As I keep my blog on life support while I remain in the Afghan theater, I hope—more or less—to alternate posts with observations on life here behind the wire with more of my conventional posts, featuring photos taken from this past summer and earlier. Today’s post has been surprisingly difficult for which to gather information, intensified by the fact that I have no other outlet while at a base in Afghanistan. But I’m now prepared to show one of the most potent examples used today of a means for individual districts in urbanized areas to assert some level of self-governance.
Metropolitan America today comprises such a patchwork of neighborhood associations—many of which duplicate the functions of municipal government—that it’s hard to believe that these now ubiquitous civic groups were relatively uncommon just forty years ago. In his article “Revolution or Evolution?” from the quarterly journal Regulation (also available under the title “The Rise of Private Neighborhood Associations: Revolution or Evolution?” in the book The Property Tax, Land Use, and Land Use Regulation edited by Dick Netzer), William A. Fischel wrote that private associations as we know them today originated in the condominium boom of the 1970s, principally to pool community resources in the governance of shared space, but their subsequent proliferation embraced communities of single-family houses, while their overall supervisory scope ballooned as well. In some communities, they have served simply as a means of consolidating the sentiments of the residents of a neighborhood in response to any changes implemented in municipal government services, or—more often than not—changes in zoning and land use. Elsewhere, neighborhood associations have assumed a broad array of duties under the political aegis of common area maintenance, and in the process they have accrued an incredible amount of power. Many neighborhood associations already perform functions that have traditionally fallen under the responsibility of municipal government: as Fischel points out, “They collect garbage and remove snow; they provide local infrastructure such as roads, sidewalks, and sewers; they regulate land-use and occupancy; and they provide collective services such as recreation and sometimes even health-maintenance for their residents.” Some cities, as Fischel observes, even contract with the neighborhood association so that the latter can provide those services through the association’s revenues, while the City then provides members a break on their local taxes.
Perhaps most significantly for the focus of this article, these associations of homeowners have emerged in neighborhoods that predate the very political concept, sometimes by more than a century. They offer a means of protecting the interests, and, most saliently, the property values, of the individuals who live or own real estate within a specific association’s boundaries. Several months ago I wrote a two-part article called “There Goes the Neighborhood”, focusing upon the maturely established Garden District Civic Association in Baton Rouge and the semantic differences between the more traditional term “neighborhood” and the more contemporary “subdivision”. The bottom-up level of control (dare I call it “grassroots”?) that this Baton Rouge association has been able to wield through the consolidation of three smaller historic districts has, to a certain degree, shielded it from the disinvestment and visible economic decay that some of the other neighborhoods around it have suffered. Today, Baton Rouge’s Garden District stands as the most affluent old neighborhood in the metropolitan area—a sharp contrast from the broadly upper middle class “subdivisions” on the city’s outskirts.
The “Garden District” name in Baton Rouge owes a great deal to its larger, splashier city 80 miles to the southeast, New Orleans, whose own Garden District remains one of the preeminent collections of southern mansions, many of them antebellum, in the country. It is a celebrated tourist attraction in a city that has more than its share of curiosities for the outsider. Needless to say, it has a powerful vehicle for organizing and prioritizing the interests of its residents in the Garden District Association. New Orleans’ Garden District Association epitomizes Fischel’s example of a neighborhood association broadly assuming duties prescribed to municipal governments: it has drafted its own zoning guidelines, it helped to confer authority to the Historic District Landmarks Commission for all development changes, and it monitors the area within its boundaries through the Garden District Security Patrol. Essentially, it mitigates some of the onus to the City of New Orleans in providing services to the area, and it funds these services exclusively through the dues of its residents. Fischel notes, however, that no city has completely surrendered its responsibilities to a neighborhood association. They can’t. City cops still retain law enforcement authority over neighborhood security patrols; mayors and city councils could not contract away law enforcement or zoning/land-use control to a neighborhood association, even if they wanted to.
But particularly powerful neighborhood associations have found a means of achieving a remarkable degree of control over how their jurisdiction looks and operates, regardless of the fact that, as political entities, they lack any police power over the city. Fischel argues that, rather than diluting the power of municipal land use decisions, they have refined or even intensified it. Another neighborhood just two miles away from the Garden District in New Orleans demonstrates the potentially complex interplay between a city and its neighborhood association.
Broadmoor anchors itself at the intersection of two of Uptown New Orleans’ most prominent streets: Claiborne Avenue and Napoleon Avenue, where the above photograph was taken. Most of its housing dates from between the turn of the 20th century and World War II, at a point when civil engineering technology allowed the draining of the swampy lands of this part of town to make it habitable. By Broadmoorians’ own admittances, the area sits at “the bottom of the bowl”: all of it rests below sea level, far removed from the natural levees created over time by the depositing of silt along the banks of the Mississippi. (The oldest and most famous New Orleans neighborhoods, such as the Garden District and French Quarter, sit right along the Mississippi, much more safely above sea level.) Despite some venerable, palatial homes along Napoleon Avenue, the Broadmoor area has never attracted tourism. A 2007 New York Times article observed that Broadmoor’s greatest curiosity is that its racial demographics in recent decades have largely reflected that of the city as a whole: not quite 70% African American, approximately 25% white, and a smattering of Asians and non-white Hispanics. The variety of housing types has resulted in an economically diverse neighborhood as well, from working class to upper-income levels, in which about half of the population owns its own home, a figure on par with the city as a whole.
No doubt to its own residents, the area seemed palpably hopeless after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006: Broadmoor was doused by the flooding after the storm, with most of the housing suffering inundation from 5 to 10 feet above their foundations. Then-Mayor Ray Nagin’s announcement at the end of 2006 from the results of his Bring Back New Orleans Commission surely aggravated feelings of impotence. The Commission advised that the flooding was so severe and the land so far below sea level that the area should revert to permanent parkland, represented among several sites in the city through green dots. The report recommended bulldozing the homes where green dots rested on the map.
The announcement—notorious to some members of the community as “The Green Dot Report”—helped mobilize the officers of the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA). Days later, the Association organized a rally for the neighborhood, many of whose members were still displaced and scattered across the country. Mayor Nagin learned how unpopular it was for a council of outsiders to dismiss broad swaths of the city without local input; he promptly tossed the report and dissolved the Commission. The BIA, under the leadership of president LaToya Cantrell, realized it could use its institutional presence to consolidate the voices of its diverse members and help draw greater attention to the neighborhood’s profound needs.
The outside stimulus of those green dots surely stirred the residents of flood-ravaged Broadmoor into collective mobilization. It didn’t hurt that the area was the childhood home of the Landrieus, an influential political dynasty that includes a popular former mayor (Maurice “Moon”), a US Senator (Mary), and the recently elected current mayor (Mitch). Or that Walter Isaacson, biographer, former editor of Time magazine, and Clinton/Obama appointee, also grew up in the area. But the fact remains that the Broadmoor Improvement Association accomplished an incredible amount in the ensuing two years after the storm. Anyone who lived in New Orleans at the time would recognize the “Broadmoor Lives” banners attached to every light post along the neighborhood’s most prominent streets, all colored green as a clear ironic inversion of those condemnatory dots. And in a matter of months, the BIA secured assistance from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on devising a rebuilding plan; to this day, it receives interns from both the Kennedy School and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design each year. As the aforementioned New York Times article indicates (one of several national media outlets to feature the organization), the BIA secured $5 million in pledges from the Clinton Global Initiative. It increased the size of its boundaries listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It received a $2 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation to rebuild its local branch of the library. And, of course, it shepherded the gutting and restoring of the many badly damaged homes, resulting in a return rate that far surpassed that of areas equally damaged. It may seem trite to suggest that the BIA’s influence helped endow its former residents with a renewed faith in the cohesiveness of the community after the disaster, but the high profile Broadmoor has been able to achieve since Katrina has made it the envy of other neighborhood associations in New Orleans and across the country. Clearly they have gotten something right.
Press attention on Broadmoor has slowed in recent years, but that does not mean that the BIA has suffered any dilution in influence. The red lines on the map below shows what the BIA considers the boundaries of Broadmoor as they fall under its jurisdiction:
It’s quite a large neighborhood, and an observation of the declared boundary of an adjacent neighborhood association suggests that those boundaries may be under some dispute. But if BIA’s jurisdiction—and, consequently, the neighborhood of Broadmoor—has grown since Katrina, its influence and efficacy has made it hard for residents in the “disputed territory” to voice many complaints. Some of the most recent changes to the area suggest that its ability to attract outside investment continues unabated.
The sign announcing the entrance to the neighborhood has sat there for years. The tree plantings are obviously new; so is the sidewalk. This pedestrian trail runs in the expansive median (or “neutral ground” as New Orleanians would call it) on Napoleon Avenue. The sidewalk and the plantings begin at this intersection and continue northward to Napoleon Avenue’s terminus, where it diverges to form Fontainebleau Drive and South Broad Avenue (incorrectly labeled Broad Street on Google Maps). The picture below, looking northward on Napoleon Avenue, better demonstrates the expansiveness of this improvement.
The trail lasts about one mile. But Napoleon Avenue extends at least another mile south of Claiborne Avenue, to its terminus just beyond Tchoupitoulas Street at the Mississippi River. Here’s the view down the other portion of Napoleon Avenue, in two photos. First is the “hub” where these two major streets and their medians meet with a square of shared neutral ground:
Clearly those proud, mature palm trees are newly planted. But continue south on Napoleon Avenue, on the other side of Claiborne from Broadmoor:
No improvements, nor any evidence that improvements are planned. While it is possible that the other portion of Napoleon will benefit from this investment at a later phase, a nearby sign that reveals the identity of the investor suggests otherwise:
This is hardly a project funded by the City of New Orleans, nor is it one paid for by neighborhood association’s annual dues. This is ostensibly part of a larger civil engineering and “site restoration” initiative supported by the US Army Corps of Engineers, an agency famous in New Orleans for its responsibility in constructing and maintaining the complex system of levees and canals. Needless to say, after the multiple breaches in the levees resulted in the flooding of the city after Hurricane Katrina, it is not a terribly popular agency in New Orleans. While I hardly have the knowledge of the topographic and drainage issues to determine if this site restoration was fully warranted, it cannot help but also tacitly involve a certain degree of currying favor in order to restore trust among New Orleanians in the USACE’s ability to protect the city from flooding.
But check the boundaries of the project on that sign. The improvements—using an impervious paving surface, I might add—will only involve certain stretches of Napoleon and Claiborne Avenue. I have outlined in green those segments according to the description on the sign:
They fit within the BIA’s boundaries like a hand in glove. I hate to engage in armchair conspiracy theorizing, and it is unfair to assume there is a malicious or ulterior motive behind the targeting of improvements in a particular neighborhood. After all, these stretches of Napoleon/Claiborne and Broadmoor itself are “the bottom of the bowl”—some of the lowest points in a city already overwhelmingly sitting below sea level.
But if this does demonstrate an example of a municipal sub-unit receiving favorable treatment from an agency larger than the city or even the state, it won’t be the first time. Earlier I referenced the grant that BIA received from the Carnegie Corporation of New York in order to repair flood damage to the Keller Library, the Broadmoor neighborhood’s closest branch. It was a wonderful achievement that testifies to the tenacity of the BIA in seeking solutions to community problems. But BIA does not own the Keller Library, or any library branches; the New Orleans Public Library system under the City of New Orleans does. The resulting contretemps suggests that the Broadmoor Improvement Association has sought to address community problems by bypassing the City, definitely in the library scenario, and quite possibly here as well, regarding the community’s desire for a more attractively landscaped, pedestrian friendly neutral ground.
Without casting stones at either party, I can recognize that the BIA saw both a certain level of bureaucratic inertia in the City’s ability to work with FEMA Public Assistance (PA) in kick-starting recovery projects, as well as an exogenous solution that it was perfectly willing to take into its own hands, by pursuing a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The neighborhood association figured that it could secure the money and then sort out the responsibility of implementation later, a decision that may have proven wise in expediting the recovery process. And even if the City was never going to have to fund the restoration of this library due to FEMA money (nor would it fund most levee-related improvements that the Army Corps have a federal mandate to address), the City’s leadership to a certain degree was relieved of an administrative burden of managing the requisite paperwork to procure FEMA’s Public Assistance funding, which, under FEMA PA stipulations would only return the facility to its previous, pre-Katrina condition. BIA’s goal was to get the Keller Library back functioning better than before; with this generous grant, they can most likely succeed, provided they reach necessary consensus with the board at New Orleans Public Library.
Neighborhood associations contribute a sheen that inadvertently amplifies the potency of land use regulation. The significantly smaller geographic boundaries, the lack of any true police power that requires the added administration of enforcement (that burden still falls on the City), and, as Fischel recognizes, the ability to appeal to homeowners’ concerns about preserving value in what is most likely their single greatest financial asset—all of these help allow neighborhood associations to refine land use decisions within their jurisdiction. As is the case with the Broadmoor Improvement Association, they may prove disproportionately powerful if they can mobilize their residents to attend Planning Commission meetings they otherwise would shrug aside, or to even develop their own series of plans which they impress upon the city to codify.
Three generations ago, the predecessors of the contemporary neighborhood associations assumed a much less benign role than anything documented here. Fischel is one among many to recognize that the earliest zoning and land use regulations helped enforce racial segregation, as did neighborhood covenants. Well after the Supreme Court struck down racial zoning and segregationist covenants, communities used associations to protect the investments of their homes, usually from racial minority families moving in—a home-grown attempt at redlining. In his book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Thomas Sugrue observes how well over a hundred precursors to the modern neighborhood association arose in Detroit, uniting people of various national origins (Italian, Irish, Polish, German) through their shared whiteness and goal of keeping Negroes out. Their organizations scarcely differed semantically from the NAs of today; many were called “civic associations”, “homeowners’ associations”, “protective associations”, or “improvement associations” (pp. 211-12). Civil rights legislation by the mid 1960s theoretically quashed such trans-ethnic alliances, and the modern neighborhood association could scarcely get away with such overt articulation of racially discriminatory goals.
The BIA, with its racially diverse membership in a reasonably integrated neighborhood milieu, has ambitions that are captured in its title just as well as coming from an admiring New York Times journalist. No doubt other associations serving a less diverse population cannot claim such ecumenical goals. Fischel and others recall how smaller municipalities have in the past used zoning to block the construction of low-income housing within their jurisdictions; Mount Laurel, New Jersey offers the most famous example of this. Conversely, modern neighborhood and homeowners’ associations have deterred newcomers through draconian standards regulating a home’s exterior appearance, through prohibitively expensive annual dues, or through restrictions prohibiting owners from taking on tenants or converting part or all of a property to a rental unit. They also depend on a certain level of coercion for those who refuse to join, regardless of whether or not they agree with the perceived majority’s vision for the neighborhood. None of these are necessarily racially motivated initiatives (though some isolated instances clearly are), but they echo the Mount Laurel goal of preserving home values through a certain level of homogeneity, most likely socioeconomically derived. Fischel recognizes that homeownership is a double-edged sword: it can induce aggressive territorialism but it “induces people to pay attention to the quality of life in their communities”, such as school improvements even if they don’t have kids. It may motivate the residents of Broadmoor to fix a City library that sits on their turf, even if they won’t ever pick up a book there, and the influence of their neighborhood association encourages them to advocate for sidewalks on the neutral ground, even if both sides of the street have them at the curb and they do not walk anywhere regardless.
The larger predicament arises when a neighborhood association’s vision encroaches on the authority of the City, even if it does not impede on the rights of other associations. I anticipate that this potentiality for the subversion of a City’s authority—even if it derives from legitimate grievances against the City’s ineffectualness—will result in a declarative Supreme Court decision within my lifetime. In New Orleans, the BIA recently announced that a State Senator is seeking legislation for a formal recognition of the Broadmoor Neighborhood Improvement District. Fischel believes that neighborhood associations’ embedded covenants and rules have generally complemented zoning to articulate further public demand for land use regulation, even though he suspects that the influence of zoning is in retreat. But the interplay between the two can result in disharmony when a neighborhood association essentially seeks exogenous contractors to do work for which the city is ultimately responsible, and I believe we have yet to see the residual effects of this power struggle. Neighborhood associations use their respective cities’ inkwells, but they can gesture with a much sharper quill.