Opinion: Backyards Were Places of Freedom and Fantasy

Summer has its own sounds: the buzz of lawnmowers, the rainy spray of sprinklers and the swish of the wind in the trees.Sure, there are also the jarring sounds of car alarms and circular saws to contend with. But the summertime sounds of residential neighbourhoods tend to be soothing, perhaps because for so many of us, they recall childhoods spent outside in the backyard.The backyard was a special place where the stricter rules of the indoor world didn't apply.You didn't have to keep your voice down.It was OK for sticky Popsicles to dribble all over the place. It was the realm of extended summer bedtime hours where you played until well after dark.The backyard was never only a whimsical haven for children, though. In the mid-20th century, it became a dreamy fantasyland for adults, too."If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I'll never look further than my own backyard. Because if it isn't there - I never really lost it to begin with," says Dorothy, at the conclusion of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.Dorothy is referring to the metaphorical backyard of America itself. But at the time, filmgoers could easily have thought she meant something different. Backyards were on their way to becoming a focal point for the American Dream.In 1900, when when Frank. L. Baum had published his book The Wizard of Oz, he had concluded it differently:"No matter how dreary and grey our homes are, we people of flesh and blood would rather live here than any other country, be it ever so beautiful. There's no place like home."Not all homes were dreary. The well-to-do could afford paintings, wallpaper and carpets. But more modest homes had functional orientations. Backyards were workspaces where people grew vegetables, raised chickens, chopped wood - and had outhouses.However in the decades after 1910, when the first colony of stars settled in California and the movie industry's PR machine kicked into gear, movie stars were photographed on the grounds of their Los Angeles-area estates, often lounging on patio furniture and sipping cocktails by the pool.Living the best life came to mean easy outdoor living, modelled on Hollywood glamour.Lifestyle magazines began to associate barbecues with the sun-soaked land of the stars. Real-estate developers jumped on the bandwagon and promoted the California lifestyle to postwar families in advertisements for the suburbs.By the mid-1950s, a backyard with a barbecue, a swimming pool and a well-kept lawn had turned from dream into reality for many middle-class families. They lit their private paradises with Tiki lights and served their guests cocktails and foods inspired by exotic tropical locales.In the 1970s and '80s, recessions had hit, gender roles had shifted and an excessive focus on homemaking had become a thing of the past. The idea of the backyard paradise started to fade away too, and the backyard became primarily a place where children played.These days, backyards are transforming themselves once again. They've become second living rooms, furnished with outdoor couches, carpets and solar lights. Some families have hearkened back to earlier days, and house chicken coops, vegetable gardens and beehives in their yards.There have been predictions backyards will disappear altogether. It's already started to happen in Australia, where it's now common for suburban homes to be built back-to-back. It's likely that in the future, we'll need to build taller, smaller spaces to fit more people into cities.There may still be balconies and rooftop gardens. Perhaps we'll end up spending more time together in communal outdoor spaces. But they're unlikely to inspire the sense of fantasy and freedom that private backyards once did. The dream may have been manufactured, but anyone who's played hide and seek under the porch lights knows it served us well.

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