The essential role of neighborhood civic associations in the political and civic life of the city was unfairly portrayed and unfortunately diminished in a Boston Globe editorial published last Sunday. The newspaper based its critique on a well-reported Sept. 17 story that outlined allegations against a pair of civic leaders based in South Boston and the South End who allegedly sought payments to secure their support for development projects.
That sort of outrageous “pay-to-play” abuse— if true— affects negatively the vast majority of civic groups that toil monthly to review the minutiae of city business— variances for zoning relief, beer licenses, curb-cut permits— without ever asking for anything more than an explanation for what’s going on.
Of course, neither civic leaders nor city officials should sanction quid-pro-quo pay-outs as a means of securing community support. But, the Globe’s editorial board’s follow-up opinion went far beyond an admonishment to bad actors like those identified in their news story. Instead, without citing specific examples, the unnamed editorialists used sweeping generalizations to belittle activist groups at-large.
“Civic associations can be great at organizing neighborhood cleanup days, raising funds for parks, and promoting a friendly spirit in a city often criticized for its chilly manner. They’re also a useful rallying point for residents in those rare moments when neighborhoods are genuinely under threat.”
“Some are good at attracting new members,” the Globe editors further opined. “Others have the same leaders year after year. Some are open to change; others reflexively oppose it. Some look at the big picture; others get hung up in internal personality conflicts and feud with rival civic groups that try to represent the same turf.”
Civic groups do not exist, nor— in our experience covering the Boston neighborhood with the densest concentration of civic meetings— do they function with anything approaching the Globe’s editors’ demeaning portrayal.
Neighbors assemble monthly — not as a means to block existential threats or to trade insults over cold coffee. These are people who care enough about the details of day-to-day life on their street, their block, their corner of the city to get engaged and venture out beyond the confines of the smart-phone screen to do something about it.
They pay their taxes— and then their membership dues— and skip out on homework or bedtime or the evening news to gather in a gym or a church basement or a library branch. In doing so consistently—often over many months and years— civic organization leaders amass a level of expertise unmatched by the lawyers, politicians, aides, consultants and, yes, reporters— who (unlike them) are paid to go to these meetings.
In doing so, these men and women help put order to city neighborhoods that — left unmonitored— can feel, at times, disorderly. They help police identify and crack down on problem properties; they counsel builders and entrepreneurs on ways to improve buildings and businesses; they maintain an institutional knowledge that, in a rapidly changing city, is a welcome buoy. Sometimes they say “aye,” sometimes “nay,” but in our long experience covering them from Blue Hill Avenue to Dorchester Bay, it has never been about “Show me the money.”
Dorchester’s civic groups are far more than a “convenient” stop for politicians to “connect with residents,” as the Globe suggests. They are the fundamental building blocks of this city’s body politic, the places where new leaders are minted and tested. Marty Walsh didn’t start his political career by running for state rep in 1997. He did so by standing up in front of 50 neighbors at the Little House on East Cottage Street in 1995 to offer himself as an officer of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association.
Civics are not always correct in their assessments. They can bring out the cranks, and sometimes they get hijacked by a loudmouth with an axe to grind; they can stretch on for too long as one person seeks to hammer home a final point that someone else nailed shut an hour before. But they don’t hold absolute veto power of the kind suggested by the Globe editorial. They should be— and in this neighborhood they are— observed and scrutinized by a watchful press that records debates, vote tallies, and reactions.
But civic groups also have a way of policing themselves, of reining in the more base elements of our nature and emerging with the best interests of the neighborhood at the core of its decisions. More often than not, quality people step up. We’ve seen it unfold time and again across this neighborhood— average people working their way to conclusions, seeking to participate, sacrificing their time for the betterment of the greater good.
There is a nobility to the collective effort, a head-nod to the ideal notion of a town-meeting republic governed, ultimately, at the grassroots. Like the union it underpins, this collection of civic groups is imperfect. But participants deserve far better than a furrowed-brow scowl of dismissal from the paper of record in this city. If anything, now is the time when we need to encourage the kind of engagement that transcends the too-easy tap-tap of a laptop survey or screen swipe and brings people of all stripes into the civic arena.