These used to be our playgrounds

May 18, 2009 | 14 comments
By

Erlangen, Röhelheimpark thumbnail

From the air, the German neighborhood where we lived until last year seems decidedly un-American.

The houses, with six apartments each, are laid out right next to each other in long rows. Businesses and residences bump up against each other. There are no private yards.

The lack of fenced yards makes the whole thing possible, however. With people living so close together, it makes sense to provide infrastructure that a lot of people can use, like bus stops with frequent service. Bakeries can sell enough bread to people within walking distance to turn a profit. There are several preschools and playgrounds for the children who live in the apartments, and playgrounds that serve 100 children are more interesting than the kinds that serve two or three. Our neighbors grilled and put up wading pools on hot days, but they used communal rather than private space. I liked being able to look out our back window and see people playing at the sports facilities or celebrating something or other at the community center. It’s nice to live near people who are enjoying themselves. There’s probably too much green space to please a committed urbanist, but the proximity of playing fields and nature areas to our apartment was close to my ideal. (Click here or on the image above for a wider view with labels, or scan around the bird’s-eye view at Microsoft Live Maps.)

Our house now is almost twice the size of our former apartment, although we only use about half the space most of the time. We have our own yard now, too. I spend Saturday mornings mowing it. Our kids don’t actually spend much time there, except when they spray water on the one patch without grass so they can track mud into the house. There are no playgrounds within walking distance, and no sidewalks connecting our home to them even if there were.

As much as I liked our former apartment, though, transplanting a German apartment or even a German neighborhood to northwest Arkansas would not provide a true equivalent. Aerial photography reveals more than just where buildings are placed. It’s not quite so visible, but the picture of our old neighborhood and its multiple playgrounds points to some different assumptions about where families with children are supposed to live, and what kinds of lifestyles apartment-dwellers are supposed to lead, and how much adult supervision children must have. One might also be able to deduce certain differences in construction: the buildings are built of concrete, so that we rarely heard more than muffled footsteps and an occasional tantrum from the children who lived above us. Never hearing one’s neighbors was not considered a natural right, nor was constant noise from every direction considered the unavoidable curse of apartment life.

Like I said, it seems un-American. But appearances deceive: our German neighborhood was, until 1993, the family housing area of an American army base. Americans built those playgrounds. American children played on them for forty years.

* * *

Living in Germany also inspires socialist thoughts in Russell, which he’s recently written about here.

14 Responses to These used to be our playgrounds

  1. Frank McIntyre on May 18, 2009 at 10:27 am

    The grad student housing at Stanford is laid out with a big communal play area. It works great, as long as you like your neighbors, which we did. There was a market close enough to walk to (more or less) that we got a fair bit of use out of, although it was expensive enough that we still did most of our shopping (weighted by dollars) one town over at Costco or Safeway.

    In fact, two blocks from my house there are two different developments with communal play areas. One of them is obviously geared towards old people. The other one doesn’t seem to be. The closest corner mart is a few blocks away and pitiful, but Ream’s is still walkable for those inclined. There is also a business park in our ward boundaries where our family doctor works.

    And since this is Provo, I think we can safely call it American.

  2. Amy S on May 18, 2009 at 10:41 am

    I don’t know, I’m in Florida and we have children running through the neighborhood barefoot non-stop. One of our neighbors built a playground in their sideyard for their grandkids, and the whold neighborhood is invited to play there non-stop. We ride bikes up the road to the library, the community park where they show free movies every Friday night. We have a co-op organic garden. We have our upcoming Fourth of July block party. I love traveling in Europe with my family, but I love coming home to this small town.

    I think America is changing it’s ideas in the last decade about what we want in a home, in a neighborhood, in a community. I love that, too.

    And I love that we wear deodorant before we get on the subway.

  3. Julie M. Smith on May 18, 2009 at 11:12 am

    This post made me nostalgic for student family housing at UC-Davis.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on May 18, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    A nice little post, Jonathan; thanks very much for it. I especially liked the bit near your conclusion: “constant noise from every direction [was not] considered the unavoidable curse of apartment life.” So true!

    You know what we really miss from Germany, especially as summer comes upon us? Those wonderful wooden slide-blinds, whatever they were called. We’d hear them *shk-shk-shk!* up every morning, telling us our neighbors were awake, and then *k-k-k-slam!* in the evening, as the blinds went down. Man, they could really make the rooms dark. Sure beat the plastic twisty-blinds, which are just about the only ones I’ve ever seen in America.

  5. Peter LLC on May 18, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    Nice bmx course. The city of Vienna hosts a big dirt jump contest every year in front of the Rathaus, and I appreciate city fathers who view bikes as recreation in addition to transportation.

    And I love that we wear deodorant before we get on the subway.

    You must be thinking Berlin summer 1948 during the Soviet blockade. I’m pretty sure once it was lifted Germans started taking baths again.

  6. Peter LLC on May 18, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    Those wonderful wooden slide-blinds, whatever they were called.

    Jalousien ;)

  7. Tim on May 18, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    I remember, 10 years ago, packing extra deodorant with me as I left for my mission in Germany. Word was that decent deodorant was hard to find there.
    I miss the livable cities, the fantastic, reliable public transportation, and the quality apartments.
    My first thought, after seeing the picture above and the words “German neighborhood,” were, “that’s American military housing.” Similar neighborhoods still house military families; I remember one similar neighborhood that had been, for some reason, entirely abandoned.
    I’m glad these are still being put to good use.
    One question: did Germans build those apartments? Or did Americans? The description sure sounds like German quality.

  8. Ben H on May 18, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    In Saudi Arabia we lived in enormous houses in a compound of five. Since they were the biggest houses my dad’s employer had, Mormons tended to end up there (and Catholics); at one point three of the five houses were occupied by Mormons! Anyway, there was a wall around the perimeter of the five, about where the outside edge of the yards might be, but otherwise the area was enthusiastically shared by the many children, roller-skating, playing capture-the-flag, etc. Big houses, but a fantastic shared play space, even more so because you could run between the houses and hide behind them (and the various hedges, bushes, trash cans, etc.) during night games. A shared employer, similar professional profiles of our parents, similar age ranges for the children, and being far from home in Saudi Arabia helped to make it work so well, maybe a bit like your setup in Germany. American pluralism sometimes means we don’t actually have much in common. It’s great when it happens though.

  9. Jonathan Green on May 18, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Tim, the buildings are an interesting hybrid of German and American, so they have built-in closets and no separate enclosed entry space, but the walls and windows and floors were typically German. No Jalousien, unfortunately, which would have come in handy at 10:00 PM in June, when it was still light outside, and school was still in session.

  10. Jim F. on May 18, 2009 at 11:23 pm

    I recognized those apartments immediately. From 1954-1958 I lived in housing units exactly like those, but in Munich. And I remember life there quite fondly, though when I went back to see them a few years ago, I was shocked at how much smaller everything was than I had remembered. I suspect the German families now living in the building where we lived were mystified by the Americans standing out front taking pictures of an ordinary apartment building.

  11. Eric Boysen on May 19, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Military housing is typically built by local contractors using local materials under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers or the equivalent for other branches of service. Designs and construction must meet local builing codes, but typically has American features like closets. In Europe, where bases are typically small, the housing for all but General officers is in apartments like the one above. Many “kasernes” have histories that go back to World War II or even before that.

    I was stationed at Patch Barracks in Stuttgart for four years. I lived on the economy first in Calw, the in Leonberg, until my last year there when I moved into base housing. The commute to and from Calw was tortuous-about fifteen miles of packed two lane roads, sometimes in fog so thick you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. But it was a beautiful place to live. Leonburg was better that way-a shorter commute on the Autobahn. I commuted by bicycle and if need be could use the bus. Not options from Calw. But despite the charm of being out on the economy, living on base was so much better. I had a five minute walk to work and almost everything we needed was right there. (And it was rent free!)

    My wife at that time was German, but she really didn’t get on with our German neighbors, and in Calw in particular she felt terribly isolated. (Our house was an old mansion on a large piece of land that had not been kept up too well, and working a military schedule plus commute, I didn’t do too much to reduce its “Addams Family” feel). On base I think worked better for her too.

    The playgrounds on base were not as nice as those available elsewhere. I think American safety standards were to blame. There were amazing play structures at some of the parks nearby, however.

    I talked to an engineer who supervised the construction of military housing in Italy. Military housing usually has hardwood floors-easier to maintain and change the decor to match personal taste. Well in Italy hardwood was outrageously expensive. Instead, he contracted for marble which was much cheaper. He caught a lot of flack for that because the budgets are reviewed in Washington where such a choice would be seen as an outlandish luxury. In the end the lower price won the argument.

  12. Aaron on May 20, 2009 at 7:09 am

    If God didn’t want us to live in big houses with big yards and big driveways and have lots of cars and drive everywhere we went he wouldn’t have made suburbs.

  13. Bruce Crow on May 20, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    I live in a home that is large enough for a typical Mormon-American family. But the yard is small enough to mow in 15 minutes and we have two communal playgrounds with 50 yards. I love the sense of community that is encouraged by the design. I only hate I had to live 30 miles from my job to get it. These places are here, but hard to find. Most American homes have two or three bedrooms. Larger homes are secluded from their neighbors by vast lawns.

  14. Jayme B. on May 21, 2009 at 12:02 pm

    This is a great post. Fact is, more of us should be thinking about the social effects of our neighborhood design. Is it more difficult to care for our neighbors when they are inaccessible but by automobile, or when we never have chance encounters because we don’t have public spaces?