Can Providence Neighborhoods Save the City?

Local neighborhood associations find strength in numbers – and they want your help

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John Goncalves brought Post-it notes in several colors, along with pens. There was also a larger poster board, with three marked categories: “Priority #1 (in your neighborhood),” “Priority 2,” and “Priority 3.”

About 15 people showed up to the first meeting of the Providence Coalition of Neighborhood Associations. They knew how these kinds of meetings usually worked – they were all members of their own neighborhood associations – but they weren’t exactly sure what was supposed to happen here. The meeting took place at the Lippitt House Museum, a stately setting. Goncalves handed out the Post-its and asked attendees to write down their most pressing concerns.

One by one, Goncalves stuck the notes to the poster board. They ran the gamut of local issues: “School/Education,” “Snow Removal + Snow Plow,” “Enforcement of City Ordinances,” “Noise,” “Litter,” “Sidewalk Safety,” and so on. Soon, the board was checkered with feedback, written out in diverse penmanship. You only had to spend a minute to see how many of these concerns overlapped – and how much these 15 people had in common.

Using a simple visual aid, and perhaps $20 worth of materials, the Coalition began to take shape. Until that moment, 19 neighborhood associations in Providence had all worked in relative isolation. Today, the Coalition helps them communicate, coordinate, and affect change in every corner of the city.

“No matter how big the challenges, I am optimistic that we can overcome them,” says Goncalves, who was recently elected to City Council and recused himself from the Coalition. “However, it will require real solutions and a new breed of community engagement, advocacy, and political wherewithal. One that’s capable of tackling big issues and working together with everyone in a reasonable and practical way. One that puts people first and one that puts community first.”

That all sounds great, but you may be wondering: What, exactly, is a neighborhood association? What do they do, and is it actually important? And if it is important, should you, like, join one? Is there a membership fee? An election process? Does your neighborhood association want you along? What’s the big idea?

 

Neighborhoods 101

In short, a neighborhood association is a group that helps residents advocate for certain interests or organize local activities. Their levels of formality vary, though most associations register to become 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. Their size depends on participation, and what they “do” depends on the neighborhood’s needs.

To really understand what a neighborhood association is, you can also eliminate what it’s not. For example, it’s different from a “homeowners’ association,” which is usually a group of people living in a certain complex or development. Neither is a neighborhood association a governing body; they can’t make or enforce civic ordinances, and most of their activities require some kind of permission from the City.

But a neighborhood association can do more than throw block parties and organize roadside cleanups – and in some cases, they hold formidable sway over local politics. Like a cross between activists and lobbyists, members of a neighborhood association amplify the voices of residents. They can circulate petitions, compose formal letters of complaint, and speak at hearings. In a worst case scenario, a neighborhood association could file suit.

“At its core, any neighborhood association is a forum in which all these conversations can occur,” says Seth Kurn, who serves on the board of the College Hill Neighborhood Association (CHNA). “It’s important for the neighbors and residents to be part of that conversation. As far as College Hill’s concerned, the more, the merrier. We look forward to expanding our outreach, to get them more involved. That’s what it’s all about. There’s strength in numbers.”

Kurn used to live in the South End of Boston with his wife Barbara Harris. They were part of an established neighborhood association, which boasted many members, a large budget, and its own newspaper. When they moved to Providence in the mid-’80s, College Hill residents had just founded CHNA – the city’s first-ever neighborhood association.

“It was all young families, probably in their early 30s, who just got together and had this great opportunity to create something that hadn’t existed,” says Harris, who previously served as CHNA’s president and started its first newsletter. “It was pre-condominium-ization. The College Hill neighborhood is unlike any other neighborhood that we’re aware of, because of the competing interests of the people who live there – the merchants, the institutions, and the historic homes.”

Indeed, CHNA is both vocal and active. College Hill is dense and historic. Developers covet properties, and waves of students must secure temporary homes. CHNA is deeply involved in zoning and preservation; this means crowdfunding and restoring Prospect Terrace Park, the storied overlook that houses the Roger Williams statue. But it also meant locking horns with Brown University when the school planned to demolish four century-old buildings in order to construct a new performing arts center. Without the CHNA, it’s likely that project would have proceeded as planned; but thanks to an organized outcry, Brown redrew the center’s design.

Not every association is as large, organized, or assertive as the CHNA. Until recently, most associations interacted very little with each other, unless they shared borders or obvious interests. And many associations address issues that are far more workaday: How to handle parking? Should new benches be installed? What should be done about a spike in vandalism?

 

Neighborhoods to the Rescue

As the COVID-19 pandemic descended in March, Jenica Conley had an idea: She would use Facebook Live to host a “Stay-at-Home Singalong.” Neighbors in West Broadway could hang out in their living rooms and porches and join a chorus of “Lean on Me,” or “Three Little Birds,” or “Better Together.” People ended up joining from across the state, but the lynchpin was the West Broadway Neighborhood Association.

“One of the most important roles of the WBNA in this crisis is that of an information and resource hub,” says Jessica Jennings, who has lived in the neighborhood for 12 years and serves as WBNA’s communications consultant. “We have been a place where neighbors have come to us with ideas and initiatives [...] and we have been able to provide the platform and support to make it happen. WBNA holds the space – virtual during this pandemic, and actual at our headquarters – for civic engagement, organizing, advocacy, and community building.”

WBNA is a busy institution: They facilitate solar power consolidation, cooking oil recycling, rat-proof trash cans, community tool rental, and bocce games in the park. During the quarantine, WBNA partnered with Seven Stars Bakery to distribute 850 loaves of bread to food pantries and senior housing facilities. They held medical supply drives and distributed free face masks to neighbors. They disseminated pandemic-related communiqués from the City and State.

In an ideal world, every neighborhood could turn to such resources during a time of crisis. This is not the case, of course, and pockets of Providence have long found themselves at a disadvantage. The anger over this disparity has reached a fever-pitch in recent months, as Black Lives Matters protests have erupted across the country.

This is one reason the Coalition has been such a coup; dynamic associations like WBNA and CHNA can quickly learn about needs in less-privileged parts of the city and add their support.

Case in point: The Port of Providence, an industrial corridor along the Providence River, whose residents are largely low-income and of color. Last year, a company called Allens Providence Recycling LLC planned to install a new processing plant by Allens and Thurbers Avenues. Like many new developments, this project was attractive, as it would lead to the recycling of mountains of solid waste. But nearby residents were concerned about the volume and effects of pollution.

Alone, the residents may have struggled to oppose the new plant. But the Coalition drafted a letter, articulating those concerns, with the support of 33 undersigned organizations. This was no small task; each institution had to consult its board, and the letters underwent endless revision. But eventually the letter was sent, backed by an army of allies. The controversy had nothing to do with chess clubs in Federal Hill or liquor licenses on Thayer Street; but it demonstrated how powerful the Coalition could be.

“In light of everything that is happening right now, neighborhood associations have a huge stake in striving to make our greater community a better, more just place,” says Goncalves. “When helping to spearhead the Coalition, I was particularly committed to helping unify our city and helping lead Providence – working side by side with neighbors, our elected officials, and our community partners – to address the incredibly challenging issues before us. Whether that be the City’s $1 billion unfunded pension liability, our public schools, our climate, our structural inequities, our infrastructure, and our economy.”

The twist is that Goncalves, the energetic grassroots organizer, won his bid for a seat on City Council in early June. He now represents Ward 1, including parts of Downtown Providence and Fox Point, his own neighborhood of 25 years. This is an exciting role, but Goncalves must now hand off his Coalition duties to others. His successors had not been announced at press time, but he’s confident the Coalition will continue to flower. As he notes, the fundamental wishes of every neighborhood – and nearly every household – are the same across the city, and involved residents know the local terrain better than anyone.

“I hope that the collective action reminds us all of why we're doing this important work: to strengthen our neighborhoods and our communities and to have a meaningful impact on improving the quality of life for neighborhood residents,” says Goncalves. “Meaningful impact and pivotal changes always begin bottom-up, not with top-down policies. When engaged community members and citizens work together, we can accomplish extraordinary things.”