As American cities grow larger and larger, municipal governments often have trouble keeping up with the needs of sprawling low-income neighborhoods. Basic services, let alone beautification and revitalization schemes, become harder to provide. As trash and graffiti accumulate, residents lose investment in the community, often leading into a cycle of poverty, neglect, and crime.
In 1997, San Antonio officials created the Neighborhood Action Department (NAD) to help revitalize at-risk districts in the city in a sensitive and holistic manner. The agency's main responsibility is the leading of targeted "Sweeps" through various neighborhoods, bringing much-needed attention and services together over an intensely focused two-week period. In determining likely targets for the program, city officials analyze various departmental data about crime statistics, health code violations, vacant lots, weakening infrastructure, and many other indicators, and then decide where to best focus their efforts. Each City Council district receives two neighborhood Sweeps a year.
In preparation for each sweep, NAD officials meet with residents in the targeted neighborhood to determine their concerns and priorities for change. On the first day, city employees and volunteers from a variety of agencies converge on a 60-block area of the neighborhood and start working on the most pressing projects. Standard services provided during the Sweep include pothole repair, junk vehicle removal, street sweeping, graffiti abatement, vacant lot clean-ups, animal control, immunizations, and fire safety inspections.
For the duration of the Sweep, a mobile command post is located in the center of the affected neighborhood as a satellite "City Hall," where residents can inquire about services and air any issues they have with the project. Information is provided in both English and Spanish to ensure maximum communication within the community. With different city services working as a team, the positive effect on the community is far greater than that of a single inspector or official reporting a violation.
As of 1999, NAD's Sweeps had served over 23,000 households, and the group had removed over 2,700 tons of brush and trash from city streets. When aesthetic, health, or safety violations have been found, the rate of voluntary compliance with city directives has been around 80%, demonstrating the positive investment community members have as a result of the program, and saving the hassle and expense of citations and court appearances.
Perhaps as important as the physical improvement provided by the program is the bond of trust such an extensive operation builds between local residents and city government, even when past interactions had been more combative. After the Sweep, the NAD coordinator conducts a follow-up meeting with residents to inform them of the activities conducted, and to discuss strategies for resolving outstanding issues. After a Sweep in the St. Henry's/Lone Star district successfully cleaned up the neighborhood, community leaders collaborated with the city to build new affordable housing and expand the local elementary school. Residents in the South Flores (SoFlo) commercial street corridor worked to create new small businesses. Other city governments in Texas and beyond have expressed interest in the program.