Soft sunlight highlights a chain-link fence with flowers growing near and through it

OPINION: In Praise of a Chain-Link Fence

by Cynthia Welte

Rosie, a raccoon, walked nonchalantly by us as we ate lunch in the backyard early in the pandemic. She waddled under the weeping larch, up one side of the chain-link fence, and right down the other, headfirst down the six-foot metal grid. Her hands and feet easily gripped the links. We saw her teats, swollen and sagging from caring for her brood. If this were a wood fence, I wouldn’t have seen her underside, not known to call her “Mama.”

We treasure our home and our fenced backyard in Beacon Hill, a space we used and appreciated all the more during the pandemic. Our tiny sanctuary is surrounded by the nearly invisible geometric diamonds of a chain-link fence. We can see through it but still keep out strangers and keep a dog in (if we ever get a dog).

I have looked down on our fence since we bought our house 15 years ago. The galvanized steel is dull and has ragged edges that catch your clothes if you get too close. If it gets bent, like a paper clip, it’s impossible to return to its natal form. Chain-link fences are institutional. They call to mind construction or abandoned lots overgrown with weeds. They are scaled by teenagers. They signal efficiency, or poverty, or both. Chain-link fences are one of the first things to go when a neighborhood is gentrifying. 

Over the years, my husband and I have debated replacing our fence. I’ve felt exposed, my garden and my activities on display to anyone who walks down the alley. I’ve lamented the appearance, feeling like it didn’t represent the status of home I’d envisioned for myself. I’ve lobbied for a wood fence for elegance and for privacy. My husband prefers the chain-link. And because it would be so expensive, not to mention wasteful, to replace a perfectly functional fence, his side has always won. He does concede that the morning glory wrapping through the tiny diamonds is irritating, but he likes to be a part of the alley, not apart from it.

Over the years, my judgment has softened. I got used to it, then forgot to be bothered by it, and lately I’ve begun to see the fence as kind of delightful. 

Rosie and her babies move with the relative silence needed to be a wild animal in the city, but when they scramble over my fence, I hear them. Clink, clang, ting, tinnnn. The sound isn’t constant like a wind chime. You can hear the gentle jangling sound when the gate is opened and closed, announcing visitors like the bells on a shop door. Squirrels bounding across the top create tinkling chimes, and crows that land and take off cause it to ring as it swings under their weight. 

We borrow views of adjacent gardens. We chat with our friends across the alley, or meet a new family as they unload boxes a few houses up. And people can see in, too, so we wave or nod hello. I noticed a woman gazing through the fence at my house, and it turned out she had taken piano lessons in my living room some 50 years ago. With fingers gently pushed through the squares, we met a neighbor’s sweet dog, Jellybean.

Life in the city requires a certain amount of willingness to share space. We know our neighbors a little, say hello and talk about gardens or local construction updates, feed cats, and bring in packages when they’re on vacation. But because we are so close together, there’s also a sort of pretense that goes on. I pretend not to notice their comings and goings, they pretend not to overhear my conversations. For things I don’t want to look at through the fence, like trash cans, I grow plants to hide them from view.

And the plants love the chain-link fence. They have something to climb, which is vexing with morning glory, but helpful with my star jasmine that can’t seem to grab anything on its own. Clematis climbs it with ease. Shrubs and perennials extend through the fence, softening straight lines. 

Where a wood fence would cast shade, strawberries grow in the sun. With a small garden like ours, we can’t afford to block out sunlight. 

This is not just a fence of utility, or of prisons or schools or basketball courts. It’s a fence built out of light and sound, perfect for a permeable life. 

It has taken me years, but I’m enjoying our chain-link fence now. It lets me commune with the plants and birds and animals and weather and neighbors in the alley. To witness spiderwebs and gently perched hummingbirds. To make friends, or at least share space.

The South Seattle Emerald is committed to holding space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing perspectives do not negate mutual respect amongst community members.

The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of the Emerald or official policies of the Emerald.

📸 Featured image by Priyash Vasava/

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