«AmericAn neighborhoods: inclusion And exclusion Volume 16, Number 3 • 2014 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development | Office of Policy ...»
Boundaries of South End Neighborhood Associations Source: http://www.sebaboston.com Authority (BRA) presented its initial renewal plan to each neighborhood association and later negotiated specific changes to the plan with each association (Keyes, 1969). The associational boundaries have changed little since that time.
Today, most associations still take an active role in planning within their borders by facilitating community meetings about policing, safety, sanitation, and commercial and residential permit approvals. They also organize social events. Exhibit 8 showcases the range of activities in which each neighborhood association engaged. Most associational activities reflect the distinct interests and needs of residents in their comparatively small constituencies. For example, block associations in affluent areas had wine tastings or activities focused on gardening, historic preservation, or fundraising. Block associations with dense concentrations of lower income or non-White residents—typically based in affordable housing complexes—often focused more on social services and ethnic cultural celebrations. As one respondent put it,
“All these different little neighborhood associations, they have their own little issues that they get all uptight about, like keeping their streets clean or parking or whatever. But they all have their little politics and—yeah, their little issues.” Although association activities reflected their constituents’ distinct racial, economic, and cultural profiles, association leaders across the board also acknowledged that their memberships were not as diverse as their resident populations. Younger residents, renters, and those in subsidized housing were underrepresented in the membership. As one association leader remarked, “People that show up to the meetings tend to own their house or their condo. They tend to be over 40 and more affluent and White.” Another leader commented, “I see younger people in the neighborhood all the time.... We see African-Americans, Hispanic people, but we haven’t been able to draw them into the neighborhood association somehow.” An executive board member for an association containing a subsidized housing development commented
that, “We’ve never had any residents from [subsidized] housing come to a meeting, and we’re not really sure why.” This exclusion was not always deliberate, and a few associations had even tried to actively recruit a more diverse membership. One association had created two-tier fees based on income for community garden plots to increase economic diversity; another had a membership drive in which they tried to recruit lower income members by distributing flyers in subsidized housing complexes; a third created a college scholarship for first generation college students.
Consistent with stakeholders’ perceptions, however, only a minority of respondents in the qualitative sample regularly participated in their neighborhood association, and participation was concentrated among higher income homeowners. Respondents across income and racial groups reported similar reasons for nonparticipation—a paucity of time and interest. As one middle-income nonparticipant put it, “If you’ve been at work all day, to go and spend 2 or 3 hours dealing with [neighborhood issues], it’s hard.” These concerns were more common among lower income and minority renters, which largely explained their lower rates of participation. First, the perceived lack of time to attend meetings was compounded by material concerns. As one African-American mother of two explained, “If you’re a single parent, you know, you’re not gonna pay a babysitter to go to a meeting.” Another subsidized renter noted that people in his building did not attend because “people are worrying about how they gonna pay to put food on the table or come up with rent, or worrying about daycare. I feel like a lot of it is socioeconomic. It’s all about the money.” Second, few residents were interested in the mundane aspects of permitting and project approval that occurred at the typical community meeting, but they were more likely to attend if they perceived that the issue would have a direct effect on their lives. This finding was particularly salient for homeowners, who reported being more invested because they planned to be in the neighborhood for longer and because the issues affected their property values. For example, one homeowner started to attend when she was building a deck and needed her association’s approval to get the deck built. Another noted that he started to attend “admittedly from a selfish point of view. When we had parking issues, I would go and raise my points and contribute to that conversation.” Another renter-turned-owner reflected that— If you own, you have a vested interest... but if they’re renting, they’re like, well, whatever, it’s not my building. I can move out next month, you know? I think that affects the participation here. The ownership thing is a big deal.... I’ve been in the South End as a renter and as an owner, and you definitely feel more connected [as an owner] and stuff like that.
Finally, beyond the lack of time and interest, a broader form of alienation dampened lower income and minority participation. As one African-American renter noted when explaining why he did not participate in his neighborhood association, “I don’t relate to the moneyed gentry here. I really have nothing in common with them.” Sally, a low-income Afro-Caribbean resident of a subsidized rental unit, moved to the South End 5 years ago, and she recalled thinking that—
You know, I’d like to get involved in my neighborhood. I’ll go to a meeting and, you know, try to meet my neighbors and get involved. And it was just really hoity-toity and the people who were running it were all homeowners, the people who own property here, their interests and concerns are like all about them and their property and their taxes and stuff, and they’re not the same issues of the low-income people here who are, you know, wondering how they gonna pay their bills and if they’re gonna get health care, and you know, struggling. It’s like two different worlds, you know. It seemed like the neighborhood association was only representing the homeowners. And so I thought, ‘they’re not really addressing the issues in my life.’ And also there were like—there were no Black people there. It was all White people. They didn’t welcome me—nobody said anything to me. I left. I had a bad taste in my mouth. They were not speaking to me, they were like speaking to people that were just like them. You know, they weren’t addressing the neighborhood as a whole.
Sally’s account of her alienating experience reflects what I heard from many of the lower income and minority respondents.
Despite the stark inequities in participation and the seemingly insurmountable “two worlds” described by Sally, when neighborhood associations held events that reflected broad-based interests and had few financial barriers, they tended to draw more diverse participation. For example, in one association, a regular participant estimated that “a typical meeting addressing permitting issues might be, like, 30, 35 people, whereas the Christmas party will be 100, and even more to the block party. The wine tasting’s on the smaller side, but that’s, like, $30. So that limits the crowd.” Other associations also reported more diverse participation when they held barbecues, movie nights, or musical events. One leader surmised that “educational and social and arts things help bring people together and break down separations of different kinds.” The organization of the South End into neighborhood associations reveals how the social and organizational differentiation of residents creates order—and segregation—amid diversity.
By and large, the neighborhood associations were, as one respondent noted, “little fiefdoms.” This condition exists in part because of the historical origins of the associations during urban renewal, when they each negotiated with BRA individually. As one leader remarked, the neighborhood associations were originally created as “a way to get the neighbors some control or have a say in their neighborhood.” As a result, periodic efforts over the years to form an umbrella organization to represent all the South End to the city as a unified group have failed.
Temporary cross-associational alliances have formed periodically, however, when associations’ interests become aligned in the face of external threats to the South End. For example, several organizations banded together to protest the construction of a new Columbus Center skyscraper, to fight the closing of the South End public library branch, or to have a say in the reconstruction of “Mass Ave,” a major artery running through several associations.
The associations serve many positive functions: they are repositories of information, maintain development and land use regulations, serve as intermediaries with government officials, facilitate social interaction, and improve quality of life through preservation, beautification, and social activities. Despite these benefits, however, associational differentiation limits
cross-race and cross-class contact, and the associations are not designed to promote diversity or foster intergroup dialogue. As a result, the voices and interests of affluent homeowners were better represented than those of lower income renters, both within associations and with city officials.
Social Seams and Daily Routines Social seams are shared spaces in neighborhoods—such as parks, grocery stores, retail establishments, neighborhood-based organizations, and schools—where residents of different social groups come together and have the opportunity to interact. Certain social seams in the South End, particularly public parks, appear to serve this function. Residents from different racial, income, and cultural groups reported using the community parks, and many commented on the diverse walks of life brought together in these public spaces. For example, Linnea, an affluent African-American mother, reflected— Oh, and the park is just fantastic, ’cause it’s—I think it’s, like, the one place in Boston where I’ve really seen, like, every ethnicity, every age, like, all playing together, whether it’s, like, the kids playing on the playground, the Little League, basketball, tennis, the dog park—like, it’s just—I think for Boston it’s one of the few places where you can see just everybody together in one place,... when you get to the summer and you see that, and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah. It’s pretty diverse here after all.’ Not all green spaces served this function—some parents avoided certain playgrounds they deemed “too rough” or unsafe; others commented that some parks were gated and not accessible to them. More than any other neighborhood space, however, parks attracted diverse groups of residents who coexisted, if not interacted, in a relatively harmonious manner. Systematic observation of public parks revealed that multiple racial groups often had a significant presence, and the comingling of social classes occurred as well, although anything beyond superficial interpersonal interaction rarely occurred.
Beyond parks, however, many spaces in the South End that could serve as social seams— commercial establishments, neighborhood organizations, and schools—did not bring together diverse groups of residents. Systematic observations within a range of businesses throughout the neighborhood revealed that, with the exception of convenience stores, few businesses appeared to attract racially or socioeconomically diverse clientele. The specialized nature of different organizations and establishments, combined with residents’ daily routines and decisions about how to use space, minimized cross-race and cross-class contact at these social seams. Residents of different racial and income groups used different shops in the neighborhood, with affluent residents frequenting posh designer boutiques and high-end grocery stores, attending cultural events sponsored by artists, and eating at chic restaurants and bars. In carrying out these activities, many actively avoided areas with a significant presence of subsidized housing.
For example, Gloria, a White professional, had contact only with other neighborhood residents on her street, which was lined with exclusively million-dollar brownstones, and with those residents with whom she shared particular lifestyles and tastes. Gloria said, “I love the people on my street. We all have dogs. If you have a dog, it’s the place to be. Everyone
is immediately a friend if you have a dog.” She also said that her “building has a garden in front of it. People will stop and look at my garden, and you stop and talk to them. So I get along with everyone.” Gloria’s description of the amenities and conveniences she uses in her daily routines also has a distinctly upper class tint: “There’s hair salons, places for facials and massages, there’s restaurants, there’s gyms, there’s the grocer. But then there are these small little places, too, like where you can go in and just buy some fresh cheese for the day.” Because of these experiences, Gloria believes the South End “just has everything you need.
You never feel like you don’t fit in. There’s something here for everybody, it’s just so open and inviting.” Gloria believes the South End is very welcoming, is open, and contains everything she needs, but her account ignores large swaths of the neighborhood—racially, economically, and geographically—because the places she frequents are within a small, affluent section of the neighborhood.