Bond Street & 64th Street, Southwest Corner

Sunday, May 30, 2010

What makes an area a neighborhood?

Sometime, I believe it was in the 1990s, the New York City Planning Department published a lovely map of the city's neighborhoods, a current version of which can be found here.

From this map, we can see that the southern end of Tenth Avenue is in the West Village, and then passes, successively, northward, through Chelsea, Clinton (formerly "Hell's Kitchen"), Lincoln Square, the Upper West Side, Manhattan Valley, Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, and up into Inwood, where it ends at Broadway/218th Street, just a couple of blocks below the northernmost intersection on the island, where Ninth Avenue crosses Broadway again at what might have been 221st Street, were there any such.

Tenth Avenue & 14th Street, Southeast Corner (2006 above, 2010 below)

The map's makers cleverly sidestepped the issue of neighborhood boundaries, and just put the labels more or less squarely in the middle of the named area.

Nevertheless, there must be some sort of boundary or at least transition zone between a given neighborhood and the neighborhoods adjacent to it. At some point we recognize that we're no longer in Chinatown but are now in Little Italy, or have gone from Gramercy into Murray Hill, and so on.

Neighborhoods are not only real estate developers' fictions, though they are — and always have been — that too. Especially for people who live "in" the neighborhood of a neighborhood, i.e., either actually in the neighborhood, or adjacent to it, these areas have, or are perceived as having, a very definite core character, something that makes them recognizable, at least to the initiate, as one rather than another, as the Upper West Side rather than, say, the Upper East Side, as Hamilton Heights rather than the Lower East Side — even though (the reader is invited to verify this at New York in Plain Sight) they may share similar kinds of architecture or even nearly identical buildings or, especially, building ornaments, or signage styles, or demographics.

What can we say about this (reminding ourselves to be fearless in the face of apparent trivialities)?

Well, in the first place, a neighborhood is a contiguous area of some size, spanning at least, let's say just for argument's sake, two or three avenues east-west and twenty or thirty blocks north-south (or the equivalent of this in the off-grid areas of the city).

A neighborhood is further such an area as is self-defined, self-identified as such by the people who live and/or work there or in adjacent neighborhoods, and to some extent, by everyone in the city who has some sense of its neighborhoods.

How do they do that?

Of course, there's no single answer to that question, but one of the most important answers is in terms of ethnicity, based on the ethnic origins and culture of a more or less homogenous population of immigrants who lived and/or worked in a given area for a long enough time — several generations — to give it their unique stamp.

So, obviously, Little Italy, Chinatown, Kleindeutschland ("Little Germany" — no longer recognized as such but included in what is now called the "East" Village — a nominal upscaling of the northern end of the old Lower East Side. And also the unofficial but no less real Korea-towns, Little Indias, Little Odessas, and so on.

Or partly by a combination of geographics and the demographics of wealth: the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side (though the the cyclical fortunes of the Upper West Side show that the import of these designations can vary considerably over the years).

Or by some prominent geographical feature, again, usually combined with some fairly specific demographic, e.g., Murray Hill, Morningside Heights.

Or by some prominent historical feature, e.g., Fort Washington, Fort George, Wall Street.

Or named after formerly independent towns or villages, e.g., Harlem, Inwood, Manhattanville, Greenwich Village.

And then there are the true developers' neighborhoods: Battery Park City, Trump City/Place, Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village.

And the developers' fictions: SOHO, NOHO, TriBeCa, Clinton, which subsequently became "real" neighborhoods. — Is Chelsea one of these?

Of course, once an area has been established as having a given name, people will use it, and thus reinforce the sense of it as a neighborhood.

This is pure speculation on my part, but I imagine that the social class/status of an incoming group has some effect on its ability to call a neighborhood after itself, especially if the neighborhood already has a well-established name. So there is, or isn't yet, a Dominican-ville, and the great African-American migration of the 1920s-1940s into Harlem didn't produce a name change, though the somewhat later Hispanic immigration did lead to calling a part of that area "Spanish" (sometimes "East") Harlem.

Jane Jacobs gave us a vivid picture of how a "functional" neighborhood "works" with her famously intricate ballet of the urban sidewalk, but the question remains, how does a neighborhood as such come into being in the first place, a real — and even functional, in Jacob's sense — entity?

Neighborhoods change, their character changes, they "decline" (poorer people move in), they "gentrify" (richer people move in), they expand (Chinatown), they contract (Little Italy), they come into being (TriBeCa), they disappear (Little Germany).

How does this work? and how much does it matter? and why?

One part of an answer may be that New York is famously known as a city of neighborhoods, a fact of life — or so I'm told — for every local politician: if "all politics is local," then in New York "all politics is neighborhood politics."

This would seem to indicate that not only do neighborhoods have identities but that the people who live in them identify with them and, in varying degrees, with the other residents of their neighborhood who share this sense of identification.

Which is to say that neighborhoods are, or can be, communities, in the sense discussed a few days ago in the post on "telling about society": areas in which people move together, follow one another, have not only a partially shared identity but also shared interests and a shared interest in promoting and defending these interests.

But to what extent do they do this? And how much enough to make a neighborhood something more than a label on a map? Is neighborliness a "wired in" aspect of the human condition? Do we become, or tend to become, neighbors in the communal sense of the word, simply as a result of being neighbors in the sense of living in proximity to one another, so that our paths cross frequently, we tend to shop in the same shops, locally, our children go to the same schools, and so on?

This is probably enough of raising one question after another for one post, but I shall be returning to this question, to these questions, again and again in the coming weeks and months.

I'm raising these kinds of questions not because I have any high hopes of being able to answer them, but because as part of a framework for looking at the photographs of New York in Plain Sight and of "Tenth Avenue Then (2006)and Now (2010)" they may serve to keep the eye more alert for "signs of change" — or even other features of the Manhattan streetscape — than it would be without them.

And because the search for good questions is an essential part of any inquiry, especially, though not only, at the beginning — and in this case (Tenth Avenue Then & Now) the process of somehow discovering good — i.e., fruitful, productive — questions has scarcely even begun.

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