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.

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.