June 15, 2010

It's hard to be a neighborhood

When you get people talking about community, you pretty much always hear the magical word "neighborhood", often strengthened as "real neighborhood". Neighborhoods are tricky to create, whether in a city or, as in Dryden, strung out along roads or clustered at intersections. Though Jane Jacobs focused her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities on cities, many of its lessons reverberate for smaller places as well:

Let us assume that city neighbors have nothing more fundamental in common with each other than that they share a fragment of geography. Even so, if they fail at managing that that fragment decently, the fragment will fail. There exists no inconceivably energetic and all-wise "They" to take over and substitute for localized self management... (117)

To accomplish these functions, an effective district has to be large enough to count as a force in the life of the city as a whole. The "ideal" neighborhood of planning theory is useless for such a role. A district has to be big and powerful enough to fight city hall. Nothing less is to any purpose. To be sure, fighting city hall is not a district's only function, or necessarily the most important. Nevertheless, this is a good definition of size, in functional terms, because sometimes a district has to do exactly this, and also because a district lacking the power and will to fight city hall - and to win - when its people feel deeply threatened, is unlikely to posess the power and will to contend with other serious problems. (122)

Neighbors who develop this power aren't necessarily well-liked, of course. They've even been tarred by a notable planner recently as "as a special interest... not the community.".

Today I see a letter from Hanshaw Road residents, I believe mostly in the Town of Ithaca, unhappy with the County's plans for the road. In addition to the Highway Department and its changing plans, they single out their lack of power as a problem:

Our legislators side with the county highway staff, not those who elected them.

The stretch of Hanshaw Road in question, from Warren Road to the Dryden line, is a mostly pretty-looking drive, a place I lived right next to a decade ago in relative peace and quiet. Over the last few years, though, resident efforts to shape the development of their area have suffered defeat - first over Rocco Lucente's Briarwood II plans for far more development, and now with continued frustration on this.

New York does a better job than most states - and takes a fair amount of flak for it - in making sure that the voices of small areas can be heard. We have lots of tiny municipalities who felt the cost of their incorporation was worth it for the added control, and process that requires that the public be allowed, often even invited, to speak.

As great as all of that is, it's somehow not enough to defend against those who want to encourage more growth, more traffic, often more speed. The not-quite-a-political-unit nature of the neighborhood means that neighborhood voices will always have a difficult time coming together, and a harder time influencing decisions.

Posted by simon at June 15, 2010 5:20 PM in
Note on photos