What, exactly, is a neighborhood? People on all sides of the urban conversation talk about neighborhoods, trotting them out to support everything from transit oriented development to the suburban status quo, from Smart Growth to no growth. Formal definitions vary, but few include criteria beyond a set of distinctive characteristics shared by a contiguous geographic area inhabited by people who behave neighborly. Which, despite its vagueness, sounds sensible enough. Imprecise, but sensible. And yet, when I think about the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, or spent time in, few of them fit even this ambiguous definition.
According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center:
The term neighborhood has many meanings and uses. For example, neighborhood can be used to refer to the small group of houses in the immediate vicinity of one’s house or to a larger area with similar housing types and market values.
Neighborhood is also used to describe an area surrounding a local institution patronized by residents, such as a church, school, or social agency. It can also be defined by a political ward or precinct. The concept of neighborhood includes both geographic (place-oriented) and social (people-oriented) components.
The neighborhood I live in is called Laurel Park, or “Historic Laurel Park,” depending on who’s doing the calling. I know it’s a neighborhood because the Laurel Park Neighborhood Association says so. They have signs, I’ve seen ’em. And meetings. They sponsor periodic events in the eponymous pocket park, such as the Christmas Tree Lighting, the ’50s Sock Hop Social, and several potlucks throughout the year. They put out a newsletter—is it quarterly?—that informs residents which houses have sold, what events are upcoming, and what was decided at the last neighborhood association meeting.
I’ve never actually met any of the people whose names appear on the masthead, and I wonder whether a neighborhood that requires a newsletter for its residents to know what’s happening in their own backyard is, in fact, a neighborhood, but maybe I’m picking nits. Laurel Park does share a set of distinctive characteristics (mostly residential, mostly cottage-y detached single family homes mostly owned or rented by white people with mostly middle class incomes). It is a contiguous geographic district. And its residents do act neighborly. At least, they did last quarter. I read about it in the newsletter.
Sarasota, Florida, the town in which Laurel Park finds itself, has two primary north-south arterials: U.S. 41, also known as Tamiami Trail and, briefly, as Mound Street, and State Road 301, also known as Washington Boulevard. The two roads are the same until 41 breaks west toward Sarasota Bay, becomes Mound Street—forming Laurel Park’s southern boundary—and then continues to run north, parallel to 301, as Tamiami Trail. Orange Avenue bisects Mound and separates Laurel Park from Burns Square to the west, while Ringling Boulevard connects 41 and 301 along the neighborhood’s northern border. 301 stays the course, protecting Laurel Park’s eastern flank from less desirable enclaves on the wrong side of now defunct railroad tracks with extraordinary hostility to pedestrians and cyclists.
It seems to me that this—definition via auto routes—is at least as responsible for Laurel Park’s designation as a neighborhood as any other set of shared characteristics, and probably more so. It is logical to use roads to define the limits of a neighborhood. Zoning changes tend to occur along roads, which in turn tend to make changes in the prevailing built environment occur along roads as well. But such sharp change, in my experience, creates urban islands more often than what I think of when someone refers to a neighborhood.
New Urbanists tell me that a neighborhood is by definition mixed-use, though I’m not sure whose definition they’re referring to. You can’t have a neighborhood without a corner grocery store, they say. Without a third-place hub or two where everybody knows your name. Neighborhoods, in their minds, are synonymous with villages, or at least similar enough that the differences aren’t worth quibbling over. There’s a school, a church or two, a market, a park, perhaps some artisanal shops, a post office. Houses spring up around them so that everybody lives within 1/4 mile or so of each other and everything else they might need.
Laurel Park is mostly zoned for residential use only, and so the neighborhood feels primarily residential. There is, however, a small art colony called Towles Court in its northeast corner that incongruously features not only artists but two restaurants, a dentist, a law office, a massage therapist, a bail bonds company, and a coffee shop. The coffee shop is new, its coffee isn’t very good, and it doesn’t seem likely that it will develop much of a clientele. Which is disappointing, especially given that Towles Court seems designed to be a sort of neighborhood hub (more on Towles Court in an upcoming post). It’s a beautiful place, but instead of a market or the various other retail offerings that New Urbanists tout as central facets of a neighborhood, Towles Court caters more to tourists. That’s not unusual in Sarasota, nor the rest of Florida.
Jane Jacobs, as she was wont to do, had much to say about neighborhoods. “Unfortunately, orthodox planning theory is deeply committed to the ideal of supposedly cozy, inward-turned city neighborhoods,” Jacobs wrote. “In its pure form, the ideal is a neighborhood composed of about 7,000 persons, a unit supposedly of sufficient size to populate an elementary school and to support convenience shopping and a community center.” Jacobs certainly seems to be describing the traditional sort of neighborhood preferred by New Urbanists. Laurel Park isn’t like this, though. There’s no elementary school, no convenience shopping, no community center. I don’t know exactly how many people live here, but it’s probably no more than 1500, and I’d be surprised if it’s all of that.
Jacobs continues: “In a town of 5,000 or 10,000 population, if you go to Main Street (analogous to the consolidated commercial facilities or community center for a planned neighborhood), you run into people you also know at work, or went to school with, or see at church, or people who are your children’s teachers, or who have sold or given you professional or artisan’s services, or whom you know to be friends of your casual acquaintances, or who you know by reputation. Within the limits of a town or village, the connections among its people keep crossing and recrossing and this can make workable and essentially cohesive communities out of even larger towns than those of 7,000 population, and to some extent out of little cities.”
Adjacent to the Towles Court Art Colony there’s a hair salon, another massage therapist, and an odd commercial strip facing away from the neighborhood that includes a comic book shop, a yoga studio, another bail bonds company, a nail salon, and a barber. Further down there’s a bank, a couple more restaurants, an assisted living facility. Still nowhere for me to pick up some fresh vegetables for dinner and waste time catching up with neighbors. Nowhere I need to go on a regular basis. And anyway, Laurel Park’s retail activity is kept to its perimeter. The only people I encounter on the street are walking their dog. They usually nod and offer some greeting without stopping.
Maybe, however, Laurel Park isn’t a traditional small town neighborhood, nor a modern facsimile thereof, despite prevailing architectural and social mores to the contrary. Maybe it is a Jacobsian city neighborhood writ small. It borders Sarasota’s downtown core, after all, and draws within a block of Main Street. “The lack of either economic or social self-containment is natural and necessary to city neighborhoods—simply because they are part of cities,” Jacobs writes. Maybe Laurel Park doesn’t have its own services and amenities because these things can be found on Main Street, just a short walk away. The qualities of city neighborhoods “cannot work at cross-purposes to thoroughgoing city mobility and fluidity of use, without economically weakening the city of which they are a part,” asserts Jacobs. I mentally superimpose this image on Laurel Park, but again I am stymied.
Despite its proximity to the city’s commercial core there is no spillover here. Of course, why would there be? What would draw them? Besides, except for Orange Avenue the broad roads that define Laurel Park are as effective at keeping out pedestrians as medieval city walls were at keeping the barbarians at bay. Meaning, until a critical mass of thousands of pedestrians starved for semi-historic homes stops traffic the sidewalks of Laurel Park are safe from being trod on. New Urbanists might be a folksy lot, but that doesn’t make them necessarily wrong. In my opinion, Laurel Park could stand a bit more street life. Mixed-use zoning could serve the dual purpose of providing residents with walkable services and horrifying the neighborhood association ladies. Win-win.
I’m getting more than a bit long-winded here, probably because I am getting hung up on trying to find answers where none are readily available. I should, instead, remain focused on the question. What, exactly, is a neighborhood? Jane Jacobs offers a last piece of advice concerning neighborhoods that I’ll share here:
“We shall have something solid to chew on if we think of city neighborhoods as mundane organs of self-government. Our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes at localized self-government. I am using self-government in its broadest sense, meaning both the informal and formal management of society.”
The Mongols of the thirteenth century were the most effective conquering force the world has ever known—and their empire remained more or less cohesive as they expanded despite an eventual reach from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan—because they were masters of self-government. A Rule of 10 was followed whereby no one was responsible for more than 10 other people. A general might be responsible for 10 colonels or whatever, for example, who were each in turn responsible for 10 lieutenants, and so on down the line. I’m oversimplifying things, but the salient point is that so long as each man looked out for the 10 others under his command the empire held. The whole was strong because each part was strong. Each part could remain strong because its load was manageable, and because the next rung on the ladder in either direction was always within reach. The strength of this system also allowed a degree of individuality and flexibility on the part of leaders at every level. It could bend without breaking.
I don’t know whether neighborhoods would do well to emulate the Mongols. Certainly, the example set by the 1258 Siege of Baghdad, in which between 100,000 and 1,000,000 people were massacred, is probably not something Laurel Park should aspire to. But the demonstrated ability to self-govern, both informally and formally, seems an essential quality for a neighborhood. And I’m not sure that the mere existence of a neighborhood association, even a tyrannical one, qualifies.
My intention here is not to criticize Laurel Park. Not so long ago, it was a patchwork of crack houses, slum apartments, and houses so dilapidated they would only have been referred to as “historic” by their mothers. Downtown as a whole was an unsavory place. The sustained efforts of a handful of dedicated residents have revitalized the area and restored much of its original charm and character. And they did so without the total whitewashing of many renewal campaigns. Laurel Park still has affordable apartments. It still has a fair number of expats from Margaritaville. It probably still has a crack house or two. Everything I need is—if not in the neighborhood itself—within a short walk or bike ride, and there are enough trees to support thousands of squirrels, little birds of all stripes, shy garden snakes, the occasional hawk, and the odd feral cat.
I poke fun at the neighborhood association ladies because they seem uptight and fearful—based on what I read in the newsletter, at least; like I said, I’ve never actually met any of them—but they’ve worked hard to make Laurel Park a nice, quiet neighborhood, and it is. There are few places in Sarasota I’d rather live. Laurel Park is, above all, a good place, if also an incomplete one, like thousands of other neighborhoods across the United States. My ribbing, then, is directed more at American urbanism than at a single neighborhood, as are my questions.
So. If Laurel Park isn’t a self-contained, village-type neighborhood (like Pacific Palisades, CA), and it isn’t a Jacobsian city neighborhood (like Boston’s Back Bay), and it isn’t anchored by a commercial strip (like the Montana Ave neighborhood where I lived in Santa Monica, CA) or a local institution such as a school (like Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA) or a particularly vibrant residential street (such as the Methyl Street of my youth in Providence, RI), and it isn’t defined by an ethnic or cultural minority (as is Boston’s North End), then what kind of neighborhood, exactly, is it? And does the definition even matter?
The Greater New Orleans Community Data Center answers the latter question by saying:
These many interpretations lead to a healthy debate on what boundaries are most useful in neighborhood planning efforts. Academically, every field has a different logic for their definition. Neighborhood associations and community groups offer their interpretations. City Planning departments often designate neighborhood boundaries along census tract boundaries. And, in fact, community residents quite frequently have a very different mental map of their neighborhood than the officially designated neighborhood areas used by planners and policymakers.
All definitions are important and meaningful. The question is how one begins to create agreement over the definitions so that the debate focuses not on boundary definitions but on how to make positive changes in the neighborhoods.
That seems, to me, like a good place to start.