The image of the European city as a tourist’s paradise of charming inner-city neighborhoods interconnected by high-speed rail networks is not entirely false, but it does not give the full picture of how most Europeans live. Contrary to the mythology embraced by romantics among planners and ‘green’ politicians, urban areas of Europe sprawl just as much as any American or Western city.
Of course, there are the wealthy and often childless few who live in the renovated urban cores – but at much lower density than at any time in their history. Instead of crowding picturesquely into city, the teeming hordes of the middle class have sought their refuge in the arboreal outskirts. They drive from their single-family homes and townhouse developments to their offices in old city centers, in business parks on the edge of the center and to other villages with massive industrial parks attached to them.
As a result Germany has long since ceased to be the country that one sees in Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Goethe. Much of it looks like America or Canada. Freeways interconnect exurban villages swelling with housing developments and industrial parks. The German dream is a lot like the American one, only with more rules.
The most interesting factor is the diversity of these suburbs. They are still predominantly German, but then again so is the country. I live in an exurb of Nuremberg in northern Bavaria. It was the city of Dürer and Hans Sachs as well as the infamous Nazi rallies and post-war trials. It still has castles from the Medieval past, but the need for labor to rebuild destroyed cities – and eventually the resulting prosperity – in the post-war years saw new faces and cultures arrive with immigrants from countries like Turkey.
Just like in America, many of these newcomers worked until they retired and decided that they wanted to stay. Some of their children are having trouble but not all of them. The children that move out of their neighborhoods to the suburbs integrate better because their parents tend to be more prosperous and thus resent Germany less. The other reason is the fact they are more exposed to the language. Cem Ozdemir was just elected as leader of the Green Party here and he does not speak the pidgin common among a lot of Turkish immigrants. I moved to the suburbs for much the same reason. My wife and I are both non-native speakers but we know that if our children are going to succeed they will need to speak German well and act like Germans. Ideally they will become hyphenated Germans, as in American-Croat-Germans, which is roughly what they would be.
Of course, some recent newcomers still huddle in their ghettos here, the soulless housing estates built to satisfy Le Corbusier’s destructive urban fantasies. But a lot of them are moving out and up. Their ultimate dream is not a castle or a turn of the century apartment. They want their own house. They want decent schools for their kids, a place to park their cars and easy access to work. That is why they are here and not in their old neighborhoods.
But diversity is a relatively new benefit of German suburbs. We also moved here for a basic need of space. We had lived in the inner city in a charming apartment but one that simply could not hold kids. It felt cramped just as our offspring popped out.
There’s also one often-unrecognized advantage to our suburbia: a stronger feeling of neighborhood. Germany is a country of renters. It can be fairly alienating when the residents have little vested interest in where they live. A lot of rental apartments are in buildings that are anything but charming. Here in the suburbs of Germany almost everybody owns their own home. One street is actually named Eigenheimstraße, which translates to Privately-owned-home Street. It is an indication of the pride that Germans have in being able to say that a house belongs to them. They also lovingly tend their yards and fill them with garden gnomes – some harmless, some borderline obscene – and other bric-a-brac that fills countless yards across the urban expanses of America.
Then there are the schools. The school system here in Germany is fairly uniform with secondary schools more or less standardized. Performance at the elementary school level is vital: children are clearly, quickly and brutally sorted here. At the age of ten, the teachers decide if a child is going to go to college, vocational school or rot in the festering hell of the Hauptschule. The latter is nothing more than a storage facility for tomorrow’s losers.
We moved to make sure that our neighborhood was mainly German. We wanted to make sure that our children were comfortable with the language and they needed friends who spoke German to feel that way. Most immigrant children fail for the simple reason that they don’t speak German at home, and in pre-school most of their friends speak their parents’ native language as well. This means that they speak Turkish or Russian well but can barely express themselves in German. This then puts them at a disadvantage when working their way through the school system. They have to take remedial language courses. The suburbs allow them to avoid all that.
The last reason is a place to park our cars. Germans love cars. They love engineering and are very proud of their car industry. They design cars that are the epitome of luxury and performance. Most Germans do not drive cars like this, yet stubbornly continue to own cars despite the government’s multiple efforts to make it too expensive. We pay hefty gas taxes in an effort to fight the “Green House effect,” but most of us feel that it’s just an excuse for the government to steal our money in order to pay for its bloated welfare system.
Car-ownership in Europe is almost at American levels and Europeans, despite the much-ballyhooed efforts to introduce bikes in Paris, will continue to drive. As in America, the anti-car and anti-suburban ideologues are loud and active, but as long as people prize security, privacy, space and mobility, it’s likely Europe’s version of the suburban American dream will continue to thrive for years ahead.
Kirk Rogers resides in Bubenreuth on the outer edges of Nuremberg and teaches languages and Amercan culture at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg's Institut für Fremdsprachen und Auslandskunde. He has been living in Germany for about ten years now due to an inexplicable fascination with German culture.