Management & Labor

A Job Even Mr. Rogers Might Not Want

On a wall at my neighborhood community house, in Arlington County, Virginia, there are two gold plaques with 43 names on them.
by | July 2000
 

On a wall at my neighborhood community house, in Arlington County, Virginia, there are two gold plaques with 43 names on them. They are the names of all the people who have served as president of the Lyon Village Citizens Association since 1926, the year the neighborhood was created.

In the early years, there was a strong military and bureaucratic flavor to the local leadership. The list of presidents included a rear admiral, an Army colonel and a county judge. More recently, the typical president has been a lawyer, usually with a day job across the river, in Washington, D.C. In the past decade, there also has been a noticeable gender change: The first 28 names on the plaque all belong to men; two of the last three belong to women.

But for all the shifting currents of civic participation, it has not been especially difficult to fill the top position. Someone was almost always readily available who was well prepared, well qualified and happy to accept the offer without much persuasion.

Now, that too is changing. Recruiting a new neighborhood president has turned into a biennial exercise in lobbying and negotiation. We always come up with one, but it becomes a bit more of an ordeal every time.

There are good reasons why that has happened, and I think they are reasons that will sound familiar in many communities around the country besides mine. Contrary to what you might expect, they have very little to do with apathy. What they have to do with is history.

For most of the community's 75 years, serving as its chief executive officer was considerably more of an honor than it was a burden. The president presided over meetings once a month, organized holiday celebrations, fielded occasional complaints about minor nuisances and showed up at the courthouse every once in a while to plead the neighborhood's cause with the county staff. It could be frustrating work, just like chairing any governmental body, but it was no back- breaker. You could practice law or manage an army post and still be a neighborhood civic leader without undue strain.

Sometime in the 1990s, without anybody really talking about it, the duties changed. The Lyon Village president today is actually a ground- level land use planning official with a sweeping agenda and a fair amount of political power. He or she is inevitably involved in endless debates on the siting of townhouses, the height of new office buildings, the desired scale of retail development, the management of neighborhood traffic, the need for parking and a host of other issues that used to be considered the province of formal governmental bodies- -not neighborhood associations.

Some of this is unique to our particular location. We sit smack in the middle of Arlington County's busiest commercial corridor, a collection of fewer than 1,000 single-family houses trying somehow to co-exist with a development boom that has placed restaurants, nightclubs and office buildings almost literally in people's back yards. We have problems that a conventional suburban subdivision never even has to bother thinking about.

But that alone doesn't account for the new role of the neighborhood association. The fact is, Lyon Village has always sat uneasily in the path of development. It was that way in the 1920s, when trolleys first came clanging down Wilson Boulevard, the main business street, and it was that way in the 1950s, when the area was at its retail peak. The geography remains about the same.

The difference is that in the earlier decades of booming development, nobody much cared what the neighborhoods thought. The local government was a lackadaisical part-time county board whose members took most of their orders from a state Democratic machine in Richmond. The board showed only a modest interest in local planning decisions--and virtually none at all in discouraging development. When a landlord wanted to put up a new office building or garage or used car lot, most of the time he just did it.

That system bears no relation to the current one. These days in Arlington County, the five-member governing board takes an intense interest in even the smallest land use decisions. And it is intensely interested in what the neighborhoods think. It doesn't always go along with them, but it makes a near-fetish of soliciting grassroots opinion. If you happen to be president of one of the neighborhood associations--especially one positioned astride a booming commercial corridor--you might as well think of yourself as an adjunct public officeholder.

Suppose a developer gets it in his head to build a dance hall with space for 1,000 people on a busy street with no place to park the cars. He will probably need a zoning variance. The county government will take up the issue formally at least three times before making a final decision, and each time the neighborhood--in particular, the president of the civic association--needs to be there to speak up. This is on top of what has almost certainly been a string of meetings in the neighborhood just to work out a consensus position at that level.

Or suppose there is sentiment in the community for a traffic-calming project. First comes a vote at the community house. Then the issue may go to a neighborhood conservation panel and/or a county traffic- calming committee. There will be sessions with the Public Works Department and perhaps the police and fire departments as well. The Planning Commission may also get involved. It may be a couple of years before a final decision is made. And every step along the way is likely to be accompanied by a flurry of letters, memos, petitions, testimony and lobbying that will leave some of the participants feeling by the end as if they have been involved in a national political campaign, rather than a mere local traffic issue.

It must sound as if I think this is a bad thing. Actually, I don't. I think it's a good thing. I want to live in a county that takes my little community and its opinion seriously. But a change like this has consequences. When a local jurisdiction starts to bring neighborhoods in as serious players in the process, a couple of significant things happen. One is that decisions take longer and longer to make. The other is that people will think twice before agreeing to take on positions of formal community responsibility.

This is more than just an inconvenience for civic slate-makers. It's an important issue for anyone who believes seriously in the devolution of political power in American cities and counties.

There's no doubt that such a devolution is already under way. Especially in big cities, the past five years have been a time of neighborhood assertiveness and growing demands for grassroots political rights. Activists have insisted that clumsy and sometimes remote formal governments in such places as Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Houston push aspects of the decision-making process down to more intimate levels.

In nearly every case, the pressure to devolve centers around land use. It isn't the power to pick up local garbage that activists are demanding; it's power over the development decisions that determine the ultimate character of a community. The new Los Angeles charter that took effect this month authorizes a whole network of neighborhood councils with a presumed seat at the table in the land use debates that affect them. Just how the system will work--or whether it will work at all--remains to be settled. Still, the L.A. charter is a potentially huge breakthrough.

But there's another issue here. Serious land use devolution will require more than a new set of rules and a willingness on the part of city governments to share power. It will require a whole new generation of grassroots quasi-officeholders with a taste (and talent) for planning and zoning minutiae. These will involve long hours of work, in addition to the responsibilities of a regular day job, and in most cases it will be strictly on a volunteer basis.

Certainly a case can be made, anecdotally if not statistically, that the 1990s saw a slow but noticeable resurgence of American volunteerism at the local level--adults mentoring schoolchildren and working at soup kitchens, teenagers cleaning up weedy riverbanks, high schools starting to require some form of community service as a requirement for graduation.

But each of these brands of volunteerism has a clear moral component connected with it. Middle-class citizens don't work in soup lines just to improve the community, although that's part of it. They do it in order to feel better about themselves. Will they derive the same psychic benefit from regular attendance at three-hour evening sessions of the newly constituted local zoning board? Or, to put it more broadly, will there be enough sustained interest in the routine processes of local government to generate the talent that any serious devolution of authority requires?

I don't think the answer to this question has to be "no." The fact that civic participation eroded in this country during the second half of the 20th century doesn't mean it can't have a rebirth in the 21st. It may be that e-mail and the Internet, so highly touted as a new tool for voters, might be even more important as a way for overburdened local and sub-local governments to make decisions and get their job done.

But I do think the issue deserves to be confronted. In the end, devolution isn't just about big governments handing over power. It's about somebody being there to take it.

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