Neighborhood rethought

Life is bustling in the Big City - but there is also anonymity and isolation. Yet neighborhoods are also lived in metropolises. But not in all neighborhoods and not by all city dwellers in the same way. Sociologist Talja Blokland is conducting research in Berlin on what neighborhood means and what role it plays in the social network of its inhabitants.

An elderly man collapses on the sidewalk of a busy shopping street, passersby rush to help. A woman, apparently a doctor, spontaneously gets out of the cab and checks whether his life is in danger, while a shopkeeper carries a chair out onto the street and hands a glass of water so that the man can come to in peace. A big city scene that could happen anywhere. In fact, it happened in Berlin-Neukölln - a densely populated, traditional working-class district in southeastern Berlin, where today Neukölln residents of Turkish descent and other long-established residents meet hipsters from all over the world and recent immigrants from Syria and elsewhere. Probably the protagonists of this street scene will never meet again, never speak to each other. That is the anonymity of the big city. Nevertheless, in these moments a feeling of trust in the neighborhood and one's own neighbors has probably set in for those involved.

Meeting place in the neighborhood, Photo: Falk Weiß

How does neighborhood develop in the city?

For Talja Blokland, it is precisely such chance or fleeting encounters between people on the move in the city that forge the bonds from which a sense of belonging emerges. In the project "The world in my street - resources and networks of urban residents", she investigates how Berliners experience neighborhoods in different neighborhoods. "In everyday language, we talk about neighborhoods as if they are relationships that are fixed from the start. I'm interested in how the spatial environment of a neighborhood and the sense of belonging relate to each other. What kind of networks are formed and how important is geographical proximity?" asks the professor of urban and regional sociology.

Together with her team of social scientists and student assistants, she surveyed 572 randomly selected Berliners in four different neighborhoods; in a first round in 2018 in person, then in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, a second time online. The Berlin neighborhoods were selected to represent specific types of neighborhoods. To protect the identity of the respondents, the researcher chose fictitious names for them: Here, the well-kept "Dorsten Hights," which has always been middle-class: a stable middle-class neighborhood in the district of Steglitz-Zehlendorf; there, "Apolda Springs," also on the outskirts but in the eastern part of the city, in the district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, with rather low incomes. Unlike "Dorsten Heights," this neighborhood has undergone major changes since reunification, and the transformation continues, as it does in the inner-city neighborhood "Borkum Rock" in the district of Neukölln, to which migrants have been moving for many decades and which today attracts young people from Germany and abroad. Probably the most striking change has taken place in the central "Coswig Gardens" neighborhood in the Pankow district, which was located in the GDR before the fall of the Wall - it is almost unrecognizable to Berliners who lived there until the 1990s.

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Length of residence alone does not create a sense of belonging

How do the history and nature of these urban spaces relate to the residents' sense of belonging in the various neighborhoods? "Statistically, the longer people live in a neighborhood, the greater their sense of belonging," says Blokland. "But this correlation is quite different depending on the neighborhood."

The evaluation of the first survey also shows that the feeling of connectedness depends not only on how long someone has lived in the neighborhood, but also on how often residents visit stores and cafés in the neighborhood. In the socially relatively homogeneous and stable neighborhood of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, newcomers feel at home relatively quickly, and this attachment goes hand in hand with intensive use of the local infrastructure. This means that the new residents are also regular customers in the local stores. In "Coswig Gardens," which is also middle-class today, the situation is different: Here, the use of the neighborhood infrastructure has little influence on the sense of belonging, as does the length of residence. Even those who are new feel connected to the neighborhood. "It doesn't matter whether I've just come from Amsterdam, Rio, Munich or Prague. This type of neighborhood that has emerged here can be "read" by middle-class people from anywhere, Blokland says. This middle-class neighborhood is so gentrified, according to her analysis, that residents from anywhere can identify with it.

What makes a good neighborhood a good neighborhood? Photo: Falk Weiß

In the Neukölln neighborhood and in Marzahn-Hellersdorf, the constellations are quite different: Here, those who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time also tend to feel more connected to the neighborhood, but it is precisely the long-established residents who have experienced the changes of the last 25 to 30 years who do not feel a sense of belonging, as the evaluation of Blokland shows. "There aren't that many infrastructural anchor points here to link your identity to, and when they're there, they're very diverse: the kebab store and the Aleppo bakery next to the Berlin corner pub and the hipster cafe."

"There can't be the one model of neighborhood that works everywhere"

The results make two things clear. First, they confirm the urban sociologist's thesis that neighborly ties are not established simply because people live in the neighborhood with the same zip code. Even though in sociology neighborhoods have long been described in the same way: the longer I live in a neighborhood, the stronger the bonds. On the other hand, the initial research results show that whether a neighborhood functions well, whether people feel they belong and stick together, is strongly linked to the history of these neighborhoods. "So there can't be one model of neighborhood that works everywhere," Talja Blokland points out. This was particularly evident during the second survey, shortly after the start of the first Corona-related lockdown in spring 2020 , when schools, sports fields and cafés were closed from one day to the next and playgrounds were closed.

Neighborhood means belonging, Photo: Falk Weiß

As in the first round of interviews, residents the four city neighborhoods were asked what the biggest challenge had been for them in recent months and who they had talked to about it. "In terms of responses, we saw a shift. In 2018, seven percent responded: 'I don't have anyone to talk to about my problems.' In May 2020, that number more than doubled to 19 percent."How can this increase be explained; for which residents was the network that otherwise supported them broken down?

Lockdown in the Big City: Social networks suffer

To answer this question, the social researchers combined data on the housing available to residents of the different neighborhoods with their statements on the use of infrastructure such as playgrounds or cafés before the Corona-related closures. "We saw that people with small apartments had certain strategies. For example, families with children under 14 were more likely to use playgrounds than people with more space. And people also went to the coffee shop or the ball field more often," Blokland reports. These public spaces, he says, have been the places where many people go for social support because they meet people to talk to about their difficulties in these more casual and incidental encounters. During the Corona Shutdown, they were no longer available, everyday exchanges were absent, and there were big holes in these people's social networks.

The two doctoral students in Talja Blokland's research team are also interested in the transformation of neighborhoods and what they mean for city dwellers. While Daniela Krüger is investigating the changes in emergency services and hospitals, her colleague Robert Vief is looking into the extent to which Berlin elementary schools are places of integration when the social fabric of the neighborhood changes. The researchers' sociologically precise and unbiased view of the city and its inhabitants can help make the big city a safe and livable place for everyone - not only in times of pandemic.

Rescue services know their neighborhoods well, Photo: Falk Weiß

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