Was just re-reading my old article on the history of neighbourhoods in England for the Young Foundation's inaugural Porcupines in Winter collection.
In brief: tradition and institutions matter; openness and collective action matter even more.
Here are a few highlights --
Neighbourhoods have a lot to do with the ideal of organic community, but they should never be confused. Neighbourhood means something at once less nostalgic and more practical: living together in a particular place…
When change inevitably struck, Bethnal Green could not shape it, any more than the un-enfranchised English could prevent the eighteenth-century enclosure of the commons. The community was disassembled by slum clearances, people scattered into estates and high-rises without consideration for social ties. Mid-century Bethnal Green was acutely vulnerable. Lacking architectures for common purpose and action, it couldn’t organise to survive.
In this age of ‘BBC Neighbours from Hell’, we may feel we’ve lost the neighbourhood of the past. But we can’t just resurrect it. We have to find new seeds for neighbouring…
We can learn from our history. ‘Natural’ identity is a potent brew, in particular when organic community starts to fragment. By nature it shuts people out. But it is not the only starting point for togetherness in neighbourhoods.
Instead we can begin from the living realities. We can explore neighbourhood’s social patterns, the common threats and opportunities, the spaces where conflicts flare and accommodations are reached. Understanding and building on the common ways a neighbourhood shapes residents’ lives can provide practical grounds for coming together to transform it…
“Love thy neighbour as thyself” is followed in Leviticus by a less-remembered challenge, “love the stranger as thyself”. Are they so different today?
Revisiting Georg Simmel’s description of the stranger, I am struck by its relevance to contemporary neighbouring. Simmel finds the stranger not outside but within the local group. At once near and far, he is a “potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going.”
The vital foundations of neighbourhood in today’s Britain are proximity and commonality. A more open kind of neighbourliness between people who begin as strangers can be hard – in particular should unfamiliar sights, smells and noise assail the senses. But it is starting to look increasingly relevant and viable. It involves recognising that alongside the friction of immediate proximity, we share with our neighbours something absolute and human and something locally common. (Often also something small and surprising: a love of geraniums, a TV soap, high blood pressure.)
When the possibilities of commonness stretch to the horizon, the emerging human way of coping is to identify and affirm a handful of those possibilities. The choice of neighbouring proves both appealing and practical.
About two-thirds of us say we feel a real sense of belonging to our neighbourhood, meaning also that we owe something of ourselves to it. A similar majority say they want to participate in making their locality better.
Community can be built afresh, as this testimony about Telegraph Hill indicates: “I love it here. I had a rootless childhood, and I love the very strong sense of community that the children have. It’s like a village in the centre of London, it has that kind of support system.” (I live there now. It's true.)
Almost forty years ago, researchers described Sparkbrook in Birmingham as a twilight zone. But in Balsall Heath (one of its ethnically diverse neighbourhoods and for long a prostitution hotspot), campaigning, mutual aid and governance have built common norms and institutions over two decades. Through neighbourhood wardens, community gardening, volunteer street-cleaning and reopening the front desk of the local ’nick’, people are starting to take responsibility for their proximity. (I saw it for myself. Extraordinary.)
As we start to explore our interconnectedness, a kind of "individual solidarity" may be emerging - a far side of individualism, with real strengths in comparison with the past. "You asking me what I think of Bethnal Green is like asking a countryman what he thinks of the country... I suppose when you've always lived here you like it," said one Family and Kinship interviewee.
Today we may be less rooted in our neighbourhoods; but like Simmel’s stranger, we are more inclined to query. Residents praised the Walsall neighbourhood offices because they “started people asking questions”.
Rather than organic communities tied together in a ‘small corporate life’, we can aspire toward welcoming neighbourhoods home to a kaleidoscope of individuals and groups, each with the opportunity to come together and shape what they share for the better.
In neighbourhood two exciting possibilities are writ small: peaceful co-existence, and systems of public authority that are genuinely public, meaning swift and effective response to the hopes and interests of society. We find ourselves on the first rung of a long ladder. Recognising what they have in common, neighbourhoods can live together in a neighbourly fashion. Nations live in neighbourhoods too, from border conflicts to cooperating regions.
Ideals of welcoming, mutual aid, respect and shared stewardship all have purchase on the global stage. But we can start by just sorting out the muddy local common.