Know Your Neighborhood

Reviewing neighborhood names and boundaries at the 2012 Dallas Homeowners League Boot Camp
Reviewing neighborhood names and boundaries at the 2012 Dallas Homeowners League Boot Camp

Dallas faces enormous challenges in terms of poverty, public education and housing. While the city’s efforts in each of these areas are admirable, lasting progress will only happen when we start to address an underlying, grassroots problem: better identification of the unique strengths and abilities of Dallas’ many individual neighborhoods. In the past month, three separate national reports have identified clear links between neighborhoods and graduation rates, economic mobility, and overall success in school and yet here in Dallas, no one even knows for sure how many neighborhoods exist, because, unlike cities like Pittsburgh and New York, the City has no official list of neighborhood names or boundary definitions. This matters because without a clear sense of each neighborhood, it’s nearly impossible to assess and build on their individual assets and address their gaps.  This movement has to start with residents and here are three ways to get started.

1. Know your neighborhoods
Neighborhood identity is expressed in 3 ways - by its name, its geography, and its character. When people talk about their neighborhood, they’re talking about a specific place, with a specific name. Names and geographic boundaries of a place declare a territory, they stake a claim to a geographic entity. Because there is no official neighborhood map, it is Dallas’ residents that get to decide what the extents of their neighborhoods are. To help determine what borders constitute a neighborhood, there are historical, physical, and cultural clues that can be discovered and recorded. Different land uses or intensity of land use are frequent dividers between neighborhoods. Infrastructure such as highways or an airport, or natural features like forests or rivers, can form hard boundaries. Architecture, the street grid, public spaces, and social and cultural expression make one neighborhood distinct from another. These factors help us distinguish neighborhoods from one another and come to stand for neighborhood identity. Understanding and identifying these factors enable residents to articulate what makes neighborhoods special - what they want to protect, and what they want to build on.

2. Know your city
Did you know that Dallas is home to a neighborhood founded in the 1950s called Disney Streets, with street names like Fantasia Lane and Pinocchio Circle? Or that there’s a neighborhood near Fair Park called RUFCO, which stands for Residents United for Change and Opportunity? Or how about Light Point Place, a neighborhood whose street names all include the word “light”? Neighborhood names reference history, aspirations, and physical features. Along with defining their geographic boundaries, a neighborhood’s names are the most basic way organize they themselves and reinforce their identity. The city as a whole can support neighborhood organizing efforts by knowing and adopting resident-defined boundaries and names.

This can help reverse stigma attached to certain neighborhoods. Three times already this year, local television news stations have falsely identified a particular Dallas neighborhood, Pleasant Grove, as the scene of violent crimes that occurred in other neighborhoods. Consistently incorrectly identifying Pleasant Grove has contributed to a false and commonly held narrative about the neighborhood, robbing residents’ of their ability to tell their story and shape their neighborhood’s future. Misidentification like this happens in the news, but it also happens in everyday conversation, and gets repeated, becoming part of our (mis)understanding of a place.

In these cases, the media called neighborhoods by the wrong name. However, a more common mistake is to leave out neighborhood names altogether, and simply lump them together by direction―north, south, east, and west.  And those directions are usually just euphemisms: “south Dallas” means “poor, and black,” and “north Dallas” mean “rich, and white.” Reducing the city into these quadrants reinforces persistent stereotypes; of the neighborhoods in these areas and also the people who live there. To counter this, reporters, policymakers, neighborhood advocates, and citizens can pay attention to how residents themselves define and talk about their neighborhood, by using the definition neighborhoods have created, not what it says on google maps.

3. Share What You Know
There are literally hundreds of urban planning projects going on across the city at any given time. Right now that includes DART’s proposal for a second light rail alignment downtown, Downtown Dallas Inc.’s revisiting of the Downtown Dallas 360 master plan, and a new community development plan for the Dallas Arts District, to name just a few. Most of these projects have or will have a public engagement component, which means residents will have an opportunity to share what they know to be the strengths and gaps in their neighborhood. To find out about opportunities to provide input, residents can check a project’s website for the schedule. Sign up for a local neighborhood association newsletter or facebook page, or the Public Information Office newsletter, and see what information is being circulated there. And if after all this you find that a planning project doesn’t have a public engagement component, they should, and residents can let the city department, organization, or developer that’s leading the project, as well as the City Council member that represents that neighborhood, that they want their voices heard.

In addition to all of these planning projects, there are currently at least two neighborhood initiatives―Neighbor Up, which will focus on southern Dallas, and Neighborhood Plus, which is city wide―underway in the city. Both projects are still getting off the ground so now is the time to get involved. No matter what, while it’s great to see the City acknowledge that a strong city needs strong neighborhoods, it’s in the best interest of residents to self-educate and self-organize. Self-organized residents who can speak about the strengths of their neighborhood are in a position to advocate for their own needs, through one of these programs or any other project that comes along.

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