What’s in a Neighborhood

International_Blvd.jpgA Sunday Stroll on International Boulevard, Flickr photo by madpai

How would you define the boundaries of your neighborhood? Is it the streets that describe it? Is it the people who live in it, a cultural or demographic group that you belong to, or that excludes you?  Do you think your neighbors would describe your neighborhood the same way you do?

I live on Mission Street, a few blocks south of Cesar Chavez, on the side of the street that the Post Office includes in its Bernal Heights boundary.  If I tell people I live in Bernal Heights, most assume I’m up on Cortland Street in the commercial center of Bernal Heights, a fifteen minute walk.  If I say Mission, they assume the area north of Cesar Chavez between 24th Street and 14th Street, a 10 to 20 minute walk.  No one knows what I mean if I say Precita Valley.  Inevitably, I just say I live across the street from the bar El Rio and most people know exactly where I am.

Berkeley landscape architecture graduate student Robert Lemon was recently awarded the Landscape Architecture Foundation’s Dangermond Fellowship to examine questions of neighborhood identity in the Oakland districts of Fruitvale, West Oakland, and Chinatown. He’s hoping the information he gathers will inform city planners and politicians not only about how members of a community define themselves, but ways the city can improve the neighborhood according to those geographic and cultural identities.

Mapping Oakland is based on previous experience Lemon had as a planner in Columbus, Ohio, and research he did for a Berkeley class on the relocation of the I-880 in West Oakland after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed a section of it. 

Lemon has completed most of the survey work he intends to collect and is now filtering through the data for patterns, which he expects will vary by demographic and cultural subsets.  Lemon and a Berkeley counterpart will create GIS maps to give a visual
representation to the dynamics of those neighborhoods.  He explained
that three respondents will have three different perspectives on the
boundaries of a neighborhood and, using GIS, he will map the errors of disagreement among all respondents.  If a block
within a neighborhood is repeatedly excluded from the boundaries, he
wants to know which that is and why it is defined the way it is.

Chinatown_shopping.jpgShopping in Oakland Chinatown, Flickr photo by Old Jingleballicks

Lemon said that in areas lacking cultural enclaves, it’s difficult to determine the boundaries of a neighborhood, if not for physical elements like streets.  In other cases, streets can divide a relatively homogeneous demographic and cultural group.  He described gated communities as the epitome of neighborhoods circumscribed by physical boundaries, where someone greets you at the gate every time you leave and return.  In cities, with less controlled demarcation and development chronology, the differences can be much more difficult to define.

"The reason we study what makes humans interesting is because they never think the way you assume they will," he said.

In Fruitvale, for instance, Lemon said that most of his respondents were Mexican immigrants who identify the boundaries of their neighborhood by referring to two streets, Fruitvale Avenue and International Boulevard.  Respondents south of Fruitvale Avenue identify their neighborhood as the area southeast of Fruitvale and International, while respondents north of Fruitvale Avenue said that their neighborhood was to the northeast of both streets.  None of the respondents to his surveys consider BART’s Fruitvale transit village to be "Fruitvale" (Lemon did not survey residents of the transit village, who he said might define their neighborhood much differently).

In West Oakland, preliminary data show that many residents of the section of the neighborhood to the west of Mandela Parkway who were previously circumscribed by the elevated freeway still consider their neighborhood to be the "real" West Oakland, despite twenty years without a physical boundary separating them from their neighbors to the east. 

In addition to the maps, Lemon expects to analyze a number of other important signifiers that inform neighborhoods.  As a trained planner and human geographer, he is very interested in how residents in various neighborhoods experience public space, and thus his survey questions seek to discover why, for instance, public parks in West Oakland are not often used as social spaces by residents there (the general feeling is they are unsafe, other meeting places on streets and near businesses), or why Chinatown residents prefer busy sidewalks and socializing on the street over meeting in parks (cultural traditions and nostalgia from busy cities in China, traditional dance and ritual performed on hard, even surfaces, not on grass). 

The results of Lemon’s surveys will be compiled this year and presented at a September conference of the American Society of Landscape Architects, though he said he expected a future Berkeley graduate student will perform a similar study in a few years to track changes in the neighborhoods.  The data for the survey is not meant to be prescriptive, though the planner in him had a hard time halting at analysis. 

In Oakland Chinatown, he said that most respondents liked the crowded conditions on the sidewalks, which they said reminded them of home, and didn’t think widening the sidewalks was a priority.  Lemon suggested that Oakland could widen the sidewalks, taking up some or all of one of the underutilized vehicle lanes, then design in physical elements to the sidewalk that would re-create a slowing effect.  He suggested that the City of Oakland could grant permits that allow vendors to move their wares further into the widened sidewalks and could create sitting areas and planters that would break up the newly enlarged area to encourage and enrich the social activities that currently occur there.

Businesses and residents of Oakland Chinatown had previously banded together to use federal and state grants to redefine several pedestrian and streetscape features along four blocks there, including stylized crosswalks, signage, and pedestrian wayfinding.  A short history of that project can be found here.

Like efforts in Los Angeles to define and map neighborhoods, Lemon said there is often disagreement over what exactly a neighborhood is.  After City Homestead, a West Oakland blog, wrote about Mapping Oakland and readers began to compare notes online, they discovered there was some disagreement about what constituted West Oakland.  Some were quite upset when their friends and neighbors disagreed with their own neighborhood boundaries. 

"People aren’t happy when their neighbors don’t agree with the boundaries of the neighborhood," said Lemon.  "It’s some psychological issue there; we don’t want to be the one that is different." 

Lemon said some of the survey respondents, especially among those were were white and had completed graduate eduction, were concerned that he didn’t include maps with the survey questions.  He heard comments such as "I wish it had a map so I could look at my boundaries," or " I had to go get a map" to compete the surveys.  Others added comments like, "I hope I got all the answers right," or "Now you can tell me how wrong my perceptions are."

"There’s no right or wrong with people’s perceptions," said Lemon.  "But we as policy makers and designers want to understand how people use space."

Though new surveys won’t make it into the current study, interested readers can take the survey here for inclusion in later work.

  • Hey, we’re neighbors! Viva La Lengua libre!

    I liked your New York trial plaza article. Here’s to Valencia Street Park.

  • artemis

    Looking forward to seeing the results of the study—thanks for the update and additional background! An important followup to the study could be some investment on Oakland’s part in building neighborhood identities along the edges of these districts—either reaching out and including them proactively in the main neighborhood, or establishing separate identities to better connect residents and create stronger communities.

    Also, to add to the challenge of keeping neighborhoods straight—the dialogues at City Homestead were actually about the boundaries of Westlake, not West Oakland, which is a bit more clearly defined. Both the blog and the neighborhood are located on the northwestern edge of Lake Merritt—generally considered North Oakland.

  • Especially on the East side of SF, neighborhoods are defined by obstacles to walking. What Johnny0 calls ‘La Lengua’ is not usually considered part of the Mission because C Chav is practically impenetrable to pedestrians. Hills, freeways and wide expressways divide neighborhoods on the East side to a greater extent than the center of gravity of their commercial corridors.

    That said, where are the pretty maps?!

  • great work! This is definitely getting at how we perceive space and how neighborhood patterns emerge. People center their view of the neighborhood around institutions. I wonder if it is better to allow neighborhoods to form organically around those institutions… allowing construction of one storefront at a time while ensuring a minimal compliance to standards (crosswalks, curb cuts, Right of Ways etc.).

    I live in South Beach by Bayside Village and Delancy St. Both were master developed in the last 20 years envisioning a new SOMA neighborhood center-of-gravity with lots of storefronts. Now they are about 50% vacant with only a few promising establishments. King St. (also master planned) is too noisy and isn’t exactly “it”. Instead, the “bright spot” for Eastern SOMA is 2nd St./South Park, which has redeveloped organically into the existing fabric. Businesses and institutions like diversity of choice. Having only one landlord for a whole block limits that variety.

  • “Having only one landlord for a whole block limits that variety.”

    Nail, meet Head.

    This is the biggest issue to whiz over the heads of our civic leaders. Big Box architecture is a failure in Tracy, and it’s a failure in Mission Bay, South Beach, etc.

    The land being redeveloped in SF is predominantly old industrial land. Those lots were big because civic leaders of the past granted larger deds to industrial outfits. For naive and selfish reasons, those same leaders only allowed residential lots to be much smaller.

    Why on earth are we allowing new residential units to be built on industrial-scale lots? Because the developers want it? At what point to we consider the success of the neighborhood after the John Stewart has left town?

    The city’s vibrant residential neighborhoods (and its densest) are built on small lots. The city has a duty, IMHO, to require large industrial lots to be divided into many smaller lots before they can be turned residential.

    Nobody wants to walk down a block with only one door on it.

  • GRR

    That may be true, Josh, but most developers don’t want to build on those small lots.

  • Part of the reason that so much of the new development is happening on large lots is parking requirements: it’s practically impossible to build more than a couple of independently-accessible parking spaces in a 25-foot building lot, but much easier to build a couple stories of parking for a large building. So in addition to overcoming developer resistance, we’ve also got to reduce or eliminate parking requirements if we want small-lot development (which I agree that we do).

  • Industrial lots historically were valued pennies to the dollar compared to residential or commercial lots.

    This is a land rush, Planning has unlocked billions and billions of dollars in latent value in the formerly industrial areas in the Eastern Neighborhoods by rezoning to a very large degree residential with added heights.

    It has not been economically feasible to do four to six stories of stick over two stories of concrete in small parcels. Plans have regulations on lot consolidation which can alter those economics.

    The economic regime under which those plans were conceived no longer exists. It is quite likely that the US will need to ramp up its industrial capacity if for no other reason that it will become very costly (fuel, environment) to move goods around the planet in “free trade.” The reality under which “those jobs are gone” has passed. Once parcels go residential, there is no going back.

    It is axiomatic that in San Francisco we can only produce a plan after the assumptions no longer hold, obviated by circumstance.

    If the US is going to reindustrialize, doesn’t transit and residential proximate industrial TOD make sense as well?


  • @GRR

    True and illustrative, I guess, of who is making decisions in City Hall – or at least in whose favor decisions are being made.

    The city needs to represent its true constituents and impose regulations on converting industrial land to residential. You want that entire square block South of Market? Tough, you can’t always get what you want. Bring in the assessor-recorder, divide up the lot and force the owner to sell to multiple new owners, with bans on re-consolidating the lots. Then let market forces determine what gets built. A lot more small investors will be able to get involved in the land grab, and I’d predict more money would wind up being invested in the area as a result.

  • @Josh, we’ve just seen plans move through the Commission and Board of Supervisors that run smack dab against the values that you’d support and that I’d say were San Francisco values. The only values in play here are developer values, that is the plan must be made feasible so that developers can build irrespective of the infeasibility of the existing urban fabric and infrastructure to absorb the new construction.

    I am wary of trained planners who claim that they can build community through zoning and land use regulation, especially in San Francisco with the economic pressures and corruption surrounding land use. One need only look to the “neighborhood” around the ball park to see what their handiwork looks like. If you like that, then you’ll love Planning’s “new neighborhoods.”



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