Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood

By Julie Birnbaum

SEPTEMBER 2, 1997:  It comes down to this: The people of Albuquerque are afraid of each other. From the chaos of urban centers all over the country, an enormous distrust has emerged--a wariness of Uncle Sam, the police, business and finally, of our neighbors. In Albuquerque and other cities, people are feeling the loss of a sense of community, the sense of belonging to a neighborhood. Some are sick of it and look for ways to take back control of what happens on their street. They take their neighbor's hand and decide to take their community into their own hands. They are your local neighborhood association.

What's a Neighborhood Association?

The pink "What is a Neighborhood Association?" pamphlet put out by the city shows a sketch of what looks like George Washington and compatriots holding an impassioned debate. "This country was founded on town hall meetings where groups of citizens met to exchange ideas and make plans for their communities," it reads. I'm reminded of something that Mary Lou Haywood-Spells, manager of the city Office of Neighborhood Coordination, said. Neighborhood Associations have "motherhood and apple pie" goals, she explained: crime prevention, beautification and land use are often among their objectives.

"Citizens are again involving themselves in their government with concerns about their surroundings and living conditions," the pamphlet continues. "The neighborhood association meeting, like the earlier town hall meeting, is a place to meet friends, exchange information, decide on projects and priorities, propose solutions and make plans affecting your area."

American as apple pie in some ways, at the roots of grassroots, Albuquerque has experienced a neighborhood association renaissance over the past several years. Perhaps a backlash against the depersonalized, more urban environment created by the city's recent tremendous growth, neighborhoods are tightening up, looking for a common voice.

"It will take a while," said Jane Swift, co-president of the newly-formed Sandia High School Neighborhood Association. "You have to tread lightly, and there's a lot of hand holding in the beginning. The key thing we're trying to do is communicate."

"You're not fearful of the people you know," Doug Swift, Jane's husband and co-leader, pointed out. He spoke of the Sandia High School Association's Youth Action group, which organizes a volunteer corps of young people who work on community projects. They recently painted new curbside numbers on the Swifts' street, but, more importantly, they allowed teenagers and older people to make each other's acquaintance, to become less fearful of one another.

There are 207 neighborhood associations within Albuquerque's city limits. Of these, 158 are officially "recognized," meaning that they meet the city's legal requirements by having bylaws on file, open membership and holding at least one meeting per year, among other things. Albuquerque is one of the nation's only cities to formalize neighborhood association recognition, which gives the associations important freedom of information privileges few other citizens have. The Neighborhood Recognition Ordinance, passed in 1987, makes it law that developers and businesses notify nearby neighborhood associations of plans such as building a subdivision, requesting a zoning change or getting a liquor license before they file applications with the city.

"There's no more surprised reaction when the little yellow sign goes up on a property the day before action takes place," Haywood-Spells said. "We know what's going on, and we've been the model for a lot of cities across the country."

In order to truly understand the spectrum of associations within Albuquerque, I visited neighborhoods that represent the socio-economic diversity of the city, from the houses surrounding rolling, water-sucking golf greens, to the streets many (to residents' dismay) call "the war zone."

Four Hills Neighborhood Association

The drive to the Four Hills community, off Tramway and Central, took me through the eastern outskirts of the city, where the foothills of the Sandias provide an impressive golden view. I went through the community entrance, past the sign for the country club and a group of landscapers working on the manicured median strips. Houses are built in a similar style, mostly painted brick and stucco, with garages and neatly trimmed yards. Later I learned that the neighborhood association has an "architectural control," a set of guidelines for building or changing a home within the community. I pulled up to a cheerful, flower-bedecked home and knocked on a heavy wooden door with a "Thank You For Not Smoking" plaque.

"Welcome to the house of falling down," Melanie Howser, one of the long-standing leaders of the Four Hills Neighborhood Association, greeted me at her door. She gestured to a hallway, decorated with religious and patriotic artwork and stacked with tile. "We're redoing our floor, so it's a mess here. I apologize."

In its 30th year of organization, Four Hills is one of the city's most established neighborhood associations, with more than half of the 1,200 homes it represents as members. "We all work together as a team," Howser said. "Everyone seems to care--you care about what happens where you are."

Howser describes her association as "community and family oriented," describing "hostesses" who are responsible for greeting new neighbors and organizing help for a neighbor when there is a death in the family. She cited the group's major issues, which she described as "probably the same as all the other associations": buying surrounding land to prevent further development, dealing with residents who don't keep up their yard or who park boats or RVs on the street and maintaining the community's common spaces such as parks and medians. "We tried a neighborhood watch a few years back, but people lost interest--not much went on," she said. "We just try to keep our eyes and ears open."

In many ways, the Four Hills Association activities are as much of a throwback to an earlier era as their pastel-painted blocks of matching houses. Howser described the Four Hills Neighbors, a ladies' group over which she presided for two years. The group's pastimes include bridge, needlecraft, quilting and antiquing. The association also has a gourmet group that meets once a month at a member's house for a potluck dinner.

"Everyone meets everyone," Howser declared. "I don't think I'd want to live somewhere where no one knows each other." She described her experience with the association as "always good," jumping up to show me copies of their newsletter and talking excitedly about the possibility of e-mail communication between members in the future.

"People lack the knowledge of how to contact the right people when they have a problem, so they do nothing. And that can make your community fall apart," she said. "We've earned respect as an older association; we know when to complain and when to say thanks."

Trumbull Neighborhood Association

"We are trying to take back our neighborhood," said Mrs. Jones, a leader of the Trumbull Neighborhood Association who thought it would be safer to withhold her real name. "We don't want the drugs in here. We want our churches and parks again. It's hard--people are afraid to even let their kids play out in the streets."

My drive to the Trumbull section of town, which encompasses the areas between Louisiana and Wyoming, and Central and Kirtland Air Force Base, didn't include a golf course. I drove past trailer parks with their fences lined with trash, piles of old mattresses, a house made of cardboard, crisscrossed lines of laundry hung out to dry. Jones' street was one of the best kept, her yard green and shady. Two kids by the stoop watched me pull up.

"You looking for my grandma?" the little girl asked. I nodded, and she led me up the stairs into a small but cozy house--TV on, phone ringing, walls jammed with family photos and religious artwork.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," Jones said, appearing from around the corner after a minute or two. "I just got a call from a woman down the street who's involved in our marches. She got a threatening letter on her doorstep this morning. She's on her way over."

The battle between the neighborhood association and the drug trade in the area is intense. The anticrime marches Jones mentioned have been going on for more than a year, sometimes all night. Usually there are 15 to 20 citizens, wearing helmets and T-shirts, on foot and in cars, armed with bullhorns and escorted by the police.

Jones has been in the Trumbull neighborhood 34 years where she has raised four children and two grandchildren; and she says she's seen it decline because of drugs. The marches have been successful in making dealers feel unwelcome and preventing crime in other cities, says Jones, and Albuquerque's movement was begun by a Philadelphia activist who moved to the area to organize similar action.

"Drug dealer, drug dealer, you can't hide; we charge you with genocide," goes one chant from the marches. "Hey there drug dealer, you can't win, 'cause we're coming back again and again."

"Another one has a line--if you can't join our fight, turn on your porch light," Jones told me as I looked through the book of chants. "People started doing it after a while, and it really makes you feel good." She called over her granddaughter to show me a sticker-covered helmet and explain their meanings.

"These handcuffs are for when they lock up one," the 14-year-old explained. "This one's for when we've been called a ho; this one's for when we've been called a bitch; this one's for when we've been flipped the bird. This one's for when we've picked up garbage." She looked at me. "We've been called a lot of names, but we don't pay any attention. We keep going."

The Trumbull Association's system of organization is different than most. Unlike those with a board of directors that meets monthly and an annual or biannual membership meeting, Trumbull has an open meeting every month. Jones says her leadership is a daily job. Along with the marches, the association organizes neighborhood cleanups, a Thanksgiving dinner, which fed more than 500 people last year, landlord workshops and food and clothing drives. They recently orchestrated the building of barricades that force traffic to slow down and the creation of a new park and playground. "I just don't take no for an answer," Jones said. "The association keeps me going--I laugh a lot of the time to keep from crying."

There was a knock on the door, and the woman who had received the threatening letter that morning came in with her daughter. After a recent shooting, a local woman had appeared on the news, making a comment about the Hispanic population's responsibility for the neighborhood's drugs and violence. Apparently, the note-senders had mistaken her identity and sent a message to her and neighbors stating that she was the one responsible for the racial comment.

"I don't care about the race," the woman said. "We marchers don't care if you're black, white or green if you're selling drugs."

Everyone in the room agreed that things are getting better.

"We went six months without gunfire before this last killing. Can you imagine?" Jones' neighbor said. "For our neighborhood that's good. We can beat the drug dealing. I'm tired of this (neighborhood) being called a war zone."

Associations and the City Council

"There's an up side and a down side," Councilor Ruth Adams said. "But neighborhood associations are clearly a force to be reckoned with." The changes associations effect in their own neighborhoods are clear; their role in the larger realm of the city less so. There are some--citizens, government and businesses alike--who think associations overstep their bounds and cause problems or polarize neighborhoods by being overly concerned with only their own backyard.

"It can get out of hand," Adams said. "I had one woman from Nob Hill angry that people from the Northeast Heights used Lead and Coal." She shook her head. "As a councilor, I'm more interested in the big picture, not just neighborhood concerns."

Still, the associations' power to influence city politics is undeniable. Coalition meetings of all the neighborhood associations in a councilor's district bring citizens and government together to share issues. Association members often appear en masse at council and planning board meetings, where they are free to speak.

"Some are very militant, and sometimes you think they exist just to harass city hall," Adams said. "I think they've thrived during this period because of the distrust in government. And as the lowest rank of government, we get the brunt of it."

Councilor Michael Brasher has perspective from both sides: He was heavily involved with neighborhood associations before he took office, serving as president of the Gallagher Association for a year. He says that associations have been very important to him when making decisions, but that he also sees how they can cause problems between people.

"I need their input," Brasher said. "I've made many decisions on advice from neighborhood leaders. ... But sometimes, bringing people together as an association makes arguments ensue."

Despite their occasional tensions, Brasher feels that neighborhood associations have done a lot for the city as a whole. He mentioned citywide police radio systems that were recently upgraded as a result of an association's concern about their own officers' ability to communicate.

"If a neighborhood association knows you're there backing them up, it gives them the courage to go forward," Adams said.

Call the city's Office of Neighborhood Coordination at 768-3790 to find out which neighborhood organization covers the area where you live or to find out how to revive or start a new neighborhood organization.

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