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Solving a few neighborhood mysteries

A community is a collection of people with a common interest. A residential neighborhood is a community whose common interest is place. A detective is someone who solves mysteries.

In this column we will discuss how you can become a neighborhood detective and solve some of the “mysteries” of your neighborhood.

For our purposes, let us define “mystery” as something that is unexplained or needs further explanation. In solving the mystery of your neighborhood, you might want to explain how it started, who started it, who lives in it and why people live there.

In the beginning

The first step in explaining your neighborhood is to find out how it began.

If you live in Mississippi, that clue can be found at the chancery clerk’s office. There you will find the subdivision plat, as well as deeds to properties in the neighborhood. The subdivision plat, which is sort of a master plan and map of lots, will reveal the name of the developer, the date of filing and other bits of information.

Not every residential parcel of real estate is part of a subdivision plat, nor is every neighborhood a legally platted subdivision. The best thing to do is have a conversation with the deputy clerk about how deeds are filed. I have found that some of the more interesting information comes from interviewing people who work in the courthouse.

Finding the boundaries

Next, you will need to identify the neighborhood boundary. It may or may not be the same as the subdivision plat. Sometimes a neighborhood consists of several subdivisions. The best way to find this clue is simple observation. Drive or walk around and notice the changes in land use. These most often define the neighborhood boundary.

Examine the physical characteristics, such as trees and topography. Another clue can be street patterns. Often, neighborhoods are defined by heavily traveled streets on their borders. Another common boundary is the wooded area.
Look for land uses that are not the same and where the change occurs. There is usually where the neighborhood boundary is located.

The next step is to track the history of the neighborhood. Building permits offer good clues because they reveal when each house was built. If you have the time, you can literally “morph” the neighborhood over time. Being a good detective, you are aware that a building permit is just that — a permit. It does not prove that a structure was built or who moved in.

One of the best ways to learn about the history is to talk to the old-timers, people who have lived there the longest. Chances are you may even find someone who has lived there since the neighborhood began. Interviewing people is really the richest part of this type of detective work.

Who lives there?

Now it’s time to find out who lives in the neighborhood and what they have in common.

Go to the library and find a copy of the so-called city directory. Most communities have them. In the city directory you will usually find a listing of streets, the name of the occupant by street address and the place of employment. Make a list of the streets in your neighborhood. Take a look at the type of jobs held by people in the neighborhood.

Chances are that they are probably similar if the neighborhood is young, and not so similar if the neighborhood is older.

Other ways to gather clues about who lives in the neighborhood is to simply observe things such as types of vehicles, condition of homes and people themselves. Try finding out who has lived in your neighborhood the longest and the shortest amount of time.

The stages of the cycle

Finally, look for clues that reveal where your neighborhood is in terms of the neighborhood life cycle. Those stages are growth, stability, decline and renewal.

In the growth stage, property values are rising and most residents are the owners of the first homes built in the neighborhood. In the stability stage, the increase in property values has somewhat leveled off, turnover of ownership is relatively slow and properties are well-maintained.

As the neighborhood begins to decline, the detective will find that properties are beginning to suffer from deferred maintenance and ownership is turning over at a faster rate.

The final stage is that of revitalization, and it starts the cycle over again.

By investigating these and other clues, you, the neighborhood detective, will soon solve the mystery of your neighborhood.

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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