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Boston's micro-neighborhoods

Posted by Joshua Glenn  March 6, 2008 01:18 PM

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Where does Roslindale end and West Roxbury begin? A Globe article this past December raised hackles (among Roslindale residents) when it noted that a triangular chunk of West Roxbury -- about 680 households, and a dozen businesses -- that had been misidentified for years by the post office would (as of this coming July) be recognized by the USPS as belonging to the 02132 zip code. The area, bordered by West Roxbury Parkway, Centre Street, and the VFW Parkway, has long been considered part of the 02131 zip code; that is to say, according to the Post Office, it's in Roslindale.

Roslindale boosters found it insulting that some West Roxbury types weren't happy with their accidental zip code. "We've got some highfalutin' people out here who think West Roxbury is something special," Edward McDevitt, a resident of the disputed area, told the Globe.

I understand that property values are the issue here, but this dispute is ridiculous. Why? Check it out: No authentic Bostonian thinks of him- or herself as living in "West Roxbury" or "Roslindale" -- or "Jamaica Plain" or "Charlestown," and so forth. We live in micro-neighborhoods! For example, I didn't grow up on the border of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury; instead, I was born and raised in Egleston Square ("Eggie," as we fondly called it). What this meant, in practice, for teenage boys in the mid-1980s, was that Eggie residents didn't only have to be careful about leaving Jamaica Plain for, say, Dorchester or West Roxbury, because teenagers from those neighborhoods would hard-time us. We also had to watch our step when leaving Egleston Square for nearby micro-neighborhoods in JP -- like Jamaica Central, Hyde Square, Forest Hills, and Back of the Hill. (And vice versa.) We didn't define the boundaries of those areas; they already existed.

It's difficult to explain this to non-Bostonians, which is why I didn't post anything to Brainia when the Globe article originally came out. Earlier this week, however, the
Yahoo! Local & Maps Blog
announced a number of improvements to Yahoo! Maps, including more "granular" neighborhood data for 300 cities and 12,000 neighborhoods -- from "Lower East Side" (New York, Milwaukee, Bridgeport) to "Lower Collegetown" (Ithaca).

Say what? As of this week, maps generated by Yahoo! Maps denote not merely neighborhood but micro-neighborhood boundaries via subtle changes in the background color.

Perhaps we can solve the West Robury/Roslindale neighborhood kerfuffle by simply identifying what micro-neighborhood the disputed triangle is in.

Here, for example, is the southern edge of Egleston Square, via Yahoo! Maps:


As you can see, Egleston Square and Jamaica Central are separated by Green/Glen and Washington Streets, which is exactly how I experienced things as a teenager. Ruggiero's Market, which used to be on the corner of Green and Washington -- there's a police station there, now; is where residents of the two micro-neighborhoods uneasily mingled. See how straightforward the concept of micro-neighborhoods is?

However, I'm not sure why the area on Egleston Square's side of Washington is called Jamaica Central; that makes no sense. It should be labeled "Parkside." Uh-oh. This doesn't bode well for the West Roxbury-Roslindale border dispute.

Moving on to West Roxbury, here's what my own Bellevue Hill micro-neighborhood looks like:


So far, so good. Except... no. Unhappily, West Roxbury's delightful and desirable Highlands micro-neighborhood (across Centre from Bellevue Hill) isn't identified on the map. This makes absolutely no sense. With some trepidation, we now turn to the disputed area of West Roxbury, the triangle shown below between VFW Parkway, West Roxbury Parkway, and Centre Street:


Alas! It isn't identified at all. Well, in honor of the fact that it's just south of the tropical-sounding Jamaica Hills, and because of its mysteriousness, I'd like to suggest a name for it: Bermuda Triangle.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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