Scattered neighborhood communities in Ward 8 can start unifying to share concerns and celebrations with the help of revitalized civic associations. Members of the Anacostia Coordinating Committee (ACC) reached out to the Hillsdale and Bellevue neighborhoods three months ago to rebuild their neighborhood leadership. They hope to establish new civic associations so residents can address public safety, living environments, and locally sponsored events such as parades, fundraisers, and holiday celebrations.
Bellevue’s meeting was the first in two years, said Philip Pannell, executive director of the ACC. He hopes to have Hillsdale and Bellevue groups up and running by the end of 2015. Next year he plans to add several more neighborhoods to the list of those with active associations. “Civic associations give people a sense of place, a sense of belonging to a particular community,” he said. “During these days and times when people lead busy lives, there seem to be fewer opportunities for people to get together face to face to get to know their neighbors.”
About four civic associations met regularly in Ward 8 two years ago, Pannell said. Undefined neighborhoods broke down the communication. But future economic development plans in the Anacostia area need the support of communities and leaders. “The district government no longer defines the neighborhood boundaries,” Pannell said. “It’s up to the residents.”
Representation at the neighborhood level keeps strong values between old and new residents, said Arnehl Lyon, president of the Hillsdale Civic Association. With thousands of people moving in and around DC in more recent years, local identity can easily disappear. “DC is going through so many changes, not just racial but economic,” Lyon said. “We see an increase in numbers in our population and we are not properly represented.”
Lyon plans to bring together the home associations, tenant associations, small businesses, schools, and churches. Unified goals will help combat safety problems and keep the area’s history alive. And welcoming committees can invite newcomers to a home in which they can feel safe and settled. “We try not to have a dividing line between new and old,” she said. “The ones that want to tear our neighborhoods down, no, but the ones who want to keep the values, we want to keep those residents, yes.”
As the city develops and changes, though, many people continue to express concern about the outsourcing of jobs and costs of living rising higher than the means of long-time residents. Lyon said she knows Ward 8 neighborhoods need an influx of fresh businesses and employment opportunities but worries that too much could threaten people’s ability to stay.
In September the city announced plans to build a $55 million arena in Ward 8 as home to the Washington Wizards NBA team and the Washington Mystics WNBA team. City officials estimate a $90 million economic impact on the area around the arena.
During the October ACC meeting Ward 8 residents again expressed caution over who will work the estimated 600 contract and 300 permanent jobs for the construction. People don’t want the contracts to go to out-of-city companies, and want to keep the jobs available for workers east of the Anacostia. They want to build the local economy without displacing its communities, Lyon said. “The biggest fear is gentrification, but we don’t want gentrification, we want economic change,” she said. “To get that you have to have people coming into the community who have money to bring the average salary up and bring in what other neighborhoods have.”
The other seven wards maintain active civic associations. It shows in the number of successful restaurants, stores, and community-planned events, Lyon said. Ward 8 wants that balance. “I’d like to be able to walk to a grocery store,” she said. “And right now we only really have two sit-down restaurants, where just across the river at the Yards there are dozens.”
Pannell explained that civic associations also help give locals information about government assistance programs for which they may qualify. For example, residents may need home improvements or repair funds that the city can help with. The meetings can host speakers and experts to guide the locals through each process. If crime increases, police representatives can meet with the local associations to listen to the ongoing problems and offer safety tips or updates on potential investigation leads. It’s always better to be working with a group than individually,” he added.
At the October meeting for Bellevue at least 50 people attended as well as local officials. “We had Councilmember May, representatives from the mayor’s office, police department, and office of planning,” Pannell said. “People are getting excited about getting together.”
Providing a collective voice for a neighborhood empowers its people, said Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May. Instead of sifting through numerous concerns or complaints, officials in Mayor Bowser’s office and the councilmembers’ offices can respond more effectively to a group’s requests. “I like to go meet residents where they are versus having them come to me. I like to take services to the people,” May said. “It becomes easier [with a civic association] to get opportunities for the government to come to their community to talk with them about those things that are specific to their neighborhood.”
Attendees at the Hillsdale meetings showed appreciation for the efforts and an interest in building their representation, she said. It’s a grassroots mission to bring life back to the residents and their families. “Ward 8 has been muted for so long. The concerns have been silent,” May said. “Neighbors and residents in Ward 8 have always expressed their concerns, but being able to express their collective concerns is important.”
May supports the initiative of the ACC and Pannell. As in other wards, the city’s historical legacy can foster a sense of pride with its residents, she said. Continuing traditions and adding new ones can help engage the younger generation. Pride brings responsibility and care for neighbors.
Said Pannell, “People are just living in neighborhoods. Folks are not getting together to discuss community issues.” Pannell plans to help the civic associations gain attention and elect leaders. Then he and the ACC will guide them on raising and maintaining funds and applying for grants to pay for meeting flyers, refreshments, and sponsored events. Eventually he said each organization will charge annual dues of around $10-20, build a budget plan, and establish regular meeting schedules.
The next Bellevue Civic Association meeting is on Nov. 18 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the William O. Lockridge Bellevue Neighborhood Library.
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