“This city is very… neighborhood-y,” a relative explained recently while driving us around Portland, where we were spending Memorial Day weekend. “People here are very reluctant to travel just a few miles for anything.” In car-centric Detroit, where this relative is from, that’s not so much the case, so this was novel to her.
However, to two Cincinnati residents, this sounded very familiar. Cincy has 52 official neighborhoods (plus dozens of suburbs), which is a lot for a city with fewer than 300,000 residents. Some of them aren’t that distinct – I don’t know anyone who could tell you where Winton Place ends and Winton Hills begins – but others, like Hyde Park, Clifton, Northside, and Over-the-Rhine, definitely have their own sense of place, including neighborhood-specific festivals, farmers’ markets, community councils and recreation centers. Clifton and Northside both are fighting to get community-owned grocery stores off the ground, because the short drive from either neighborhood to the Kroger that borders the two communities is apparently just not close enough.
It occurred to me that being a “city of neighborhoods” isn’t a very unique quality. Neighborhood-specific community sites like Nextdoor and Front Porch Forum are flourishing. And in fact, Googling that phrase – “a city of neighborhoods” – returns results for New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis, Baltimore and more. (Plus one outlier: Malden, MA, pop. 60,509.)
Thinking about my hometown (Wausau, WI, pop. 39,106), I couldn’t tell you anything about its neighborhoods. There’s an east side and a west side, which determine which schools your kids go to. There’s a historical district with fancy old houses and a “new money” part of town (coincidentally, they are respectively on the east and west sides, not unlike Fitzgerald’s East and West Eggs). There are the “suburbs,” or the small townships and villages to the east and south, which probably should have been annexed by the city long ago but which instead cling to their local governance and school district. Those municipalities have names, of course, but the individual neighborhoods of the city of Wausau do not. At least not that I ever heard growing up.
And that’s probably because that city itself has a similar population to some larger-city neighborhoods. (Cincinnati’s Westwood had some 29,000 in 2010, according to these reports. Brooklyn’s neighborhoods are even bigger.) Maybe, just maybe, we are looking in our neighborhoods for what smaller towns already have as a whole: short travel time to amenities like grocery stores and restaurants; neighbors we know; a distinct identity. It is not enough to be a New Yorker or even a Brooklynite – are you in Park Slope or Bed-Stuy? For the Cincinnatians, do you really live in Walnut Hills, or are you technically in East Walnut Hills? (I’ve heard this particular question spoken aloud more than once, owing to when we did live in EWH and just said “Walnut Hills,” because to add the “East” is just a touch pretentious.)
Of course, in a city like New York or Cincinnati, it is in fact very easy to leave one’s neighborhood and access whatever might be outside of it, just a few minutes or miles away. In a smaller town, not so much; from Wausau, it’s at least an hour’s drive to the better shopping malls, theaters and sporting/concert arenas. But if your goal is to leave your few square blocks as little as possible, maybe you could live in a smaller town and never notice the difference.