Brian Rogers, a longtime Brooklyn Park resident, describes his neighborhood as “quiet and friendly.”
It has a natural area close-to-home, and deer occasionally run through his yard. Neighbors’ children play outside, while a high school marching band can be seen practicing just across the way during the warmer months.
But Rogers remembers a string of home and car break-ins in 2007 that disturbed that feeling of peace and quiet. To counteract that, he and a bunch of his neighbors banded together to “outsmart the burglars,” he said, putting together an e-mail list and creating a related website.
From that effort came the idea of organizing individual neighborhoods. “I was on my driveway, saying, ‘We really need a better way to communicate,’ ” both with each other and the city, Rogers said.
Right now, Brooklyn Park, with the community’s help, is in the process of designating up to 40 neighborhoods, said Josie Shardlow, the city’s neighborhood relations specialist.
In February and March, the city held several “Community Cafes,” meetings at which more than 200 residents offered their suggestions for mapping out neighborhoods. They also came up with names, Shardlow said.
Shardlow instructed people to “think about who they have common interests with, major central gathering places and man-made boundaries that define the larger macro neighborhood,” such as freeways and other major thoroughfares. An easy way to define a neighborhood might be, “Where do you go walk your dog?” she said.
Right now, the 12-member neighborhoods task force, made up of city officials and community members, is synthesizing the comments from the cafes.
But the public still has plenty of opportunities to weigh in. In April and May, the task force will release a preliminary map for public comment, Shardlow said. Afterward, the map will go to the City Council for approval.
The idea behind the initiative is to improve communication between the city and its residents and vice versa.
The city also intends to coordinate various services with the resulting neighborhood boundaries, Shardlow said.
For example, it could mean that residents have a go-to person for code enforcement. “City staff can get to know the character of the neighborhood and have more relationships,” she said.
Getting to know you
Likewise, residents can get acquainted with one other. Already, some neighbors met each other for the first time at the cafes. They socialized and swapped information about everything from running pond associations to neighbors who could use a hand with cleaning up their yard.
“That’s what the next level is all about, giving people the tools and resources to connect with others on the block level,” Shardlow said.
Neighborhoods also provide structure for people who want to be involved in their community, she said.
The initiative isn’t meant to replace the more micro-level cul-de-sac, block or homeowner associations.
People seem to be enthusiastic about naming their neighborhoods, studying plat maps or latching onto local parks or schools or other landmarks, like the Edinburgh USA golf course. The Mississippi River is also being incorporated into some names, she said.
The city’s goal is to make the initiative as inclusive as possible. ”Even though it’s a messy process, we want to engage as many people as possible,” Shardlow said.
Also, as an immediate next step, the city is encouraging neighborhoods to hold May Day events throughout May. Neighborhood websites will be rolled out later this summer, Shardlow said.
‘Things have stabilized’
When Brian Rogers and his neighbors got the neighborhoods initiative going, the city faced major challenges, with numerous home foreclosures and budget issues.
Looking back on it, he realizes that at that time, “It wouldn’t have been very successful. Things have stabilized since then. We’re in a better position to do this now than we were back then,” he said.
The city has developed a broader community engagement plan and a rebranding effort to improve perceptions of the city. The neighborhoods initiative dovetails with those efforts, according to Shardlow.
The city modeled its program after the St. Louis Park neighborhood program, Rogers said. For example, Brooklyn Park dedicated a staff person to neighborhood matters and tried to create a clutter-free website, emulating the St. Louis Park setup, according to Rogers.
Gerry Gibbs, the crime prevention coordinator for the Brooklyn Park Police Department who sits on the neighborhoods task force, is optimistic about the initiative.
Through her job, she has seen firsthand the value of the neighborhood watch groups.
The new initiative has the same basic premise. Bringing people together not only translates into “less crime, but just happier people living in this community,” she said.
Gibbs, a Brooklyn Park resident, can testify to the meaningfulness of a close-knit neighborhood on a personal level, as well.
A couple of years ago when her son returned from an overseas deployment with the National Guard, her neighbors showed up on her driveway with some fanfare to welcome him home. “That’s how you know you have a good neighborhood,” she said. “It was such a good feeling when we turned the corner, seeing that.”
Ryan Jancik, another task force member, said the “Community Cafes” already are helping to build community.
He has met new people himself. He’s also learned about how other neighborhoods operate — using the phone or fliers to reach older residents, for example, he said.
Along the way, Jancik has even picked up some historical tidbits about the city, including the area’s earliest potato farms, bygone businesses and key players in its early days.
Overall, he’s been pleasantly surprised at the level of participation in the process. “People have been very positive about it, and they’re asking a lot of questions, which shows they’re interested,” he said.
Task force member Al Smith said the initiative is also helping residents to “understand different cultures and find out where everyone comes from and get to know each other as neighbors,” adding, “We don’t want anyone left out. We’re covering every corner of Brooklyn Park.”
For more information about the Brooklyn Park effort, check out www.brooklynpark.org/neighborhoods.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.