By Seth Daniel
There is strength in numbers, and there is also something to be said for a niche market – and right now the plethora of neighborhood associations in the South End are flirting with the once-forbidden idea of combining associations.
At last count, the South End had about 16 different neighborhood associations, some meeting more regularly than others, and some nearly defunct, but trying to remain alive. It harkens back to a time when nearly every block had a strong association with its own set of issues to tackle regularly. The world was a bit smaller then, but now many associations find themselves having trouble filling rooms and finding board members. Add to the fact that many issues have taken on more of a neighborhood-wide focus – such as the opiate epidemic.
Many times, presenters can find themselves speaking to five or six different groups about the same development or issue.
The idea first came to the forefront last fall when the highly organized Blackstone/Franklin Neighborhood Association began having agenda-item discussion about whether members felt it might be a good idea to merge with another group.
Part of the problem for Blackstone – and many others – is that their long-time president stepped down, and it took some time to find a replacement. Often at Blackstone – and in other associations – it becomes hard to find dedicated volunteers to head up committees and to serve on the board.
Discussions at Blackstone went well throughout the fall, according to members, and the idea wasn’t batted down.
“I think the idea was very favorably received, and we want to proceed with conversations with neighboring associations soon,” said one member.
Now, others are beginning to put their toes in the water as well, and already two groups have officially combined forces this month.
The Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) talked about it Tuesday night, with some saying they would like to really explore the idea to see if it might work.
Vice President Bob Minnocci said it’s a new idea, and has some potential.
“The idea of merging with other neighborhood associations is a brand new idea,” he said. “We want to get a feel of where people here are at on this. My sense is Blackstone/Franklin has more of an infrastructure than we have and they are a non-profit and well organized. I’m not saying we would be the natural marriage partner for them, but if you were to combine forces, it could be good.”
President George Stergios had some reservations, though, saying he wasn’t sure how meetings would work.
“My objection is we meet one time a month with a full agenda,” he said. “If we merge with Blackstone/Franklin, are we going to meet for four hours a month, or have two meetings a month? We also tend to have our own issues that they aren’t concerned about. I don’t know how Beacon Hill handles it or Back Bay, but I don’t know how it would work here.”
Another idea is that smaller organizations would merge with bigger ones, with Stergios mentioning that maybe WSANA would be fit better to merge with Hurley Blocks – which is smaller and meets less often.
Others in the audience were more receptive.
“I think it’s a good idea to consolidate and be more effective with a stronger voice,” said one WSANA member. “Putting everyone’s energy together as one force makes sense. Right now, we’re just diluting our voice.”
Steve Fox, moderator of the South End Forum and a member of the Rutland Square Association, said it has to be approached carefully. He said the Forum came online more than a decade ago to unite the associations on issues in common.
“I think the Forum has provided an opportunity for people to see how many issues are shared in common, and that we can be effective if we speak as one voice,” he said. “I want to make sure our associations don’t turn into NABB (Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay). I don’t want it to be a small cadre of people who have the time and energy to dedicate to the association driving the decisions…I think that consolidation is inevitable and we’ve seen it already in my experience, as we went from 23 to around 17 or so.”
He added that part of the appeal of the South End and its civic activity is that issues are usually hyper-local, and even big picture items have relevance on one’s own street corner. That sense of local flair and the history behind it – as some associations like WSANA date back more than 50 years – should not be lost in the rush to efficiency.
“When a neighborhood association has an issue, it’s usually within spitting distance of your location,” he said. “When the borders get expanded, it’s less in your face and more of a big picture situation.”
Some of the proposed marriages within the gossip circles of the neighborhood include merging Rutland Square with Rutland Street, WSANA with Blackstone and Chester Square with Hurley Blocks.
Already, last week, Old Dover merged for 2018 with the New York Streets Neighborhood Association (NYSNA). The marriage of the two is an effort to help bolster the New York Streets area, and add territory to Old Dover. Having one big association was preferable in the end to those in both associations.
Old Dover board member Arthur Coe spoke the words that many have thought over the last few years, and that is too many times the South End feels like it’s been divided and conquered by outside entities – including the City.
“There is strength in numbers,” he said last week after the consolidation was codified. “The City loves we are divided, and there are multiple neighborhood associations in the South End. The Back Bay is very powerful because they have one neighborhood association…We all have the same thing in mind. There are many things happening and it’s very important we are all one together.”
Time will tell.