Every time I pass the big house on the corner, a third again as large as the rest of the homes on my block, I want to cry.

It's a beautiful place, with a fountain in the front and lovely lilies and roses along the side.

When my neighbors moved in a few years ago, they put up a pristine vinyl fence along the side yard. And it is that fence and what has followed that makes me feel like weeping.

It has holes in it where someone has thrown things — perhaps rocks — at it. There are long scratches the length of it. There are ghost prints of graffiti past, lingering, despite serious elbow grease and a coat of white paint that shouldn't have to be there. At least once a month, the fence is tagged yet again, with vile words or symbols from that mysterious language Cretin.

My own house has been targeted a couple of times, in an almost half-hearted fashion, the damage limited to a sloppy spray-paint scrawl across the front of our garage door or words on the fence we kept deliberately small to provide less opportunity. My husband called the city, and an anti-gang work crew came out and cleaned it up almost instantly, bless them.

I have come to believe that the vandalism, the wanton petty acts of destruction, are every bit as criminal as if someone pulled a truck into the front yard and carted off the homeowner's expensive fountain. And it should not be tolerated.

Certainly, the fence has been destroyed as surely as if it were uprooted and stolen away. And since such a fence would cost several thousand dollars, we're not talking petty theft, either. I'm thinking felony.

The process of spray-painting someone else's property reminds me of a dog marking his territory. And it's just about that classy.

We're seeing more and more of it in our quiet, middle-class neighborhood.

Does it mean that gangs are declaring themselves on my street? That would be the first assumption, although there's no way to say for sure it's gang activity, short of catching the cowards in the act. Certainly there are other kids who engage in vandalism and general stupidity.

I've noticed that when swift action is taken to remove the markings or cover them, we get a lull, sometimes quite lengthy, between incidents. If it's left in place, even for a day, it spreads like mold. A spray-painted fence is joined very shortly by a tagged garage door or even words marked on the foundation of the house.

The same is true of allowing litter.

For some reason, the people who walk past my parking strip seem to be incapable of hanging onto their soda bottles or candy wrappers. They must be dropped among my bearded penstemons. If I pick the mess up immediately when I see it, it's an occasional annoyance. If I let it sit a day, it multiples unbelievably.

The other day, I was squatting down grabbing weeds in a garden patch in my front yard and the 20-something wandering past didn't see me until I bellowed at him as he dropped his potato chip bag. Although he picked it back up when I harangued him, he wasn't particularly embarrassed to be caught. I found that kind of amazing.

Perhaps it's the crux of the problem.

Too many people think that any whim, as long as it's their whim, is OK.

Some of my neighbors say it's best not to make waves, to just clean it up and forget it. I disagree. It's time we quit hunkering down inside our homes and come out into sunlight. We need to reclaim our sidewalks and our fences and our streets. We need to move into our front yards and watch what's going on around us. And we need to be willing to tattle when we see something that shouldn't be happening.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]