Baby's First Birthday

Corner to Corner: One Year Old

by Mike Clark-Madison

It's baby's first birthday - "Corner to Corner" first appeared a year ago this week - and I feel in a valedictory mood. Not to celebrate the existence of this column, but rather the existence of its subject - henceforth, let's make the first week of October "Austin Neighborhood Appreciation Week."

What the heck is a neighborhood, anyway? We use it all the time in Austin as a magic power word, like "innovation" or "fiscal responsibility" or "quality of life." We currently have a much-touted Citizens Planning Committee, composed of average folks and city board and commission chairs, working to provide Austin with the tools for "neighborhood-based planning." This dovetails with parallel labors to establish neighborhood-based policing and neighborhood-based social services. (And, of course, we have tried to do this sort of innovative urban planning before - Austin Tomorrow, AustinPlan, the R/UDAT report.) All who transit the political stage, no matter what their goals or how they meet them, present themselves as standard bearers for the neighborhood interest - or at least they don't dispute that neighborhoods are sacred and good. Yet we all define the term differently and attach the "neighborhood" label to most any current city issue. For some folks, all of East Austin, from the river to Round Rock and from the interstate to the county line, is a single neighborhood. For others, the seemingly integral entity of Hyde Park is actually several neighborhoods whose interests are potentially in conflict. The dictionary, last refuge of the indecisive, is no help - it defines "neighborhood" much the same way it defines "culture," a group of people, in this case living in a particular area, with common characteristics.

Now, if by "common characteristics" we mean opposable thumbs and a carbon-based chemical structure, then sure, we all have something in common with our neighbors. Yet most Austinites live in a "new city" of migrants and transients, taking pride in our "diversity" as if we really had a choice in the matter. The only demographic many of us share with our neighbors is our economic status, but neighborhoods are almost never defined solely in economic terms - in fact, that seems sort of taboo - and their issues are never presented as class issues. So if, in effect, most every neighborhood in Austin, even the ones that seem homogenous, is culturally, demographically, and spiritually integrated, then what meaning can we attach to "neighborhood"? And why, in political terms, are neighborhoods Nirvana?

Back in the beginning, each installment of "Corner to Corner" had a little mission statement attached, wherein we (in the guise of scene-setting) shoved my dogma about neighborhoods vs. macrodevelopment down your throats. We stopped doing that, partly because it's rude, and partly because it gets tedious to read (and write) the same stuff every other week. But mostly, I had misgivings, clearer now than they were then, that I wasn't helping resolve Austin's chronic civic confusion because I don't know what "neighborhood" means, either.

But I would like to, not only because it's my job, but because "neighborhood issues" are where the action is in Austin public life. In itself, it's not such a big deal - and is likely a good thing - that "neighborhood" means different things to different people, and possibly means nothing at all. Certainly, it means something different in Austin than it does in most other cities; here, neighborhoods routinely change their shape, change their size, develop split personalities, die, reproduce. But without some clear referents on what makes up a neighborhood, it makes it real hard to decide how to go about solving our chronic "neighborhood issues."

The Austin political system, like American health care, is very good at managing trauma through surgery - let's excise this tumor over Barton Creek, let's transplant a baseball team to give the city an artificial heart. But it fails at promoting wellness and holistic health, which in political terms means all those "basic services" and "quality of life" issues like busting the bad guys, fixing the streets, tearing down the slums, helping the small businesses, maintaining the parks. These are neighborhood issues, meaning they take different shapes and have different importance to different people in different parts of town. They've never been amenable to ready-made solutions crafted by consultants and professional civic managers who, no matter what their talents, are trained to view all cities as collections of interchangeable parts. Yet our political process offers no real alternative to top-down, magic-bullet planning.

Look at Downtown, for example. For most of contemporary Austin political history, Downtown hasn't been perceived as a neighborhood at all. It is now, as you can see by its big "D." But whose neighborhood is it? If you go down and look around, you could surmise that the "Downtown community" consists of small businesses, state employees, and skyscraper workers, entertainment and restaurant patrons, and social service agencies and their too-many clients. How do these people get to express their views on downtown-related topics? The Downtown Management Organization (Austin DMO, Inc.), being a creature of a special tax authority (a public-improvement district or PID), is obligated to respond to property interests, even if it wishes to do otherwise. And most of the people whose lives take place downtown do not own property there. The city's Downtown Commission is of vague authority. Without single-member districts, our city council members represent whatever neighborhoods they want to represent, and only one - Max Nofziger - has chosen to represent downtown. Given all this, it's little surprise that - even with all those plans of the past to give them ideas - city staff and their consultants have taken a magic-bullet approach to downtown renewal. The presumption behind the convention center, and behind the city hall and downtown megamall and light-rail proposals, was that these projects could single-handedly bootstrap Downtown, as they had in different cities with much different downtowns. Regardless of these ideas' merits, they do not address Downtown's "neighborhood issues" - having a convention center in the southeast corner of Downtown hasn't kept those blocks from being one of Austin's busiest crack markets. Progressives often read more into the power and property of these ideas' proponents than they may need to. The real problem is that there's no mechanism to come up with alternatives, no vehicle through which Downtown tenants and "day residents" (that would be working stiffs) can involve themselves in the overall planning process. If there were, we might have had sidewalk cafes or street markets a long time ago.

Likewise, it's hard to address Downtown's "neighborhood issues" when there's shifting consensus over the district's boundaries. Back in the R/UDAT (Regional Urban Design Assistance Team) era, five years ago, Downtown revitalistas wanted the district's boundaries to be as wide as possible, partly to bring more money into the PID. Some of these outlying areas - the University of Texas, for example - would desperately like to be considered part of Downtown Austin, while others, notably the neighborhoods just south of the river, would like to avoid that fate at all costs.

And then on the inner East- side, you have a lot of "pro-Downtown" sentiment, but it takes two different forms. One vision is associated with Councilmember Eric Mitchell, with the Eastside as a commercial and service center to Downtown, bearing little resemblance to what's there now. The other is in part ascribed to the Guadalupe and Swede Hill neighborhood associations, and holds that those and adjoining neighborhoods can provide the affordable inner-city residential component of downtown renewal (or, to toss in yet another ill-defined holy word, a "compact city"). Needless to say, these two views are in bitter conflict, made worse by questions over who gets to speak for the 78702 zip code - the black councilmember who doesn't live there, or the black, white, and brown residents who do. In Downtown, there is too little neighborhood representation; on the Eastside, one might argue there is too much. Anyone can go down to the Municipal Annex and proclaim a neighborhood association, encompassing whatever boundaries give them pleasure, with themselves as its poobahs. And many people have, particularly where the Eastside is concerned. On top of this, since the city's own HUD-supported "neighborhood" programming is heavily focused on East Austin, there are additional layers of neighborhood organization created by city government. And on top of that, East Austin is often perceived as a community of color, and only of color, rather than the most diverse area of Austin, and if unified by anything, then only by economic status. So groups defending African-American and Hispanic interests can also assume the role of neighborhood activists. Some blocks in East Austin are "represented" by more groups than they can count, including some little known to the residents.

In addition, the erratic and chaotic nature of the city's network of neighborhood associations makes it hard for the Planning and Development Department to provide more than desultory notice of upcoming hearings. It also, probably, is evidence that, traditionally, the city has not been much concerned with giving different neighborhoods a venue to express their different views on "neighborhood issues"; if they were, they would have come up with a better way to do it. Right now, the only way most average neighborhood residents can influence city decision-making is to go to the city council and/or the Planning Commission and throw a hissy fit, earning the tag of "malcontent," "rabble-rouser," or worse. We hear a lot (especially in the daily's editorials) about Austin's political culture of discontent, but the only real alternative would be a culture of acquiescence; the tools for consensus-building (speaking of holy words) don't yet exist.

This brings us back to the Citizens Planning Committee and "neighborhood-based planning," especially to the common reference to a "Portland model." Oregon's largest burg, like many cities in the Northwest, has well-defined roles for its neighborhood groups, at several stages in the planning process, and in areas beyond the purview of the Austin Land Development Code. Our colleagues in the Rain Zone tell us that - while neighborhood issues are volatile there as everywhere - the sort of displays we're inured to seeing at council are pretty rare, since few people make a lot of fuss about being left out of the process.

Can yet another valiant urban planning effort change the status quo? Perhaps it can, if we take it seriously, and thus force our leaders and their minions to take it seriously, as well. Applying a "Portland model" to Austin would involve not just rewriting city code but resculpting the entire city planning apparatus, including the Planning Commission itself and many of the existing neighborhood associations, with the business end of an ax. AustinPlan et al. now gather dust at the Austin History Center because they lacked such an instrument - one that the citizens alone hold in their hands.

These are just observations from the last year's peregrinations through Austin's front yards, side doors, and back streets. One of my resolutions for the coming year is to give you the opportunity to address these issues yourselves. (After all, if Oppel's TQM radicchio journalism can turn the daily's boosteritis into a virtue, surely the Chron - which was community when community wasn't cool - can be a venue for citizen input.) Tell us about your neighborhood, what problems it faces, how you solved them or could solve them, whose help you have or need. Tell us whether you think single-member districts, city-sponsored neighborhood councils, or whatever idea piques your interest would help or hurt Austin's attempts to grapple with our civic issues. Write the Chronicle or e-mail me at: Crnr2Crnr@aol.com (If you forget that address, just remember: Leave out all the vowels.) Next time, we'll return to the regularly scheduled program. And it's been a very good year. n

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