Thursday, June 3, 2010
I have long wondered what forces were at work that spurred the transition from using the term “neighborhood” to the more contemporary “subdivision” when referring to residential communities in metropolitan environments. One could easily rattle off some widely held assumptions that more often than not distinguish the two, and I’m bold enough to assert that many of my readers would probably agree with me. What is the difference between a neighborhood and a subdivision?
- Neighborhoods are older; subdivisions are new.
- Neighborhoods are urban; subdivisions are suburban.
- Neighborhoods support walking through high density in order to meet daily needs; subdivisions sprawl and require a car to get even a can of Coke.
- Neighborhoods are interconnected to the surrounding area through a grid; subdivisions tend to end in cul-de-sacs.
- Neighborhoods feature small lots and pocket parks; subdivisions offer abundant green in the form of huge private front and back yards.
- Neighborhoods use very subtle signage (if they have any at all); subdivisions announce their names loudly at the very entrance.
- Neighborhoods emphasize a community and shared experiences more than the private residence; subdivisions commodify the housing so that the buyer’s goal is the domicile filled with the most amenities.
All of the above points are obvious glittering generalities, and most of them have a tenor that tacitly sneers upon the subdivision. This line-in-the-sand dichotomy does not escape the radar of those who value urban living, many of whom are seeking something that fits the above rigid standards for a neighborhood. If it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, somehow it isn’t a “real” neighborhood. Communities without an urban scale, old housing, or walkability far too often suffer the broad dismissal of lacking neighborhood-ness (and thus being a mere subdivision) by the lovers of cities. Meanwhile, those who live in the suburban developments that city-lovers deride often quietly avoid the “subdivision” appellation as well, as though it were a pejorative. People are far more likely to promote their community as a real neighborhood rather than a subdivision, and virtually no civic groups have referred to themselves as a “Subdivision Association”. The term carries a vague whiff of exurban blandness. In short, our cultural perceptions often cause us to infer that neighborhoods are to subdivisions what main streets are to strip malls.
Though it is easy to draw the conclusion that subdivisions and neighborhoods have different cultural backgrounds, it’s nearly impossible to learn where the semantic territory to one begins and the other ends. Could they essentially be the same, but with vaguely different connotations? An examination of one of Baton Rouge’s most prestigious districts/communities/enclaves—to pull a few more words from the lexicon—reveals how that terminology may evolve over time.
The city’s Garden District (subtly revealed to passers-by though the wooden sign) may be the one most closely associated with old money, even by this relatively young city’s standards. According to the neighborhood’s Civic Association, the area essentially began as three independent smaller residential developments dating initially from the 1910’s: Roseland Terrace (colored in red), Drehr Place (colored in blue), and Kleinert Terrace (colored in green).
Interestingly, the Civic Association refers to Roseland Terrace as Baton Rouge’s first subdivision, platted in 1911 by the Zadok Realty Company—at a time when it was largely perceived to be a risk because the property was too far out in the country, a little over a mile away from the city center. The developers clearly understood the market as they tailored it to a middle- and upper-middle class population, with a diversity of housing sizes and styles, generous planting of trees along the streets, concealed utility poles in the rear alleyways, and larger lots than was custom at the time (though still small by today’s standards).
Below is the most commonly visible architectural typology, the Louisiana bungalow:
Other homes in the area, lining the stately Park Boulevard, are a bit more grandiose, such as this one taking proud advantage of the visible corner:
The narrower residential streets often mix styles and sizes.
The broader streets routinely feature a wide median—or “neutral ground” in South Louisiana—lined with the regions archetypal tree, the broadly canopied live oak (apologies for the blurred quality):
The subdivision to the east, Drehr Place, features some particularly stately homes, among the most valuable residential real estate in all of Baton Rouge.
And then Kleinert Terrace echoes the street configuration, with its diligent intervals of live oaks in the neutral ground, stretching across to the front yards.
The truth is, all of these communities—introduced to the National Register over the past 30 years—began as the dreaded subdivision. Only as their identities fused through their proximity to downtown and shared affluence did they assume the name the Garden District, perhaps borrowed from the opulent counterpart in the neighboring city of New Orleans 70 miles to the southeast. By today’s standards, the Garden District is a neighborhood, but it was—like virtually every residential development for more than one family since codified land title began—a subdivision from a single large parcel, divided into much smaller lots during the platting and site planning process. Today the Garden District—comprised of Roseland Terrace, Drehr Place, and Kleinert Terrace—is one of Baton Rouge’s elite neighborhoods, but it followed more or less the same administrative proceedings as your average vinyl village in the exurbs.
So how did the Garden District elevate itself from a group of subdivisions into a neighborhood? Was it a conscious decision? I’m not sure it was, but it took several smaller evolutionary intervals to get there, some of which were quite conscious, including the very conspicuous name change. Those aspirational steps may illuminate the process by which this community adopted the characteristics that one stereotypically associates with a neighborhood, and it requires a far better understanding of the brand—the Garden District name—and its boundaries, both patently visible and undefined. Stay tuned for the cultural implications behind neighborhood naming in the second part.