June 9, 2009

These are the People in the Neighborhood

DC is fortunate to have a large blogging community. (Shaw, where Bread for the City NW is located, has even been named one of the top "bloggiest neighborhoods in the country.") This blog scene is pretty neighborhood-centric, with an active interest in things like real estate, local commerce, crime, traffic lights, city history, and food. (Lots about food.) Unsurprisingly, given the main industry around here, DC’s blogosphere is often very sophisticated about the effects of policy and urban planning on everyday life.

Many of the neighborhood bloggers are young professionals who first moved to their area not too long before launching their blogs. Blogs like 14th & You, Renew Shaw, and And Now, Anacostia are monitoring the rapid change in their neighborhoods, cheerleading the good and watchdogging the bad. They are characteristically supportive of development, but they also hold a genuine appreciation for the historic character of a neighborhood.

In the past few weeks, we invited a bunch of these local bloggers to come take a tour of our facilities and discuss community issues. Their insight is of great value to us as we continue to deliberate upon the role that Beyond Bread can play within the emergent local blogosphere.

After all, Bread for the City helps and advocates for people who, by and large, don’t have regular access to the internet, let alone exposure to blogs. In many cases, our clients’ livelihoods are potentially threatened with further marginalization by the very forces of development that local boosters are inclined to support.

And yet, throughout the meetings, we found ample common ground. The bloggers all shared a deep and thoughtful support of diversity – not just as a platitude, but specifically in the form of mixed-income development that preserves affordable housing. Likewise in expanding local access to fresh and affordable food. In important ways, we are natural partners in the effort to improve the quality of life in the community as a whole.

One thing that came up repeatedly in discussion was the value of more eyes on the machinery of the city – at budget hearings, council meetings, public agencies, etc. Here at Bread for the City, we get a close inside look at changes that affect thousands of people in our community, but that might fall out of sight of even the most obsessive internet busybody. As we all spoke with these citizen journalists about the power dynamics in the city, the conversational vibe went beyond neighborly and into a new exciting phase of the collaborative.

After all, someone’s gotta do it. Without falling too deep into the “Death of Newspapers” discussion, suffice it to say that we’re witnessing a swift collapse of conventional local news reporting. And to be sure, a neighborhood blogger doesn’t have access to the breadth of resources and institutional heft that a newspaper provides. But a committed citizen can sometimes have more ability to push closer to the truth, and more commitment to keep on a story as it develops.

The resulting information may only ever reach a small handful of people who care about it, as opposed to the masses skimming the paper over coffee and during commutes. But passionate, organized small groups are usually what make large-scale change happen.

In picking up where traditional media fell off, will the hyperlocal blogosphere be able to restore and even improve the civic balance? It’s not yet clear. But the exciting thing is: it’s up to us.

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