They couldn’t accept that their lives, and the health of their baby, were ‘existing nonconforming’. The house they rented was over a hundred years old, one of a few left in an area rezoned for industry forty years before. The city couldn’t make the owners tear the anachronisms down, but no new ones would ever be built there, because zoning was based on identifying and isolating incompatible uses, a form of planned obsolescence.

The people at Regional Air Quality Control knew them well. They received anxious calls from them almost daily, about the fumes from the spray paint operation next door. That company had been required to install state of the art filtrations systems and sensors, and still the Roberts were sure that they could smell the fumes seeping into their lungs and brains.

They had requested the revocation of the painting company’s use permit, that they be shut down. They had done the exhaustive, conclusion-driven research typical of lawyers charged with proving a case. They had both cold science- the part that supported their fears- and their fears. They lavished both on the board. And they had rallied a few neighbors to join them at the hearing.

I was not dispassionate, but I wasn’t anxious to exile jobs and industry to unregulated third world countries or counties where greater numbers would suffer more deeply while righteous folks here rode their perfectly painted bikes in proud defiance of callous gas guzzlers.

The last neighbor stood to speak in support of the Roberts. She was 93. She lived down the street in the house that both she and her mother had been born in. She explained very simply why she was there.

“It’s past my bedtime. But I’m here tonight because my neighbors asked me to come here. They are troubled and hurt by the business next door. And that which hurts my neighbors, hurts me.”

I had been on the Zoning Board then for several years. I had never heard those words- words that define community- uttered until then. I served another eight years after that, and never heard them again.