‘You live in a community now’

you live in a community now

(part 1 here) Despite the early warnings of my new neighbours, I was never victim or witness of any crime in my neighbourhood. Living in an urban neighbourhood certainly was different from living in the white, middle-class neighbourhood in the village that I had just left behind.

Soon after I had moved in, the housing association decided to close off the entrance of the flat. The smell in the hallway was unbearable because some people made a habit of urinating there. It got better, although unfortunately the smell also came from the waste system which was outdated. The building was cleaned every week, but it didn’t help much (the smell of cleaning solution combined with dirt, urine, smoke is not pleasant either). But at least I got the impression that the housing association tried to take care of the building. In fact, the building manager once rang my door and told me it was my responsibility to clean the front façade of my apartment, and that he would check in a couple of weeks whether I had done so (yes, it was rather dusty – oops).

However, at other instances I was baffled when the housing association did nothing to repair things. I had already learned that the previous resident of my apartment was not a popular guy, perhaps that explained why someone had painted the word ‘homo’ (short for homosexual) on the door. All other doors were clean. Yet, when I described this to the housing association and asked them to repaint, they said: ‘It is not our task to beautify the appearance of the building’. As if I had asked them to paint a Van Gogh on my door.

I also asked the housing association what they could do about the smell of cigarette smoke that flowed from my neighbours downstairs into my living room. The building manager came by and assured me it was impossible for the smoke to come through the ceiling. He vaguely asked whether I was still in school or working (I had just started my PhD research) and then said: ‘You live in a community now. Lots of people live on top of each other, that is how it is’. He probably thought I was a spoiled girl who just moved from a clean, quiet and protected environment. He was right in that respect.

I never complained about anything again. Not because I was discouraged, but because there was very little to complain about. It was annoyance rather than disorder that I experienced. I got used to thin walls and funny smells. In addition, as my research progressed, I also grew uncomfortable with the idea that I could complain in order to ‘improve’ my neighbourhood. An important motive for urban renewal and mixed-income neighbourhoods is the expectation that higher-income residents take better care of their environments and take more responsibility for social control, for example through getting in touch with local authorities about disorder.

The practical and economic reasons for moving into my neighbourhood were gradually replaced by more ideological motives: I did not want to self-segregate from people with less income and education, and I wanted to understand what living in such a neighbourhood actually means. I don’t pretend to understand what it is like to live in social housing, as I had the privilege of choosing to live there. I could always leave (and I know I would). I’m not sure whether I can really experience what it is like for privileged residents to live in such a neighbourhood. Being an urban sociologist, studying social mixing and segregation, and reading critical studies on mixed-income policies and gentrification, I started questioning my own position. I did not want to be part of a ‘revanchist’ movement and impose whatever I thought was ‘normal behaviour’ on others. As I became aware of the critiques to social mixing and gentrification, and as urban renewal had taken off in my own neighbourhood, I became worried: was I a gentrifier? (to be continued)

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