Friday, June 03, 2005

Thesis Check-in

My library books are all overdue. Can't imagine why. I've had some of them checked out since 2004. Not kidding.

Right now, I'm reading about the importance of culture to identity in a little book with a great title: Cultures, Communities, Identities : Cultural Strategies for Participation and Empowerment. The title's better than the book, which focuses on community art and theatre in creating identity. Good in its own right if you're interested in those things. For me, I really want the physical design/place aspect, which is missing from this book.

The other thing is a discussion in urban geography about how to delimit communities within urban areas. This is a rather central question to my thesis, but in a method backward from the discussion in the book. The book says, how can you find sub-areas within a city? They're there, but how do you know when you've properly defined them so that you can study them separately? My thesis asks, how can a community delimit itself so that it can BECOME a sub-area within a city? How do they go about setting themselves off? Is it enough to give themselves a name? Do they have to make physical changes? Is there an empirical reason to become a sub-area, other than the simple fact that they want to be? Maybe the sub-areas in this sub-area should be delimited, instead.

The basic question is still about the relationship between place and identity in a North Valley neighborhood. Which comes first? Which is most important to this community? How can one serve to create the other? Basically, I'm taking the position that you can’t just jump to identity. This neighborhood wants to declare an identity (in this case a district name), thinking that that will help create place. I say they have some work to do first and foremost to organize themselves and make sure everyone has a voice in the process and secondly to enhance the built environment to reflect the kind of place they want this to eventually be.

In a slight aside and in reference to a comment my very smart friend Cassy made when I last posted about the thesis (in February -- ahem), I found a great article by Sudhir Venkatesh about Chicago's neighborhood names. Chicago is one of the most-studied cities in the world. In the early 20th century, the University of Chicago sent out an army of researchers to "discover" the neighborhoods in Chicago and begin gathering data on them over time in Community Fact Books that came out every year. All of that is standard knowledge. What you don't hear much about is how the researchers chose the names for many of the neighborhoods, or adjusted the boundaries, based on their own preferences or in order to fit the data already gathered or simply data-gathering in the future. Then the head researchers, Burgess and Park, spent a lot of time and energy getting the names accepted by the communities, by the city, by the businesses (especially white pages -- which they got separated by neighborhood), and finally -- by the U.S. Census Bureau. Originally, the census had its own neighborhood designations for Chicago, but Burgess and Park convinced them to use their delineations in order to facility their own data gathering down the road. And for the most part, their efforts have paid off. Now these neighborhood names and boundaries are institutionalized and exist to this day.

So it can be done. Names can create places (with help from natural boundaries like roads and landscape features). The question remains: should it be done in this case of a neighborhood at the crossroads of 4th and Montano?

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