Decomposing and recomposing through street-walking

Sinead Marian D’Silva

As I scout for apartments in the ridiculous housing situation in Lisbon, I find myself confronting the awkward layering of the city. Involuntarily I amuse myself by observing the surroundings. At some places the pavements are narrow, while others wider than the road. This is relevant to an avenue I will now describe. The main street tells you what you need to know about the locale. Of course this one leads to (terminates at?) the doors of the church in this ‘secular’ country strongly influenced by Catholicism. The street name is a give-away: Aveneida da Igreja, or Church Avenue. Around, elderly (white) Portuguese people trod along. Their attire, combined with the street layout, the upscale stores and boutique shops, French and Belgian coffee shops (Portugal normally has local traditional cafés at every corner), flats with balconies and buildings no higher than 3 floors – all this gives away the type of neighbourhood I’ve walked into.

At the workshop, Thinking on the Move: the possibilities and risks of walking sociologically, we were encouraged to think of movement in a sociological way. The walks that drew me through the local area around Goldsmiths University related to locating activism against gentirification, recomposition of waste collected on the street, and a history of reggae music intersecting with anti-racist resistance through the geography.

For me, the main running theme that cut across these very different walks (in purpose, method, theory, even discipline) was a feeling of parasitic cannibalism or incessant devouring of one to create another, producing energy and waste. A blog post by Nikki Fairchild following the event briefly describes the academic positioning of walking. My intention for attending this event was to learn more about the use of the method from a sociological perspective as I intend to draw on this for my post-doctoral project where I will attempt to make sense of how young people employed in tourism negotiate their position between catering to tourists and being local in touristified locations. What draws people to participate in an economy that is taking over their home location, often displacing them? Movement through streets can potentially illicit stories, memories, histories that make sense of decisions made.

It is mid-day and sat beside me in a café is an elderly gentleman in high spirits (and smelling of it too). Otherwise calmly composed, he breaks his smiling silence when a passer-by who clearly knows him stops to ask what mischief he has been up to so early in the day. He admits that he had been drinking whiskey as “está tão frio” (it’s so cold). I smile as I overhear this conversation, but the smile on the passer-by is not extended to me, the strange, eaves-dropping outsider. At the house I just visited, the young couple tells me that the neighbourhood is lovely with a lot of elderly Portuguese people in this “village in the city”. They promise, however, that “it is changing slowly, with more new and cool spaces opening up” – apparently this cannibalism is judged as what a young female academic would want to hear? Despite the busy street lined with cars, time here goes very slow – slower than the rest of the city but possibly faster than other parts of the country. It reminds me of a concept I recently learnt of in Maura Finkelstein’s Archives of Loss – ‘queer chawl time’. Referring specifically to the migrant worker neighbourhoods of Bombay, Finkelstein talks about the layering of history and experience, the spilling over of life from the private houses onto the streets which also become the private despite their public nature. In this leisurely, tucked away time-space in Lisbon, the cannibalism through decompositioning and recompositioning of an afflent area in the capital city unfolds as infrastructure, nature and humans interact with attempts to hold onto tradition through fresh markets and tasquinhas (little bar-cum-restaurants-cum-cafés) alongside rentals that house the young ‘creative class’. Two relatively affluent groups of people come head-to-head.

As for me, I continue to try to make sense of movement as a sociological process – walking to think about and critique social actions.

Sinead Marian D’Silva is a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa (Institute of Social Science, University of Lisbon), and completed a PhD at the University of Leeds. The running themes of Sinead’s research are young people’s futures and work in society.

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