Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Neighborhoods Should Have a Say in their Own Redevelopment

Despite the hard work done by community volunteers to improve their neighborhoods, they tend to come under fire for allegedly impeding economic growth. On Tuesday, Slate contributor Matthew Yglesias wrote an article about a frustrating experience with neighborhood activists in his community. It centered around a group advocating for a liquor license moratorium in their neighborhood. After reading his article, I thought it was only fair to give a perspective of the other side of this conflict.

I work as a community organizer in Omaha, Nebraska. One of the most successful and high-profile community action groups I have seen form in Omaha is the Alcohol Impact Coalition (AIC), a group of twelve prominent neighborhood associations working to increase neighborhood input on the issuance of liquor licenses in urban Omaha.

In 2010, a local Walgreens was applying for a liquor license. The local residents deemed this an establishment and location unfit for liquor sales. The city government agreed and rejected the application. Despite the consensus between the neighborhood and the city government, the Nebraska Liquor Commission overruled the city's decision and granted the liquor license. Thus, the neighborhoods organized and began the AIC and the Let Omaha Control its Alcohol Landscape (LOCAL) campaign. They have been pushing for legislation to allow for neighborhoods to decide when an establishment poses a threat to community values and have made some preliminary progress on this front.

According to Yglesias, these citizens are exhibiting "NIMBY stupidity." This characterization is demeaning and incredibly disrespectful to people who are advocating for a better community and neighborhood for everyone to enjoy. While his experience seems to deal with license issuance moratoriums, he has not seen the other side of the conflict where citizens who are not interested in the drastic path of moratorium but just want some control over who can sell alcohol in their neighborhood are being pushed around by state officials and corporate interests.

I think we can all agree that moratorium is a radical and excessive step, but there are communities across the country who don't mind a quiet bar that is involved in community affairs but find worrisome a bar that doesn't respect the community it resides in. Yglesias's analysis smacks of classic narrow-minded gentrification rhetoric. Redevelopment in our country's urban cores is going to be a key aspect of economic and cultural change over the next few decades, but we cannot push economic growth forward at the sole expense of the current residents. Residents need to be a part of the redevelopment conversation, and the citizens who band together in reasonable, moderate groups like Omaha's AIC should not be belittled on account of the beliefs of radical moratorium advocates.

If there is anyone who should be front and center in redevelopment talks in a community, it is the current residents of the community. Too often, government, business interests, and yes, pundit economists say they know what is best for the community without consulting with the members of the community themselves. As long as we continue to say we know what's best for a community we are not a part of, it doesn't matter if the redevelopers are public, private, or non-profit, they are missing the perspective for their redevelopment plan that is needed the most.

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