Friday, December 24, 2010

DUST: What does the flag capture?

My suspicion is that I have less to say on this subject than I’d like to think, but I’m still feeling my way around in terms of the appropriateness of featuring certain material on this blog, so in the meantime it is best that I linger on the fluffier subjects. And I can’t help but indulge in my love of flags and all their expressive content while I live on a multinational military base. As my previous Afghanistan post indicated, they’re everywhere. They are less prevalent in their original, fluttering cloth form on an American base like Bagram Air Field. But the other two bases in which I have lived, Kandahar and now Camp Marmal, lack a single nation’s dominant military presence, and flag poles stand sentinel at various points across both bases.

The above photos, both taken at Kandahar, are hardly the greatest at capturing the semantic properties of flags. In the first photo, the flag—possibly German—projects just to the right of the street sign with “Illinois” misspelled, and in the second photo, a Danish flag (if I recall correctly) spears the sky in the distance on the left, slightly higher than the power lines. I never intended the flag to be a focal point in these photos. But they do at least suggest the flags’ power to serve as monuments in a base setting, primarily through two different expressive tools. When propelled on poles or stanchions, they punctuate the landscape by simply being taller than most structures amidst a flat, treeless terrain. And the banners themselves achieve prominence through their hues: bold colors contrast to the sepia tones of dust and particulate matter that veils the horizon, even when low wind levels keep the flag furled. The example below in Camp Marmal with a Norwegian flag gets the point across somewhat better, thanks to cleaner air and the relative absence of power lines.

These contrasts help to explain how flags engage with their surroundings at the sensory level, but the question remains how they operate spatially. In short, how do they govern the area around them, if they have any control at all? Obviously the devices used in display of the flag matter critically here. Within the context of a coalition base made up of multiple national armies such as this, the flag most clearly connotes two seemingly paradoxical territorial ideas: 1) that the area below the flag is part of that nation’s compound and “belongs” to it, so that the flag presides over that portion of the base; and 2) that the particular nation has a presence on this base and is a “team player” in the Afghanistan conflict as a whole. It’s quite simple. It operates much the same way when flags project from a particular movable object, such as the Croatian flags on the MRAPs below:

The red white and blue (also an adhesive on the side of the vehicle) is the national flag; the other one pertains to a particular mission. Obviously these vehicular flags serve primarily to identify the nationality owning that vehicle, which means they do not appropriate the same amount of space as the ones tethered to poles planted in the ground. But these flags can venture outside the wire and still effectively indicate Croatia’s participation in combat.

The use of words “govern”, “preside”, and “appropriate” only effectively applies, though, to flags in isolation. Throughout many of these coalition bases, flags are grouped in a formation of multiple poles, like the one below in Camp Nidaros, a Norwegian compound nestled within Camp Marmal:

Despite the fact that Marmal is a German-owned base and is the headquarters for Northern Regional Command (led by a German General), these flag formations tend to be as egalitarian as possible, most likely in an effort to demonstrate that no one country’s forces are hierarchically superior to another. The formation in the above photo seems particularly self-abnegating, because the banners attached to the poles are not even national flags: they are narrow streamers with a different configuration of each country’s respective national colors. They diffidently reference the country without proclaiming it. If I can interpret them correctly, this display shows, from left to right, the colors of Norway, Finland, Latvia, Sweden, and Germany. All of those nationalities with the exception of Germany have troops stationed in this particular compound Camp Nidaros; billeting for Germany is scattered elsewhere across the base. One would think that either the compound’s commander (Norway) or the base commander (Germany) would occupy the central flag pole to show ownership. Instead, that pole belongs to Latvia, while Norway and Germany occupy the peripheries. I have no doubt that this configuration was conscious. Place a flag in the company of others and the aforementioned territorial paradox—that of simultaneous individual ownership and operating as a team—immediately collapses, because the ability to denote “owning” a portion of the base evaporates. Here’s another formation at Camp Marmal that coyly dissolves hierarchy:

The flags of the United States, Germany, Afghanistan, and the U.S. Navy all hang at half-mast. The deployment of an even number of flags clearly avoids placing any one flag at the center, and in this case, the host nation, Afghanistan, gets equal representation with two countries and one branch of the military of that same country. The building to the left houses exclusively US forces, predominantly associated with the Navy, yet two other nations’ flags wave out front.

The half-mast configuration, nearly always intended to show mournful deference for the recently deceased, assumes a new poignancy with the next photo, taken just minutes after the previous, as dusk had set in:

This event comprises an unannounced visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the evening of December 18, 2010, speaking at the memorial of a German soldier who had died in an accident the preceding day . Notice that in the first of those two photos, the German flag is half-mast. But here as elsewhere, the presentation soon diverted to the shared responsibility, as Merkel continued her brief speech about Germany’s involvement in Afghanistan. By the conclusion, the flag was full-mast along with the others.

Again, the flag formation avoids placing any nation in a position of primacy. Germany, the owner of the base, stands at an unremarkable position of third from the left. The United States, the second largest presence, sits on the far right. And while there are an odd number of poles (21), allowing the potential for one pole to take center place, the framing of the poles around a central memorial places eleven on the left and ten on the right; no nation takes the center stage. Here are some close-ups of the memorial in daylight without the crowd:

Protocol for the display of the US flag requires that it observe international standards when juxtaposed with other nations, and none should rest above another at a time of peace. Obviously the existence of Camp Marmal is predicated on this precisely not being a time of peace, and yet the coalition nations (including the euphemistic “host nation” Afghanistan) still observe the peaceful display here as in every other location where more than one national flag presides over the space. Yet every time the flag waves in isolation, it proclaims its territory. The difference, it seems, is the level of conscious thought invested in the display: asserting national presence and ownership requires demands very little additional scrutiny, and, cheaply fluttering from the back of a Hummer, almost seems like an afterthought. Conversely, the assembly of a group of national flags in mutual respect requires serious deliberation.

The semiotics that underpins any display of multiple flags operate differently when the display takes place indoors. The pictures below take place in a DFAC (Dining Facility) at Kandahar Air Field:

It seems to be common practice to decorate the dining halls in the larger bases with national flags. But the flags preside over clearly bounded space here; any assertion of territoriality simply adds a dimension to the message already communicated by four walls. The display of flags indoors does not convey the potentially contentious air of imperial entitlement that it has the potential to suggest when outdoors; the flags address an enclosed space and not the open air, or the land itself. Perhaps it’s just me, but flags also lose expressive impact when they are limp and static; the fluttering of a flag from wind, however mild that wind may be, projects authority that it is hard for a motionless flag to muster. So while the exterior display of flags seems particularly sensitive to the fact that these nations collectively occupy a land with which they are waging war against a certain faction, all the rules fall by the wayside when flags hang indoors. No one seems particularly sensitive of who owns what. The PAX terminal at Camp Marmal is an excellent example:

Near the back of the building on the right is a colossal German flag—the country that owns the base. The other flags in the photo represent the three nationalities with the next largest presence on the base: in the far distance (with the checkered shield) is Croatia; to the right of the German flag is the American flag; to its right (partly cut off by the picture’s edge) is the Norwegian flag. All of these flags occupy a noticeable second tier to Germany. Pan to the right, however, and the message becomes a bit more muddled.

From left to right, the picture shows Norway again (same flag as the previous photo), Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Montenegro, Slovakia, Latvia, and part of Turkey. The positioning, size, and even the choice of nationalities here seem to be based more on expediency than any sort of conceived arrangement. The spacing between them seems inconsistent, the size does not fit with either a hierarchy or an egalitarian coalition, and while Turkey and Slovakia may be part of the coalition, they have yet to show any presence at Camp Marmal, while other nations clearly berthed here have had their flags omitted. Anyone plunked into this facility while blindfolded would draw the conclusion, upon removing the blindfold, that it is a German-run building. Provided that he or she knows the German flag, the enormous mural makes it obvious. But the participation of these other nations and how they fit into the system on this base is completely undefined. The flags help add color to an otherwise sparse terminal; otherwise they might as well be garland.

The DFAC at Camp Marmal has a similar configuration on one of its walls, with even more diluted semantic results:

Again, we see a row of thumbtacked flags used as decoration, with little regard for placement. Is this display trying to show a hierarchy, with the NATO flag (the white compass on a blue field) taking precedence in the middle of all the participating partners? That doesn’t work, because the NATO flag is not in the middle; there cannot be a middle position with twelve flags. Are the participants all on equal footing? Perhaps they are, but the disparity in size of the flags would not suggest it:

Montenegro and Latvia are huge compared to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United States, and NATO. Again, it seems the decorators bought whatever size flag was available (and whatever relevant nationality they could find) in order simply to decorate, without intending any other message. Compare this to the precision and thought that they applied to the adornment of another wall, with photos of the Afghan countryside:

It’s much easier to get away with a sloppy flag display in an indoor setting, where there is less at stake.

No doubt this analysis may come across as one of my much-ado-about-nothing posts. After all, they’re just flags, and it is possible that I’m projecting my own fascination with the topic by inferring more out of it than anyone ever intended. But flags are also a powerful diplomatic tool, and they may be the most widely available, transportable material to clearly convey both a nation-state’s government and often the very essence of the land. Witness the recent global coverage of burnings of the American, Danish, or Israeli flag and it would be hard to shrug aside its potency within a broader understanding of semiotics. In a multinational setting rife with the potential for a serious imbroglio, a blasé display of a nation’s flag could set tempers flaring.

The use of flags on these bases suggests that the outdoor display has significant political ramifications, but indoor displays do not matter so much. Maybe it’s true that an indoor display will never carry the same territorial weight, but it can still result in a transnational contretemps. A recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, hosted by President Obama in New York City, aroused some ire and international press when the Philippine flag was accidentally displayed upside-down, indicating the nation to be in a state of war. The problem with the indoor settings at the PAX and DFAC in Camp Marmal isn’t that they’re purely hierarchical or egalitarian; it’s that they’re neither, or a little of both. National flags might be beautiful to some, but they are too semantically rich to serve a purely aesthetic purpose.

I conclude with one particularly interesting flag that can serve on its own as a microcosm for what a carless flag display loses semantically. The national flag of Croatia has already graced this blog post a couple of times; they constitute one of the largest forces at Camp Marmal.

This brief analysis constitutes a bit more of what I know about vexillology, the study of flags as semiotics, which I covered at much greater length in a blog post on the Maryland flag many moons ago. The Croatian flag is by no means a particularly bad flag; it certainly looks far more elegant than the contrived, deer-on-hind-legs antiques that constitute many of the US state flags. But the real core of the flag is the checkered shield, serving as the flag's central charge; this escutcheon pattern predominates on a lot of the exercise gear that the Croats wear around the base in their down time. I particularly like the way the checkers align with the bottom blue fess (stripe). The decorative "flair" sitting in the place of a coronet above the checkers might help to embellish the shield, but they erode the symmetry, suggest hierarchy (some emblems might be more important than others), and they complicate the entire presentation, thereby diluting the message and the overall readability of the flag. The North American Vexillological Association asserts that the key indicator of an effective flag is that a child should be able to draw it from memory. Its impact should be immediate and unforced. By no means is the code of the NAVA the Gospel on flags, but I cannot imagine most six-year olds reproducing the Croatian flag after just a few minutes. Most 40-year-olds wouldn’t do a great job either.

The weaknesses in the Croatian flag echo the problems with the display of national flags in the interior public spaces of Camp Marmal, or many other situations where they serve an ornamental purpose. The display of flags to convey either hierarchy or egalitarianism is fine; there are no inherent faults in either of these organizing principles. The deficiency lies in when the display blurs the line between the two—when it is ambiguous as to which entity, if any, should stand out—which is precisely the problem with the array of symbols in the Croatian flag and the panoply in the DFAC. Ambiguity serves a distinct aesthetic purpose, but a flag’s communicative intent should always be clear. We don’t make light of the most prominent proxy for nationhood, whether in an Olympic natatorium or in a war zone.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The hood is well-paved with good intentions.

As I keep my blog on life support while I remain in the Afghan theater, I hope—more or less—to alternate posts with observations on life here behind the wire with more of my conventional posts, featuring photos taken from this past summer and earlier. Today’s post has been surprisingly difficult for which to gather information, intensified by the fact that I have no other outlet while at a base in Afghanistan. But I’m now prepared to show one of the most potent examples used today of a means for individual districts in urbanized areas to assert some level of self-governance.

Metropolitan America today comprises such a patchwork of neighborhood association—many of which duplicate the functions of municipal government—that it’s hard to believe that these now ubiquitous civic groups were relatively uncommon just forty years ago. In his article “Revolution or Evolution?” from the quarterly journal Regulation (also available under the title “The Rise of Private Neighborhood Associations: Revolution or Evolution?” in the book The Property Tax, Land Use, and Land Use Regulation edited by Dick Netzer), William A. Fischel wrote that private associations as we know them today originated in the condominium boom of the 1970s, principally to pool community resources in the governance of shared space, but their subsequent proliferation embraced communities of single-family houses, while their overall supervisory scope ballooned as well. In some communities, they have served simply as a means of consolidating the sentiments of the residents of a neighborhood in response to any changes implemented in municipal government services, or—more often than not—changes in zoning and land use. Elsewhere, neighborhood associations have assumed a broad array of duties under the political aegis of common area maintenance, and in the process they have accrued an incredible amount of power. Many neighborhood associations already perform functions that have traditionally fallen under the responsibility of municipal government: as Fischel points out, “They collect garbage and remove snow; they provide local infrastructure such as roads, sidewalks, and sewers; they regulate land-use and occupancy; and they provide collective services such as recreation and sometimes even health-maintenance for their residents.” Some cities, as Fischel observes, even contract with the neighborhood association so that the latter can provide those services through the association's revenues, while the City then provides members a break on their local taxes.

Perhaps most significantly for the focus of this article, these associations of homeowners have emerged in neighborhoods that predate the very political concept, sometimes by more than a century. They offer a means of protecting the interests, and, most saliently, the property values, of the individuals who live or own real estate within a specific association's boundaries. Several months ago I wrote a two-part article called “There Goes the Neighborhood”, focusing upon the maturely established Garden District Civic Association in Baton Rouge and the semantic differences between the more traditional term “neighborhood” and the more contemporary “subdivision”. The bottom-up level of control (dare I call it “grassroots”?) that this Baton Rouge association has been able to wield through the consolidation of three smaller historic districts has, to a certain degree, shielded it from the disinvestment and visible economic decay that some of the other neighborhoods around it have suffered. Today, Baton Rouge's Garden District stands as the most affluent old neighborhood in the metropolitan area—a sharp contrast from the broadly upper middle class “subdivisions” on the city's outskirts.

The “Garden District” name in Baton Rouge owes a great deal to its larger, splashier city 80 miles to the southeast, New Orleans, whose own Garden District remains one of the preeminent collections of southern mansions, many of them antebellum, in the country. It is a celebrated tourist attraction in a city that has more than its share of curiosities for the outsider. Needless to say, it has a powerful vehicle for organizing and prioritizing the interests of its residents in the Garden District Association. New Orleans' Garden District Association epitomizes Fischel's example of a neighborhood association broadly assuming duties prescribed to municipal governments: it has drafted its own zoning guidelines, it helped to confer authority to the Historic District Landmarks Commission for all development changes, and it monitors the area within its boundaries through the Garden District Security Patrol. Essentially, it mitigates some of the onus to the City of New Orleans in providing services to the area, and it funds these services exclusively through the dues of its residents. Fischel notes, however, that no city has completely surrendered its responsibilities to a neighborhood association. They can't. City cops still retain law enforcement authority over neighborhood security patrols; mayors and city councils could not contract away law enforcement or zoning/land-use control to a neighborhood association, even if they wanted to.

But particularly powerful neighborhood associations have found a means of achieving a remarkable degree of control over how their jurisdiction looks and operates, regardless of the fact that, as political entities, they lack any police power over the city. Fischel argues that, rather than diluting the power of municipal land use decisions, they have refined or even intensified it. Another neighborhood just two miles away from the Garden District in New Orleans demonstrates the potentially complex interplay between a city and its neighborhood association.

Broadmoor anchors itself at the intersection of two of Uptown New Orleans' most prominent streets: Claiborne Avenue and Napoleon Avenue, where the above photograph was taken. Most of its housing dates from between the turn of the 20th century and World War II, at a point when civil engineering technology allowed the draining of the swampy lands of this part of town to make it habitable. By Broadmoorians' own admittances, the area sits at “the bottom of the bowl”: all of it rests below sea level, far removed from the natural levees created over time by the depositing of silt along the banks of the Mississippi. (The oldest and most famous New Orleans neighborhoods, such as the Garden District and French Quarter, sit right along the Mississippi, much more safely above sea level.) Despite some venerable, palatial homes along Napoleon Avenue, the Broadmoor area has never attracted tourism. A 2007 New York Times article observed that Broadmoor's greatest curiosity is that its racial demographics in recent decades have largely reflected that of the city as a whole: not quite 70% African American, approximately 25% white, and a smattering of Asians and non-white Hispanics. The variety of housing types has resulted in an economically diverse neighborhood as well, from working class to upper-income levels, in which about half of the population owns its own home, a figure on par with the city as a whole.

No doubt to its own residents, the area seemed palpably hopeless after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2006: Broadmoor was doused by the flooding after the storm, with most of the housing suffering inundation from 5 to 10 feet above their foundations. Then-Mayor Ray Nagin's announcement at the end of 2006 from the results of his Bring Back New Orleans Commission surely aggravated feelings of impotence. The Commission advised that the flooding was so severe and the land so far below sea level that the area should revert to permanent parkland, represented among several sites in the city through green dots. The report recommended bulldozing the homes where green dots rested on the map.

The announcement—notorious to some members of the community as “The Green Dot Report”—helped mobilize the officers of the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA). Days later, the Association organized a rally for the neighborhood, many of whose members were still displaced and scattered across the country. Mayor Nagin learned how unpopular it was for a council of outsiders to dismiss broad swaths of the city without local input; he promptly tossed the report and dissolved the Commission. The BIA, under the leadership of president LaToya Cantrell, realized it could use its institutional presence to consolidate the voices of its diverse members and help draw greater attention to the neighborhood's profound needs.

The outside stimulus of those green dots surely stirred the residents of flood-ravaged Broadmoor into collective mobilization. It didn't hurt that the area was the childhood home of the Landrieus, an influential political dynasty that includes a popular former mayor (Maurice “Moon”), a US Senator (Mary), and the recently elected current mayor (Mitch). Or that Walter Isaacson, biographer, former editor of Time magazine, and Clinton/Obama appointee, also grew up in the area. But the fact remains that the Broadmoor Improvement Association accomplished an incredible amount in the ensuing two years after the storm. Anyone who lived in New Orleans at the time would recognize the “Broadmoor Lives” banners attached to every light post along the neighborhood's most prominent streets, all colored green as a clear ironic inversion of those condemnatory dots. And in a matter of months, the BIA secured assistance from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on devising a rebuilding plan; to this day, it receives interns from both the Kennedy School and Harvard's Graduate School of Design each year. As the aforementioned New York Times article indicates (one of several national media outlets to feature the organization), the BIA secured $5 million in pledges from the Clinton Global Initiative. It increased the size of its boundaries listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It received a $2 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation to rebuild its local branch of the library. And, of course, it shepherded the gutting and restoring of the many badly damaged homes, resulting in a return rate that far surpassed that of areas equally damaged. It may seem trite to suggest that the BIA's influence helped endow its former residents with a renewed faith in the cohesiveness of the community after the disaster, but the high profile Broadmoor has been able to achieve since Katrina has made it the envy of other neighborhood associations in New Orleans and across the country. Clearly they have gotten something right.

Press attention on Broadmoor has slowed in recent years, but that does not mean that the BIA has suffered any dilution in influence. The red lines on the map below shows what the BIA considers the boundaries of Broadmoor as they fall under its jurisdiction:

It's quite a large neighborhood, and an observation of the declared boundary of an adjacent neighborhood association suggests that those boundaries may be under some dispute. But if BIA's jurisdiction—and, consequently, the neighborhood of Broadmoor—has grown since Katrina, its influence and efficacy has made it hard for residents in the “disputed territory” to voice many complaints. Some of the most recent changes to the area suggest that its ability to attract outside investment continues unabated.

The sign announcing the entrance to the neighborhood has sat there for years. The tree plantings are obviously new; so is the sidewalk. This pedestrian trail runs in the expansive median (or “neutral ground” as New Orleanians would call it) on Napoleon Avenue. The sidewalk and the plantings begin at this intersection and continue northward to Napoleon Avenue's terminus, where it diverges to form Fontainebleau Drive and South Broad Avenue (incorrectly labeled Broad Street on Google Maps). The picture below, looking northward on Napoleon Avenue, better demonstrates the expansiveness of this improvement.

The trail lasts about one mile. But Napoleon Avenue extends at least another mile south of Claiborne Avenue, to its terminus just beyond Tchoupitoulas Street at the Mississippi River. Here's the view down the other portion of Napoleon Avenue, in two photos. First is the “hub” where these two major streets and their medians meet with a square of shared neutral ground:

Clearly those proud, mature palm trees are newly planted. But continue south on Napoleon Avenue, on the other side of Claiborne from Broadmoor:

No improvements, nor any evidence that improvements are planned. While it is possible that the other portion of Napoleon will benefit from this investment at a later phase, a nearby sign that reveals the identity of the investor suggests otherwise:

This is hardly a project funded by the City of New Orleans, nor is it one paid for by neighborhood association's annual dues. This is ostensibly part of a larger civil engineering and “site restoration” initiative supported by the US Army Corps of Engineers, an agency famous in New Orleans for its responsibility in constructing and maintaining the complex system of levees and canals. Needless to say, after the multiple breaches in the levees resulted in the flooding of the city after Hurricane Katrina, it is not a terribly popular agency in New Orleans. While I hardly have the knowledge of the topographic and drainage issues to determine if this site restoration was fully warranted, it cannot help but also tacitly involve a certain degree of currying favor in order to restore trust among New Orleanians in the USACE's ability to protect the city from flooding.

But check the boundaries of the project on that sign. The improvements—using an impervious paving surface, I might add—will only involve certain stretches of Napoleon and Claiborne Avenue. I have outlined in green those segments according to the description on the sign:

They fit within the BIA's boundaries like a hand in glove. I hate to engage in armchair conspiracy theorizing, and it is unfair to assume there is a malicious or ulterior motive behind the targeting of improvements in a particular neighborhood. After all, these stretches of Napoleon/Claiborne and Broadmoor itself are “the bottom of the bowl”—some of the lowest points in a city already overwhelmingly sitting below sea level.

But if this does demonstrate an example of a municipal sub-unit receiving favorable treatment from an agency larger than the city or even the state, it won't be the first time. Earlier I referenced the grant that BIA received from the Carnegie Corporation of New York in order to repair flood damage to the Keller Library, the Broadmoor neighborhood's closest branch. It was a wonderful achievement that testifies to the tenacity of the BIA in seeking solutions to community problems. But BIA does not own the Keller Library, or any library branches; the New Orleans Public Library system under the City of New Orleans does. The resulting contretemps suggests that the Broadmoor Improvement Association has sought to address community problems by bypassing the City, definitely in the library scenario, and quite possibly here as well, regarding the community's desire for a more attractively landscaped, pedestrian friendly neutral ground.

Without casting stones at either party, I can recognize that the BIA saw both a certain level of bureaucratic inertia in the City's ability to work with FEMA Public Assistance (PA) in kick-starting recovery projects, as well as an exogenous solution that it was perfectly willing to take into its own hands, by pursuing a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The neighborhood association figured that it could secure the money and then sort out the responsibility of implementation later, a decision that may have proven wise in expediting the recovery process. And even if the City was never going to have to fund the restoration of this library due to FEMA money (nor would it fund most levee-related improvements that the Army Corps have a federal mandate to address), the City's leadership to a certain degree was relieved of an administrative burden of managing the requisite paperwork to procure FEMA's Public Assistance funding, which, under FEMA PA stipulations would only return the facility to its previous, pre-Katrina condition. BIA's goal was to get the Keller Library back functioning better than before; with this generous grant, they can most likely succeed, provided they reach necessary consensus with the board at New Orleans Public Library.

Neighborhood associations contribute a sheen that inadvertently amplifies the potency of land use regulation. The significantly smaller geographic boundaries, the lack of any true police power that requires the added administration of enforcement (that burden still falls on the City), and, as Fischel recognizes, the ability to appeal to homeowners' concerns about preserving value in what is most likely their single greatest financial asset—all of these help allow neighborhood associations to refine land use decisions within their jurisdiction. As is the case with the Broadmoor Improvement Association, they may prove disproportionately powerful if they can mobilize their residents to attend Planning Commission meetings they otherwise would shrug aside, or to even develop their own series of plans which they impress upon the city to codify.

Three generations ago, the predecessors of the contemporary neighborhood associations assumed a much less benign role than anything documented here. Fischel is one among many to recognize that the earliest zoning and land use regulations helped enforce racial segregation, as did neighborhood covenants. Well after the Supreme Court struck down racial zoning and segregationist covenants, communities used associations to protect the investments of their homes, usually from racial minority families moving in—a home-grown attempt at redlining. In his book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit, Thomas Sugrue observes how well over a hundred precursors to the modern neighborhood association arose in Detroit, uniting people of various national origins (Italian, Irish, Polish, German) through their shared whiteness and goal of keeping Negroes out. Their organizations scarcely differed semantically from the NAs of today; many were called “civic associations”, “homeowners' associations”, “protective associations”, or “improvement associations” (pp. 211-12). Civil rights legislation by the mid 1960s theoretically quashed such trans-ethnic alliances, and the modern neighborhood association could scarcely get away with such overt articulation of racially discriminatory goals.

The BIA, with its racially diverse membership in a reasonably integrated neighborhood milieu, has ambitions that are captured in its title just as well as coming from an admiring New York Times journalist. No doubt other associations serving a less diverse population cannot claim such ecumenical goals. Fischel and others recall how smaller municipalities have in the past used zoning to block the construction of low-income housing within their jurisdictions; Mount Laurel, New Jersey offers the most famous example of this. Conversely, modern neighborhood and homeowners' associations have deterred newcomers through draconian standards regulating a home's exterior appearance, through prohibitively expensive annual dues, or through restrictions prohibiting owners from taking on tenants or converting part or all of a property to a rental unit. They also depend on a certain level of coercion for those who refuse to join, regardless of whether or not they agree with the perceived majority's vision for the neighborhood. None of these are necessarily racially motivated initiatives (though some isolated instances clearly are), but they echo the Mount Laurel goal of preserving home values through a certain level of homogeneity, most likely socioeconomically derived. Fischel recognizes that homeownership is a double-edged sword: it can induce aggressive territorialism but it “induces people to pay attention to the quality of life in their communities”, such as school improvements even if they don't have kids. It may motivate the residents of Broadmoor to fix a City library that sits on their turf, even if they won't ever pick up a book there, and it encourages them to advocate for sidewalks on the neutral ground, even if both sides of the street have them at the curb and they do not walk anywhere regardless.

The larger predicament arises when a neighborhood association's vision encroaches on the authority of the City, even if it does not impede on the rights of other associations. I anticipate that this potentiality for the subversion of a City's authority—even if it derives from legitimate grievances against the City's ineffectualness—will result in a declarative Supreme Court decision within my lifetime. In New Orleans, the BIA recently announced that a State Senator is seeking legislation for a formal recognition of the Broadmoor Neighborhood Improvement District. Fischel believes that neighborhood associations' embedded covenants and rules have generally complemented zoning to articulate further public demand for land use regulation, even though he suspects that the influence of zoning is in retreat. But the interplay between the two can result in disharmony when a neighborhood association essentially seeks exogenous contractors to do work for which the city is ultimately responsible, and I believe we have yet to see the residual effects of this power struggle. Neighborhood associations use their respective cities' inkwells, but they can gesture with a much sharper quill.