A neighborhood is a place, but at the same time it is similar to a bodily organ. A neighborhood is like a brain, a place where feeling and ideas emerge, where connectivity happens inside of a context defined by life, by the perception of the city as “home”. What can we learn from the neighborhood? Can we redefine our relation to those anonymous people we see almost daily? To the streets we traverse every day? To the buildings, the shops, the architecture that forms our familiar universe?
The neighborhood is, for me, an aesthetic force and not only a “place”. A neighborhood expresses the possibility of a different way of understanding nearness, the regular encounter with others, the possibility of producing a radical new imagination of the urban and of those living in the city.
Chus Martinez asks: What consitutes a neighbourhood?
Ingo Niermann answers:
The more globalization progresses, the stronger its counter movement insists that people act local, buy local, recreate local and —most recently— date local. Instead of searching worldwide for your perfect match, social networking frameworks combined with GPS location enable you to meet people and become friends within a close physical proximity. The contingency of all possible possibilities keeps you in endless consideration. Only the comforts of a close proximity can break the spell of indecision.
An urban neighborhood doesn’t have to be anonymous. In emerging nations like China and India it’s striking that urban neighborhoods are more lively the poorer they are. Smalls flats, limited transportation and a lack of money to spend in bars and restaurants drive people onto the streets and into various encounters with their neighbors.
Private electronic media disintegrates the neighborhood and celebrates it at the same time—television among them. As telephoning, typing and even skyping are not very telegenic and make it less likely that your friends and the friends of your friends are the same, in many contemporary TV series, the protagonists stay most of the time in their neighborhood. The plot is brought forward by accidental encounters in flats, on floors, on streets or in local shops. Adventure and talent shows like The Real World, Big Brother, Survivors and Project Runway gain dynamics from shutting different characters who have never met before into a communal living space. Hip hop videos—probably most frantically consumed in sprawled middle class suburbia—are all about celebrating life on the street with your local buddies. The neighborhood has turned into a nostalgic fantasy.
The technologies of telecommunication and transportation that have been weakening the urban neighborhood can now be used to revive it. It’s just a matter of intelligence. Smart phones not only connect you with those who are away, but inform you as well about those who are near by and who might want to meet you or join you for a ride. Filming, editing and transmitting video has become so easy and cheap that you can develop TV programs for the smallest communities. The neighborhood isn’t experienced as a fate but as a variety of temporary opportunities.
Sometimes you might filter your neighborhood for aspects of sameness, sometimes of extreme difference. In both cases you become more intolerant to those who you have been sorting out. Too soon they might be the ones who you desire to interact with. The only thing you don’t want is a homogenized neighborhood, as in gated communities or communes. Being close for years and years, you and your friends, colleagues and partners inevitably adapt to each other. Global brands and trends make the whole world look similar. It’s only through intimate encounters with strangers that you can still experience delirious surprise. You don’t meet such strangers in the commodified zones of clubs, chatrooms or Lonely Planet but in the closest of proximities, without any effort.
The Situationist movement developed the dérive—a random and decontextualized stroll through the city. But it was still all about keeping a distance, of being a mere observer, a flâneur. Now it’s time to randomly engage in a more profound and daring way. The urban neighborhood is not just a surrounding, it’s a social practice that waits to be acknowledged with a new verb: to neighbor.