How to Kill a Community

A look at dysfunctional neighborhood dynamics at the organizational level.

In the book How to Kill a City (2017), journalist Peter Moskowitz takes aim at the destructive dynamics of gentrification that can destroy a city’s character with crime, displacement, and divisiveness. Now that we’ve ID’d what is happening, we need to look at why. How is it that only a small number of leaders & organizations call all the shots for the majority? How can they get away with making such bad decisions that are destroying local art, culture and history we can never get back?

This time last year, after 4+ years covering meetings in East Falls, we broadened our scope to include Germantown. Although demographically these two neighborhoods are quite different, they share some common problems, including lackluster business corridors and organizational gridlock. All but the most willfully engaged citizens’ eyes glaze over when you ask if they attend community meetings.

“Has there been another meeting? Damn I always hear about them afterwards…”

“I used to go but the anger would stay with me for days afterwards.”

“I try to keep up but I work and have kids and I can’t drop everything for last-minute announcements.”

“It’s not accessible with my wheelchair but they won’t hold a seat for me if I use my cane.”

“What does it matter, anyway? They’re going to do what they’re gonna do…”

It’s a challenge, being a civically-engaged neighbor. Meetings can be brutal, dragging on with no end in sight. People can be nasty about the most benign issues. And there are meetings all the time – where you always see the same faces – so rarely with any resolution or follow-up. We could go on. In fact, we will.

We’ve identified five fatal tactics from the same dysfunctional neighborhood playbook:

  1. Keep ‘Em Guessing

Have multiple separate organizations with overlapping missions (and often similar names) for business, events and development so nobody’s entirely sure who’s doing what, and who’s in charge and who has the correct info.

Schedule random meetings for boards, committees, steering groups, coalitions, etc. throughout the month. Advertise them poorly, if at all (and often at the last minute). Post brief, inconclusive recaps to Facebook & Nextdoor, thanking everyone for coming and promising to do better with outreach for the next one.

2. Divide & Do As You Please

Maintain separate closed Facebook/“Friends Of” groups for every special interest, no matter how similar they are, in order to fragment community participation and keep groups working at cross purposes. Bounce and shun anyone who ruffles feathers or challenges the approved mission.

Keep zoning rules and boundaries vague between neighborhoods so developers can make deals with whoever they wish – and the District Council member has the final say on all the important decisions. If political loyalties conflict with what’s best for the community, who cares? There’s conveniently no transparency (and therefore no accountability) with Councilmanic Prerogative.

3. Rig the Game

Foster a high/low demographic. Target lower income areas with luxury townhomes outfitted with the most expensive security systems money can buy. Promote police intervention over community outreach for young & petty criminals. Remember, crime can help funnel poor people into prisons and make room for more luxury townhomes!

Create community organizations filled with the lapdogs of resident judges/lawyers/ward leaders/etc. who can serve as liaisons for their interests with the District Council member (and who can be more valuable to a Council member than votes).

Foster a climate of envy and distrust between the community and local organizations whose Boards hold secret/private/invitation-only meetings. Play favorites with local businesses, providing grants & publicity to a few well-connected ones while leaving the majority to make do with zilch. (And desperate for any attention whatsoever.)

4. Distract & Divest

Keep neighborhood issues boring and difficult to understand. Share only the minimum info on new projects, and put the really important stuff online with tedious notes and architectural plans. Offer no breakdowns or context to help neighbors better understand proposals and regulations affecting them. Make it a chore to get involved in community planning.

At public meetings, show impatience with questions. Moderate poorly, if at all. Give people all the time they want to ramble incoherently, repeat untruths and bully other attendees. Discourage recording and sharing video for people who can’t attend in person. Seek out small or uncomfortable meeting spaces that are hard to find. Do NOT offer refreshments or childcare.

Spin off into task forces and subcommittees as soon as possible. Use public meetings to distribute “messaged” materials, crow about projects already underway, and take any good ideas from the meeting back to the group to be rebranded and claimed as their own.

5. Control the Narrative

Hold lots of private/secret/invitation-only meetings where leaders, board members, and hand-picked stakeholders can plan pet projects for the neighborhood without community input. Leak out information only as needed – ideally shared by a member to well-moderated online groups via the organization’s newsletter.

Nurture “us vs them” mentalities and play both sides against each other. Keep people pissed off, misinformed and so disempowered they’ll react against their best interests to cooperate just to feel a little control.

Don’t put anything in print, especially not in an independent newspaper where you might face actual criticism! Instead, create ersatz community networks in partnership with corporate sponsors and institutions with for-profit agendas. Back away from community debate and conflict on social media. Broadcast meaningless awards and big plans that never come to fruition.

Sound familiar? No wonder we all want to disengage these days. Not to accuse anyone directly, but it almost seems deliberate. It’s amazing how difficult and frustrating it can be for the average citizen to stay informed and engaged in our own neighborhoods.

District Council members need to clarify roles and boundaries where organizations overlap, and help mediate a fair protocol for commerce & development that doesn’t require political hand-holding. At the same time, we need to broaden the range of community conversations – pull in new voices we haven’t heard before. Welcome honest debate and keep a public, transparent record to hold our leaders accountable.

Social media is a popular tool for sharing information but it’s hardly inclusive – not everyone is active online. And digital info can be shifty. Posts and comments change and disappear all the time. All the better to confuse matters, of course. What we need is something printed…

But wait! We are printed! We’re an independent newspaper who actually recaps meetings and engages people where they are, on social media and out on the street. With a new Germantown editor, Sandy Smith, an expert in development who went to Harvard and now writes for Philadelphia Magazine.

The published word is a powerful tool that can break people out of their usual social media circles, and wake them up to what’s happening right now – how it could affect them, and what they can do about it. Instantly shareable and impossible to alter. With plenty of room for everyone’s stories, ideas, comments, hopes, dreams and even, perhaps, fears.

This local newspaper is a full-color antidote for civic apathy, a booster for community spirit against learned helplessness and meeting fatigue. We dare you to engage our pages, and help reshape an empowered new story arc for Germantown and East Falls. And all the voices of NW Philly!

Meet & Greet the Local Paper
Join Germantown editor Sandy Smith and the founders of the Local paper for a frank discussion about neighborhood politics, city policies and how community news is an effective, democratic force for positive change.

Every 2nd Thursday (6:30 – 8pm)
Light refreshments, maybe some tunes
The courtyard at Historic Germantown, 5501 Germantown Avenue
Questions? Email us, comment below.


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