Count James West, the only African-American member of the City Council, as a true believer on the subject of citizen participation. Yes, incomes are low in Southeast Raleigh, the district he represents, and the number of substandard and abandoned housing units is high. But the endemic problem, West thinks, the one that's in the way of addressing the others, is apathy. Southeast residents don't trust the city government, he says, or else just don't think it will ever do anything for them. He doesn't bother to say that history would justify either view. He says simply that it's time to form constructive partnerships that elevate his constituents and reward investors in Southeast, including the city. "That's what I believe in, empowering people," he says. "Community engagement is vital."
The Southeast Raleigh Assembly, a 45-member body with official advisory status to the City Council, is West's creation. He's guided it through a year-long process of goal-setting, including a town meeting of 180 citizens last winter, leading to a July report that called for focusing efforts in the "older, inner-core area" where the problems are greatest, not skipping over them to help the higher-growth spots outside the I-440 Beltline. It asked the police department to help get better streetlights installed. It got the council to assign both of the city's new code enforcement staffers to Southeast.
The Assembly has 100 goals, ranging from large (an economic development fund and "virtual incubator" to assist business owners) to small (get somebody on the Raleigh Arts Commission's funding committee). Open tracts of land await developers on New Bern Avenue--the East Raleigh counterpart of Hillsborough Street in West Raleigh--as well as Southeast's gateway corridor along Garner Road. The city has favored neither road with much in the way of public improvements before. Both are in line for some now--if the community can spell out how public money will foster private investments and the civic engagement that would sustain them.