Can you think of a neighborhood in your city where people just shouldn’t go? Somewhere far and weird, that you know very little about, but just enough to avoid ever going there?
In São Paulo, my hometown, there are several places that somehow ended up with that dark fame. That always bothered and intrigued me, so when I was a senior journalism undergraduate student, I decided to explore some of them as my final project in College. The four furthest neighborhoods of downtown São Paulo were not only some of the poorest in the city and lacked elementary public services and infrastructure – but they were also seriously under-reported. For one year, I looked for stories that would break the “violent place” stigma, and actually translate the reality of those places to readers. The 22 multimedia stories of Extremos SP were about urban problems, cultural movements and interesting local characters.
I’ve only been in the United States for one month, but I do know that social and economical inequality have shaped this country’s history and geography just like in Brazil. Therefore, it would be a very interesting experience to continue working on this project in the American context.
Both Boston and New York crossed my mind as settings for this project. After deciding the city, the second step would be to select “extreme” neighborhoods to report on. The criteria could be geographical (furthest neighborhoods), social/economical (using some index such as HDI) or, I could even choose neighborhoods based on how they are usually stigmatized by the local population and media. I would then do an intense on-ground investigation, seeking stories that make up an objective portrait of those places.
Choosing this project as my Big Story has some advantages: ground reporting and finding sources (local inhabitants and researchers) should be easier than for a story focused in other country. There is an interesting historical component to this project – aside from current and local stories, I would also be able to produce pieces about the city’s urban development process. Finally, I’m specializing in data journalism, and this project would allow me to explore crime databases to create several maps and infographics.
The main downside, however, is that it is a very local project. I believe it would interest mostly Boston citizens and maybe tourists. I couldn’t imagine someone in Brazil being interested in this story because readers wouldn’t feel like it relates to their daily life, their issues and their experience.
Thinking of a way to adapt this project to compel international audiences would be a challenge. One idea is to include the creation of a business model for the project, thinking how the website could be sustainable and how it could be “exported” to other cities in the world.
A local example
To illustrate what this project would focus on, I did a research on one of Boston’s neighborhoods: Roxbury Crossing.
In Extremos SP “methodology”, the very first thing I would do was simply google the neighborhood’s name and see what comes up. So I did that, and in the first page, a forum topic caught my eye: a worried mother was asking if she should get a place in the Roxbury area for her daughter, who was moving to Boston to start college. Almost everyone was advising her not to, with very superficial comments such as “it’s sketchy” and “there are several housing projects” (using that as an indication of intense criminality).
Of course, this is just one website and few people’s comments. That forum thread obviously doesn’t reflect all of Boston citizens’ impression on Roxbury. So, to get another perspective, I tried searching “Roxbury” in Boston Globe’s website. This is what the search looks like:
For readers, it seems like all that ever happens in Roxbury is murder. It is very unlikely that the second most populated neighborhood in Boston has only crime stories to be told. According to the Boston Redevelopment Authority report, Roxbury holds 8% of the city’s population, which means 48,454 persons. Only Dorchester has more people: 114,235 individuals that sum up 18% of Boston citizens.
The Roxbury Crossing Historical Trust does an interesting job informing the neighborhood’s history and some statistics. According to the organization, Roxbury was originally an independent farming town. During the American Revolutionary War, however, it became a strategic military site. On the top of its high hills, colonists built a hospital and a fort to secure the city.
This are just some examples of interesting facts that are not usually known about Roxbury. In this project, I would seek untold stories about places like Roxbury and use data, maps and multimedia resources to report on them. If properly investigated, contextualized and produced, I hope this stories could help readers get different perspectives on this neighborhoods.