Neighborhood Power in El Paso, Texas
By Mike McGrath
I recently found myself embroiled in a “not-in-my-backyard” dispute, pitting my neighborhood against a well-connected group of investors who hoped to operate a late night dance club 55 feet from my bedroom window.
I won’t bore you with the details. Suffice to say, that we neighbors felt pretty lucky to have an active neighborhood organization to argue our case. Without them, we would have felt completely bulldozed by the coterie of professionals—a lawyer, a sound engineer, a paid petition organizer and assorted local power brokers—who showed up at the licensing hearing.
The point is: wouldn’t it be great if every neighborhood in the U.S. had an association or an organization to look after its interests and serve as a sounding board for community concerns? Often it is the more affluent areas of cities that are best organized and the less affluent ones that tend to get ignored.
Some cities have gone out of their way to help neighborhoods that aren’t well organized. In El Paso, Texas, a 2010 All-America City, if a neighborhood doesn’t have an association, the city’s Neighborhood Services Department will help them start one.
The program dates back to 2003, when the El Paso City Council passed the city’s first Neighborhood Recognition ordinance to address two concerns, local apathy and the imbalance of power between organized neighborhoods and unorganized neighborhoods.
- A new and improved Neighborhood Recognition ordinance was adopted to further define neighborhood boundaries. The city identified those neighborhoods that weren’t represented and started looking for ways to bring them to the table.
- An annual Neighborhood Leadership Academy was convened to provide citizens with the direction and savvy they need to navigate city processes and to become neighborhood resources and ambassadors. The academy seeks out nontraditional leaders to ensure that all members of the community are represented.
- El Paso’s Neighborhood Improvement Program gives residents opportunities to submit their own neighborhood-driven small-scale capital projects. During the first two rounds of the program, $850,000 has been expended and 21 projects completed.
Since the program began, the number of neighborhood associations has nearly doubled and citizens feel they have more say in the decision-making process. A coalition of the city’s 67 associations meets monthly to discuss citywide issues and how the effect the various neighborhoods.
“I think we’re getting there,” says coalition president Mark Benitez, when asked how the neighborhood empowerment program was working. “We’ve empowered quite a few people to address different issues. I think it has had a big effect on the areas that have been underserved over the years.”
“This benefits the city too,” added Benitez, who heads the Cielo Vista Neighborhood Association. “It gives the city government a chance to voice their issues and goals to the neighborhoods.”
I know of other cities that have embraced the value of neighborhood power—Rochester, New York’s Neighbors Building Neighborhoods program, Portland, Oregon’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Fort Wayne, Indiana’s Community Oriented Government—to name a few. (If you are interested, read more about them in this report on local government and civic engagement I wrote a couple of years ago).
I have no idea how my particular neighborhood beef will turn out. I’m just glad the local neighborhood organization had my back. Otherwise, I would have been pretty frustrated by the process. To me, these two-way communication systems that El Paso and other communities have pioneered are the essence of democracy. I’m always interested in learning about any other examples of neighborhood-based local government programs. If you know of any good ones, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.