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Katie Byrne: Artsy folk and fancy bakeries alone don’t make a cool neighbourhood

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Phibsborough has been named as one of Time Out's coolest neighbourhoods

Phibsborough has been named as one of Time Out's coolest neighbourhoods

Phibsborough has been named as one of Time Out's coolest neighbourhoods

As you probably already know, Phibsborough has just been named one of the world’s coolest neighbourhoods. What you possibly don’t know, however, is that the annual list, compiled by Time Out magazine and based on the opinions of locals, is a little bit different this year.

For the first time ever, the editors were on the lookout for neighbourhoods that had more than quirky coffee shops and sourdough bread bakeries. They wanted to showcase areas with strong community spirit and a sense of togetherness. As Time Out’s International Editor James Manning put it, the 40 neighbourhoods on the list are the coolest — and the kindest — in the world.

The magazine’s move away from the ephemeral notion of cool, and towards something a little more enduring, is both timely and welcome. It’s great to see neighbourhoods finally being recognised for their heart and soul, but it also suggests we’ve long been judging communities solely on their appearance.

The definition of a hip neighbourhood is, of course, subjective. Some believe an area is officially over the day it appears on a ‘cool’ list; some value artisanal bakeries and artsy neighbours. Either way, the tendency is to ascribe certain characteristics to the people living in a neighbourhood when the neighbourhood itself ticks certain boxes.

It’s an easy assumption to make — especially when you see Pride flags in the windows and smell roasted coffee beans in the air. The trouble is that this particular assumption doesn’t always hold true. Not to put too fine a point on it, but cool neighbourhoods don’t necessarily come with cool neighbours — and I’m using Time Out’s new definition of cool here, by which I mean kind, inclusive and open.

Sure, a neighbourhood might be populated by young, socially liberal people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are easy-going and laid-back about neighbourly affairs. A person with leftist tendencies is no less inclined to pen an anonymous letter about washing hanging out on balconies. A person who knows their labneh from their kombucha can have an equally encyclopaedic knowledge of their neighbours’ personal lives.

People with cosmopolitan tastes can have provincial attitudes, as many of my friends discovered when they moved to areas that made Time Out’s 2019 and 2018 lists. They saw the juice bars, art galleries and the free-spirited folk on their bicycles and imagined an urban utopia of tolerance and permissiveness. They didn’t expect the parking wars, the neighbourhood cliques or the dog-whistle messages on the residents’ WhatsApp group.

They didn’t foresee the territorial exclusion of blow-ins by the Christopher Columbuses of Cool, or the Nimbyist imbroglios on the residents’ Facebook page (as a general rule, the ‘coolest’ areas tend to have the most toxic social media groups).

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It reminds me of my own stint in Venice Beach. I was seduced by the yoga-Whole Foods-repeat lifestyle and the cafes that sprinkled rose petals on their brownies. I was also fully aware that my neighbours would call the cops if they caught me using the wrong recycling bin.

Again, it’s all subjective, but for me, a truly cool neighbourhood needs social cohesion. And social cohesion needs inclusion and tolerance. Good coffee, smashed avocado toast and street murals sweeten the deal, but it amounts to absolutely nothing when you’re living in a community where you don’t feel entirely free to be yourself. And freedom is everything.

The older I get, the more I want to be part of communities where people are allowed to live and let live, and locals are given a little bit of wiggle room to make the occasional slip-up. I want to live in a neighbourhood that welcomes newcomers and smiles at strangers, and which doesn’t involve itself in the ridiculous politics of who got there first.

Yes, the window dressing still matters, but I’d give it all up in the morning for a neighbourhood where local weirdos are a protected species, where shopkeepers offer tick on the eve of payday and where neighbours air their grievances face to face rather than blowing off steam on the residents’ Facebook group. It might not be the dictionary definition of cool, but to quote the editors at Time Out, sometimes it’s cool to be kind.


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