Marluci Menezes . What does it mean when you say a neighborhood as a neighborhood?

Abstract: This paper, aimed at grasping and understanding the city as a process of continuous change, studies some social, cultural and spatial contents from an anthropological perspective. The contents derive from studies on Lisbon neighborhoods that became important for a specific look on the processes of urban change. The paper then focuses on the neighborhood of Mouraria and discusses the features that have allowed me to understand how the neighborhood integrates the city's social map. Finally, I propose understanding Mouraria based on a threefold structure - three times and three scales: the inherited, the current and the projected neighborhood, to the latter adding the virtual neighborhood that is created online. More specifically, I propose that the change taken place in the current urban intervention process should be better analyzed so as to understand it, as well as the symbolic value that the idea of neighborhood implies. Therefore, my contention is that the need, sometimes rather appealing, to assess and understand a location by placing in opposition the inherited and present neighborhood with the projected and virtual one.

Keywords: Mouraria, urban imaginary, inherited, current and projected neighborhood


Marluci Menezes, Geographer, PhD in Anthropology, Researcher at Laboratório Nacional de Engenharia Civil (LNEC)



What does it mean when you say a neighborhood as a neighborhood? The case of the neighborhood of Mouraria


1.  Introductory remarks

From an anthropological perspective, I aim to grasp and understand the city as a continuously changing process. Thus, my interest in understanding the city from a threefold structure- three times and three scales: "the inherited city, the inhabited city, or the present city that is constantly being built and rebuilt; and finally the projected city, which is in constant dialog with its future" (Biase, 2013: 199). This starting point allows me to address the issues related to the debate on Neighborhood, in particular, understanding this material and symbolic expression of the urban world as something in permanent change, whose understanding implies linking the above mentioned times and scales. It also allows to infer the city that is built in a virtual online space (Haddock,2004; Menezes, 2012).

After having stated the general premises of this perspective on understanding the city, I aim to present a theoretical and methodological point of view on the understanding of the continuous invention of Neighborhood, focusing on the case of Mouraria. My objective is neither to define what a neighborhood is nor what the neighborhood of Mouraria is but rather identify and discuss some elements that I consider useful in order to understand the continuous invention of the neighborhood.

In the next part of my work, I will describe my personal path in terms of research on the neighborhoods in Lisbon. I focus on some social, cultural and spatial contents which have become important in a specific vision regarding the processes of urban change. Next, I will discuss some of the features that helped me understand the role of Mouraria in the city's social map. Finally, I aim to understand Mouraria from a threefold perspective - three times and three scales: the inherited, the current and the projected neighborhood, to the latter adding the virtual neighborhood that is created online. More specifically, I contend that the change taken place in the current urban intervention process should be better analyzed so as to understand it as well as the symbolic value that the idea of neighborhood implies. Therefore, my contention is that the need, sometimes rather appealing, to assess and understand a location by placing in opposition the inherited and present neighborhood with the projected and virtual one.


2. Understanding change in the city through its neighborhoods

Which neighborhoods make Lisbon, Lisbon? How can we grasp and understand these social and spatial realities that are made manifest in a unique way in a city that is plural? What makes a neighborhood different? How do these neighborhoods integrate the city's wider social map? How does the uniqueness of these neighborhoods dialog with the processes of urban change?

In the early 1990s I began a project that gradually drew me to the social and ecological contexts of Lisbon that are called Neighborhoods. Casal Ventoso and Quinta da Casquilha were the first neighborhoods I studied[1]. However, though both contexts were not part of what is usually encompassed in the sentence "Lisbon is its neighborhoods"[2], as they are rather periphery in terms of the city, what I learned allowed me to identify some elements which, in my further research, would become crucial to better understand these social, symbolical and spatial constructions. These elements refer mostly to the several influences that the physical model of space, the degree of social and urban flexibility, the relations between the outer and inner space, the practices and visibility that groups have on social and spatial configurations.

After those first research experiences, I conducted an anthropological research on the neighborhood of Madragoa. The research aimed to do detailed ethnography of house, street and neighborhood, an analysis of social and spatial elements considered most important by the residents in the creation of the concept of neighborhood (Menezes, 2002). However, one of the main means of change in the social and spatial organization of the neighborhood was linked to the dynamics of urban regeneration in Madragoa, which led me to discuss two core issues in understanding the neighborhood. The first one is disciplinary, as I was doing a research project that allowed me to further my knowledge of the relation between space organization and social organization. The second is contextual, as I took the premise that the idea of space as an inhabited, organized, adequate, used and represented world, the intensity of an intervention would be an important influence in a given social and spatial organization. Therefore, I went to the field with these questions in my mind: which social and spatial elements did residents consider most important in the process of building a feeling of territorial belonging? What became a social and cultural value in terms of residential space? What is the relation between physical and residential space and its representations? This study allowed me to realize that, in parallel with the establishing and preservation of social and spatial identity, as identified by means of a daily DYI - where past, present and future images are constantly linked - a change would occur in social and cultural local values and in space, allowing me to infer that there is a never ending social and spatial change that altered the imaginary meanings of the neighborhood.

Once the research on Madragoa was complete, I felt the need to further my knowledge on how certain urban symbols, social and cultural values, space is formally arranged, representations, practices and experiences by individuals coordinate with processes of social and spatial restructuring and imaginary meanings of the city. Thus, I started to design  a research proposal that allowed me to further the knowledge on the relation between house, street and neighborhood. I aimed to assess how this relation contributes to the restructuring of the image of the concept of neighborhood. The work by Firmino da Costa (1999) – on Alfama – and Graça Í. Cordeiro (1997) – on Bica – were references, though not the only ones, which made it evident that, despite the conception and mystification of the traditional and popular neighborhoods in Lisbon, their social and cultural worlds were still rather unknown. My objective was, therefore, to provide some contribution through analysis and understanding of the daily life in a neighborhood other than Alfama, Bica or Madragoa. The more I walked around and read about the popular neighborhoods, one of them stood out. Infamous, multicultural, with a social mix, heavily destroyed in the 1940s, Mouraria is a historically representative neighborhood. Rather unstudied from a sociological perspective, the neighborhood is both attractive and repulsive and has been under urban regeneration since 1985 (Menezes, 2004).

A challenge, Mouraria presented itself as especially interesting in order to analyze the processes of social and spatial restructuring. Initially, the objective was to understand how the restructuring influenced the identity image of the neighborhood. So, I naively believed that Mouraria could be a counterpoint to the information I had on Madragoa[3]. Therefore, my initial question as I was heading to the field was: based on the relation between house and street, what social and cultural elements update the concept of neighborhood? Yet, as I proceeded with the work and read about the neighborhood, I realized my initial idea would have to be redefined and provided a new framework. At that time, I was interested in how metaphors that mention the neighborhood projected cultural and urban messages that symbolized it as well as segregated and marginalized it.

Though the relation house, street, neighborhood was important to understand local dynamics, it became relevant to analyze the duality, ambivalence and ambiguity which influenced the process of building identity images of the neighborhood. This duality could define typical features and tradition as a symbolic image or multi ethnicity as local symbol, as well as focus on marginalization and social and spatial segregation that the neighborhood has suffered throughout its history. Gradually, the theme structured on understanding the meanings behind the neighborhood's more visible and public image. Thus, so as to understand the process of building the neighborhood's identity images, an analysis was carried out of its history and social geography, of its narratives and memories. Simultaneously, an ethnographic analysis was conducted on the practices of use and ownership of local public space[4].


3. The Neighborhood of Mouraria as a means to understand change in the city: brief diagram of knowledge production

History, tradition and social geography

To explain the events that contextualize the appearance of social, cultural and urban forms is essential so as to provide a framework for the dynamics of neighborhood permanence and change. A brief diagram of how Mouraria arose as a neighborhood allows me to emphasize that:

·      Its background evidences a date of formal invention - charter of 1170 lays down the "outskirts of mouraria" - with defined borders; these borders were not visible but derived from a complex network of cultural, social, historical, urban and rural elements, dreams, representations and myths. This somewhat allows to formalize what is a product of history. Noteworthy is the tale of Martim Moniz (which evidences the neighborhood's age) and, in particular, the myth of Severa, which explain its invention as a popular and traditional neighborhood, filled with paradox, ambiguity and ambivalence( see Tables 1 and 2).

·      Its invention is the result of complex processes which include territorial stigma and mysticism.

·      The invention of its material and symbolic space derives from a process of urban intervention. Cleaning, enhancement and all the ideas that words beginning with "re" imply (regenerate, reuse, renew, re-qualify, reinvent) are important "for urban heritage" (Portas, 2003) and provide a discourse on the changes in the territory.

·      The neighborhood's social structure is the result of a continuous and complex process of social and cultural mix - that combines and separates, links and breaks apart, includes and excludes - poor and rich, migrants and immigrants, residents, workers and unemployed, men and women, old and young, users and visitors, homeless, prostitutes, drug dealers and drug addicts, religious leaders and believers, students and artists...

Limits, borders and perceptions

It is crucial to discuss the concepts of limit, border and place, as well as identify means of understanding uniqueness as a plural and multidimensional expression, along with a discontinuity, in order to understand how Mouraria as a neighborhood integrates the city's social map (Menezes, 2013). A summary of these issues allows to conclude that:

·      When identifying the place Mouraria within the urban landscape, elements referring to its geographical and administrative location and with its space organization are emphasized; noteworthy are also geographical, urban and social interaction features that allow to identify proximity to the neighborhood's territory (see Table 3).

·      The neighborhood's territory is not defined by means of a visible and precise perimeter but is rather a blob whose flexibility is dependent on a series of social and spatial references, events, world visions and ways of life.

·      The different social and spatial borders are intertwined with social and spatial relations which are ambivalent and ambiguous, inclusive and exclusive. 


Table 3 - Synthesis on identifying the place Mouraria

Geographical and administrative location of the neighborhood's territory

§Located on the eastern part of the city, between the hills of Graça and Colina do Castelo (north and western parts).

§No defined boundaries, irregular and flexible size, it may include the administrative territory of several freguesias (administrative territory division similar to parish council) or be limited to specific areas.

§Administratively, there is no neighborhood or place called Mouraria.

§The central area used to be located within freguesia of Socorro (recently included in a wider administrative territory in freguesia Santa Maria Maior).

§The neighborhood's territory is part of an area of urban intervention and regeneration.

Urban space organization

§Urban environment before 18th century rebuilding that influences the next periods.

§Near important roads Local accessibility conditioned and lacking due to neighborhood being in a slope, urban environment narrow and dense; there is public transportation.

§From town planning point of view, the neighborhood is rather closed.

§Area mostly residential and business.

Geographic, urban and social features

§Identification due to closeness to neighborhood territory from the hills of Castelo, Graça, Monte and Sant'Ana.

§Features in the territory: buildings (Coleginho, Centro Comercial da Mouraria, Edifício Amparo, Capela de N.ª Sr.ª da Saúde); metro (Martim Moniz station); local places.

§Social features: specific practices of urban public spaces use and ownership; mostly gross business owned by Indians, Chinese, Portuguese and Africans.

Context of social interaction

§The organization of the territory, the residential and business practices, the social, cultural and economic features of the population, the close social and family networks, the neighborliness, how people inhabit, live and use the street, how they bond with, experiment and portray the local context,  how they are involved with associations and their activities, their continuous and intense daily interactions, how they own and reproduce local history, how supralocal institutions influence and are included, the rivalry with other neighborhoods, the importance and permanence of certain cultural and symbolical events and practices. such as the procession, the festivities, the party and the popular parade, all these allow us to consider Mouraria a "framework of interaction" strong enough to be a place in the city regardless of its permanent elements or its changes (Cordeiro and Costa:  1999).

Source: Menezes, 2004


·      Mouraria is both understood based on the relation between center and outskirts as well as on its territory flexibility, which allows it to be big or small (see Table 4).

·      The neighborhood is defined based on a continuously changing discourse, where space borders are supported on complementary and differencing logics, more dependent on social relations and values at stake than on geographical, urban or administrative factors (see Table 5).

·      The flexibility of the place provides its borders with a flexibility that is continuously manipulated, contested, activated, initiated, used both strategically and contextually.

Social and spatial experiences and rhythms

People's practices and experiences add to the representations and images of the neighborhood. To grasp how experiencing the place is part of the process of continuous creation of the neighborhood's identity image thus allows to emphasize some of the elements of a social and spatial uniqueness that is expressed in the plural. We also aim to understand how, in the process of social building and producing the space, images that contribute to the mystification of the neighborhood coexist with those contributing to its segregation and stigma. A short diagram of the studied issues allows for concluding that:

·      One of the main elements in the neighborhood's cultural and urban images is the visibility of individuals and their practices of using and owning the space, together with the territory's physical and architectural organization.

·      The routine use and ownership of public space leads to a series of environments that foster the creation of urban metaphors. These, projected as images, are part of what you know of the neighborhood as a certain perspective of the city.

·      Observing the daily micro-geographies of public space use and ownership allows to oppose the social reification that tends to establish an opposition between traditional and modern; where traditional is visible in the domestication of public space as the residents' living room or garden, and the modern includes a more public sphere, where modernization and globalization are exposed.

·      Extraordinary and ritualistic situations (festivities, religious ceremonies, someone's death, etc.) allow the concept of neighborhood to be reinvented, as if getting ready for a new daily environment.


Space narratives and representations

Discourse, memories, representations, visions and types of experiences assist in understanding certain cultural images of current Mouraria (see Table 6). In terms of a very synthetic diagram, the following may be emphasized:

·      Though everyone is different, certain common experiences influence the representations and images of the neighborhood. This allows us to observe that these experiences may be the basis for a certain perspective of the neighborhood, though the latter may be flexible and mutable. Thus, we realize that, at endogenous level, and namely for those that consider themselves "neighborhood children", the idea that the neighborhood is a village, typical and traditional, coexists with that of the neighborhood having lost its uniqueness.

Table 6 - From the metaphors to the images of Mouraria

Infamous and typical










Fado singer



Popular festivals



Picturesque (streets and buildings)


Health risk

Lack of manners


Public disorder




Land of losers


Social disease




With no documents


Drug addicts/ Drug dealers

Rundown buildings

Social precarity


The tale of Martim Moniz

(Mouraria and Martim Moniz) Shopping Centers

Social mix

Multi-ethnic environment


Portuguese world

Plural environment



Another geography

Smells and Odors





Old practices

Material heritage

Immaterial heritage

Arab cuisine

Galician cuisine






Itineraries (food, photographic, musical, etc.)


Source: Adapted from Menezes 2004 and 2012a


·      Though place narratives and representations may be of endogenous or exogenous nature, there is a relation of reciprocity made manifest through a process of "symbolic redoubling" from the outside (Costa: 1999).

·      Relations produced from the reciprocity of endogenous and exogenous references (especially through analysis of newspaper and magazine articles) and of the old days and now, allow new elements to be included in the process of building identity images while the already existing elements continue to be reproduced. This expands the number of imaginary meanings of the neighborhood. Thus, Mouraria may be viewed both as a typical traditional, multicultural and multi-ethnic neighborhood, and currently as a cultural neighborhood, and a context with social and spatial liminarities.

·      Ambiguity as a structural value for the process of creating the concept of neighborhood allows us to consider that the system may be open to specific, compensating but non-hegemonic readings. This point of view make it possible to observe a mesh of opposing, contradictory, dual, ambivalent, complementary and simultaneous relations. The positions of certain social categories or social and cultural items, or the meanings of certain concepts or practices must be viewed from a perspective that allows you to view them more closely and put them into perspective rather than see them as oppositions and contradictions.

·      The neighborhood's metaphors and images show diversity, heterogeneity and complexity, thus also conveying difference and inequality. This allows us to introduce the idea of multivocality (Rodman: 1992) and of polyphonic city (Canevacci, 1993; Fantim, 2000).

4. From Mouraria as study matter to - a time out space in contemporary urban life: the continuous (re)invention of the neighborhood in the future

Some years after having conducted a study on Mouraria to understand some aspects of change in the city, I now recall how difficult it was to decide on how I could better understand the neighborhood. Besides the social, cultural, spatial and architectural complexity I had to deal with, I also had to account for very critical opinions and representations of the neighborhood as well as of the study and its relevance. At times, I experienced difficulties overcoming the initial insecurity I felt towards the field work because of perspectives I was presented with and which I respected. On the one hand, I felt there was no sense in studying a context that "no longer existed" due to the intervention carried out during Estado Novo and within the regime's urban policy. This almost destroyed the neighborhood, only a few streets remaining that still were not "significant in social and town planning terms". On the other hand, it seemed absurd to study a neighborhood that was only made visible because of its "negative examples" throughout its history. The study was completed due to the support of friends, social scientists and members of the urban intervention technical team that were then working in the neighborhood. As an anthropologist, what really pushed me through was the subversive manner through which Mouraria is, still today, one of the neighborhoods that makes the city be Lisbon.

However, and in line with the current dynamics of change in the neighborhood from a further point of view, I believe that grasping what Mouraria is today is still a very hard task.  In truth, I contend that studying the processes of urban change taking the case of Mouraria into consideration is still a challenging perspective in terms of research and of understanding the city.

Adrián Gorelik (2002) states that:

 "(...) never before has urban imaginary been so much discussed and has urban imaginary been so enclosed in its projective capacity. Thus described, it leads to a discomfort because it combines two different dimensions: urban imaginary as cultural mirror (usually academic) on how societies portray themselves through their cities and build their communication means and codes of understanding urban life, and urban imaginary as a dimension of technical and political mirror (usually through a number of professions: architecture, urban planning) of how a city should be like."

This leads to my interest in making the understanding of imaginary meanings related with Mouraria more complex so as to more deeply grasp how urban imaginary has contributed to Mouraria continuing to be produced in the 21st century, projected to 2020. Thus, I would like to put forth my final observations.

The first concerns the current dissemination of information - in posters on the street, on websites, in newspapers and magazines - on everything that "is going to change in Mouraria", reference being made to a future that is aimed to be already present (Gomes, 2011). The second is the exciting discovery that now "there is life in Mouraria"[5], as if there was none before. This leads to other observations as, for example, the current portrayal of Mouraria as a "fashionable" neighborhood where many activities can be found (economic, artistic, leisure, housing, etc.) and which attracts growing number of people; or the promotion of Mouraria as an increasingly publicized reality, present in the virtual world, as if the neighborhood now existed in a parallel universe. Two metaphors may be useful to explain the idea of the referred parallel universe: "time out" Mouraria[6]and ""[7]. A universe that makes local social and urban issue into diversity, coexistence and cultural entertainment. The present process of urban intervention that is taking place in the neighborhood influences the production of these dynamics that have then produced others. Examples include the increasing number of associations and third sector institutions, which makes me question the social and cultural and symbolic elements used by these institutions in terms of their contribution to the complex and continuous process of creating identity images of the neighborhood and of the city.

From an analytical point of view, I think it important to consider that understanding urban changes taking place in the neighborhood now is only possible based on the link between what was inherited, what the present is like and what is projected for the future (Biase, 2013). This adds to the interest in analyzing the phenomenological meaning in which current social contents are contextually and daily produced, thus avoiding the understanding of the neighborhood from a one-way type of logic: that it is neither past nor present though it is future because it is projected; or it is conceptualized because created in a virtual environment.

Another observation has to do with the university having discovered Mouraria. Though the wok produced enhances the knowledge of the neighborhood and the city, I would like to to emphasize is interest in analyzing the representations of the neighborhood produced within the framework of an increasing number of university projects - from academic projects to reports and research in support of specific technical and political trends.

Finally, I must refer the interest in viewing Mouraria from a repositioning of its social and spatial specificity at a series of crossroads of specificities. Mouraria would then become one of the several we that define what Lisbon is as a city/network. This leads me to the final question: is the neighborhood of Mouraria changing from different and unique to an undifferentiated place?


5. Bibliography

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CANEVACCI, Massimo – A Cidade Polifônica: Ensaio Sobre a Antropologia da Comunicação Urbana. São Paulo: Studio Nobel, 1993. ISBN 9788585445089.

CORDEIRO, Graça I. – Um Lugar na Cidade: Quotidiano, Memória e Representação no Bairro da Bica. Lisboa: Publicações Dom Quixote, 1997. ISBN 9789722014106

CORDEIRO, Graça I.; COSTA, A. Firmino da – Bairros: contexto e intersecção. In Antropologia Urbana: Cultura e Sociedade no Brasil e em Portugal, VELHO, Gilberto (org.). Jorge Zahar Editor: Rio de Janeiro, 1989. ISBN 85-7110-525-1, p. 58-79

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FANTIN, Márcia – Cidade Dividida – Dilemas e Disputas Simbólicas em Florianópolis. Florianópolis: Editora Cidade Futura, 2000. ISBN 9788587757029

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GORELIK, Adrián– Imaginarios urbanos e imaginación urbana: Para un recorrido por los lugares comunes de los estudios culturales urbanos. EURE[Em linha]. 28: 83, 125-136, 2002. [Retrieved on 1 October 2013]. Available at: 0250-7161

HADDOCK, Serena V. – La Città Contemporanea. Il Mulin: Bologna, 2004. ISBN 9788815095244

MACHADO, Paulo; LUTAS C., João; MENEZES, Marluci – Contributos para o estudo de um Bairro Degradado da Cidade de Lisboa - análise socio-ecológica da Quinta da Casquilha. ITECS 10,Lisboa: LNEC, 1992. ISBN 978-972-49-1474-9

MENEZES, M.; REBELO, M. e CRAVEIRO, J. – Bairro Casal Ventoso - elementos para uma caracterização socio-ecológica. ITECS 17,Lisboa: LNEC, 1992. ISBN 978-972-49-1588-3

MENEZES, Marluci – Cuando lo Singular es Plural: El Caso del Barrio de la Mouraria en Lisboa. In Segregación y diferencia en la ciudad, CARMAN, María, VIEIRA DA CUNHA, Neiva y SEGURA, Ramiro (orgs.). Quito: FLACSO-Quito - Ecuador/CLACSO, 2013. ISBN: 978-9978-67-400-0, p. 171-196

MENEZES, Marluci – Debatendo mitos, representações e Convicções acerca da invenção de um bairro lisboeta. Sociologia, Revista da Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto (FLUP) [Online]. Thematic volume: Imigração, Diversidade e convivência Cultural, 2012 a, 69-95 [Retrieved on 15 October 2013]. Available at: 0872-3419.

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VALLADARES, Licia do Prado – A invenção da favela: Do mito de origem a favela. com. Rio de de Janeiro: FGV Editora, 3rd ed., 2009. ISBN 85-225-0533-0.



In both cases, the work conducted was included in a research-activity in support of social and town planning intervention processes that would be implemented in these contexts, significantly changing their environment   (Menezes, 2002; Machado, Craveiro and Menezes, 1992).

Though I am interested in further understanding the social meanings of the sentence, now I simply state that whenever I heard the sentence "Lisbon is its neighborhoods" and I asked - to different individuals - on which neighborhoods they were referring to, the answers always included specific neighborhoods - such as Bairro Alto, Alfama, Mouraria, Bica, Madragoa, etc. - and the idea that those were the traditional, popular and/or historical neighborhoods.

[3]    Confronted with the reality, I learned that deep knowledge of what a neighborhood is like is, in itself, complex and  a rather limited though important part of knowing the traditional and popular neighborhoods and, to a certain extent, the city.

     To know more about the issues presented, see Menezes, 2004

    “There's life in Mouraria” became a phrase that evidenced the current events taking place in the neighborhood. Examples of this may be found on the following Facebook page (, in the Lisbon Municipality website in connection with the program for Mouraria - Programa de Ação da Mouraria (, in the website Há Vida nos Largos da Mouraria (

    This metaphor is inspired on the cover of "Time Out" magazine, defined as a magazine about “All there is to see, eat, drink and do in Lisbon” ( In fact, in number 251 (18 to 24 July 2012) the cover was: “Mouraria: Tudo sobre o bairro mais surpreendente de Lisboa” (Mouraria: Everything about the most surprising neighborhood in Lisbon)

    The insteresting paper by Licia P. Valadares (2009) entitled “A invenção da favela: do mito de origem a” (the invention of favela: about the myth around the origin") is especially interesting when considering the invention of 21st century Mouraria. We do not mean to establish a comparison between the two universes - the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and the neighborhood of Mouraria - as they are too different to be compared. Our purpose is to identify logics in terms of similarity in producing urban imaginary in contemporary urban society.