Who Profits? And Who Should? Notes on Coletividades, Gentrification and Political Agency in Arroios

Joana Vasconcelos's Kit Garden (2012) in the Largo de Intendente, Lisbon. Source: Author, 2022.
Marco Allegra writes about the role of coletividades—non-commercial spaces—and local groups in the transformation of Lisbon’s Arroios, and questions some of the standard narratives of the neighbourhood’s gentrification.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable on “Conflicting Imaginaries in East Lisbon.” Click here to view other posts in the series.]

At the end of my previous post for this roundtable I asked whether it could be possible to produce a definition of Arroios that is at the same time analytical and normative (one that “builds on some elements of the urban reality but frames them in a profitable way”) – in other words, how would it be possible to give a “new name” to Arroios to build a different urban future.

Recent history proves that it can be done: Time Out has done it by designating Arroios as “the coolest neighbourhood in the world” (2019); and the municipality of Lisbon has done it through some highly-publicized investment for urban renewal and revitalization. Truth be told, these successful efforts have been all but single-handed; indeed, policymakers and copywriters have by and large surfed on the wave of what was existing rather than creating them on their own.

So, we might ask where the wave comes from, and what it is made of. A very short, non-comprehensive answer would be that, of course, the wave is made of people (all things that are social are) and especially, in the case of Arroios, people that have come from pretty much everywhere.

The area of Arroios has traditionally been one of the most multicultural in Lisbon, and in the last ten years it has experienced a transformation of its social and demographic make-up: to cut a long story short, after the economic crisis, the area saw an influx of young people (many of them foreigners) who took advantage of the relative abundance of big houses that could be shared for a relatively reasonable price. These transformations have had many consequences; what is interesting here is that they resulted in the creation of a local critical mass of individuals, groups, and projects, which in turn produces a number of social, cultural and political activities.

This critical mass has been the wave on which profitable rebranding operations have been surfing for the last decade. When in 2017 the municipality was talking about Arroios (in the language of urban planning, the “Almirante Reis axis”) as a “new urban pole of cultural production”, it did so recognizing that local associations had been an important factor in this respect. When in 2019 Time Out praised the “coolest neighbourhood in the world”, we all knew that much of that coolness had been produced by this critical mass.

Now, that would be the analytical part: there are sound empirical bases, so to speak, to say that a new, rich social reality has formed in Arroios in the last few years, which has contributed to the transformation to the city; however, and not to put too a fine point to it, others have made money on all this — indeed, adding injury to insult, the very existence of this critical mass is now called into question by the same dynamic of urban pressure that has created it, as individuals, collectives, and associations live in fear of the next message from their landlord.

The normative part begins like that: if this is the situation, in Arroios we’re definitely owed something.

The point is: how do we name this thing to make it profitable?

Some have called this critical mass of groups and associations “new cultural stakeholders”, “no profit associations”, or “urban movements and third-sector initiatives” – I think I heard Time Out saying “Cool!”, but I’m not sure about that.

That does not really serve our purpose. So I think we might want to talk about coletividades — a traditional Portuguese term that indicates a space run for non-commercial purposes, which offers a range of services (e.g., a bar, meeting place, debates, concerts, a canteen, etc.). Generally speaking, the idea of the coletividade formula keeps together non-profit cooperatives that operate as indie clubs or bars (e.g. Desterro, Damas) as well as those that have a more pronounced left-wing political and social outlook (e.g. Sirigaita, Zona Franca, RdA, Disgraça). If you ask me, “the coletividades of Arroios” sounds much better than “the no-profit associations of Arroios” or “the third-sector initiatives of Arroios”.

I’d also rather avoid calling them “gentrifiers”. This is not so much because the concept of gentrification is unable to analytically frame some of the aspects of the reality of Arroios (the process I have described is, in many ways, a textbook case of the dynamic of the so-called “marginal gentrification”), but because I think the term has several normative drawbacks.

I think I’m already beyond the word limit for this short piece, so I’ll be abrupt: if you believe too much in gentrification, then “new” vs. “old” residents (the “new” ruining everything the “old” used to have) seems to become a sort of inevitable mental and political frame.

A few weeks ago I participated in a meeting of people interested in bottom-up community mapping in Arroios, and the room was full with discussions about how we, “the newcomers”, should be prudent and respectful in our engagement with the “local community”.

Sure we should; but you know, I’ve been living in Lisbon for the last eleven years, and most of the people around me in that room had moved to the neighbourhood four-five-six years before — so I found myself  wondering “damn, how long does it take for a guy to become a local?”

I’d say I was in the middle of a group of lefties, which made it even more paradoxical: the Portuguese state says that you only need five or six years of residence to apply for citizenship, and I’m not a local after more than ten?! And what about that “old resident” of Arroios, who is also your landlord, and happy to kick you out if you cannot pay a rent that has doubled in the last five years? Who’s the “gentrifier”, now? Who is screwing this city up?

Are the coletividades of Arroios “agents of gentrification”? Well, maybe they are. But it’s probably better to free some mental space for additional observations: that nowadays “gentrification” might not even need gentrifiers, and that the current economic system is especially good at making a profit on everything anyway — bending, distorting, and ultimately exploiting everything that has real beauty or value in our lives.

There’s nothing you can’t make a profit on: Italian influencer, fashion blogger, and Instagram personality Chiara Ferragni wearing the black after the death of George Floyd. Source: TGCom24

An excessive insistence on an all-encompassing notion of gentrification, however, is not particularly useful “in exploring the range of strategies, conflicts, interests and alliances adopted by different actors and social groups of local touristified communities” – call your enemies gentrifiers, if you want, but we need something else to build a neighbourhood coalition.

Now, in the last few years some tentative efforts have been made in this respect – micro-strategies, if you want. During the pandemic we have seen a short-lived cycle of inter-coletividades meetings; a failed attempt at opening a new squat; and the experience of the brigadas de bairro and cantinas solidárias delivering food and medicine during lockdown. A year ago a group of people near the RdA even formed a list to run for the election of the governing body of the parish of Arroios losing a seat for just eighty votes (sadly, to Chega’s candidate), which now continue in the form of a permanent neighbourhood assembly. Tomorrow, Disgraça will host (2pm) a meeting organized by climate activists that come after the occupation of a few schools and universities (including the Liceu Camoes in Arroios), while housing rights collective Stop Despejos has called for a general assembly at Sirigaita (5pm) with the slogan “let’s take our city back”.

From Frankenhausen to Arroios: a good slogan is always a good slogan. Source: Luther Blissett, 2022

So, I guess Arroios has been busy, and there is an observable potential for doing something with Arroios that is not simply “cool” or useful for real estate agents – what’s the name of it? We’re still waiting for that – in the meantime, I’ve always liked the idea of a “comuna de Arroios” (“Arroios Commune”).

Allegra, Marco. "Who Profits? And Who Should? Notes on Coletividades, Gentrification and Political Agency in Arroios." Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 7, no. 4 (November 2022)
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