Mike Ratcliffe creates communities.
Technically, what he does is delineate them, helping establish how places are counted under the decennial Census.
Ratcliffe, a North Laurel resident—never just Laurel, as he’s precise with his place names—works for the Census Bureau, which defines the borders of “census-designated places” (CDPs).
A CDP has firm borders and, short of the legal designation of incorporation, it is frequently the only official recognition of a community outside of the Post Office. It also provides the bureau with units to count.
As the assistant division chief of geocartographic products and criteria, Ratcliffe helps figure out where towns start and stop. This means that he can change maps, how communities are described and perceived. One poorly-thought-out act by the good folks over at the bureau can allow a community-in-name-only to spring up out of nowhere. Maps will no longer reflect reality. (Dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!)
During preparations for the 2010 census, Ratcliffe and his crack team of geographers worked with the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning in setting up the borders of the county’s CDPs, which is just about every Howard County community you can name.
For 2010, Howard County submitted a new CDP of “Ilchester-Rockburn,” just northwest of Elkridge.
Ilchester hadn’t been defined in previous modern censuses, so it immediately became a point of interest for Ratcliffe. This, he says, is where his work becomes “a little subjective.” He had to determine if a community of Ilchester even existed and, if it did, whether it deserved its own CDP.
Finding a place that’s not on a map can be a difficult thing. Ratcliffe and his colleagues look for the place name actually being used, on businesses and public services. (Think Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department or Columbia Mall.)
For a particularly sticky question, they may actually take a trip to the area to see how residents identify themselves. Indian Springs, in Washington County, MD, presented such a problem—and an opportunity for some quick field research, said Ratcliffe. A few houses that could be seen on satellite pictures had been left out of the borders submitted by the local planning committee. So Ratcliffe drove out there, found a local store, went inside, and asked where he was. "Indian Springs," they said, and Indian Springs it was.
Ilchester hadn’t been seen on census records since the 1870s, said Ratcliffe. Any remaining buildings had been literally wiped off the map by Hurricane Agnes in 1972. Wasn’t it really now just a part of Elkridge?
The Census Bureau weighs a lot of factors in determining if a community exists and is wary of simply creating a realtor’s dream designation or merging communities for simplicity’s sake, said Ratcliffe. For example, he pointed to North Potomac as Maryland's “poster child” for naming a place to further marketing purposes. Located in Montgomery County, the community could just as easily have been called “West Rockville,” but then would have lost the cachet of being linked with one of the richest towns in the country. Created in 1988, by 2008 North Potomac was 16th most affluent neighborhood according to Forbes, and named the best wealthiest place to live by Money Magazine. (Are there wealthy places where it's not good to live?)
A community can’t exist just because a handful of people want to redefine themselves, explained Ratcliffe. In 2000, some residents of Scaggsville hoped to remove the “Laurel” from their mailing address. Casting about for something pristine-sounding, they struck upon “Rocky Gorge,” a name that had never really existed before. Both the Post Office and the Census Bureau turned the request down, and Rocky Gorge remains a dream.
Ilchester, though, was another matter. Ratcliffe’s historical research showed residents had given the name as their address in 1870 and 1880. There is an Ilchester Elementary and a Camp Ilchester. It is an area likely to experience major growth over the next ten years, which means it’s an area both Howard County and the Census Bureau would like to have detailed information on, which creating a CDP allows.
In the end, the Census Bureau created an Ilchester, MD. It remains to be seen if the name catches on, if in a few years at Daniels or Clyde’s you’ll hear someone say, “Yeah, I live in Ilchester.” After all, they might think they’re still in Elkridge.