Neighbourhood is personal. Rather than a suburb, defined in terms of its distance from an urban centre, neigh (Old English for ‘near’) emphasizes spatial proximity and closeness. And unlike a ward – a means of government that can belong to politicians, demographers or urban planners – a neighbourhood is a geographical space loaded with individual meanings. It is, in other words, socially produced. It is, in the context of immigration and settlement dynamics, also the site of an ongoing everyday negotiation of difference, with us-them distinctions increasingly blurred by diverse stories of immigration and settlement. Accordingly, the neighbourhood doubles as a site of lived diversity and a lens that provides insights into how individuals and groups actually live that diversity.
My neighbourhood, as a researcher and an immigrant, is basically a road in inner Woking, a town 30 miles south west of London. Perhaps indicative of the declining numbers of ‘native’ residents, Woking Working Men’s Club, at the top of the road, has been closed for a number of years, and the Indian-run Polski sklep (Polish food shop) across the road is now the only local outlet selling alcohol. Emblematic of the increasingly diverse nature, the barber shop further down the road advertises itself as ‘specialists in European, Afro Caribbean, Asian & Traditional hair cut’. When the local post office closed down years ago, an Islamic school opened, then a short-lived Brazilian shop, and the building is now divided into a Western Union outlet and a beauty parlour. In this manner, images of the changing street provide insights into how diversity is built into, and continuously transforms, the area. What was there before is unclear, and it is indicative of the area that the two longest-serving local shops are an Italian deli, opened in the 1970s when many Italian immigrants lived in the area, and a Pakistani supermarket, with a board commemorating ‘25 years of service to the community’.
But what is that community about? “We’ve lost the track,” said the woman living opposite us – she herself Swiss-born, but a resident for 30 years. She was pointing to the row of Victorian terraces where we live, recalling days when she could name everyone living in them. I could see her point. When our neighbours moved to France in 2007, they let the house: first an Australian couple moved in; then three house-sharing engineers, two Pakistanis and one Palestinian; two moved on, and the remaining Pakistani then shared with his Chinese wife who moved down from Glasgow; when they bought a house nearer London, a Polish couple moved in, he working in IT. They stayed a year, then moved to Abu Dhabi where she found work; this year, a black British couple from Enfield moved in – still working and attending church in London.
This turnover is, in part, in the nature of the neighbourhood, this being the cheap part of town and thus the point of arrival for newcomers – and increasingly so, with the number of households in private rented, and thus flexible, accommodation in this area doubling in the period 2001-11. It is a process we know as ‘churn’, though that is not a helpful term, as it distracts from the diverse nature of newcomers as well as, in this instance, the resourcefulness that allows them to move on. This is very much in contrast to the unskilled immigrants of the 1960s and 70s, who typically found a local job, moved the family, got a mortgage – altogether actions signalling long-term intent.
Untouched for years amongst all the comings and goings on the road is the glass-covered noticeboard at the roadside, holding messages from a now defunct community association – the notices undated, but faded. Community lost? Evidently, the fluidity and discontinuity characterising the area serves to question if there is anything solid in terms of lasting and inclusive associational bodies. The answer would be no, and it is indicative of the make-up of the neighbourhood that the most well-established organisations are the Pakistani and the Kashmiri welfare organisations, both dating back to the early 1970s. But the absence of neighbourhood-based organisations belies the more sporadic coming together around specific causes. So the local community centre, situated in a Victorian school building, came into existence after a campaign led by local minority groups. Italians, Spanish, Chinese, Pakistani, Moroccan groups established a community association for the purpose. No sooner was it up and running than the association was dissolved.
What constitutes the neighbourhood fabric is rather the dynamics whereby routine episodes become public familiarity and the ‘banal transgressions’ that are part of everyday life and, therefore, often remain unnoticed. It may be the fish curry from our Sri Lankan neighbour down the road, my daughter’s play-date with a Kurdish school mate, the sharing of a joke with the retired Italian shopkeeper who, aged 70, has bought himself a sporty Lamborghini to show for a lifetime of toil.
Overall, my research showed that memories of the past and narratives of the present neighbourhood share a lot of explanatory ground. One was the nostalgic memories of elderly white residents, remembering the past as a coherent, comprehensible era, a neighbourhood underpinned by strong local ties. The other was the experience shared by younger, locally born Pakistanis. Many of them erstwhile pupils in the same school where they later sent their own children, they referred to the neighbourhood as a ‘comfort zone’ where ‘you know the community and the people and everything’.
So yes, neighbourhood is personal. But it is personal in many different ways, characterised by both experiences of local belonging and short-term settlement processes, without any one narrative of community. And it is by observing how these experiences come together in the context of everyday life that we arrive at more nuanced understandings of how diversity is lived and experienced.