A Few Ways of Thinking and Talking About Neighborhoods

I walked through Prospect Park a couple weeks ago and ended up on the southwest side at a small residential neighborhood I’d never really been through before. There wasn’t much traffic through it and there were small houses and big yards. It was a nice place, in the way that meant it was a nice place to walk through but not the kind of place that was open for living in or really spending time in unless you had a whole of money. There were a few stores and restaurants along the road where I was walking and all of them were expensive. The rent must be very high.

I think a lot about who “nice” neighborhoods are useful to and who they are useless to. A lot of people do. It is clear that New York City is changing very rapidly in ways that favor richer, whiter people, and people always think at least a little about clear and obvious changes. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t talk about gentrification. But there’s a difference between how we talk when we know we’re talking about something, and how we talk about those same things when we don’t realize it.

Is this neighborhood nice? Depends who you are. Maybe there are big houses to live in and restaurants that get their food from good farms and people are friendly to you on the street. Maybe there’s nowhere to live and you can’t get anything to eat and people look at you funny. Same place, different experience. “Nice” means “nice if you have a lot of money to spend and high status.” I still speak that language a lot, and a lot of people I know do, partly because I grew up in a wealthy, high-status background and went to school with even richer, fancier people, even though I haven’t spent my adult life with a ton of money to spend and don’t expect to have it any time soon if ever. But also, the language of the high-status is spoken pretty widely in America.

Whether or not there’s any social good associated with it, I’ve always been curious about words and what they’re unintentionally saying, different ways to structure thought, breaking down abstract ideas and changing the variables, looking at where words come from until you can see the concept that bind them together. Usually I just make a lot of puns and facetiously take things literally, but sometimes I rearrange things to help me think in different ways.

Here are some ways to talk about neighborhoods that I find interesting as a break from the normal conventions. It is exhausting to use devices like this all the time but it helps me to do it for a little while:

MAKE EXPLICIT WHO “NICE” IS FOR

E.g., “nice for rich white people” if that’s who has access to the features of the neighborhood that seem positive. It will sound harsh and mean probably, but that’s usually what we’re saying. Not everything has the same implied user. Prospect Park is generally nice for able-bodied people. The Brooklyn Central Library is pretty much nice for anyone who can get there.

(Maybe this will nudge us towards prioritizing more broadly nicer changes).

MAKE THE POPULATION, NOT THE GEOGRAPHY, THE CONSTANT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD, AND TRACK THAT CHANGE

E.g., instead of “Crown Heights (g),” a  physical (geographic) neighborhood, talk about “Crown Heights (p) 2005” as the people living there in 2005. While Crown Heights (g) is “coming up” in a lot of ways, Crown Heights (p) 2005 is changing in different ways. Commutes are getting way longer (as people move farther away), food is scarcer, there are fewer friends and relatives within walking distance.  I actually don’t know that many particulars about the details and particulars of these kind of mini-diasporas, but I wish more people knew more.

(Maybe this will nudge us towards planning to change conditions for a population rather than for a location – though there’s a dark side to it, as it meshes with some exclusivist, nimbyist points of view)

NAME NEIGHBORHOODS AS PRICE RANGES

Instead of looking for the improvement of a geographical boundary, look for the improvement of “$800,” for example, and try to think of that as a “neighborhood” defined by all the spaces accessible for $800 a month. Some city improvements make these “neighborhoods” better – some essentially bulldoze them. Obviously there are a lot of complications – there are factors other than straight cost that define what’s affordable – but again, it’s a thought experiment to get one more imperfect perspective and help triangulate what’s going on.

(Maybe this will nudge people into thinking about affordability as an essential component of revitalization, as you can’t improve the cost “neighborhoods” without it?)

Anyway, those are some things that I have been thinking about. Thoughts are some of my favorite things but aren’t much use to the world if you don’t do anything. I always liked them anyway.

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