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SW Olympia: Where neighbors defend and create priceless social spaces

Olympia has a number of active neighborhood groups that bring residents together. Perhaps because it is my home, I am struck by the uniquely strong bonds within the Southwest Olympia neighborhood as a model of Klinenberg’s positive social infrastructure. The persistent activism of neighbors has kept this community from being bisected by a threatened new route via Decatur Street.

Their efforts prevented a daily stream of thousands of vehicles from the auto-mall and freeway through this family residential area. Appalled neighbors, renters and owners alike, took action with their registered neighborhood association—and recreated the Decatur Raiders. For the past twenty years they wrote letters, toured political candidates, and made presentations at city council meetings, eventually succeeding in removing the route from Olympia’s Comprehensive Plan.

Today the strip of land over which traffic would have poured is a park with a dedicated bike and pedestrian path. Members of the neighborhood association, SWONMA ( which has the resilient possum for its logo) landscaped and planted a ragged, empty lot converting it into a “Welcome Park” and funded a mural to greet pedestrians and cars at one entrance to the neighborhood. Signage, a bulletin board, a poetry post, and benches provide a sense of place, as do sidewalks that lead to the kitchens, churches, and cafes where meetings are held.

Southwest neighbors also legally challenged the city’s approval of a third convenience store at a key intersection, opening the way for a neighborhood park that serves as a gathering space, public market, music venue, and pedestrian respite area. Residents have carved out pocket parks and published a neighborhood map. They exchange garden produce and welcome new residents. Each summer they throw a big public picnic. Sometimes on New Year’s Eve, in the middle of an intersection, they share cider and laughs. They might have someone juggling fire, talking to the cop who drops in, or marching with a neighbohood kids in a band to celebrate the kind of bonds that Klinenberg has determined “can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life.”

KH

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