Monday night, a decent and good proposal for a new source of affordable housing in my neighborhood got defeated in our town’s City Council. I was personally in favor of it and spoke in favor of it (which a rarely do). In fact, fifty of my neighbors spoke one way or another on it — and they were split evenly down the middle for and against.
The community is deeply divided and there is not a lot of hope for compromise.
While I am disappointed in the outcome, I have been fascinated to watch another dynamic play out. I think of it as “old politics” and “new politics.” What happened was an example of new politics swamping old politics.
The “pro” organization thought it was doing everything right. It met with the local civic association, it met with council members, and so forth. It got a letter of support from the board of the civic association and everything seemed to be in order.
But then, over the summer, at a planning commission meeting, things began to go haywire. People in the neighborhood began complaining about the possibility of a new large structure with lower income people right next door. Flyers got circulated, lawn signs went up.
Neighborhood people were making pointed comments about the civic association not really representing the community’s interests.
The civic association, whose board supported the proposal, tried to respond, but it was summer, so there was no scheduled meeting, and then there were a few other slowdowns. Meanwhile, the organization that was proposing the development did not act as if it took the community opposition very seriously. While there were yard signs, flyers, and a web site opposed — in support there was just a PDF on the developer’s web page for a while. They eventually went door to door, but by then it was just about too late: they were on the defensive.
As I observed, it just seemed like the “pro” people were being outmaneuvered on a number of fronts by the “con” people. The “con” people just were doing a better job at the politics. They were led by a couple of people who had obvious organizing and message delivery skills. (They also had the wind at their back, as it is easier to oppose something than to support it, but still the mismatch seemed plain.) It was painful to watch, as I was on the “pro” side.
It was especially painful to see the difficulties the civic association was having. Its leadership did as good as it could do. But its systems and processes just weren’t set up for fast-moving, highly charged situations. It tried to keep to its timetable, and it got sidelined.
The way this unfolded is not unique to where I live. In communities all over the nation, insurgent, issue-based gorups are cropping up in neighborhoods, often led by one or two people with undeniable political acumen — and they overwhelm the existing civic systems, get done what they want to get done, and then sometimes just fade away.
I realize that the way I describe it they seem nefarious, but they are not as a whole. This is just how politics in communities increasingly gets done. People with political skill are often no longer part of the civic infrastructure, so they come and go. They move quickly.
The challenge for the existing civic structures is to figure out a way to harness this energy. Over the next decade, what will civic organizations become? How will they stay relevant?