Trading back-fence chats for email blasts | April 19, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 19, 2013

Trading back-fence chats for email blasts

Social networking makes inroads with some neighborhood groups, taking precedence over formal organizations

by Sue Dremann

Getting to know one's neighbors is just a mouse-click away, or so a host of new Web services would have one believe. But will Twitter, Nextdoor and email replace the traditional neighborhood association?

Some residents think so, while others see social media as a way to enhance — but not replace — neighborhood associations.

The City of Palo Alto introduced, an information-sharing site, two years ago., a social network for neighborhoods through which people can post event information, make recommendations and discuss topics, made its debut in Palo Alto in late 2011.

The Duveneck/St. Francis, Barron Park, Crescent Park and College Terrace neighborhoods all have active group-email lists. Residents use them to share everything from recommendations for refrigerator repair outfits to news about donation drives for charities to residential burglary alerts.

The Community Center neighborhood uses Google groups and leaflets to keep residents informed, association President Rick Ferguson said. Nextdoor has proven the most durable, though.

Meadow Park Residents Association uses Nextdoor to recruit new members and for disaster preparedness, President Cathy Swan said.

For University South President Elaine Meyer, "Email is the way to go." She publishes an e-newsletter, which is also offered to new residents as they move in.

Richard Brand of Professorville, who is part of University South Neighborhood Association, said he isn't happy with Nextdoor, however. The service is mostly a collection of people offering to share items or look for services. But it hasn't connected people on a deeper level, he said.

Sheila Tucker, assistant to the city manager, said the city is evaluating its pilot project with rBlock, which concludes in June.

"It has not been able to garner the interest and density we hoped," she said.

But she said she has never worked in a city where neighborhoods were so organized. With the city's changing demographic of seniors and Asians, the government will continue to provide a support platform for new groups to communicate, she said.

"That type of connection helps government. If you know your neighbors, you are less likely to call the police for a barking dog," she said. Residents will know their neighbors' patterns and cars, so they can report suspicious activity, she added.

Are neighborhood associations waning?

"I think they are changing," said Sally-Ann Rudd, a Downtown North neighborhood leader. "I have lots of friends who state quite publicly that their 'neighborhood' is a virtual one of intersecting circles — school, church, sports activities, gym memberships, classes, hobbies — and geographic proximity is just another of those intersecting circles."

Downtown North's neighborhood used to have an association with officers and a formal structure, but the association has been relatively defunct for 10 years, ever since the neighborhood became deeply divided over measures to reduce cut-through traffic.

While many residents find the idea of a structured association off-putting, online social networks allow people to read about issues more passively, said resident Elaine Uang, 34.

"Do you have to get together one time a month on a Sunday to meet your neighbors? Maybe not," she said. People have ever-increasing commitments to work and family; staying on top of issues or running an association is like another full-time job, she said.

Now, neighborhood organizers are looking at a looser association structure, which largely disseminates information and ideas through email, Uang said.

Longtime Downtown North resident Neilson Buchanan said social networking provides an opportunity to connect without going back to a formalized association, he said.

"No one wants to go back to that kind of by-law organization. In a social-media world like Nextdoor, you can put anything on it and create a specialized group," he said.

Rudd has been working to bring an association together in an organic way. She hosts meetings at her home for about 15 people. About 230 households use Nextdoor for emails, she said. The association doesn't have any board or committee positions.

"We have been very successful finding people to do things ad-hoc," she said.

But "Nextdoor has been great. People can join, lurk, sell stuff. It is like a virtual neighborhood for the computer age," she said.