Corner to Corner
Turning the Corner: Neighborhoods Move Out of the Wings to Take Center Stage
Like most writers I know, I'm a little afraid of my past work. Not that most people aren't embarrassed by some of the things they said, thought, or felt five years ago. But writers are blessed with a permanent record of all their fatuous opinions and stupid mistakes. So when I decided that this would be the last installment of "Corner to Corner" -- which debuted in these pages five years ago this week, back when Bruce Todd was mayor and I had a shorter name -- I procrastinated mightily before biting the bullet, opening up the files, and reading what I wrote in the first installment. What I was really afraid to read was not the article itself, a fairly vanilla feature on the old west side of downtown, but the accompanying manifesto I wrote (and elaborated on for a few months thereafter) that explained "Corner to Corner." I have decided since that the whole concept of a "manifesto" -- which is how I described it at the time -- was arrogant beyond belief; if the project was any good, it should explain itself. I also know I made promises back in the October 7, 1994, issue that I have not been able to keep -- for example, that I would "never talk to a bureaucrat in a downtown office" to tell the story of Austin neighborhoods.
All in all, though, I winced less than I expected to when reading lines like "The Austin civic and media elites think "neighborhood issues' are somehow different from other issues like jobs, growth, taxes, crime, health care, education, pollution and such." They did. Sometimes they still do. But now we have different elites, created and dominated by the neighborhoods themselves, that have pushed to bring damn near every city issue down to the neighborhood level.
When I'm feeling immodest, I give myself credit for about one-half of one percent of this transformation. (Much more credit deserves to be shared by my colleagues past and present at the Chronicle.) Perhaps that means I have created one-half of one percent of a monster, though I'm not sure who, exactly, thinks the quality of public life in Austin was better five years ago. Well, maybe Rich Oppel, but he wasn't even here then.
But change was the point of "Corner to Corner" -- not just to tell interesting stories about our neighborhoods, not even to advocate for specific actions and directions, but to promote a new and better way of seeing our city and its citizens. That has happened. The sun now shines on Austin neighborhoods. They no longer need the illumination of my little spotlight.
Mind you, I'm not going anywhere -- it's just this one column that's going away. You may have noticed that, in practical terms, it already has. What started out as a biweekly series has become "occasional," as they say in the trade. That's partly because many stories that began life in "Corner to Corner" ended up being too large for that slot because they were Real News, and became features and even cover stories. (The Triangle is an obvious example.)
Which is, again, the point. Five years -- that is, an Austin generation -- ago, even topics as big 'n' juicy as the Triangle were "neighborhood stories," not front-page news. Now even tiny neighborhood disputes are understood to have citywide relevance. Neighborhood associations now have press secretaries and endorse candidates for office. The new Austin A-list is not the roster of Aquafest commodores, but the city's Community Registry, which lists the contact people for each of the 400+ neighborhood-based groups and pseudo-groups active in the city.
Today, "ANC" -- the Austin Neighborhoods Council -- is almost as widely understood an acronym, and as powerful a conjure word, as "SOS." And the two no longer represent the same lib-prog community of interest, as the neighborhood backlash against Smart Growth attests. When I started "Corner to Corner," Austin had a bunch of neighborhoods of varying vitality and pride and power lurking beneath the surface of local politics. It now has a neighborhood scene, just like its music scene, arts scene, and enviro scene, and the scene is hot, hot, hot right now.
My job is to cover, among other things, that scene. So I know there may come a time when the scene will ossify into a tired and irrelevant appendix to local public life. At which point it will deserve to be exploded by another exuberant journalist armed with a manifesto. I already harbor some heresies that could be part of the rough draft of such a screed.
While I am sold on the fact that Austin has uniquely healthy neighborhoods, and that public life should begin in and flow from those neighborhoods, I think most Austin neighborhood associations are ill-equipped to bear the true burden of that public life. This is partly the fault of local government, which trips over its own feet to form "public/private partnerships" with Fortune 500 companies but is too confused and terrified to forge the same kind of partnerships, to provide services and create infrastructure, with ordinary citizens.
But to paraphrase Eric Mitchell, of all people, all the city can do is set the table. There are only a few Austin neighborhood organizations that I think are ready and willing to roll up their sleeves and create their own quality of life, by offering actual services to their members and creating infrastructure in their neighborhoods, even if they had public assistance. (What kind of assistance? How about a dedicated fund that the City could use to contract with neighborhood groups to put in their own speed bumps, sidewalks, and playscapes, instead of shoving those things onto a long to-do list, then into a bond package with 25 years of debt service?)
Too many NAs are simply cadres of what is now Austin's ruling party. Their job is to "represent" their neighborhoods to the outside world, not to do things for the neighborhood itself. They talk a lot. They have very well-reasoned and well-articulated opinions and grievances and ideas for change. But the energy they expend demanding that The Man meet their needs could often be better used making those things happen, even at the neighborhoods' current level of empowerment.
Lord, how I know that most NA leaders are busy people, overcommitted joiners with a high burnout rate. They decry the lack of participation in the NA by the bulk of their neighbors. I submit that the problem is that most NAs have little concept of how to organize their neighbors, in the Saul Alinsky sense, in the tradition of the settlement houses and street ministries. Though we use the term promiscuously, I know very few neighborhood leaders whom I would genuinely call "activists." We need more of them. This is, after all, a noble cause.
We also need to broaden our understanding of "neighborhood" to include more than our collective bedrooms. Most of us spend most of our waking hours away from home. Most of the places where we spend those hours are in sadder shape than our "neighborhoods." We have a stake in how our commercial corridors, our office parks, our schoolyards, our restaurant rows, our industrial areas look, feel, and behave, just as we do in our "neighborhoods."
Yet NAs in Austin are too often the exclusive turf of single-family homeowners. Areas that have no such people drop off the political map. People who work, play, shop, eat, and study in our "neighborhoods" -- or who live in apartments -- are seen as boons or burdens, depending almost entirely on their impact on single-family "established" homes. The city's neighborhood-planning paradigm forces NAs and their residential members to accept these folks as equal partners. Force should not be necessary.
Today, even the shores of Town Lake, which should belong to everybody, are becoming annexed to specific neighborhoods with specific rules about who and what is "appropriate." Of course neighborhoods (including the ones along Town Lake) have been abused and continue to be abused by people and policies that work against the interests of residents. But if we enshrine every bad memory and misunderstanding as a "community value," and legislate away any risk of it happening again, then what kind of city do we live in? Do we live in a city at all? How would it differ from the suburbs, where so many NA types in Austin are so glad they don't live?
That's the creating-a-monster part. But I have hope that this beast will be domesticated. The neighborhood scene, unlike the old citywide elites, is an open system that should be able to improve and reform itself from within and stay in touch with what people really want and need. There are simply too many neighborhoods, and too many people who have access to neighborhood-level power, and too many ways for that power to be expressed, for it to be otherwise.
Five years from now, we'll know if I'm right to be optimistic. And I'll be watching, and reporting in these pages, as Austin continues to become a real-life major city. Which means now I have a different mission from that which has guided "Corner to Corner." That mission has, I think, been accomplished. Thank you to all the leaders and neighbors in the 70-odd neighborhoods this series has visited, and to all of you who've read along.