Opinion piece by David Brauer, Southwest Journal
June 25 - July 8, 2001
In the late '80's, as a young(er) reporter for the Twin Cities Reader, I was present at the creation of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. We scribes cynically tipped our pens to clever council leaders who yoked surly neighborhood activists to continued big-time development subsidies with a $20-million-a-year cut of the slush. Like fatted gerbils, neighborhood activists would spin the treadmill trying to "redesign public services." Instead of viewing City Hall in anger, they'd gaze up in reverence, hoping for the next bit of cheese.
A dozen years later, I found myself strenuously defending NRP's continued existence on the Minneapolis-Issues email forum, tapping out lengthy, earnest defenses before the kids woke up. One morning - needing caffeine a bit more than usual - I stumbled into my neighborhood coffee shop and bumped into a fellow journalist and list member. He had earlier found himself sucked into a lengthy, earnest defense of the Minneapolis School system. Is this what we've become, I lamented half-seriously - defenders of large bureaucratic systems with obvious shortfalls?
In fact, we'd just had first-hand experience that cut through the glib and incomplete analyses. The Minneapolis Public Schools have helped his determined son overcome developmental disabilities. I'd become a neighborhood board president, spending countless nights with dozens of neighbors spending thousands of hours on our NRP projects.
Had I merely fallen in love with the clatter of the wheel and the taste of cheese? I don't think so, I look around the neighborhood and know NRP matters. I see six blocks of Nicollet with new lighting and streetscape improvements (with money to do the other four blocks), businesses using grants and micro-loans to fix up exteriors, and a neighborhood with the cash to pursue affordable housing at the empty nursing home and the soon-to-be-sold gas station. There are a few embarrassments, like the $12,000 neighborhood gateway that is already cracked after two years. But on balance, I'm very proud.
Could the city have done these things? Yes, some of them. But they don't have the same precision we do. Critics lament the low participation in NRP - it hasn't engaged more than a couple hundred of Kingfield's 9,000 residents. We could do better, but that's looking through the wrong end of the telescope. There are dozens of people involved in neighborhood work who wouldn't be here with it. Some deride them as "the usual suspects." However, of the two dozen people on the neighborhood board and NRP committee, there are only two people who were involved in neighborhood activity a decade ago.
NRP has four goals: build neighborhood capacity (bureaucrat-speak for knowing how to do more), redesign public services, increase government collaboration, and create a sense of community. I'm skeptical of the middle tow, but NRP has definitely made us savvier about improving our city and has created a cool, embracing neighborhood solidarity. You feel the connection at our new Farmer's Market, our Autumn Cabaret, and the awesome 65-family garage sale, where our part-time staff buttressed hard-working volunteers.
Despite NRP's rewards, Minneapolitans deserve a serious debate about its future in this election year. (Legislative tax-cut shenanigans may take the decision out of our hands, but we'll see.) Sane people note the city's internal budget deficit, development-fund depletion and affordable housing crisis, and argue NRP money is better spent back at City Hall. But shouldn't politicians show they could better spend non-NRP funds before we "give it all back?" They did the dishonest budgeting, depleting the development fund with fiascos like a $160-per-person Target store. (One friend notes that no one ever suggests disbanding the council and keeping NRP. But perhaps that would make more sense.)
Voters should demand that this year's candidates provide specific but understandable budget proposals: how much to fix City Hall problems, how much to be taken from NRP. If candidates favor NRP cuts, don't let them argue it's all "frills" - the money has largely gone to schools, parks, housing, streets and business development. Keep them honest about what will really be lost. Think hard about the neighborhood energy that will dissipate.
Some people still quote our cynical prediction that NRP is a bribe that has taken the heat off local politicians. Yet at the DFL convention, neighborhood folks denied a sitting DFL mayor the DFL endorsement because of a development fiasco (Target Store). When was the last time that happened?
And don't buy the argument that the only way to make City Hall truly accountable is to kill NRP. It's not either-or. You can elect responsible politicians who also support shared decision-making and legitimate neighborhood power to guide a slice of city resources. You should want it all.
David Brauer is a freelance writer, living in Kingfield. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also manages the Minneapolis Issues List, an e-mail discussion list. See www.e-democracy.org/mpls-issues/.
© Copyright 2001 Southwest Journal. All rights reserved.
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