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History

ABQ DNA LogoEstablished in 1972, a small group of Downtown residents decided that we would no longer watch as our communities were systematically abandoned by both government and business. Eventually, DNA became a model for neighborhood organization across the city, and today, more than 300 associations exist to improve their neighborhoods –and bother City Hall! As a founding member of DNA, I gave the Board a short history of DNA, so that they could understand that they are part of a continuum of people who love living Downtown so much that they’ll put their sweat and tears into keeping it a good place. Afterwards, I was asked to reconstruct my comments for everyone in the neighborhoods.

The Way We Were

Nearly 30 years ago, we were energized by few passionate principles. First, we believed our streets added up to living neighborhoods that are diverse, lively, lovely. The abbreviation for Downtown Neighborhoods Association–DNA–was perfect, because that’s the name of the molecule that is the foundation of life. Downtown neighborhoods are the heart of our city. Another principle was that the DNA organization should keep communications open with everyone in the communities, through the newsletter, talking with neighbors, and events that brought people together.

The issues of 30 years ago were so pressing that it’s hard to say which had the highest priority. Zoning emerged as the number one issue. We saw homes taken over as offices or chopped up into units that eventually became slums. One problem was that much of the area was zoned for office use when City planners dreamed of a huge central business district extending almost to Old Town. So DNA and City planners worked for nearly two years on what became the first sector development plan. Through zoning and other policies, it recognized that Downtown was a place for people to live. Included in the plan were provisions for historic designations that recognized the unique architecture of our neighborhoods and houses and rewarded those owners who repaired their historic houses.

One of the most serious issues to face the neighborhood was the closure of Lew Wallace School in the late 1970s, despite a vigorous campaign to keep it open for our new, young families. The school board not only closed the school but told us they would NEVER reopen it! Never say ‘never’ to DNA. It took us ten years, but we finally got Lew Wallace back, and today, it is one of the best elementary schools in the city.

DNA was the first neighborhood to welcome infill development that was compatible with our area. So from the beginning we kept the communications lines open with developers. We welcomed new townhouses, small apartment buildings and congenial commercial developments built, such as the Carousel Apartments, the former Stephen’s restaurant, the Palms redevelopment, the former Landmark supermarket, etc. We opposed others.

Because DNA was one of the neighborhoods in the central city that housed many social programs, we insisted that they be better distributed around the city. A DNA board member served on a City task force that developed the policy for such a distribution. Some investors in “commercial” or “office” properties in our neighborhoods continued to ignore the changes in zoning and tried to convert houses into offices. In one notorious case involving a powerful state legislator, we took our appeal to the state Supreme Court–and won a landmark case!

We worked on quality-of-life issues. Neighborhood watches, the landscaped Lomas Pedestrianway, Mary Fox Park, the rebuilding of Mountain Road: all these and more happened because of DNA’s initiatives. We did our homework. When we battled against a private jail Downtown, and our research discovered that the company that wanted to build the jail was the subject of a RICO (racketeering) investigation–a small detail that the City had missed. On the social side, we established “Vecinos,” our newsletter, and architect Antoine Predock, one of DNA’s founders, designed its logo for us. For several years, a Chile Contest, a Halloween pumpkin-carving contest, a Posada and Christmas caroling brought neighbors together.

The Way Ahead

Zoning – Zoning must remain a top priority, because we must maintain the integrity of our living residential neighborhoods, and we still have property owners who ignore the law.

Downtown Redevelopment – Everyone must be pleased with yet another effort to revitalize the central business district. But this opportunity also offers some dangers. Neighborhoods surrounding the central business district could become “sacrifice areas.”

Slums – Another area where DNA should move more aggressively is on slum landlords of both residential and commercial properties. One argument against such activity is that “the poor need to have somewhere to live.” The answer to that is, yes, but no one has a right to make a profit from someone else’s misery or to degrade our communities.

Crime – Crime goes down in neighborhoods where folks look out for each other, so DNA should work on recharging neighborhood watch programs.

City Government – City planners are usually on our side. Politicians, however, are on whichever side will get them re-elected. So it’s important for DNA to know where the power lies and how to play that game. One of the ways it can succeed is to solidify its own base, namely the concerned people who live within it boundaries.

DNA Itself – Board members need more time face-to-face with residents. So be sure to tell them what’s on your mind! I did caution the board about taking on too many projects. From experience, I know that some issues are so difficult that burn-out is a real problem for volunteers.

Finally – Who is DNA? In the end, DNA IS YOU! Get informed and involved. If you are on line, go to the Contact Us link on this web site: www.abqdna.com. Join DNA. Contact a board member near you. Monthly DNA board meetings are open, so attend them to get acquainted with members and with issues. Keep your property clean, and if a senior citizen or disabled neighbor needs help with yard work, nab your teenager and roll up your sleeves. To borrow a slogan from an association in San Francisco: Respect the neighborhood!