Land Use
 

City neighborhoods: a matter of evolving perception

Areas highlighted in red are traceable to early census tracts in these maps from the 1920s, the 1940s, and the 1970s, when the city's 73 "official" neighborhoods were established. Click on the image for a larger version.

By Richard Campanella, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

I’m not a fan of The 73. The 73 New Orleans Neighborhoods, that is.

Don’t get me wrong; I love our neighborhoods (small “n”), and have spent years researching, mapping, and exploring them.

It’s the map of The 73 “official” Neighborhoods (capital “N”) that I’m skeptical about.

You’ve seen it: that authoritative jigsaw puzzle of straight lines and 90-degree angles, which bewitches bean-counters and bureaucrats but bewilders the average bum. How many New Orleanians can locate the Neighborhood called “Plum Orchard”? Or would distinguish between “Tremé” and “Sixth Ward,” even though Tremé occupies the Six Ward? Or would agree that a single neighborhood (St. Roch) borders both Marigny a few blocks from the French Quarter, and the former St. Bernard Housing Project all the way over by City Park?

Where did The 73 come from, and what’s wrong with them?

The 73 are traceable to early-1900s delineations created by the U.S. Census Bureau as it experimented with better ways to aggregate demographic data. These early “census tracts” were adopted by New Orleans’ first City Planning and Zoning Commission in the 1920s, which called them “districts” and used them for cartographic and planning purposes. As the city grew, new units were created and old ones modified by both agencies. No one called them “neighborhoods,” and New Orleanians continued to perceive their urban space as fuzzy-edged and refer to it with vernacular names.

That began to change after 1973, when the architectural firm Curtis and Davis reworked those extant districts and tracts vis-à-vis natural barriers, transportation arteries, socio-economic patterns, and historical plats. Its New Orleans Housing and Neighborhood Preservation Study created 62 official Neighborhoods, each comprising a carefully drawn polygon with a name that was sometimes familiar, other times invented. Later studies changed some names and lines and increased the number to seventy-three. Inspecting the early-1900s census tracts and the 1920s-era districts clearly demonstrates the provenance of The 73.

Planners, neighborhood associations, researchers, and journalists have since widely adopted The 73. Katrina further entrenched the map, as out-of-towners seeking spatial clarity in the messy city embraced the system unquestioningly. The 73 currently circulate in GIS form, in countless theses and dissertations, and all over the Internet. They are here to stay. And, frankly, they do a decent job of enabling analysts to simplify and report large amounts of raw data in a readable fashion.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is we read too much reality into The 73. They originated from a mere technical need on the part of demographers and planners, but we’ve come to view them as cultural-geographical gospel.

In fact, they are mostly arbitrary and artificial. With some exceptions (water bodies, large parks, and parts of the I-10 corridor), most of The 73’s edges have little or no relationship to cultural or physical ground-truth. They are built around the problematic premise that neighborhoods have strong peripheries and weak cores (in fact, the opposite is the case), and that avenues and boulevards divide urban space (in fact, they unite them).

Could I delineate neighborhoods any better? No. The exercise of drawing neat, orderly polygons on chaotic, contested urban space necessarily produces arbitrary and artificial units. Humanity, like nature, resists straight lines and 90-degree angles.

Neighborhoods, I believe, have soft, porous geographies defined and named best by those who live there. They are deeply revealing of history, culture, and group viewpoints, and vary complexly over time. Understanding them requires a healthy dose of postmodernism: a willingness to question the received wisdom, come to terms with uncertainty and ambiguity, and accept the possibility of multiple truths. You can learn a lot about this city and its people by adopting that mindset.

Reading too much reality into The 73 throws all this in the garbage can, and caters instead to doctrinaire bureaucrats and pedantic activists. It creates and perpetuates the notion that cities are the products of the authorities who manage them, and that space and place are best left to the professionals to describe and inscribe with character. It accommodates the dubious philosophy that those at the top control society’s narrative. It’s the same dogmatic instinct that, in other contexts, leads people to insist that there is only one correct way to pronounce “New Orleans,” only one definition of “Creole,” and only one valid version of the city’s history.

Official neighborhood delineations, arbitrary as they may be, are nevertheless consequential because the resulting polygons drive statistical aggregations of everything from population to crime rates, real estate values, and recovery metrics. They produce their own reality, and I myself recognize that they are necessary. The facts and figures produced by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the reporting of The Lens, and my own geo-statistical number-crunching all require that crude patches be imposed upon the urban fabric. Official geographies therefore influence policy, politics, and resource allocation—as well as the formation of neighborhood associations, with their notoriously uneven levels of civic clout. Officially defined neighborhoods are a necessary evil, an important delusion, a fake reality. They should be viewed as useful cartographic and statistical tools—and no more.

Such a viewpoint comes with benefits. Consider, for example, that neighborhoods are often better defined by their cores than by their peripheries. Nearly everyone agrees, for example, that Coliseum Square forms the heart of the Lower Garden District, and that the Canal/Carrollton intersection forms the core of Mid-City. But hardly anyone agrees on those neighborhoods’ outer limits. So be it! Let your neighborhood perception extend from a universally recognized core, and bleed gradually into adjacent areas. Similarly, consider that avenues tend to unify, not divide, residents on either side. Think how different Bywater would be if we considered St. Claude Avenue to be its linear axis rather than its divisive edge.

Doing so might help us realize that our interests may also be their interests, that our backyard is also their backyard.

Tulane geographer Richard Campanella (rcampane@tulane.edu) is the author of “Bienville’s Dilemma,” “Geographies of New Orleans,” “Lincoln in New Orleans,” and other books. His work may be perused at http://richcampanella.com. For more on this particular topic, see

http://richcampanella.com/assets/pdf/article_Campanella_Where%20the%20Hell%20is%20Plum%20Orchard.pdf

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  • This is such a great article.
    I just got a house about 120 feet from St Claude in the bywater and plan to return to Nola for good this year (since the flood ugh). I won’t tell you which “side” as That seemed to be a Thing with people as I searched for a home, to wit: make sure to look on “the safe side” meaning riverside. Someone even referred to it as “the Dark Side”. I’d always lived closer in, and did the Flood at 511 Marigny, so I’m not familiar with that part of the bywater/ward.
    I remember before the Flood that it was rough crossing St Claude, especially at night. I mean, let’s not kid around here, bad rough.
    Yet, as I perambulate the ‘hood on my work-on-new-old-house commutes, St Claude definitely appears as a (at least potential) “linear axis rather than its divisive edge.”
    Things have obviously changed since 8/29/05. I’m pretty impressed with the businesses growing on St Claude, a tad pissed at the neighborhood groups who would deign to “manage” such a Renaissance.
    It would be good if more people could read articles like this and think on these things as we rush head long into resurrection.
    Thank you

  • Colombian Warbler

    Mid-City runs this bitch!

  • John McCusker

    Dear Rich:
    Wonderful read on a fascinating topic. Well done.
    Bar bet time….
    I have read recent pieces, including one here on the Lens, that seek to include Iberville/Storyville in the Treme. When I first heard this my first thought was that it is a ridiculous notion. As you know better than I, the turning basin and Carondelet canal divided these two sections of the city. Any thoughts on what I am refering to as geographic revisionism?

  • ralph thayer

    Good article; I do like your work. I recall the Lower Garden District where I was an early resident and participant in the resurgence (1972). The Friends of the Cabildo book on the LGD started the movement and it had the LGD go all the way across St Charles to encompass Carondelet to get the Leathers-Buck house at Josephine St included.

    We could never really bring St Charles into the rebuild equation and Carondelet continued its evolution into a service alley for businesses facing St Charles. Even when the ST C historic district was later created, the section from Jackson to Lee Circle was left out due to strong political objections to its inclusion. ST C was and is a linear district minus neighborhood affiliation.

  • Daniel Samuels

    What’s in a name, indeed?
    A great case in point would be the neighborhood now known as “Black Pearl”, or the Uptown Triangle. The historically black core of this neighborhood, known for many years simply as “Niggertown”, was in a sense named out of existence as the area was relabeled in the 1980’s and subsequently marketed for gentrification.

  • Richard Campanella

    The attempt to conflate Iberville/Storyville with Treme demonstrates exactly my point: that different people at different times nudge/skew/redraw/rename urban space in a manner that suits their aims and aligns with their worldview. It demonstrates that neighborhood geographies are indeed soft and perceptual.

    Note, for example, how activists in recent years adroitly renamed the “official” Tulane-Gravier Neighborhood as “Lower Mid-City” when, in the fight to save it from demolition for the new medical district, they realized the area had more allure when spatially conflated with vibrant Mid City than when affiliated with gritty Tulane Avenue or nondescript Gravier Street.

    A similar motivation may be at work in the proposed Iberville/Storyville/Treme conflation.

    Historically, the area that became known as Storyville (1897) and renamed the Iberville Housing Project (1940) was indeed distinct from the Faubourg Treme. The Storyville/Iberville area comprised a open commons in the early American era; its development was delayed because of an ownership dispute between the federal and city governments. Faubourg Treme, on the other hand, was platted in 1810 and proceeded to develop and populate. The Carondelet Canal (also known as the Old Basin Canal) formed a physical dividing line between the two areas since 1794. Nevertheless, once both sides had urbanized, their populations became demographically similar are remained so for most of the 19th century. The canal was filled in during the 1920s-1930s, although the corridor remains an open swath to this day (now called the Lafitte Corridor).

    So, urban-space names and delineations change all the time, and attempts to change them further do not outrage me. They fascinate me.

  • Richard Campanella

    The Lens posted a rebuttal by Keith Twitchell (http://thelensnola.org/2011/06/08/richard-campanella-neighborhoods-new-orleans-treme-storyville-cpp-npp/) to my editorial above, in which I questioned the sanctity of “The 73” official neighborhoods. I appreciate Keith’s thoughts, and hope to hear from other readers on both our pieces. Below is my response.

    Keith is not alone in expressing confidence in his ability “to create a new map that does clearly define geographic boundaries for every New Orleans neighborhood.” Nearly every expert and citizen I’ve ever spoken to about this issue has expressed similar self-confidence.

    And I’d bet a bowl of gumbo that none of their resulting maps would concur.

    That’s precisely my point: urban space and neighborhood identity are culturally subjective; each New Orleanian harbors his or her own individualized geographical perception of where neighborhoods lie and what they are called. While some boundaries and names are universally recognized, most are not. Keith’s neighborhood map would garner just as much citywide disagreement as The 73 already do.

    Keith also argues that “neighborhoods that are well defined have often been very successful in attracting such resources; Broadmoor’s extraordinary post-Katrina renaissance is one shining example.” This is what geographers call environmental determinism: the belief that humanity’s environs drive its activities and cause its success or failure. It’s a theory that has been largely rejected. Broadmoor’s success has nothing to do with its well-defined borders; it comes from its extraordinary reserve of human and social capital, which, incidentally, resides mostly on the upriver side of the neighborhood where most of the recovery has occurred. Broadmoor also benefitted from the support of Harvard University, which arrived because influential alumnus Walter Isaacson happened to be born in Broadmoor—again, human capital, not neighborhood boundaries.

    I’m sure that Keith would agree that the very well-defined borders of Pontchartrain Park and the Lower Ninth Ward did little to garner those neighborhoods vast quantities of recovery resources. And that Audubon/University has prospered despite its debatable borders.

    Yes, we have to break down urban space into neat little polygons to manage modern cities—for elections, policing, schooling, taxation, sanitation, drainage, and for citizen participation programs. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that the cartographical squiggles of experts necessarily reflect the spatial perceptions held by all other New Orleanians.