Elise Richer plays center halfback for the Flanders Football Club and does social policy research for the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.

Monday, 24 May 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

Defining a neighborhood is difficult. Residents living physically near each other often conceptualize their neighborhoods completely differently, depending on the local paths and people which populate their daily routine. Part of my job recently has entailed helping a community group survey residents living in their target neighborhood. We started out with a map clearly defining what was in and what was outside the borders. By the end of the two-week survey period, however, we had chopped out a sizable corner because the staff felt the more upscale apartment buildings on those streets were not really part of the neighborhood, although the physical boundaries (a highway and a university) around the area had suggested they be included.

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I live in D.C., and my neighborhood — at least the rough idea I have of it — is bounded by the National Zoo on one side and by a small park on another. A lot of the housing is single-family row homes, which means there are a fair number of trees and plants. Nevertheless, the neighborhood is not characterized by a lot of natural activity. The wildlife you’re likely to spot would be heavy on the crows and rats, and light on the fox and deer. It’s true that you can sometimes hear monkeys and large birds, at least early in the morning, but that’s only because sound travels up from the zoo before the traffic has a chance to drown it out.

On Sunday, my friend Mary and I biked on the C&O Canal towpath out to Great Falls, Maryland. We are training for a long bike ride, and only chose to give up our Sunday for this trek because of our hope that it would alleviate our suffering during the real trip. At a certain point in the ride, however, we looked up from our pedaling and chatting and noticed that somehow the scenery had become beautiful. Gray, rocky cliffs rose up from the still canal; on our other side, the Potomac stretched out wider and wider, dotted with boulders and, at times, swirling white foam. We spotted a Great Blue Heron, and a long black snake slithered across the path in front of Mary, who promptly emitted a shriek which shattered the idyllic reverie.

Dislike of reptiles aside, the location we were in seemed much farther than 12 miles away from my D.C. neighborhood. As Mary remarked, it felt like we were on vacation somewhere. We were hardly alone on the towpath, well-traveled as it is by bikers, hikers, and, closer to Great Falls, tourists and families all seeking out some “nature” on the weekend, as we were. It was not exactly an unspoiled, pristine wilderness, unless the boardwalk which overlooks the river fell into place naturally. Yet it was certainly the closest we had come to the natural world in a long time.

Well into my early twenties I had believed I was cut out to live in a rural area, given that I spent some of the most glorious parts of my youth in Audubon Society summer camps and frolicking in the more isolated parts of Maine with my family. Thus I find the idea that now I have to be coaxed out into “nature” by a bike ride somewhat depressing. Of course, not depressing enough to want to give up city living, except for a week-long vacation. Like most urbanites, I need my modern, civilized conveniences. It’s not entirely clear to me anymore how one survives without being walking distance from a grocery store, video rental, or Mexican restaurant. But perhaps it also should be equally unclear how one can survive without a refreshing glimpse of a horizon free of buildings and pavement.

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Tuesday, 25 May 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

This morning, as I wheeled my bicycle out of the laundry room of my apartment building, I noticed something was wrong. The gel cover I had bought to soften the seat (clearly designed by someone with far fewer nerve endings in their bottom than I) was gone. Petty theft of this type is one of the aggravations in my neighborhood. A few months ago, my building was broken into and six apartments were burglarized. Last month, my car window was smashed and an attempt (vain, as it happened) was made to liberate the radio. (My car door now sounds like a kaleidoscope when slammed, as the permanently stuck bits of glass tumble about in the door frame.) This weekend, a co-worker was mugged for eight dollars on his way over to visit his girlfriend. That mugging did not occur in the area I consider my neighborhood, but it was near enough to make me wary.

Despite these annoyances, most of which were pretty disturbing the day they actually happened, the most irritating aspect of my neighborhood is by far the parking situation. Yesterday I discovered that I will be forwarding 20 more dollars to the D.C. Treasury, for no other reason than I could not get up early enough to move my car from its illegal spot chosen the night before. There really is no way to avoid this. I never intended to embark on a life of criminal mischief, but finding a legal spot in the evening around my apartment is like finding forgotten change in your pants pocket — it will happen now and again, but you’d best not count on it.

I think I’ve paid about $200 in parking fines in the 10 months I’ve lived in my building. Add in the car repairs necessary when Blue Lightening (thus dubbed, either fondly or derisively, by Mary the snake lover) refused to start for a month, registration, insurance, and gas, and I’m left wondering why I even own a car in the first place. After all, one of the benefits of urban living is supposed to be that you don’t have to drive everywhere, or even anywhere, particularly in a city like Washington that has a decent subway system.

Blue is the first car I’ve ever owned, and I should note that I didn’t even have the hassle of buying it — my father had the privilege of spotting the ad in the paper and picking Blue up at a good price. I had always prided myself on not owning a car, and believed not driving was the biggest environmental contribution one could make in the modern world. I still try not to use the car too regularly but more for special outings. In the time I’ve had it here in D.C., I’ve probably put no more than three or four thousand miles on the vehicle. Work, boyfriend, soccer practice, and grocery stores are all accessible by foot, bike, or public transportation. In addition, the thought of the search for parking at the end of any evening often prompts me to avoid taking Blue out even when it might be the most convenient option. Furthermore, I am not one of those people who likes driving, especially in the gridlock that passes for a traffic pattern in the D.C. metro area. So really, why do I have this thing?

It’s hard to find an answer. At a certain point I got tired of relying on other people for rides. Yes, I didn’t own a car and thus felt environmentally righteous, but I had friends who had to be roped into driving me to airports and train stations, grocery stores and movie theaters. Without Blue, I would be begging for rides to soccer games and large stores, since the city core of D.C. lacks the necessary facilities.

Essentially, I’m one of those people who would be decisively swayed by a social policy couched in economic terms. If gas were to cost me what it costs in, say, Italy, I would probably just give the car up and settle in for more taxi rides and less travel to the suburbs.

Wednesday, 26 May 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino imagines Marco Polo describing innumerable cities to the emperor Kubla Khan. The perpetual voyager, Polo explains to Khan that when visiting a new and unknown city, the traveler is confronted with the realm o
f possible lives and possible pasts that he might have lived, but from which he is now excluded. As one who has had the pleasure of visiting a fair number of cities, I have often thought that it is the stranger, the newcomer, who ends up having the most intricate experience of a place, rather than the long-time resident. A certain bridge or house passed in a foreign city holds no actual memory, since you are seeing it for the first time; but it may remind you of not one, but several other bridges or houses in other, familiar cities, thus creating a chain of interlocked memories.

Most of us are aware that we do not really see the place we live in every day. I suspect that many people are like me, and do not go out of the way to visit notable or famous sites in our own cities or towns unless we are hosting guests. In all my years in the Boston area, I don’t think I ever went to the Bunker Hill monument, unless it was on a school field trip more remarkable for who sat with whom on the bus than for the site itself. Here in D.C., a city packed with monuments and landmarks, where some famous personage or another appears to have slept (literally) everywhere, the distance between what residents and visitors see is particularly vast.

Walking or biking is without question the best way to get to know a city. In cities with subway systems, traveling underground from place to place lends a disconnected air to the landmarks and neighborhoods you view. Biking or walking between points gives a clearer, more nuanced picture of how neighborhoods shift, sometimes slowly, sometimes starkly.

Biking home from soccer practice, as I did last night, shows me D.C. at both its best and worst. A small green spot near the Capitol Building serves as our practice area in this soccer- and softball-crazy city; I suspect I’m one of many residents who only view the Mall during sporting events. This green and white stone swath in the middle of the city is coated with tourists during the day and with athletes during the afternoon and evening, gradually giving way to desertion, streetlights, and the occasional mounted park police officer as night falls. As I make my way north and west to my neighborhood, I cut through parts of D.C. famous and infamous. The huge monuments and buildings, embassies and national headquarters, are eerily deserted in the evening. The biking is great, because the traffic consists mostly of aimless taxi cabs and the occasional determined out-of-towner. The only signs of life are in the bars which ring the area. There is very little residential land use.

Further up, I detour around Chinatown and the much-debated MCI Center. To most tourists, this is the stopping place for a hockey or basketball game; to me and other residents, it’s a stopping place for the flow of traffic. The residential and mixed-use streets around this area showcase much of what is disgraceful in the nation’s capital: abandoned buildings, vacant lots, lack of commercial opportunity. Traveling still farther north and west, however, neighborhood life returns, gradually. Although the housing stock is of mixed quality, there are pockets of renovation, and the residents who have lived through the ups and downs of their neighborhood endure the latest construction in the hopes the current upward trend will continue.

18th Street is my final climb; as I ride past the various restaurants and clubs which make Adams Morgan a destination for adventure-seeking visitors, I am reminded again and again of how few of these establishments I’ve actually frequented. What I think of as my own neighborhood starts when I cross Columbia Road and the row houses crop up. I am back in the familiar and known.

Thursday, 27 May 1999

WASHINGTON, D.C.

The neighborhood of Columbia Heights starts about eight blocks east from my building, but it might as well be eight miles east for all the interaction I have with it. For most residents of Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant — the gentrified and gentrifying areas which border Columbia Heights — the hard-up neighborhood is strictly drive-through only, on the way to the newly funky U-Street corridor, or to the Maryland suburbs and the Beltway. There is not enough business in the area to draw outsiders to Columbia Heights for work or shopping, and the streets house few, if any, famous landmarks mentioned in guidebooks. The neighborhood’s old theatre has been vacant and boarded-up for decades, and a reputation for crime lingers and keeps visitors away.

This all may be changing, however, and since part of my job these days is providing some technical assistance to a Community Development Corportation in the area, I have become acutely aware of some of the tensions surrounding neighborhood change. A few months ago, we held some focus groups to get initial impressions of the greatest barriers residents perceive to achieving economic success. One of the first that emerged was gentrification and the rising cost of housing. Columbia Heights is a long way from gentrification at this point, at least from an oblivious outsider’s point of view. Commercial activity there is far behind the residents’ demand, as even a supermarket is missing; housing stock ranges widely, with lovingly preserved homes sitting next to those abandoned and boarded-up; recreational opportunities are limited (Rock Creek Park, the defining recreational spot for Northwest D.C. residents, is practically on the moon from this perspective); drugs and prostitution, while far less than they were five years ago, remain distinct problems. Nevertheless, a new Metro stop is going into the neighborhood this fall, and housing demand and prices will increase. During one focus group, a community activist pointed out that Columbia Heights is in danger of becoming the next Adams Morgan, where single white people who work downtown and pay princely sums of money for rent are replacing the working families. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat.

Last night, the Urban Institute hosted an unlikely group of guests: 10 high school students from Bell High School, located in Columbia Heights. We contacted the kids because of their work with the Youth Action Research Group in their school. Last year, they had done a poignant and interesting (if somewhat haphazard) survey and report on conditions in their neighborhood. My colleague Mark and I are now arranging to have the kids help us on another resident survey, which we are conducting as part of our work in the area. The arrangement will be one of mutual benefit, we hope, as we gain information otherwise unattainable about the neighborhood, and they receive training and writing experience (and a small payment).

The kids were quiet during the first part of the training. I wonder exactly how boring and irrelevant this seems to them, after a long day at school filled with the countless activities and crises which make up an adolescent’s routine. Bell is a school hardly noted for its academic successes; I imagine these youth struggling to become as educated as they are. The two boys are tall and lanky, and if anything are even quieter than the girls, who are more self-possessed. When the kids do talk, they surprise me by being deeply engaged with the material. Their questions are perceptive, and their expressions tend to be serious. The one comedienne of the crowd is a senior who is too quick for her own good. As the students turn to page one of the survey we are reviewing, she points out a spelling error on the survey’s last page.

The students represent a range of different backgrounds, as their neighborhood and high school do. Their bilingual abilities are such a boon to our project that I am positively astonished at our good luck. Their seriousness and interest in their neighborhood are both inspiring and moving. Like all teenagers, they probably do not quite realize their value and potential; I hope that our work with them will emphasize both. They will need a profound belief in their own abilities to overcome the persistent ba
rriers this city has thrown in their way.

The views expressed here aren’t necessarily those of the Urban Institute.

Friday, 28 May 1999

NORTH FALMOUTH, Mass.

If defining a neighborhood is difficult, given the subjective notions people bring to the definition, then defining a community seems to be virtually impossible. The word community has such a nice ring — implying some kind of intangible bond or consensus — that everyone presumably wants to belong to one, and ideally more than one. Because many of the projects I’m currently working on involve “community-building” or “community development,” I bandy the word about a lot, and probably without nearly enough scientific rigor. During a meeting this past week, someone raised the concept of a-spatial communities, in the context of asking how one could measure the health of such a community. The more I’ve been thinking about this idea, the more it has appeared to me that most of the communities we talk about — “the environmental community,” “the Latino community,” “the social science community” — are not related by space at all, or at most, their spatial ties are far less pronounced than other binds.

When dealing with urban issues, the words community and neighborhood are sometimes used interchangeably. But there is clearly a difference between the two. “Community opposition” has a much different ring from “neighborhood opposition.” One implies a consensus among people unified around one vision and against a bad idea; the other phrase invokes parochial NIMBYism.

What makes a good neighborhood? What elevates a neighborhood to the level of a community? This morning I’m writing from my parent’s house on Cape Cod, and the questions seem pertinent in this small town. The street they live on is a neighborhood of sorts, I suppose, but due to the number of people who choose to live here only part-time, it has an a-spatial feel. Additionally, it lacks foot traffic and hangouts, being strictly residential. Most people here do not have school-aged children; nor do most work in the same location or come from the same place. So it is definitely lacking most of the elements I expect from my neighborhood in D.C., the aspects which allow me to even define it as a neighborhood — the fact that I see familiar faces on the street, that I see the same pets in the park each morning, that I can recognize patterns in the movements around the block.

And yet my parents work hard to be good neighbors. They are the kind of neighbors many urban neighborhoods would appreciate more of: People who take care of their property and improve their houses, who water your plants when you’re away (and trust you to water theirs), who know the names of the other residents on the street. Perhaps urban neighborhoods like mine lack these relationships because of the residents’ transience and heterogeneity. The people who live in the row houses near me are different from the people who rent apartments in my building; even the renters in the two nearest apartment buildings are different from the renters in my building, due to the varying conditions of the units and the corresponding rent levels. Within my own building, while there are some people I know by first name and others by sight, there is little I know about them personally. We may never become a community, because we lack a common goal or even any common characteristics beyond an accident of geography. The simple fact of our common humanness and our predilections toward hearing monkeys hoot in the morning and toward searching for parking spots at night unifies us as much as anything else.