Reflecting on Lisbon: Community Lessons

Lisbon statue 1I recently spent 16 days in the city of Lisbon, Portugal as part of the Disquiet International Literary Program. Having had enough time to process everything I encountered there, I’ve come to some conclusions. There’s a lot that towns and cities can learn from looking at the Lisbon model. I’d like to highlight a few of the things that Lisbon is doing right, and offer some possible applications for other cities in the process:

  1. Art and History are everywhere. No matter where you go in the city of Lisbon, there’s a reminder that it is filled with the ghosts of great figures. From statues in central plazas to museums throughout the city, Lisbon is constantly telling visitors that its past is worth exploring. In addition, the beautiful tiles that accentuate buildings and make up the myriad sidewalks add to the city’s aesthetics and artistry. Tile is nearly synonymous with Lisbon, and its artisans use this medium incredibly.
  2. Guests are received warmly, and are therefore eager to return. My wife and boys and I had a local family we didn’t even know help us with our heavy luggage all the way from the metro station to our apartment (a long and mostly uphill hike). This family asked nothing in return, and offered us their phone number should we need other help while in the city. Residents: Doing your part to make out-of-towners feel welcome will produce returns! The warmth of Lisbonites in nearly every venue made the city hospitable, a home away from home.
  3. Lisbon capitalizes on its celebrities. Every city has a few key figures who have done well in a variety of areas — whether they’re Olympic athletes, known scholars or authors, or other headline-makers, “celebrities” come in a variety of forms. For Lisbon, writers like Fernando Pessoa, Luis Vaz de Camoes, and other literary minds comprise the majority of their well-known figures. In small towns like the one where I was brought up, Tom McEwen (a sports columnist), Dr. Leffy Carlton (a noted physician), and Myrtie Strickland (a lifelong local educator) were considered “celebrities.” Giving these people their place in the sun, much like Lisbon does with Pessoa and Camoes, establishes a sense of local pride and accomplishment.
  4. Not only are bookstores not dead, they are vital to a thriving community culture. Bookstores, or Livrarias as they are known in Portuguese, are instrumental in stimulating and nurturing the intellectual life of Lisbon. They are also ubiquitous. No matter what street you’re on, you’re within walking distance of a bookstore there. Most evenings, you can find a reading, an author event, a book signing, or another similar engagement taking place at one or more of the livrarias. The oldest bookstore in the world, now known as Bertrand, is also found in Lisbon, and its history contributes to the city’s overall sense of modern antiquity.
  5. Having a community trademark helps perpetuate an image. For Lisbon, the aforementioned tiles are its signature. For smaller cities, maybe it’s a natural feature like lakes, certain plants, or mountains. But no matter what a place chooses for its associated image, it’s important for leaders to brand their location using what it’s known for best. Even if you’re “the caladium capital of the world” like Lake Placid, Florida, or “the city of oaks and azaleas” like nearby Bartow, every place has something special to claim.

    Certainly, there are other things that Lisbon does right. In our little apartment every evening, we could hear music from the local plazas wafting in through our open windows. Sometimes, there was big-band era brass, while other nights gave us Fado (the “Portuguese Blues,” as some incorrectly call it). Occasionally, an Avett-Brothers-style folk band singing in Portuguese would lend us their talents. But no matter the type of music, it was a comfort. Even without air conditioning, our little rental place was inviting and cool each night, thanks in part to the sounds of local musicians.

    I suppose some of Lisbon’s success would be hard to imitate elsewhere. But every city, every town, every area has its own fair share of history, beauty, and culture to share with others. In the end, that sharing attracts visitors, and municipalities could do far worse than to follow the example set by Lisbon.

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