Is there a way to breach that isolation, and make the neighborhoods come alive again? A volunteer group of employees from the City of Hagerstown is going to try, with a program called "Neighborhoods First."
Larry Bayer, the city's Community Development Coordinator and chair of the group, says the city's going to change the way it deals with citizens.
Here's how it will work: Citizens will be encouraged to form neighborhood groups, which will then meet together in groups drawn form an area the size of a U.S. Census tract. It's an attempt to rebuild democracy from the ground up, by getting people to talk to each other about what their neighborhoods need.
Bayer knows it's going to be a slow process. He's already invested a year in it, after a city survey of neighborhoods uncovered the fact that neighbors living side-by-side had very different ideas about what their neighborhoods needed. There was no consensus, in many cases, because there was no communication.
The first step, according to Kim Kautz, a city human relations specialist, is to encourage small groups to form, teach them how to run meetings and reach consensus, then show them how their concerns might dovetail with those of another nearby group.
"It has to start small, then build. The initial interest may come from an interest in an issue, like the development of the fairgrounds," she said.
Bayer and Kautz said that because of some good leadership in that area, the fairgrounds neighborhood may be the first group organized.
How might such a group work?
The groups won't necessarily get everything they ask for, Bayer and Kautz said, but they will help shape the city's response to needs. For example, if one neighborhood expresses a need for park space, its citizen group could help determine whether the park should have ballfields, or just open space, they said.
Kautz emphasized that the process won't be just an ask-and-receive relationship between the neighborhoods and the city. In some cases, she said, the citizens will be asked to do some research and reach agreement on the details of their request.
"This is a dual challenge," Kautz said. "Citizens have got to challenge government to think 'out of the box' and the other challenge is for citizens to come to government from a different perspective."
There are 1,000 ways for this idea to fail, to fall flat on its face, but Bayer and company are trying to anticipate the pitfalls and bridge them beforehand. They know the first group has to be a good example for the rest to follow.
It's got to be a democratic group that's not dominated by one strong personality, or burdened with the sort of whiners who will moan and groan if they don't get instant gratification. Nor can it be populated only with those caught up in how it "used to be." The city will never be like it was, but it can be something different and maybe just as good.
That's why they're going to train neighborhood group members in how-to-hold-meeting techniques and perhaps even tours of city departments, to see how things work. It will be a challenge for city employees, as well, to learn to work with citizens in a different way.
"In the year we've been in existence, we've gotten to the point where we've got a river that's a mile wide. Now we've got to make sure it's not just an inch deep, by engraining what we're doing in the culture of the city," Bayer said.
The city won't change overnight, Bayer said, but like a child's teeth being straightened with braces, it will slowly change for the better. Here's hoping citizens are willing to endure a little pain and inconvenience to build something better. If you're interested in helping, call Bayer at 739-8577, ext. 133.