Opinion
 

Neighborhoods are dandy, but no reason to settle for the 'official' 73

By Keith G.C. Twitchell, The Lens contributing opinion writer |

A recent Lens article by Richard Campanella argues against the current official city neighborhood map and its 73 “official” neighborhoods.  Campanella further goes on to argue both for and against defining neighborhoods, but ultimately describes officially defined neighborhood boundaries as “a necessary evil, an important delusion, a fake reality.”

I’m no fan of the 73 “official” New Orleans neighborhoods either.  I agree that they were arbitrary to begin with and are now vastly outdated.  Many of the neighborhood associations with whom I work pay little attention to them.  I categorically disagree with Campanella’s assertion that “they are here to stay.”

In fact, this is the exact moment when we need to create a new map that does clearly define geographic boundaries for every New Orleans neighborhood.  I believe this is doable in a way that honors our community cultures – can, in fact, nurture them – and is built around the organic, intuitive, experiential wisdom of the people who live in the neighborhoods.

First, I’ll explain why we need clearly defined neighborhood boundaries; then I’ll describe how we can do so in a way that aligns governmental processes with on-the-ground realities.

New Orleans is currently under a mandate from the City Charter, the Master Plan and a resolution of the City Council to develop a Citizen Participation Program (CPP; some also refer to it as an NPP, or Neighborhood Participation Program).  Numerous cities around the country have these programs. They serve as a powerful conduit for information from government to the community, and for input from citizens to government.

In the South, CPPs are important tools for sustaining and advancing hard-won equity and rights from the Civil Rights era.  Universally, they help sustain and revitalize neighborhoods while promoting appropriate economic growth.

And CPPs are fundamentally dependent on clearly defined neighborhood boundaries, as was stated emphatically and repeatedly by a delegation of city, neighborhood and business leaders from Birmingham, Alabama, who visited New Orleans this past March to help inform the development of the New Orleans CPP.

The core structure of a CPP is built around neighborhoods and neighborhood associations.  To ensure that every resident receives information about projects, policies and proposals that will impact his/her life, we need this type of structure.  Even more important, to ensure that every resident has an equal opportunity to provide input back to government, such structures are absolutely essential.

Without clear boundaries, we cannot know if important information is reaching the right people.  We cannot organize folks to ensure they understand all the implications of a particular proposal, and are able to provide informed input that reaches the right decision-makers at the right time in the decision-making process.  We cannot ensure that everyone has meaningful representation within the CPP structure.  Nor can we uphold the principle of “one person, one vote”.

The need for well-defined neighborhoods, however, goes beyond just the needs of the Citizen Participation Program.

While large portions of our city do have strong neighborhood identities, there are still significant swatches that lack this unifying sense of place.  Working with residents in these areas to coax out neighborhood boundaries will help to create neighborhood identity; in turn, this stimulates pride in and responsibility for an area, key components of civic engagement – and of urban vitality.

In many cases, distribution of resources – financial and other – is based on geography.  Neighborhoods that are well defined have often been very successful in attracting such resources; Broadmoor’s extraordinary post-Katrina renaissance is one shining example.  The flip side of this coin is that poorly defined, poorly organized areas of the city too often fail to attract public or private sector investment, and suffer accordingly.

I do not disagree with Campanella’s observation that neighborhoods are often defined by readily identifiable core areas.  But that does not mean that boundaries cannot be determined; and in fact, despite his assertions to the contrary, our grand boulevards and other natural (and occasionally unnatural) lines of demarcation may very well help to establish those boundaries.  There is a reason why many boulevards contain “neutral grounds” in their center.

So how do we get there?

Unlike the top-down process used to determine the present, artificial 73, and following the lead of best practices in other cities, an ideal approach might be a community-driven process through which residents define their neighborhood boundaries as they currently envision them.  This would start with surveying residents on their perceptions of their neighborhoods, and using the results of these surveys to develop preliminary maps.

This might well be a substantially easier process than many would imagine. Last year researcher Stephen Danley, working under the auspices of CityWorks, catalogued and mapped neighborhood associations throughout New Orleans. He estimates that perhaps 80% or more of New Orleans neighborhoods have a clear perception of their geographic boundaries, with little overlap between them.

This is true in areas as diverse as Gentilly and the Westbank, Lakeview and New Orleans East.  Neighborhood-by-neighborhood maps – often far different than the official city map – already exist for these and other areas, and there is little or no disagreement over these maps among the people who live there.

Nonetheless, there will be those areas, particularly in the older sections of town, where more work will be necessary.  In these instances, we could bring the preliminary maps back to residents, showing clearly where the overlaps and gaps exist.  We could provide additional relevant information, from historical maps to census tract lines, and work with residents to resolve as many of these gray areas as possible.  Further, a process for occasional review and if necessary, revision of the neighborhood maps should also be devised.

In those few cases where resolution is still not achieved, we could have crawfish-eating contests among residents of each claiming neighborhood to see who gets to draw the final lines.  Or we could just let them be for a while and see if the natural evolution of urban spaces leads to a solution.  Other CPP cities, such as Portland, have been able to live with a small number of disputed boundaries; so can we, within reasonable limits.

Ultimately, the argument for official neighborhoods and neighborhood boundaries is one of equity:  equity of information flow, equity of citizen input, equity of resource allocation.  Further, official city acknowledgement of neighborhoods affirms the uniqueness and importance – and yes, the culture – of each place; and it promotes collaboration among geographically proximate neighborhoods.

New Orleans is indeed a city of neighborhoods.  Most people can feel their sense of place, know intuitively who their neighbors are.  If we trust the wisdom of our community, we can translate that wisdom and that intuition into a viable neighborhood map that well serves the objective of a truly equitable, inclusive city.

Keith G.C. Twitchell is the President of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. Since 2003, his organization has been working with residents from all over the city to develop the New Orleans Citizen Participation Program. He can be reached at keithgct@aol.com.

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.
  • Rich Campanella

    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.

    The comment also was posted with the article by Richard Campanellla http://thelensnola.org/2011/06/01/new-orleans-neighborhoods-the-73-census-tracts-creole-treme-marigny-sixth-ward/ that inspired Keith Twitchell op-ed.