Feeling connected to a neighborhood is a good thing. But what if where you live doesn't have a real name?

Ask someone from Indianapolis to describe where in the city they live and they’ll probably respond with the name of their home’s subdivision or make a vague directional reference like, “the West Side.”

Most residents couldn’t come up with their neighborhood in a city that, according to information technologist and urban analyst Aaron M. Renn, has had a weak sense of neighborhood since the city and county governments consolidated into one unified entity about two decades ago.

Renn, though, along with a team of like-minded volunteers who’ve dubbed themselves Naplab, is trying to alter this trajectory. The crew of researchers and graphic designers just spent two years combing through documents and hashing out geographical quandaries to do something never attempted in the Indiana capital: map every square inch of land and assign neighborhoods across the entire city.

“There was a tremendous amount of research on neighborhoods that we went through,” Renn says. “Where there weren’t well-defined neighborhoods we created them … it was a little rogue, guerilla neighborhood naming, if you will. And when we were done we wanted to produce a high-quality graphic map to show the areas.”

Even though the effort was done outside of the normal channels of local government, Renn says there’s been enthusiasm from city leaders in Indianapolis as well as from other cities, such as Cleveland, to replicate the project. Even more than compiling the physical map, Renn says their goal was discussion, to get Indianapolis residents debating the names of these neighborhoods, in the grand scheme of becoming more connected to their communities by, once and for all, defining them.

Why does it matter so much that residents feel a sense of neighborhood identity? A growing body of research that’s been gaining momentum over the last decade suggests that strong feelings of connectedness to place on a smaller scale has a strong relationship to how secure individuals feel about their place in the world.

And it’s not just where a neighborhood’s located on a map. In cities near and far from Indianapolis, debate about the names of places has taken on a life of its own.

San Francisco, which has always had a penchant for microbranding its neighborhoods, made headlines back in 2008 when its realtor association came out with a revised city map that reportedly took four years to complete. In explaining the varied response to the project, described the combination of 144 neighborhoods decided on by the realtors this way:

Some of the monikers have bubbled up from popular culture, others have the whiff of real estate marketing euphemism, and some are a return to names that stuck despite the trendsetters’ efforts to change them.

Image courtesy mlinksva via Flickr under a Creative Commons license. 

For example, the Financial District was given the never-before-used name Barbary Coast. A section of the South of Market area (which itself has been shortened to SoMa) became Yerba Buena for the first time. And NoPa (North of the Pandhandle) was listed as the official name for the neighborhood formerly called the Western Addition.

On the opposite coast, New York City has faced similarly derided efforts by the real estate industry to put its own spin on neighborhood classifications. New names for subsections have effectively created made up places like East Williamsburg, at the nexus between Williamsburg and Bushwick, to redefine a Brooklyn ZIP code. More famous examples include NoLita, the space “North of Little Italy,” which has stuck since it first came into use in the 1990s; Dumbo, an acronym for “Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass”; and SoBro, which is considered to be a relatively successful rebranding of the South Bronx. 

In both cities adoption of real estate-inspired nomenclature varies greatly, as residents frequently take to defending their preferred name.

“People take it incredibly personally and get very worked up (about the naming of these neighborhoods),” says Gordon Douglas, a University of Chicago sociologist studying patterns around neighborhoods, public transportation and identity. “Just on Yelp and Chowhound there will be huge debates about so-and-so pizza place and which neighborhood it’s in. With technology, everyone has basic GIS knowledge and will use Google maps and other location-based programs, so it’s always on our minds.”

“The consequences of realtors providing misleading information are broad,” he goes on. “Working families are pushed out of rebranded neighborhoods as housing prices soar. Newer residents pay more to rent or buy, largely as a result of the deceptive marketing.” The practice has grown so commonplace that New York State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries in mid-2011 introduced legislation that would effectively ban realtors from inventing neighborhood names, instead requiring new names be cleared by the city. Angered by the use of invented names such as "ProCro" (a combination of Prospect Heights and Crown Heights), Jeffries wrote in an editorial that “the best way to change a neighborhood’s identity is not by inventing names out of thin air.”

The Baltimore-based* Annie E. Casey Foundation has been examining the impact of neighborhood designations through its Making Connections initiative, aimed at fostering lasting changes in 10 U.S. cities over a 10-year-period. Claudia J. Coulton, a professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University who’s been part of the project, says understanding the challenges associated with resident involvement necessitated a serious look at neighborhood identity.

Researchers, for a report Coulton co-authored, asked residents in the 10 participating cities to name their particular neighborhood and then draw a map of it. The study revealed a striking disconnect between residents' definitions of their neighborhoods versus official boundaries. Altogether close to 70 percent of those surveyed provided a name for their neighborhood, but only 25 percent of them provided the right one.

The survey respondents also consistently misidentified the size of their neighborhoods to be drastically smaller than their formal boundaries. While residents drew, on average, 0.35 square-mile maps of their neighborhoods, the typical neighborhood area was 2.2 square miles.

Of course there were differences between results across the cities. Denver ranked highest in place identity, with 58 percent of its residents calling their neighborhood the same title as the official name. Coulton said in the Baker area of the Mile High City, in particular, there’s a longstanding tradition of neighborhood identification.

Similarly, Chicago, which is not part of the Casey Foundation’s Making Connections initiative, is the classic example cited by sociologists as the city of neighborhoods, with rock-solid resident/neighborhood connections that go back generations. In the early part of the 20th century, it goes, the city formally designated about 80 different neighborhoods. The divisions and boundaries were clear and easily understood by residents, so they’ve stayed, for the most part, relevant for Chicagoans.

In contrast, Los Angeles, a metro area that’s made up of multiple cities and jurisdictions, has fewer easily identifiable areas the size of a typical neighborhood. Its naming issues are less about nicknames and more closely resemble what’s played out in Indianapolis. There’s momentum as of late, however, to refocus the sprawling city on community as well as to reinvigorate a dialogue around what to call areas, according to Douglas.

Image courtesy Laurie Avocado via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Back to the mid-1990s L.A. city leaders began to allow neighborhood associations to come together around a name. The associations could then make the neighborhood name official and hang signs to that effect. The Los Angeles Times, too, took a crack at defining neighborhood boundaries, using Census data and asking the public to weigh in on database-generated maps. What they came up with segments the city into 272 distinct neighborhoods.

At the same time, in some pockets of Los Angeles long associated with violence there’s been a deliberate attempt to change the image of these subsections through a name change. For instance, the city launched an official campaign to encourage people to stop using the term South Central Los Angeles in favor of the much less stigmatized South Los Angeles.

"A lot of the press has done a good job in adopting it, but whether or not that will really be adopted by the public at large is unclear," Douglas says. "It raises this issue of who really does get to define these neighborhoods? That’s what this all goes back to."

Top image courtesy imacnewyork via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Annie E. Casey Foundation was based in Seattle. The foundation is based in Baltimore, Md.

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