Neighborhood group involvement critical (Feb 2009)

[This originally ran in the Badger Herald on Feb 9th, 2009. Comments are off here.]

Badger Herald opinion writers, more often than not, tend to focus on national-scale issues. Even when acknowledging local issues and actions as important, they rarely have anything more to suggest than to attend the latest protest. In either case, most readers are left unsatisfied and without any idea of a next step they can take. Now, don’t get me wrong; these protests and direct actions are vital. Without ACT-UP pushing the boundaries in the 1980s, there would be no Fair Wisconsin today. Closer to home, without the sit-ins of the chancellor’s office a decade ago, we would not have the Labor License Policy Committee and the Russell Athletics contract would have been renewed. Today’s radicals will be the mainstream of tomorrow, but that doesn’t change the fact that most students are not yet ready to be radicals. Fortunately, there are local opportunities that are more approachable for a wider swath of students but still make actual results possible.

Although often casually dismissed as an instrument for change, one way for students to make a lasting and immediate difference is through their local neighborhood association. These groups have special consideration in Madison politics. The city has an entire office dedicated to maintaining a directory of neighborhood associations and determining the official neighborhood association for an area. Decision-makers pay attention to the positions these associations take. For some procedures, the city is required to consult with the neighborhood association before action can be taken. In the downtown in particular, the support or opposition of the neighborhood association can make or break a development project.

Neighborhood associations do more than just review development projects. For most students, if they think about Capitol Neighborhoods Inc. at all, it is because of CNI’s visibility on alcohol issues. The adoption of the Alcohol License Density Plan was due in no small part to CNI’s efforts, and the way it turned out is a reflection of who participated in the process. CNI can’t represent students if students don’t show up.

There are other opportunities to work together with CNI that we shouldn’t blow. For example, the robberies, muggings, and murders that concern students are equally troublesome to non-students. Downtown residents didn’t pay a half million dollars for a condo in the sky only to be trapped inside at night for fear of crime. The reason people move downtown is students imbue the downtown with a vibrancy and liveliness that makes it a great place to live. CNI certainly does not want to purge Madison of its student population. It is not, and should not be, an us-versus-them relationship between students and non-students downtown. Students need to recognize that, by definition, they are part of CNI, and can shape the actions CNI takes.

Neighborhood associations can be an important avenue for students interested in social justice issues. CNI’s Homelessness Committee is considerably less well-known among students than the Alcohol Issues committee but is just as important. Ald. Brenda Konkel, District 2, proposed a few low cost initiatives the city could take to make life just a little bit easier on the homeless. Unfortunately, her common-sense proposals were forgotten because of her call to decriminalize urinating outside when there are no public bathrooms and no other options. A few blowhard sensationalists seized on the opportunity to turn the whole set into a “golden showers” punchline. Strong support from a neighborhood association or two could have gone a long way towards legitimizing the proposals and keeping focus on the real issues. Once the protests are over, getting involved in things like TIF policy, zoning code changes and the city budget are the way to make an impact on people’s lives. These nitty-gritty details are where neighborhood groups excel.

No matter where you live in Madison, there’s probably a neighborhood association with which you can get involved. If you’re curious, the city has a map of boundaries on its website.

Downtown, a new association is emerging. State-Langdon was once part of CNI, but has struck out on its own. Students, and this paper, embraced the idea of State-Langdon leaving CNI and becoming a true campus neighborhood. It is critical that students follow through and ensure that State-Langdon matches the strength of the other downtown neighborhood associations.

State-Langdon plans to evolve into a more campus-oriented neighborhood association, and expand westward. Standing in stark contrast to State-Langdon is much of the southwest campus, which currently has the worst possible representation. The Spring Street area is represented by the South Campus Property Owner’s Association, which means the landlords are plugged in and the residents are not. Residents of this area should work with State-Langdon to take back their neighborhood from the AstroTurf group that holds sway now. State-Langdon meets in Memorial Union on the fourth Thursday of the month at 4:30 p.m., TITU.

If you live somewhere else downtown, the meeting times for your association are a Google search away. If you want to make an impact on Madison, you should get to their next meeting.

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