Editorial: Boundary issues

Some cities hold ritual competitions, often involving flags, horses, and centuries-old rivalries, at which people from different urban quarters seem almost to be at war—for the day anyway. Other cities have so little unity of feeling that there’s really nothing to subdivide.

People in Minneapolis have done well to avoid such fierce allegiance or apathy. The boundaries around its compact neighborhoods follow a rule of thumb—or rule of big toe—that they should be small enough for a kid to walk to the local elementary school (even though the school may be long gone or the kid may not go there). Enshrined or implied in the city’s neighborhood boundaries is the question, “Can you walk there?”

Last month the board of directors of the Prospect Park Cooperative Nursery School voted to move the 58-year-old institution out of Prospect Park United Methodist Church—and out of the neighborhood whose name the school bears—to Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Longfellow.

It was a move many in Prospect Park felt as a rude slap. After decades of neighborhood support for the school, the school seemed firmly rooted in place; in some families the nursery school was the formative home for multiple generations of children learning to be children and parents learning to be parents.

But despite its neighborhood identification the school attracted families from outside as well as inside the neighborhood. And since it was a co-op, owned and operated by parents with children currently enrolled, a board of directors without strong neighborhood ties could—and did—make the decision to leave the neighborhood.

To make sure the school never strayed, a board could write into its bylaws voting rights for neighborhood representatives, or even the kind of stay-put conditions cities try to place on professional sports teams for whom they build stadiums.

So it’s tempting to say to the non-neighborhood nursery school board they ought to respect neighborhood boundaries, or to say to Prospect Park parents and neighbors that if they want boundaries and traditions respected, they should codify them.

But it might be hypocritical to take either position, given this newspaper’s own short history. You are holding—or possibly reading online—the 12th issue of The Bridge, borne a year ago of the dearly departed Seward Profile and Southeast Angle, each of which carried strong neighborhood identifications of its own reaching back three decades or more.

The Bridge’s readers, writers and advertisers seem to have adjusted for the most part. But people shift boundaries at different speeds. “You know,” said one neighborhood elder with a dramatic pause, “I still call it the Profile.” The broader coverage area of the Bridge meant blurring the boundaries of the nine or so neighborhoods we have taken to collectively calling “Bridgeland.”

It’s not an easy balance to strike. When is it right to stake out and reinforce neighborhood boundaries, and when is it time to blur or transgress them? Who says what neighborhood boundaries are in force, and how much force they should have, and who pays attention anyway? When must neighborhood boundaries be written into the law or the rules, and when should it be left to the equivalent of a communal handshake?

The rule of big toe can be a guide—if you can walk there, and you want to walk there, then that’s a thing to embrace within neighborhood boundaries. People who get there behind a wheel should avoid driving over those big toes.

last revised: August 17, 2006