I have been exchanging emails with a soon-to-be Frankfurter who, through his questions, has made me realize that despite all my winding narrative attempts, I’ve left a lot of unanswered questions about wagenplätze for the detail-oriented and the seriously curious. So here is a detailed question and answer with some of the most common questions I get about wagenplatz life.
So what the hell is a Wagenplatz?
The short answer is that a wagenplatz is an intentional community in which people live together on a piece of land in a variety of wheeled dwellings.
Most of these dwellings are what are called Bauwägen (building wagons) which can be moved from place to place like any other heavy trailer-on the back of a tractor or truck capable of handling the weight. Others live in the back of trucks that have been converted into living spaces. Your classic trailer–what is often called a Wohnei (living egg) or Wohnmobil (living mobile) in German–are rare, and often unfairly stigmatized by the wagon community as being undesirable and unpleasant.
The fact that wagenplatz dwellings tend to be wheeled leave many English-speakers tempted to translate the term as “trailer park,” though the term rings false in my ears as the trailer parks I have known were not neighborhoods based on common left-leaning political ideas, consensus, mutual aid, and autonomy, but accidental communities brought together by space and not necessarily similarities, much like the traditional off-wheels neighborhood.
When it comes right down to it, there simply is no term in English for wagenplatz, because the concept does not exist in the United States or Britain. When friends from back home ask me to describe our community, I often say things like “Remember the Boxcar Children? Something like that, but with a lot of us,” or “Oh I don’t know, something like a wooden gypsy/circus nomad trailer settlement.” (Shhh, a lot of wagon dwellers get really pissed off when you mention the word “gypsy romantic” in relation to this lifestyle.)
Who owns the land?
In most cases, the land is squatted. For example, the wagenplatz where I live started after Haus Mainusch was squatted in the 80s. Within a few weeks the squatters had come to an understanding with the land owners, in this case the Johannes Gutenberg University, and were allowed to continue to use the property. Eventually a wagenplatz sprang up on the land behind the house, as a housing solution for those involved in house organization and renovation.
All this means that somebody could decide to show up at your door with a lot of police officers with riot gear and guns, and physically force you to leave, and be completely within the letter of the law. I have heard horror stories of people who have had their wagon homes removed from squatted land by crane and compacted before their eyes. In other more peaceful incidents, land-owners negotiate and provide or help find another suitable piece of land for the community to move to.
Recently we were evicted from the back half of our land by the university because they wanted to build a new chemistry building and needed the space to park their building equipment. Luckily, the university was willing to negotiate and provided a second piece of land, to be bought over the course of 20-something years, where half of the residents then moved over the course of several months. It was quite an act, but in the end it means that our town now has two wagenplätze, and maybe someday, when the construction is finished, we can squat the back half of the property back, and fill it again with color and life.
And just what is a bauwagon?
A bauwagen is a boxcar-shaped trailer, today most commonly used as the temporary office at construction sites, thus the name bauwagen, or building wagon. Some people have them in their garden as tool sheds, chicken coops, or play areas for the kids. They are common among circus folk and other nomadic groups–I’ve heard tell that very similar structures can be seen in the United States at SCA and RennFest gatherings.
Older wagons are usually sided with wood, while many of the newer wagons are sided with metal. They range from a few meters in length to ten or twelve, with width averaging at about two meters (inside). They are insulated for winter weather and heated with woodstoves. Some people build towers or additions, and if you’re a creative builder, you’ll find that wagons are structures with a lot of room for innovative space savers and additions.
How many people live in each wagon? And what about shared spaces like kitchens and living rooms?
Usually each person has his or her own wagon, though occasionally you can find a couple sharing a wagon.
Communal space differs from wagenplatz to wagenplatz. At the wagenplatz where I previously lived, we had a large communal kitchen; a food wagon; two platz-built buildings: a pub/meeting room and a cinema (complete with old school red velvet theater seats that someone had thrown away), a library wagon, multiple guest wagons, and a meter-long telephone wagon.
At the wagonplatz where I currently live we have a 9-meter cinema wagon (imagine a big living room, with a table and games to play on it, couches, and a TV and VCR for watching the hundreds of films that line the walls), four communal kitchens, a guest wagon, and the house/venue/bar that another group consisting both of people who live on the wagenplatz and people from the region.
The variations depend on space, need, and wagon-availability.
How are decisions made?
Most wagenplätze meet regularly for what is called a plenum, which is a meeting to discuss current issues, solve problems, share news, and make decisions. At the beginning of the meeting a list of topics is made, and then each is discussed and decided on through consensus. Sometimes this means a ten-minute discussion, and sometimes it takes weeks, but everyone gets a chance to speak his or her mind, and nothing is final until a solution is found that everyone feels comfortable with.
What about electricity? Bathrooms? Internet?
This, again, differs from place to place, but I will use my previous residence again as an example here, as I think it is more typical of wagenplätze across Germany.
In Frankfurt we did not have grid electricity. Just about everyone had solar panels that ran 12-volt power to their stereos, computers, and lights. In the summer this meant an endless stream of electricity; in the winter it could mean a few hours of light before the juice dried up. I lived in a guest wagon without solar panels. At night I read by candlelight and used a headlamp to find my way around outside.
We also did not have running water. There was a parking garage next to our land where we jointly rented a small room with a faucet, two washing machines, and electric plugs for charging cell phones and computers and electric razors on the days when there wasn’t enough sun to make it on solar. Drinking water was carried from there in large canisters, or bought bottled from the grocery store.
As for bathing, everyone seemed to have their own ritual. Some took constant cat baths, others used solar shower bags (large black bags that you fill with water, lay in the sun to heat up, and then hang on a tree to shower under), and still others showered at the homes of friends. Quite a few had memberships at a cheap local gym so that they could shower indoors all year round.
Toilets were mostly homemade compost toilets, each lady for herself, though there was one compost toilet located next to the pub for communal use/visitors. I peed outside and got permission to use my neighbor’s compost toilet. Other friends walked across the street to the building supply store that had a bathroom near the entrance.
At my current residence we have it plush: grid electricity and running water in the house and in the toilet wagon (with urinals, two toilets, two sinks, and a washing machine). Showering we either do on the university campus or, in the summer, in one of several outside showers in which you can either fill a watering can with heated water or hook up the hose for an ice-cold, but running shower.
In both communities we had the internet.
What if I want to move to a wagenplatz? What should I do?
Since these are communities built on the common ground of the members, it is probably a good idea to start going to some events at your nearest wagenplatz and getting to know some people. It’s not necessary, but it helps.
Then you”ll need to go to a plenum and officially ask if you can become a guest or a Probewohner (trial resident). At this meeting you will be expected to introduce yourself to the group, explain why you are interested in moving in, and let them know what you are expecting–do you want to stay in the guest wagon for two months or do you want to get your own wagon with sites on becoming an official resident at the end of your trial period (every wagenplatz handles this differently). The group will probably then send you out of the room for a while to talk it over among themselves and let you know what they have decided.
Part two of this post can be found here.