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.

A map that would reveal what was there before the highway was built

This article discusses a cool tool that removes highways on the map so you can see what else is using that space:

In true public-spirited manner, the map is built from an OpenStreetMap, with tags identifying highways, off-ramps, and exits to make the roads vanish or reappear. However, Sisson didn’t set out on a nihilistic quest to annihilate all highways—he just wanted to look underneath them.

I wish this went one step further: when the highway is removed from the map, could we see what was there before? Urban highways have famously altered numerous neighborhoods – whether the highway that was later replaced by the Big Dig in Boston or the fight between Jane Jacobs and activists in Manhattan and Robert Moses to avoid a new highway or the Dan Ryan in Chicago separating black and white neighborhoods – yet those neighborhoods mostly disappear. The highway seems permanent even though most have only been around for 50-70 years. Of course, it would be really difficult to project what those spaces might look like today if the highway had not been constructed but it would still be nice to be able to peel back the layers. Actually, this wouldn’t be a bad idea for many city locations: what if Google Maps had a timeline component where you could set it to 1950 and see what there then (particularly if images could be incorporated) or even earlier?

The most diverse Census tract in America is in…Anchorage?

This information from a 2015 story is still surprising: several Anchorage census tracts are the most diverse in the United States.

Mountain View, a northeast Anchorage neighborhood, boasts the most diverse census tract in all of America. That’s according to University of Alaska sociology professor Chad Farrell, who analyzed the census data.
In fact, Farrell says the country’s three most diverse census tracts are all in Anchorage, followed by a handful in Queens, as in New York, which usually tops everyone’s diversity guess list…
Farrell found that two things boosted Mountain View to the top. First, there is a sizable white population left. In many other places, neighborhoods that have increased in diversity have also seen white flight. Not so in Mountain View.
Mountain View also has a significant Alaska Native population, which other cities in America lack.
Alaska’s diversity has spiked in recent years for a host of reasons. Among them are its economy, which prospered when other states were reeling from recession, because it is driven by fishing and oil.
The state is also home to nine military bases, and Mountain View butts up to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Hawaiian businessman William Hoopai recently opened a new restaurant on the main drag called West Berlin.
Not exactly where many would expect to find such diversity.

The origins of Chicago’s residents-only parking

An article on rethinking Chicago’s residential parking permits system reveals how it all started in the first place:

The first residents-only parking signs were put up in 1979 to protect North Side bungalow-belt homeowners who were tired of fighting Northeastern Illinois University students for spaces. Since then they’ve proliferated across the city, with 1,466 zones currently on the books. Aldermen often don’t want to say no to residents who ask for a parking zone, fearing the political backlash.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. It is not surprising that such a program might spread. What was intended for one particular problem suddenly appeared appealing to all sorts of people and before you know it, permits were applied everywhere. This is a good example of the ease of creating such regulations – they spread really quickly – but the difficulty of putting the cat back into the bag when such regulations become normal and institutionalized.
  2. Chicago is often touted as a city of neighborhoods but what this means is that a lot of people are able to keep cars as the neighborhoods have plenty of lower density residences as well as single-family homes. The underlying issue here isn’t necessarily whether there are permits or not; rather, how do encourage people to have fewer cars? Is this even possible in a city that wants people to be able to own detached homes?

Gov’t plan to reduce infrastructure barriers between communities

Several months ago, the Department of Transportation started a project intended to reverse infrastructure barriers between communities:

Wednesday marks the launch of an initiative from the Department of Transportation aimed at mending some of those old wounds. The Every Place Counts Design Challenge calls on local governments to identify neighborhoods that face barriers to (or created by) existing transportation infrastructure, and to compete to work with experts who’ll assist in knocking them down.

Four communities around the U.S. will be selected to receive a specialized DOT design session in their hometowns, which will offer “in-depth facilitation of design strategies, on-site advice from subject-matter experts, targeted guidance related to USDOT program funds, and identification of resources to address an existing transportation infrastructure project challenge,” according to a federal notice provided to CityLab.

To be eligible, elected officials, urban planners, designers, and a cross-section of local residents must all convene around a transportation project that is already in the works and has the potential to reconnect communities to essential services such as jobs, healthcare, and schools. Applications (due June 3) must demonstrate how the existing infrastructure cuts people off from those needs, and how working with transportation and design experts could help these areas achieve better outcomes.

As this later article suggests, such monies could be used to counter earlier efforts that often emphasized driving (particularly in the form of highways in urban areas) or development at the expense of poorer neighborhoods. There are numerous classic cases of this including the construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago between the Bridgeport (white) and Bronzeville (black) neighborhoods or Gans’ classic study Urban Villagers involving an Italian neighborhood in Boston. Instead of enforcing outside interests on existing communities – usually along racial/ethnic or class lines – planning today would often advocate for more community input. At the same time, there are still plenty of current situations where neighborhood and outside interests are not aligned and conflict can arise. Additionally, what may look advisable now may seem crazy in a few decades even as we would often imagine that we would never do something as destructive as post-war urban renewal.

Perhaps efforts like this are simply necessary: while better planning could help limit future remediation, monies should always be available to address past plans that didn’t quite work as intended or that were more misguided.

Do teardown McMansions pit developers against residents?

An op-ed suggests there are two sides in debates over teardowns:

Can we please focus on what neighborhood residents want and not what developers want?

Two quick thoughts on this simplistic breakdown:

  1. It is very easy to make this claim because it suggests there are money-hungry outsiders – developers – and then average residents who don’t have the same resources. However, this is not always the case: what if the home or property was sold to the developer by a resident? Or, a new buyer wants to live in the neighborhood and wants to construct a larger home? There are plenty of cases where teardowns pit neighbors against neighbors and this gets a lot more complicated than just having an evil outsider at work.
  2. Should neighborhood residents always have complete control over what happens near them? Having input into a process is different than being able to control the process. A lot of residents might want to freeze their neighborhoods in time when they purchase their home. After all, the liked the neighborhood the way it was. However, few neighborhoods undergo no changes and urban neighborhoods can undergo significant changes over the decades.

While this op-ed is based on a particular case in Raleigh, all together, the developers-who-want-McMansions vs. residents may be true some of the time but many teardown McMansion situations are different.

Examining neighborhood diversity and cohesion in England

A study published in European Sociology Review examines the effect of ethnic diversity on community cohesion:

A 17 year study of over 10,000 people found Britons felt less attached to their neighbourhood when communities become more multi-cultural.

Yet those who moved out to areas where they were surrounded by their own kind were happier, the Manchester University research found.

But the same was not true for Britons moving into already mixed places as relocating there had no harmful effect on how people viewed their surroundings or levels of happiness.

More explanation from the article abstract:

This article provides strong evidence that the effect of community diversity is likely causal, but that prior preferences for/against out-group neighbours may condition diversity’s impact. It also demonstrates that multiple causal processes are in operation at the individual-level, occurring among both stayers and movers, which collectively contribute to the emergence of average cross-sectional differences in attitudes between communities.

It sounds like the attitudes of those moving and staying are important. I would guess that younger residents – more used to diversity – are more open to diverse neighborhoods compared to their elders. Could the effect of moving – which was more positive either way – be related to residents feeling like they have options as opposed to having to stay where they are at? It is one thing to choose a neighborhood that fits your preferences as opposed to feeling like your community is changing without you being able to do anything about it.

This reminds me of Putnam’s study about neighborhood diversity:

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Given the historic salience of race and ethnicity – centuries both within England and the United States – finding consistently positive feelings about increasing neighborhood diversity may just take more time.