Block Associations in Fun City


Government has gone about as far as it can go. What people have to do now is do things for themselves: the government just cannot do anymore.
G. Kenneth Patten
Economic Development Administrator
New York City

What Mr. Patten has in mind are the various privately organized efforts that are proliferating in New York and that are run, by and large, by major corporations and real estate interests. Private street cleaning programs and corporate guards have been a reality for years, and businesses are beginning to innovate in such areas as health services and narcotics control. [1]

But the real growth in this area is taking place on the neighborhood level, spurred on by middle-income residents trying to replace or augment municipal services to stay in the center city and by low-income New Yorkers who may never have had access to basic municipal programs.

The most widely noted element in this expansion is the proliferation of block associations, associations whose primary (and often sole) function is to hire a private guard. This has spread rapidly in several sections of the city, perhaps most notably on Manhattan's West Side. Both along Central Park and the Hudson River, there are now large segments of the city where residents are protected by guards hired by the local block associations.

The impact on crime has been immediate and marked: One block on the West Side kept careful records of street crime before and after an unarmed guard was hired. The introduction of the guard immediately reduced street crime from eight incidents per week to one in the first month. Street crime has disappeared entirely from the block since that single incident. The benefits to residents are thus rather clear.

For this service, the cost of the guards is rather low. One block association in the process of being organized is now surveying the private protection companies in New York, to determine current costs. The figure now seems to have stabilized at about one thousand dollars per month for a single shift, seven days a week. Considering that there are over two hundred apartments in one building alone on the block, the association should have no difficulty meeting that expense; in fact, they are now studying the benefits of two-shift coverage or even complete 24-hour protection.

As the private guards have flourished, the adjacent blocks have suffered. One man who lives on 102nd Street went to the local police precinct to complain of the sharp increase in mugging on his block. He was told that the private guards on 101st and 103rd Streets had deterred the muggers from using those blocks, so they now concentrated on 102nd Street. He promptly organized a 102nd Street block association, the last block to be filled in from 95th Street to 107th Street, so the muggers now presumably frequent 94th and 108th Streets. [2]

The incentive is strong, and the means readily available, so block associations are rapidly multiplying. And once the associations are formed, there is at least the potential for branching out into providing other services to residents and for forming bargaining units to deal with City Hall and the municipal bureaucracy. So far, most block associations are still concentrating on (or they are satisfied with) street safety, but a growing number are voting to move into new areas.

In the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, a coalition of block associations and community groups has been formed to build what they call their "town center." It would provide, in a central location, cafés, a shopping plaza, a regional library branch, a community cultural center and recreational facilities. It would also provide a town hall for community meetings and debates.

Similar town centers have been proposed for scattered locations in New York City, but the Sheepshead Bay community seems to have pushed the concept more vigorously than other areas; also, they have been the first to encounter serious resistance. Some politicians do not want to see such neighborhood centers created, as they would eventually pose a threat to the central government's power and influence; at best such town centers would make elected officials more accountable, while at worst, in the view of those in power, politicians could find themselves with their powers gradually stripped away by the new local associations.

The city bureaucracy is not too favorably disposed to any form of decentralization, or community initiative, since the bureaucracy might eventually be without function. At that point, one might assume, someone would recommend that taxes could be lowered by eliminating the bureaucracy.

But in spite of the inertia and the open hostility, the Brooklyn project is making progress. As reports of that community's progress being to spread, other communities are beginning to discuss creating neighborhood centers for their areas.

But neighborhood town halls and private guards are usually the concerns of middle income areas of the city. Poorer city residents are also forming block associations and community groups, but their concerns are somewhat different: where protection is an issue, the communities try to get the police to patrol their particular area. Where town centers, or their services, are the issue, the communities tend to deal once again with the city. But even in the poorest sections of the city, more and more associations are turning inward, away from the city and towards their resources at hand.

Housing has united residents of upper Park Avenue. This is not the Park Avenue of high rise, luxury apartments but Harlem's Park Avenue, of elevated Penn Central tracks and dilapidated tenements. Mary Lemma lives in one of those tenements, and she is determined to change the neighborhood. To the surprise of her skeptical neighbors, she is succeeding: Mrs. Lemma formed the Upper Park Avenue Community Association, covering the residents in the eight blocks from 116th Street to 124th Street on Park Avenue. UPACA surveyed the buildings in those blocks, determining which could be saved through rehabilitation and which were hopeless cases, destined for demolition.

UPACA is rebuilding those eight blocks, not as another public housing project, but as a community project. It is being financed by mortgages and loans from savings banks, bank officers saying that UPACA is a model for communities around the city. The first 10 buildings were renovated in under four years. Rents have been held low, so the original tenants could return to their old addresses, while mortgage payments have been on schedule or early.

Again, the word is spreading. Block associations, community groups and banks and insurance companies have been sending observers to study the UPACA effort; plans are going forward in at least six other areas of New York to try to duplicate UPACA's success. And the data generated by the renovation effort is being carefully studied by the Urban Coalition, which is building low-income housing for profit, to demonstrate that private industry can rebuild neighborhoods where the government has not. By designing their buildings for minimum operational and maintenance costs, the Coalition hopes to show that the profit potential of low-income housing has been underestimated.

Health care is rapidly becoming one of the most prominent issues in low-income New York neighborhoods. On Manhattan's Lower East Side, a group of residents has given up trying to convince the government to operate clinics or other health centers, and they have begun operating one themselves. The community now has a small van outfitted as a mobile clinic; the van visits different blocks each week to provide not only health services for those people who are in urgent need of care but also preventive medical services through testing programs and follow-up examinations of large numbers of area residents.

All of this is being done independently by the local residents and their community organizations: the van was obtained from a church in the neighborhood and the staff and supplies are volunteer and purchased with donated funds. There is now some foundation interest in funding other community mobile clinics, but the Lower East Side community had taken the initiative in providing health care for its residents.

There are two common themes that recur in the reports of local community action: the growing pattern of success for residents who take action to provide basic services that had previously been held the government's exclusive area and, with that success, the growing awareness in an ever larger number of New York's neighborhoods that private citizens can obtain these services on their own more efficiently than by waiting for the municipal government, as they did in the past.

But there is another trend in the community groups: the desire to remain within the community. Plans to take advantage of the clear profit potential in many of these programs by expanding them to the entire city are being left, by and large, to independent development companies. After dealing with the municipal bureaucracy, the neighborhood associations have acquired an aversion to bigness and to anything that might lead them to even appear to duplicate the ponderous machinery of municipal government in New York.

As local governments around the country find themselves caught in a worsening financial squeeze, more city officials will begin to echo Administrator Patten's forthright admission of the limits of municipal government. The residents of city after city will then find that, as in New York, the key to obtaining protection or housing or health care or cultural facilities lies in private citizens' taking the initiative.

Adam Powell, a graduate of MIT, is a professional newsman based in New York. Formerly associated with both CBS News and the Public Broadcasting System, he is now part-owner of and news commentator for WRVR radio in New York.


[1] A group of 50 major businessmen will be meeting shortly in New York to outline and fund a private methadone maintenance program. The government narcotics programs all have long waiting lists, and it is the aim of this private group to provide a program for all addicts who want to join.
[2] The city government has just designated this acre of Manhattan as a "Model Police Precinct." No doubt the rapidly falling incidence of street crime will be cited by the city as evidence of rising police effectiveness!