A town house is a peace treaty between urban congestion and suburban sprawl. It is the American dream on a diet, the bonsai of the ramblers and ranches. For the middle-class person feeling the economic pinch, a town house community is a way of huddling together for energy efficiency and shared maintenance.
Sidney Manning never liked the split ranch where she lived with her husband and two children. "I had no interest in all that space," she says. "It involved too much cleaning and maintenance and yard work."
So when she was divorced three years ago, she bought a town house a couple of miles away. "This place is ideal for me," says Manning, 38, a psychologist. "It has the feel of a house without the furnishing and maintenance hassles. There is plenty of room for what I want to do." When her children leave, she'd like to move into a smaller town house.
Manning's house is in a close-knit suburban community, but she is not part of it. "I am not a neighborly person," she says. "I don't want people knocking on my door." But she praises the neighborhood association for projects such as reviewing every house for energy efficiency.
She enjoys being able to walk to a shopping center. "I have a feeling of security," she says. "People are less likely to spot a town house as deserted."
What troubled Juanda Green, 33, about living in an apartment was the constant change in neighbors. "I never knew who my daughter played with," she says. "When I was growing up, in a single-family home, I made lifelong friends. My daughter, who is now 13, kept losing friends because they moved across town."
In her search for more stability, Green rejected condominiums because they "offered no escalation in lifestyle." But she instantly fell in love with the two-bedroom town house in Kettering in Prince George's County. "If I can't afford a single-family dwelling," she says, " this town house environment comes as close as I can get to it."
It takes her one hour to commute to downtown Washington, where she works as a contracting officer at the General Services Administration. "I am a suburbanite," she says. "I love my little back yard. The community is quiet and people have the same values. They are concerned with kids. As a single parent, it is important for me to know who my daughter's friends are."
We often feel we are living in an other country,"
says Arthur Wolff, standing in front of his living room window and pointing at a densely linear urban vista of town houses and high-rises, drawn against a tangle of gently sloping hillsides.
Wolff, a retired professor of public health, and his wife Ruth were accustomed to living in spacious suburban homes, complete with gardens and garages. Two years ago, with their three children gone, they began to look for a smaller place without a long commute. They quickly realized that they were not ready for a condominium. They needed space for hobbies such as mobile construction, and they had to have a patio with a few token irises.
"This is a fine compromise," Wolff says, showing a visitor around his three-bedroom town house in Northwest Washington. "We love the location. We are 10 minutes from the Kennedy Center. We can use public transportation, and we walk to the bank and the drugstore.
"Our children live in big houses. But they are proud of us and our lifestyle. Such with-it parents, they say."
When I think of my home, I don't just think of my house," says Jane Silberberg, "I think of my whole neighborhood. What our folks consider their home is their house. I consider my neighborhood as my home, and the city as my neighborhood. An attached house has a fluidity that transcends the front door."
For the past two years, Silberberg, 33, has been living in a Northwest Washington town house complex with her husband, a lawyer. They have two small children and 2,200 square feet of living space. "If I scream at my kids, my neigbors reprimand me," she says. "It's like a commune. But we like it."
They were both raised in large, rambling detached homes in New England.
"Our folks call our town house an apartment," Silberberg says. "It suggests to them the housing where our immigrant grandparents lived."
If they had more money, the Silberbergs say, they will move closer downtown, and it will be a town house again.