Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Our View - What and who gets to define a neighborhood?

(Iowa City Press-Citizen "Our View," May 30, 2009)

Many of the local issues filling recent Opinion pages have focused on the same question: What and who gets to define a neighborhood?

Are neighborhoods defined solely by governmental bodies? Are they pre-determined by the boundary lines drawn between public schools? Do each of Iowa City's neighborhood associations really represent a distinct neighborhood in the city, or do the people within those different areas see their community as blurring every line public officials draw.

And do neighborhoods gain their character through a sense of overwhelming similarity between their residents or should every neighborhood celebrate the diversity within it?

Historic districts

On today's Opinion page, supporters and opponents of a proposed Northside Historic District argue over which group of property owners should have more say in how a neighborhood develops: The people who live in the houses they own in the area, or the people who rent out their property and choose to live elsewhere.

A majority of the 119 property owners affected have registered opposition to the proposed district, but only about one third of the affected properties are owner-occupied. A majority of the owners who live in the district want the benefits of a being a historic district -- and their request has been approved by the Northside Neighborhood Association, the Historic Preservation Commission and the Iowa City Planning and Zoning Commission.

Because the issue is so contested, approval requires a supermajority of the Iowa City Council (six of the seven members) to vote in favor at three different meetings. In the first two votes, Councilor Mike O'Donnell has been the lone dissenter.

We urge the other city councilors to continue to listen to the majority of property owners who live in the district and to give the final approval for the historic district during Tuesday's meeting.

Neighborhood schools

In today's Press-Citizen, Rob Daniel reports on whether elementaries in the Iowa City School District can and should be considered "neighborhood schools." The question of what constitutes a "neighborhood school" goes to the heart of the current debate over whether the Iowa City School Board should close Roosevelt Elementary. The parents and friends of the district's other older and smaller elementary schools are right to worry about what the decision means for their own school community.

With the district having so many elementaries in which more than 50 percent of the students live far enough away to qualify for busing, and with district officials talking about moving to larger elementaries to help improve district-wide efficiency, "neighborhood schools" may soon go the way of one-room schoolhouses.

Community building

On May 21, more than 200 residents of Grant Wood, Wetherby and other nearby areas gathered to argue against anyone who would dismiss or demean their neighborhoods. Starting from the common ground assertion that the safety of their children was their No. 1 priority, the participants filled the Grant Wood gymnasium with passionate discussions of crime, delinquency, personal responsibility, communal parenting, community policing, character-building programs and city policies.

We've called upon both the organizers and the participants to build on this productive discussion and to focus on turning their talk into action. The city has responded by creating a spreadsheet with the all the names and contact information from the people who signed up to help out. Using that information, city staff is working with neighborhood volunteers and Iowa City police officers to discuss how to provide more evening activities for neighborhood teens. If they can find enough adult volunteers, some of the options would include hosting neighborhood barbeques, keeping the Grant Wood gymnasium open and accessible during the summer nights and offering a Saturday night movies series for teens.

These solutions by themselves won't solve all the neighborhoods' problems, but they are a way to help begin rebuilding community and strengthening neighborhood ties.

And that community building is important because neighborhoods begin to thrive only when neighbors decide to watch out for one another.

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