Friday, 16 March 2012

The golden age of neighbouring is now Monocle 24 had a feature about urban neighbours last week. It included an interview with Lucy Musgrave talking about the public realm – so refreshing to hear someone just use that term these days, in the public realm, let alone speak about it with such refreshing assurance. There was also a lengthy piece about the garage sale trail, a booming initiative that sees social benefits (including informal local trade as well as environmental advantages) from the systematising of local markets based around household surplus. And there was an interview with Emily Cockayne about the history of neighbours, heralding her forthcoming book, Cheek by jowl. I’m fortunate to have a review copy on the desk beside me, and will be offering some comments here in due course. For now, a few thoughts prompted by Emily’s remarks. She put particular emphasis on the way that relationships between neighbours had changed by midway through the twentieth century, with opportunities for less and less contact, which changed expectations. Urban neighbours in previous ages often struggled for the segregation of living space, so the history of neighbouring depends heavily on a consideration of the architectural and design constraints. My take on that is that the notion privacy had to be invented and may not be a given feature of human social relations. (Why isn't there ever an anthropologist here when I need one?) By 1950, says Emily, if you were a good neighbour it meant you kept yourself to yourself. The point – well-made already in much of the literature but here with a wider historical perspective than, say, scholars like Barry Wellman have adopted – is that since then a shrinking proportion of our friends are now neighbours. But where does the assumption come from that all or some or any neighbours should be friends? In early modern England, people moved around a lot more than is sometimes assumed, so I’m not too sure about the assumption that one might have known few others beyond the locality, and therefore if you had friends, they’d be neighbours. Allies, certainly, you probably needed as many as you could accumulate within hearing distance. Are we faced with historically fluid meanings of ‘friend’ I wonder? Anyway, contemporary neighbouring to me seems clearer if we accept the distinction between friendship and friendliness (a chance to declare indebtedness to Philip Abrams). Asked by the interviewer if she favoured any particular age for neighbouring, Emily replied ‘It’s now!’ The golden age of neighbouring is now she says, because we can choose the degree of relationship we want to have. Tell that to the Daily Moan. I’ve long been curious about the comparison of our age with the late medieval and early modern periods, and I crammed some of that fascination into my reflections about changing attitudes to ‘community’ in Picnic last year. So since I started reading Cheek by jowl I’m finding Emily’s range of sources stimulating, and her highly-readable style is a delight. More soon.
The curious phenomenon of littering by waste bins Does it seem odd to you that some fellow-citizens are sufficiently conscientious about their recyclable waste to take it all off to the neighbourhood recycling containers; but then they just dump it on the pavement? There was an example recorded in some detail over on the Kings Cross site recently (thanks Will): ‘Once in the morning I caught one man who also had just dumped his waste in spite of an empty container, and when I showed him that the container was in fact empty, he shrug his shoulders and walked apologetically off (leaving his waste though put). On this and on other occasions I have just taken other people’s rubbish and put it inside the container. It seems a task impossible to some.’ This contrasts nicely with a similar case that I reported in chapter 4 of Respect in the neighbourhood a few years ago, thanks to a picture sent to me by my Belgian friend Jan Steyaert. It shows a standard bottle-recycling facility in Antwerp, with the ubiquitous blue plastic bag on the ground alongside. At the front of the container someone has placed a board with a message painted on it, which reads in Dutch ‘vetzak verboden te storten.’ The English translation is: ‘Don’t leave litter you slimebag.’ (Subsequently I have thought that a better translation would be ‘you fat slob’). The language chosen by our Kings Cross correspondent is quite different. His note read ‘please insert the waste into the container out of neighbourly respect.’ In the book, considering alternative communication options for the person who painted the vetzak message on the board, at the end of a short list I added: ‘In a connected, networked neighbourhood, a comment posted online might have broadened awareness of the problem and produced a collective response.’ I suspect there may be other examples beyond Kings Cross and I’d be pleased to be told about them. So this phenomenon of almost but not quite properly disposing of litter, what’s it about? Perhaps if you’re carrying stuff in the other hand, you might not easily be able to open the container. Perhaps you dread the stench on opening; or you don’t want to risk getting dirty hands from touching the handle or lid, if you’re off somewhere posh. Maybe you're confused about the separation of different kinds of waste so you'd rather it stays hidden in a single bag. Or you can't quite bring yourself to conform completely. Or you might think it’s easier for the operatives, as I believe they are called, to pick your stuff up from the floor rather than use the technology designed for the purpose. I’m struggling to think of any convincing explanations here. Ok let’s suppose that some people are less comfortably acquainted with the idea of a public realm and public norms of behaviour, than others are. They have a relatively low level of Public Realm Awareness (PRA) – not close to zero, like the dickhead financier I mentioned recently, but low enough to...

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