Fighting for the 'Hood


Charlotte, North Carolina. -- Three dozen Charlotte neighborhoods, ranging from dirt-poor to affluent, met in May to adopt a "Declaration of Interdependence" -- a kind of mutual assistance pact to fight for equal attention from city and county governments on every issue from crack houses to parking, crime fighting to neighborhood policing to housing.

The neighborhoods are agreeing to assist each other with information, education, training and plain old political infighting. For some of the most afflicted neighborhoods, that could mean a set of powerful new friends. For well-off neighborhoods, it means a way to help fight nearby blight and crime, plus more allies in fighting off such threats as fast-food restaurants muscling their way onto historic streets.

Architect Ron Morgan, one of the Queen City Congress organizers, foresees yearly conferences that could in time encompass cooperating groups of neighborhoods in suburbs and ring cities, a constellation of "representative democracies functioning at the citistate scale."

Expansion beyond the core neighborhoods is just a hope right now. What's real and immediate is the breadth of attention Charlotte's inner-city neighborhoods are now receiving.

The Charlotte Observer has been publishing a year-long "Take Back Our Neighborhoods" series focused on the most crime-troubled inner-city neighborhoods. The paper encourages neighborhood leaders to focus on the critical issues. Then there's a town meeting and a day of media blitz coverage. Citizens see their complaints reported in the paper as well as covered on television.

Example: Citizens in the Herrinwood neighborhood noticed suspicious figures hiding in the tall grass of a strip of abandoned property. City bureaucrats ignored requests to cut the grass. Then a young girl was grabbed while passing by, beaten and raped. At the town meeting, the girl's mother stood up and told the story. Finally the grass got cut.

For each neighborhood, the Observer prints an extensive list of problems that cry out for fixing. Potential solutions run from drug treatment to community policing, tutoring of school kids to demolishing blighted buildings. Some are government's responsibility; others call for volunteer help from the Charlotte community at large.

Indeed, some 700 readers from outside the troubled neighborhoods have read the appeals in the Observer and volunteered assistance, from cash donations to personal time.

The Observer is planning a leadership training conference for neighborhood leaders this autumn. It has learned to brush off criticism by journalistic purists that a newspaper shouldn't "take sides" with crime-ravaged neighborhoods in helping them to recover.

The city government has been moving for several years to sharpen its focus on its "City Within The City" -- the urban core with its many "threatened" and "fragile" communities. The city has an advanced community-policing system, about which many neighborhood leaders rave. They know their officers, and those officers know their neighborhoods and are available at the call of a beeper.

But now police officers aren't out there alone. They are working intimately on neighborhood teams with officials from the city planning staff, housing, recreation and other departments.

It all adds up to an effort at customer-responsive government reminiscent of top practices in private industry today. The contrast could hardly be more striking to the old style of citizens or businesses calling individual city departments, and then waiting for complaints to be put on the bureaucrats' schedule.

No one in Charlotte claims the reforms have come to all neighborhoods. Some neighborhood leaders complain that others -- "the squeaky wheels" -- get all the grease. There's danger of "burnout" among some neighborhood leaders -- one told me she works eight hours at her private-sector job daily, only to return home to 20 telephone messages from people asking her help with local problems.

"It's a constant fight" for the troubled neighborhoods, one community leader said. "They have to fight daily for trash pickup, street maintenance, vacant lots cleared of refuse and tall grass, and for policing."

Still, as fierce congressional and state funding cutbacks affect cities, Charlotte will be more resilient because of its neighborhood activism, its hand up from its local newspaper -- and its "reinvented" city hall.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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