” and in these last dog days of autumn we insist on the outdoors: eating meals or sharing long conversation in city yards and gardens, reading on roof decks, biking of walking the lakefront.

After a meal in one of Chicago’s prettiest outdoor restaurants, my husband and I lounged in our friends’ garden, their good dog at my feet. Deborah pointed to a climbing vine with heart-shaped leaves. My daughter and I had started that moon flower from seed in March, and I’d been giving the tiny sprouts as hostess gifts during the spring. There it was, grown as tall as their house.

The next day I curled up in a comfy chair set to my city’s garden’s one square of sunlight, where I finished Henry Roth’s “Call it Sleep.” What a day; what a book. I’d like to say I’d been sunning and reading there all summer, but it was the first day in months I’d been able to site, at ease, in my own backyard.

Blame it on rats. Turns out my urban paradise is a superhighway to the dirt beneath my neighbor’s deck, where rats burrow. This wasn’t the first time we’d battled rats, but it was surely the fiercest, and had me dreaming of filling my backyard with concrete.

Concrete! My backyard is a green-soaked square. Ivy climbs and thickly covers the brick garage, a former stable; Wrigley Field groundskeepers could take notes. A serviceberry tree encloses the yard, providing privacy and a nesting place for cardinals. Viburnum—is there any better scent in spring?—hug the perimeter. A hawthorn tree gives fat red berries in autumn. If I paved paradise, I’d have to give up those too.

First we patched and wire-meshed the Holland Tunnel-like hole in our alley gate. My fearless teenage son set and emptied traps, declaring a backyard jihad. (I tried to order a pellet gun but it can’t be delivered to a Chicago address.) I bought every variety of rat poison sold at Home Depot. Exterminators came often; so did city workers. The alderman checked in, too.

The rats kept coming. One evening as I described the situation to a friend from a higher perch, a rat the size of a cat slithered across the smooth bluestones in my backyard. Ugh.

We—OK, my husband—dug a deep trench and wire-meshed the perimeter. That shoved the rat highway into my neighbor’s yard, which caused some short-term ill will. But it solved my problem—and darn fast.

Steel mesh, limestone rocks, poison, noise makers: we humans prevailed. I got my garden back.

Why is this space so precious to me? I spent my teenage years in New York’s Greenwich Village, living in a sunny sixth-floor apartment. Private outdoor space was a tar beach roof. Across the street, a row of townhomes shared a tree-filled garden. That’s what I wanted someday: a city house with a garden.

When we moved into this Chicago house, I sat on its back steps, admiring its trees and green. Wasn’t I lucky to live in a city with such wise design? All my neighbors had the same space, a break between the house and garage, a shared alley.

That was 25 years ago. When I look from my back steps now I see backyards filled with house. Changing in zoning allow for larger houses to be built in my Lincoln Park neighborhood. There’s no room for trees when a house is a few feet from its garage.

Chicago’s rear yards are urban treasure; they’re unique, and magical. They’re also disappearing.

“There should be a continuum of green vistas,” says Jonathan Fine, executive director of Preservation Chicago. Structures in rear yards should be forbidden, he says. “We borrow each other’s green space. We rely on our neighbor’s green space to enhance our own.”

The other night I took our dog for his walk. I passed an old home on a corner lot, its low-fenced yard open to the street. There, a group a friends sat at a red picnic table lit by candles, enjoying dinner and a movie playing on an oversized screen. What a night; what a choice. “Stranger than Fiction,” a wonderfully told live and love story—set in Chicago.

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