ASU archaeologist says neighborhoods have a long history
Are neighborhoods still relevant in this age of social media and globalization?
That’s the question New York Times-best-selling author Tom Vanderbilt ponders in the latest edition of the Wilson Quarterly.
To better understand the origins, history and purpose of neighborhoods, Vanderbilt accesses a 2010 Journal of Anthropological Archaeology article by Arizona State University professor Michael E. Smith.
According to Smith, a neighborhood is defined as “a distinct territorial group, distinct by virtue of the specific physical characteristics of the area and the specific characteristics of the inhabitants.”
Although most modern thinking regarding neighborhoods stems from 20th-century academic concepts, Smith explains that neighborhood-type units have existed for millennia. He cites examples as diverse as communities in medieval Marseille and the Aztec cities of Mexico.
“The spatial division of cities into districts or neighborhoods is one of the few universals of urban life from the earliest cities to the present,” he notes.
Though the fabric of neighborhoods has changed over time – whether grouping members of occupations, ethnicities or socioeconomic classes – Vanderbilt suggests that the usefulness of the neighborhood and the human desire for a cohesive sense of community remain even in this digital age.
Smith’s journal article was written as part of his Late Lessons from Early History project on urban neighborhoods. Harvard University sociologist Robert Sampson, who was also tapped for Vanderbilt’s article, was a consultant for the Late Lessons project.
Smith, who is faculty in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, specializes in the archaeology of Aztec sites in Mexico, as well as comparative research on human units ranging from households to empires.