The Neighborhood in your People

by Kieran Healy on July 13, 2012

Via John Siracusa, a really nice exercise in crowdsourcing and data visualization on Bostonography.

… we’re running an ongoing project soliciting opinions on Boston’s neighborhood boundaries via an interactive map. We want to keep collecting data, but we’ve already received excellent responses that we’re itching to start mapping, and when we hit 300 submissions recently it seemed like a good enough milestone to take a crack at it. (That’s actually 300 minus some junk data. If you offer the ability to draw freeform shapes, some people draw random rectangles and triangles, and some people draw… er, other long, tipped objects.) There are many questions to be asked here. Where are the areas of consensus? Where are the disputed zones? Where are the no-man’s lands, etc

Crowdsourced Brighton

Boundaries are fuzzy, but not uniformly so, the consensus center of a neighborhood need not be its geometric center, and so on. Lots of interesting stuff. It’d be great if they could collect data on the social distribution of this knowledge, too. It’s like an updated version of Kevin Lynch’s The Image of the City, with shades of Rick Grannis’s classic paper The Importance of Trivial Streets. Very nice work. Check out the full discussion.



Jeremy 07.13.12 at 2:04 pm

The LA Times did a similar project a couple years ago to try to figure out what LA’s neighborhoods are:


mdc 07.13.12 at 2:35 pm

Those light-green people are nuts.


Data Tutashkhia 07.13.12 at 2:47 pm

I get the impression that nobody knows where the places called Allston is anyway. Which is why they tend to address the whole thing, as Allston-Brighton.


LFC 07.13.12 at 3:06 pm

(Caveat: This comment, as will probably be apparent, is from a virtually complete ignoramus about city planning and urban sociology.)

I glanced at the opening of Lynch’s book via the link. I don’t immediately grasp the notion of legibility. Won’t a city, regardless of how well or badly planned, be reasonably ‘legible’ to longtime residents and less ‘legible’ to tourists or visitors? What’s the connection btw ‘legibility’ and subjective perceptions of how pleasant/unpleasant it is to be in a particular city? For ex, Manhattan seems ‘legible’ enough b/c of its gridlike layout, but does that make it an attractive or pleasant place to live or to visit? Bracketing the important question of cost/affordability, some people would not live anywhere else. For others, a quick visit once every several years is more than enough. (I’m in the second group.) One person’s vibrancy is another’s cacophony. It’s very subjective.


bjk 07.13.12 at 3:09 pm

The green is LA aka Lower Allston.


bjk 07.13.12 at 3:10 pm

There is no Upper Allston.


Luis 07.13.12 at 3:40 pm

Won’t a city, regardless of how well or badly planned, be reasonably ‘legible’ to longtime residents

No. Inventing the Charles River has a small, but great, discussion about how, when asked to draw the city of Boston, even long-time residents are often confused or unable to draw the banks of the Charles between the Museum of Science and the Garden, because it is such a jumble of trains, highways, etc., with no pedestrian access (or even reasons for pedestrians to go there).


Kenny Easwaran 07.13.12 at 3:41 pm

Common Census was doing something like this for quite a while:

I think their neighborhood map only includes parts of Manhattan still, but they’ve got national and regional maps about which city people identify with.


Don Warner Saklad 07.13.12 at 7:12 pm

Redistricting maps being used by the authorities to decide boundaries have no names of streets labelled for the Districts’ boundaries. How are they planning Districts without precise maps labelled with names of boundary streets?… see also


piglet 07.13.12 at 10:04 pm

Lynch is totally worth reading. reading him will among other things show how naive and unsophisticated the crowd-sourced “map-drawing” exercise is. Lynch went much further than drawing maps. We need to rediscover some pre-GIS approaches that were actually much smarter than what GIS does.


John Quiggin 07.14.12 at 12:54 am

@piglet This comment would be much more useful if you gave some examples of what you have in mind.


Bernard Yomtov 07.14.12 at 1:12 am

It looks like the map is restricted to the city of Boston. I’m not sure it makes sense to exclude Brookline, which is sort of to the left of the outlined area.

I don’t think that there is much of a boundary, in residents’ minds, between the two.


Data Tutashkhia 07.14.12 at 7:00 am

@12, very true. Heh-heh. I once rented a flat on Kilsyth rd in Brighton, and the owner insisted that the house is in Brookline. He couldn’t shut up about it, and how lucky I am to pay only $400 for a small basement apartment in Brookline, the greatest town in the world.


Jeremy 07.14.12 at 10:16 pm

As a Jamaica Plain resident (originally from Roslindale), I’m surprised to see that most people are putting the Jamaica Plain border at Washington St. or the Southwest Corridor. There’s less than 50% consensus for Egleston Sq. to be part of Jamaica Plain, even though I’ve always been told that it is. Even Doyle’s doesn’t quite make it, being on the other side of Washington St., and that’s definitely a Jamaica Plain institution. Makes me wonder about the effect of class and race skewing their sample away from the poorer and more heavily minority parts of the neighborhood. Perhaps the people more likely to answer this survey are also less likely to go over to the wrong side of the tracks.


Maggie 07.15.12 at 1:30 am

I agree with Jeremy @ 14. This seems like an exercise in mapping the perceptions of the sort of people who frequent that kind of website. And therefore both uninformative and uninteresting. To get real results for something like this you’d need to burn some serious shoe-leather.


David J. Littleboy 07.15.12 at 1:34 pm

“I don’t think that there is much of a boundary, in residents’ minds, between the two.”

Brookline was definately thought of as a “suburb” when I was growing up in Boston in the 60s/70s. The school systems are, of course, completely independent, so Brookline was another town for high school sports (well, chess, anyway).


Data Tutashkhia 07.15.12 at 3:00 pm

When I lived there, Brookline had “no overnight street parking” policy (not very suburban). So, if in the morning you find a $20 ticket on your windshield, you know you’re in Brookline.


bianca steele 07.15.12 at 4:42 pm

I have heard Brighton and Jamaica Plain referred to as “suburbs” (by someone who insisted that New York’s outer boroughs and the farther reaches of, say, Philadelphia we suburbs, though).


JanieM 07.15.12 at 5:53 pm

Following on bianca @ 4:42: My daughter lived in Manhattan for several months this past year, first on the Upper West Side and then on the Upper East Side, and one of her friends there — a native New Yorker — insisted that the Upper West Side was the suburbs. This was kind of staggering to me, living as I do in a rural “town” of 2000 plus a few.

The grid layout was a godsend for my daughter, who isn’t fond of maps but who, because of the street numbering system, could — and did — walk miles on end with some confidence that she wouldn’t get lost.

As for the Boston area, I’ve spent about a third of my adult life there, first for college and later for work trips. There are sections of the “suburbs” (parts of Cambridge, Belmont, and Watertown particularly) with which I’m familiar enough so that I can get where I’m going in a car as long as I remember when to change lanes (the worst part of driving there, since other drivers give no quarter if you’ve screwed up and want to change lanes at the last minute). And I’m familiar with lots of Cambridge and parts of Boston on foot. But it’s a difficult area to internalize, especially if your mind (like mine) likes grids. :)

In a workshop I did a few years ago there was a woman who had just moved to Cambridge from Seattle. She kept talking about places and directions in terms of nearer to or farther from the river. Since the river curves and winds, that required some significant translation effort for someone who thinks either in terms of NESW or in terms of the streets I know.

When I lived in Milwaukee, I used to get my hair done in a place where people complained that they got lost whenever they had to drive on one of the handful of major diagonal city streets. For me, it was a major reorientation of my sense of direction to live with a Great Lake to the east of the city, because I grew up in a town on the south shore of Lake Erie, so that “lake=north” was deeply embedded in my brain.

Rambling a bit off topic, so enough, but it’s interesting stuff. I could go on much longer about map reading vs GPS…….


LFC 07.16.12 at 3:47 am

and one of her friends there—a native New Yorker—insisted that the Upper West Side was the suburbs

Either a joke or an incorrect use of the word. No part of Manhattan is suburban, by definition.


LFC 07.16.12 at 3:57 am

A belated response to Luis @7
Yes, I think (after reflection about it) you make a good point. For various reasons, parts of cities or metro areas are probably ‘illegible’ even to longtime residents, or at least may remain fuzzy (again, for one reason or another).


praymont 07.16.12 at 6:03 am

I lived in Allston in the 90’s (Kelton St. next to the boundary with Brookline). Brookline felt different because it didn’t have nearly as many bars and liquor stores as Allston. I’m not sure how Brookline kept most of the alcohol on the other side of the boundary. I think it was partly due to the fact that at that time Brookline banned smoking in bars but Boston didn’t.


Chris Bertram 07.16.12 at 6:43 am

I assume that a major source of confusion and disagreement is the descriptions used by (real) estate agents when selling houses. In Bristol (UK) some areas shrink and others expand as agents try to persuade buyers that the property they are selling is in Montpelier rather than St Pauls or Bishopston rather than Horfield (etc etc). Naturally, if you’ve just bought a house in “Montpelier (really St Pauls borders)” you are going to tell your friends and family that you live in Montpelier, whereas long-term residents may refer to where you live as St Pauls.


John Quiggin 07.16.12 at 6:53 am

As I’ve mentioned before, there are interesting linguistic differences here, with real implications. In Australia, a suburb is a sub-unit of a city – the CBD is a bit anomalous, but anywhere people live counts as a suburb. And every suburb is part of a local council area (again, with the council covering the city area a bit different, but of the same general class). There’s no such thing as unincorporated (sub)urban areas, for example.

So, we really don’t have the urban-suburban distinction at all, either in language or practice.


JanieM 07.16.12 at 12:11 pm

and one of her friends there—a native New Yorker—insisted that the Upper West Side was the suburbs

Either a joke or an incorrect use of the word. No part of Manhattan is suburban, by definition.

Thanks, I know what the definition of “suburban” is in (with a nod to JQ) the US.

It was half a joke. The point had to do with the UWS being harder to get to and from than the UES or other parts of Manhattan.

If we’re talking about people’s perceptions, then a formal/academic definition of “suburban” isn’t the only relevant thing, or maybe isn’t relevant at all. You can say, if you want, that half the people whose opinions went into the making of the map in the OP were using “Brighton” incorrectly, but that seems to miss the point of the map.


Katherine 07.16.12 at 12:38 pm

I’ve become confused and occasionally annoyed by the useage of the word “suburb”. I think the UK meaning of it is more like the US meaning – i.e. an area in which people live from whence they generally commute to a larger city nearby to work.

But in the US it seems to also mean “souless and newish, contained few pavements, little-to-no community, activities, shops, green space or social life”. And “exurb” means much the same, except further out, and requiring an even longer commute. All in all, the colloquial translation of “suburb” seems to be “hell”. And there seems to be no grey areas – city, or suburb, with “small town” hanging in there as shorthand for rural.

I currently live in what could be described as a suburb, in that it is a smallish area from when most people commute to work in a nearby city. The previous place I lived was that too, but a different city. However, both of these places were in the Doomsday Book, had plenty of walking space, parks, shops and shopping centres, community life, schools etc etc. I just call them “towns”.

Is my problem US-UK translation, or am I just being defensive over the fact that I live in a suburb and don’t like it (and indirectly, me) being insulted?


LFC 07.16.12 at 1:35 pm

But in the US it seems to also mean “soulless and newish”

Of course ‘newish’ is relative. A v. large number of US suburbs date from the 50s, and in some cases areas now called ‘suburban’ were settled earlier (going back to 19th or early 20th c.) Not the Domesday Bk, but not brand new. The criticism of suburbs as “soulless” also goes back a half-century, at least. There is no doubt a fair amt of variation in terms of green space etc. (Some ‘planned communities’ had/have green space built in from the beginning.) And there are grey areas when it comes to the labels.


Kukai 07.16.12 at 2:39 pm

The city/suburb distinction has always been a grey area. Many large metro areas have swallowed up the surrounding towns: London, Boston, Paris, Chicago. London with its vast system of boroughs has taken to calling neighbourhoods “suburbs”, Lord knows why.


JP Stormcrow 07.16.12 at 4:09 pm

JanieM@18: Manhattan grid + I could go on much longer about map reading vs GPS

If folks want to get really real* they should take into account that Manhattan’s grid is aligned approximately 29° northeast of true north. Two counter-intuitive results of this are the George Washington Bridge being further east than the Brooklyn Bridge, and one which I don’t really believe unless I am actually looking at the map: the Bronx is the NYC borough which has the least westward extent (i.e. Queens extends further west than the Bronx).

*Really confused that is; this is actually pretty much least helpful true geographical fact, ever.


js. 07.16.12 at 4:33 pm

@JP Stromcrow:

And the only streets in Manhattan that run due east/west (and perhaps north/south) are in the West Village (I think?). One of my favorite facts, this (unless it turns out not be a fact).


David J. Littleboy 07.16.12 at 4:39 pm

“But it’s a difficult area to internalize, especially if your mind (like mine) likes grids. :)”

Yes. Boston geography is hard. Consider the Boston Common. It has FIVE 90-degree corners: Charles and Beacon, Beacon and Park, Park and Tremont, Tremont and Boylston, Boylston and Charles. All really are very close approximations of 90-degree corners. I guess that’s why I was such a space cadet in geometry in school.

And I had no idea which way the directions of the compass went. It was only recently that I realized my childhood home was due east of MIT (since I could watch the sunset over MIT from our house*. And that the “North Slope” of Beacon Hill really does face north. But other than that, there’s not much of anything in Boston that’s on a N/S or E/W line…


There was a book about Boston that started something to the effect “Scollay Square is the geographic center of Boston. Directly to the South of Scollay Square lies the North End.”

Still, the big dig seems to have made things somewhat better. With my parents deceased, and my college reunion not for another 4 years, I need an excuse to visit. I’m going to be real pissed if I wait to long and by the time I get around to going again, JAL will have cancelled their direct flights twixt Tokyo and Boston. So since you twisted timbers started talking about Boston, find me an excuse to visit.


JP Stormcrow 07.16.12 at 5:34 pm

And the only streets in Manhattan that run due east/west (and perhaps north/south) are in the West Village (I think?)

The West Village “semi-grid” (Greenwich and Hudson from Barrow almost all the way down below the Village to Chambers) is closer but still a bit east of north (there are basically three slightly different “grid” orientations in the West Village which combined with a few of the arterials bringing in the standard Manhattan alignment (7th Ave.) makes for interesting navigation). Similarly, Chinatown/Lower East Side below E. Broadway which is aligned to the jog in the East River.

For an actual E-W street, the link I posted points to Stuyvesant St. (2nd & 3rd Ave/9th & 10th St.) as being a residual holdover from an earlier north-south grid. Also, Broadway through the lower Upper West Side is nearly due north (it still runs a bit east of north in its diagonal traverse south of that).


Chris Bertram 07.16.12 at 5:35 pm

@Katherine … and the French translation is “banlieu”, which has very different connotations again.


Katherine 07.16.12 at 5:41 pm

London with its vast system of boroughs has taken to calling neighbourhoods “suburbs”, Lord knows why.

Nah, TFL =/= London, in this case. The phrase suburb is usually used to describe something outside of the London boroughs. Although where I lived was in a London bor0ugh, I didn’t have a classic London postcode, so was arguably in a suburb. Also, it was off the Tube, also evidence of suburbiness, although there are suburbs (eg Watford) with access to the Tube network, confusingly. Some hardcore London urbanites would probably call anything outside of Zone 1 or 2 the suburbs.


JP Stormcrow 07.16.12 at 5:54 pm

Veering a bit more off-topic, I was re-reading Simon’s Sciences of the Artificial and he uses navigating a taxi as an example of a task that was presumably very reliant on memory rather than sophisticated computation: If this information is available in memory, however, choosing a route probably does not call for a very complex strategy. Footnoted:

1. I believe this is true, but it is not obvious. Exercise for the reader: write a computer program that, given the street map of an area and some knowledge of which streets are trunk routes, will choose a reasonable path to deliver a passenger from one point to another.

Simon died in 2001; I’m not sure exactly when route-finders became ubiquitous on the web.


js. 07.16.12 at 6:25 pm

JPS @32,

I guess I was just thinking thinking of 12th st., Jane, and the couple of streets around them, which still seem pretty due east/west to me. But basically a memory fail on my part. Love that map though. [Note to self — check link before commenting.]


JP Stormcrow 07.16.12 at 8:00 pm

js@36: Ah, I missed that section, and yes, look to be yery close to due east/west–even more so than Stuyvesant.


JP Stormcrow 07.16.12 at 8:23 pm

And here we just missed this year’s Manhattanhenge (July 11,12–the evening the sun sets directly along the standard e-w street axis–also one in May).

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