Winter is past. School is almost over. Now it’s backyard time.
Time to teach the kid how to throw and catch.
Or cook hot dogs and hamburgers over an open flame.
Or work on a tan. Or lounge in a hammock and read a book. Or jump into the pool.
Whatever we do in our backyards, we enjoy them with the expectation of privacy.
Forget that — for this summer at least — if you live on the West Side near Interstate 293. Last fall, trees that shielded about a dozen highway-side homes and backyards were cut as part of a $26.2 million highway construction project.
Once it is complete, a natural shield of tree trunks, branches, leaves and pine needles will be replaced by a sterile wood-and-concrete highway wall. Portions will be nearly 30 feet high.
But for this summer, the backyard activities of people like Mike Mazzaglia are fodder for the roaming eyes of the 73,000 or so people who pass by on the highway every day.
“Most people didn’t even know we were here,” Mazzaglia said last week in his rather noisy backyard. “They’ve brought the world into our neighborhood.”
His backyard is most noticeable from the highway. It boasts an above-ground pool encircled by a whitewashed deck, which is connected to the upstairs room of his house by a 40-foot-long ramp.
“I don’t have a choice,” Mazzaglia, the owner of an asbestos-abatement company, said when I asked if he’ll use his pool in the sight of the traffic. “That kind of stinks.”
The small neighborhoods had been hidden gems. Neat homes and green lawns are sandwiched between Second Street and the highway. They are reached by two narrow streets that run off Second Street.
The Wentworth Street neighborhood even maintained its secrecy in 2007, when ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” rebuilt the Voisine home. That home — noticeable by its odd, wow-the-TV-audience design — is now ripe for highway viewing, too.
The exposure has brought more than eyes into the neighborhood. Trees and leaves also helped to block noise.
Now cars and trucks zip down the highway, as if they were kayaks shooting through blacktop rapids.
You could compare the highway noise to a waterfall, only without the spray or the cool temperature. Or a strong wind, without the uprooted tree or the fear of losing your hat. Whatever — the noise is constant.
“It started in November, and for nine months we got to listen to this,” said Phillip Ouellette, who lives on Wentworth Street.
Wentworth Street resident Paul Brunelle, whose backyard is exposed to the highway, worries that a car may wander off the road and come crashing into his backyard, where his three young stepdaughters used to play.
“The woods used to keep it nice and quiet and safe,” he said.
No one is really angry. Sure, there is some grumbling: The contractor cut the trees too soon. Work has moved slowly (but it did pick up this week). And a few trees that remained weren’t being properly protected. (Protective stone was placed around the trees this week.)
Mazzaglia said the sound wall didn’t have to be built. The state Department of Transportation offered the sound wall, but warned if it didn’t go up now as part of the bridge-replacement project at Exit 4, the next opportunity to build it would be decades away.
The neighborhood went for the wall. State transportation standards say a wall can be built when the noise level exceeds 66 decibels, which is about the level at which one has to raise one’s voice to be heard, said John Evans, air quality and noise program manager for the state DOT.
So while this is a summer of exposure for this neighborhood, it is also one of anticipation. What will the 2,000 feet of sound wall — roughly estimated at $1.1 million — do to the neighborhood once it’s up in late August?
Everyone mentions graffiti, but they expect that will be on the highway side of the wall. The big unknown is how quiet the neighborhood will be.
Not everyone in the neighborhood, though, is disappointed at trading the trees for the nearly 30-foot wall.
Paul Dickie, who also lives on Wentworth Street, said leafless trees didn’t block the noise in the winter, adding that it was even noisy in the summer.
“It’s going to be a big difference,” he predicted. He even anticipates property values will increase. Brunelle said he’ll miss the trees and the animals that they sheltered. He said the sound never bothered him; he used to live near the airport.
Norm St. Onge, who lives on Hill Street and also has a pool, is happy to exchange trees for a wall. “It will mean less leaves,” St. Onge said. “That’s a good thing.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.