Connectivity Needs Community Roots

Gabriel Kahan

On November 2, 2019, the Westlake North Neighborhood Council hosted the first of two Creative Assemblies at Central City Neighborhood Partners. The council’s board had voted on hosting the event months in advance, and we had made all of the preparations weeks ago. The space, a spacious and functional multipurpose room on South Bixel, looked beautiful. The board was excited and a small group had arrived early to help set up.

The 10:00 a.m. start time came and went with few arrivals.  By 10:40 a.m. it became clear that the event would only comprise a small group of board members and no one from the community.  As we discussed the fact that no one had arrived, the situation became clear: the Westlake North Neighborhood Council had a well-intentioned, smart and capable board, one with few roots in the community they served. It was 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 has not been tapped by the neighborhood council. It was revealing to observe that an opportunity to create a community plan would be missed by those who stand the most to gain from giving their input. I could not help but see a connection with a possible lack of agency perhaps felt by this community since they arrived from their home countries.

It is for this reason that 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 only worked on one pillar, that of commonalities.  The issues previously discussed reflected connectivity challenges, a transient population, distance (in relation to dwelling and workplace), car culture and how citywide accommodations for vehicle transport are impacting the connection between different blocks in the area. Notably, it 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.

Finally, this assembly illustrates the importance of hyper-local government structures as a conduit for 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.