Making a clean sweep in Stoneybatter

Keeping your street clean was once law in Germany; the neighourhood spirit lives on

The tradition of keeping your patch of pathway clear and orderly remains very much part of modern day  Kehrwoche duties today.

The tradition of keeping your patch of pathway clear and orderly remains very much part of modern day Kehrwoche duties today.

 

Looking at the recent RTÉ documentary about life on Oxmantown Road (Our Lives in Property: Oxmantown Road, RTÉ 1, Monday, September 3rd), I was struck by one of the observations made by contributor Joe Melligan: “the new people don’t wash their step, the old people do”. Immediately the word “Kehrwoche” sprang to mind.

Kehrwoche for those of you not up to speed on your German cultural references, loosely translates as “sweep week” and is a German tradition of keeping the common areas of shared living spaces, including the path and steps outside, clean. It has its origins in Schwäbia (the Black Forest region of Germany, home, among other things, to Mercedes Benz) dating back to the 15th century when the local ruling Earl of Stuttgart decreed that citizens should “remove dirt from their own street every 14 days – and those without a toilet must bring their waste to a stream although only at night”.

In 1741 the practice of keeping streets and living environs cleaner was written into law by Duke Eberhard Ludwig von Württemberg (a kind of mayor of Stuttgart) who basically declared that if the citizens themselves didn’t do it, no one else would.

And, as anyone visiting the pristine hamlets of the Black Forest region today will know, it certainly caught on and continues today. Kehrwoche is the reason streets are magically cleared of leaves in the autumn and snow in the winter. Why windows, front steps and railings are shining all before you’ve even managed to have your first cup of coffee.

Although no one is legally obliged to keep public roads in front of their home clean any more (the law was abolished in 1988), the tradition of keeping your patch of pathway clear and orderly remains very much part of modern day schwäbische Kehrwoche duties today.

Clause

In this part of Germany it is not uncommon to have a Kehrwoche clause written into a lease agreement of a communal dwelling which makes tenants contractually obliged to take responsibility for keeping common areas clean. Tasks are divided into big and small duties. The list includes, but is not limited to: sweeping leaves (including bagging and binning); clearing snow (twice a day depending on the snowfall); mowing grass; cleaning all external steps and railings and sweeping the path out front. Smaller Kehrwoche jobs tend to be sweeping of internal corridors and steps, watering plants, putting out the communal bin. Saturday is usually the designated Kehrwoche day or, in some cases, duties may be carried out over the course of a week.

Will washing your door step be consigned to the history book of old-fashioned chores that nobody save older generations and German housewives wants to do any more? Photograph: Getty Images
Will washing your door step be consigned to the history book of old-fashioned chores that nobody save older generations and German housewives wants to do any more? Photograph: Getty Images

Clearly for the average “Johnny Foreigner” who has stumbled over to Germany to work, this level of commitment to a rental property can come as quite a shock. What’s more, the duties are taken very seriously and enforced. Anyone trying to duck out will quickly be confronted and put right. Usually the first an un-informed foreigner will know of what they have unwittingly signed up to, is the appearance of a Kehrwoche sign pinned to their apartment door. There won’t be much else by way of illumination as to what this means which can and does lead to angry “mis-understandings”.

“You want me to scrub basically the street? Hmm.”

I suppose all nationalities are guilty of presuming that people from other countries have the same standards and values as they do. Just as Germans assume that other nationalities will be as fastidious about keeping order as they are, we assume that at some stage they’ll realise it’s not a free bar and that someone else is paying for all those rounds.

Services of a cleaner

The first time I came up against Kehrwoche, I was literally incredulous when I found out what was expected of me. Are they having a laugh I wondered. Scrub concrete steps? My request to engage the services of a cleaner was greeted with horror. I might as well have suggested we all sleep in until noon (a crime) and stop showering.

The Schwäbisch housewife prides herself on thrift as well as order. Shelling out to get someone else to do your dirty work shows just how slovenly you are. Which may explain why carrying out your own Kehrwoche duties, rather than engaging the services of a Hausmeister (caretaker), has survived as a tradition in this part of Germany.

Asked in a survey (carried out by the University of Speyer on citizens of Stuttgart) if and why they still engage with Kehrwoche, one-third of the respondents said they still do “because their neighbour still does”.

Which brings me back to Oxmantown Road. Clearly this road has a Kehrwoche spirit going on, judging by the freshly painted doors and immaculate windows. But if step-washing is on the way out, what does the future hold for other manual household jobs? Pavement sweeping, gutter clearing, leaf raking, even oven cleaning. Will they too be consigned to the history book of old-fashioned chores that nobody save older generations and German housewives wants to do any more?

Looking at the litter and tent strewn aftermath of Electric Picnic, I think it’s safe to say we’ve nothing to worry about. A future of shining steps and cleared pathways awaits. As long as someone else does it. Mandatory Kehrwoche anyone?

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