Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Leading You Down the Kleingarten Path

One of Berlin's many Kleingartenanlagen (allotment garden complex). You
might find peace and quiet, but only if you follow the myriad rules and
regulations! (Photo: Christoph Diepes)
She (or he) who seeks the quintessence of Germanic order and practicality, but also wishes to savor the flavors of its bureaucracy and bourgeois culture, need look no further than the over 1 million Kleingärten (allotment gardens; literally "small gardens"). They dot the landscapes of Germany's city outskirts, line large thoroughfares and stretch along the parcels of land abutting railroads and airports. Their history begins in the 19th century, and their use has evolved from beginnings as children's exercise areas, later became crucial vehicles of food production for the urban poor, and now mostly serve as mini weekend homes for older middle-class Germans looking for a weekend escape.

The history of the Kleingarten in Germany stretches back to the age of Industrialization in the 19th century. As rural populations flooded to burgeoning urban centers, newly bloated cityscapes housed increasingly poor, crowded and unhealthy citizens. Air pollution, malnutrition and poor working conditions were just a few of the factors contributing to the ample suffering of the German city dweller of the 1800s. Enter Dr. Daniel Gottlob Moritz Schreber, who observed the deteriorating health of young Germans and proposed that the government set aside parcels of land as "green oases" where children could exercise, cultivate gardens, and generally profit from some time away from the soot and pollution of the cities.

A collection of Dr. Schreber's curious
anti-masturbatory exercise machines.
(Graphic: Wikipedia Commons)
This all seems very positive and well-intentioned from the Herr Doktor S. aus Leipzig, but beneath the surface was a much less benevolent philosophy: Schreber was also a big proponent of the strict repression of sexual desires. He vehemently opposed the idea of masturbation (not to speak of its frequent practice), and believed that his oases – in combination with a series of machines he had invented – could help "purge" the excess energy that he thought drove the urge to pleasure oneself, and thus (re)form the child into a productive, hard-working German citizen (see graphic). We probably shouldn't be surprised that his own unfortunate son ended up writing memoirs about his substantial psychological illnesses which, according to Sigmund Freud and several of his colleagues, stemmed from his father's draconian parenting style. Perhaps unsurprisingly, children outside of Schreber's domain went on masturbating at approximately the same rate they did before, and also showed less interest than he had intended in mindfully cultivating these "small gardens". Maybe they were too busy putting in their 80 hours a week in soot-filled factories.

So of course it ended up that adults were actually more interested in caring for the garden plots, at which point the so-called Schrebergarten developed into an important means of food security for the urban poor, perhaps the most useful and positive consequence of Schreber's master plan. Other urbanizing countries in Europe also developed some form of allotment gardening with this goal (London famously set aside allotments in the aftermath of World War II), but Germany led the pack then and now in terms of organization and prevalence of these plots.

Some 150 years later, today's Schrebergarten really has nothing to do with the health of German youth, and little to do with feeding the poor. In fact, the current average age of the Schrebergärtner sits at 60 years of age. Today, aside from providing the originally-intended escape from urban concrete jungles, the million-plus German Schrebergärten (70,000 of which can be found in Berlin) now serve in large part as an outlet for the well-known German penchant to over-organize, over-regulate, and over-tidy anything and everything they can get their Teutonic hands on. The typical plot consists of a small, immaculately stained wooden shelter, a nice little section of perfectly groomed lawn, a few lounge chairs of varying quality, and of course a garden with neatly arranged rows of vegetables and flowers. Weeds are nowhere to be found, as they are meticulously exterminated well before they are able to spread. File all of this under "irony" that Schreber's original plan for allotments to help purge children's sexual urges has now resulted in an outlet for old people to be super ordentlich and spießig (and we of course know nothing of their sexual urges).

Speaking of spießig, this concept is actually one of my favorite German words, and it is of those concepts that is nearly impossible to translate into English. "Bourgeois" is the most common translation but doesn't quite work, and "square," as in "be there or be square," isn't a very useful translation either, especially now that the 50s are over. In a way, the Kleingärtner might just be a living, breathing translation of the word spießig: the following video (in German) from the Deutsche Welle series "Die Wahrheit über Deutschland" ("The Truth about Germany") does an amazing job of investigating a typical German Kleingärtnerkolonie to give us a little taste of what spießig really means. A small dose of perfectionism, a spoonful of nerdiness, and a healthy swallow of being extremely tidy. This is spießig:

The particular Kolonie featured in the video has a 73-page booklet (!) of rules and regulations, including the 4-chapter, 22-legal-paragraph long Bundeskleingartengesetz. Lovely summer reading, I assure you (feel free to take my word for it). For the top three examples of Spießigkeit in the allotment gardens, skip forward to 2:35!

Our own little backyard Schrebergarten, complete with
improperly spaced veggies, not-so-straight crop rows and
an inadequate flower-to-vegetable ratio.
All of this is quite amusing, but the Schrebergarten is actually a real and practical way for modern city-dwellers to obtain some semblance of balance in their lives, grow healthy food, and also make very good use of land that would often otherwise lie vacant or unused (such as the area near train stations and tracks). We Americans have been reading articles for several years now about how urban gardens are booming in U.S. cities, but it still remains a niche activity reserved for hipsters and environmental activists who want to eat brown eggs and a whole lot of kale and Swiss chard. I think American city centers that have experienced urban decline and have large tracts of dilapidated and unused land – such as Detroit or Cleveland – could really benefit from a healthy dose of the aforementioned German regulation and land-use laws (perhaps 20 pages instead of 73). Vacant or degraded lots could be set aside for use as Kleingärten, with set lot prices much like they were in post-war Britain. They could even be used by inner city schools to introduce kids to foods that don't glow bright orange, contain mysterious animal parts or stay fresh on the shelf for upwards of a decade. The benefits would be many-fold: a happier, healthier populace, green gardens instead of scrap heaps, eroding buildings and weeds, and generally a more attractive cityscape.

Whether or not such a plan is a realistic undertaking in the U.S. is another question. For one, Americans as a rule aren't afforded nearly as much time off to spend working on a garden (nor would they necessarily spend it there if they had it!). I also think fast food and processed food culture is much more deeply seated in the States than in Germany. In the end though, we don't have to copy Germany's model exactly (in fact, I think we'd be well-advised not to). I think the simple idea of setting aside urban land for gardens is a no-brainer, especially in U.S. cities where that land is already lying fallow.