Good Fences Make for Good Neighbors–Cultural Challenges in a Microcosm



Newly finished homes and back yards in housing development outside of Frankfurt, Germany

Newly finished homes and back yards in housing development outside of Frankfurt, Germany

In Frankfort I spent time with a young friend and his wife.  They had recently bought a brand new home in a new development just northeast of the city center.  Only a year ago the area had been made up of rolling hills, farm houses and luscious crops. The development is so new that many of the small yards associated with the new homes are still unplanted and construction of new homes is ongoing all around their home. In my friends’ house they are part of a eight unit row of attached homes (similar to our row or town houses) with shared walls and contiguous yards.  To date no fences have been built between the back yards still in the process of development.  Therein lies the rub.


 My friends neighbors are a bit unusual in that it is a mix of people from very different cultures.  Of the eight families there are two from Germany,  two from China, two from India, one from Iran and my friend who is German but whose wife is from Vietnam.  They are all about the same age (twenties and thirties somethings) and would be considered as upper middle-class by most standards (these homes cost approximately $450,000 or thereabouts so they are on the high end of “middle-class”). Given their close proximityto each other the issue of separation and privacy becomes a priority for the young families.  Hence the issue of fencing has become important.  Unfortunately, despite numerous neighborhood meetings among the eight families they have not been able to agree on a common plan of action.  Each family seems to have its own idea of what a “good” fence would look like (not too surprising given the makeup of the families).


 To be clear we are not talking about big fences here.  Each back yard is only about 20 ft by 30 feet square (~6×10 meters).  In fact in a definitional sense they are only looking at a small part of the actual fencing–each plot will be contained by a open wire fence that is standard in the neighborhood.  What is being debated is a “privacy fence” that will extend perpendicular from the back wall of each house about three meters (~9 ft) and about two meters (6 ft.) tall at the highest, allowing the families to sit on their small verandas and not necessarily “intrude” on their neighbors.


 As best I could tell the conversations while serious and requiring much patience by all, they seemed to be conducted in a friendly and basically open manner. The problem appeared to one of culture as much as anything.  Basically, often a majority of the families were able to come up with one design or another that they could agree on.  However, like hung jurors in our court system, even one hold out stymied any agreed upon design and implementable strategy.  An agreed upon design in the meeting would quickly unravel when discussed in the privacy of individuals’ homes. The concept of majority-rule seemed unacceptable or at least not well understood by some (maybe intentionally). Some liked the idea of wood (actually fake wood), others metal or wrought iron, some with sloping, others stair stepping designs, thin posts, thick posts, etc.  You name it and my friends neighbors found designs with nuances others liked or didn’t like.  Some threatened to “go it alone” by building what they liked on their side of the property line but common sense showed that wouldn’t work out.


 A conversation between two neighbors would set other neighbors to joining them outside for an informal meeting to consider strategies in persuading the holdouts to join a given position. Two neighbors seen talking would lead to a bevy of email exchanges, phone calls or text messages. More than once I saw my friend look out his window and exclaim, “Uh oh, the Chinese are talking with the German!”; he would rush out to find out what they were talking about. My friend, in a very frustrated sigh said these discussions had been going on for months and he couldn’t understand why they couldn’t reach a common agreement.


 In a sense the little neighborhood of international families living on the outskirts of Frankfurt is a microcosm of what is happening in Germany and for that matter in much of Europe.  Whole populations that in the past may have been fairly homogeneous (yes, I am familiar with the stories of pogroms and ethnic cleansing in Europe’s violent history) but are now seeing large influxes  of new faces with different cultures and expectations for how they will live in their new adopted countries.  Although we in the US are used to being the “melting pot” of humanity, at least historically, Europe has not generally been accepting of such changes.  The seriousness of these changes goes beyond just trying to sort out fences between families.  As witnessed by recent riots in Stockholm this past month or Paris last year these are clashes of cultures and expectations–by those trying to enter and those who have already established themselves and want to protect what they see as “theirs.”  It will not always be easy or successful.  We have our own issues of cultural assimilation.  The melting pot theory on which much of our nation’s greatness can be arguably based is now strained as we try to deal with “illegal” (better stated “undocumented”) Hispanic immigrants now at the forefront of our news.  We could /should be showing leadership on these issues for the world.  Its not clear we can or will given how the politics are now driving this issue.  Hopefully, we can find a solution to our own problems of cultural change that will serve as a model for others.

As of this writing I am pleased to say that my friends’ neighborhood has reached agreement on their fences.  His Vietnam wife, perhaps exercising heretofore unknown diplomatic skills came up with a design that was agreed upon by all.  Now they can focus on the really important issues of who will be hosting the outdoor neighborhood parties–chapattis anyone?–Paul Maxwell 

Author’s note: I am currently traveling abroad making infrequent observations of other borders and cultures that some may find of interest.2013-05-26 12.24.59


One thought on “Good Fences Make for Good Neighbors–Cultural Challenges in a Microcosm

  1. Paul,
    This is another great blog. Europe as melting pot is an important story. So are the protests in Istanbul. Are you going that direction?

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