Old Southwest neighbors work on new communication


Neighborhood association leader Hank Ottinger speaks at the Old Southwest picnic moments before a storm disrupted the event. Photos by TINA CASAGRAND/Missourian

Technology changes cultures more dramatically than any leaders or disasters ever have. It affects what we eat, how we spend our day and the interactions we choose.

When Old Southwest neighbors gathered at Alan and Sue Luger’s backyard Saturday, June 19, they came a step closer to village life, to times before television and air conditioning kept us inside.

In addition to officer elections, the agenda included the following discussions:

  • Proposed changes to West Broadway (only members of the association’s Google group can view the link)
  • Finding volunteers to organize future picnics
  • Holding a neighborhood yard sale day, possibly for seed money for the association
  • Creating a volunteer network to monitor city meetings like Planning and Zoning

But like pre-electricity days, neighbors were also at the the weather’s mercy. For the second Saturday in a row, strong winds and rain snuffed out the gathering as if it were a candle. Association leader Hank Ottinger barely had time to introduce himself before rain dispersed the crowd.

A handful of neighbors discuss Old Southwest in Nancy Harter's garage after rain drove most picnic-goers home.

The organizers were at a bit of a loss. A crowd of 50 people shrunk to six neighbors and two reporters, who gathered across the street in Nancy Harter’s garage.

“How far did you get?” Harter asked Ottinger.

“Not far,” Ottinger answered, joking that he saw “visions of Woodstock” as the storm rolled in.

The neighbors arranged their lawn chairs in a semicircle facing the street. They had important things to talk about but weren’t sure how to move forward.

“Any organization is going to rise and fall on communication,” Ottinger said.

The association has good assets — two online groups, new e-mail addresses from the latest picnic’s sign-in, and a friendly neighborhood where people walk and bike. A Pew Research report called “Neighbors Online” found that “internet tools are gaining ground in community-oriented communications.”

Old Southwest does have two online pages:

“People come to the picnic to get away from technology, get away from the phone, to separate off for a while,” said Hicks, who envisions a hybrid of online and in-person activities.

He appreciates online tools for their ability to distribute information, but concludes, “I don’t see that replacing personal contact.”

Here are some other things that neighborhood associations do to keep in touch. It’s a healthy mix of old-fashioned tactics and new technology.

1. Hoofing it

Old Southwest resident Michael Hicks suggested flier distribution and neighborhood canvassing to advertise events and encourage neighbor involvement.

This University of Nebraska website suggests ways neighborhoods can develop more face-to-face connection and better communication. Other ideas include lawn signs, telephone trees and a neighborhood website.

When volunteers knocked on doors to advertise the Old Southwest neighborhood picnic, half of the households responded. Ottinger said he was well-received and even found common acquaintances by going door-to-door.

2. Using Facebook

Nancy Harter posed a question to the 20-something reporters: “What has Facebook done for your generation to make communication easier?”

The answer probably comes easier for 20-somethings than for the demographic in the Old Southwest neighborhood. Harter says she hopes that as 50- to 60-year-olds start doing more of it, the social networking site will be a more viable option for the neighborhood.

The Forest Acres Neighborhood Association in South Carolina maintains an highly active Facebook page where people can post their concerns, respond to polls, RSVP to events and meet other neighbors.

3. Instituting a welcome wagon

Everyone agreed that electronic message boards don’t relate to a warm handshake and eye contact.

“In terms of establishing relationships that will be stable, I don’t think that does it,” Ottinger said.

Something the residents agreed they would like to see is a welcome wagon for families moving into the neighborhood. Welcome teams can greet new neighbors in a myriad of ways, including cooking for the family and partnering with nearby businesses to provide them with gift baskets.


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Filed under Columbia-Boone County, Old Southwest

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