the eggs chase the bacon round the fryin pan and the whinin
dog pidgeons by the steeple bell rope and the dogs tipped the garbage
pails over last night and theres always construction work bothering
you In the neighborhood, In the neighborhood, In the neighborhood
Tom Waits, 1982
recoiling from the scary, depressing environment of national and world
politics, the neighborhood represents a social space that is still
positive and believable. Imagine the potlucks, the garage sales, the
friendly neighborhood card games. Neighbors even donate blood together,
and rally together for peace.
study has recently been conducted at Michigan State University, which
aims to measure sense of community in Mid-Michigan. MSU
urban affairs Professor John Schweitzer heads a team of researchers
who have conducted more than 400 interviews. They studied nine neighborhoods
in Lansing, Grand Rapids and Flint. Leading a separate and parallel
research team, urban affairs Professor June Thomas followed by examining
the role of local governments in community development and neighborhood
participation. Together, the researchers have come up with some surprising
touts itself as a world class city, a title thats
been poked fun at by the BBCs Guide to Life, the Universe
and Everything (see
here). If not a global metropolis, however, Lansing does deserve
brownie points for having healthy neighborhoods. According to Schweitzers
survey data, the citys residents attend neighborhood meetings
more frequently, distribute more newsletters, socialize more often,
help more often when neighbors have problems, and volunteer more frequently
at school events.
Thomas research results found that Lansing neighborhoods have
a better relationship with their city governments than do neighborhoods
in Flint or Grand Rapids. Although Grand Rapids is formally better
organized and puts more money into neighborhoods, according to Thomas
results community residents give Lansing better grades. The mayors
office was highly rated, as were the Department of Planning and Development
and the police. Most community leaders interviewed couldnt even
name a worst relationship
After reviewing the survey results at a presentation for Lansing City
department heads, mayoral assistant David Wiener commented: This
survey reaffirms that the work weve been doing for eight years
is effective, and that city government and city leadership has a lot
of credibility with neighborhood leaders. Wiener also said the
study contained good suggestions for strengthening the city administrators
said that the three neighborhoods in each city, which theyd
chosen for study, werent necessarily representative of all neighborhoods.
But they were comparable, because each had predominantly single-family
dwellings. And each continues to deal with common urban problems that
have been destabilizing over the last 40 years.
The Sense of Community research project was born from the frustration
of several neighborhood association leaders who were concerned about
the low level of community participation in their neighborhood, Schweitzer
said. The Lansing neighborhoods they studied were Wexford in south
Lansing; Knollwood/Willow in north Lansing, and Baker Donora in south
Lansing; Creston, West Grand, and the Southwest Area in Grand Rapids;
and Eldridge Street, Northwest, and North Point in Flint. Fifty residents
were surveyed in each neighborhood, and during the summer and early
fall of 2001, 451 face-to-face interviews were conducted.
The researchers have hypothesized that people living in socially connected
neighborhoods feel happier about their lives. They have also assumed
for the study that being a good neighbor and connecting with others
on your block not only improves the neighborhood but also helps individuals.
The goal of the study was to better understand the ingredients
of neighborhood sense of community: What factors lead urban neighborhood
residents to get involved in their neighborhood association?
Schweitzer said one might expect income level, percentage of rentals,
crime rate, educational backgrounds, or the length of time that people
have lived in the neighborhood to matter. The researchers, however,
found that these factors were only slightly related to sense of community.
What really mattered was the level of socializing.
State University urban affairs Professor John Schweitzer (left)
heads a team of researchers who have conducted more than 400
interviews. His graduate assistant Corey Warren helped to conduct
were asked about their own interactions with their immediate neighbors
and their perceptions of the sense of community that the immediate
neighbors had with one another. Researchers also measured the respondents
knowledge of their neighborhood organizations, their prior involvement
and activities in the neighborhood, their feelings about the collective
efficacy of the neighborhood as a whole, and their reactions to neighborhood
issues and concerns. Finally, they asked questions about the individual
respondents previous civic involvement, length and residency
status, and other individual demographic information.
They found out that the most important individual factor in predicting
neighborhood involvement was the degree of prior volunteerism. They
also found that what really defines a good social network is the sense
of community among immediate neighbors. The unit of analysis
is typically something like a census track, like 5,000 people,
Schweitzer said. But contrary to those statistical units we
found that the block is the most important unit. What really matters
is the relationship to the houses you can see from your front steps.
We found it over and over again. Schweitzer argued that people
dont really care about the larger neighborhood. This was even
more evident in neighborhoods where historical boundaries no longer
matched those of the present community, due to construction of a highway
or factory segregating one section of the neighborhood from another.
Its a little bit like Congress, Schweitzer said.
People have a negative opinion about Congress, but they like
their own member of Congress. People seemed to feel better about
their block than about the whole neighborhood. Research data suggested
that there was a lot of variation in sense of community from block
Schweitzer suggests that instead of viewing neighborhoods as large
units, city planners should focus on what he calls the 100-block micro
neighborhoods. The 100 block is defined as the residences
on a given street having addresses that fall within the 100-level
range for example, all residences between 100 and 199 on Maple
American Girls Club at Wexford Network Center, featuring self-made
historical fashion (from left) Monika Abbott, Jamika Smith,
Ernestine Vaugh, Sonya Lee, Danyelle Kelley, Kozmic Berry, Breante
Thompson, and Ashley Glaster.
by the Families and Communities Together grant, the MSU Extension
College and the Institute for Children, Youth and Family, the Sense
of Community project is moving into a second phase. Schweitzer is
testing three strategies within a 31-block radius to try to improve
peoples sense of community. In conjunction with neighborhood
associations, researchers have created a community handbook, and block
map directory and are encouraging neighbors to organize social activities
within a block, rather than on a neighborhood level. The Center of
Urban Affairs also plans to conduct ethnographic studies in eight-block
areas that have a high sense of community, to see how this feeling
first developed and how its sustained.
Corey Warren, a graduate assistant,, has begun conducting interviews
in the so-called Place Neighborhood (Prospect, Lathop, Allen, Clifford,
Eureka) south of Michigan Avenue. She plans to look for patterns of
social connection and relationships and trust by drawing lines from
house to house. Warren said that for her, conducting interviews was
a pleasant experience, because people are generally trusting and really
enjoy talking about their neighbors. And I think they are extremely
Measuring sense of community has also taken on unconventional
strategies. In one neighborhood, Sense of Community researchers counted
the number of recycling bins on a particular block. The stronger
the sense of community on the street neighborhood, the higher is the
recycling participation, Schweitzer concluded.
There was also a positive correlation between pro-civic behavior,
such as voting, volunteering, recycling, or giving blood, and sense
of community. And in an instance where the actual crime rate was the
same on two blocks, people on the block with a higher sense of community
felt much safer. Adolescent males on blocks with a higher sense of
community were less likely to engage in delinquency. Interestingly,
neighborhoods that organized crime watches also had a lesser feeling
of safety, than did others.
information on the project is available on their web site: www.msu.edu/user/socomm
Sense of Community Project Team
Phone (517) 353-9144
Lansing Neighborhood Council:
Allen Neighborhood Center:
South Network Center:
North Network Center:
Baker Donora Focus Center:
Wexford Network Center:
Northwest Lansing Healthy Communities Initiative:
South Lansing Healthy Communities Initiative: (517) 487-6828
Mayors Neighborhood Advisory Board grants (517) 483-4141
Sense of Community Team at Michigan State University:
Neighborhood Associations of Michigan: (517) 353-8610
Community Research and Education Center: (517) 485-1154
Sense of Community Team handbook, called A Guide To Successful
Neighboring, is supposed to act as a practical guide for making
ones neighborhood friendly and cheerful. It includes
50 possible strategies for making a connection with neighbors. For
Get neighborhood kids to help you clean up a park. Provide
them with gloves and garbage bags and watch them go to work.
Leave cut flowers in a jar on the sidewalk with a take
Visit a farmers market and bring fresh produce to a homebound
Ask a longtime resident for stories of your block from times
Plant a small garden for an elderly neighbor, or even just
a potted tomato plant. Have neighborhood children help you.
When they received the report, the three Lansing neighborhood organizations
involved in the study were surprised about some of the results. Here
are their responses:
Baker Donora Focus Center
MSU study showed that neighbors really cared about their programs,
like the kids safe night, school picnics, or block parties,
said Anita Moneypenny , director of the Baker Donora Focus Center,
who moved to Lansing from Detroit in 1988. On the other hand, she
said, the study found that many people didnt know about the
services offered. To get the word out, Moneypenny decided to publish
a newsletter monthly instead of bimonthly. The paper has a circulation
of 1,500 copies.
Baker Donora is a low-income neighborhood, with 70 percent of residents
renting their homes. The neighborhood centers building is located
next to a park and offers a variety of community support services.
These include parenting classes for young fathers, aid in taking family
members to the doctor, support for residents threatened with eviction,
and a center telephone that can be used for free. Recently, the center
started a program for seniors called shaking baking, that
addresses issues such as health, exercise, nutrition, safety and home-repair.
Thirty-six active seniors get together on Tuesday and Thursday from
9 a.m. until noon. Last year, neighborhood volunteers distributed
66,700 pounds of food to 987 homes, worth $70,000. The food was collected
by the Lansing-based organization, Food Movers.
who works full time, and has two part-time associates, says that she
never thought about money when she left a well-paid job to become
a community activist. The money really isnt the thing,
its the work within the neighborhood that makes me happy.
Thomas said that neighborhood activists in other cities, such as Grand
Rapids, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Detroit, were often full-time
staff and were paid much higher salaries. Grand Rapids makes available
more than $500,000 in grants for neighborhood associations. The Lansing
Mayors Neighborhood Grant program offers only $90,000.
In her final report, entitled Local Government and Citizen Participation,
Thomas concluded that City of Lansing provides neighborhood associations
with executive assistance but relatively little money. Lansing, Grand
Rapids, and Flint had varying levels of funding available for neighborhoods,
but in each city, community respondents were not satisfied with current
funding. Many of the eleven Lansing community leaders Thomas interviewed
were surprised when they heard how much more their colleagues earned.
Maybe they dont know their options, Thomas said.
Wexford Network Center
director of the Wexford Network Center, Ann Mellen, says she could
use some more money. We would really like to do more youth tutoring,
but we would need funding for a full-time coordinator, she said.
The center, which Mellen calls the Grand Central Station,
is located in the community school building, and focuses on after-school
Two thirds of the 250 Wexford students qualify to receive a free lunch
at school. The network center offers advice and refers families to
health care programs, and they offer a safe place for kids after school.
Currently 10 high school students attend additional math, science,
and reading programs designed for at risk students. Theres also
a child-care program for 30 kids.
Drawing her own conclusions from MSUs research, Mellen said
she learned that it takes a great deal of patience to
become an important part of the neighborhoods life. Before the
network center was opened in 1999, people already had yard sales,
block parties and friendly chats on the sidewalks with their neighbors.
Our center was the new kid on the block, she said. When
she first started a family craft night, she felt discouraged because
nobody came. Today the event is well accepted and takes place every
third Monday of the month. The next Family Craft Night is scheduled
for 6 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. May 9.
Wexford Network Center supports the efforts of the communitys
two neighborhood organizations, Churchill Downs and Wexford Heights,
which each have monthly board meetings. The center has three full-time
and five part-time staff and helps the neighborhood associations with
grant writing, typing board agenda minutes, and copying flyers. Three
thousand newsletters are being distributed to residents of Churchill
Downs, and 150 to residents of the much smaller neighborhood, Wexford
Heights. Every Tuesday and Thursday people meet at the quarter-mile
walking trail behind the school building, created by volunteers in
2000. On these days the Network Center stays open until 8 p.m.
North Network Center
The North Network Centers director, Walter Brown, said he could
confirm the Sense of Community studys findings that there was
a good relationship between community leaders and Lansing city officials.
Brown said that in Grand Rapids community activists are less happy:
They may have more things to complain about in Grand Rapids.
We dont, he said. Brown said that in Lansing, city officials
were always willing to attend meetings when the neighborhood associations
asked them to come.
At the North Network Center, sense of community grew out of a crisis
situation. Six years ago, when Brown was president of the Willow Neighborhood
Association, he saw children sell crack in his neighborhood, and he
decided he should do something about it. The Network Center, which
Brown has directed for three years, formed a coalition of concerned
neighbors who began working closely with the police. In the last five
years, drugs in the neighborhood have been reduced by 70 percent.
The North Network Center is five years old and combines the efforts
of Knollwood/Willow, Old Forest and Walnut Neighborhood Associations.
So it serves a large community. The Northside newsletter has a circulation
of 3,000. Brown said that children in this predominantly low-income
dont get to travel and see places enough. So he takes them on
camping trips and excursions to Frederick Meijer Sculpture Gardens.
Last year, the center painted 14 houses and the corner store, and
the storeowner contributed drinks and ice cream in exchange.
Sixty-five percent of the North Network Centers residents are
homeowners. It offer an afterschool program and advises residents
on how to become homeowners. Almost obligatory, the center also has
frequent ice-cream socials and barbecues. Brown says that the afterschool
program has highest priority, and its funding was safe. Judy Garland,
Lansings Network Center coordinator and an MSU extension agent,
said that all five Lansing network centers also offer free legal services
and tenant and parenting workshops. The Northwest Lansing Healthy
Communities Initiative is creating a neighborhood map, which will
list helpful addresses and services.
The Sense of Community team has even started a Friendliest Block
Contest. The goal is to identify all of the friendliest
blocks in the city to learn how to help in creating friendly
blocks. Some examples of friendliest blocks are
those that meet informally for anything from potlucks to gardening,
whose trusting neighbors have exchanged spare keys, neighborhoods
that have become like extended family.