2018 is the year of the neighborhood.
Hamilton has 17 of them. Of course, in a city as diverse as Hamilton, it should come as no surprise that each neighborhood is unique. Some neighborhoods are typically suburban with lots of residential streets ending in cul-de-sacs. Others are more traditionally urban – walkable, densely built and making up the “Downtown Hamilton” area within the center of the City. But it is all of these 17 neighborhood combined that together make up the city of Hamilton.
But Hamilton is a city that, historically, has been divided by rivers and train tracks. An east-side/west-side debate sometimes resurfaces even today. The traditional neighborhood of Lindenwald might have felt like a different country from the rolling hills of New London’s suburban neighborhood. Enter the resident-led 17Strong organization.
As part of the city of Hamilton’s new strategic plan back in 2012, the city wanted to provide residents with a “sense of place.” But, a city council-led effort to meet in individual neighborhoods had mixed results. In the neighborhood of Lindenwald, those initial meetings evolved into PROTOCOL (People Reaching Out to Others; Celebrate Our Lindenwald). This group, led by Hamilton volunteer Frank Downie, still meets on a monthly basis today. When city council moved to the East End neighborhood, however, similar efforts created little interest. At this point, two things were clear: 1. What works for one neighborhood may not work for another, and 2. Engagement had to come from within the neighborhood.
The group went back to the drawing board. Council realized that they couldn’t simply host a few meetings and expect all neighborhoods to become magically engaged overnight. Instead, grassroots leadership was needed. One of the initial goals behind this “Sense of Place” movement was to “Celebrate” the different neighborhoods, but not “Separate.” But the key was understanding that the neighborhoods are indeed different, and should be celebrated for their differences. The “Sense of Place” group got out a map and started outlining those specific neighborhoods. When they were done with proposed names and boundaries, they had identified 17 distinct neighborhoods in the city of Hamilton. “Sense of Place” reemerged as 17Strong.
The original mission had not changed. 17Strong still provides a framework for communication and a sense of identity to residents. The difference was a seemingly small one: they originally wanted to create pride around the city of Hamilton. With newly identified neighborhoods in hand they worked to increase pride, ownership and a sense of place throughout the community. Residents could take pride in their particular corner of the city, and together, 17Strong helps Hamilton become more connected, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Clear Goals Set
17Strong has a few goals. Though they are no longer government-led, they are still focused on the ongoing conversation between the city government and the residents. City Councilwoman Kathleen Klink acts as the City Council Lead to help make that connection. They also want to help neighborhood residents organize to address their needs and improve the quality of life in their neighborhoods. And each neighborhood has different needs. In Lindenwald, limited street lights caused a potential safety issue. The neighborhood campaigned to have their residents leave porch lights on to provide additional safety measures. Jefferson had some abandoned buildings and construction fences that were in need of revitalization and beautification. Some neighborhoods just needed additional opportunities to come together within their own communities.
The Power of the Micro-Grant
Because each neighborhood has different needs, a one-size-fits-all program was not going to work. Only residents within each neighborhood could really identify what was needed in their respective neighborhood. So 17Strong introduced the Micro-Grant program to help support all of the unique neighborhoods and their unique needs. Hamilton citizens can apply for Micro-Grants in amounts from $500 to $2,500.
And these grants can cover a really wide range of events or programs. Since engagement is such an important piece of 17Strong’s mission, any program that finds a way to engage citizens or improve quality of life is considered. In 2017, one neighborhood hosted summer movies in the park using funding from a micro-grant. Lindenwald used a grant to create a community newsletter. In 2016, Neilan & Pershing Park in Riverview got a new basketball court. In 2017 alone, 17Strong awarded 21 Mico-Grants, pouring nearly $35,000 into the neighborhoods of Hamilton.
One micro-grant at a time, Hamilton’s neighborhoods are experiencing the difference. Neighborhood beautification projects are adding small community gardens or updated signs to brighten the streets. There is also a new effort in place to revitalize the Maple Avenue Freight House and transform it into a year-round farmer’s market. All over the city, neighbors and neighborhoods are becoming more connected and more engaged. 17Strong is working with residents to build a stronger, better tomorrow for all Hamiltonians. And 2018 promises to be one more big step into the future.
So we may need to revise our initial statement. 2018 isn’t the year of the neighborhood. It’s the year of the 17Strong Neighborhood. It’s a small change but it makes a big difference.