Urban planner Jeff Soule remembers the moment he first fully appreciated the beauty of Baltimore's Charles Village. He was leading a tour through the tree-lined streets of cheery row houses when it started to pour. "I was with 20 visiting Chinese mayors and there was this wonderful African American woman -- not only did she invite everyone up on her porch, but she made them all lemonade."
Eye-catching design and green spaces go a long way toward making a neighborhood attractive, but the most beautiful neighborhoods are also enriched by this kind of welcoming community spirit. They tend to resonate with American history, whether they bring to mind a bygone era (the South of Broad area of Charleston) or act as an open-air museum showcasing the work of iconic architects.
Chicago's Oak Park, for instance, counts 23 of Frank Lloyd Wright's modestly elegant, low-slung buildings, but the Americana runs even deeper: 90 percent of the neighborhood is classified as a historic district. No resident is more than two blocks from a bikeway and the neighborhood is easily reached on the El train.
Some modern developers strive to manufacture an instant neighborhood feel and to create the kind of pastiche that a gorgeous, lived-in neighborhood possesses naturally. But Soule, director of outreach for the American Planning Association, says he hasn't found many areas developed in the last 25 years that tick all the boxes: "A lot of newer neighborhoods haven't stood the test of time yet."
Fledgling and struggling neighborhoods alike can look to the Paseo in Oklahoma City as a success story. This artists' colony of 1920s Spanish Revival bungalows was marred by mid-century gang violence. But unfazed artists moved in, taking advantage of low property values, and eventually brought the neighborhood back to a state of homey, charming bohemianism -- just two miles from downtown.
Accessibility and authenticity are valued as much by travelers as by prospective residents. After all, making a detour to one of these beautiful neighborhoods isn't just visually pleasing -- it can reveal a city at its most genuine. You may not be offered free lemonade, but you may still want to move in tomorrow.