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One Scoop at a Time: A new way to build a better Boise neighborhood

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Sometimes, it's about ice cream.

For all of the complaints, suggestions and wish lists—concerning jobs, parks, crime and sustainability—that surfaced in a first-of-its-kind meeting in June 2014, one male resident said that, above all, Boise's Vista neighborhood was in desperate need of a frozen treat.

"You know what we need? An ice cream shop," he told a city economic development team (Boise Weekly witnessed the man bring up the ice cream idea in two other discussions).

And while no one disputes the magic of ice cream, the episode was more interesting not for what the man was saying, but that he said he was thrilled that someone was actually listening to him.

Years, perhaps decades, from now, Boise may look back on that ice cream conversation and dozens more—about public safety, housing and transportation, which all occurred at that June meeting—as part of a better way to invest in neighborhoods.

It was a beautiful early summer evening—the kind of twilight that gives residents every reason in the world to be anywhere but inside a crowded neighborhood community center. But come they did—in fact, they packed the Whitney Community Center to participate in something called "Energize our Neighborhoods."

At first glance, the title of the program looked like so many others that have come and gone for decades—government-driven efforts to revitalize communities. But on this particular June evening, something was different: Citizens did most all of the talking. It was "old school" engagement, but refreshing.

If successful, the Energize Our Neighborhoods program is designed to create a dynamic mapping tool for public officials to use before dedicating valuable resources. Ideally, future investments in neighborhood housing, transportation, public safety and sustainability will begin and end with priorities set by the neighborhoods themselves.

Easier said than done—and it's not as if city officials weren't more than a little skittish about what was about to happen that evening.

"I'll be honest with you, I'm a little nervous," said AnaMarie Guiles, Boise's Housing and Community Development manager, looking at her watch as the minutes ticked closer to the start of the 7 p.m. neighborhood meeting. "I hope people actually show up."

Ninety minutes later, she was quite content.

"I'm thrilled," she said, before an exhale of relief.

Those 90 minutes represented uncharted territory: the official launch of a program that Boise Mayor Dave Bieter and City Council members have already shown support for. Boise Weekly readers first met Guiles in April 2014 (BW, News, " A New Way to Look at Boise," April 9, 2014) as she solicited Boise lawmakers' support for the data-gathering project.

"I think this is the mother lode," the mayor enthused at the time over the project's potential. "Let's go ahead and try this in one of our neighborhoods."

Standing before the packed room at the Whitney Community Center, Guiles explained the purpose of the program to its pilot neighborhood.

"I know that we, at City Hall, talk a lot about making Boise the most livable city in the nation and that sounds great; but really, what does that mean?" she said. "Our discussions with you should begin with us asking, 'What does a livable neighborhood mean to you?' We really don't want this to be about the city imposing things on you."

Her comment was met with a roomful of nods.

"I've lived in this neighborhood since 1999. Better yet, my husband grew up in this neighborhood and he insisted that we live here," said Barbara English. "What can I tell you? I even know all the dogs' names."

More importantly, English knows the kids' names. She's a youth recreation specialist with the city and, to the person, everyone BW spoke to at the neighborhood meeting said English was the person who makes the youth center, right next to Whitney Elementary School, tick.

"To be honest, the city built this community center here because there's a great need," said English. "This is a very active center, particularly for teens. The number of teenagers who come through these doors every day is rather stunning."

English described a daily scenario where up to 40 middle- and high-school students fill the teen center each afternoon during the school year. Even during the summer months, dozens of teens call the center their home away from home—a safe oasis offering recreation, nutrition and (don't tell them) appropriate supervision.

"Yes, there are quite a few at-risk kids here. But we try to keep them pretty busy and provide some healthy nutrition; that's pretty important," said English. Indeed, BW learned that Whitney Elementary has the city's second-highest rate of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. Additionally, the Idaho Reading Indicator score, measuring a student's level of reading skills, reveals that Whitney Elementary's kindergarten is 51 percent at, or above, grade level compared to a citywide rate of 62 percent. Whitney's third-grade reading scores reveal 67 percent at or above grade level, compared to a citywide rate of 82 percent.

That's reason enough for the neighborhood center to offer tutoring, a reading club, activities in a community garden, open gym and mentoring from neighboring high-school students. All told, including elementary, middle- and high-school students, as many as 150 kids are at the center each afternoon during the school year.

"Here, let me show you something," said English, leading BW to her office. A few seconds later, she rolled out a pushcart that was so overpacked with books that if one spilled off of the stack, surely a dozen more would follow. English proudly calls this her "mobile reading club."

"I wheel this around until we find a little quiet place," she said. "That's usually when a kid grabs a book, sits down and the magic begins."

But it's not as if English can't use some help conjuring that magic.

"I'm not really sure what to expect here tonight," she said June 10, 2014, as a steady flow of adults walked through the doors of the center, filling the same rooms and halls where English shepherds kids every day. "I guess the city is sending the message that it wants to reinvest in the neighborhood. Wouldn't that be great?"

Dusty Benner agreed. He said he's usually taking the pulse of the neighborhood as pastor of Sojourn Church, which coincidentally uses the same community center for its Sunday morning services.

"What can I tell you about our neighborhood? Well, for one, we have a lot of diversity. For instance, my wife and I have an adopted 4-year-old daughter from Ethiopia," said Benner. "Our neighborhood has its share of issues. But we have a lot of neighbors caring for neighbors."

For example, the neighborhood's numerous churches bond together to offer a free Friday evening meal at a different location each week. Equally significant is the fact that the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, just a few blocks from the community center, keeps the doors of its food pantry open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

"And there's usually a huge line there every one of those days," said English.

In spite of that harsh reality, optimism defined the Vista meeting as neighbors spread out to sit at one of a series of tables, each representing a different discussion. In one corner, residents talked to city and Ada County Highway District officials about speed limits on residential streets or the lack of sidewalks in front of their homes; at another table, parents were advocating for more organized recreational activities for their kids; at another table, homeowners poured over data that identified the age and size of each of the neighborhood's homes; and yes, over in a corner where an economic development discussion was being held, there was that man talking about ice cream and how it would make a great niche business for an entrepreneur looking for an anxious clientele.

For the record, city officials didn't blink; in fact, they made a point of writing down his ice cream suggestion.

"I have to tell you, I've attended quite a few community meetings over the years, and many of those meetings were about much more contentious issues, but no one would show up. And now, look at this tonight," Deputy Chief William Bones, with the Boise Police Department, told Boise Weekly as he looked out at a room full of citizens.

Bones and two fellow officers sat at yet another table, listening to people talk about what it takes to keep the peace in the Vista neighborhood.

"This is very encouraging. I like to think that this might be a new model for us to try with other neighborhoods. This has huge potential," he said.

But the real heavy lifting hasn't even begun. Guiles told BW that she wants at least a few more opportunities—maybe two or three more meetings—to listen to Vista neighbors and business owners.

"Believe me, we have no desire for this to be just another well-written plan that sits up on a shelf," she said. "Yes, this plan is about reasonable planning, but it's mostly about execution. We've got to get things done, but only after we understand what the neighborhood wants. The entire implantation? We don't want this stretched out. We're talking about one to three years."

The city plans to hire a full-time project manager to oversee the project—the Boise City Council has already given its preliminary endorsement for the next fiscal year.

A mere 90-minute meeting may not solve anything—let alone for anything so complex as an historic neighborhood with contemporary, nuanced needs. But it wasn't a terrible place to start, giving the city and its residents the opportunity—and the structure—to define how they see their community, block by block.

By 8:30 p.m., as neighbors said their goodbyes and streamed out into what was left of the summer evening, the general consensus was that something fresh, yet familiar, had just been served up—almost like, well, ice cream.