Who Needs a Neighborhood Anymore?

Posted: September 6, 2011 in Community, Social & Economic Dynamics

The events of the past week have got me thinking a lot about the subject of neighborhood communities.  In the aftermath of the flood, it’s been truly inspiring for me to see neighbors helping neighbors to clean out their flood drenched garages and basements.  What gives me pause to think, however, is how very rarely we see this type of community spirit and how easily the motivation to work together as neighbors seems to wear out.  Events like graffiti and trash cleanups and efforts like the Neighborhood Watch and Association seem to get a lot of interest when they start, but continuing these efforts over any length of time seems very difficult.

The way I see it, this is because most people don’t have a need or occasion to engage regularly with their neighbors anymore. Our modern society allows us to survive quite comfortably most of the time without help from those living next to us.  Our modern forms of entertainment and the internet allow us to amuse ourselves and interact with others from the comfort of our own home. Most often we chose to engage in “community” based on our own interests and goals, which often have nothing to do with the people next door.  I’m not going to waste any words railing against these things; it’s simply the culture we live in now. I think most people like the idea of living in a friendly local neighborhood; we like to know our neighbors enough to chat with them if we happen to run into them, but beyond that, I think most people tend to want to get along on their own and not be bothered.  It seems like it’s only when problems arise that people start thinking about cooperating with their neighbors.

I think it’s because of this mindset that it’s so difficult to actually build the types of friendships that form the foundation of a real neighborhood community. I think it takes a strong sense of the potential value of a neighborhood community for someone to be motivated enough to actually devote time to working with their neighbors.

The benefits I see to living in a connected neighborhood community are both tangible and intangible. Some of the advantages I see are:

  1. Increased security – neighbors who know each other and actively watch out for each other will be able to spot and report crime much more effectively.
  2. Support in times of crisis – natural disasters, fires, etc
  3. A stronger voice in matters of public policy
  4. A deeper sense of connectedness with the area and the people you live near.

I’ve been very fortunate to work with the people who make up the Arnold Ave Area Neighborhood Watch/Association for the past two years. Within this group I have met people who truly care about their neighborhoods enough to meet consistently and wrestle with the problems affecting the area.  Although I think the true potential of this group has yet to be realized, we’ve had some good successes. We’ve worked very well with the APD, passing them information that they have responded to and they’ve given increased attention to certain areas that we’ve talked about. We’ve also had success with our “Meet Your Neighbor” events, which have brought people together to get to know each other better.

While the Mayor’s office, along with the APD, have done a commendable job getting the NW/NA effort off the ground, there is still much work to be done.  The original vision of the NW/NA, as described by the APD during their initial public meetings two years ago, has yet to be fully realized.  At these first public meetings, the attendees were eventually divided into groups based on their neighborhood, and instructed to pick their coordinators and start meeting independently. Unfortunately, for the first year, only theArnold Avegroup was able to organize and meet consistently. The Mayor’s office continued to have “city wide” NW/NA meetings which frankly, caused confusion for our area residents, as they weren’t sure what was what. It was only in the past year that organizers Jeff Chace and Phil Lyford were able to get meetings going for their neighborhoods. (Although they held their last meeting jointly.)

I think the Mayor’s office can do two things to help the NW/NA effort reach its full potential. First, I think the Mayor should re-affirm the vision for multiple groups throughout the city. Our city is small, but it is also not a village such that we can consider the entire city one “neighborhood”.  I think there is certainly a need for a city-wide organization to plan larger events like the National Night Out and the Spring Fling.  These events have been great, however I don’t believe that they are as effective at fostering neighborhood friendships as smaller, more localized events have shown to be.

Secondly, I think the Mayor’s office should switch focus from hosting large, city-wide NW/NA meetings for the general public, to facilitating meetings between group leaders so that they have a forum in which they can share ideas and resources, encourage each other, and receive guidance from city and APD officials.  This would place the responsibility of community organizing squarely on the group leaders (where it should be in order for the group to be effective), while also providing them with a much needed source of support.

A final thought: Our local officials handled the flood situation admirably this past week and it certainly brought out the best in our community.  But one has to wonder what would have happened if the damage had been more widespread? What if the tornado that ripped through Cranesville had hit the city instead? Would our government services have been enough to handle a larger disaster? A strong network of neighborhood organizations can not only make our neighborhoods more enjoyable and safer to live in, but could also serve an important role in helping people get through a major crisis.

  1. Bill Wills says:

    Tim, i agree with most of what you say. Your two ideas for the Mayor’s office are good. We once had a vision of “Many cultures, One Community”. If blended in with your second suggestion, the Mayor’s office should hold periodic ward meetings like the Mayor’s office in Albany does. We’ve had a ward meeting at least once every year, which is not enough I may add, in the fourth ward for the past 24 years. Depending on the issue(s) of the time the attendance was not all that great. However, it gave the ward (and general public) the opportunity of speaking directly with their elected and appointed officials on all kinds of matters.

    I have belonged to many volunteer groups in the past, most of which are gone now. Our lives have been changed due to technology and also because some of us had to (have to) work two jobs to make a comfortable living.

    But let me tell you that “community” is alive and well in Amsterdam. At times it may need a jump start but when times are tough people in this city get together and help each other. During snow storms many people fortunate to have snow blowers take the extra time to clean our neighbors sidewalks and plowed in driveways, all going unnoticed by the general public but not by the recepient. If someone dies unexpectedly, especially of a tragic situation, the “community” comes out in droves to comfort the family, standing for hours in line to do so, talking to their fellow residents while they wait in line.

    I will take Amsterdam, a city and community, over Clifton Park any day to bring up my children as I have and to live and dedicate myself to as I and many others are and have. We need to reach out better to assimilate our newer Community members into our fold. We need to less stereo type and encourage our newer “neighbors” to get involved in their community to show that they really do care. There are always going to be those who will never become a community player but their numbers are so small, so insigifigant to actually have to worry about. I think a community center where all can come and enjoy themselves particularly during the cold winter months might be something to strive for.

    Well enough of my babbling. Thanks Tim for giving us an opportunity of commenting on something other than political but more meaningful.


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