#122 Mar/Apr 2002

Building Blocks (Block Group Organizing)

Ralph Quinn was ticked off. Things in his Utica, New York neighborhood were getting intolerable. His high school step-daughter was propositioned seven times by local prostitutes while waiting for the […]

Ralph Quinn was ticked off. Things in his Utica, New York neighborhood were getting intolerable. His high school step-daughter was propositioned seven times by local prostitutes while waiting for the school bus one morning. The house next to his was literally crumbling – bricks falling from the chimney had hit his house – but was being ignored by the codes department. Finally, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Utica Observer-Dispatch. A few days after the letter ran, a flier appeared on his doorstep announcing a local block association meeting. “If there’s somebody who writes letters to the editor, that’s when I go after them,” says Barbara Byrne, a long time leader of the Cornhill West Block Association who lives around the corner from Quinn. She persisted until Quinn and his wife, Betty Oxenford, came to a meeting.

At his first meeting Quinn was still in what Gene Allen, community director of the Utica Neighborhood Housing Services (UNHS), calls the “venting” phase. “I started out screaming across a desk at people,” says Quinn. But when they saw how the block association was working, Quinn and Oxenford quickly joined in, participating in block clean-ups, cell-phone patrols, hot-spot reporting, and sharing information with different groups. And it has paid off. “Cooperation between the block associations, the codes department, the police department, and the health department has been very effective,” says Quinn.

Barbara Byrne (2nd from right), Ralph Quinn (3rd from right), and other representatives from block groups throughout Utica, New York, gather with state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer to announce a Weed and Seed grants for the city. Photo © Debbie Chandler
Block-level groups – including groups organized by building, intersection, or collection of blocks – can be the ultimate expression of the grassroots: a group of citizens getting together at the most local level to represent themselves and make change for the better. But block groups also have a reputation for being difficult to sustain, becoming cynical, and not always being fully representative. They can help neighborhood and city-wide organizations connect to their constituencies and get local work done, but to bring out their best side, they need assistance too.


Residents, not surprisingly, tend to get involved with block groups in response to block-level concerns. “Neighborhood-wide issues seem too removed at times,” says Linda Bosma, who has organized dozens of block and crime watch groups in Minneapolis. “People are more concerned with drug dealing, trouble with neighbors or landlords, or just wanting to get to know their neighbors.” Abandoned or neglected properties and problems with city services are also common block group agenda items.

Like many block leaders, Dee Tvedt got involved in reaction to a crisis. “Crime had taken over, and it kept creeping closer and closer to my specific building,” recalls Tvedt, who has been part of the First Avenue Block Club in the Stevens Square–Loring Heights neighborhood of Minneapolis since 1989. “It was fight or flight.” Lauralee Evans Morrison, of Orange, New Jersey, started the Valley Homeowners Association (VHA) in her neighborhood when drug dealers moved in at the corner of her block. “I said to myself, my neighbors and I stand around and talk about this and complain about this, but if that’s all we do nothing’s going to change,” she explains.

Once residents have been involved for a while, they start to sound like Utica’s Byrne, who casts her involvement in terms of empowerment. “It’s a lot different than living in an area and not even knowing who your legislators are,” says Byrne, who is also the chair of UNHS’s board of directors. “We feel like we can do something about the problem, be part of the solution.”


Although residents tend to get involved for similar reasons, the contexts in which block groups get organized, and the relationships they have with each other and with larger organizations, vary widely.

Housing and Neighborhood Development Services (HANDS), a CDC serving Orange and East Orange, New Jersey, has long considered block-level groups to be its constituency, though it was never directly involved in organizing them; most of the groups were started independently. HANDS has reached out to the block groups for support and ideas, enlisting Valley Homeowners Association, for example, to help make its case to the city when the CDC tried to get title to an abandoned property. And it was block leaders who inspired HANDS to shift focus from new housing to rehabbing problem properties (see Shelterforce #121).

But neighborhood and city-wide groups often don’t have pre-existing block groups to work with. UNHS, where Ralph Quinn now works, has been systematically starting block groups in and around Utica since 1994. UNHS has supported low-income homeownership since 1979, but got started with block associations because it realized that it needed to address more than bricks and mortar, says Gene Allen, who began his involvement with UNHS as a block captain. “If someone doesn’t feel safe, secure, they aren’t going to invest in a neighborhood, whether it’s buying a house, fixing up a house, or starting a business,” he says. According to UNHS’s literature, the goal of the block coalitions is to “help residents be proactive instead of crisis-oriented while dealing with community issues.”

“We’re facilitators – we give them the tools, they do the work,” says Allen. UNHS has organized 250 groups since 1994, of which 175 (130 in Utica, 45 elsewhere in the county) are still around.

For Richmond United Neighborhoods (RUN), in Richmond Virginia, blocks were more like chapters than independent organizations, says Larry Yates, a volunteer leader and then a staff member with the group from 1980 to 1988. RUN, then an affiliate of National People’s Action, used a block group structure in its larger neighborhoods as a two-way communication vehicle, he says. Block captains solicited input from their blocks to make sure local issues and concerns were on the table when it came time for RUN to pick campaigns. Once an issue was chosen, the block captains mobilized their blocks. Campaigns sometimes addressed local issues, such as getting junk cars towed, but they were always carried out by the whole organization. “Leadership came from those directly affected, but all the blocks would participate in solidarity,” says Yates. “They knew it could happen to them.”

Governments sometimes organize block groups themselves. The most common type of block-level organization is probably the Crime Watch, started through a local police department. Official Crime Watch groups generally have to meet certain criteria, like holding a certain number of meetings per year, to keep the right to have “Neighborhood Watch” signs posted on their blocks. These groups vary widely in independence and initiative – police departments often provide minimal support for organizing, and the official relationship with government can limit a group’s political options.

Dee Tvedt (right) and a fellow member of the First Avenue Block Patrol participate in a community parade in the Stevens Square–Loring Heights neighborhood of Minneapolis. Photo Courtesy of the Stevens Square Community Organizations

The Minneapolis police department’s crime prevention unit actually hires organizers. If it gets one who thinks big, the Crime Watch groups take on extra strength. Linda Bosma was one of those organizers who helped members take ownership of their group and act independently of the police department. “[When I worked with] the neighborhood organizations, it was very clear cut that the citizens and the community were our bosses,” Bosma says. “In the police department, I had the same personal philosophy, but I felt like I was always pushing the envelope.” Bosma’s collaborative approach worked especially well in the Stevens Square–Loring Heights neighborhood, where she worked closely with the Stevens Square Community Organization (SSCO). “We really co-organized the groups,” she says.


Block group organizers of any stripe will agree that block-level organizing is energy-intensive. “Block captains are one of those ‘wouldn’t it be easy if…’ ideas in organizing,” says Doug Hess, a former organizer with ACORN, the New Party, and the Teamsters. “A lot of young organizers start a block captain structure, but they don’t realize that it takes so much maintenance.” Indeed, the very things that make block groups important – their local focus, and the volunteer leadership of the people affected – also make them challenging to sustain. Burnout and leadership turnover are perhaps the most common problems.

“Typically there will be one or two individuals in charge, maybe too much, and they burn out,” says Tvedt, who, despite her enthusiasm, counts herself among the recently burnt-out. “I’m theoretically retired as a block leader,” she says, though it’s clear as she talks that retirement is a tough state to maintain.

Consistent support from a staffed nonprofit can ease the burden on volunteer leaders. Organizations like UNHS and SSCO offer material support – photocopies, use of phones and computers, 501(c)3 status for grant applications, insurance for events – and also training and operational support, from teaching residents how to run a meeting to accompanying them while they knock on doors. UNHS is also developing a manual for new leaders and has created a Community Leadership Committee that provides peer counseling and mentors for local leaders.

Such training and encouragement can be essential. “We had no trouble finding people to be block reps,” says Charles Dobson, a founder of the Mount Pleasant Area Network in Vancouver, British Columbia. “But unless there was a big problem, they were reluctant to knock on the doors of their neighbors.”


There’s more to sustainability than technical support and shared leadership, however. Many people say block groups are too hard to maintain once the crisis that formed them has passed, and those that survive often become inward-focused, with narrow goals and a cliquish atmosphere.

“People get very territorial,” says Claire Marcy, director of Blocks Together, a neighborhood organization in the West Humboldt Park and North Garfield Park neighborhoods of Chicago. “They want to push crime activities off their block, and then they don’t care.”

Pat Morrissy of HANDS agrees: “I’ve seen so many block associations that don’t function well. Participation drops off, the leader remains in office for long periods of time with no one who
appears to want to take their place.” This kind of group is worse than nothing, says Yates, the former Richmond RUN organizer, because it feeds cynicism and blocks the emergence of other leaders.

Yet in other places, block groups are a dynamic and effective organizing base. Veteran Industrial Areas Foundation organizer Ernesto Cortes says block groups need to be tied to a larger strategy to keep their work from getting stale. Marcy of Blocks Together would likely agree. “We do try to get people to take responsibility for turning people out from their block,” she says. “But it has to be part of something larger.”


There are many different approaches to keeping independent block groups connected to a larger vision. Early on, UNHS began to organize its block associations into multi-block areas, and has formed the area-wide Association of Block Coalitions, providing more support for local block campaigns and enabling small block groups to take on larger projects. One neighborhood banded together to change a county pricing law so a wholesaler grocery store could move in, and at the city level the block coalitions collaborated on a tree-planting effort.

“People are looking beyond their own little block,” says Allen. City government has taken notice, too. “Not a council meeting goes by when the block associations aren’t mentioned,” says Quinn. The city’s latest round of CDBG hearings were held at the multi-block group meetings.

SSCO and Blocks Together both encourage connection to the bigger picture through neighborhood-wide issue committees. SSCO also encourages block groups to report on their activities and network with each other at these meetings. (Blocks Together doesn’t have separate block-level groups.) Such oversight helps prevent turf battles and competition for resources, says Dee Tvedt, whose block group works with SSCO.

HANDS took the approach of creating a broader initiative – Orange 2010, a visioning and community planning project – that block groups could participate in. Morrissy says Orange 2010 and a city-wide Problem Property Taskforce have reinvigorated leaders by giving them something exciting to bring to their members, a reason to reach out and say, “We could be part of this.” Orange 2010 has also produced changes at HANDS, which now devotes more resources directly to organizing; it has hired an organizer, and provides more systematic training and support to groups like Valley Homeowners.

A community gardening event sponsored by the Stevens Square Community Organization. Many block groups find social activities like gardening help them sustain interest after the initial crisis has passed. Photo Courtesy of Stevens Square Community Organization

Some block group organizers feel the key to sustainability is actually going smaller, creating on-going social relationships and positive reasons for neighbors to get together. The Mt. Pleasant Area Network has specifically avoided relying on staffed, resource-intensive nonprofits. “According to the League of Women Voters, the main barrier to civic engagement is time,” says Dobson. “So you need to overlap everyday life with what you do civically, find reasons for people – ordinary people – to get together, focusing on things other than emergencies.” For example, a “walking school bus” allows parents to mix the daily activity of getting their kids to school with civic interaction. Similarly, fundraising for a communal BBQ pit in a local park provides a venue for overcoming social isolation.

Many groups Bosma has worked with in Minneapolis have survived the transition out of crisis mode by focusing on community gardening, which helps prevent crime by making blocks look cared for and getting people out from behind their deadbolts. “Never underestimate the power of petunias,” Tvedt says. It also attracts people who wouldn’t come out to meetings, notes Bosma. And while the groups become more social, they maintain their infrastructure. “If someone decided to build a four-lane freeway down their streets they could kick into action,” Bosma says.


The tension between homeowners and renters is one of the thornier problems for many CDCs and neighborhood associations working with block clubs. Block groups tend to be made up of homeowners because renters are often (though not always) transitory, and even those who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time can pick up and leave more easily than a homeowner; their fates are not tied to the community in the same way. Morrissy remembers an apartment building of elderly tenants in East Orange that emptied out within a year after a mugging in the lobby. Homeowners might have been more likely to stay and try to change things, he muses.

But some homeowners don’t want renters involved. “There are very strong feelings that if you don’t own you can’t care about the neighborhood,” says Morrissy, a former tenant organizer. Allen remembers that at his first Utica block meeting, someone from a neighboring block showed up and tried to convince them they shouldn’t include renters.

Tenants, of course, are not inherently apathetic, and block groups succeed in primarily rental areas. Many organizations in areas with a mix of owners and renters are actively seeking ways to get the latter involved. “You have to continually draw in the new people,” says Bosma, who works with low-income renters. Blocks Together found that starting to organize through schools brought them more lower-income renters. And Tvedt says a local landlord helps by offering rental rebates for participation in their walking citizen’s patrol. “That extra nudge doesn’t hurt,” she says.


A block association can be a micro-democracy in action or an insular clique; which way it goes will depend partly on the neighborhood and the people who are involved. But it will also depend on the philosophy and the amount of attention that a larger group gives to it. With the support of the Association of Block Coalitions, Quinn and his neighbors have not only been able to clear out some of the drug and prostitution hot spots, but also have helped get Weed & Seed grants for the city. He still has problems with the house next door, but he says he’s “come to understand how change works, and acquired some patience.”

“The main thing,” says Bosma, “is you can get a lot more done if you’re trying.”