Neighbours vs. Residents: Some Thoughts

I can clearly recall the day, some ten years back, just after we had moved into our house and were out in the street taking delivery of some household appliance, how the man from across the way approached me, and, stretching out his hand, said with a smile, “Hello resident!” From that day on, we have got on very well, helping each other out with this and that, chatting about this, that and the other.

No, sorry, that’s not quite right. He said “Hello neighbour!”.

There is a difference between being a resident and a neighbour. There’s nothing necessarily good about being a neighbour, especially if you’re the kind who likes nothing better to do a spot of arc-welding in your terraced house in the dark of night.

But ‘neighbour’ implies some kind of relation to others, a common bond, whereas ‘resident’ does not. Residents reside, nothing more. Perhaps this is one reason why the most prominent voices at Residents’ Association meetings can be those most concerned with matters like delineating the boundaries between their dwelling and someone else’s, or getting the police in to give a talk on why everyone should install a burglar alarm.

The difference between being a resident and being a neighbour came to mind a little while ago when I was translating a speech by Ada Colau at the launch of Guanyem Barcelona. You can watch the speech here, with my subtitles. Even if you read no further of this post, I promise you that watching the speech is worth it.

At one point in the speech she says

But we are the people who are out on the streets, we are normal people, ordinary people, who speak with our neighbours [in Catalan, las veïnas i els veís] each day, who in contrast to professional politicians get onto public transport every day…’

And then she says:

We are the neighbours, we are the neighbourhoods [els barris] who have taken the lead in the finest victories of this city, which would not have happened if it were not for the neighbourhood struggles of recent decades. And we are also the neighbours who are getting organised today to confront the disasters that are being created by the political institutions in connivance with the economic powers that be.

So the operative word of ‘neighbour’ carries with it, in such a context, a common human bond that ‘resident’ lacks in English. I thought it was interesting how, when it comes to the Irish Water protests, the emphasis is on what ‘residents’ are doing, and how, from certain perspectives, if you’re not a ‘resident’, you have no right to be entering a particular area in order to protest. In fact, ‘neighbour’ isn’t a word that fits into the overall discourse around the opposition to water charges. ‘Resident’, on the other hand, neatly fits into an atomised view of the world, in which water charges are the sole responsibility of individual units.

(Bible enthusiasts might like to know that the word for ‘neighbour’ as in ‘love your neighbour’ in Catalan as with in Spanish is not the same word for the person who lives in a dwelling near yours, but simply the person next to you: el teu proïsme)

‘Resident’ is also an administrative category from the perspective of the State. You are entitled to certain benefits, for example, based on the criterion of ‘habitual residency’. So it is also worth thinking about the effects of talking about ‘residents’ of Direct Provision centres.

I’m afraid I don’t have any name that works as a better fit for these contexts. But sometimes it isn’t so much about inventing a name to put on things, but of accumulating forces, of building forms of solidarity, so that the established order can no longer rely on words to bind what can be said and what can be done.

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