The paradox of apartment dwelling

I have lived only once, for a period of eight months, in a large high-rise apartment building in a big city, and that was Philadelphia. What surprised me was that even though our apartment was at the end of a long corridor that had a large number of apartments, I never got to know a single one of my neighbors or even passed them in the hallway except near the very end when I encountered the person who lived just across the hall. He turned out to be a writer and we had a brief but interesting conversation in the hallway about the philosophy of science. I regretted getting to know him only just before we moved but there is something about apartment dwelling that seems to discourage getting to know one’s neighbors.

For example, where we live now consists of houses that are physically separated. And yet there are block parties and other events to encourage people on the street to get to know one another and we got to know many of our neighbors soon after we moved in. But there were no corresponding ‘corridor parties’ to similarly encourage people in my apartment building to socialize.

One reason is that when one lives in a house, one spends more time outdoors in the yard and thus are more likely to see one’s neighbors. But there may other good reasons for this seeming paradox that the closer one is physically to one’s neighbors, the greater the social distance one maintains with them. Mark Frauenfelder links to a set of brief but funny videos made by Jackie Jennings about her interactions with her neighbors in an apartment building that suggests that this aloofness may not be altogether a bad thing.

Here’s just one of them.


  1. khms says

    Interestingly enough, while I’ve often heard that thesis, my own experience is the exact opposite. The only time I had significant contact with neighbors was in what’s considered a high-rise here in Germany (in this case, I think it was five stories, ours was the top). My explanation was that one cannot avoid meeting the neighbors in the elevator, the way on can when they have their own street entrance.

    Then again, I think I never thought of myself as typical.

    Of course, there’s also the fact that that particular building was pretty much the universities’ place to put their employees if they had families (in exchange for the owners getting federal subsidies for building), so it wasn’t all that surprising to find out the wife in the family below us (from Hungary, I think; at that time, the cold war was still going) worked for the uni computing center and gave FORTRAN lectures, which meant that when I wanted to work for the same place as a student, I got to take her between-semesters FORTRAN course … and again the next one, this time helping with the course and the grading. And that was it for my involvement with FORTRAN, my usual job with the computing center was with TeX and similar stuff, and PL/I. In any case, not helping anyone with courses.

    Especially, no student that insisted outputting the result should be possible before calculating it, even if the book and the lecturer and I and the compiler all said differently.

  2. Mano Singham says


    I think there is a difference if the building residents share something in common, in your case working for the same employer. The building I was in was one in which anyone could rent and there was no expectation that you had anything in common with anyone else.

  3. mudskipper says

    I suspect that a lot of people, including apartment dwellers themselves, view apartment dwellers as transients. You are not going to spend a lot of time building community with people who aren’t going to be sticking around and don’t have an ongoing stake in your community.

  4. Chiroptera says

    Of the apartment buildings in which I’ve lived, I have fonder memories of the ones that, instead of hallways on the insides of the buildings, the doors into the individual units are onto outside walkways. Like you, I rarely came into contact with my neighbors in interior-hallway apartments, but actual got to know my neighbors when all of our apartments opened into the outside.

  5. lorn says

    An interesting book on many aspects of what you experienced is:

    It is presented as an answer to crime by altering architecture but it covers far more than just crime. It points out that architecture, usually considered a passive and minor influence on human behavior has a profound effect upon feelings of community, social isolation, suicide. That buildings having similar population densities and SE status can have radically different crime and suicide rates.

    There is discussion of how unoccupied, unowned and unobserved space combine to make people nervous and contribute to social isolation. The double-loaded corridor model, with apartments strung along both sides of a corridor with exits at both ends, is one of the worse offenders but also one of the most common arrangements because it is cheaper to build that way and easy to comply with life-safety codes with that configuration.

    I came across the book by chance at a time when I lived in three different apartment buildings with radically different designs in the space of a single year. I had noted how I always felt anxious in the building with long double-loaded corridors that nobody had ownership of but comfortable and friendly in a building with clusters of small numbers of apartments sharing an entrance. Reading the book I had an explanation for what had been a feeling.

  6. khms says

    #2 Mano Singham


    I think there is a difference if the building residents share something in common, in your case working for the same employer. The building I was in was one in which anyone could rent and there was no expectation that you had anything in common with anyone else.

    Originally, it were my parents who had something in common -- my father was a prof for education (which hasn’t all that much in common with working for the computing center (especially with about 7000 uni employees excluding the clinic which has about the same number again, and something on the order of 50,000 students), nor were we from Hungary). And we got that top floor (actually, both top floor apartments) because our family had four children (about twice the average -- what’s called a “children-rich family” over here -- three of them adopted[*]). At that time, I still was in high school.

    [*] Don’t ask me why. Both parents grew up as one of two siblings -- my father had three more half-siblings, but they were already grown -- but they wanted four, so when after the first (that’s me) my mother got some reproductive complications, they adopted the rest, all of them hard-to-find-new-parents-for children from one German, one non-German parent. Eldest to youngest: half-Turkish (sister), half-Sudanese, and half-Korean (brothers).

  7. says

    Speaking only from my own experience, apartment living is about taking what’s available, house living means people are more choosy, and that includes prospective neighbors.

    The difference between house versus apartment living is a little bit like the difference between living in your own country (born or naturalized) or a foreign country. One you see as (hopefully) permanent, the other you see as a situation you cut your losses and get out of if worst comes to worst.

    I make that comparison as someone who has lived outside of my birth country for 14 years. I suspect Mano Singham can relate.

  8. aashiq says

    When I was in college and lived in a dorm, we were constantly talking in the corridor and in each others’ rooms. I think the reason was that we learned from each other, and had a shared purpose.

    The only other time I’ve lived in an apartment neighbors have ignored each other, just as Mano described. I think one reason also is that it is difficult to complain if you know someone, and because apartments are ultimately shared space (smells, sounds, etc) you want to reserve the right to dispute should the need arise.

  9. Katydid says

    I knew far too much about my neighbors when I lived in various apartments. For example, I knew which neighbor had a multipicity of girlfriends, all of them the scream-during-sex kind (and some the scream-in-the-hallway-for-hours-when-they-discovered-the-other-girlfriend kind). I knew which neighbor liked to watch tv at 300 decibels all day and all night. I knew which neighbors had kids that they let run up and down the hallway at all hours, shrieking and wailing like banshees. I knew which neighbor kept a motorcycle that he revved for a half-hour at a time in the pre-dawn hours, right under my bedroom window. I knew which neighbors had multiple non-running cars that they took over the shared parking with. I could pick out the party-and-drug apartments with my eyes closed because the music and the foot traffic never stopped.

    It was a thrilling day for me when I bought a free-standing home and didn’t have to deal with the constant noise.

  10. anat says

    mudskipper, in places that are not the US most people live their entire lives in apartments. In Israel most apartments are owned by the people living in them. Though the apartments I was mostly familiar with were in buildings of up to 4 floors (the highest one can legally build without being required to install elevators) and typically had 4 apartments per floor. We did interact with our neighbors regularly.

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