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