The neighborhood force awakens: Will new resident group go NIMBY or impact positive change?
The Midtown Neighborhood Association is back after a year hiatus
It began last year, with homeless people congregating after hours on the steps of a methadone clinic, making noise and leaving a mess. Angela Tillotson lives in and manages the Midtown apartment complex next door, near 21st Street and Capitol Avenue. The Caltrans employee by day started chatting with her co-workers and neighbors about her problem. Soon enough, talk turned of forming a neighborhood watch.
Over a few months, Tillotson says she worked with police and city officials to resolve the issue outside the clinic. But something else happened along the way, too: She and her friends relaunched the Midtown Neighborhood Association, which had been dormant for a year.
It’s no secret that neighborhood associations sometimes get a bad rap. Local government and business leaders often complain about these groups, painting them as NIMBYs who whine and push self-serving agendas.
Can the new MNA, one of the potentially most powerful neighborhood groups out of approximately 122 in the city (according to its website), break the mold, keep together and make a difference in Sacramento? And, for that matter, what should be the role of the neighborhood associations some three decades after a small movement of them formed in the late ’80s?
Despite the positive change by groups and associations, there remain critics. “I think they’re parochial,” said Sandy Smoley, who dealt frequently with neighborhood groups during her 20 years on the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. “I think they’re defensive about their area that they live in, and they don’t think of the good of the city or the good of the county. They’re just interested in what their needs are.”
But neighborhood associations also offer the potential for collective action and change, which someone like Tillotson could never tackle alone. They can unify and strengthen a neighborhood.
They can also birth future city leaders; mayoral candidates Darrell Steinberg and Angelique Ashby each got their political starts in neighborhood associations.
“One of the reasons I’m running for mayor is I want to elevate the neighborhood movement again in Sacramento,” said Steinberg, who founded the Tahoe Park Neighborhood Association before serving on city council and in the state Assembly and Senate.
Ashby served as president of the Creekside Neighborhood Association in Natomas before being elected in 2010 to her current position, as city council member for that area.
“When you look around the city of Sacramento and you see the communities that have managed to have longevity, what with their neighborhood associations, oftentimes they are very desirable neighborhoods,” Ashby said. “I would use, as an example, Land Park.”
Stories differ on why the old Midtown Neighborhood Association went dark. One member who’s still involved said it was because the group became too business-friendly. But Karen Jacques, who founded MNA as the Winn Park-Capitol Avenue Neighborhood Association in 1991, denied this. “The criticism I heard was that we didn’t have enough contact with the business community,” Jacques said.
Tillotson wants to balance the needs of residents and businesses. Just 24 hours after she and neighbor Danny Yost officially relaunched MNA on December 9, she got involved in successfully mediating a dispute between two of her members and Big Stump Brewing Co., slated to open at 18th and L streets this spring.
“We want to facilitate open dialogue and work with developers and applicants so we can support projects,” Tillotson said.
Asked why the old MNA went dormant, Jacques said, “I think it was just sheer exhaustion and people having other things come up in their life and so many former board members moving out of the area.”
Jacques is board member emeritus, though she focuses mostly on historic preservation work these days. She’s grateful to see new life for MNA. “This is exactly what’s needed,” Jacques said. “This is exactly what I was hoping would happen for a long time.”
Tillotson might be in for a long stint as MNA chairwoman. Jacques held the post for eight years. So did Matt Piner, who’ll stay on for a year as vice chairman, per the association’s bylaws, but otherwise looks ready for a break between running two businesses and teaching at American River College. “I know what I experienced was just the classic burnout,” Piner said.
Piner has watched people come and go from MNA for years, telling SN&R, “I think the general tenor of sometimes how these meetings go is people are kind of one-and-done.”
Some of this, Piner explained, is because people come to an MNA meeting due to a specific issue and stop coming once it’s resolved. The standard fare for discussion at meetings, Piner also explained, can be pretty dry to an outsider.
Take the recent meeting, which stretched for two hours and included animated discussion with Councilman Steve Hansen about water rates. To a hardcore neighborhood association member, these discussions could last for hours were no time limit in place.
Hot button issues for Midtown residents include parking, the Sacramento Police Department’s controversial bait bike program to catch thieves and safety at the 19th Street Safeway.
Obsessive fixation on relatively minor issues in the big scheme of things is perhaps the best and worst trait of neighborhood groups. Local residents will always have advocates for their issues, no matter how small. “I represented a very intelligent district,” Smoley said. “They knew how to lobby, and they did it well, and they were relentless.”
Local politicians know to play nice with these groups. Hansen, who attends many of these types of meetings, said he was pleased to see MNA relaunch. “The energy in this room makes a great neighborhood,” Hansen told the meeting.
There’s a certain amount of altruism among the different neighborhood and business groups on the grid. Emily Baime, director of the Midtown Business Association, let Tillotson hold MNA’s first public meeting at her offices. Baime, like Tillotson, believes in different interests working together. “We all have the same goal,” Baime said. “We’re trying to build the same incredible space in Midtown.”
Sean Manwaring of the Newton Booth Neighborhood Association, which covers the southeast corner of the central city, put Tillotson in contact with Jacques while she was in the process of relaunching MNA. Manwaring gave a report at the MNA public meeting on January 13 for another newly reformed group, the Alliance of Central City Neighborhoods.
Jacques said the Alliance is more or less a reboot of the Neighborhood Advisory Group. The NAG’s predecessor from the ’90s is the old Central City Alliance of Neighborhoods which was folded into the city’s Neighborhood Services Department.
The NAG, Jacques explained, was partly a venue for developers to present ideas to residents. It stopped meeting after the economic slowdown of the late 2000s, around the time the city was making cuts to Neighborhood Services. With the economy doing better, though, there’s more development in the central city and a call once again to have a citizen’s group watching over that growth.
Steinberg’s glad to see the Alliance reforming. He also would like to do more for Neighborhood Services if elected mayor.
“Neighborhood Services is of course about safety and it’s about neighborhood preservation, but it’s also about bringing back youth programs,” Steinberg said. “It’s also about city parks and recreation. We dramatically increased park acreage in this city. We haven’t kept up on maintenance.”
There will always be another cause for residents to come together to fight, though that’s kind of MNA’s legacy.
Jacques said the old MNA came about organically through the late ’80s fight against turning the R Street Corridor into a phalanx of high-rise office buildings. In squabbling with developers, Jacques said local residents found that if enough of them came together, “we could win.”
Much work remains for Tillotson and her team. Nearly every seat was taken during the recent meeting, and Tillotson will probably soon need a larger venue. She said Hansen and his staff have offered to help her find one. In general, Hansen’s office has been very involved with MNA so far, sending a representative to one of the informal neighborhood meetings Tillotson held in the fall at Kupros Craft House.
Tillotson’s also enrolled in a city management academy to learn how to better navigate the city. She doesn’t appear to have broader political aspirations at this point, though Ashby laughed knowingly when asked if Tillotson reminds her of herself 10 years ago. Tillotson’s been a regular at city council meetings lately, and she and Ashby sometimes stick around to talk after. The topic’s come up.
“Her heart’s in the right place,” Ashby said. “She’s trying really hard. She’s going to be a difference maker for that community and for the city.”