Not too long ago newbies to a community might first have met their neighbors face-to-face by knocking on each others’ front doors, through strolling around the neighborhood or at browsing at the local, communal market or store. But busy schedules, privacy fences, garage doors, a car-centric culture and a general fear of strangers have raised barriers and successfully isolated us. So, it’s wonderful to see the digital tools of our modern age being put to a more ancient use — meeting the neighbors, and breaking down some barriers — many of which seem to be caused by our technologies. Long may the old school (face-to-face) social network prosper!
When Laurell Boyers, 34, and her husband, Federico Bastiani, 37, moved in together in Bologna in 2012, they did not know any of their neighbors. It was a lonely feeling.
“All my friends back home had babies, play dates, people to talk to, and I felt so left out,” Ms. Boyers, who moved from South Africa, said on a recent afternoon. “We didn’t have family or friends connections here. We knew people occasionally, but none in our same situation.”
So Mr. Bastiani took a chance and posted a flier along his street, Via Fondazza, explaining that he had created a closed group on Facebook just for the people who lived there. He was merely looking to make some new friends.
In three or four days, the group had about 20 followers. Almost two years later, the residents say, walking along Via Fondazza does not feel like strolling in a big city neighborhood anymore. Rather, it is more like exploring a small town, where everyone knows one another, as the group now has 1,100 members.
“Now I am obligated to speak to everyone when I leave the house,” Ms. Boyers said jokingly. “It’s comforting and also tiring, sometimes. You have to be careful what you ask for.”
The idea, Italy’s first “social street,” has been such a success that it has caught on beyond Bologna and the narrow confines of Via Fondazza. There are 393 social streets in Europe, Brazil and New Zealand, inspired by Mr. Bastiani’s idea, according to the Social Street Italia website, which was created out of the Facebook group to help others replicate the project.
Bologna, a midsize northern city, is known for its progressive politics and cooperatives. It is home to what is considered Italy’s oldest university, and it has a mix of a vibrant, young crowd and longtime residents, known for their strong sense of community.
Still, socially speaking, Italy — Bologna included — can be conservative. Friendships and relationships often come through family connections. It is not always easy to meet new people. In large cities, neighbors typically keep to themselves.
But today, the residents of Via Fondazza help one another fix broken appliances, run chores or recharge car batteries. They exchange train tickets and organize parties.
About half of Via Fondazza’s residents belong to the Facebook group. Those who do not use the Internet are invited to events via leaflets or word of mouth.
“I’ve noticed that people at first wonder whether they need to pay something” for the help from others, said Mr. Bastiani, referring to the experience of an 80-year-old woman who needed someone to go pick up some groceries for her, or a resident who sought help assembling a piece of Ikea furniture.
“But that’s not the point,” he added. “The best part of this is that it breaks all the schemes. We live near one another, and we help each other. That’s it.”
The impact of the experiment has surprised almost everyone here.
It “has changed the walking in Via Fondazza,” said Francesca D’Alonzo, a 27-year-old law graduate who joined the group in 2013.
“We greet each other, we speak, we ask about our lives, we feel we belong here now,” she said.
The exchanges usually start virtually but soon become concrete, allowing residents to get to know one another in person.
Everyone on Via Fondazza seems to have an anecdote. Ms. D’Alonzo remembers the party she gave on New Year’s Eve in 2013, when her then mostly unknown neighbors brought so much food and wine that she did not know where to put it.
“It’s the mental habit that is so healthy,” she said. “You let people into your house because you know some and trust them enough to bring along some more. You open up your life.”
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