Challenging any and all of these theories with ambitious practice, the creative neighborhood network Polly & Bob has set up shop in the East-Berlin district of Friedrichshain to declare war on urban isolation. From running dinners to concerts on balconies around the district, they explore different concepts that encourage neighbors to meet, socialize, and help each other. To find out more, we asked the project’s founder and urban activist Volker to tell us more about his novel social project.

While “Polly & Bob” are the project’s figurehead neighbors, you pull the strings behind the scenes. Could you introduce yourself and tell us why you started this special neighborhood network?
Sure, my name is Volker. I am 40 years old, the founder of Polly & Bob, and I have studied business administration. While I hold a PhD in cultural sciences, I used to work as a business consultant for international management projects, always on the run and working around the clock – often in two or three different countries a week. So, one day I realized that “I am losing my life working for a pointless corporation in the wood processing industry” and quit the very next day. With Polly & Bob I found something that really makes sense. Our aim is to build a new kind of neighborhood; a place where people can belong – where they benefit each other by sharing and spending time together.

What makes your events so special? And how do you come up with all these wonderful ideas?
I don’t think I come up with them – they seem to come to me! Usually, I discuss them with my wife until they take a shape I like and then I try to realize them.

Did you ever encounter something unexpected? Care to share some adventurous tales?
Erm, I guess we are too new on the scene for crazy anecdotes. Although it was quite surprising – and actually a little bit scary – to see so many people on the streets for our singing balconies event.

Some of our events happen on a regular basis, like the language café to share language skills, a mother-child meet up to connect parents, the book swap tea, swing dance events, board game nights, knitting groups, a daily neighborhood tai chi class or our running dinners. And while there is a lot of fun – and funny – stuff going on, I can’t attend all of them. So, I probably miss a lot of it!

On April 26th, we are going to have a “singing living room” event, i. e. a day of gigs in Berlin living rooms, so I am hoping for some musical shake-ups and crazy apartment concerts causing a stir all over town.

While your slogan states “More together. More for each other. More offline,” your events rely on the internet for promotion and organization. What about this contradiction? And why is it so important to spend time offline with strangers?
It is a bit of a paradox. When we say, “less online, more offline,” we mean that we want to use the internet as a tool – and not vice versa. Digital communication tends to lack something; it is never full or, say, fulfilling. For that you need physical exchange. I love to say that “Polly & Bob is made for makers, not couch potatoes. For people who are open and want to change something.”

You are based in Berlin with a focus on the Friedrichshain neighborhood. Any plans to expand your scheme to other cities in Germany, Europe, or the rest of the world?
We want to make the world’s neighborhoods more trusting, sharing, and connected. Friedrichshain and Berlin are our starting points. At the same time, we want to spread the word to all of Germany this year – and later to the entire world.

Let’s move on to the relationship between humans and cities. In your opinion – which key factors will shape our urban existence in the future?
It is all about space. I like the way contemporary French philosopher Marc Augé distinguishes between “space” and “non-space.” Real space is a place where people can find a “we,” while in a non-space they simply pass each other and don’t feel part of a group or community. Our cities and countries used to be that space, but nowadays they are more and more becoming non-spaces. There is no connection anymore. We have become nomads. One of our goals is to reduce the prevalence of non-spaces, encouraging people to build new kinds of communities and places in a different kind of neighborhood that is less anonymous, more open, more collaborative, and more connected.

Sounds like paradise – what exactly defines such a perfect neighborhood, in your opinion?
A new neighborhood is a “space” in the sense I just explained. A perfect neighborhood is a place I connect to – a place I belong. Where I can be who I am, where I have real experiences, and where I get the full dose of human interactions. Such a neighborhood has a slower pace. Here, people focus on life, not on ways of earning money. It makes us fearless because we know that we live in an abandoned world. It is less competitive and even more creative since people are much happier and enjoy more scope to explore their full potential.

So, what can we do to become a perfect neighbor? Any tips for everyday living?
Sure. It is very simple: Open up and let go your fears. We tell people to take the time and enrich their lives. Personally, I believe in the magic of the moment that brings together the right people – we just have to open our eyes and stop blindly passing each other.

What creative events are you working on right now? What kind of surprises can your neighbors expect in the future?
We will hold our first worldwide Polly & Bob Neighborhood Day on May 18th. Anyone who takes part can add their own touches to the event. On May 24th, we celebrate the World Day of Neighbors with the first Berlin mass speed-dating event.

The next highlight would be the Berlin Town Soccer World Cup where we stage a world cup with 32 teams from 32 nations – all players are people who live in Berlin. After each game, we will watch the real World Cup match together.

Then there are the long nights of backyard flea markets to highlight our ambitions for a shared economy.

What else? We want to publish a Monopoly-style Polly & Bob board game with upside-down rules. The player who gives the most wins: If somebody stops on your street, you have the opportunity to invite them for dinner or lend them your car.

Thank you so much for your time and your commitment to a peaceful, harmonic, and fun urban live.
May it come true!

Interview: Frank R. Schröder
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