Talen, Emily. Neighborhood. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Reviewed by David J. Goodwin
In his beloved 1949 essay “Here is New York,” E.B. White described the intricate network of businesses, shops, and encounters contained within an average New York City neighborhood. Residents could satisfy their daily needs by walking just a few blocks from their doorsteps. The neighborhood—not skyscrapers, department stores, or train stations—shaped New Yorkers’ physical, geographic, and imaginative understanding and experience of the city. This affectionate and nostalgic idea of the neighborhood remains deeply ingrained in the American cultural psyche.
But what is a neighborhood? A population of individuals from diverse backgrounds? A homogenous ethnic enclave? Picturesque city blocks anchored by a corner store? A row of anonymous apartment buildings with ground-floor chain retail? A small-town main street? A suburban cul-de-sac? The definition of a neighborhood seems, well, squishy. Emily Talen attempts to change that with Neighborhoods, an examination of the role and position of the title subject largely, but not exclusively, in American public life.
Human beings have developed and settled in neighborhoods across cultures and continents throughout recorded history. The book’s narrative details archaeological findings dating from the Neolithic period. Neighborhoods continued to evolve and change to meet the needs of their residents, serving as the primary organizing mechanisms for culture, economics, society, and even religion, well into the nineteenth century. However, industrialization, suburbanization, mechanized transportation, and other forces spurred the decline of the historic urban neighborhood and the firm attachment of individuals to a given place. By the early twentieth century, social scientists, urban planners, and government officials responded by attempting to recreate the traditional neighborhood or by disputing its very relevance to modern life.
Talen contends that neither approach promises vibrant, productive, and soulful places to live and work. Instead, a new model should be imagined and implemented–one incorporating traditional neighborhood strengths, such as convenient social networking and services, while minimizing the successful neighborhood’s tendency toward homogeneity and gentrification. Talen christens her model the “everyday neighborhood.” Increasing numbers of such quality, connected places might serve as instruments for positive societal change.
Neighborhood should hold particular appeal to urban historians. It presents a thorough survey of the long-standing and historic debates surrounding the meaning, purpose, and planning of neighborhoods. Drawing on a wealth of in-depth research, Talen chronicles the challenges, failures, and struggles to define and shape what makes for an inviting and equitable place. Although this detailed and granular attention to interdisciplinary planning discourse might be useful for those fluent in the subject, it tends to obscure the book’s own ambitious thesis and policy proposal. Brief case studies of localities adopting elements of Talen’s “everyday neighborhood” might have created a more vivid narrative and a more compelling argument. Although Neighborhood is dedicated to defining its title subject, it does not present a memorable image of any past or present neighborhood. Too much is left to theory.
In the end, we may return to E.B. White’s portrait of the neighborhood. Talen suggests that such a space—re-tooled and re-prioritized—still offers the best chance of finding the good life in a town or a city. Neighborhood helpfully puts this ideal into a historical perspective.
David J. Goodwin is the Assistant Director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University and an Allen Room resident at the New York Public Library. Currently, he is working on a biography of the author H. P. Lovecraft and New York City. He blogs at anothertownonthehudson.com and tweets @DavidJHudsonJC.
Featured image (at top): Sidewalk scene in Boston–a nostalgic image of a neighborhood. Michael Philip Manheim, “Children Play Ball in Front of Their Homes…” 1973, Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. National Archives.