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    What Makes a Good Neighborhood?

    Chris Doherty
    Oct 23, '12 12:29 PM EST

    There are a few reasons why I've been hung up on this topic lately, the main one stemming from the extensive apartment shopping involved in making the transition to Boston to NYC.  I not only had to find an apartment that would fit into my budget scope, but also [hoped] to find one in a desirable neighborhood. To me, at first glance a desirable neighborhood is a relatively safe neighborhood with easy access to the subway and a somewhat lively urban atmosphere). But taking a step back and merely thinking about this notion of what constitutes a 'good neighborhood' has allowed me to use a variety of experiences, resources and media that I have come into contact with and come to a, or better yet, my conclusion (emphasis on my, because of course this is quite relative] on what creates a 'good' neighborhood.)

    (Disclaimer in advance, these are rough drafts so don’t mind my rambling sentences or poor grammar if you come across it, I’m just attempting to get the thoughts from the jumbled mess that is my head down in a more concrete, understandable way for myself and whoever else may be interested.)

    Consequentially, I have also been wrapping up a fantastic book on Manhattan's history called Twenty Minutes in Manhattan by architect and urban planner Michael Sorkin. This book was recommended to me by my college creative writing course professor, who after reading a semester’s worth of my ramblings thought that it would be in my ballpark to read. She was spot on. This book is incredible (I would say was, but I still have about 3 pages left to read, most likely after I finish this post). Sorkin creates an extremely interesting and smart dialogue to keep the reader hanging on page by page by referencing people, places, and memories, both fond and grim, along his walk from his apartment in Greenwich Village to his office on Hudson Street that he has been making for the past 15 years. He uses this dialogue to not only describe the historical development of New York City from an architectural standpoint, but the inherent social and economic implications of the ever-impending push-pull architecture that invades Manhattan.

    But anyway, the reason why this book is so relevant to the topic of ‘good’ neighborhoods is that much like one of his great influences Jane Jacobs, Sorkin is a firm believer in the creation of a good neighborhood does not merely lie in the architecture that is within its physical limits, but in the people and culture of the area that define the very aura, or vibe of the neighborhood. In my case, only being in New York for a 6 month internship made me a bit more lenient on which neighborhood I chose in the end because my stay is transient, but for those that seek a longer-term stay, it would be of your best interest to ask yourself (both before and after reading this) what you seek in a neighborhood because after all, this like mostly every other topic of our lives is relative.

    But generally speaking, people are brought/drawn to a neighborhood as a result of what Michael Sorkin and Jane Jacobs called ‘common interest,’ or a shared set of necessities and ideals that the neighborhood would be able to provide to the prospective resident. Whether it’s the location in relation to transportation, the architectural quality, the social life or another one of the infinite number of things that constitutes as one’s personal interest, some lowest common denominator of the people’s needs are fulfilled by their chosen neighborhood, explaining why they had moved there in the first place (or in many cases remained there over the years of transformation and unavoidable gentrification). More importantly, a good/successful neighborhood offers choices for its residents in all different forms and scales, from grocery stores and restaurants/bars (both local and chain retailers) to parks and public spaces (from the secluded sidewalk to a major park), and apartments (from the shared row house to the collective mid-rise apartment building) The successful neighborhood provides a more-than-sufficient amount of variation to allow a resident the choice of participation in activities pertaining to the individual or the collective. Giving the resident a wider range of different choices in turn will provide a more enjoyable atmosphere for all of the neighborhood, and give that sense of community and belonging that one looks for.

    But then again, who is to say where the neighborhood actually ends, and where another one begins? (besides the real estate sector who likes to use neighborhood denomination as a way to simply posterize areas, inherently and purposefully driving up the rents. A perfect and relatively recent case of this is the coining of the term ‘East’ Williamsburg, where it is really actually Bushwick, but both realtors and landlords like to consider it part of the hipster capital of the world for their own reasons.) This is not to say that there is necessarily a best neighborhood to live in (in New York for example) but from my experiences when searching for a neighborhood to permenantly reside in, ask yourself what you really seek in a community and then take a look beneath the formally prescriptive name of the neighborhood to find one that meets your standards. There’s plenty of neighborhoods here in New York and in Boston that I consider ‘good’ and could definitely see myself living in and thoroughly enjoying in the near future. Who knows what the future will bring.

    EDIT -- I wrote this last year when I was doing my internship in NYC.  I have in fact moved back to NYC and am working full-time (not as an intern anymore!) .  While I was here on my internship, I lived on the western edge of the Prospect Heights area of Brooklyn.  I must have liked it enough because after graduation when I moved back to NYC, I got an apartment only a stone's throw away from there on the edge of Crown Heights. This border between the two (Franklin Ave to be specific, is in my mind the 'fault-line,'  right on the cusp of the rapid gentrification of Brooklyn that's been taking place over the last few years (or as I like to call it, the receding hairline of the 'real' Brooklyn).  For most people who don't know the area very well, or who knew it from years past -- it carries a stigma of the 'old Brooklyn' with it ('old Brooklyn' being known as full of largely low-income/rent-controlled apartments, housing projects and high crime rates) .  But after living in the area last year, and again this year I can say that it is a real great place to live.  Plenty of things to do/places to eat/bars within just a few minutes walk, Prospect Park/Grand Army Plaza within arms reach, and real easy access to several subways (essentially one is able to get anywhere in Manhattan within 30-45min).  It is unfortunate to see some of the small, local businesses that have been around for many years being pushed out of the area to make way for new, hip bars, restaurants and apartments.  But on the plus side, the rapid development in the area is making the neighborhood safer and more exciting than it has ever been.   It will be interesting to see what 5 years does to this neighborhood, and hopefully I will still be here to see it for myself! 

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About this Blog

This is just an attempt to aid my memory by concretizing (I think that's a word?) my thoughts/ideas, since I have a memory like Teflon.

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  • What Makes a Good Neighborhood?
    Oct 23 '12