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 When some people deem geographic naming conventions for their place to be weak or outdated, the inclination is to redefine and recharacterize the place, which is just what these D.C. neighborhood re-namers are going for.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?
Cultural diversity should be a strength for any city, but when those diverse groups aren’t communicating with each other like good city-dwellers should, there are bound to be problems. Issues of city unity here in Washington, D.C. have been brought to the forefront in recent years as the city undergoes dramatic changes, namely in the gentrification of long-impoverished neighborhoods and the massive influx of affluent, mostly white new residents to the District, pushing out many blacks. Indeed, D.C. is “Chocolate City” no more.
Current mayor Vincent Gray came to power in 2010 in a surprise upset over the sitting, and generally popular, former mayor Adrian Fenty. Despite both candidates being black, their campaigns were exaggeratedly characterized as representing two separate directions for the city inflected by race: an embrace of young moneyed professionals flooding the city (Fenty) or a refocus on D.C.’s long-established, less-affluent black community (Gray). While Fenty beat Gray in the city’s wealthiest wards and wards experiencing the most recent gentrification (Wards 1, 2, 3, and 6), Gray’s victory rested on his strong support in more heavily black and/or less affluent parts of the city (namely Wards 4, 5, 7, and 8) (full election results here). The campaign’s portrayal of Fenty’s leadership style as rude, abrasive, and cutthroat certainly had a role in swaying voters, but nonetheless, Gray’s win was moreover hailed by the Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy as a “populist revolt”. And while I’m not a fan of Milloy’s usual bombast and confrontational treatment of race issues in Washington, his over-the-top language on the election does, I believe, speak to certain, more rational, perspectives among D.C.’s black community. He has a point.
The election of Mayor Gray hasn’t slowed the march of gentrification and neighborhood change in D.C., but Gray has tried to focus on uniting the city’s diverse socioeconomic and ethnic groups, in part with his administration’s ever-present motto: “One City”. It’s a noble goal, as D.C.’s geographies of division become more obvious and pronounced. Even at the D.C. Council level, much of the political dialogue among council members focuses on what is good or bad for “my” ward, rather than the city at large.
It seems neighborhood civic associations aren’t playing nice either, according to an illuminating piece in the Washington Post. For nearly 100 years, D.C. has had two separate organizations serving as bodies “unifying” civic associations across the city: the Federation of Citizens Associations and the Federation of Civic Associations. The Citizens federation was formed in 1910 and soon became an all-white organization, excluding blacks through a formal vote. The Civic federation was formed in response to the exclusion eleven years later to serve Washington’s black community. Today the blatant racism of the past is all but a memory and the federations’ influence has waned considerably since successful home rule developments in the 1970s. But the racial foundations of the organizations linger today, and while each group claims to represent a voice for all District residents, in effect they still represent two distinct Washingtons: White D.C. and Black D.C.
In the respective meetings covered by reporter Mike Debonis, twelve of the 13 people at the Citizens federation meeting were white, while 24 of the 26 people at the Civic federation meeting were black. While the Citizens federation has an unorganized internet presence, leaving their leadership difficult to gather, the Civic federation’s website lists current officers as hailing from Dupont Park, Fairlawn, Northeast Boundary, Kingman Park, Congress Heights, South Manor Park, and Queens Chapel — predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Wards 4, 7, and 8. Recent efforts to merge the two organizations, or at the very least cooperate in open dialogue, have unfortunately failed, apparently due to petty squabbling and political territoriality. While these civic groups certainly don’t have the political clout they once did, the divisions between them are indicative of the rifts occurring in the city as a whole, as the geographies of race and socioeconomic status morph and, as in many American cities, become more sharply segregated.
Ensuring a city can maintain diverse neighborhoods in the face of population growth and economic boom is no small task. But a healthy public dialogue addressing city issues should be possible regardless of race and where these communities are. Understanding the need for cooperation across the divide is fundamental to achieving “One City”.