Cansu Pelin İşbilen (*)
On the Neighborhood
When I start writing about a topic, I like to look up the dictionary meanings and brief histories of the related words and terms. However, when I looked up the meaning of the word ‘neighborhood’ in the dictionary, (1) the definitions I came across that explain it as ‘each divided portion of a city, town, or relatively large village’ and ‘all people that live in these portions’ seemed to be inadequate. So, I had an urge to look up the history of the word: The common information in the various sources I came across was that the emergence of neighborhoods had to do with family ties and religious rituals. In fact, the word ‘mahalle’ means ‘to settle, to invade’ in Arabic (mahalla), from where it has passed over to our language. (2) During the Ottoman Empire, ‘neighborhood’ was described as the smallest administrative unit formed based on ethnic and religious differences, and the Muslim neighborhoods were governed by imams while the non-Muslim ones were governed by priests. Each neighborhood would have spaces that served various purposes such as places of worship, schools, and coffeehouses. In light of this, I think it wouldn’t be wrong to claim that the ‘neighborhood’ goes beyond a word that signifies a place or an address and actually points towards a culture.
Currently, Municipal Law Article 5393 (3) defines a neighborhood as an administrative unit under municipal service boundaries that displays similar needs and priorities and has dwellers that have a relationship of being neighbors. Neighborhood as a term for the smallest social structure where close neighbor relationships can be formed continues to exist as the most communal structure known to city dwellers which contains private and public spaces within itself. The relationship between the occurrences in a neighborhood and its dwellers creates a dynamic interaction. The continuity of this dynamic interaction through time enables the formation of belonging in people and identity in the neighborhood. According to Edward Relph, the constituents that form the identity of a place are the physical environment, activities, and the feelings of the people that experience that place. (4) In light of this information, I will try to make sense of the ‘neighborhood’ based on my own neighborhood.
When I first moved to Izmir, I had a life that was semipermeable and disconnected from the outside. A while later, due to basic needs such as eating, drinking, or plumbing, I started discovering the environment I was living in and forming relationships with my neighbors through small encounters. Once, I was locked out of my house while both the stove and the oven were on. The couple who run a shop in my neighbourhood and my neighbors helped me then. Another day, someone called out to me while I was in the kitchen; it was my cat-loving neighbor who recently moved to the adjacent building and she was concerned that my cats might fall off the balcony rails. A couple of months after this, a close friend of mine who lived nearby invited me to a cafe in our neighborhood. I felt sad that I’d never gone there before. All these small encounters would turn into newly formed bonds in other moments of my life without me noticing it.
When the year 2020 came along, life had such a fast-pace that I found myself in a state of guilt for not being able to ‘do anything’ due to the restrictions brought on by the pandemic. One day, with the inspiration of the interview my close friends and founders of Nomad Mind did with Sarp Sözdinler in a podcast (5) series, I decided to do something I’d put off for a long time: I created a whatsApp group by knocking on every door in my apartment building. We started communicating to keep in touch, share our problems, and discuss the needs of our apartment.
It was the cafe I’d discovered months ago through my friend in the neighborhood, where I met the artists for the Balconnection (6) project I took part in, based on the idea of exhibiting artworks on balconies to connect them to daily life. When an artist’s work was to be exhibited on our balcony for this project, it was the first time we had an artistic interaction with our neighbors; and not only did they make encouraging comments, but we also celebrated our mini-opening together on the street and discussed the exhibited artwork with some of them. While the exhibition was going on, our cat-lover neighbor and the neighbor from across the building whom I’d just met opened their doors for us to take photos of the exhibit on our balcony from theirs. Through this occasion, I had the chance to have a long conversation with our neighbor from the building across, and learned that they were going to have to move soon because their building was going to be torn down as part of urban transformation. A few weeks later, I had to go into home quarantine when I was notified by my office. Our mukhtar visited me daily to make sure I was staying home. A lot of people might find this controlling and oppressive, but to be honest, it felt good during that difficult period. Because our mukhtar is a joyous woman. Just as the quarantine was over, we experienced an earthquake, which was terrifying. After the earthquake, our street was crowded as it had never been before. We discussed with our neighbors whether or not we would be staying home. A short while later, they emptied the second apartment building from ours because it was confirmed as heavily damaged. The street was closed off. We went through difficult days where we were stuck between staying at home or going outside.
It was in the middle of all these things, during one of the days I was stuck motionless trying to write this piece and thinking about my experiences in this neighborhood as a communal place bringing together the private and public space, that our upstairs neighbor came along with a handful of lemons that she’d picked from our building’s garden. They say lemons are associated with creativity. So, looking at my neighborhood and my neighbors, I decided to make a dessert out of those lemons and make an invitation to transform my relationship with my neighbors into a creative process. We are going into a communicative process which we will make visible in public space. Our aim is to take what happens between two buildings out onto the street and to the neighborhood. Because it seems that each one of us has a role to play in forming the identity of the place we live in. For this, we can take action from the neighborhood, the place where we can create the most positive effect. (7)
(4) ‘Place and Placelessness’, Edward Relph, Pion Limited, Londra, 1976
(7) ‘Müştereklerimiz, Paylaştığımız Her Şey’, Jay Walljasper, s.140, Metis Yayınları, İstanbul, 2014
(*) Architect, artist, cultural manager