Picking up the Government Slack

What does civic spirit mean in the age of shrinking municipal budgets?

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They could’ve slept in. They could’ve stayed in that pre-2006 slumber, in which their taxes paid for their communities to be cleaned and maintained. Because that’s what tax-funded agencies are for, right? Instead, more than 70 volunteers got up on Saturday morning, Sept. 24, and came to their neighborhood park in Aliante to pick up trash, wash the picnic benches, trim shrubs and paint the curbs. Kids wore work gloves and civic smiles; the smell of paint mixed with the smell of fresh-cut grass.

A table was set up with Dunkin’ Donuts and water; a picnic was scheduled for lunch. The massive cleanup at Deer Springs Park was prompted by a single resident’s complaint to the Aliante Master Association, which made its way to Excellence Community Management, and to the city of North Las Vegas, which is ultimately responsible for the upkeep of the city park.

But the city had laid off more than 50 percent of its maintenance crew in the last year in a catastrophic budget shortfall, and had fewer resources to devote to power-spraying ramada roofs, painting over graffiti or chipping gum off of playground equipment. Here, then, was the public-public partnership of sorts: The neighbors who use the park initiated an effort to take care of it themselves, despite paying taxes for such services. Welcome to community care 2011.

Park services and graffiti abatement are often the first services to get cut in municipal budgets nationwide—and communities from Anchorage to Atlanta are picking up the slack, rather than letting rundown public properties further depress property values—or their sense of community pride. In Atlanta, the National Recreation and Park Association teamed with community organizations to overhaul a 45-year-old, 6-acre park downtown. In Washington, D.C., a 70-year-old park was brought back to life by a community alliance called Washington Parks & People.

In New York, the owner of a cleaning company simply volunteered to clean up a neighborhood park after the city let it go without maintenance: “I love New York. New York is full of tourists. … I’d hate people to go back home and start talking about how dirty New York was,” Armando Gonzalez, owner of Sunshine Best Cleaning, told the New York Daily News in August.

The crucial question brought about by the Aliante cleanup was whether we should help our ailing municipalities by contributing sweat equity. As North Las Vegas slips down the budget abyss, should we get groups together to clean the streets, fill the potholes and plant a few flowers, while still paying taxes? Should we patrol the neighborhood looking for crime—think Neighborhood Watch programs—and maybe round up lost dogs or pull weeds on streetsides? Three points come to mind: the spirit of community, the importance of shared public spaces like parks and the degree to which we are willing to cut off our noses to spite our faces when it comes to holding governments accountable for our tax dollars.

The spirit of community is often ephemeral. Standing in Deer Springs Park, a cynic could easily have written off the effort as a one-time fit of suburban give-back-ism that will likely fade. Or, one could see it as part of the social contract: We’ve all got an interest in keeping up the community. The Aliante association chipped in—member Bob House, wearing a sun hat and picking up trash, noted, “HOAs aren’t all bad.” The property management company helped, managing volunteers and food and providing souvenir T-shirts. Sherwin-Williams donated the paint supplies—“Hey, we live here, too” said Sherwin-Williams employee Don Simons from atop a ladder, painting over graffiti. Other businesses donated to the event—banks, casinos, restaurants.

This kind of engagement shows that we care about our home, and that we extend the definition of home to something beyond our front door—to our neighbors, to our local businesses, to our downtown, to the hope for a vibrant future. Note the effort going into the Fremont East area—while many involved in reviving the corridor have business interests there, many are also proud of their city, proud of its heritage and core, and willing to devote time and spending choices to making it nicer and more vibrant. Oftentimes it takes a catastrophe the likes of a hurricane to bring out community spirit, but a lingering recession calls for endurance volunteers—people who see their commitment to community as long-term.

A park is more than a recreational space. True, parks are often a city’s chief recreational common ground—a source of pride, a place to gather, or a home for sports events and picnics. And ironically, when consumers have less money to spend on nights out or expensive vacations, free community parks become even more important as a recreational outlet. But they’re also an aesthetic pleasure—a pause from our hectic routines, a breather for the spirit.

But is it a mistake for citizens to take care of what our screwed-up municipal governments are supposed to be taking care of? Shouldn’t we let municipal properties go to seed to show city governments what havoc their poor money management has wrought?

The answer is no. Cleaning a park is something we can do. We’re not talking about fixing water mains or laying asphalt. We’re picking up trash and pulling a few weeds. And taking care of our public spaces isn’t about politics—it’s about pride.

“It was dirty,” Judi Hanson, former president of the Aliante association, said of Deer Springs. “And the city was having trouble, so we decided to do something.”

Clearly, citizens need to be involved in making agencies accountable for their shortcomings. And we have the right to expect that in exchange for our tax dollars we receive well-maintained common spaces. But we can’t always rely on tax dollars to let us sleep in and pay for every single bit of community care. Sometimes, it’s worth getting up for.

“We plan to do more,” said Kerry Guerra, a volunteer from Excellence Community Management at Deer Springs. Next on the Aliante community’s list is Discovery Park.

“We all have a feeling that this is a good thing to do, and so people are just getting up and doing it.”