Neighborhood Activism - for the Less Active
By Fred Gillette
Do you ever have the feeling that you’d love to get involved in a neighborhood organization…were it not for your extreme lack of time and interest? Perhaps, at a more basic level, what you’d really like to do is support community and neighborliness. And what you’d really not care to do is attend meetings, engage in long range planning and sit at curb-side card tables with petitions and pamphlets.
While personally engaged in tedious project-planning meetings, my long, yearning stares out the window had often included a pondering of the question: what else, other than this, might I be doing to help my neighborhood? I have eventually managed, to my satisfaction, to answer that question. What follows is a list of genuinely useful neighborhood-supporting activities which require a minimum of membership commitments and chair-warmings.
Patronize neighborhood businesses
I once belonged to a neighborhood improvement organization which believed itself to be working at cross purposes with the neighborhood merchants’ association. This was due to a difference of opinion on a particularly contentious development issue. Fortunately, both sides had members of sufficient insight and empathy to eventually realize that they really had very similar community-enhancing objectives. The residents had initially believed that this group of non-resident merchants had too much influence over quality of life issues which were of 24-7 concern. The merchants believed that, with a potential adverse outcome for this development issue, their very livelihoods were going to be effected…their ability to help support their families. Besides, many of them were also residents. And some that weren’t, spent more time in the neighborhood than did many residents. The eventual achievement of accommodation is another story worth relating, but suffice it to say, that agreements were reached and the two organizations came to see the similarity of their goals. To this day they work largely in harmony for the good of the neighborhood. What also eventually became evident to the non-merchants was the degree to which we should be aware of the importance to us of the success of our neighborhood shopkeepers and service providers. These people are giving us the opportunity to enjoy an enhanced sense of community. Ever more people, of late, have come to understand the value of being able to walk down the street, greeting neighbors, while on the way to secure goods or services from someone who is genuinely happy to see them and who also cares about the well being of the neighborhood.
Sometimes it does seem to cost more to shop locally, instead of making the trip to the big box. But don’t forget to factor in the transportation costs, the value of your time, the relative peace of mind of a shortened trip, the exercise, the benefits of modeling community enhancing behavior to other family members and neighbors, the freshness of the produce from a local farmers market and the feeling you get when walking into a shop and receiving a friendly greeting from someone who recognizes you. Not completely incidentally, there are often very good deals to be had locally as well.
Be alert to neighborhood beautification opportunities
On early morning neighborhood walks, I used to notice one of my neighbors regularly out on the street with a big broom, tidying up the curbside for a distance of about a city block. I knew him and we would exchange friendly greetings. I also knew that he loved this neighborhood, so I wondered why he wasn’t putting in the hours like I was in the neighborhood organization meetings. It took me awhile to get it. He had found a way, more to his liking, to also work at improving the neighborhood. It was an approach that was probably just as effective as most of the projects that came out of our neighborhood organization meetings. Seeing some apparently-sane person just giving away his time and effort to make things nicer for other neighbors sent a message that had to reach many observers besides myself.
Observing our neighbors, without any prodding, guidance or organizational backing, chipping in to make neighborhood life better for everyone, not only pleases us morally and aesthetically but demonstrates the ease with which something so important can be accomplished. Picking up a piece of trash in front of your home or building is a good example. It takes little effort, has an immediate effect and demonstrates care. Refraining from contributing trash is also a very basic move in that direction.
Beautifying your own home is an obvious option open to many. A well maintained yard with some extra flourishes of color or design adds to the pleasure of passersby. Those in multiple occupancy buildings can usually display window boxes of flowers and other decorative items. They can also embellish their private entrance with an artful doormat in the hallway, or a plant.
Many neighborhoods have annual neighborhood clean-ups or tree plantings. It’s seen by the organizers as a way for neighbors who don’t have time for more involvement to meet their neighbors and do visible and lasting good for the neighborhood. And, you aren’t likely to be pressured into membership.
Report vandalism and crime
It’s often easiest to look the other way. But reported vandalism and crime tells those receiving the report that someone cares and that there is expectation that something should be done about it. If you want a higher level of involvement, there are periodic trash collection and graffiti eradication projects in many neighborhoods. There are also many crime-watch groups that welcome any level of involvement.
Support a neighborhood organization
Members of neighborhood organizations understand that most neighbors can not, for some very good reasons, get involved in neighborhood activities on a regular basis. However, it is possible to offer much appreciated support just by acquiring membership and paying modest annual dues. You may also receive a newsletter, updating you on neighborhood events and activities. You could occasionally make contributions or send comments to a neighborhood web site or newsletter. You will renew their expectation and hope that they are, in fact, reaching people and you will give them important reinforcement for the good work that they do.
There are also one-time and everyone-welcome events you could attend. You’ll be in the company of others who want the sense of community while participating in an interesting event, but who may not be ready to be an ongoing member of the sponsoring organization. This is almost always quite fine with the organization itself. Your very presence is seen as support and is greatly appreciated.
Of course, none of the approaches to neighborhood involvement we’re exploring here are meant to suggest that the hard work of dedicated, organized, neighborhood improvement workers is not appreciated…and vitally needed. What is being suggested is that, just because you can’t be an active member at this time doesn’t mean that the alternative is complete disengagement from your neighborhood.
Go for local walks, hang out in the coffee shop, pub or library. Picnic in the park. Eat at local restaurants. Look for local entertainment and amusements for yourself and family members. Attend neighborhood block parties. Go to local flea markets and garage sales. You not only get the benefits of feeling part of a community, the community benefits from having the presence of neighbors on the streets. The more people that are out and about, the more safe and friendly a neighborhood appears…and is!
Give objects of value to the neighborhood
You could donate things to a school or church rummage sale. If you’re an artist, an object of your creation may be appreciated at a local public building such as a school or library or for a park. It may even help you promote your work. Many public places will even display the work of local artists that is posted as for-sale. Photos or drawings of the neighborhood itself or its residents can often be put to most effective use with many businesses and public buildings eager to display them.
Show off your neighborhood
Take visitors or family members, even those who may at first think your suggestion somewhat bizarre, for a walk around the neighborhood. Show them interesting homes, buildings, parks and products of neighborhood improvement projects. The visitors may get inspiration for what they can do in their own neighborhoods. Those being observed usually come to feel that perhaps their neighborhood is worthy of such attention. This may inspire further efforts to upgrade their surroundings. Taking photos of the neighborhood and sharing them with others has a similar effect. Those seeing the photos may be seeing their surroundings in ways that have not previously been obvious to them. Those watching you take the photos may newly come to realize that there are actually some photo-worthy things in their immediate environment.
Utilize local recreational opportunities
There are nearly an infinite number of possible routes for neighborhood walks, runs and bike rides…each one allowing you to see the neighborhood a little differently. As more people are seen moving themselves around the neighborhood, more formerly-reticent others consider adopting one of these forms of convenient exercise. If you have children, or young-ones temporarily in your care, include the neighborhood parks as an important source of fun and recreation. Some neighborhoods have extensive, all weather recreation facilities. But nearly every neighborhood has at least a park with a hoop and some open grass, as well as interesting sidewalks and paths.
Acknowledge those around you…especially those in need
A friend from Greece was telling me about her exhausted arrival in London and her subsequent difficulty in even finding a place to stay for the night. Tired, alone and bereft, she just stood on the sidewalk and cried. Almost as disturbing as her described plight, was the awareness that no one was going to offer her any assistance. “If I were crying on the street in Athens, people would rush to comfort me and find out if they could help.” I daresay that in most cities of the world she would have had a similar experience to that she had in London.
Of course we know that there are some imbalanced people out there. We know that when we intervene into the lives of strangers, sometimes some strange and unpleasant results await. Yet, most of time the needs of a stranger in distress can be dealt with in a manner involving minimal risk. A person who looks lost can be asked if they need help. A person struggling with a difficult load can be assisted. Such kindnesses can mean much to those receiving them, and, as it turns out, even to those giving them and observing them. And it definitely reflects on the heart and soul of a neighborhood. Familiarizing yourself with contact information for local emergency response centers can be useful for more serious health and safety issues.
In less trying circumstances, a most simple and effective acknowledgement of a chance encounter with someone unfamiliar might be a nod or “hi” to that fellow-walker on a path or sidewalk. Should you see them again, multi-syllable greetings may ensue…helping you both feel a little more secure and neighborly.
Work in the neighborhood
Even if you can’t find an employer in your actual neighborhood, maybe there are ways of working closer to home. Some businesses will let you work at home a few days per month, or set up shop in a neighborhood work center (see Winter 2009 Neighborhood Life). Either way, working in the neighborhood means that you’re likely to be more visible in the neighborhood and have more opportunities to support the neighborhood economy.
Attain slightly higher levels of involvement
There are charitable organizations within the neighborhood that could use your help without expecting you to attend regular meetings or get involved in long term projects. Your presence, none the less, could provide significant benefits to the neighborhood. Schools and libraries and other public service organizations frequently have need for volunteer help, sometimes on very limited-duration projects. If you belong to a church, there are often opportunities to get involved in local projects.
Just as there are many ways of being close to people without getting hitched to them, there are many ways of helping your neighborhood become a nicer place, without making an enveloping commitment to a single entity. Your commitment can just as effectively be to a principle. That principle is nurturance of community…achieved through a consistent awareness of and willingness to act on the myriad of opportunities there are to enhance the quality of neighborhood life.
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