What neighborhood you live in can often be point of contention among city-dwellers. In some cases, the geography of city neighborhoods can leave little doubt about neighborhood boundaries, as when bold features like major avenues, highways, railroads, and waterways make for obvious boundaries. Other cities have neighborhoods that are explicitly defined by city governments, often for political representation purposes. In a similar case, Chicago’s 77 “community areas”, which often include multiple neighborhoods within them, provide concrete boundaries at a hyper-local level, primarily for urban planning purposes.
But for many other cities, neighborhood boundaries, and even names, are vague, ambiguous, and inconsistent. Where I am in D.C., I’m all too familiar with this phenomenon. From blogs covering the “in-between” neighborhood areas to the repeated attempts at redefining parts of the city “already assigned” to certain names, the practice of place-making through neighborhood naming and boundary negotiation is fairly common. I’m more of a traditionalist, and I want current notions of neighborhood that have a historic significance and track record to stay put. Besides, just because a neighborhood undergoing gentrification is changing rapidly, and that change is not uniform across the neighborhood, it doesn’t mean a splintering of area identities is needed. But stepping back from my persuasion, I would also argue that this attempt to hyper-define the urban landscape is a perfectly natural practice. Whether we reside in dense cities or rural countryside, most people want to connect with their “place” and be able to define part of themselves in relation to their named surroundings. When some people deem geographic naming conventions for their place to be weak or outdated, the inclination is to redefine and recharacterize the place, which is just what these D.C. neighborhood re-namers are going for.
I remember attending a Trivia Night in Columbia Heights where one question was “Name the 4 neighborhoods surrounding Columbia Heights.” “Only four?” I thought. “Oh boy”. The quizmasters later revealed the answers: “U Street Corridor (Shaw), Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Petworth”. And with that, trivia anarchy erupted. “What about Pleasant Plains!” “What about Park View!” “Ummm Sixteenth Street Heights?!” The quizmasters stood in humble silence, realizing their question wasn’t as cut and dry as they had predicted. For those familiar with D.C. geography, my guess was that the quizmasters took Columbia Heights as extending east all the way to the US Soldiers and Airmens Home and Washington Hospital Center, thereby eliminating Pleasant Plains and Park View, while considering everything north of Spring Road and Rock Creek Church Road to be Petworth, thereby eliminating Sixteenth Street Heights. While certain neighborhoods certainly have more cultural and social supremacy than others, it’s not a surprise that people who live in the less popularly named areas will want to stick up for their hood. It becomes a part of identity, after all.
What D.C. could use is a project like the one conducted by Bostonography, a fantastic site that creates beautiful maps and infographics all about Boston. The site conducted an online survey asking users to outline city neighborhoods on a map as they saw them, then mapping the certainty of results. While the problem of neighborhood name supremacy and “sub-neighborhoods” still lingers, the overarching design of the experiment yielded interesting results that work towards a more uniform understanding of popular notions of neighborhood borders. This is really a must read for Bostonians, with its hood-by-hood analysis, and the maps themselves are very well done.
While I’ve been caught up in the geographic shapes and boundaries of neighborhoods in this post, Bostonography’s Andy Woodruff reminds us about what’s truly important:
Although we talk a lot about boundaries, this post included, the maps here should also remind us that neighborhoods are not defined by their edges—essentially, what is outside the neighborhood—but rather by their contents. And it’s not just a collection of roads and things you see on a map; it’s about some shared history, activities, architecture, and culture. So while the neighborhood summaries above rely on edges to describe the maps, let’s also think about the areas represented by the shapes and what’s inside them. What are the characteristics of these areas? Why are they the shapes that they are? Why is consensus easy or difficult in different areas? What is the significance of the differences in opinion between residents of a neighborhood and people outside the neighborhood?