The Case Against “Neighborhood Character”

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A sidewalk in Saint Paul.

If you are involved in your community’s discussions about roads, development, or zoning, you have undoubtedly heard one of the most ubiquitous and troubling phrases to populate those discussions: “neighborhood character.”

To me, “neighborhood character” is a nothing phrase.  It is a flowery facade to hide ugly or undeveloped opinions behind.  When I say that “Newcastle Brown Ale has a nutty finish and a nose of banana,” I’m telling you it’s basically a sugary version of a Miller Highlife.  When I say I’m trying to “preserve the character of the neighborhood,” I am telling you that I am desperately afraid of change and I can’t make an argument capable of withstanding scrutiny.

There’s a remarkable flexibility to it.  “Character” can be used in defense of the status quo, because any development or change can be labelled as harmful to the neighborhood’s current charm.  It can also be used to aggressively push through a poorly thought out development to improve an area’s “character.” Don’t be surprised if it’s used it both ways at the same time, for example, by pushing bad development to restore a neighborhood’s supposedly lost virtue.

“Character” is the time honored fall-back, but be aware of its fellows: “aesthetic” for the naysayer whose favorite words are “property value,” “feel” for those afraid of hypothetical crime, and “vibe” for a thinly veiled defense against anyone vaguely different from the current population.

When an argument boils down to personal perception, it’s important that it’s viewed as simply that: a personal opinion. It’s important that these judgments are not given the weight of defining an entire neighborhood.

No. Really.

Highland Park’s small town character on display.

To me, the “neighborhood character” phrase is a two-bit play to emotion and the vague sense of community that comes along with geographic proximity.  Ask someone to define “character” and you’ll hear the blurb about the neighborhood that was scrawled on some forgotten page of a tourism website by a marketing intern as it’s quickly googled or vomited up from memory.  Speaking as a resident of Highland Park in Saint Paul, every time someone describes my neighborhood with the words “small town feel”, an angel tears off its wings, climbs into an SUV, and drives 50 miles an hour across the Ford Parkway Bridge.  And heaven forbid crime becomes a part of the discussion, because you’ll only wait minutes until the “character” of North Minneapolis is invoked.

It’s that ability to dog whistle that makes the phrase such a miserable addition to discussions of local issues.  Racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination can find purchase and voice in community politics when cloaked in the vague garb of “character.” Leveling charges of discrimination against someone you see at the grocery store carries significantly heavier social costs than launching a diatribe against an internet avatar.  People are less likely to call a spade a spade if you’ve made eye contact while buying salad greens.

Despite the fact that it’s only two words, “neighborhood character” is, in and of itself, an obstacle to the responsible development and growth of any community.  It’s also one of the consistently recurring themes and tools I’ve seen in discussions around local development.  While it’s ineffective to try and call the phrase out directly, it’s important to be aware of its shadowy work, because if you involve yourself in these important issues, you’ll hear it time and again.

Tom Basgen

About Tom Basgen

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