Thursday, September 29, 2005

Part II of the Introduction: Identity

Besides identity, the other groups seem self-explanatory and tended to be what they appeared. Traffic, as the catalyst behind the entire visioning strategy, was to deal with increased congestion on 4th Street for these residents, whose only ingress and egress to their homes was 4th Street. Trails are actually formed from the system of acequia, or irrigation, ditches, one of the special physical features of area, as well as an important cultural reminder of this area’s history of agricultural fields. Not only do these trails serve at some of the only remaining recreational open space in this area, they serve as the connective tissue in neighborhoods that are not always connected by roads. These acequia trails are what connects neighborhoods that look nothing alike or relate directly to each other in space. Economic revitalization is a common desire for neighborhoods with some commercial activity. In this case, these residents believed if they could improve 4th Street as a commercial corridor, then not only are their property values raised, their quality of life also improves.

Identity, though, is an interesting one. Here is a group that is NOT a place – because of the way the neighborhoods were originally constructed and because of Montaño that now separates them – coming together to create an identity for themselves.

Within the Identity group, several priority strategies were identified, in the order that they were proposed:

1. Choose a name to reinforce a district identity

2. Identify or Build Community Meeting Space

3. Make Streetscape Improvements to Enhance 4th Street character

4. Construct Gateways to Ditch pathways and District

The underlying concerns that they had in moving forward with these strategies involved four values:

· Rural: Maintain the quality of rural life and greenery

· Commercial: Support the business community & engender local use of services

· Historic: Preserve and celebrate historic roots of community

· Community: Maintain and support sense of community closeness

These concerns were all voiced as part and parcel in the interest of thinking about and achieving identity. As community goals, they may not seem that surprising, but what do they tell us about how these residents are defining identity? Everyone agreed that identity was a desirable goal even as they talked about it in different ways:

· As a district for marketing purposes like Nob Hill in the interest of economic revitalization that will support and enliven the commercial activity on 4th Street.

· As cultural capital that can be used to celebrate the history of the area and practicing cultures of its current residents (partly for legitimate and partly for exploitive purposes)

· As a name. One youth member of the identity group explained that he wants to be able to say, “I live here.” Friends ask where he lives, and he uses his neighborhood name (Los Alamos Addition). They as, “Where’s that?” and he’s forced to say, “It’s near 4th and Montaño.” “Oh!” they say, “ I know where that is.” Like other residents, this youth wants a place name to can answer that questions so that when he uses it, his friends know where he means, the way residents can say they live in Nob Hill, or even Ridgecrest, and most people know where they mean. The fact that residents in the 4th and Montaño area have to identify where they live with the very feature that makes their lives miserable, separates them from neighbors, and turns its back on them, is an irony that should not endure.

· As place. Residents also spent quite a bit of time talking about physical improvements, both streetscape improvements to 4th Street and signage/gateway elements to link trails, commercial areas, and neighborhoods. Having a community meeting place was also talked about as an important step toward building identity.

In one sense, the whole idea of a neighborhood that’s not a neighborhood coming together to say we want an identity seems backward. We tend to assume it normally works the other way. Identity arises over time, doesn’t it? Doesn’t the neighborhood arising over time give organizational capital to its community?

There is some evidence to the contrary. Even in the case of Chicago, perhaps the most famous example of a city made up of neighborhoods, “natural” neighborhood idenity that spontaneously arises may be a myth. The famous University of Chicago sociologists Park and Burgess put Chicago on the map as a case study for the sociological investigation of sub-units of the city, first in “identifying” neighborhoods but more importantly institutionalizing and immortalizing them with a yearly “Local Fact Book” that persists to this day. Recent scholarship has shown that these ‘natural neighborhoods’ were actually chosen by the sociologists over other permutations for their studiability. In some cases, they even chose among names given by residents for aesthetic reasons. In addition, and perhaps more insidiously, the institutionalization of these neighborhood names involved a concerted lobbying effort by the sociologists with local businesses, the city’s telephone directory, and at the largest scale, the United States Census Bureau. The sociologists needed a reliable source of data over time, so they got the Census Bureau to change its boundaries and/or add the neighborhoods as place names in order to comparable data across time.

In more recent examples, the business community in an area gets together to choose a name for a district in the interest of marketing for revitalization purposes. Names typically chosen literally capitalize on some cultural or historical element associated, sometimes quite loosely, with the area. This practice raises issues of appropriating culture that belongs to residents sometimes long gone or history long ago paved over. In these cases it must be asked, who of the original practitioners of this culture or participants in that history are left to resurrect it, and for what ends? Who benefits? Who’s left there to pay?

In the case of the 4th and Montaño Improvement Coalition, the names suggested during the second workshop referenced 4th Street’s history as part of the El Camino Real or sought to find a combination of Spanish words that would conjure the feeling of the area’s once-predominant Hispanic culture. It is important to look carefully at who was there having this conversation and suggesting these names and who wasn’t. Compared to the current demographics of the area, whose culture was being represented, and by which residents? A look at the list of attendees compared to current and past demographic information should begin to illuminate a certain picture of the appropriateness or potential co-optation taking place. If it is found that the participants in the workshop were mostly residents having moved to the area in the past ten to fifteen years, what are the boundaries of appropriateness for the history they have access to in choosing a name for their district? If they want broader participation in the process of choosing a name, how will they assure that long-time residents and residents from cultures, such as traditional Hispanic household, that do not have the same practices of formal neighborhood meetings, have equal or meaningful participation?

On another level, there is a broader issue about the participants’ implicit assumption that identity itself will lead to changes in place. Afterall, identity is one component of a neighborhood strategy to implement a community vision. Naming is a perfectly logically and reasonable instinct. After all, by definition, a name will marry a place with an identity. In order for this to work, there has to be a place to begin with that can be married to an identity. In this particular case, the 4th Street and Montaño Improvement Coalition decided, strategically but in the larger sense arbitrarily, the boundaries of this “place” based on the area left out of all other city plans. But a place left out of the planning process precisely because it could not be recognized as a place worthy of a city plan, does NOT provide enough of a basis for place to be able to marry it with an identity in the process of choosing a name. There is something fundamentally backward about the process these neighbors propose.

In this sense, reality is not associative in the mathematical sense.

By definition,

Name = Place + Identity


Name + Identity does not necessarily = Place.


Name + Place DOES = Identity.

Gregory Bateson famously wrote, “The name is not the thing, the map is not the territory.[1] Definitions of identity and goals for identity do not create identity in reality. In Bateson’s example, the degree to which a map is an accurate reflection of reality is the degree to which it is useful for operating effectively and making good decisions. Naming this area won’t make it a place. Even making physical improvements such as gateways to demarcate “entrances” to a place that’s not a place will not lead to identity, because you can’t name a place that’s not operating as a place in reality. Until their area operates as a place, both internally among residents and externally among ABQ residents, westsiders, and residents of Los Ranchos, no matter how good a vision these residents have, they will simply be trying to sell a map of a place that doesn’t exist.

So what are they supposed to do? Instead of being stuck in a chicken/egg problem (which came first, the name or the place) or cart/horse process (let’s call it a place and see if we can get there), this group of residents needs to take a moment to assess who has been part of the process so far and who has not, whose interests have been represented and whose have not, whose vision and definition of place has emerged, and whose is still invisible. This assemblage of neighborhoods united by being left out and left over from other political and planning processes must first spend some time organizing itself before it can move forward in creating a home for a new identity. Neighborhoods divided by race, class, and culture must find a crossroads to meet – divided as they are by a literal crossroads that currently defines them. Once this community-building has been established, then a conversation can begin about identity.

Instead of a typical design charrette that tends to leave large portions of the residents out of the process, area residents could embark on a process of community design that would serve several purposes 1) continuing to build connections and open dialogues between disparate neighborhoods and diverse communities, and 2) make decisions as a community about physical design and the creation of spaces that can support and enhance the cultural practices of each individual identity group as well as the identity of this deliberate community of neighbors, and 3) create physical improvements that distinguish this place and the areas around it so that it is identifiable from within and without.

This thesis will explore these issues of identity and their intersection with place in the 4th and Montaño case study. The next section explores the literature surrounding the necessary terms to move forward in this discussion – “identity,” “place,” “placemaking,” and “participatory design” – and attempts to define these terms in such a way as they may be useful in making recommendations of next steps for the 4th and Montaño Improvement Coalition in their search for identity.

The following section will look in detail at the maps from the first and second workshops to learn what we can about residents’ perceptions of place, what they value, and what physical places could be improved in order to begin shaping an identity for this area.

Section IV will include my own visual analysis of the area, as well as a discussion of how one could begin to break the area down into constituent parts and relationships among them that tells us something of the way the place works for residents and outside observers.

Section V concludes the thesis with a detailed examination of the areas of caution in the Improvement Coalitions’ current course, as well as recommendations for a community design process and potential starting places for physical improvements in the interest of placemaking in and around 4th and Montaño.

[1] Bateson, G. (1972) Steps to an ecology of mind, Dutton, New York

No comments:

Post a Comment