How to establish a historical designation of your neighborhood

by David Rhodes
(Spokane, WA USA)

Visitor Question: In searching for ways to improve established neighborhoods - would it be possible to call a neighborhood historic if it was only started after World War II?

If I were to ask a neighbor the name of their neighborhood (example, Spokane, WA) most likely they would not be able to tell me or even care. There is interesting history to any city or residential development whether it began in 1850 or 1950 or even in the 2000s. I think my neighbors would like to know the history of their neighborhood.

The idea of using QR codes posted on signs in the area might be a good start....Looking for thoughts, Thanks.

Editors Reply: When we saw the title of your question, we thought you were asking about a formal local, state, or national historical designation. If that is a part of your question, we would refer you to our page about local historic districts, which delves into this idea in some detail. One heading there discusses the differences between local, state, and national criteria.

It is definitely possible to call a neighborhood historic if it was established as recently as immediately after World War II. Often as a rule of thumb, buildings and neighborhood more than 50 years old are considered historic by some.

Post-World War II subdivisions around the U.S. often share some similar characteristics because they were built swiftly, using some of the same federal programs, to alleviate a housing shortage at that time. Neighborhoods where houses were built around the same time have an obvious and impactful history.

Reading what you wrote about, though, we think you may be asking more basic questions. First let's deal with the idea that neighbors might not know the name of the neighborhood where they live. This is pretty common, especially in cities where there is little to no conversation about historic preservation.

As a wild generalization, we also find it to be likely that a neighborhood full of younger homeowners or renters will be less interested in history than a neighborhood where a good many households have been living there for years.

However, the young residents quickly come on board if you discover something interesting or unique in the history, and if someone can push those findings on social media.

If you want to inspire more interest in the history of local neighborhoods, it may be necessary to first work on an identity for each neighborhood. An identity entails both a commonly understood name and commonly agreed upon boundaries. (In fact, another page on this website, the neighborhood boundaries page, discusses some useful methods of delineating boundaries.)

Once people are aware they live in a particular neighborhood, you will be well positioned to help inspire neighborhood pride through neighborhood history. After all, to us the goal of a consciousness of local history is to build a sense of community and enhance a sense of pride in your particular spot on earth.

We really like your idea of the QR codes posted on signs. You could begin by trying to write the web pages that these QR codes would point to, to understand if you have enough information and fascinating facts to make the signs worth the effort.

Of course part of the web page can be asking people to contribute their own household's historical photos, stories, and trivia. In the case of an area where not much local history has been written, this can be a valuable source of information and help build interest.

To collect historical information, a few sources that neighborhoods and cities have found useful are official county records, U.S. Census records, subdivision records and plats, local historical societies or museums, and state historical societies and museums. Sometimes major businesses in town will have archives they are willing to open, and utilities and railroads may be sources of information. Your local newspaper will have archives, the school system will have yearbooks, and there may have been city directories published by private companies.

Ask any local colleges and universities for referrals to history professors, who are likely to know of additional sources that are helpful in your state. And have a long talk with your local library.

Then when you have good articles, you are ready for the QR codes on signs. You may want to incorporate those codes on attractive entrance signs into neighborhoods, which also reinforces neighborhood identity and hopefully neighborhood pride.

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