The Challenges of Connecting City Government to Underrepresented Neighborhoods

Gabriel Kahan

What does connectivity mean to a group of well intentioned local government representatives who can’t connect to the population they serve?

Every three years, the Neighborhood Council system goes through an election cycle. Boards have the opportunity to radically change its composition. Some endure larger transformations than others. Thanks to its central position within Los Angeles, nestled between downtown, Koreatown, Echo Park and Pico Union, Westlake has been attracting a diverse population in recent years,, thus adding to its strength, and inevitably, to its tensions. The Westlake North Neighborhood Council this cycle has a well-intentioned, smart and capable board, but one with few roots in the community it serves. On November 2nd, 2019, the Council hosted the first of two Creative Assemblies meant to work with both the Council board and the residents it represents. Despite extensive preparation, low community turnout laid-bare the harsh realities faced by governments when engaging with traditionally disenfranchised communities.

From an observer’s perspective, it seemed as though the council and its communication channel to the city were entirely alien to the long-time residents and those who could mobilize the community to attend an event like this. Westlake has a large and vibrant Central American community that has called that area home for at least 30 years. There are undoubtedly strong informal networks within the community which have not been tapped by the neighborhood council, highlighting a disconnect between representative and social channels. It was particularly revealing to note that an opportunity to create a community plan would be missed by those who stand the most to gain from giving their input. This led me to connect this issue to a lack of civic agency felt by this community since they arrived from their countries of origin.

As a result, the dearth of formal community engagement became the focus of the conversation. The three board members in attendance decided they wanted to explore the concept of connectivity to try and understand what a strong connection between council and residents would look like. They identified six main pillars of connectivity: involvement, support, network, commonalities, plasticity, inquisitiveness, and differences.
As we were a small group, we focused particularly on one pillar, that of commonalities. The issues previously discussed reflected connectivity challenges, a transient population, distance (concerning dwelling and workplace), car culture and how citywide accommodations for vehicle transport are impacting the connection between different blocks in the area. Notably, this discussion also underscored apathy, the product of years of underrepresentation and political neglect leading to social disconnect within the community and in its relationship with the government.

This assembly illustrated the importance of hyper-local government structures as a conduit to City Hall, State, and national government. Without a community that feels connected to its local decision-making processes, it will be difficult to have an engaged citizenry or a productive relationship between government and social systems necessary for a vibrant and rich democracy.