With cities squeezed, neighborhood groups catch on

Todd and Sarah Aaronson have a stack of surveys piled high on their dining room table. The questionnaires were mailed to 2,000 of their neighbors. They asked: What do you like about your neighborhood, what do you dislike and what do you want to change?

Getting answers to those questions is the first step to building a neighborhood association in the College Avenue area.

As city budgets and services shrink, such groups are gaining momentum. Cash-starved public agencies see them as the key to maintaining services by capitalizing on the public's elbow grease and financial generosity.

But make no mistake, these are not your father's neighborhood groups. Gone are the days when organizing neighbors meant meeting around the grill once a year for National Night Out.

Today's neighborhood group is more likely to be at City Hall, finding out how to get grants to pay for neighborhood improvements.

"For the past umpteenth years, we've all been relying on the city to provide services as they deem," Todd Aaronson said. "The economy is doing a great job of making us rely on ourselves and communicate our needs more effectively."

It was the La Loma Neighborhood Association, revitalized under new leaders in 2006, that broke the mold for Modesto's neighborhood groups. The La Loma group runs a private security patrol, holds community clean-ups and delivers a newsletter to 2,000 households. The group hopes to raise enough money for surveillance cameras to keep tabs on suspicious activity.

The Aaronsons and their neighbors want to replicate the La Loma model in the College Avenue area. They're getting help from CommonWealth Modesto, a group of young professionals that works to solve community problems. They've also gotten a boost from the city, which mailed the 2,000 surveys to neighbors.

Some criticized the city's role, calling the survey mailing a gift of taxpayer funds. But Aaronson noted the same service is available to any neighborhood that wants it.

And so is the La Loma model. CommonWealth members want to set up a similar group in the airport neighborhood. They may start one in Village I, too.

For the city, such groups take the guesswork out of providing scant services.

"The city is looking for direction," said La Loma president Mike Moradian. "They have 100 things they could work on, but if there's something the residents say they want, that's what they'll work on."

Moradian kicked up activity in the La Loma Neighborhood Association in 2006, when the "city was flush with cash." With the downturn, the group has stepped in to perform duties once covered by the city.

The La Loma organization was one of the first neighborhood groups to volunteer to mow and water small parks the city can't afford to maintain.

"If we have a project that needs to get done, we just call them," said Andy Johnson, a fund development specialist with the city's parks and recreation department. "We continually point people to the La Loma model. We say, hey if you want to do this, we'll help you."

The association tends the roundabout at La Loma Avenue and G Street. The group also restored Moran Estates park, transforming it into a popular spot for soccer games and picnics. The roughly $30,000 project was paid for with grants, city funds and donations from neighbors, Moradian said.

The association is about to make it easier for charity-minded neighbors to donate. It's setting up an account at the Stanislaus Community Foundation where it can receive tax-deductible contributions for neighborhood improvement projects.

But perhaps the group's most important accomplishment is that it has the ear of decision-makers at City Hall. Moradian speaks regularly to the city manager, police chief and other key officials.

The group showed political muscle in the fall when it helped elect one of its board members, Joe Muratore, to the City Council.

That's not to say that La Loma is the perfect neighborhood now, said Moradian. There have been challenges. He said about half his original board members have moved away in the wake of foreclosure or divorce.

Despite the private security patrol, the neighborhood still has some serious crime. A shooting during the summer killed a 10-year-old boy. The neighborhood recently saw some burglaries committed while homeowners were asleep in their beds.

But with the association in place, the La Loma neighborhood's concerns weren't ignored. Top police brass met with 30 concerned neighbors and answered their questions.

"We have a common voice that the city can hear," Moradian said.

He added, "As residents, we have a responsibility to be involved in our neighborhood. If you don't like things, you need to communicate with your city as opposed to just complaining."