If you doubt that economists are cynical and cranky folks, a glance at Morton’s column on neighborhood organizations should prove the point.

If you doubt that economists are cynical and cranky folks, a glance at Morton’s column on neighborhood organizations should prove the point.

In contrast to my esteemed colleague’s juandiced view, I believe neighborhood organizations will be increasingly important to the quality of life in our city–not only during the next mayor’s tenure, but for a long time thereafter.

Pundits of all political persuasions have spent the last quarter-century bemoaning the demise of what sociologists call "mediating institutions," the social institutions that allow individuals to interact effectively with the larger world. The church, the family, the long-term employer, the political party–each provided a mechanism through which individuals could understand and cope with more remote and faceless forces. As those mediating institutions have weakened, as individuals perceive themselves increasingly at the mercy of regional, national and global realities they cannot control, people have tended to feel powerless–and resentful.

The exception to this attrition has been the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit organizations, including neighborhood organizations, have become important vehicles for change and social control.

Is your precinct committeeman (assuming you still have one) unable to get that traffic signal installed? To make code enforcement cite the owner of the house down the block for three-foot-tall weeds? Neighborhood organization to the rescue! As the world has become more global, politics–always local–has become even more so. Morton’s neighbor Ethel may avoid Democrat/ Republican politics like two varieties of the plague, but she’s likely to become a ferocious political activist when someone tries to replace the corner drugstore with a tavern.

There is certainly a negative aspect to the politics of the neighborhood: NIMBY–not in my backyard–has become a rallying cry for those who would exclude the developmentally disabled, limit rental opportunities or prevent reasonable commercial activity. But the positive side of the ledger includes increased ownership of and involvement in the processes of urban life. Neighborhood organizations have become the connective tissue of the city.

The increase in the number of neighborhood organizations in Indianapolis during the past decade has been matched by a corresponding growth in their sophistication. The next mayor will face a political landscape that is largely defined by their presence and agendas.

A skillful mayor will create processes that empower neighborhood representatives: dependable lines of communication, responsive civil servants, stable and accessible bureaucracies.

An effective mayor will coordinate neighborhood policy with members of the City-County Council and with neighborhood Community Development Corporations.

A smart mayor will keep Ethel happy.