Facebook group in Italy evolves into real-life community of neighbours

BOLOGNA, ITALY:  Federico Bastiani never wanted to be known the world over. He just wanted to get to know the people on his street.

To that end, he started Social Street, an online presence to help him and his neighbours get to know one another better in his Bologna, Italy, neighbourhood.

 Facebook group in Italy evolves into real-life community of neighbours

The inventors and web masters of Social Street/ DPA

It worked better than he ever imagined. Now he knows all his neighbours, his project is known worldwide, and there are more than 400 imitator streets around the world.

Bastiani, 38, said his original vision for his street, Via Fondazza, was simple. He simply wanted to set up an online social space where people could chat, with the hope that, once they knew each other online, the people would be more likely to interact with one another face to face on the street.

"It's easier to break down resistance if you've already met in the virtual world," says Bastiani enthusiastically.

However, while the concept is simple, keeping the project, which started as a Facebook page, up and running, takes a lot of time and care. He's assisted by co-founder Luigi Nardacchione, 65. Not only do they look after their own neighbourhood, but make sure anyone who wants to form their own Social Street has access to their logo and philosophy and sticks to the guiding principles.

The idea has already spread across Europe, with other Social Streets up and running in South America and New Zealand.

Looking out over Via Fondazza, it's plain to see that there's a lot going on. Anyone who needs a bicycle can borrow one from the local vegetable dealer. There are often parties, photo contests, exchanged meals and evenings where older residents tell their younger neighbours how the street looked during World War II.

It's all for free. Those who aren't on Facebook get invitations handed to them personally. Bastiani says his whole goal is that people mingle.

"They should ask one another for help," agrees Nardacchione. "Nowadays, asking for help is seen as weakness."

Bastiani is looking onto the Via Fondazza from across the Piazzetta Morandi.

"There used to be a fountain, trees and a bench," he says, where neighbours could meet and chat. A lot of those features that encouraged spontaneous meetings have been replaced by parking spaces. Neighbours tend to greet each other with a quick smile, choosing anonymity over solidarity.

It bothered Bastiani and Nardacchione so much that they took it upon themselves to plant a few trees and place a bench in the middle of the square.

"This is our office," says Bastiani, laughing.

But why has neighbourliness fallen by the wayside?

"Principally, you can say that traditional forms of integration - neighbourhood, church, extended family - have lost influence," says Julia Hahmann, who researches questions about gerontology at the University of Vechta in Germany. A lot of that is a function of career instability, thanks to a globalized labour force and changes in the way people communicate and get about.

Bastiani says he had his idea when he moved to Bologna three years ago. He said he didn't know his neighbours. His children had no one with whom they could play.

"This can't be happening," he says he told himself. "I just didn't want to live this way any more."

He distributed flyers announcing the site along the street's red arcades. More than 20 people expressed interest in the first few days.

Mohammad Masood was interested from the start.

"We help out all the time, when someone has something heavy to move or needs something fixed," he says. He says he moved to the street and opened a grocery store after leaving Pakistan 15 years ago.

Now, he says, people help him out when he has to take time to handle official business.

"It's a great project," he says.

Nardacchione and Bastiani say they take care to make sure the group stays manageable. A lot of projects like this can go off the rails if the membership explodes too fast.

"I didn't want to get to know the whole world," says Bastiani.

Instead, he says he's happy with smaller victories. Like the time the rug salesman had a window smashed one night. Everyone on the street wanted to give money to help with the repairs, said Bastiani, but no one wanted to approach the man directly.

Bastiani insisted the personal touch would be best and convinced everyone to draft a letter together. To this day, it's on display, pasted to the new window of the small corner store.

DPA Features

Updated Date: Nov 20, 2015 22:58:32 IST