Weak economy leads to stronger neighborhoods

DeWayne Bartels
Sharon Draper, second from right, beams after being presented the Mayor's Award, at this year's Neighborhood Awards Banquet.

The national and local economy may be sapped, but Peoria neighborhoods are flexing new muscle.

Citizens, politicians and city employees who provide services for neighborhoods say the lousy economy is a big part of the reason neighborhoods are doing so well.

Peoria neighborhood development specialist Steve Fairbanks said he is amazed by what he has seen happening in neighborhoods in recent years.

“What we are seeing is that people make an initial call to us looking for services. I coach them, and over time, they grow and become leaders in their neighborhood,” he said. “That’s neat. People are getting empowered.”

Leslie McKnight, community development director for Peoria, surveyed the room last month containing the Neighborhood Awards Banquet. The room was packed with neighborhood activists from all over the city who, McKnight said, day in and day out, play an important role in making Peoria neighborhoods strong.

She smiled, and did not hesitate to answer when asked if the downward economy had strengthened or weakened Peoria’s neighborhoods.

“There is strength in numbers. We have a solid number of neighborhood associations and a growing number of neighborhood watch associations. We now have more than 150,” McKnight said.

“North Peoria neighborhood associations are growing at an exponential rate, especially the neighborhood  watch groups in light of the recent burglaries. The economy, the slow creep of crime moving north, has strengthened neighborhoods all over the city.”

Sandra Fritz, a resident of the Woodbrook

Manor Neighborhood off Allen Road, said crime moving north has made a lot of North Peorians more vigilant. But, she said, things in her neighborhood have not changed much because there are people in the neighborhood who have been looking out for each other for a long time.

“I think our neighborhood is pretty cohesive. There has been no impact on our street due to the economy,” Fritz said.

“I don’t see a problem with crime on our street.”

Fairbanks said he is having more and more North Peorians call him stating they know they have a good neighborhood and want to know what they can do to keep it that way.

“North Peorians are becoming more and more pro-active,” he said.

“We are planting more seeds in the 3rd, 4th and 5th districts. It’s a little tougher to plant the seeds there. There’s not so many issues that trouble them. But, more and more North Peorians are seeing that blight, crime and problems follow people, and people are moving north.”

McKnight and Fairbanks said a growing number of Peorians realize they cannot count on local, state and federal resources to tend to every need in a neighborhood.

Fairbanks said he has seen a marked shift in people’s attitudes about attacking issues in their neighborhoods.

“People are seeing the value of working together. People are now saying government can only do so much. I don’t hear so much anymore, ‘What is city government doing?’” Fairbanks said. “The city’s no longer seen as a fat cat. It’s encouraging. It’s a whole new era of citizens doing more for each other.”

Fairbanks said the “ice is breaking” in many neighborhoods, as people meet and find ways to tackle issues.

“People are worried about the future, and they are working to shape it in their neighborhoods,” he said. “The government is here to serve the people. We can enhance, but we cannot do the entire job that needs to be done.”

Fairbanks, said in the past two years, he has seen an attitudinal shift toward collaboration. The city, he said, provides resources, services and education. He said from there, a lot of neighborhood leaders take over and, with their neighbors, make things happen.

“This has spawned a new phenomenon. There are a lot of things going on in neighborhoods I, and the rest of the city staff, are totally clueless about. The people in the neighborhoods are doing their thing, and independent of us,” Fairbanks said. “Now, I don’t hear, ‘How can you help us?’ so much. What I hear now is, ‘Listen to what we did.’”

Mayor Jim Ardis said

McKnight’s and Fairbanks’ assessment was welcome news to him.

“It’s one of the unintended things that come from a poor economy. Hopefully, even as the economy gets better, citizens will continue to see the value in being involved in their neighborhoods,” Ardis said. “People are going to have to do more for themselves. This is good. It puts more eyes and ears on the street.”

Fairbanks said he,

McKnight and other city staff are working to keep this effort alive after the economy improves.

“I’m totally interested in that,” Fairbanks said. “We are trying to find approaches to keep this organizing going.”