The Neighborhoods USA conference which I’ve been attending for the past two days was a delight and a disappointment – the first being the responsibility of the planners who get great credit, the latter the responsibility of local organizatons and neighborhoods who missed the boat.
During my time at the national conference I met some incredible people who had a message their community wants to share. For example, I learned stories about the Little Rock school integration that I will always remember. There were great discussions of neighborhood concerns ranging from sustainability to economics to organizing for social justice and change.
I also met some local representatives of what is happening in the Twin Cities, mostly Minneapolis. The Heart of the Beast, for example, staff of Park and Rec who had great ideas for positive action, representatives of local organizations including Amicus, Loring Park, Windom and Seward neighborhoods. Attendees had a chance to take some great bus tours of the Riverfront, the Northeast arts district, the Midtown Greenway, the Lake Street Corridor and more.
Regrettably, it seemed to me that there were the omissions. There was no mention of Metro Transit or the impact it has on our community and our neighborhoods; no discussion of community-building and support systems such as community gardens or food shelves that might serve neighbors in need, nothing about our community’s public education system or community media (other than police); CURA had a booth and the U of M Libraries Tretter collection was reflected in a display. I saw very little about the dynamics of neighborhood forces such as coops, senior centers, or projects related to communities of faith. In truth I was most saddened by the fact that public libraries were nowhere to be seen on the program or in the exhibits. I’ve always told myself that strong libraries were the glue the binds the neighborhood in a common pursuit of learning.
Bottom line, there are hundreds of people of good will who are giving their all to build community within their neighborhoods They are working in very different urban environments, subject to influences beyond the neighborhoods in which they hope to create harmony and healthy living conditions for all. Meeting the attendees from around the country was an inspiration.
As I reflect on the conference experience I am thinking that institutions may be so focused on themselves that they don’t put a priority on the agencies and individuals – often volunteers – that make a neighborhood work. Schools, libraries, police, transit and city government are all top down operations. Though neighborhoods exist on a wall map, they are real to the residents, not the decision-makers.
Strong neighborhoods with which residents identify and in which we take pride takes time, focus and footwork not just on the part of over-stressed staffs but on the part of residents. It was informative and fun, also humbling, to learn about what’s happening and could happen in other cities and to think of how I can be a more active participant in my own Windom Park neighborhood in beautiful Northeast Minneapolis.