Bear the front door of his northeast Phoenix home, Richard Aiello has screwed a small brass plaque to the stuccoed wall. It reads:
NEVER MIND THE DOG--BEWARE THE OWNER.
On the roof at the back of the neatly maintained home he shares with his wife, Helen, and his 4-year-old daughter, Alexis, Aiello has attached another sign, this one far less discreet. In blocky red letters that almost fill an entire four-by-eight-foot sheet of plywood, Aiello has stenciled the following missive:
THIS HOMEOWNER AND MANY OTHERS ARE DISGUSTED WITH THE NOISE, LIES AND LACK OF CONSIDERATION FOR OUR FAMILIES.
At the lower right-hand corner, someone has rendered a donkey's posterior, which the sign invites a prominent Valley developer, Bashas' supermarket, Wal-Mart and Phoenix city officials to kiss.
Aiello's yard backs up against a 35-acre shopping mall which lies at the southwest corner of Tatum Boulevard and Bell Road. The center, developed five years ago by R.E. Cornwell, is home to Bashas', Wal-Mart and other smaller retailers.
Aiello thinks the city and the businesses are reneging on promises made to neighbors five years ago, before the busy strip mall was built. Measures were supposed to be put in place that would reduce noise from delivery trucks and excessive light from the stores, among other problems.
Instead, trucks clatter over a speed bump just behind Aiello's wall, and lights shine into his backyard.
Aiello's sign cannot be seen from the street out front of his home, nor was it ever intended to be. From the other side of the eight-foot-high block wall that runs along his backyard, however, the sign stands out like a beacon.
Aiello moved into his home seven years before the mall's arrival, when the land behind his backyard was still an unbladed tangle of creosote and mesquite.
"We used to spend time in the backyard," he says. "It was nice. It was quiet and dark."
Not so anymore, though. Where Aiello used to see stars, he now sees the mall's towering, blank white walls. Where there used to be darkness, there is now the yellow wash thrown off by powerful sodium lamps.
"It's like daylight out there at night," Aiello says.
But that's not what Aiello finds most galling. What bothers him the most, he says, is the near-constant racket thrown off by the fleet of trucks that make deliveries to the Bashas' store.
Bashas' loading area lies directly behind Aiello's house. Of all the homes that lie behind the mall, Aiello's receives the brunt of the noise, a situation compounded by the fact that Cornwell installed a speed bump just behind his backyard.
It's easy to see how the arrangement could get old quickly. One recent afternoon, a succession of delivery trucks took the bump. Some of the drivers slowed down, while others fudged it. The racket was pronounced, even from inside Aiello's home. The effect is that of living behind a freight yard or a construction site.
"It's like this every day," Aiello says. "In fact, this is a slow time." He points to cracks he has had to patch in the walls of the living-room addition he built on the rear of his home, which he says are the result of vibrations from the trucks.
As Aiello sees it, none of this was supposed to have happened. When Cornwell first petitioned the city to let him build the mall, in fact, it was Aiello who helped rally neighbors to convince the city to impose stipulations on the developer.
At that time, the developer presented drawings showing that a person standing in the backyard of a home like Aiello's would only be able to see the top five feet of the 30-foot-high mall once the block wall was built along the back of the site.
The renderings also depicted a densely vegetated, landscaped buffer zone on the other side of the wall that would have made the trucks all but invisible.
That drawing, however, is different from reality in two critical aspects: It shows towering, 30-foot trees standing in the buffer zone, while the trees that stand there now are at most a third that height, even after four years.
The drawing also fails to show that the mall site sits several feet higher than Aiello's backyard. As a result, drivers in the larger trucks have an unimpeded view of the Aiello homestead.
Other stipulations called for lights that would shine from the base of the backyard wall onto the building, not from the tops of the buildings, where they could flood the backyards with light.
Aiello says the wall behind his house should be raised five feet to take into account the slope. He says Cornwell also should replace four of the trees in the landscaped buffer zone that have died.
And finally, Aiello says, the speed bump should go.
"I personally think Cornwell put those speed bumps in there just to piss me off, because they weren't there the first year the building was there," Aiello says.
Aiello says Cornwell has stopped returning his phone calls. The developer did not return calls seeking an interview. City zoning officials say there are no complaints on file about the mall, including any from Aiello.
Aiello endures other nuisances that will likely never be mitigated. Every day, for instance, garbage trucks equipped with noisy hydraulic lifts come to empty the mall's Dumpsters. Kids out for joy rides have also discovered that the large asphalt truck turnaround behind the mall is the perfect place to burn a little rubber. Or at least they did, until Aiello began blindly chucking rocks over the wall.
"I've hit things," he says, not without a little satisfaction.
Among the things he has hit, he says, was the window of a Wal-Mart delivery truck shortly after the mall opened. Ever since, he says, the Wal-Mart truckers have made it a point to idle slowly along the back of the store.
"You can barely hear them anymore," he says, adding that he has considered removing Wal-Mart from his enemies list. But not Bashas'.
"That night manager has a hard-on for me, and so do the drivers," he says. "It's like when they drive through here, they say to themselves, 'Time to piss Aiello off!'"
One night two months ago, Aiello says, a Bashas' driver parked his rig at the back of the store and left the motor idling. It was around 11 p.m., and Aiello says the clatter and vibration from the engine were unbearable, so he called the store.
"I told them that if they didn't shut it off, I would shoot the engine out," he says.
A short time later, police arrived at his home asking him whether he had made a bomb threat. Aiello never was cited--never has been--but, he says, if things don't improve, all that could change.
Already, he is barred from entering the Bashas' store. Employees there would not comment, referring all inquiries to the store's corporate offices, where officials said they were not aware of any problems at the store.
Aiello's name is also well-known at the nearby police precinct. He estimates he's called police about 80 times since the mall first opened.
Aiello produces a photocopy of the Phoenix City Code in which he has outlined sections dealing with noise and nuisances. He points out that the code makes it illegal for anyone to create "unreasonably loud and disturbing noises," or to create noises "detrimental to life and peace, or public welfare."
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Further, the ordinance bars "the creation of loud and excessive noise" in connection with the loading or unloading of any vehicle.
Of course, the terms "loud" and "excessive" leave plenty of legal wiggle room, and Aiello, a working-class guy, says he can't afford to hire a lawyer to challenge the mall, which leaves him two choices, as he sees it: the cops, or whatever strategies he can devise on his own.
So far, Aiello says, Phoenix police have been unwilling to get involved.
But what about the third option? Why doesn't Aiello just cut his losses, admit that he's whipped, and move someplace where he will never have to worry about waking up and finding a mall next door?
Aiello practically scoffs at the suggestion.
"The point was, I was here first," he says. "I was promised certain things. I'd like to get them.