The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Proud of This Place

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The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, MN

Downtown Minneapolis icons: the Guthrie Theater, and the Gold Medal Flour building.

Maybe it’s something in the water here (or the beer) but Milwaukeens are fiercely loyal to their neighborhoods—it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the city where I grew up, I barely knew the name of my neighborhood, let alone cared to assert any sort of pride toward it. It contained my house and my friends and a few nice places to go, but I viewed it as part of a whole—the city of Minneapolis—rather than anything special unto itself. Suddenly, though, everywhere I go in Milwaukee it’s “Bayview-this” and “Riverwest-that”. Have you ever lived in a place like this? Upon hearing that my boyfriend was moving from a neighborhood on the south side to a neighborhood just a couple miles north, multiple people asked him whether he was going to miss his old area—as if he might never see it again! This pride for mere city blocks can turn neighbors out to support local causes, but it can also turn citizens against one another. Let’s unpack the positives and negatives of neighborhood pride, and consider why it exists in the first place.

The most productive aspect of neighborhood pride is that it gets people fired up and supportive of local things that could, frankly, use defending. Who else is going to hold a bake-sale when the high school theater program gets cut besides the neighborhood folks? Who else is going to stand up at a town hall meeting and demand that the speed limit be lowered near the playground besides proud residents who take their kids to that playground every weekend? Without pride, we are left with apathy. Pride gives people the feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Neighborhood pride is also a testament to the diversity of the city. Instead of a town with only one identity (a “mining town” or a “college town,” for instance), we have a city that means different things to different people and holds the potential to succeed in diverse industries, or at least to draw diverse populations to its attractions.

Finally, neighborhood pride tells outsiders what to expect when they enter that neighborhood. This can devolve into negative stereotyping, but in its ideal form, it is fairly objective. For instance, if a particular area of the city is known for its baseball stadium (and accompanying sports bars, jersey shops, etc.) you’d probably benefit from knowing that before you tried to take a quiet stroll through there on game day. By the same token, if you were looking for a fun Sunday afternoon activity, you might remember that neighborhood’s reputation for baseball games and head over there.

National Bohemian Beer

National Bohemian or “Natty Bo,” Baltimore’s signature beer

So, each neighborhood has its positive aspects that outsiders and residents praise, such as “Oh I love walking down Main Street on a Friday night” or “Your district has that great park with the farmers market!” On the other hand, each neighborhood also has negative stereotypes associated with it. For instance, “That’s where all the yuppies live,” or “Gosh, that place is stuck in 1955.” Or worse. Unfortunately, I think about half of all neighborhood pride is built up through distaste for other neighborhoods, as common enemies usually unite. For instance, residents might rally around their favorite local supermarket claiming it’s the best in the city; but only at the expense of every other grocery store, especially “those grungy stores on the south side,” or “the east side,” or whatever the case may be. A more severe example: Residents will demand funding for their local school and claim that other schools are not worthy of it in a statement of thinly veiled racism and classism.

I’m not sure how productive it is to spend so much of your time putting down other neighborhoods with name-calling and avoidance. Then again, it happens internationally, interculturally, interreligiously. Why should we expect anything different from our microcosmic neighborhoods?

My concluding question is, why does this neighborhood pride exist in certain places more than others? Do some cities just lack emotion and passion? I have a couple guesses. One is that perhaps certain cities maintain more ties to the industries that exist in their neighborhoods. For example, in some cities, the factories have long ago moved out of town, but in others, they’re still churning out washers or paper or whatever the product might be. Thus, neighborhoods in the latter category keep their reputations for whatever they produce. In still other cities, neighborhoods may have lost their factory jobs, but kept their factory buildings, so the reputation of an industrial feeling remains. The same follows for other niche areas of town that may have kept up their historic roots (for banking, fishing, etc.) or shed them over the years.

Another possible explanation for the existence of neighborhood pride in some places has a darker origination — in racism, classism and segregation of the past. Calling a neighborhood “the ghetto,” for instance, is a nod to the days of redlining when minorities would literally be confined to properties in a small area of town, removed from white people. While some cities may still be operating under these pretenses (and thus keep up their neighborhood name-calling), others have, thankfully, moved on.

Chinatown, NYC

Chinatown, New York City

Another answer for where neighborhood pride comes from is diversity. While some towns may be fairly homogenous (ethnically, religiously, etc.) and maintain a singular identity as “Pleasantville,” other towns have built up diverse populations over the years. This can create distinct neighborhoods where different languages are spoken, different food is prepared, even the architecture looks unique. A classic example of this is the Chinatowns that exist in cities all over the country.

Finally, perhaps neighborhood pride is simply the result of a convergence of circumstances—industry, diversity, and something else intangible, that spark that makes people congregant around a place to sing its praises. Wherever it’s coming from, neighborhood pride is something to be on the lookout because, for better or for worse, the attitudes of the people around us shape our experience of each place we visit. (I touched on that concept in this blog post last year too.) For my part, I’m already working hard to memorize neighborhood names and identities so I can start sounding like a local in Milwaukee. My next task will be figuring out whether each neighborhood actually lives up to its reputation. Until then.

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2 thoughts on “Proud of This Place

  1. How would you compare Milwaukee neighborhood pride to NYC? My immediate thought is that gentrification seems to happen so fast in NYC – and the markets force so many folks to move continually – that neighborhood pride is increasingly rare and neighborhood character seems ephemeral.

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    • Hmm, good question. I think neighborhoods in NYC have strong identities that everyone learns after being in the city for a certain amount of time, and this is out of necessity because New York is so darn big. We have to have our niche places or we’ll get lost. That being said, I think you’re right that neighborhood pride is shifting fast in the fast of gentrification. For example, Washington Heights is the Dominican neighborhood but it’s quickly becoming the “affordable place for young people to live” neighborhood. Chelsea used to be the gay neighborhood but everyone is bemoaning the fact that now only super rich gay men (or anyone) can afford to live there. Ephemeral is a good word for it.

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