Wichita’s neighborhood associations are shrinking. What does that mean for civic life?
Wichita Independent Neighborhoods had 82 participants in 2008. But it now estimates between 32 and 34 members.
Nothing breaks the early morning quiet quite like a garbage truck.
And at 7 o’clock one muggy Saturday morning, at least two of them lined a gravel parking lot at 9th and Murdock. Sheree Jones was doing her best to be heard over the beeping and grating.
“I got one truck that’s going to go 9th to 13th from Hydraulic to Grove, and then from Grove to Hillside is the other,” she told a group of volunteers.
Jones is the president of the A. Price Woodard neighborhood association. She and Dana Edwards, the president of the nearby Murdock neighborhood association, had gathered more than a dozen volunteers that morning for a neighborhood clean-up. Their goal was to see the neighborhoods cleared of big ticket trash items, like old mattresses and couches that might otherwise sit on the side of the road.
Clean-ups are one of the main tasks of Wichita’s neighborhood associations, most of which are clustered within the older neighborhoods in Wichita’s city center. Unlike homeowners associations, which typically require everyone in a neighborhood to join and pay dues, neighborhood associations are voluntary.
But the number of active neighborhood associations in Wichita has decreased drastically since the 1990s, community leaders say. This has bigger repercussions than just a clean-up: Neighborhood associations in Wichita have historically been used to lobby the local government on behalf of the community. And around the U.S., social scientists find that relationships between neighbors are dwindling — which some argue could be concerning for democracy.
‘The leaders have died’
In 1994, 12 neighborhood associations came together to form Wichita Independent Neighborhoods, or WIN. The nonprofit brought together neighborhood associations from across the city of Wichita — and across race, income levels and City Council borders.
“We needed the city to speak as one voice,” said James Roseboro, who helped found WIN and still serves as the vice president. “At that time, the city was divided. Our neighborhoods … (were) divided.”
When it started, WIN worked to educate residents across the city on how to start and sustain neighborhood associations. It even held an annual “Neighborhood University,” in which residents could learn more about running a neighborhood association.
In response, the organization grew from 12 members in 1994 to 82 by 2008. Much of the growth came from new neighborhood associations.
“We did Matlock Heights, all of East Millair, Crestview,” Roseboro said, naming neighborhoods WIN organized. “We went all the way down south. … We reached out to everybody.”
But in recent years, WIN membership has dropped significantly. Roseboro said WIN has between 32 and 34 members right now. And only eight of WIN’s 21 board seats are filled.
“A lot of the leadership that was there before — the leaders have died,” said Roseboro, who is 81. “Or just got too old and they can't do it anymore.”
‘We’re no longer connecting with our communities’
Both neighborhood and homeowners associations have gained, over the years, a reputation for NIMBY-ism: ‘not in my backyard’ attitudes that oppose things like affordable housing development in their community.
But many neighbors see them as a powerful tool for residents to ask the local government to improve or protect the places they live. In 2019, the North Riverside Neighborhood Association won a fight against the construction of an 80-foot cell tower in their neighborhood.
Roseboro said his neighborhood association, Northeast Heights, worked with the city to mitigate flooding issues. WIN drew attention to the problem of dog bites in Wichita with a 2013 community meeting.
To Roseboro, shrinking participation in neighborhood associations is also about loss of community — the loss of block parties and neighborhood get-togethers.
“To me, that's lack of love for your fellow man,” Roseboro said. “Cause you hear me say all the time, the city is only strong as its weakest neighborhood.”
The decline in Wichita’s neighborhood associations mimics a national trend. Fewer Americans belong to in-person organizations and know their neighbors, according to research by political scientist Robert Putnam.
“We’re no longer connecting with our communities,” Putnam said in an interview with NPR. “It’s not just that we’ve stopped eating the civic broccoli, it’s also that we’re not connecting in everyday ordinary ways like bowling leagues and picnics and so on.”
Putnam argues this has repercussions for democracy because more social capital — the relationships between people living and working together — makes it easier to solve societal problems. That’s because there is more trust and less opposition.
The future of WIN
Richard Ruth recently took over as the president of WIN. He and Roseboro said that revitalizing neighborhood associations will require explicitly reaching out to renters, landlords and a wider spectrum of races and ethnicities.
“I see too much animosity being expressed by neighborhood associations about renters and about poor people and also people who don't love or worship the same way as them,” Ruth said.
Lavonta Williams, a former City Council member and WIN board member, said neighborhoods also desperately need young people to participate. She’s helping organize a retreat with community leaders to discuss how to revitalize neighborhood associations.
“We’ve got to get another generation to understand the importance of it or we’ll lose it,” Williams said.
One way to do that is helping neighborhood associations adapt to the digital age, Ruth said. During the pandemic, many struggled to meet using Zoom like other organizations did.
Lea McCloud, the president of the Benjamin Hills/Pleasant Valley neighborhood association, said that her organization was ready to shut down because it didn’t have enough money to print a newsletter.
“I said, ‘Well, you know, it’s obvious. We’re going to have to try to do an email newsletter,’ ” McCloud said.
Now, McCloud’s association has $4,000 in the bank because of the ads the email newsletter brings in.
Ruth said sustaining neighborhood organizations is a matter of getting along with the people who live next door.
And that, he said, matters to democracy.
“It's the power of people, right?” Ruth said. “And as a check against the government doing whatever it wants to do. I think that's an important part of American life.”