Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Great Neighborhoods – Part 1

Dateline: 2:52 pm April 7, 2010 Filed under:

My Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a neighborhood as A section lived in by neighbors and usually having distinguishing characteristics and People living near one another. What is a neighborhood? What do I look for in a neighborhood? What do you look for in a neighborhood? Have you ever been to the perfect neighborhood? Where is it? Do you live in it?

Some will say the truly great neighborhoods of the world are found in the world’s premier cities. Some say design decides what makes up a great neighborhood. Or balance, the right mix of uses. Jay Walljasper’s wonderful guide, “The Great Neighborhood Book,” indicates the answer is much more rooted in citizen participation. Indeed, one could argue a great neighborhood must include sidewalks, but what happens on those sidewalks, how the public realm is activated by people, truly rounds out the equation.

This makes me think of a Bruce Springsteen interview in 2005 with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. She notes that he now lives in a rural setting, with acreage and few immediate neighbors. He says she’s right, there’s no sidewalks. She asks if he misses sidewalks, and he proceeds to explain that, growing up in Freehold Borough, New Jersey, his extended family occupied six or seven homes on the same block as the church and school. “The street was filled with a lot of life,” he said. Sounds like a great neighborhood.

Springsteen goes on to describe that upon returning to “My Hometown” it is not what it used to be. “Where are all the kids on the street? Where are all the people on their porches? American society has changed dramatically since I lived on my little street,” he says. “And so it goes.”

Or does it? Certainly Mr. Springsteen is right. America has changed and neighborhoods just aren’t what they used to be. But there are still great neighborhoods, even though America has changed. What makes them great and how do we improve the rest?

The latest favorite neighborhood I have discovered is the West Portal in San Francisco. The Muni line emerges from a tunnel at West Portal Avenue and runs down the middle of the street. West Portal is the neighborhood Main Street, lined with retail and restaurants, wide sidewalks and diagonal car parking. The surrounding neighborhood is a mix of single-family housing and apartments. Physically, it is second to none – transit, mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly.

The first thing I noticed on my visit, upon getting off the K Muni line from Balboa Park, was the mix of ages. It was a Friday afternoon, and school must have just gotten out because there were kids everywhere, walking home or meeting friends to talk. It may have been the 1950s, except the meeting place was Starbuck’s and not a malt shop (America has changed). As well, retirees were out and about running errands. It began raining, and I saw an older gentleman dutifully waiting outside on the sidewalk with the umbrella while his wife puttered inside to pick up a couple things at the West Portal Produce Market.

The mix of retail and restaurants was very comfortable. By that I mean there was something for everyone. Bakeries, banks, coffee shops, produce stands and grocers, bistros, delis, insurance agents, jewelers, hair salons, laundromats, pharmacies, dry cleaners, a surpising abundance of toy stores and even a movie theater – it’s all there. A comfortable mix, and people arrived by train, car and on foot.

As the rain began to fall, I ventured off West Portal Avenue and up in to residential areas of the neighborhood above the “portal.” Physical relief is another great attribute some neighborhoods have. Besides gorgous homes, this neighborhood had winding streets that negotiated topographic contours; some more than others, as a couple “streets” were merely public stairways that went right up the hill quintessential San Francisco fashion. I ventured up, occasionally peeking over stone walls in to serene back yards, until I found a place to stare out from under my umbrella at the view. Below, the lights of businesses were coming on along West Portal Avenue as sunset approached, and way out beyond in the mist was the Pacific Ocean. Just lovely. If I had a million dollars, I thoguht, I’d move here. Or maybe I’ll rent an aprtment nearby for a month. Ah, face it, everywhere I visit I have these thoughts!

It was time to go. But I’ll be back. As I rode the MUNI back towards the BART and my hotel, a woman across the aisle was reading a newspaper printed in Chinese. I have no idea what the print avtually said, but the topic was high-speed rail, as the photo and map clearly showed the proposed line in California. So add cultural diversity to the list of what makes a great neighborhood.

I want to hear about your neighborhoods. This will be the first of many posts exploring the topic, so let me know your thoughts and observations.

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