Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Geography, Neighborhood Distinction and the Local Media; Knowing Our Cities

The local news seems to portray that we don't know our cities all that well. I sometimes wonder how much more we as citizens could learn about our cities if our local news media accurately described the neighborhoods in our cities.

A shooting occurred in the Independence Heights neighborhood of Houston early Wednesday morning. Independence Heights is a neighborhood just north of Houston's I-610 loop. It is home to what most claim was "Texas' first self-governing African-American community."

When Houston's local news media covered the shooting, it was described as a shooting "in the Heights-area." Would viewers not know where Independence Heights is located? Well, sure, it was near the Heights. But how close is near? Another outlet described it as "north Houston". Again, how far north of Downtown Houston is "north Houston?" Houston is a gigantic city, so north Houston should be more than a few miles from its center. The site of the shooting is approximately a half mile north of Houston's I-610 loop, which serves as the northern border of what is known as the Houston Heights neighborhood. (To be technical, Sunset Heights is the subdivision name north of the Houston Heights proper.)

This is part a further trend in Houston where developers simply attach "-Heights" to neighborhoods or developments in hope of invoking the charm of the Houston Heights proper. (I'm sure this can be said of many other neighborhoods in other cities as well.) Let's not be quick to lump our neighborhoods together with the most well-known neighborhoods in the area. These are distinct neighborhoods with histories and stories to tell. Yes, some of these neighborhoods have their troubles. But, these are neighborhoods with long time residents. These are neighborhoods that desire city services and investment. I'm sure that many of these neighborhoods long to keep some of their distinction.

It's safe to say that the local news is great at generating hype. But the local news also keeps us aware of what is happening in our cities. What if local media dedicated themselves to essentially educating residents through more descriptive geography? Local news broadcasts and stories can provide viewers with great educational opportunities. When we know our cities better, we are more connected and more likely to engage in building better cities. That's something that Houston, or any other city, can't get enough of.

Neighborhoods in Detroit

Take another example from Detroit. Last year, planner Pete Saunders wrote a series examining "The Reasons Behind Detroit's Decline" on his The Corner Side Yard blog. It was a ten-part series highlighting many of the reasons why Detroit suffered a remarkable population and investment loss starting in the 1950s. One of the first things that Saunders cites is poor neighborhood identification, writing;
"Ask a Chicagoan where they’re from, and they will likely give you a neighborhood name – Wrigleyville, Jefferson Park, Chatham.  The same is true in other neighborhood-oriented cities like New York, Boston, even Washington, D.C.  However, ask a Detroiter where they’re from, and they will likely tell you East Side or West Side; if pressed, they might note a key intersection.  While the Motor City does have its share of traditional enclaves (Indian Village and English Village) and emerging hot spots (Midtown), Detroit is notable among large U.S. cities for having very poorly defined neighborhoods."
Having grown up in the suburbs of Detroit, I can say I knew only a few neighborhoods like Indian Village and English Village. Otherwise, I only knew about Detroit's "east side" and "west side". I can't help but think that some of this is attributed to the local media's coverage within our cities? On the news and in the newspapers areas are predominantly described using cardinal directions. Even for Detroit's suburban cities the media liberally uses the "Metro Detroit" label.

Here are some examples from the Detroit Free Press: Regarding a recent sink hole on Detroit's "east side"; not the Poletown East neighborhood. Regarding a bus crash on Detroit's "east side"; not the Morningside neighborhood. Or, regarding damaging fires in homes and businesses on Detroit's "east side", not the St. Jean neighborhood. And finally, regarding pet rescues on Detroit's "east side", not the Denby neighborhood.

While the media may find it easier to generalize neighborhoods, city leaders in Detroit recognize the need to embrace neighborhood distinction. Detroit Future City, an initiative of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation, has championed this point, making it one of the central elements of its development framework for the City of Detroit's future. (Motor City Mapping has a wonderful map of Detroit's neighborhoods that it created to document blighted properties within neighborhoods.) They recognize that Detroit has a great number of neighborhoods that are distinct from one another. Saunders closes his piece saying "[Neighborhood identity in Detroit] needs to be viewed as a mosaic of diverse neighborhoods, each offering a variety of perspectives on Detroit living."

The same holds true for Houston. Instead of generalizations, let's recognize our neighborhoods as descriptively as possible. It would be most helpful for the local media to deliver the description of a place using something like the following form: Direction (N,S,E,W) / City('s) / (Name of neighborhood) neighborhood. The local news is a great place to learn about our city. Nowhere else are we exposed to the variety of geographic areas within our proximity than in a local news telecast. Let's add that level of description so we can continue to learn about our cities.