Local governments throughout the United States are facing a dual dilemma. Their resources are not keeping pace with increasingly complex social issues, especially when the federal...

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Local governments throughout the United States are facing a dual dilemma. Their resources are not keeping pace with increasingly complex social issues, especially when the federal and state governments are devolving more responsibilities than money to them. Voters are reluctant to approve additional resources because they feel a sense of alienation from their government at all levels.

The common response has been to “reinvent government” to be more like a business, with a greater emphasis on “efficiency” and “customer service.” Although it is true that government needs to improve its business practices, there is a danger inherent in treating citizens as customers. To the extent that government treats citizens only as customers, citizens think of themselves only as taxpayers and feel that much more alienated from their government.
This deep sense of alienation is often misdiagnosed as apathy. Such an analysis, I believe, blames the victim. Citizens don’t vote because they have seen little evidence that their votes matter. Likewise, people hesitate to join community organizations because they are tired of attending meetings that lead to nothing but more meetings.

I am convinced that people still yearn for a sense of community and want to contribute to the greater good. They also want a voice in their government. What they are looking for has less to do with reinventing government than it does with rediscovering democracy.

True democracy requires deeper involvement than going to the voting booth once a year; people need to be engaged in their communities and with their government on an ongoing basis. People will commit to such involvement to the extent that they see results.

I say this with confidence because of the high level of citizen engagement I witnessed in Seattle between 1988 and 2002 through the Department of Neighborhoods. Tens of thousands of people participated in implementing more than 2,000 community self-help projects such as building new parks and playgrounds, renovating community facilities, recording oral histories and creating public art. Five thousand P-Patch community garden volunteers generated 10 tons of organic produce for food banks each year while maintaining more than 17 acres of public space. Thirty thousand people guided the development of 37 neighborhood plans, which led to voter approval of three ballot measures worth $470 million for library, community center and park improvements.

Perhaps more important than the financial and other material benefits of civic engagement are the social benefits of a stronger sense of community. No amount of public-safety spending can buy the kind of security that comes from neighbors watching out for one another.

None of this is meant to suggest that there is no role for government. While the community provides a local perspective, government must look citywide to ensure that neighborhoods are connected and that each is treated equitably. Community innovation needs to be balanced by a certain amount of government standards and regulations. My point is simply that cities work best when local government and the community are working as partners.

After graduating
from college in the small town of Grinnell, Iowa, my wife, Sarah Driggs, and I looked at a map of the United States to help us decide where to make our first home. We were captivated by the concentration of blue and green in the northwest corner of the map. So, we purchased a used Volkswagen squareback — our first stick shift — and moved to Seattle in 1976.

The map hadn’t prepared us for the fact that Seattle is built on seven hills. We needed a home and found ourselves popping the clutch as we looked for an apartment on the steep slopes of Queen Anne and Capitol Hill. We needed money, and our job hunt took us through the heavy traffic of downtown, where we struggled to parallel park on equally steep slopes. Feeling hassled, lost and anonymous in the city of half a million, we almost decided to keep moving to a smaller town.

Then we found an apartment in Wallingford. Our neighbors greeted us and made us feel at home. We soon became acquainted with the merchants in Wallingford’s business district. We attended meetings of the Wallingford Community Council and discovered that we weren’t so powerless after all. Wallingford, with a population of about 6,000, had a scale and feel not unlike Grinnell’s.

It was in Wallingford that I discovered what it is that makes Seattle such a great place to live. Outsiders know Seattle for the Space Needle, Pike Place Market and Safeco Field; for Mount Rainier and Puget Sound; for Boeing, Microsoft and REI; and for the incessant rain. But it’s certainly not the rain that keeps most people in Seattle. I came to see that Seattle’s greatest asset is the strong sense of community that comes from our vibrant neighborhoods. When you ask Seattleites where they live, they frequently answer with the name of their neighborhood: Alki, Ballard, Capitol Hill, Delridge, Eastlake, Fremont, Greenwood, Haller Lake, the International District, and so on.

Even in Seattle, though, the neighborhoods with the greatest needs often seem to be the least organized to effect change. I went to work for a Saul Alinsky-style organizing project started by two Jesuit priests in the low-income, racially diverse neighborhoods of Rainier Valley, Beacon Hill and Georgetown. My fellow organizers and I canvassed door-to-door looking for potential issues and leaders who could serve as the basis for creating local neighborhood organizations.

Typically, I would introduce myself and ask if there were any problems in the neighborhood. All too often the response would be, “You can’t fight City Hall,” or “Why, are you a lawyer?” In other words, politicians and lawyers were the only ones with power. We tried to give people a sense that they could create their own power by banding together around a common cause. It was a difficult job because people felt isolated and powerless.

One of our first organizing efforts was in the Empire-Kenyon Apartments. In our canvassing, we heard complaints about rent and utility rate increases, substandard housing conditions, rats, the lack of play equipment, and the need for a crosswalk signal on the adjacent street, a busy thoroughfare. The tenants felt so overwhelmed by all these problems that it was difficult to bring them together around any one issue.

Then one day a child was killed while using the striped crosswalk on the busy street. We organized a community meeting and invited the Engineering Department. “What will it take before we can get a signal installed?” the chair demanded of the city representative. “Another death?” “No, two deaths” was the response. “We have standards.”

The community was so incensed that, the next day, people formed a steady stream of pedestrians, walking back and forth in the crosswalk, backing up traffic for blocks. The fliers they handed to the waiting motorists read: “Sorry for the inconvenience. We need a light to get traffic moving again.” The flier asked people to call the head of the Engineering Department — and gave his home phone number — to request a light. Shortly thereafter, a traffic light was installed.

Similar tactics were employed in other neighborhoods. When Dunlap neighbors couldn’t get the Building Department to inspect an illegal dump being created by a contractor, they removed a gigantic boulder from the accumulating pile and hauled it to City Hall, where they dumped it in the director’s office. When elderly and disabled tenants from Holly Park couldn’t get Metro Transit to build a shelter at their bus stop, they invited newspaper and television reporters to come watch them build one for themselves. When the mayor, under pressure from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, backed down on a campaign commitment, a community delegation released a chicken in his office.

Mayor Charles Royer in 1988 appointed me the first director of the new Office of Neighborhoods. This was the same mayor whose house I had picketed and whose office we had be-fowled during my time at SESCO (the South End Seattle Community Organization). I never did figure out why he hired me, but clearly, he was no chicken after all.

My first days on the job rid me of a couple of other misconceptions. I quickly learned that my stereotype of bureaucrats as uncaring and lazy was largely untrue. People tend to work for city government because they want to be of service to the community, and the bureaucrats I met worked very hard.

I learned another important lesson by attending the mayor’s annual Cabinet retreat. The retreat focused on how the city could do a better job of responding to neighborhood issues. We discussed the growing drug and gang problem and concluded that the city had already tried nearly every solution that money could buy. Affordable housing was a major neighborhood issue, but there was little the city could do, especially when the state Legislature had outlawed rent control. Likewise, the city had no jurisdiction over the schools, whose decline was having a major impact on the neighborhoods. Traffic congestion and inadequate parking were equally perplexing.

I quickly realized that public officials felt as powerless to address these issues as did the citizens. Perhaps city government could come up with some new solutions as well as the power to implement them by working in partnership with neighborhood organizations — at least that was the thinking of some elected officials and community activists who had advocated the creation of the Office of Neighborhoods.

“Neighbor Power”
is the story of the first 14 years of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods. It describes the department’s innovative programs, including the city’s neighborhood matching fund, its P-Patches, neighborhood service centers and bottom-up neighborhood planning. Dozens of locales, from Toppenish, Wash., to Port Elizabeth, South Africa, have already adopted one or more of these programs aimed at community empowerment.

More inspiring, though, are the many stories of how Seattle citizens have utilized the department’s programs to create their own innovations. For instance, Ballard residents, after planting 1,080 street trees in a single day, went on to build a dozen new parks, including the first “gray to green” project involving the removal of asphalt from a schoolyard.

Central Area neighbors were the first to combat graffiti with murals, to create a drug-free zone and to involve youth in documenting the history of their elders. In Delridge, the community successfully lobbied the city for its first library and, through its community development corporation, designed and built it to include low-income housing above.

As they have revitalized their neighborhoods, citizens have also been building a stronger sense of community. They have taken lessons from their new Eritrean neighbors, who, knowing the importance of supporting one another — “from the youngest to the most senior” — pooled their meager resources to build a community center in Rainier Valley.

Communities throughout Seattle are discovering that they are at their best when everyone’s involvement is valued. It is remarkable what communities can accomplish when government takes its democratic foundations as seriously as it does its responsibilities for streets, public safety and other services. This is the true Seattle Way.

Jim Diers was the first director of the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. He is liaison to Seattle communities for the University of Washington Office of Educational Partnerships and Learning Technologies and director of the South Downtown Foundation.