Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Neighbourliness, street parties, and apartments With street parties taking place around the country today, there will be plenty of fodder for those who fancy the contemporary political line on local community: this rhetoric continues a long tradition calling for local social relations to be close and supportive in the way that friendships are, echoing chocolate box close-knit neighbourhoods of the interpreted past. And indeed, I've no doubt that many new connections will be made today, and many established relationships will develop from recognition to conviviality and perhaps to friendship. Of course I don't have any problem with that, but I do wonder about the insistence that it is 'what we need' as a society, the implication that this need is self-evident, and the expectation that we should all be looking for mechanisms that help to bring it about. As I sat uncertain in my own neighbourhood get-together this afternoon, watching the conversations, I was thinking about the temporary sense of beleagueredness of the least clubbable. Those for whom this kind of nationally-decreed sociability is at best awkward may well resent the social forces that try to make them feel guilty. Also happening a lot during today's street parties, I'd guess, will be plenty of qualification of the assumption that we choose to live near people who are like us. You might wonder about this received wisdom if you have republican views and suddenly find out you've been living among flag-waving monarchists all these years. Or vice versa. Perhaps the point is that, to the extent that we are able to choose, we choose to live among people whose values and behaviour we can get along with, so long as we don't have to find out too much about them. That's why we don't tend to talk about politics with people we don't know very well. Certainly the popular political ideal of a country full of strongly-bonded, unified local communities that readily achieve consensus and exploit it for the nation's greater glory just seems plain daft. No amount of royal weddings or associated street parties is going to change that. Would the anthopologists tell us that living among people without knowing or wanting to know too much about them is normal? Normal for advanced urban societies? Or peculiarly British? Well, while you're thinking about that, here's Hugh Schofield offering the beeb's 'From our own correspondent' view on the code of neighbourliness in Parisian apartments (thanks to Paul Evans at Local democracy for pointing to this): 'I am certain that the fact French and other European societies are more socially-minded, both less free and less individualistic, is linked to the habits of apartment living.' I've come across this view before in architectural discussions about the potential for neighbourliness in tower block living, referring to mainland European cities to suggest cultural differences based on urban housing forms. But I'm not aware of any comparative studies. Schofield claims that: 'In apartments you get to know your neighbours much more intimately than perhaps they or you would like. So you...

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