- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 21, 2005

PARIS — Seventy-four cities are gearing up for European Neighbors’ Day May 31, aimed at breaking down barriers and helping people get to know each other better to dispel fear and urban isolation.

These days, it’s not unknown for simmering disputes between neighbors over everything from noise levels to encroaching hedges to spill over into the courts or even into violence.

“Who said that we had to get on? It’s normal that it’s not easy,” said sociologist Robert Rochefort, head of the French research center CREDOC.

“Having said that, it is without doubt harder today than it was in the past, because social codes are more fractured and there is greater cultural diversity.”

Last year some 3.5 million people took part in the initiative, opening their doors and reaching out a hand to their neighbors. For the first time this year, a district of the Turkish city Istanbul will take part, as will Quebec in Canada.

“Nothing is simpler to organize. We are setting up meetings in halls, or apartment block courtyards, on the pavements or in the squares. Increasingly there are also improvised shows with music, song and sometimes dances,” said organizer Atanase Perifan.

The idea has grown since the Parisian councilor began the first of these festivals in 1999, and although there is a small organizing committee, the work is done mostly by the participating cities.

“Geneva successfully took up this initiative last year — some 25,000 people took part — and is renewing it this year in order that our city begins to resemble the kind of world that the United Nations is trying to promote,” Geneva organizer Maurice Graber said.

“We live side by side, but not with one another. There are 130 nationalities living in Geneva and this is the chance to meet each other and to participate in European life,” he said, adding that the Swiss cities of Lausanne and Lugano will also take part, with Zurich planning to join in next year.

Ates Unal Erzen, mayor of Istanbul’s largest district, Bakirkoy, which has a quarter-million residents, said May 31 there would start with a neighborhood coffee, followed by shows and music.

“Neighbors don’t know their neighbors’ children. In a globalized world, people are closed in — not only within their four walls, but in front of the television and the Internet,” he said. “This is a way to fight against the effects of globalization,” he added.

“All European cities have difficulty in living together because of violence and tensions,” added Mr. Rochefort, the sociologist.

“But we also see a strong desire to turn the city into something that is not just made of concrete.”

Other cities participating in the event include Athens; Brussels; Ljubljana, Slovenia; Luxembourg; Porto, Portugal; Rotterdam, Netherlands; Rome, as well as Birmingham and Manchester in England.

In Paris, the central Forum des Halles will be turned into a big picnic area from 7 p.m.

“I believe that in a world where relations are difficult, it is important to be able to create a good system of relations, to have homes that are more open and less narrow-minded,” Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni said in a recent interview.

“Unfortunately in the big cities today, we live in ‘capsules,’ so its important to open up our homes again, meet each other in the courtyard, ensure that student lodgers get to know the 70-year-old who lives in the same hallway, because this relation is already assuming a kind of responsibility.”

The plan is for those participating to organize a gathering in their courtyard or on the pavements, with everyone bringing a small contribution of food and drink. More details are available on the Internet at www.immeublesenfete.com. [For the English version, click on the box labeled “European Neighbors’ Day 31 May” in the left panel].

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