Ben Lee is the Director of the National Association of Neighbourhood Management and participated in the SmartUrbI Transnational Lab in Lisbon. With this second blog he reflects on his Portuguese experiences.
We think a place as having a distinct character, but in modern urban settings singular places can have multiple characters. Not just that but those multiple characters exist both in the present, the past and in memories.
For example the modern neatly-built neighbourhood of Vale de Chelas in Lisbon is often characterised as the place built over one of Lisbon’s last illegal shantytowns. The shanty town stood until
2001 and was known as Curraleira. Although a name can be physically erased from street signs, memories are more resilient.
For those who did live in the old Curraleira, today’s reality is melded
with their memories of shantytown life (both accurate or imagined). A pop-art mural entitled “Don’t hear, don’t see, don’t talk” tries to explain how community bonds here are coupled with feelings of being unseen, and wanting to be unseen.
The oldest residents here also remember the rural life they left behind to come to Lisbon. For many others today, the reputation of this place is dominated by an image of poverty and illegality. Lisbon’s police buy into this image fully; for them the neighbourhood is a nest of troublemakers and somewhere they only go when in riot vans to pick up suspects, or on reconnaissance in unmarked cars.
But there are many clashing realities here. Walking around you start to notice many different versions of this one ‘place’; young guys posing next to gleaming BMW i8 supercars; a tiny elderly woman almost always at her window watching life go by; young heroin users rarely seen in daylight, but whose confetti of needle and condom wrappers lies strewn around a memorial to the child who died in a fire in the old shantytown; old men who out of necessity or habit light evening braziers as the temperature drop; neatly uniformed children in the playground of a local primary school; an old but neatly kept couple unloading groceries from their old neatly kept Mercedes; the last farmer and his family whose geese, sheep and hens wander around the corrugated iron gates of their farmyard.
This is the urban context. The social landscape is a kaleidoscope which changes rapidly as pressures on housing and household finances create different winners and losers who constantly come and go.