When I go to other cities, whether they are large like New York or Chicago or midsized like Greensboro or Grand Rapids, I try to get out into the neighborhood I am visiting. Cities are defined by their neighborhoods, and within these neighborhoods, the culture of the area is most pungent, vivid and tactile. Even in the largest of cities, the five or six blocks that make up the neighborhood of your home base feel remarkably comfortable and in short order you begin to feel a sense of understanding, awareness and familiarity. The details that make up the neighborhood become indelible marks of personal investment and identity the longer we reside within them.
When I was a small boy, we used to visit my grandparents in Baltimore. They lived on Winner Avenue in a row house across the street from Pimlico Race track — the second racetrack in the Triple Crown. I remember vividly the many porches that lined the cobbled street as each row house blended into its neighbor. Almost every nationality of old Europe was represented, and it was remarkable how connected and close the neighbors seemed on this working class street. A walk down the block with my mother always included visiting each neighbor on their porch. There was a French family, a Russian Jewish family, an Irish Catholic family, a Romanian family and each knew the other, watched out for one another and shared parts of their culture with one another.
Only the neighbors could poke fun at the provincial stereotypes of the differing ethnic groups. No one outside of the neighborhood was ever allowed to do so, just as if everyone on the street was family. The smells and tastes of a Sunday afternoon were varied, and the conversations and music were as well. There was closeness and a respect for the differences because each family was part of the neighborhood and their culture became the culture of the street. Summer weekends of Orioles games on the radio with steamed crabs on tables of newsprint and locally brewed domestic beer spilled into the street along with the activities of the other neighbors.
This unique blending of culture, diversity and friendships formed at the most basic level is at the core of my interest in cities. The skyline is less memorable and becomes only a superficial identity; it is this closeness that adds personality. Jane Jacobs, champion of American cities and ardent critic of the urban renewal of the ’50s, felt strongly that neighborhoods were at the core of a city’s success regardless of its size. As she put it, neighborhoods provide diversity, density and dynamism and were a necessary part of any economic development discussion.
By investing in neighborhoods, we move away from the zero sum game of stagnation and fear. Through them opportunity can be created through a bigger growing pie. Diversity, density and dynamism are essential steps toward our bigger goals as we develop downtown and our region filled with cities and towns. Culture, people and experiences make our spaces unique and interesting. As we continue to develop our community, let’s not forget or overlook the experiences and uniqueness of our neighborhoods. Just like the eyes on the faces of our loved ones, our neighborhoods are the true windows into our community’s soul.
Jim Sparrow is executive director of Arts United, the third-oldest united arts fund in the United States and the second largest arts council in Indiana.