Where do you live?

Naming the spot you call home

August 14, 2010

When I resided in the Washington suburbs, people I met would ask me, "What do you do?"

Then I moved to Baltimore, and people asked, "Where do you live?"

People here have a strong sense of domestic geography. They do indeed "place" you by where you live. So recently, when the residents of an Anne Arundel County neighborhood petitioned the U.S. Postal Service to be known as Orchard Beach, and not Curtis Bay, I understood.

The name of the place you call home carries weight, as does the reputation that goes with it. Moreover, there are many authorities — the Post Office, municipal governments, the Census Bureau, real estate agents and your neighbors — who want to tell you where you live. Sometimes they agree, sometimes not.

You would think that almost every community would want its name to have some panache. In Columbia, where the streets and some neighborhoods are named after literary figures (e.g. Faulkner, Longfellow, Dickinson and Jeffers Hill) you would be right.

But not so in certain Baltimore neighborhoods. An effort to rebrand Baltimore's Pigtown as "Washington Village" fell flat. Residents of the neighborhood chose to keep the historic name of their community, where pigs used to run through the streets on their way to slaughterhouses. The slaughterhouses are long gone, but the name reflects the area's quirky character. Neighborhood leaders say they are Pigtown and proud of it. Good for them.

I recognize that an effort to elevate a neighborhood's name is often also a ploy to raise the price of its real estate. Given the choice between listing a house for sale in either "Lutherville" or " Timonium," Lutherville, with its stately homes, seems to win the real estate agent's heart. However, when describing the location of a house, real estate agents often seem to follow the lead of roadside produce merchants who claim to have "local tomatoes" in early June — namely, they tell the customers what they want to hear.

In Montgomery County, Potomac is the preferred real estate listing, I am told, to Rockville, even though some of the boundaries overlap. Potomac has class; Rockville has a city hall. Potomac is what is called a Census-designated place. These CDPs, as the Census Bureau labels them, are populated areas that don't have a separate municipal government but otherwise look a lot like incorporated towns.

I was curious who gets to call the shots on what constitutes a Census-designated place. It turns out the Census Bureau has a procedure for this. Before each Census, designated participants such as municipal planning officials consult with Census Bureau geographers over changes in the local landscape. There are a number of hurdles that have to be cleared before a Census-designated place becomes official: The community cannot be incorporated; its name cannot duplicate that of a nearby community; its boundaries cannot cross state lines.

Moreover, according to Mike Ratcliffe, a geographer with the Census Bureau, there must a strong recognition within the community that the name fits the place. In Howard County, he said, Scaggsville and Fulton cleared these hurdles and recently joined the ranks of the nation's official CDPs. Congratulations seem in order.

I am fascinated by the boundaries and names of Baltimore's neighborhoods. On days when I should be thinking big thoughts about, say, international monetary policy, I often find myself staring at a map of Baltimore's neighborhoods that hangs in The Baltimore Sun newsroom.

I wonder, for instance, what makes Better Waverly superior to Waverly. I note that there are two Northwoods, Original and New. By my count, Forest Park leads the city in repetitive names with five separate areas — Central Forest Park, West Forest Park, Forest Park, Forest Park Golf Course, and Concerned Citizens of Forest Park — bearing the neighborhood banner.

A lot of people, it turns out, like to stare at a map of Baltimore's neighborhoods. A map produced by the city's planning department was so popular when it was displayed at public gatherings around town that Live Baltimore, the city's marketing arm, turned it into a colorful $10 poster.

Neighborhood names and boundaries can be fluid. There are about 270 Neighborhood Statistical Areas in Baltimore, used by the city's planning department. There are also 55 Community Statistical Areas, used by the Census. There are untold numbers of neighborhood associations. Then there is community opinion. Regardless of what officialdom dictates, people who live in a Baltimore neighborhood usually determine what it is called.

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