The Case Against “Neighborhood Character”

highland brick pavers

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.

50 thoughts on “The Case Against “Neighborhood Character”

  1. paddy

    Little early in the Ford Development debate to play the racist card I would have thought. Might want to save that one for later when the chips are down.

      1. paddy

        This article doesn’t say anything about me.

        What this article is an extended paean to virtue signalling.

        The only thing that would have made it better/worse would have been a facile attempt to blame global warming on neighborhood character.

        1. Case

          nah, neighborhood character is, like Julia cleanly put, a dog whistle for fear of “the other.”

          but, my guess is that my take is too “politically correct” for you.

    1. Tom BasgenTom Basgen Post author

      They’ve been talking about the Ford Development since they announced the plant closure in 2008 so I guess ‘early’ could be described as a poor descriptor for that conversation. Thanks for reading my article!

  2. Julia

    I think your initial take is quite generous. It’s definitely, in my experience, a phrase used as a facade behind which xenophobia and racism fester (the classism is another layer of racism, albeit a publicly sanctioned one).

  3. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    One of the “findings” and standards for conditional uses in the Saint Paul zoning code is that:

    “The use will not be detrimental to the existing character of the development in the immediate neighborhood or endanger the public health, safety and general welfare.”

    How one interprets this depends a GREAT DEAL on what one thinks an “existing character” of a neighborhood might be. I find that this kind of essentialism — the idea that a place has a definable character — is very subjective and tend to think about it in temporal, socially, and culturally broad ways. For example, is there:

    1) an amount of time one has to live in a place in order to be part of the “character”? (e.g. new immigrants)
    2) an amount of money one has to have? (e.g. are homeless people part of a “character” of a neighborhood?
    3) cultural traits? (e.g. the ability to speak english)
    4) ages where one is or is not part of the “character” of a place? (e.g. students, children)

    5) Are there certain “times” that are moire important than other times within a history of a neighborhood? (e.g. we tend to emphasize the European histories of a place and give almost no attention to the thousands of years of Native American history of our places and neighborhood)

    6) What if an “existing character” is deeply problematic? (e.g. how should we value times when racism — for example, racially restrictive covenants — was an intimate and foundational part of how neighborhood developed?)

    7 &c) There are more questions like this. e.g. what weight do future generations have in the “character” of a place?

    The “existing character” concept is really impossible once you start to unpack it. Inside lie all kinds of hidden skeletons and/or lost histories.

    1. John Charles Wilson

      My opinions only:

      1) Once a neighbourhood is associated with your presence, you are part of its character.

      2) No. Homeless people are definitely part of the character of the neighbourhoods they inhabit (examples: by the Civic Center and the Minneapolis Greyhound station).

      3) If a cultural trait (such as business signs in non-English languages) is noticeable in a neighbourhood, it is part of its character.

      4) Students and children are part of the character of any neighbourhood they are present in in significant numbers.

      5) The more recent the time, the more important it is. Character is present, history is past.

      6) Obviously, some places have problematic characters. They should not be earmarked for preservation. For example, do we not house the homeless so as to preserve homelessness as an existing character of a neighbourhood? Common sense says no.

      7) Future generations are not part of the character of place because they don’t exist yet.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        Well I agree with some of what you say here, but not all of it. I’d guess others would feel similarly. That’s kind of my point: “neighborhood character” is NOT a given, and really reflects one’s own opinions, biases, perspectives, and cultural background. I’d rather we actually discussed specific issues (e.g. building height) instead of using a term that usually cloaks what we really mean.

  4. Xan

    What if the existing character of every neighbourhood is perpetual underdevelopment and inundation of cars? Because it is.

    Also, people might be afraid of new development because most new development is clapboard shit (particle board covered in a little brick, stick on paneling and some corrugated material, all in different colours – et voilà, modernisme!) How many current develoments will people be fighting to save in 50 years when it’s time to tear them down?

    Also, also, I like this piece.

  5. Scott

    So, what about the “neighborhood character” of Stevens Square in Minneapolis for example? The area is dominated by 3+ -story, brick apartments that seem to include a mix of people in a dense, walkable area. I find the buildings beautiful and hope the City maintains policies that preserve them.

    1. T

      That was actually exactly what I was thinking. Yes, “neighborhood feel” can be used as a descriptor to try to keep old buildings in and keep meaningful development out. But it can also reflect a walkable dense community with diversity. Can that not be neighborhood feel? I get that this article is referring to to bad type, but I feel like it might be a broad stroke to say it all is.

    2. Justin Doescher

      I think that’s a good point, in the case of Highland Park and the Ford development, it’s adding housing to an otherwise empty parcel and that has people up in arms over “character” when they really just want to prevent change and keep certain types of people out. If instead they were talking about tearing down half the brownstones in Stevens Square for a couple of giant luxury towers then the debate would be more warranted in my mind.

      I live in a quiet neighborhood with similar housing stock in Minneapolis (Field) and wouldn’t want the bungalows on my street leveled for a bunch of towers. But if for example they wanted to replace the Wells Fargo on 47th and Chicago with a 10 story high-rise and street level retail I’d be all for it. I’m sure some of my neighbors wouldn’t though, for similar reasons as they oppose building housing on the Ford site.

      1. paddy

        Who are these “certain kinds of people”? Lovers of Tap Rooms?

        Have you seen the plans for the Ford Site?

        These aren’t plans to diversify the neighborhood and rise the ire of all of the local bigots. These are plans to turn St Paul into Portland.The consistent thread of every new development south of 94 and west of 35 E is their unaffordability.

          1. paddy

            Its at least debatable. Might be nice really. Might turn Ford and Cleveland into Uptown Jr (I don’t mean that in a good way).

            But instead of debating the projects on their merits let’s just call the owners of SFH secret or not so secret members of KKK. Its lazy and arrogant.

            1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

              I think you are trying to multiply hyperbole here. There is a difference between racist outcomes (school busing and open enrollment in Saint Paul had negative race based outcomes, even though it was designed to increase equity) and racist ideology (the KKK).

              No one thinks you are out cross burning. But neighbors in private (and occasionally public or partially public forums) will say things like, “We don’t want to be Cedar-Riverside” and allege density will bring crime. While each may be debatable on its own, connecting the two is blatantly false. Cedar-Riverside is (or was, been a while since I read the report) the 2nd safest police precinct in Minneapolis, including for violent crime. If we cannot call out the fact that linking those two is nonsensical, ask why this perception exists, and address that, how can we address racial gaps in our existing system? How can we improve our world and reduce the clear inequities that exist?

              Also, I’m in Portland for a while, know where Ford would be similar to? Portland is ‘cool’ because it has a lot of Grand Avenue type streets, it really doesn’t have these dense districts outside of the core that I am aware of, would love to see it!

        1. Bill

          Paddy, you’re cracking me up. Thanks for bringing out another typical excuse for anew development. The old, “Who could afford to live there?” So instead of suggesting that some units perhaps be subsidized or whatever, you conclude that NOTHING should be built. Yes, you’re an expert. What do these stupid developers know about the market? You, as long time resident, DO.

          Also, thanks for reminding us that some people still hate decent beer and resent others who do. Dude, maybe it’s time to pack up for Florida and sell while the market is still hot. You’ll have a whole new world down there to complain about.

  6. SF

    Some people like to live in big open spaces.
    Some People like to live in tight spaces with people living above and below, both sides, back and front.
    Some people like to live with front yards and garages with kid stuff all around.
    That is Character of a Neighborhood.
    Where people choose to live.
    There is no hidden agenda. No secret message. Anyone who wants to live here can.
    Really. If they WANT to.
    It’s good you have the passion. Many people who you are so against do too. Be it marching for MLK, Protesting the Vietnam War or spiking old growth in the Cascades.
    Just remember please We all live here.

    Where you are I have been.
    Where I am you will be.

    1. Tom Quinn

      Wow, SF, I’ve been thinking about a response to this article for some time now and was struggling to make my point. Your post saves me the trouble. Well done.

      The one thing I’d add is that too many people posting here seem to have an ax to grind and unnecessarily take any opportunity to label others as racist or xenophobes. It’s a cheap shot.

    2. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      Your characterization of “tight spaces” or “garages w/ kid stuff” as if an apartment or condo is too tight for a family is a bit telling. Plenty of people raise kids in apartments and many empty-nesters still live in large houses long emptied of kids.

      And yes, anyone can live here or there, but if we don’t build housing for them then they really can’t – which is pretty much the point.

  7. Monica Millsap RasmussenMonica Rasmussen

    I think it is important to listen to people when they use the term “neighborhood character” and perhaps ask more questions for clarity. When I’ve used the term in neighborhood planning meetings, I am talking about prioritizing the ability for small businesses to continue to start and grow within the community, to maintain a walkable community where I can get my groceries, dine, and shop without driving. For my own neighborhood, I am fine with housing growth, but want to make sure we keep with the promise of mixed use, meaning anchored business on ground level of development.

    Asking for clarity of our neighbors during these planning meetings might diffuse their anger and actually open the discussion towards better planning and development, even if the gut reaction is that people who use the term are biased or against change or NIMBYs.

    1. Nick Minderman

      I think we’re both in the same place. On my neighborhood board, these words get tossed around on a regular basis. It usually has something hiding underneath, and once we probe a little, it’s easier to get at the root of the concern and either discuss it directly or realize that it’s not within the neighborhood’s scope to take a position.

      The only time I used it was when Holiday & White Castle were proposing their tragedy in two acts at Hennepin & Central, as I think trying to convince people that the development should be denser would have been less successful than convincing them that the project was not in line with the evolving character of mixed use around there. So I’m guilty of the crime but I feel like there can be both positive and negative uses.

    2. Tom BasgenTom Basgen Post author

      Yes! Great thought. Nobody should be silenced in community discussions. When you hear the phrase you gotta peel the layers back, find out what your friends and neighbors are really looking for.

  8. Lia M

    There are some cases where I think you’re definitely right, that calls to ineffable things like “character” are a call to maintain the status quo. On the other hand, I live across the river in Longfellow where some of the cute little bungalows of our self-described “bungalow community” (it’s on a sign somewhere) are being torn down and replaced with massive, suburban-style houses that practically fill their entire lots. I look at them and think that the neighborhood is losing its character, the modest but nice 1920s-built houses that are affordable for young couples and retirees alike. I don’t know the owners of the newly built houses, they’re probably fine people–I just think their houses are large, ugly, expensive, and look like they belong in Edina.

    All this to say that a call to maintain “character” or “aesthetics” is not necessarily cloaked racism. Sometimes change is good–I am happy to see increased density around the rail corridor, for example, and more businesses on Lake Street–but sometimes you do lose something.

      1. Justin Doescher

        Indeed, and they’re not built in a style that is typically suburban either. There are modest ranch-style houses all over Minneapolis that are more suburban in style than the large, new houses that I see popping up in SW Minneapolis.

      2. Lia M

        Okay, we can quibble about the adjective if you want, or maybe you could address my point, which is that not every objection to changes in neighborhood “character” are ridiculous or hiding “ugly or undeveloped opinions.” An argument against gentrification, for example, is an argument to maintain a neighborhood as it is, for the people currently living there. Is that also merely an illegitimate fear of the status quo?

          1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

            Using Neighborhood Character without expansion is an empty phrase and shouldn’t be used. We can’t even decide what “Character” is or where the neighborhoods truly end (it’s not like the artificial city lines actually delineate where we care about).

            I agree that it can hint at something important, but just saying “neighborhood character” is not helpful to anyone, and is just pushing a personal preference in an un-debatable way.

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          I agree that not all instances of “neighborhood character” are about “ugly” opinions, but “undeveloped” might be fair, in that, at best, it’s a shortcut for concerns that could be better articulated.

          Which may also be true of “gentrification.”

    1. Bill

      I live in this neighborhood as well. There are quite a few ugly in-fill houses from the 60s and 70s, but I haven’t seen these modern ugly houses you’re describing. The replacement ones I’ve seen have been nice.

      Things change. Some of these little bungalows from the teens and 20s were not well built or maintained, and were toward the end of their natural life. I, for one, want people to stay and improve or rebuild if it means not moving elsewhere.

      This neighborhood used to be called “The Swedish Ghetto” 20-some years ago when I moved there. Lots of stodgy old people who would have been just fine with the redlining that existed in the 50s and 60s that kept Jews and backs out. Time marches on.

  9. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Seems that to use words mindfully may be the point. On the one hand, “character” seems apt when considering architecture and historic preservation. It may be appropriate for travelogues.

    On the other hand, the term “neighborhood” itself has often seemed questionable: I’m thinking of the way it’s often been used or misused by government and local activists in Minneapolis. Kirk Hill, former director of the Minnesota Tenants Union, wrote a good op-ed on that issue.

    The clever Bizarro cartoonist once depicted a young couple examining a brick that had smashed through a window in their living room. The young man read a note attached to the brick and informed his mate, “It’s from the neighborhood association. They say we put in the wrong kind of shrubs.”

  10. Eric

    I hate to lose words from the language because some start using them as code words for something and then others accept the code and reject the word categorically.

    “Character” is one of those words like “quality” which should start an analysis or conversation and not end it. The conversation itself imbues the word with meaning. Don’t let someone’s assertion of “neighborhood character” be an obstacle. Ask what the speaker means. Use the ambiguity of the term to lead people to better define the elements needed to conserve and build a positive neighborhood character.

    I guess my fear after reading this article is that someone accepting this author’s thesis will, if they hear a person struggling to voice what kind of community they want to build or live in uses the term “character”, they will be instantly dismissed or vilified. We need to teach ourselves to use the term as a opening, not as an obstacle.

  11. Serafina ScheelSerafina

    I really like the sentiments expressed here about using the “neighborhood character” as an opening to get people to describe what they are really talking about.

  12. Joe Bloe

    The same style of argument that this article uses as a polemic against Neighborhood Character can be used to criticize the article.

    “Neighborhood Character” is typically what people happen to like in their neighborhood. Yes it can be slippery but so are a lot of things in life7 j that are worth putting value in.

    Rather than attack a phrase used by “The common folk” why not find out what a person actually means? You might actually find qualities that are worth defending.

    What is most likely “an obstacle to the responsible development and growth of any community” is a lack of “responsible development and growth of any community.” If I have free reign to build what I choose without those pesky neighborhood character people, then I will build fast food restaurants more often than nice for four plexes.

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