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A bit of healthy rivalry might do neighborhoods good

Suppose the November municipal elections are over and you are a new, idealistic and thoughtful mayor or city council member who really wants to solve community problems.

After some careful analysis, you conclude the best and most fundamental way to create long-term success and stability in your community is to build strong neighborhoods. Strong neighborhoods make strong cities. So what you really want to do is create a sense of neighborhood belonging, neighborhood pride, a willingness to get involved with one's neighbors and help solve problems.So how do you do it?

Alan Ehrenhalt wrote an insightful essay in Governing Magazine about a year ago that might provide some answers, or at least a starting point.

Ehrenhalt described a city in Italy named Siena, which might have the strongest neighborhoods of any city in the world. Siena's 60,000 people are divided into 17 neighborhoods, each with its own flag, seat of government, museum, constitution and precise boundaries, unchanged since 1729.

Sienese love their neighborhoods. In the Noble Contrada of Oca, the Neighborhood of the Goose, babies aren't just born into the neighborhood, they are actually baptized into it in a secular but solemn ceremony. Neighbors live and die in loyalty to their neighborhood causes.

Ehrenhalt writes that in Siena, it is not enough to love your own neighborhood; you must also dislike the other neighborhoods. Fierce rivalry exists among neighborhoods, which comes to a head a couple of times each summer in a highly competitive horse race called the Palio. Neighborhoods sponsor horses and jockeys in the races, which have been at the heart of Siena's life since the 14th century.

Interestingly, even with the rivalries and animosities among the neighborhoods, for most of this century Siena has had the lowest crime rate of any Italian city, with hardly any teenage crime.

Is there a connection?

Perhaps it can't be proved, but many writers and observers over many years have theorized that Siena's lack of juvenile delinquency is due to its fierce neighborhood loyalty and the fact that there is an outlet for aggression and hostility in the Palio.

Obviously, factional rivalry and competitiveness taken to extremes can result in gang violence or the hatred displayed in Bosnia or Northern Ireland. But the lesson of Siena is that a little healthy rivalry, channeled and harnessed properly, might be good for the community.

As Ehrenhalt wrote, "You can build a stable community, even a peaceful one, around negative loyalties as well as positive ones, around rivalry as well as pride. In order for people to derive the full benefits of being inside a neighborhood, somebody has to be on the outside. That is where the identity comes from."

Do we have anything like the Sienese horse races that creates rivalries and loyalties in our neighborhoods? Actually, we do, and most of it also centers around sports. Every Friday night thousands of Utahns gather in high school gyms or stadiums to cheer on the local team and boo the opponents. Sports rivalries create a sense of community along high school boundaries.

As a state, we rallied as a "community" perhaps like never before during the NBA playoffs. The fun wasn't just cheering the Jazz; it was also booing the Bulls.

Another form of "neighborhood" in Utah is obviously created by LDS wards and stakes. For people who participate, such neighborhoods can be very close-knit and united, with sports competition among wards even providing some of the healthy rivalries celebrated in Siena. The flaw, of course, is that probably half of Utahns are not members or are not active in the LDS Church and thus are not involved in these "neighborhoods."

So let's suppose I'm the mayor of Centerville, Davis County, where I happen to live. Can I put any of these ideas to good use?

I think I would encourage the City Council to create a citizens' advisory group to focus on neighborhoods. The first task would be to define neighborhood boundaries. Neighborhoods without boundaries make little sense. A big part of our problem is that most of us don't know to what neighborhood we belong. The boundaries of our "communities of interest" don't match up very well. High school boundaries, for example, in many areas cross municipal boundaries. And church congregation boundaries often don't match anything else.

In Centerville, I think I might suggest adopting existing elementary school boundaries as neighborhoods. They're about the right size and the schools provide a rallying point. I would also encourage neighborhoods to adopt names so they are clearly identifiable.

Next, I would encourage neighborhood competitive activities, something for citizens to rally around. Perhaps a neighborhood beautification contest each spring and fall. I would encourage some friendly boasting about how the "Centerville Canyon" neighborhood has all the master gardeners and how they're going to out-beautify the "Smoot Estates" neighborhood.

I think I'd try to have a competitive activity on perhaps a quarterly basis. Centerville has a big July 4th celebration, complete with a parade, road race, arts and crafts displays, etc. Why not make these activities competitive among the neighborhoods? Have relay races pitting neighborhoods against each other; parade float competition among the neighborhoods, etc.

Obviously, this is not easy or simple. These ideas won't have much impact anytime soon. We don't have centuries-old neighborhood traditions like the Sienese. It would take a generation or two to create them.

But neighborhoods deserve attention. Neighborhoods are important. While each level of government has important roles to play, it all starts with families and neighborhoods.

As Ehrenhalt said, "It's a noble idea to want to build the world a home and furnish it with love." It's just not a very practical idea. The real way to change the world is to start in our own neighborhoods.