Union Hill: Bremerton Neighborhood’s ‘Place Branding’

A reputation can be a hard reality to overcome. What do you think of when I say “O.J. Simpson?” If you thought “Buffalo Bills,” “superb actor” or “Heisman Trophy,” you may want to reset your watch at least to 1995. One Bremerton community is intent on trying to overcome the city’s notoriety and may be pulling it off. If it is wildly successful it could help the entire city come off better, too.

To lay some context, in December, when KIRO-radio’s career talkatician Dori Monson was decrying the use of taxpayer money for public art in Bremerton in these economic times, he called the city a “cool, gritty city.” That’s one of those compliments that doesn’t really feel like one. Bremerton is like the blind date described as having such a super personality that you hardly notice the acne.

That grittiness, which people bring up even when they’re trying to be nice, is something that will likely take a long time for Bremerton to overcome. For one thing, parts of Bremerton still are gritty. In fact, gritty would be a compliment in some corners. The face lift that has gone on with the help of federal, state and county money has not erased every trace of the blight that accelerated when Orange Julius (I hear there were other stores, too) chose rural Silverdale over Kitsap’s urban center.

The second part, though, is that you don’t live down a tag unless you get someone to see you, and since Bremerton is a ferry ride away from many, including the one calling the city “gritty,” it’s a tough pitch.

I have it on good authority that recently a couple of Bainbridge Islanders never given to heaping praise on Bremerton were in town recently and were astounded at the change downtown. They heaped praise, to the point of saying the city had it over the island. It took a long time, though, for them to get here to see it.

There are, however, other parts of Bremerton. Nice parts, as it turns out. Even nicer when neighbors decide to know each other.

One of them was lumped in with the tag “West Bremerton.” Jaime Forsyth bought a home there in 2007. She wrote of her move:

“I bought my house during the revitalization excitement and just befor ethe economy crashed. I could see that my block had good ‘bones’ and was within walking distance to the ferry, but less than half seemed to take pride in their curb appeal. Further, no one seemed to know more than one or two other families on the street of sixteen homes.”

Forsyth helped get neighbors together to plant trees in 2008 using a city grant and in 2009 with the involvement of local churches neighbors got together again to work and used more donated labor from the city and materials from private companies to replace some concrete with rain gardens. By March 2010 neighbors named the location from the shipyard to 11th Street and from Charleston to Warren Avenue “Union Hill.”

The name comes because it’s on a kind of a hill and in reference to the former Union High School, now Kiwanis Park.

Neighbors got a nice write-up from the Bremerton Patriot in March. In April some of them showed up as a group at a city council meeting to argue in favor of Kiwanis Park improvements. In May they marched in the Armed Forces Day Parade. On Aug. 14 the neighborhood hosted a a story in which the point was made that crime is lower in neighborhoods where homeowners outnumber renters, not because homeowners are better people, but they tend to know their neighbors better. They notice, more, when something looks different at a neighbor’s home.

Well then, it seems to be working. The evidence would be in this section from our story about the block party:

In her eight years living on 10th Street, Jessica Falk can’t remember any time the neighborhood’s come together like this. As she helped children paint pet rocks Saturday afternoon, she said that it’s been a blessing.

“There’s a huge feeling of safety between us all,” Falk said.

There you go, then.

From Jim Diers:

I am passionate about building a strong sense of community. There is no substitute for community when it comes to public safety, emergency response, environmental sustainability, care for one another, accountability from government and other institutions, and our personal health and well being. A community is a group of people who identify with and support one another.

A neighborhood provides an ideal context for building community, because it supplies the four key conditions that are needed. One is a small scale; Bremerton itself is too large for everyone to feel connected with one another. A second is gathering places where people can repeatedly bump into their neighbors; I’m glad to see that their park is a priority for Union Hill. A third is a vehicle for collective action so that people can work together to accomplish what they can not do individually; clearly, Union Hill now has such an association, even if it is informal. And, the fourth and most important, is a common identify which is difficult to have without a name.

Most cities in the United States, an practically all cities in the Puget Sound area, have established neighborhood programs to facilitate community building and partnerships between local government and the neighborhoods. This is a relatively new phenomenon and it has resulted in many additional neighborhoods being named, usually by the residents themselves. Sometimes these neighborhoods and their associations are formally recognized by city government and sometimes, as in Seattle, the only recognition comes from the neighbors themselves.

It sounds like Union Hill has approached this in the best possible way – very organically. I do know of neighborhoods that got their names through a marketing firm, through elected officials, or from a handful of active residents who weren’t connected with their neighbors. These kind of top-down branding schemes don’t seem to take hold for pre-existing neighborhoods (uniform places designed and named by a single developer are another story). I don’t know Union Hill (although I will certainly have a better chance of knowing it now that it has a name) but I’m guessing that it is located on a hill so that it is identifiable as a distinct neighborhood which is also important if the name is going to stick. In addition to topographic considerations, other features that can help people identify with a specific place include a local business district, a neighborhood school, a central park, common housing style, identification signs or neighborhood gateway, and clear boundaries such as a river, freeway, etc.

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