September 9, 2015
Street by social street
Whether loneliness is a modern phenomenon or whether there’s just a better level of understanding and appreciation of its impact on our physical and mental wellbeing is hard to say, but the fact remains, it is a killer. The medics say it’s as dangerous as smoking 15 a day and worse than obesity. So what’s can be done to tackle this social scourge? Simple, local solutions seem to work best. An initiative which began in a street in Bologna has now become a social movement – the social street movement.
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.
Federico Bastiani brought his son, Matteo, and wife, Laurell Boyers, right, to visit Francesca D’Alonzo. Mr. Bastiani created the Facebook group that has since grown in size and drawn such neighbors together. Credit Nadia Shira Cohen for The New York Times
“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.”
A few months back, Caterina Salvadori, a screenwriter and filmmaker who moved to Via Fondazza last March, posted on Facebook that her sink was clogged. Within five minutes, she said, she had three different messages.
One neighbor offered a plunger, then another a more efficient plunger, and a third offered to unblock the sink himself. The last bidder won.
“Can you imagine, in a big city?” she said, still in disbelief at the generosity. “It’s not about the sink, it’s the feeling of protection and support that is so hard to find in cities nowadays.”
Ms. Salvadori and Ms. D’Alonzo went on vacation in Southern Italy this summer, thanks to two train tickets that the Bastianis could not use and posted on the Via Fondazza Facebook page.
This year, a young woman expressed a concern for her safety and proposed a neighborhood watch.
Another resident, Luigi Nardacchione, responded that she should just call him if she was on her way home late at night, and he would come and meet her.
“I am retired, I have time, why shouldn’t I help?” said Mr. Nardacchione, 64, a former manager of a pharmaceutical company and co-founder of the Social Street Italia website.
“The principle is that we do anything we can do together, and not what divides us,” Mr. Nardacchione said. “That kills loneliness and fear.”
Nothing comes at a cost in the Via Fondazza group. Some of the community’s facilities are donated, but most of the benefits stem from the members’ willingness to help, share and live better.
“It’s a very interesting and exportable phenomenon, a spontaneous way to socialize, supported by digital technology,” said Piero Formica, senior research fellow at the Innovation Value Institute of Maynooth University in Ireland.
“Differently from Italian squares where people used to meet to discuss politics, here people meet to share, to lower costs, to learn from each other and use resources all together,” he said.
At Via Fondazza’s main grocery store, run by a family of Pakistani immigrants, residents can borrow community bicycles or even Ping-Pong rackets and balls to play in the church’s backyard.
“Many people used to come shopping here, but we didn’t really know anyone,” said Maryam Masood, 23, a shop assistant and the daughter of the owner. “Now we do, and life is much more tranquil and happy.”
“You feel like you belong,” she said