When I attended my first Columbia City Community Council (CCCC) meeting last December, I was naive and unschooled in the tender mercies of neighborhood politics. Since then, I've been to meetings all around Southeast Seattle and made myself a student of the values, grievances, and vendettas that animate the committed core of residents who always show up.
I have been surprised and troubled to find that, in a community famed for its ethnic, racial, and income diversity, one narrow worldview prevails among the small group of people who represent themselves as the leaders of South Seattle. Do you know what your local neighborhood activist is saying about you?
The people who showed up at CCCC meetings were an impressive bunch, articulate and informed about the neighborhood. It was the first time I had observed Robert's Rules, with its motions and points of order, in the wild. Zoning regulations and other arcana were quoted chapter and verse. The nuggets of intelligence I picked up about local goings-on alone seemed worth the price of admission. And the price of admission, I found, was reconciling myself to the peculiar sensibility I found there.
When I joined up, the exhausting chore of creating bylaws left time for little else on the agenda. The evident love some members had for the artifice of meetings and parliamentary procedure accounts for some of this, but mainly our discussion of bylaws centered around the need to protect the group from being taken over by hostile outside forces.
At my second meeting, it was ominously asserted that somewhere in the darkness of that winter night there were people plotting to launch a rival group — people whose very absence from the meeting signaled bad intentions. A new community group with a handful of regular attendees, no budget, and no standing with the city was beset on all sides by enemies. This was a little rich even for a newbie like me, and it made me want to meet the people who had dropped out, who, it turns out, are numerous.
And when we weren't defending ourselves from being co-opted, we talked about crime — break-ins in the neighborhood and muggings and the gunshots heard the other night. Everything else — transportation, real estate development in the neighborhood, city government — was viewed through the lens of co-optation or crime.
In the end, the defensiveness, apparent lack of interest in turning out more of the community, and single-minded commitment to one contentious view of the neighborhood led me to quit. Yet the sensibility I found at the Columbia City Community Council perplexed and fascinated me. The more I looked, the more places I found it. The more closely I examined it, the clearer it became that the sensibility in question is a deep, cryptic strain of NIMBYism in Southeast.
Co-opting the Southeast District Council
During my time at the CCCC, I naturally got wind of the drama at the Southeast District Council, the organization on the next level of the neighborhood hierarchy, which featured some of the people I knew from the community council. The conflict at the Southeast District's "council of councils" stands out for being particularly, embarrassingly tawdry. Character assassination, open confrontation, and public grandstanding were the order of the day when the feud was hot last year. It seems the factions shared no sense of larger purpose that drove toward consensus, let alone restraint.
The fight is ostensibly about process — critics of the district council want the group to abide by its own bylaws, which they say have been flouted by allowing groups to participate that don't have open membership or have paid representatives rather than volunteers. But if it were a book club or a knitting circle that had been allowed voting membership on the SEDC, we wouldn't be where we are today. In reality, its substantive policy differences — specifically about the place social services are to have on the council and in the neighborhoods — that split the group.
As Mariana Quarnstrom, the president of the South Seattle Crime Prevention Council (SSCPC), has written, the community "has lost its voice to nonprofits that are not truly invested in the community and could be gone tomorrow and we must live with the consequences of their decisions." Dolores Ranhofer, president of the Lakewood/Seward Park Community Association, drives home the point in a letter to Mayor Nickels:
Social service organizations are dependent on the city of Seattle for their funding, and their representatives on the SEDC do not own homes or businesses in the Lakewood/Seward Park community, I question their interest in voting for issues that benefit the Lakewood/Seward Park community.
The argument is that since social service providers are funded by the city, it's in their interests to be the city's stooges. As such, social service providers herd the poor, the addicted, and the criminal away from more desirable parts of the city and into Southeast.
Ultimately, "social services" is code for all kinds of interlopers and the problems they bring with them — each understood to be a product of the city's negligent meddling and each representing a kind of intolerable compulsion. The city tries to force the poor to move to South Seattle, commuters to use the light rail, and drivers to give their cars the summer off. And meanwhile, the complaint goes, the neighborhoods are expected to display a meek acceptance — of views blocked by six-story buildings; of their accustomed parking spots hogged by new renters; of an inadequately staffed police precinct; of the crime they say comes with increased population density.
Social services haven't always been such a flash point in Southeast. Jim Diers, the founding and former director of Seattle's Department of Neighborhoods, says in his book Neighbor Power that, "Today, subsidized housing is being developed in Southeast Seattle by community-based organizations." He singles out SEED and HomeSight as prime examples of organizations that have been nurtured by and committed to their communities. "Not a word," he writes, "has been heard from the NIMBYs."
So much has happened since the "today" Diers refers to. Now SEED and HomeSight, which were center stage in the SEDC drama, are preferred targets for Southeast's NIMBYs.
The new leadership of the SEDC has answered critics by arguing that they are strictly an advisory body and consequently do not have the power to directly affect policy (nothing to see here folks, move along). Short of bending the council to their way of thinking, an SEDC neutralized as an activist body probably looks like a victory to the people who started the fight.
But success left the victors with no formal relationship to the city — a problem solved by the creation of the new South East Neighborhood District Council (SENDC), an explicitly activist organization. Their schtick, aside from having an extra word in their name, is that they don't need to write any bylaws because they're simply abiding by the SEDC's original, legitimate ones, which exclude social service organizations from membership.
Knowing what I do now, I think of the Columbia City Community Council as a groomed charter member of the SENDC. In all the meetings I attended, there was never talk of seeking a seat or even attending a SEDC meeting, a natural step for a new community group. The CCCC's bylaws, especially its voting and membership criteria, were formed in response to the perceived illegitimacy of the SEDC's. The lack of interest in increasing meeting attendance and distrust of low-income residents came with the torch NIMBYs carried back from the SEDC fight. It's a sad irony that the fear of co-optation I found at the CCCC came from those who were busy co-opting the group.
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