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Creating A Social Community One Person At A Time
I have written often about the neighborhood I grew up in. For twenty years I lived in what could only be described as a Utopian setting with many kids my age to play with and neighbors who cared about each other. Each summer there were barbeques on our block and whenever someone had a big chore they could count on their neighbors to chip in a helping hand.
There were no strangers in that area and if someone new moved in they could count on baked goods arriving on their door the same day as a way of saying welcome and we are glad that you are here. We kids would play our baseball games in the street and friends would sit on their porches to watch and cheer us on. Summer evenings were the best as everyone would come outside and visit over the fences or share a beer or a soda while talking about families, jobs, triumphs and failures. Gardening tips were shared, recipes were copied down, freshly-baked cookies were practically expected and yes, gossip was exchanged. It was a grand place to spend my childhood and in truth I have not experienced a similar atmosphere in the forty years since I left 18th & Monroe in Tacoma, Washington.
Until now that is! Four months ago I moved to the Northeast Neighborhood of Olympia, Washington and to my surprise I found myself in a progressive area that seems determined to re-discover the old days of my youth. There is a wonderful sense of community here and quite frankly it feels a little like I am living in one of those old 50s TV shows.
This is all a bit hard for this hopeful cynic to absorb because I have watched the dismantling of the traditional neighborhood over the past few decades. With increased crime and drugs practically everywhere it seemed to me that many people were pulling up the draw bridge and protecting themselves at all cost and often that cost was comradeship with their neighbors.
WE ARE ALL AWARE OF THE BACKGROUND STORY
Olympia sits on the I-5 Corridor and because of its location it is susceptible to the transient nature of gangs and drug trafficking. Every now and then one of the cities will make a big push to clean up their city and then you can practically set your watch by how long it will take the criminal elements to pack their bags and move to the next city along the freeway. Downtown Olympia is a mess and not safe at night and many other neighborhoods are locked up tight, day and night, for protection. The police are overworked, the city budgets strained to the limit and there appears to be few answers for those hard-working folks who just want to raise their families in peace and safety.
I do not know how it is in other cities in the United States; I can only report on what I have seen in Tacoma and Olympia. I suspect that a similar situation is being experienced in many of the larger cities across our countries and quite possibly in cities the size of Olympia where the population is only about 40,000 inhabitants.
So what are citizens to do? There are too few cops, not enough money in the city budget for adequate protection and civic improvements and seemingly no answers!
Well welcome to the Northeast Neighborhood Association of Olympia!
BUILDING A BETTER COMMUNITY
A little over ten years ago a group of citizens with a list of concerns a mile long formed the Northeast Neighborhood Association. As you can see on the map this is an area approximately a mile square in area and it includes an elementary school, middle school, bakery, several parks and nature trails and a couple mom & pop grocery stores. For the most part it is a residential neighborhood that is situated about a mile from downtown Olympia. The homes are not extravagant in this area; they are mostly the dwellings of middle-class citizens living middle-class lives. There are countless such neighborhoods across the United States; the only thing that makes this area somewhat unique is that the residents decided to do something about their list of grievances rather than wait for the government to do what it could when funds allowed.
This initial group decided that they wanted to live in a place of safety where kids could be kids and adults would help each other for the betterment of all families. They drafted a list of qualities they hoped their neighbors could live by:
· I will listen before I act
· I will not let my fears keep me from taking a stand
· I will always be open to new ideas
· I will take responsibility for my actions
· I will live my life as if I am not entitled to anything
· I will act in autonomous but not individualistic ways
· I will continually look inward and challenge my own assumptions and beliefs
· I will hold myself and others mutually accountable for the health of my community
· I will not abide the obfuscating and buck-passing behaviors of bureaucratic institutions
· I will lean into the uncomfortable places in my life to deepen my connection with others and my own spirit
· I will live the idea that relationships are more fundamental than individuals and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts
· I will create opportunities to engage in dialogue with others about what kind of future we want to create for ourselves together
· I will relish and celebrate the expansion and deepening of the many facets of the world I create with others
· I will embody the idea that we’re all in this together, that my fate is tied to the fate of others and the planet
· I will balance hard work with laughter and compassion
LOFTY GOALS TO BE SURE BUT WHERE IS THE ACTION?
Well, as it turned out this little group had the action to back up their words. Today this group is 350 strong and growing rapidly and they charge $10 per year membership fees, a fee that I’m sure you will agree is not very steep even in today’s economic world. They rely on volunteers to accomplish what ten years ago seemed impossible. A partial list of their accomplishments would include:
· San Francisco St. hill sidewalk, from East Bay to Garrison
· Friendly Grove Park
· Mission Creek Nature Park
· Fir St. Rain Garden
· Mission Creek Stewards
· Miller Avenue sidewalk
· Graffiti Busters (with over 1200 tags removed)
· Roosevelt School Centennial Time Garden & Human Sundial
· Quince St. sidewalk and other school walking route improvements
· Roosevelt School traffic safety improvements
· Festivals at SF and Bethel streets
· Annual Neighborhood Potluck parties
· Countless park and neighborhood clean-up work parties
· Wendell Berry Community Garden
· Pocket Gardens on SF St.
· Neighborhood walking guide
· Walk & Roll to School Days
MY OWN PERSPECTIVE
I have lived in Olympia now for twenty-two years. I have seen it go from being a quaint little town where one felt safe to a city outgrowing its resources where safety is a fleeting memory. From where I stand this seems to be the norm rather than the exception in the United States and although I know things were not perfect back when I grew up I find myself longing for those simpler days on 18th & Monroe where neighbors were not afraid to spend an evening out on their porches enjoying the quiet pleasures of the simple life.
No, life is not simple today. Words like meth, crack and assault and battery were not part of the everyday conversation when I was a kid. Not once when I was growing up did I worry about someone pulling an automatic weapon out of their coat at school. I walked for miles, biked further than that and my parents never had to fret about my safety.
There is a part of me that still believes it is possible to re-claim our neighborhoods and transform them once again into havens of safety and mutual respect but I do not for a single moment believe that the government is going to make this happen. I believe this is the job of individuals banding together in a concerted effort to claim that which is theirs.
Never underestimate the power of a determined group of citizens. Our history is filled with actions undertaken by small bands of concerned individuals who decided that change had to happen and then determined that they would make it happen. I applaud the founders of the Northeast Neighborhood Association and I applaud those who continue to carry that banner of hope for the future.
2012 Bill Holland (aka billybuc)
- Olympia's Northeast Neighborhood!
Project updates and news that benefit residents in the Northeast Neighborhood of Olympia, Washington.
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The author has lived in his home for sixty-three years and finally learned to love it!