“What’s in a name?”: Imagining Arroios

Photo: Jack Dorsey. Creative Commons License. https://www.flickr.com/photos/jackdorsey/170257936
Lisbon’s Arroios was dubbed “the world’s coolest neighborhood” by Time Out. Marco Allegro considers the power of naming and asks what's at stake in such rankings of “coolness.”
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable on “Conflicting Imaginaries in East Lisbon.” Click here to view other posts in the series.]

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet. […] ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene II)

“What’s in a name?”, asks Juliet in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in what is one of the most well-known literary passages on the power of names.

It is a passage that illustrates well the inherent ambivalence of naming: names might be irrelevant as to the qualities of the objects they describe (“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet”), but naming is laden with social (and thus material) consequences — and in fact, in Shakespeare’s drama, the power of names will eventually prevail, and crush Romeo and Juliet’s lives.

The story of Verona’s unlucky lovers is, in this respect, a stark reminder of the power of names, and of how naming is a normative action: names do not only describe reality, but create a new reality on their own — producing categories and hierarchies, similarities and differences, and, ultimately easing or making difficult certain actions.

Henri Lefebvre would have agreed, I think, with Shakespeare on this point; indeed, the French philosopher, reflecting on the social nature of space, pointed out that spaces are also made out of abstract concepts: like names, conceived space (as opposed to lived space and perceived space) is at the same time abstract and very powerful. Indeed, Lefebvre seems to present this conceived space as the space of the powerful par excellence, the space of social engineers, planners, and architects. This idea echoes one of the oldest literary examples of the power of naming, to be found in the Bible: when God puts Adam in charge of the Garden of Eden, He brings all the animals of the world before Adam, so that he can assign a name to each one:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the livestock, to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field. (Genesis 2: 19, 20)

Thus, Shakespeare, Lefebvre, and God seem to be in agreement on the power of naming, and on the idea that the act of naming is the purview of the powerful — or, in Juliet’s case, that the inability of (re)naming something/someone is a sign of powerlessness vis-à-vis societal dynamics, and even foreshadows tragedy and annihilation. Indeed, in one of his key political passages (or, at least, one of my favourites), Lefebvre notes:

[a]ny ‘social existence’ aspiring or claiming to be ‘real’ but failing to produce its own space […] would fall to the level of folklore and sooner or later disappear altogether, thereby losing its identity, its denomination and its feeble degree of reality. 1Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 53.

Romeo and Juliet: killed by a wrong name (Source: Frederick Leighton – The Reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets over the Dead Bodies of Romeo and Juliet, via Wikimedia Commons)

What does all this have to do with Lisbon’s “East Side”?

In the last ten years the urban space of Lisbon has been thoroughly reshaped; and of course, part of this process has proceeded through a thorough rebranding of the city as a cosmopolitan destination, where tourists, artists, startuppers, and digital nomads can enjoy the good life in a modern, open, and technologically-advanced environment.

Urban re-branding in action: a week before the 2016 edition of the Web Summit (the first to be held in Lisbon), startuppers and the government proclaimed that “Lisbon is (not) the new Berlin” – implying (and hoping) that of course it is. (Source: Venturebeat, 2016)

Lisbon’s East Side (the “Mouraria-Marvila axis” – see the round table introduction) has spearheaded this dynamic. Here we will focus on the neighbourhood of Arroios in order to see how competing definitions overlap, complement, and compete with each other, and ask ourselves to what extent “naming things” prefigures possible futures.

So, what’s behind the name of Arroios? Administratively speaking, Arroios is one of Lisbon’s 24 freguesias (parishes). This definition is neither natural (parishes do not exist in nature, like, say, helium does) nor neutral (as it implies inclusions/exclusions; for example, it dictates who can participate to the election for the local government of the parish); but of course it is by far the least ambiguous of all possible definitions — and the easiest to use.

Which is probably why the lazy editors of the magazine Time Out adopted it when, in 2019, they elected Arroios “the World’s Coolest Neighbourhood” (Time Out 2019). For the editorial staff, Arroios was a multicultural hub where street art meets food from around the world, underground culture and historical treasures. Ramiro serves some of the best seafood in town, while over at Casa Independente (a reclaimed nineteenth-century palace) there’s a multidisciplinary arts programme plus great cocktails (Time Out 2019).

Arroios: the coolest neighborhood in the world (Source: Time Out, 2019)

It is interesting to note here that Time Out’s proclamation is at the same time analytical (i.e., points to certain qualities of the area) and normative (i.e., Time Out labels and ranks cities, neighbourhoods, and streets to make a profit). Analytically, Time Out’s definition captures some elements of the trajectory of the area, which has become, in the last ten years, one of the key spots of Lisbon’s nightlife and, more broadly, a new urban pole of social, cultural, and artistic production (which even the municipality managed to recognize —see the 2017 document on Lisbon cultural strategy). Normatively, the idea of “coolness” is part and parcel of Time Out’s business plan, which is founded on continuously publishing articles whose titles begin with “the best…” or “the coolest…”.2Incidentally, we could note that, from time to time, Time Out even promotes itself — for example, by giving a five-star review to its own “Time Out Market”, and referencing it in the description of the neighbourhood of Cais Sodré, silver medallist in this year’s global ranking of urban coolness: https://www.timeout.com/lisbon/restaurants/time-out-market-lisbon ; https://www.timeout.com/travel/coolest-neighbourhoods-in-the-world .

As a resident of the (2019) coolest neighbourhood in the world, I would admit that living there is pretty cool; but I would also argue that Time Out’s programmatic frivolity “coolwashes” (is that a word?) the underlying urban reality: Arroios is cool, full stop — there’s nothing more that the reader of Time Out needs to know. Historical trajectories, controversial policy turns, winners and losers — all this disappears under a thick coat of coolness.

But indeed, if we were to take Time Out’s rankings seriously, we might ask ourselves a lot of questions: where does the “coolness” come from, and how was it produced? Will it last? What are the consequences of this coolness on the urban fabric? Is there anything interesting in (urban) life, apart from coolness? And especially (for all the interested parties), is it possible to follow Time Out’s example, and provide an alternative definition of Arroios that is at the same time analytical and normative — that is, that builds on some elements of the urban reality but frames them in a profitable way?

It would be cool to know that.

Notes[+]

Allegra, Marco. "'What's in a name?': Imagining Arroios." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022)
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