My husband, two sons and I have an apartment in a preschool Playborhood heaven. There are a LOT of children around: a dozen and counting! Bikes and sidewalk chalk are kept out on front porches and shared. Many days each week, a spontaneous playgroup gathers in the courtyard. Neighbors bring each other food. We borrow clothes, kitchen equipment, and tools. We babysit for each other, sometimes just by putting our children to bed and dropping the baby monitor off with the neighbors. The kindergarteners bike or stroll to school everyday (with parents trading walking duty).
I’ve thought a lot about what makes our community work. It’s a small, well laid-out complex with the buildings facing a courtyard. There are a lot of interesting things for little people to explore outdoors, like the dirt path between the Redwoods and the orange and plum trees that provide seasonal snacks. Maybe most importantly, a lot of the neighbors are home during at least some weekdays; we have a retired couple, a student, and a consultant in addition to the at-home or partly-at-home moms and dads.
Ironically, the inconveniences of apartment living have turned out to enhance community relations here. The windows and walls are thin, but they let us hear friends playing, beckoning us outside. There isn’t air conditioning, so windows and doors stay open much of the year, inviting neighbors in. There are no private washer and dryer hookups, but that means we all spend more time out in the community using the shared laundry room. There are no garages, so we’re more likely to run into each other walking to and from our cars. Apartments have less privacy, but that means less isolation.
We live in each others’ faces and I love it. In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time, Peter Lovenheim attempts to know his neighbors by spending the night at their homes, with the idea being that spending time in your neighbor’s place overcomes boundaries and encourages relationships. Apartment living can be a gentler way to get into each others’ space.
Because we’re familiar with our neighbors, we feel comfortable letting our children play outside. Our courtyard isn’t a sterile no man’s land – it’s an extension of our homes. Thus, it’s a perfect Playborhood hangout. My sons are young – one 8 months, one 2 years – so I don’t let them roam out front alone yet. When they’re old enough to understand boundaries and street safety, they’ll be able to join the 4, 5, and 6 year olds who play on their own. If we’re still here when they’re a bit older than that, I imagine them biking across the street to buy an ice cream at the gas station.
Yes, “If we’re still here.” The one real problem with our place is that it’s probably transitional. As families here grow bigger, or older, or want more space, many of us will move. If and when we do, I hope we’ll find a neighborhood structured to encourage community life and nurture a Playborhood like this one.
Until then, we won’t wait for the perfect house to have the perfect place to live. We’ll embrace our place and play where we are!