How can I rebrand my neighbourhood?
October 25, 2012 1:41 AM   Subscribe

What can I use as inspiration for cheap, creative ways to help change perceptions of my "bad" neighbourhood?

My neighbourhood has a bad reputation for being unsafe and dirty, which has got worse in recent months in the media. It has its problems, but it is also a great place to live, and I don't want to see the atmosphere here take a turn for the worse. I am looking for creative ways an ordinary resident like me, not (yet) attached to any particular residents groups, can take action to make things better.

I'm talking about cheap, creative ideas like an online campaign, viral videos, street art, posters, stickers for neighbourhood shop windows, this type of thing.

Are you aware of nice projects along these lines which have helped improve attitudes towards "bad" neighbourhoods in a city? Can you point me to websites which show how it was done?
posted by creeky to Society & Culture (19 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think working as an individual you might have trouble making big changes, maybe start by seeing what groups are available to help you and view it as a community-building project?

I think the process of doing the community group outreach and relationship building is going to be part of what ends up making this work or fail.

Here's something like that in Edmonton, Canada.

I think what makes it work is that it's everything. Online, facebook, local businesses, the police have been working to reduce crime and I was walking down 118 this morning, and one of our most-loved graffiti artists (The Listen Bird) has done a mural sized piece on a big blank wall.

Another thing the community has done is increased community programming, with things like Arts on the Ave, that does arts-based programming in the community.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 2:21 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Facebook page + short (1.5 minute) YouTube videos resident interviews + photo pool

Theme: Why do you love this neighbourhood?

Could also profile local businesses or gathering spots

If the project takes off and gains traction, start a contest that gathers similar user-generated content.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:56 AM on October 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I have direct experience with this. I lived for 11 years in a neighborhood of southeast Seattle that had a reputation of being troubled and dirty for decades, that got turned around into a local bright spot and model of gentrification (for better and worse).

Community is key. If there are existing organizations, join. If there aren't start one.

This is not meant to sound patronizing, but here goes:

If it's dirty, clean it up. You would be amazed at the difference it makes when one person commits to picking up trash on the street in front of their house. If it's a neighborhood-wide problem, organize a community cleanup. Call the city to get their support--printing flyers, trash bags, pickup of the bags on the day of the cleanup, get them to haul the bigger trash. It will take a while to find the right people in the city to work with and to get them on board. Be persistent. Get donations for coffee and donuts on the day of the cleanup. Get peoples' contact information and use that to get them connected. Ride the momentum of the cleanup (people will be really happy about the immediate difference) to figure out the next step. Meet again in 6 months and do it again? Plant flowers in hanging baskets in your business district? Whatever gets people excited--get it going...

If it's unsafe, fight that. Neighborhood walks are classic for this. Bunch of folks get together and walk as a group--walk your dog, whatever. Every night, or every weekend night. Next step is to get legitimate businesses into your neighborhood so that legitimate foot traffic, day and night, generates itself.

You're not going to solve every problem, and it will feel like it takes a long time to make an impact. But every person makes a difference, whether they know it or not, and you can choose to make a positive impact. Get enough people to join you and it'll start to snowball. It's worth it.

Good luck!
posted by Sublimity at 4:17 AM on October 25, 2012 [10 favorites]

Start a blog. Create somewhere central for the community to see positive things reported, share concerns, raise issues and coordinate action, and generally take pride in where they live.

This is a great example. It has been sufficiently successful it has spawned a local newspaper.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:36 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

My neighbourhood has a bad reputation for being unsafe and dirty, which has got worse in recent months in the media.

I notice that your question does not state that the reputation is not deserved. Is it unsafe and dirty? If so, all of the advertising in the world is not going to change that fact. No amount of viral viral videos would convince me that Vancouver's Downtown Eastside is where I should move my wive and school-age children.

If you want to change the perception of the neighborhood, you need to change the neighborhood. Any campaigning you do should focus on the ongoing efforts to change the neighborhood. "Elm Street is cleaning up its act!" is much more persuasive than "Elm Street is perfectly safe, honest!"

Basically, you need to gentrify. This is not a bad word to me but be aware that it is for some.
posted by Tanizaki at 4:53 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Look up "London Road". It's a play/musical that describes this process.
posted by bquarters at 5:00 AM on October 25, 2012

You need the community to help.

Personally, I would start by attending city council meetings. That will help you find allies.
posted by Flood at 5:01 AM on October 25, 2012

Seed bombs (flowers) ...
posted by tilde at 6:50 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: this summer I got lost and ended up in a bad neighborhood -- dirty, ugly buildings, people standing in the street, broken windows, etc. My anxiety evaporated immediately when I came to a block where many people had planted windowboxes. The mood instantly shifted from "gangland" to "Main Street USA". It conveyed the idea that the good people who live in this neighborhood care about it, and are not afraid to leave nice things outside.
posted by apparently at 7:01 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

viral videos, street art, posters,

So, I'm currently looking into moving to a neighborhood that is on the edge. From what I can tell, it seems generally safe and OK to live in, but definitely has a sketchy reputation.

One thing that has really put my mind at ease in my research (moving across the country and can't simply visit the area to check it out) is discovering all the cultural institutions, artists, musicians and great food in this neighborhood. Yes, a neighborhood with art galleries and interesting bands can still be sketchy, but in my experience it bodes well (and is definitely good if the main issue is reputation rather than actual danger).

What about starting a neighborhood blog? You could show the videos of local bands, document cultural events, and highlight interesting businesses. You could do features on street art, local personalities, and area restaurants.

If you have artistic talent, what about working with a local building owner to create a mural?

If you have video skills, what about finding a local band and helping them make a video with your neighborhood as the setting?

If you have access to printing equipment, what about commissioning cool poster art?
posted by Sara C. at 7:24 AM on October 25, 2012

The most amazing this of this kind that I know about was shown in The Singing Estate. The series is well worth a watch, though you probably won't want or be able to directly copy the process there.

An article on the series describes the context...

Blackbird Leys is one of England's more deprived council estates, suffering from high unemployment and a disaffected youth population pegged to the collapse of the nearby Cowley car works.

The choir continues to this day.

One of the interesting side-effects of bringing people of all types and ages together to sing was that their perceptions of each other were changed, so the older people no longer saw the young people hanging out on the street as threatening, the young people were able to relate to their elders etc. Which in turn changed the way people lived, being comfortable going out more, and so changing who would be seen around the neighborhood and the feel of the streetlife.

I've known a bunch of people who've done projects a bit like this, though on a smaller scale. They are do-able, and you sound like you're in the right mental place to be the spark for this. I'll see if I can dig out more examples for you later.
posted by philipy at 7:25 AM on October 25, 2012

The writer of the blog The Pioneer Squares spends quite a lot of time cleaning up the alley by her building. Here's a typical post -- you can see how much work they put into it, and also how much better it looks.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:30 AM on October 25, 2012

Aesthetics play a large role on perception and community pride. You may want to look into and study a concept known as broken window theory to get better bearings on the things you could do to improve your surroundings.
posted by samsara at 8:36 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Walk and run a lot in your neighborhood and convince/invite your neighbors to do the same. It has four benefits:
1. You become very familiar with the state of it and know the problems,
2. You become a familiar face which makes organizing easier,
3. You can pick up trash when walking,
4. People who drive through like your neighborhood more because of the people outside.
posted by michaelh at 8:41 AM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe work with the city to have city-maintained trash cans put at various road intersections in the bad area. Also, you can talk with the city, or possibly electric company, about putting street lights on top of telephone poles in some darker areas. Telephone pole street lights are much cheaper to install than stand-alone street lights, and it's quite possible that the city will install them for free if you can justify that you are improving the city and collect enough signatures in a petition, so definitely check into that.
posted by nikkorizz at 9:45 AM on October 25, 2012

I came to post pretty much exactly what Sweetchrysanthemum posted.

This is particularly timely because I just attended a screening of The Avenue last night, which is a documentary about how the neighbourhood is turning itself around and improving its reputation (which, while there are real problems in the area, is greatly exaggerated).

The movie's website has some information about community revitalization efforts that can be applied broadly. I recommend watching the film, too, if you have the chance.

Most of the things that have been done require community buy-in. You can't do it alone. Reclaiming the streets by going out and walking in your neighbourhood (instead of hiding at home) is a simple thing that you can do. But even this requires a critical mass of people willing to go out and walk with you. One or two people won't make much difference, but if a dozen people are out showing that this is their neighbourhood and they're not afraid to use it, then those causing problems will be less likely to try and harass or intimidate them.
posted by asnider at 9:59 AM on October 25, 2012

Nthing walk.

Jane Jacobs wrote a lot about urban planning related topics. She made the point that eyes on the street is what creates a safe urban area. I have seen interviews with people who used this approach to start reforming a bad neighborhood and I (unintentionally) used it myself.

I moved into an apartment complex with a bad reputation where cops routinely parked in unmarked cars on weekend nights. My sons and I did not feel safe when we first moved in, especially in the wee hours of the morning. Everyone drove to get their mail and take out trash. The streets and parking lots were desolate places, filled with cars but no people. We sometimes drove and sometimes walked to get mail and take out trash. Other people began sometimes walking. We gave up our car and began walking to the grocery store, I began leaving for work on foot, etc. Over time, other people began walking to nearby stores, playing with their dog outside, jogging, etc. The place stopped being deserted. We stopped feeling scared about taking the trash out late at night. Police cars stopped parking there.

Just get out and walk. Over time, it will become safer.
posted by Michele in California at 9:59 AM on October 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Aesthetics play a large role on perception and community pride. You may want to look into and study a concept known as broken window theory to get better bearings on the things you could do to improve your surroundings.

This is also very true. Talk to local business owners and city government to see if there is anything that can be done to improve the facades of buildings: perhaps a matching grant program. The "Alberta Avenue" area that Sweetchrysanthemum and I have mentioned was improved partially because the city created grants that you match business with up to $30,000 to renovate/improve their exteriors. Many of the businesses jumped at the chance and now many of the businesses look modern and inviting instead of rundown and scary.

If the neighbourhood has a business association, you may want to go to them instead of trying to talk to business owners individually.
posted by asnider at 12:49 PM on October 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Look up Marcus Westbury: his article, Cities as Software, a TEDx talk, and the organization in question: Renew Newcastle.

Renew Newcastle is "a low budget, not for profit, DIY urban renewal scheme that has brokered access to more than 30 empty buildings for creative enterprises, artists and cultural projects in his home town of Newcastle, NSW."
posted by suedehead at 4:59 PM on October 25, 2012

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