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MISSING IN ACTION
Residents complain Neighborhood Action initiative
failing to produce noticeable response to concerns
(Published June 19, 2000)
By JOEL FURFARI
Since its inception, the Neighborhood Action program has been a keystone of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ administration. When the program recently won the "project of the year" award from the International Association for Public Participation, the mayor’s Web site touted its pledge to "improve neighborhoods together on a personal level."
But advisory neighborhood commissioners and other neighborhood activists say "inactivity" would better describe the situation where they live.
Commissioner Deborah Lindeman from ANC 6B on Capitol Hill expressed a sentiment The Common Denominator heard repeated often in random telephone calls made recently to neighborhood leaders across the city to gauge how the mayor’s Neighborhood Action initiative is working. Lindeman said the mayor’s office is "seemingly oblivious" to neighborhood matters.
"I haven’t seen any improvements about things which I’ve been complaining about for months," she said. "I don’t see the city government doing anything that comes with dealing with normal city complaints, let alone special projects."
The mayor’s office devised the initiative and presented it to residents at a pair of summits at the convention center and the University of the District of Columbia. Neighborhood Action aims to solve neighborhood-specific problems in different areas of the city by combining funds from government, businesses, nonprofit groups and individuals,
The summits allowed residents to prioritize the various aspects of the mayor’s strategic plan, which was presented in draft form at Neighborhood Action’s inaugural summit last fall. This spring and summer and into next year, the city’s planning office has been charged with responsibility for coordinating the program and developing a strategic plan for each of the neighborhood clusters.
Carolyn Lukens-Meyer, the interim executive director of the program, said Neighborhood Action will be a success and that residents’ concerns will be met.
"What citizens can expect is real differences in their neighborhood by the year’s end," she said. Lukens-Meyer also said, "The ideas that came out of the citizens’ summits now have a life citywide."
Gary Imhoff, a commissioner from ANC 1B in Columbia Heights and publisher of the government watchdog Web site dcwatch.com, said the citizen summits were flawed from the beginning.
"It wasn’t an effort to determine what agenda the public really wants," he said. "It was meant to be an effort... to say that the Williams agenda was validated by public opinion."
Many advisory neighborhood commissioners agreed with Lindeman and said they simply haven’t seen much commitment to improving neighborhoods from the Williams administration. ANC commissioners in Foggy Bottom, Glover Park, Anacostia, Southwest Hill and Mount Pleasant all said they are in the dark about the workings of the mayor’s program.
Neighborhood Action "may just become a dead document unless the mayor’s office keeps it alive," said Drake Wilson, commissioner of ANC 6C in Anacostia.
In Glover Park, city services often dwindle without much follow-through from the agencies responsible, ANC 3B Commissioner James Lively said.
"It seems as though there’s a lot of rhetoric out there, and then it just dips," he said. "We got tired of hearing the rhetoric... because we don’t seem to see much about action plans."
Despite the complaints, Lukens-Meyer said there has already been action. She said the program’s second phase, following the initial citizen summits, involves dividing the city into 39 precincts, each with its own set of local problems.
She noted that Chevy Chase Bank and the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation have already made grants for improving housing conditions in Ivy City and Trinidad.
But the bank and foundation "really saw Neighborhood Action as an affirmation of the direction they were already going," Lukens-Meyer said, noting they had been giving grants in that area well before the Williams administration unveiled its initiative.
Toni Griffin, deputy director for revitalization planning, cited the Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, which included design and development workshops for residents, as an example of the program’s potential for a "sustained amount of community involvement."
"We feel like we came up with some conceptual strategies that weren’t just the recommendations of the planning office," she said. The District’s delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been a longtime advocate for development of the Anacostia waterfront and the Navy Yard.
While the mayor continues to tout his own vision of what Neighborhood Action is, some activists are making an effort to bring about community change without the bureaucratic headaches associated with government. For them, life in D.C. neighborhoods often means wanting something done requires doing it themselves.
Abena Disroe is one of those people. For the last five years, she has headed a Johns Hopkins University-funded program called Empowering Neighborhood People, which trains community leaders in how they can improve the quality of life where they live. This year, activists from Southwest Hill, Petworth, Columbia Heights and Fairlawn were selected to participate in her program.
With years of experience rallying neighborhood leaders to take a stand, Disroe expressed skeptical about whether the mayor’s administration would make good on its promise of change.
"Once people go back to the communities... then who’s going to go into each of these neighborhoods to further the action that we had at the roundtables?" she asked, referring to the citizen summits. "What group is going to go to each of the communities to follow up?"
Lukens-Meyer said motivating people to get involved is one of the goals of Neighborhood Action. For example, a neighborhood with constant trash problems will need concerned residents to prevent the problem from recurring, she said.
Like Disroe, ANC 8D Commissioner Robin Ijames has initiated her own vision of neighborhood action – without the help of One Judiciary Square. This year she is taking part in Disroe’s program as one of the leaders of the Southwest Hill group, which is planning a series of privately funded neighborhood projects in their Ward 8 neighborhood.
The group’s plans include a computer center, career internships, modeling classes, researching the health effects of the Blue Plains sewage treatment facility and historic preservation. The projects have enlisted the support of numerous businesses and organizations as sponsoring partners, including The Common Denominator.
For Ijames, her community projects are a direct response to what she sees as the persistent neglect of her neighborhood by the D.C. government. In a letter outlining her plans, Ijames wrote, "Since the early 1980s, our community has been under siege, under served, politically overlooked, distressed, oppressed and dumped on by everyone in the metropolitan area."
She called her own efforts "neighborhood action in progress," and like Disroe, said she is leery of the mayor’s Neighborhood Action program. Ijames said she expects the Williams administration will just continue the neglect that began during the administration of former mayor Marion Barry.
"There’s gonna be a lot of Barry’s old cronies holding these projects back," Ijames said of Neighborhood Action.
Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator