The difficulty in naming urban neighborhoods

It is not easy to name every neighborhood of New York City:

SoHo, so-called because it is south of Houston Street, was better known until the 1960s as Hell’s Hundred Acres. It was the first to use an acronym, and has spawned imitators. Tribeca (triangle below Canal Street) emerged in the 1970s. Despite, or perhaps because of, its silly name, Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is one of the most sought-after areas in the city. NoHo (north of Houston) and NoLita (North of Little Italy) are now on maps. Others, like SoBro (south Bronx), BoCoCa (Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill, which is in fact flat) and Rambo (Right after the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), mercifully did not stick. “None of these worked,” says Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at City University of New York. “At a certain point they got too silly.”

They also didn’t work, he says, because their residents objected. ProCro, a rebranding of Crown Heights, another historically black neighbourhood in Brooklyn, did not take either. Hell’s Kitchen is equally resilient. Attempts to change the name to the generic Clinton have not been successful. It is a lot easier to rebrand when there are few residents, as was the case in SoHo. Brokers also rely on recent arrivals not knowing the city well.

“You can’t talk about this without talking about race,” says Amy Plitt of Curbed, a property blog. Affluent white New Yorkers have flocked to Harlem, followed by restaurants, bars and shops. The stock of cheap housing has dwindled. Longtime residents, already feeling financial pressure, resent what they see as a deliberate move to erase their history. “It’s about identity,” said Brian Benjamin, a Harlem-born state lawmaker. He recently introduced legislation in Albany requiring estate agents to consult the community on any name change, or face a fine. Others see a clumsy attempt to link SoHa to SoHo in the minds of would-be buyers, making it cooler and justifying higher prices.

This raises a whole host of questions:

  1. Who gets to name the neighborhood? The article mentions several actors including residents and those in real estate but I could also imagine local officials might want a say. The gatekeepers of neighborhood naming have the power to define a place for years to come.
  2. How long does it take for a name to change? Even if it is a relatively short official process – say the city changes it on its official maps – it may take years before residents and others know and use the new name.
  3. How often can the name for a neighborhood change? Urban neighborhoods can be very fluid yet switching names too often will simply confuse people.
  4. How easy is it to define the boundaries of the named place, particularly if things are changing? Each neighborhood is also affected by the activity of the neighborhoods around them.

It would be interesting to compare these processes across major cities. For example, compare Chicago with its well-defined community areas (little major change in names or boundaries since the early 1900s) to New York City or a booming city in the developing world.

Nudging people for good or evil

Like much in today’s polarized world, perhaps you only like nudging when people are being moved in a direction you agree with:

We are living in an age in which the behavioral sciences have become inescapable. The findings of social psychology and behavioral economics are being employed to determine the news we read, the products we buy, the cultural and intellectual spheres we inhabit, and the human networks, online and in real life, of which we are a part. Aspects of human societies that were formerly guided by habit and tradition, or spontaneity and whim, are now increasingly the intended or unintended consequences of decisions made on the basis of scientific theories of the human mind and human well-being.

The behavioral techniques that are being employed by governments and private corporations do not appeal to our reason; they do not seek to persuade us consciously with information and argument. Rather, these techniques change behavior by appealing to our nonrational motivations, our emotional triggers and unconscious biases. If psychologists could possess a systematic understanding of these nonrational motivations they would have the power to influence the smallest aspects of our lives and the largest aspects of our societies…

But in spite of revealing these deep flaws in our thinking, Lewis supplies a consistently redemptive narrative, insisting that this new psychological knowledge permits us to compensate for human irrationality in ways that can improve human well-being. The field of behavioral economics, a subject pioneered by Richard Thaler and rooted in the work of Kahneman and Tversky, has taken up the task of figuring out how to turn us into better versions of ourselves. If the availability heuristic encourages people to ensure against very unlikely occurrences, “nudges” such as providing vivid reminders of more likely bad outcomes can be used to make their judgments of probability more realistic. If a bias toward the status quo means that people tend not to make changes that would benefit them, for instance by refusing to choose between retirement plans, we can make the more beneficial option available by automatically enrolling people in a plan with the option to withdraw if they choose…

Lewis does not discuss the ways in which the same behavioral science can be used quite deliberately for the purposes of deception and manipulation, though this has been one of its most important applications. Frank Babetski, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence analyst who also holds the Analytical Tradecraft chair at the Sherman Kent School of Intelligence Analysis at the CIA University, has called Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow a “must read” for intelligence officers.

This seems like a reasonable point – people can be pushed toward positive and negative behavior – but it still leaves a crucial question: who gets to decide what is worth pushing people toward? Is it manipulation when it goes a direction you don’t want but progress when it goes your way? The two major examples of this playing out in society don’t help much; we may wish that big corporations and national politicians have less ability to sway people but this is also part of having a lot of power. (Similarly, power can be used to benefit people or harm them.) Are we more okay with an individual having biases rather than larger social actors (who can coerce a lot more people at the same time)? If so, then it may be harder to have a large society that functions well.

Claim: Facebook wants to curate the news through an algorithm

Insiders have revealed how Facebook is selecting its trending news stories:

Launched in January 2014, Facebook’s trending news section occupies some of the most precious real estate in all of the internet, filling the top-right hand corner of the site with a list of topics people are talking about and links out to different news articles about them. The dozen or so journalists paid to run that section are contractors who work out of the basement of the company’s New York office…

The trending news section is run by people in their 20s and early 30s, most of whom graduated from Ivy League and private East Coast schools like Columbia University and NYU. They’ve previously worked at outlets like the New York Daily News, Bloomberg, MSNBC, and the Guardian. Some former curators have left Facebook for jobs at organizations including the New Yorker, Mashable, and Sky Sports.

According to former team members interviewed by Gizmodo, this small group has the power to choose what stories make it onto the trending bar and, more importantly, what news sites each topic links out to. “We choose what’s trending,” said one. “There was no real standard for measuring what qualified as news and what didn’t. It was up to the news curator to decide.”…

That said, many former employees suspect that Facebook’s eventual goal is to replace its human curators with a robotic one. The former curators Gizmodo interviewed started to feel like they were training a machine, one that would eventually take their jobs. Managers began referring to a “more streamlined process” in meetings. As one former contractor put it: “We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”

The angle here seems to be that (1) the journalists who participated did not feel they were treated well and (2) journalists may not be part of the future process because an algorithm will take over. I don’t know about the first but is the second a major surprise? The trending news will still require content to be generated, presumably created by journalists and news sources all across the Internet. Do journalists want to retain the privilege to not just write the news but also to choose what gets reported? In other words, the gatekeeper role of journalism may slowly disappear if algorithms guide what people see.

Imagine the news algorithms that people might have available to them in the future: one that doesn’t report any violent crime (it is overreported anyway); one that only includes celebrity news (this might include politics, it might not); one that reports on all forms of government corruption; and so on. I’m guessing, however, Facebook’s algorithm would be proprietary and probably is trying to push people into certain behaviors (whether that is sharing more on their profiles or pursuing particular civic or political actions).

Tracking American parenting through the New Yorker’s cartoons

Two sociologists examined over 6,000 New Yorker cartoons that involved parenting:

In their study, “The Parent Trap: What New Yorker Cartoons Reveal About Competing Trends in Childrearing,” Tabor and I.U. assistant professor Jessica Calarco looked at 70,439 cartoons to identify and index about 6,000 cartoons that related to children or parenting…

The most negative portrayals of children were found in the ’20s and ’30s, but also in the 1990s and first decade of the new millennium, the pair discovered. Some of the drawbacks focused on the financial burdens caused by children. Others noted how parents sacrificed much of their own lives to make things better for their children…

“You’ll see the least-critical cartoons in the ’40s and ’50s,” Tabor says. Those decades showed lots of cartoons featuring parents proud of children’s accomplishments, such as playing a musical instrument or getting good grades in school. The 1970s and ’80s also saw an uptick in cartoons that were more positive about child rearing. The 1960s featured cartoons showing the positives and negatives for parents…

“Our data suggest that when cultural standards increase child-rearing’s degree of difficulty, and especially when parents are judged harshly for failing to meet those cultural standards, the decision to become a parent becomes a much more difficult one,” the study concludes. “Faced with these mounting pressures, would-be parents feel compelled to either keep up or opt out. And as more parents opt out, society sees an increase in the number of individuals and families who decide to be ‘child-free.'”

I assume the academic article discusses this but I imagine there are at least a few intervening variables:

  1. The gatekeeping done by the editors at the New Yorker. Cartoons, like other magazine content, likely has to go through an approval processes. The cartoonist could want to present a particular narrative but that doesn’t necessarily mean the magazine would go for it. So, who were the editors making these decisions and what influenced their perspectives on parenting?
  2. The New Yorker appeals to a particular audience. According to 2012 Pew Research data on American’s news sources, 41% of their readers earned more than $75,000 and 64% had a college degree or more education, and 57% of readers are Democrats. (The magazine leads the pack in the most educated and is nearly the most Democratic. Do these cartoons then reflect an educated, monied, liberal perspective on parenting?

Still, going through 6,000 cartoons over time from a prominent source could lead to some interesting findings. And given the number of New Yorker cartoon books out there, why not have one dedicated to just parenting?

Selecting “The Most Overexposed Chicago Design Trends”

Curbed Chicago identified six Chicago-specific design trends that they think are now passé.

Stylized Chicago neighborhood maps [I have a t-shirt version but not a poster]

Reclaimed wood Chicago flags [Odd – no]

Stolen ‘L’ maps [A version of the stolen street sign…don’t have one]

Chicago World’s Fair prints [No – but have one of the better South Shore Line posters]

Generic Chicago skyline poster [Sort of – a real matted photograph but a similar image]

The nothing-but-a-black-leather-sofa-and-flat-screen-TV look [No]

I want to know whether these are real patterns or not: how many Chicago area residents have these features? How does this compare to residents of other cities? Someone could create a bot to scan real estate listing photos or the list could have emerged from a set of in-the-know interior designers. Alas, we have no idea what methodology Curbed Chicago employed which perhaps indicates that it wasn’t very rigorous.

All of this hints that decor trends are driven more by “feel” than hard data. What’s “in” these days could be tracked in a variety of ways yet it often seems that a class of gatekeepers – professionals, the media, corporations – gets to dictate when these trends begin and end. For example, are we past the era of stainless steel appliances and granite countertops? The average resident or seller is looking to others to signal the latest trend.

The culture wars have moved online

The culture wars may be raging most furiously in a new space and this has consequences:

The culture wars may have changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re over. Nowhere is this more clear than on the internet. Hartman’s culture wars were fought in national magazines, peer-reviewed journals, cable news shows, and in the halls of Congress: all venues with some degree of gatekeeping. Today, a broader swath of self-proclaimed culture warriors can engage in comment sections, on blogs, and on Twitter, where the #tcot hashtag is filled with echoes of earlier flashpoints. Whether the internet is simply a new, more broadly accessible forum for old debates about the meaning of America, or whether it is facilitating a new kind of culture war altogether, is not entirely clear. Nor are online spaces any less susceptible to the imperatives of capitalism than any other part of American culture. But if the culture wars are over, no one told their most energetic partisans: on this new frontier, the battle rages on.

If this is the case, it has altered the culture war landscape in multiple ways:

1. Increased the speed of battle. Now, new issues can pop up all over the place through text and videos on multiple platforms. Who can keep up with it all?

2. The old gatekeepers – traditional media like television, newspapers, and radio as well as politicians – have to scramble to keep up. This means they may race to the bottom or endlessly cycle through everything to stay relevant.

3. The culture wars don’t have to be about big issues but rather can be a larger series of micro battles. There may be no big “culture war” but rather an endless number of skirmishes involving small numbers of participants.

4. Anyone can participate with the possibility of being part of a larger conversation behind their smaller sphere. However, it is hard to know which of these skirmishes might blow up.

“Architects Defend the World’s Most Hated Buildings”

It is fun to see the efforts of seven well-known architects as they highlight the better points of some buildings disliked by many. Some summary statements:

Maybe Tour Montparnasse is not a work of genius, but it signified a notion of what the city of the future will have to be. [Tour Montparnasse]

At a distance, the scale of the skyline exudes a sense of identity and strength for Albany, while at the pedestrian level the Plaza plays an important role in the community. I know that others find it too brutal or forbidding, but I think it’s beautiful in its monumentality and starkness. Monumentality always suggests supreme power, and that’s scary. I somehow think that if you could populate the Plaza with more gardens, and make it feel more part of everyday life — which they’ve tried to do with farmers’ markets and using the basin for ice skating — then it wouldn’t feel so hostile. [Empire State Plaza, Albany]

Monuments, if you trace their ancestry, can reveal disturbing things about the past. Nonetheless, they have enduring qualities which, viewed on their own merits, are perhaps an example to us. [Templehof Airport, Berlin]

It was the first building with an observation deck — that way of engaging with the city was actually pioneered by the tower. It had a restaurant that wasn’t particularly expensive. High rises today are about exploiting the skyline for private gain. But Londoners are capable of being nostalgic too: We have a power station that is now a modern art gallery. I wonder if the satellites and antennae shouldn’t be reinstated to communicate its purpose as an enduring symbol of the moment in the 1960s when technology propelled Britain onto the international stage. It’s a reminder. [BT Tower, London]

Who exactly gets to decide whether a building is loved or hated? Who are the real gatekeepers? This is actually an issue for many cultural objects in the modern world. There are always opinions from the experts, whether from architects themselves who can better understand the process to architecture critics who often write for influential media and can have their opinions heard by millions to the public who can now share their opinion via social media and other public forums. But, architecture is slightly different than say music or other media because it has a real permanence. If a major public building or skyscraper is viewed as ugly, it is not likely to be torn down or remade quickly. (The Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis is a rare example where it was occupied for less than twenty years and its destruction was viewed by “the death of modernism.”) The seven buildings in this particular article are here to stay and, oddly enough, may just become targets for historic preservation in the future because they are important and old.