Urban Neighbourhood Formations: Boundaries, Narrations and Intimacies

By Hilal Alkan and Nazan Maksudyan

Hilal Alkan and Nazan Maksudyan (eds.), Urban Neighbourhood Formations: Boundaries, Narrations and Intimacies (Routledge, 2020).

Our edited book explores the themes of ‘neighbours’ and ‘neighbourhoods’ as points of departure for considering identity, coexistence, solidarity and violence, and their relationship to place. We envision the neighbourhood as more than an administrative category. Rather, this category is useful to understand spatial formations of the social and the political in modern urban settings.

While working on this collection, we, the editors and contributors alike, have many times stumbled on the same question – ‘What is, indeed, a neighbourhood?’ – although we have all worked extensively in and on neighbourhoods for many years. Are they intimate places with blurred yet shared boundaries in the mental-maps of their residents? Are their histories, material formations, and transformations both indicative and inductive of micro and macro social phenomena? Because, historically as much as recently, neighbourhoods have been the loci of resistance and political dissidence, but also coexistence of potentially hostile groups, are they generative of conflicts over space and time? The collective endeavour of this project can, therefore, also be read as a search for answers (not a singular answer) to these questions. We explore urban neighbourhood formations in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, in order to contribute to the understanding of what neighbourhoods are.

Comparative Urbanism, Micro-Scale, and the Global South

The chapters in this volume contribute to the discussion that has been taking place around the concept of ‘comparative urbanism’ during the past decade. By approaching neighbourhoods in their translocal interconnectedness, the collection in its entirety carries comparative urbanism to a micro-scale. We underscore that given the size, expanse, and heterogeneity of twenty-first century cities, a monolithic yet sound analysis of an entire city is not quite viable. We advocate a reduction in scale to maintain the complexity of dynamics and the agency of the actors. We argue that the neighbourhood is of a very particular scale, ‘the right scale’ as Veena Das (2017, 194) puts it, which makes it possible to see the entanglements of various multi-scalar vectors, such as global capital, land valuation, ethnic tensions and developmentalist goals of nation states, in their most concrete form. In other words, through micro-spatiality this book offers a bottom-up analysis of translocal processes.

The cities in which our neighbourhoods are located have colonial history materially written on them (Alexandria, Delhi, Johannesburg, Srinagar, Jerusalem); they have long been the object of orientalist fantasies (Istanbul, Delhi, Alexandria, Jerusalem); and carry the tensions of nation-building with a new moral order (Bandar Abbas, Istanbul, Malkara, Srinagar). Yet all of them are coeval, not only as beings of the present but also as formations of the present marked by raging neoliberalism, the threat of climate change, and increasing movement of humans, materials, money, and information.

The selection of these cities reflects two concerns. First, the need for contributions coming from the Global South to revise basic premises of urban theory and, second, the necessity of making South-to-South comparisons and translations. All of the neighbourhoods in this volume are located in the cities of the Global South, and most in ‘megacities’. However, they are not places where a widely assumed Southern exceptionalism could be sought. They are illustrative of tensions that are unique in one sense – that they are spatially and temporally specific – and equally global and ‘ordinary’ (Robinson, 2006) in another sense.

This collection is organised into three sections that respectively refer to three major elements of neighbourhood formations: borders, stories and intimacies. The three sections of the book also bring together three fields within urban studies that are generally regarded as separate, namely infrastructure and public space; memory studies; and social relations, and discuss them in relation to each other as dimensions of making and unmaking neighbourhoods. 


A line from Robert Frost’s poem, ‘Mending Wall’, was made famous when Ai Weiwei named his 2017 New York City-wide public art project critical of the rising borders in the face of the increased migration to the West, ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. In this poem, the narrator and his neighbour work on rebuilding the damaged wall that marks the boundary between their fields. The narrator thinks they do not really need a wall, as it is obvious where one’s field ends and the other’s begins. But the neighbour keeps saying ‘Good fences make good neighbours’. For the narrator, the phrase is not exactly self-explanatory; for the neighbour, it is. It refers to ‘establishing boundaries’ between neighbours so that both know where to stop and respect each other’s space. Yet there is hostility in the neighbour’s voice and the way he grabs the stones: Is he going to raise the wall or throw them at the narrator? We do not know, but we feel the threat.  

The notion of neighbourhood immediately connotes proximity; but it also invites the question of how to manage that proximity, how to establish boundaries. Borders, first of all, refer to the question of identifiability. The city, as composed of geographically identifiable neighbourhoods with clearly demarcated borders, is a very particular notion that was created at the turn of the twentieth century. What we and our contributors see when looking at neighbourhoods, on the other hand, is often a lack of geographical precision, let alone the replicability of neighbourhood characteristics. Our contributors approach the paradoxically simultaneous existence of an awareness of material, temporal and conceptual boundaries of neighbourhoods and the lack of geographical precision as a matter of negotiation between residents and state authorities, and also between neighbourhoods, with examples from Johannesburg, Malkara and Delhi.

Borders: Material, Temporal and Conceptual Boundaries of Neighbourhoods

1. What Makes a Township a Neighbourhood? The Case of Eldorado Park, Johannesburg
By Alex Wafer and Kholofelo Rameetse

2. Killing Time in a Roma Neighborhood: Habitus and Precariousness in a Small Town in Western Turkey
By Sezai Ozan Zeybek

3. Of Basti and Bazaar: Place Making and Women’s Lives in Nizamuddin, Delhi
By Samprati Pani


The title of the Istanbul Biennial in 2017 was ‘A Good Neighbour’. The curators argued that the Biennial would ‘deal with multiple notions of home and neighbourhoods’, exploring ‘neighbourhood as a micro-universe exemplifying some of the challenges we face in terms of coexistence today’. In collaboration with the news website T24, the Biennial commissioned several writers from different disciplines to write short essays about a good neighbour. The Biennial also published a ‘story book’ titled A Good Neighbour, bringing together personal stories and memories about homes, neighbours, and neighbourhoods. With incorporating these written outcomes into a visual arts exhibition, what the curators stressed was the narrative quality of neighbourhoods. While exploring different meanings and potentials of being neighbours, they overtly encouraged their audience to approach neighbourhoods as stories.   

The second part of the book, bringing together neighbourhoods from Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, also follows this conviction and focus on the presentation of neighbourhoods as imagined and narrated entities – with imagined/denied pasts and futures, recounted/silenced memories and dreams, and reproduced/forgotten glories and squalor. The chapters analyse how stories, collective memory(ies), and (un)official processes of naming, identifying, and idealising make a certain locality a neighbourhood. The contributors trace the plurality and alternating nature of these in their effort to represent a neighbourhood. 

Stories: Neighbourhoods as Imagined and Narrated Entities

4. Two Tales of a Neighbourhood: Eyüp as a Stage for the Ottoman Conquest and Turkish War of Independence
By Annegret Roelcke

5. Past Neighbourhoods: Palestinians and Jerusalem’s ‘enlarged Jewish Quarter’
By Johannes Becker

6. Where is Alexandria? Myths of the City and the Anti-city after Cosmopolitanism
By Samuli Schielke

7. Jerusalem’s Lost Heart: The Rise and Fall of the Late-Ottoman City Centre
By Yair Wallach


In 2018, in Berlin, renowned urban scholar AbdouMaliq Simone gave a keynote lecture in a panel entitled ‘Right to the City’ as part of an interdisciplinary arts and urban studies event, ‘Claiming Common Spaces’, held at Hebbel am Ufer (HAU). While speaking about how living arrangements and spatial geometries change for those who are involved in dissembling computers in the cities of South Asia, he refrained from using the terms ‘neighbour’ and ‘neighbourhood’. Instead, he preferred ‘residents’ and ‘residential areas’. When asked afterwards why he never used these terms, he talked about the superblocks – massive examples of the kind of so-called affordable, vertical housing that is becoming the norm in many cities of the Global South – that seem to create an intensive homogenisation of everyday social life. These new residential complexes, he said, lacked and left no room for the intimacy that the concepts of ‘neighbourhood’ or ‘neighbour’ connote.

This part of our book unpacks this connotation and the assumptions it implies. Being neighbours is certainly a matter of proximity. Yet is it also and always a matter of affectionate intimacy? Earlier classics on urbanism explored this very same question at the level of the cities that were booming at the turn of the last century. Famously, Georg Simmel observed that the metropolis had physically brought people almost within a touching distance of each other while creating huge social distances between them.   

While cities were then identified with anonymity, apathy, and indifference between citizens, except a basic civility, neighbourhoods were often approached as havens of face-to-face encounters, intimate knowledge, and residence-based solidarity. Our contributors, with their work on Srinagar, Istanbul and Bandar Abbas, refer to this particular understanding of the neighbourhood as the locus of intimate relations, too. However, they do so only to unsettle it. In this part, the chapters focus on both affective ties, neighbourliness, and personal relations and the conflictual moments of claim-making that put neighbourhood identities to the test.

Intimacies: Neighbourhoods as Sources and Objects of Claim-Making

8. Violence, Temporality and Sociality in a Kashmiri Neighbourhood
By Aatina Nasir Malik

9. Syrian Migration and Logics of Alterity in an Istanbul Neighbourhood
By Hilal Alkan

10. Negotiating Solidarity and Conflict within a Neighbourhood: Gülsuyu-Gülensu and the Scale of Politics
By Derya Özkaya

11. Urban Tectonics and Lifestyles in Motion: Affective and Spatial Negotiations of Belonging in Tophane, Istanbul
By Urszula Ewa Woźniak

12. The Basij of Neighbourhood: Techniques of Government and Local Sociality in Bandar Abbas
By Ahmad Moradi

Our book brings together anthropological, historical, and urban studies perspectives with articles focusing on neighbourhoods in Istanbul, Alexandria, Johannesburg, Jerusalem, Delhi, Srinagar, Bandar Abbas, and the small town of Malkara in Western Turkey. The authors approach neighbourhoods as places in the making, with references to the above-mentioned tensions and contestations. Based on empirical research (ethnography, life story interviews, and archival research), they serve to envisage a concept of the neighbourhood that is neither static nor ephemeral. In this sense, they contribute to urban studies literature by re-introducing a concept that is very much alive in contemporary cities and the lives of urban dwellers.       

Through three angles – the spatial angle, the narrative angle, and the affective angle – this collection explores urban neighbourhood formations in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, and illustrates how spatial boundaries, immaterial processes of narrating and dreaming, and the lasting impact of affective ties in a neighbourhood are intertwined and negotiated over time in the construction of moral orders, urban practices, and political identities at large.


Das, Veena. 2017. ‘Companionable Thinking’. Medicine Anthropology Theory 4(3): 191-203.

Robinson, Jennifer, 2006. Ordinary Cities: between Modernity and Development. Routledge

Hilal Alkan is a researcher at Leibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. She works on migration, care ethics and informal welfare provision, with a particular focus on gender. Her most recent work concerns grassroots reception of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Germany. She is the co-editor of the book The Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary Turkey: Reproduction, Maternity, Sexuality (I.B. Tauris 2021). She was a EUME fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in 2016-2017.

Nazan Maksudyan is an Einstein guest professor at the Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut at the Freie Universität Berlin and a research associate at the Centre Marc Bloch (CMB). Her fields of expertise are Ottoman and modern Turkish history with additional research experience in children and youth studies, gender studies, Armenian Studies, and intellectual history. In 2009-2010, she was a EUME fellow. Her publications include several books: Orphans and Destitute Children in the Late Ottoman Empire (2014); (ed.) Women and the City, Women in the City: A Gendered Perspective on Ottoman Urban History (2014); Ottoman Children & Youth During WWI (2019).

Citation: Hilal Alkan and Nazan Maksudyan, Urban Neighbourhood Formations: Boundaries, Narrations and Intimacies, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.03.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26903.

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Forum Transregionale Studien (2021, 2. März). Urban Neighbourhood Formations: Boundaries, Narrations and Intimacies. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 24. Juni 2024, von https://doi.org/10.58079/uszn

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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