A COMM-ORG Working Paper, 1997

Stephen E. Barton, Ph.D., AICP is Housing Director for the City of Berkeley. His 1996 article "Social Housing Versus Housing Allowances" received the annual best feature award from the Journal of the American Planning Association.

Property, Community, Democracy:

Barriers to Social Democracy in the Beliefs of San Francisco Neighborhood Leaders

Stephen E. Barton

E-mail address: SBarton@ci.berkeley.ca.us

Telephone: 510-981-5400

July 1997




Property Rights and Universal Rights in the Urban Community

The Dangers of Community Control

The Civic Tradition in Urban America

Politics and Community




Neighborhood organization leaders in San Francisco generally have one of two sets of civic beliefs about the neighborhood residents, one that gives primacy to property ownership or another that gives primacy to citizenship. Both groups are concerned that reform proposals that create greater community control over major resources will lead to political conflict that disrupts local community relationships. This is not, as Bellah and associates suggest, because they lack a language of civic concern. Rather, community control of economic resources requires a concept of community politics that can reconcile two processes which are in severe tension with each other - the search for consensus and the need to protect vital but opposing interests. The tensions between democracy, community, and individual rights are a neglected barrier to support for progressive democratic reforms.


"We live in a society of relationships and responsibilities. Some people don't want to admit it but I believe that's the very foundation of our society..."

Dennis Carey

"I think there's real problems trying to live and work collectively with people you don't like, and that's one of the liberal mistakes that people have made is assuming that you'll be able to live happily and cooperatively with anyone."

Mary Claiborn

Discussion of the possibility of social democratic reform in the U.S. often focuses on the division between the politics of the workplace and the politics of the residential neighborhood. In his book City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States, Ira Katznelson argued that "community-based strategies for social change in the United States cannot succeed unless they pay attention to the country's special pattern of class formation; to the split in the practical consciousness of American workers between the language and practice of a politics of work and those of a politics of community (1981, p.194). These "trenches" that divide community and workplace politics, have been widely recognized and explored (Halle, 1984; Kornblum, 1974. Simmons, 1994). Recognition of the problem, however, has not been accompanied by equally careful study of ways to bridge the gap. Private property rights are a fundamental American institution that pervade the economy, politics and culture, so that changes in how they are defined both morally and institutionally have the potential to bridge the different domains of neighborhood and workplace. This is a study of one part of this potential bridge, the beliefs about property rights held by neighborhood organization leaders.

Debate over the balance between private property rights and democratic government is central to the American political tradition. Through more than two centuries the debate has gone back and forth between two opposing camps: those who emphasize the threat democracy can pose to private property, from the early "unruly mob" to today's "big government"; and those who emphasize the threat certain forms of private property pose to democracy, from the "slave power" which was overthrown to the "soulless corporation" which is now more dominant than ever. The shared value of community plays an important role in these debates. Proponents of extended private property rights argue that private property ownership is the essential basis for stable communities and that local communities are disrupted by public programs and agencies. Proponents of extended democracy argue that communities are strengthened by citizens participation in the democratic process and disrupted by profit-maximizing private corporations.

Each side has a corresponding program for combating external disruption of the community: one through privatization, reducing areas of public sector activity and strengthening the rights of ownership; and the other through economic democracy, expanding democratic control over private corporations and strengthening the rights of non-owners. Neighborhood associations play an important part in both programs. In the privatization scenario they provide services now provided by municipal agencies and exercise social control through private covenants, rather than through government regulation (Dilger, 1992; Frazier, 1980; McClaughrey, 1980; McKenzie, 1994). In the democratic community control scenario, neighborhood organizations complement workplace organizations. They provide goods and services, such as housing, which are now provided by the private sector, exercise delegated regulatory powers over local property owners and exercise control over local delivery of public services (Boyte, 1980).

The focus on external disruption of community leads proponents of these reform programs to ignore internal difficulties in the kinds of community that would be required to sustain their respective programs. It is almost a universal assumption in the community organization literature that the stronger residents' sense of community, the stronger their confidence in their ability to organize and control their community (Barton, 1977; Berger & Neuhaus, 1977; Boyte, 1980; Hunter, 1974). Community is understood to be socially constructed, but once built it is assumed to be a domain of consensus and unified interests. Since this ideal community should be a powerful political force, the weakness of local control over economic life in America is somewhat of a puzzle, one for which the strength of external enemies is scarcely a sufficient explanation.

Robert Bellah and associates (1985) have supplemented this view with an examination of the internal difficulties people face in trying to live as part of various communities. In their view, Americans' lack of support for more participatory forms of democracy is due to the radical individualism of American culture, which leaves Americans without the internal resources, particularly a descriptive moral language, necessary to create strong communities. Without a new culture of commitment to sustain a democratic society, they argue, neither private corporations nor economic democracy can provide the basis for anything but alternative forms of technocratic despotism. They argue that the tradition of civic republicanism--which provides a language of civic commitment, concern for the common good, and obligations to others--must be revived to supplement the language of individual rights provided by the tradition of market liberalism. In a secondary argument they imply that, since the language of civic commitment stresses the obligations of private property owners to the community as a whole, such a revival will strengthen the movement for economic democracy. They go on to suggest that the seeds of such a revival are present in the "citizens movement", a loose network of progressive community activists working at the local level for greater equality and economic democracy, although liberal individualism predominates there too.

In the following pages I test the arguments of Bellah and associates against the views of San Francisco neighborhood leaders about private property rights, democracy, and community at the local level. During 1983 and 1984 I interviewed thirty neighborhood organization leaders in three neighborhoods for between one and three hours each, probing their views on recent issues chosen to bring out their beliefs about property rights, community, and local democracy. These leaders were chosen to provide a wide range of positions on local issues and a wide range of beliefs. The neighborhoods were radical, liberal, and conservative in voting patterns and reputation and they included multiple and often competing neighborhood associations, including neighborhood-wide associations, block clubs, merchants associations, and volunteer dispute resolution organizations. My respondents presented the full range of publicly expressed views on neighborhood issues in San Francisco. In order to protect their confidentiality both their names and the names of their neighborhoods are replaced by pseudonyms. (For a discussion of the value of qualitative analysis of intensive interviews as a research method in a closely related subject see Hochschild, 1981).

San Francisco has a thirty-year history of progressive neighborhood activism, dating back to the civil rights movement, and neighborhood organizations have played an important role in winning strong local controls on landlords and developers. At the same time it has substantial conservative neighborhoods, and neighborhood organizations can be found on all sides of local political conflicts. At the time of the interviews, the San Francisco neighborhood movement was strong and considered itself politically progressive, engaged in a major city-wide political struggle against the harmful effects of downtown growth on surrounding residential areas and the perceived disproportionate use of City revenue to support downtown interests (Barton, 1985b). Any suggestion that these neighborhood leaders are similar to those in other American cities awaits much further study.

In the following pages I argue that my respondents are divided into opposing groups by their moral and ideological stance towards private property rights. Respondents with a shared understanding of the meaning of private property may vary in the specific policies they support, particularly because other concepts which are not shared also influence them, but the underlying moral reasoning is similar within each group. Indeed, my respondents knew when the positions they espoused were variant for a member of their group and could explain the exceptional circumstances which led them to such a conclusion. I examine the pattern of beliefs typical for each group and use representative quotations to illustrate these views rather than systematically canvassing the views of each respondent or the variations in beliefs within each group. (A fuller set of quotations, more detailed description of the respondents, and the interview schedule are available in Barton, 1985a). The purpose of this article is primarily to demonstrate the central role of beliefs about property and democracy in community politics and to suggest that understanding and working with their interrelationship is essential to building a successful movement for social reform.

Property Rights and Universal Rights in the Urban Community

In order to understand neighborhood organization leaders, we must understand the fundamental conflicts and tensions in the neighborhoods they represent. The neighborhood in American society is a zone of tension between the ideal of individual liberty and the social nature of human life, a place where the private sphere of the home is drawn into the public domain of collective choices.

Middle-class Americans, whether homeowners or renters, generally perceive the home as a refuge from the outside world and its demands, as the domain of freedom, individuality, and self-fulfillment (Agnew, 1982; Rakoff, 1977; Silverman, 1983). It is a place where relationships and activities are ends in themselves rather than means to other ends such as making a living. But the home is also part of a neighborhood, an area in which the private domain of the home and individual freedom merges into the public domain of shared spaces and collective use of goods and services.

Private property rights establish a boundary between private and public decision-making, but the exercise of collective choice, even in defense of the privacy of the home, involves limitations on the free use of private property. As they try to protect their private domain, neighborhood residents bring out the public aspects of private choices and struggle with the tensions between them.

My respondents, with only two exceptions, shared similar views of community in the neighborhood. Their views were characterized by respect for individuality and privacy combined with a commitment to the good of the neighborhood as a whole. In this view, people look out for one another without necessarily being friends. This pattern, which one leader described as "uninterfering caring", is well adapted to maintaining a sense of community in a city whose neighborhoods are all at least somewhat racially and culturally diverse. Anne Luria, a real estate broker, homeowner and president of a conservative neighborhood association, describes good neighbors as "active and interested in the neighborhood... friendly... It's not necessary or desirable to be all buddy-buddy and entertain each other but there should be a sense of community. We should know each other by sight and look out for each other... have a sense of responsibility to each other just as people". Kaye Marshall, a renter active in a block club in a progressive neighborhood association uses similar terms: "I don't like to be so chummy we're in each others' houses all the time, but I really like that sense of security and community that people watching out for each other brings... What I like best (about the neighborhood) is its diversity and the sense of community within that diversity... There is conflict... but there is also... a great feeling of togetherness, and people seem to be able to organize around things like the library that are important to us and that's exciting."

This concept of the neighbor relationship is not unique to neighborhood activists or to San Francisco, but it is learned and is most often found in urban areas. In interviews with a random sample of residents in two San Francisco neighborhoods, Silverman (1983) found widespread recognition of "public interdependence" as part of the neighbor tie among people who were not leaders or activists, and described the process by which people learned to understand this interdependence from their neighbors and neighborhood organizations. In suburban neighborhoods, in contrast, she found an emphasis on neighboring as personal friendship, and little recognition of interdependence with people who were not personal friends. On the basis of a survey covering the whole of Northern California, Silverman (1986) found that a sense of connection and interdependence among neighbors is a widespread characteristic of urban neighboring styles.

Despite this shared conception of community, my respondents divided into two groups with competing approaches to individual rights. The ten respondents I will call "private property rights-oriented" shared a traditional conception of private property ownership as both the means by which people gain personal freedom and security and as the way in which people demonstrate that they have chosen to be responsible members of the community. In their view private property ownership is what enables people to reconcile the goal of individual freedom with the necessity of managing interdependence. They consider alternative means of achieving these ends to be illegitimate. The twenty respondents I call "universal rights-oriented" believed that personal freedom and security in the home and at the workplace should be universal rights held regardless of ownership status, that such freedom and security encourages people to be responsible members of the community, and that government must limit the uses of private property to protect those rights. They did not wish to replace private property ownership but rather sought to redistribute some of the rights attached to property ownership to non-owners whose lives were affected by the use of that property.

The breadth of support for private property ownership shows up in the universal desire for home ownership as a means to provide residential stability and freedom within the home. Richard Fine, a gay consulting engineer, block club leader and homeowner speaks for all my respondents in describing the benefits of home ownership: "I have a feeling of being somewhat permanent, especially in this neighborhood... I can do what I like with the house, the yard. I feel like I own part of the city." But Fine also supports rent control and a limit on condominium conversions in order to provide similar benefits to tenants, and makes no connection between ownership and personal character. In contrast James Stuart, a retired railroad worker, homeowner and neighborhood association president says: "If you don't want to put up with things such as (evictions) you buy your own property and then you can do as you please. You've got to make an effort to own your own home." And Anne Luria says "I believe in owning my own property because I get to choose, and that's what people should work towards rather than (with rent control) controlling the environment that somebody else is responsible for". For these private property oriented leaders home ownership is a matter of personal choice which reveals willingness to invest oneself personally and financially in the responsibilities of ownership.

The two groups diverge in how they view the connection between property ownership, individual responsibility, and individual rights. Universal rights oriented leaders supported measures to protect tenants because they believe everyone "has a right to a certain stability". They believe that most people will be responsible members of the community whether they own or not. Linda Castillo, a self-employed homeowner active in a neighborhood dispute resolution program explains that she does not mind a unit of public housing across the street because "people that are responsible tend to stay and those who are not don't stay too long".

Private property oriented leaders are aware that not all property owners are responsible, but they believe that such people are exceptional and that what they consider fair treatment of non-owners will be most profitable in the long run. Lawrence Clifford, a retired African-American civil servant, homeowner, and block club leader, feels that large rent increases are not fair, but adds "however it is his property so if he wants more money it should be his prerogative". Such profit maximizing behavior is likely to backfire. "You're keeping up my property and then (I) go and rent it to somebody else for more money and... he'll run it down. Then what have you got." As a result, he feels, most landlords would be reluctant to displace good tenants.

Universal rights oriented leaders consider the profit motive a threat to the social fabric which requires public controls rather than private self-regulation. As Dennis Carey, a retired architect, renter and neighborhood association officer put it: "We live in a society of relationships and responsibilities. Some people don't want to admit it but I believe that's the very foundation of our society... you surrendering your right to be arbitrary to me." They blame the profit motive for the insecurity of tenure and increasingly high housing costs in San Francisco, which they see as sources of disruption and incivility. "Where the rents are $1,500 a month and families have to go in together to rent it and they (are extremely angry about that)... you don't get quality neighbors" says Joan Thomas, a teacher, homeowner, and block club leader. In addition, universal rights oriented leaders believe the contributions of non-owners entitle them to equal rights with owners. For Richard Lipsky, a lawyer, block club leader and homeowner "San Francisco is a desirable city not because of private landlords and private owners but because of the character of the city" and this character is a public creation in which all members of the public have a right to share.

This belief that all members of the public help create the valued character of the city is held by both groups and extends even to those with whom there is friction and hostility. Among universal rights oriented leaders, Gay block club leader Richard Fine will not concede that "there's anything I don't like about the area because if I said (I wanted) a little less what you might call street activity (mostly Latino youth groups) then I don't think it would be Bancroft Park anymore." Among private property oriented leaders, Ann Luria says "What I like best is also what I dislike most. It's a very dynamic neighborhood. There are people of all kinds, blacks, gays, straights, renters, owners, strange people..."

Most private property oriented leaders shared the widespread belief that San Franciscans' ability to get along despite differences of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and culture provided a model for the rest of the United States. Fred Page, a gay accountant, homeowner, and block club leader argued eloquently that it is "a lot easier for everyone to get along and understand each other" when neighborhoods contain "a combination of blue collar and white collar, gay and straight people". But he values that diversity in what he sees as a "single-family home, owner-occupied neighborhood" where people who are diverse in other ways share the responsibilities of home ownership. For Page, tenants "have no particular interest in the property as a home" and are generally transients who "don't care about the quality of life in a neighborhood because they're there for a short time." He particularly opposes subsidized housing in his neighborhood, even subsidized home ownership, and led a protest against plans to build subsidized owner-occupied housing nearby. Lawrence Clifford shares the feeling that subsidies of any kind, including low interest mortgages for first time buyers, destroy the element of personal responsibility and lead people to "act like regular welfare recipients, people in a ghetto type neighborhood".

The two groups readily extended their views from the residence to the workplace. Universal rights oriented leaders felt workers should have rights to security of employment and that property owners had obligations to their employees as well as rights. For Dennis Carey "a company does have a responsibility to its workers as much as to its stockholders". The universal rights oriented leaders felt that the incentive structure created by property rights should be changed to make plant relocations less profitable. They did not propose to do away with private property rights or the market but rather to restructure them, with suggestions ranging from "reimbursement or compensation otherwise you don't move" to "employee ownership".

Private property oriented leaders readily equated ownership at the home and at the workplace. Lawrence Clifford argued that the plant owner "should be able to do what he wants. That's like me doing what I want with my own property". For Fred Page, "those are the very kinds of disruptions you have to put up with to make sure you have an efficient marketplace... In the long run things will be a lot better off if you let people go where they can be most efficient". Even when private property oriented leaders see apparently systematic activities of which they disapprove, their belief in private property rights limits their responses. James Stuart, a life-long union member, becomes visibly upset when discussing plant relocations, which he attributes to "the big corporate men" who "want more money at the expense of the laborers, people who have made them big." But he can only suggest that the President of the United States exercise the moral authority of his office to get the "big corporate men to talk it over." For Stuart, "If he owns a business, a piece of property... he has a right to close it down." Contribution without ownership creates no enforceable obligations. Since private ownership is essential to a stable community, restrictions on the rights of owners are believed to be a greater danger than a failure to protect non-owning members of the community from the abuse of power by owners.

It comes as no surprise that universal rights oriented leaders strongly support land use controls for the purpose of protecting neighborhood character. For them this is part of the general public's right to stability and security. The private property oriented leaders, however, are equally strong supporters of land use controls. For them the neighborhood is in effect a corporate unit in which individual property owners have purchased membership and which no single owner has the right to change. (Hayek, 1960:341, is one of the few private property oriented intellectuals who has taken this approach, rather than insisting that only private covenants, explicitly agreed upon, can create obligations between an individual land owner and the surrounding neighborhood.) The free market, in these respondents' view, consists of choices between neighborhoods, not within them. As real estate broker Anne Luria says, "If you want to do something, buy a building where you can do it". The homeowner thus does not have to depend entirely on either the responsible character of other property owners or the long run profitability of fair behavior. The residential neighborhood receives an added measure of protection based on an expansive conception of the property rights of the owners of individual units or buildings over the neighborhood as a whole. (This conception is literally true for planned developments and condominium developments with common property and accompanying restrictive covenants. Barton & Silverman, 1994)

The Dangers of Community Control

Although both universal rights oriented and private property oriented leaders wanted neighborhood control over future development, both regarded outright government ownership of housing as a disaster which created an unresponsive, insensitive and inefficient bureaucracy. In the words of William Blaine, a renter and neighborhood organization staff member: "It really creates interesting political possibilities when the landlord is a public agency, (which) makes it a political relationship, but the only cases I know are bad situations in public housing, an inefficient bureaucracy which is probably the locus of some of the major corruption in the city." Or as Ron Schmid, a neighborhood association officer, homeowner and city employee succinctly put it, "everything the city touches turns to shit".

Universal rights oriented respondents like William Blaine were "in favor of ownership and institutions that empower people and give us more control over our lives" and for them this generally meant cooperative ownership. They were concerned, however, that collective decision-making could intensify conflict within the local community. For example Anne Johnson, a secretary, homeowner and neighborhood association president worried about how residents of cooperative housing would cope "if the other tenants were people you had huge problems with".

Consistently, when asked about a major aspect of cooperative management, tenant control over who would fill vacant apartments, respondents worried that the group who controlled the building might trample on the rights of others. "From a neighborhood organizational point of view it makes perfect sense," said Ron Schmid, but "from a political point of view it's a crock, it's racism." For Richard Fine, "On the surface it sounds nice but it could lead to a lot of discrimination." (Are tenants more likely to discriminate than landlords?) " Yes. They're the ones that live there. I don't think most landlords care as long as they get their money." Universal rights oriented respondents generally felt that the impersonality of the market, which they disliked for its heedlessness of neighborhood social fabric, was a valuable protection against discrimination. Only one person took the point of view that tenant control might reduce the existing, well-documented, and widespread discrimination by private landlords.

Universal rights oriented leaders were also concerned that participants in democratic control over buildings might make self-interested use of the political process. Ron Schmid described a case where "the political hiring process for maintenance made sure nothing ever got done". Many universal rights oriented leaders supported non-profit neighborhood housing development corporations, which might offer an intermediate position between the bureaucracy of public housing and the intensive participatory control of the cooperative, but there was skepticism there too. According to neighborhood association staff member William Blaine "generally they're not managed very well, they're real political institutions". Nonetheless he and other universal rights oriented leaders continued to work to create a "third way" between the alternatives of government and business ownership that they found intolerable.

Private property oriented leaders sometimes supported cooperatives or condominiums as a means of bringing a form of property ownership to those who otherwise could not afford it, but they were even more strongly concerned with the possibilities of conflict among the residents. Dale Harris, an artist who shared ownership and use of a single family house with a housemate, described it this way: "As you get more on a peer relationship people get more difficult with their demands. Somehow with a landlord I don't take it so personally, but someone who's more your peer, like a fellow owner, I might not want them telling me stuff... Mostly when I've lived with people before it's been laissez faire, nobody interfered with anyone, but when people own things they get more strident."

The Civic Tradition in Urban America

My respondents are linked to a debate which is as old as the United States itself by their systematically different sets of beliefs about the moral valuation of private property and their need for a way to reconcile community and conflict. Their beliefs are rooted in the civic tradition of concern for the development of character, commitment to the community, and public responsibility as well as in the liberal tradition of concern for individual rights and the protection of private life (Peterson, 1966, 59-67; Pocock, 1975). For the private property oriented leaders, private property is an institution which helps create responsible people and communities as well as a source of economic freedom and prosperity, and must reflect both purposes. The universal rights oriented leaders support alternative rights that will provide non-owning families and individuals the security and stability available to owners in order to provide for civic as well as individual welfare. The two groups might be described as conservative and progressive Jeffersonians.

My respondents' approach to rent control is particularly telling. Economists have achieved a remarkable consensus that rent control is an inefficient means of redistributing income because it gives major benefits to middle- and even upper-income tenants and singles out landlords as a class without concern for their income levels. For the universal rights oriented leaders this misses the point. Their interest is in supporting household stability, which they believe will strengthen the neighborhood social fabric. Their concerns are with civic culture, not welfare economics. Similarly, private property owners oppose rent control because they feel tenants have not earned the right to such protection, not simply because they consider it inefficient. The disagreement between the two groups centers on whether such rights for non-owners encourage stability and personal responsibility or whether the process of earning property ownership is necessary in order to make people stable and responsible.

Robert Bellah and associates argue that their interviews with middle class Americans, many of them civic leaders and activists, show that liberal individualism has so overwhelmed the older civic tradition that expressions of commitment to the public good exist only as a "second language" (Bellah et al, 1985). However, the language and theory of the civic tradition are a widespread and coherent part of the beliefs of San Francisco's neighborhood leaders. They are concerned both with personal freedom and privacy and with commitment to cooperative action to secure the local community's quality of life. They felt that caring about one's home was normally accompanied by a sense of collective responsibility for one's neighborhood. The "languages and practices of commitment that shape character" which Bellah and associates (1985:251) see as the basis for public life in the civic republican tradition are as common a part of their thinking as the liberal language of individual rights, although they differ on whether private property ownership or universal rights provide the appropriate basis for this commitment. Furthermore, the language of civic commitment is as accessible to conservative proponents of extended private property rights as it is to progressive reformers. The rhetoric linking home ownership to civic responsibility has been in continuous use for well over a century (deNeufville & Barton, 1986; Wright, 1983).

Both private property and universal rights oriented leaders have their own characteristic dilemmas. The private property oriented leaders are uncertain about the basis of community in a diverse setting where renters predominate and cooperative or condominium home ownership do not fit with their understandings of the appropriate structure for private property. In San Francisco's high-density urban setting, they are adrift without an ideology capable of making sense of their surroundings.

The universal rights oriented leaders see a universal right to security as the basis for neighborhood community, and are capable of extending their ideology to include the tenants who make up two-thirds of the San Francisco population. They are concerned, however, that the democratic control over resources necessary to make that right effective will not be accompanied by sufficient respect for individual rights. Several had been caught up in bitter neighborhood conflicts. Ron Schmid talked about how his neighborhood organization had tried to deal with a proposal by a religious order to convert an abandoned Catholic school into a home for teenage girls with severe behavioral problems. "The reason you provoke confrontation, and this is a real bottom line tenet of Alinsky, is go ahead, provoke the confrontation and the understanding the people will get out of that is that they have to organize. Didn't happen. ... Our (organizations') thing is there's no due process... (the neighborhood residents) got hung up in the content." Vehement community opposition defeated the proposal and made a previously unknown ex-policeman, then-fireman named Dan White into a community spokesperson, laying the groundwork for his election to the Board of Supervisors.

Nearly all of the leaders I interviewed were concerned that local control, whether based on private ownership or citizens rights, will overload neighbors' commitment to civility and generate rancorous conflict in the local community rather than creating the mutual learning process described by advocates of participatory democracy or the harmonious pursuit of private ends described by advocates of privatization.

One of the strongest exceptions to this distrust of collective ownership helps illustrate the dilemma. Mary Claiborn is a universal rights oriented social worker who is active in a socialist housing group. She is also a homeowner who shares her house out of a desire to live collectively. She argues that the fear of interpersonal conflict reflects a lack of experience with collective life. "I've been living collectively for some time... It's not something which is easy to do... It just takes skill and the desire to live with people you care about."

She continues on to say "I think there's real problems trying to live and work collectively with people you don't like, and that's one of the liberal mistakes that people have made is assuming that you'll be able to live happily and cooperatively with anyone." A major part of what she and the other San Francisco neighborhood leaders are proud of, however, is that they can live and cooperate with virtually any sort of person in their neighborhood and, together, maintain its quality of life. The neighborhood is not the home, but it closely surrounds the home, and its residents do live and work together, if not as intimately as people who share the same house.

Politics and Community

I have looked at whether San Francisco neighborhood leaders generally lacked a language of civic commitment and responsibility to the community, whether elements of such a language are to be found mostly among some progressive leaders, and whether the use of a language of civic commitment strengthens leaders' belief in the greater importance of democracy over private property rights. I found instead that both conservative, private property-oriented leaders and progressive, citizens rights-oriented leaders use and have a clear understanding of the language and importance of civic commitment and believe that their preferred form of rights sustains such commitment. Their beliefs extend to both the residential neighborhood and the workplace, which they see as two parts of the broader community of which they are a part.

They believe that the members of the local community have a right to collectively decide on changes in its character and to set the rules by which members will live. At the same time, they feel that this same political process of collective decision-making at the level of the local community, whether it takes place within the public or private sectors, threatens to disrupt that community and may overwhelm the civic cohesion they work hard to sustain in their neighborhoods. This is a cultural limitation on support for implementation of contemporary reform programs, but the limitations are in leaders' ability to understand how to integrate practical politics with their ideal of community rather than in a lack of civic ideals.

Both groups of neighborhood leaders lack a belief in democratic politics as a unifying rather than a divisive activity. They understand politics as, at best, a struggle to obtain equality and, more typically, a conflict over personal or group advantage. Recall neighborhood organizer William Blaine's remarks. In his view the advantage of public housing was that it created a political relationship between landlord and tenant, meaning that it allowed tenants a legitimate domain to influence those who owned their homes and thus carried an egalitarian potential. But he continued on to imply that institutions focused on political conflict were not compatible with constructive or creative activity.

Most of the people I interviewed had lived in the city in 1979 when Dan White, who had recently resigned from his position on the Board of Supervisors, assassinated liberal Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk. They were acutely concerned that further eruptions of group and cultural hostilities could destroy the sense of community amidst diversity that they value as a major part of life in San Francisco. Part of White's pattern of incivility before the murders lay in his understanding of politics. For him the routine vote trading and accommodation among elected officials separated by different ideologies and even personal animosities was "corrupt politics", a betrayal of principle (Shilts, 1982). Ironically, this negative view of politics is only an extreme version of the view held by most of my respondents. They distinguished between corruption, in the sense of an official selling political influence for personal gain, and normal politics, a dismal proceeding in which interest groups contested with each other for their own advantage while agreeing to peacefully coexist. They had little faith that the political process could become actively unifying or creative. Few of my respondents would join with Bernard Crick (1982) in praising politics as the means by which civilized people resolve their differences.

My respondents clearly make the distinction described by Bellah and associates (1985:200) between the politics of community, with its search for consensus and common ends, and the politics of interest, based on conflict and compromise. They share the fear that "where the interests involved are incommensurable and therefore almost impossible to adjudicate, interest politics must inevitably break down into coercion or fraud" (203) as happened in the City Hall murders. But this concern is not, as Bellah and associates suggest (204), the result of the blinders of individualism, a failure to perceive interdependence, and an inability to deal meaningfully with institutions. Rather it reflects real tensions between the local community and the process of government, between the search for consensus and the protection of vital interests (Barton, 1984).

Jane Mansbridge (1980) argues that a unitary, consensus-seeking form of democratic politics can flourish when "adversary democracy" is not needed to provide equal protection because vital interests are not at stake. My respondents have what they perceive as vital interests at stake almost constantly, as they engage in ongoing political struggles to define and structure property rights and universal rights and as the character of their neighborhood is fought over lot by lot and hearing after hearing before the Planning Commission, Rent Board and Board of Supervisors. These leaders can neither get "beyond" adversary democracy, nor accept a simple adversarial stance toward their neighbors. Members of neighborhood associations often have strongly differing views on property rights and other critical issues yet also cooperate to improve local services, fight crime, or hold festivals. For example, Fred Page saw nothing contradictory in his leadership role in both an anti-crime block club sponsored by a neighborhood association and in a protest against a proposal by the same neighborhood association to build subsidized cooperative housing nearby.

San Francisco's neighborhood leaders are trying to build a community which contains both cooperation and conflict. As tools they have civic ideologies in which property ownership or universal rights play conflicting roles, a shared commitment to the public good regardless of personal feelings about other members of that public, loosely structured neighborhood organizations which allow shifting patterns of cooperation from issue to issue, and the distancing provided by representative democracy. They cultivate the ability to see decisions they consider to be vitally important go against them and still maintain a commitment to each other and to the democratic process, a stance that is not emotionally easy for anyone to sustain. San Francisco neighborhood leaders aspire to a society which combines individual freedom and civic virtue, but they are still trying to develop the understandings, institutions and daily-life experiences which could make them confident that their ideal can become a reality.


"Political theorists have not ordinarily paid much attention to the way ordinary people think about normative issues. My experience...has convinced me that this is a mistake. The men and women I interviewed were often confused, but many of them made heroic efforts to live up to their ideals, reformulating them as they discovered their limitations through painful experience....This experience convinced me that field studies of what happens to various ideals when people try to live by them could prove useful in clarifying a wide range of normative questions."

Jane Mansbridge (1980)

Despite my critical comments about her book, the study presented here was originally inspired by the work of Jane Mansbridge, as well as Robert Lane and Jennifer Hochschild on American belief systems, and by my frustration that none of them dealt directly with private property rights. Now, fourteen years after the interviews were carried out, and twelve years after they were presented in an unpublished dissertation, I hope they might be helpful to current discussions about community organization. I have been happy to see a new wave of interest in "civic" beliefs and community-building in recent years, but at the same time I am disappointed at what seems to me to be a lack of careful analysis of barriers to be overcome. Cheerleading is important, even when your team is in last place, but a clear understanding of how to rebuild is essential. Property is a political, economic and cultural institution whose ramifications pervade American society. The interactions between property, community, and democratic conflict resolution still seem very important to me, however well or poorly I may have grasped them.

Our COMM-ORG editor, Professor Randy Stoecker, has asked that I provide a paragraph on what might be different if the interviews were carried out today. It seems to me that local politics almost everywhere has become remarkable in its vicious personal attacks, hostility and suspicion. But it would be hard to get nastier than political assassination, which San Francisco had already experienced. District election of the Board of Supervisors was restored by the voters in 1996, having been repealed in the wake of the Dan White murders because people accepted campaign arguments that blamed it for unleashing that vicious episode. Neighborhood dispute resolution centers have been incorporated into the City budget and continue to expand their work. Homelessness is much more widespread today and my respondents would no doubt comment on the difficulty of maintaining civility when some residents of the neighborhood live in its parks and lack any housing at all. Non-profit housing development has grown into a large network of more than a dozen neighborhood based housing groups that continue to slowly build and acquire more housing on a non-profit basis and constitute an additional base for progressive politics in the city.


Agnew, John. 1982, "Home Ownership and Identity in Capitalist Societies", 60-97 in James S. Duncan (editor) Housing and Identity: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, N.Y., Holmes & Meier

Barton, Stephen E. 1977. "The Urban Housing Problem: Marxist Theory and Community Organizing", Review of Radical Political Economics, 9#4: 15-30

Barton, Stephen E. 1984, "Conflict Resolution as Necessity, Practice and Ideal", Journal of Planning Education and Research, 4#2: 96-102

Barton, Stephen E. 1985a, Property Rights and Democracy: The Beliefs of San Francisco Neighborhood Leaders and the American Liberal Tradition, Berkeley, University of California Ph.D. dissertation

Barton, Stephen E. 1985b, "The San Francisco Neighborhood Movement", Berkeley Planning Journal, 2#1-2: 85 - 105

Barton, Stephen E. 1996, "Social Housing Versus Housing Allowances: Choosing Between Two Forms of Housing Subsidy at the Local Level", Journal of the American Planning Association, 62#1: 108-119

Barton, Stephen E. and Carol J. Silverman (editors). 1994. Common Interest Communities: Private Governments and the Public Interest, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies Press

Bellah, Robert N., Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Anne Swidler and Steven M. Tipton, 1985, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Berkeley, University of California Press

Berger, Peter L. and Richard J. Neuhaus. 1977. To Empower People: The Role of Mediating Structures in Public Policy, Washington, D.C., American Enterprise Institute

Boyte, Harry C. 1980. The Backyard Revolution: Understanding the New Citizen Movement, Philadelphia, Temple University Press

Crick, Bernard. 1982. In Defense of Politics, N.Y., Penguin Books

DeNeufville, Judith I. & Stephen E. Barton. 1987. "Myths and the Definition of Policy Problems: An Exploration of Home Ownership and Public-Private Partnerships", Policy Sciences, 20: 181-206

Dilger, Robert Jay. 1992. Neighborhood Politics: Residential Community Associations in American Governance, New York, New York University Press

Frazier, Mark. 1980. "Privatizing the City", Policy Review, Spring 91-108

Halle, David. 1984. America's Working Man: Work, Home, and Politics Among Blue Collar Property Owners. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Hayek, Friedrich A. 1960. The Constitution of Liberty, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Hochschild, Jennifer. 1981. What's Fair: American Beliefs About Distributive Justice, Cambridge, Harvard University Press

Hunter, Albert. 1974. Symbolic Communities, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Kornblum, William. 1974. Blue Collar Community. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

McClaughrey, John. 1980. "Neighborhood Revitalization", 367-390 in Peter Duignan & Alvin Rabushka (editors), The United States in the 1980's, Stanford, The Hoover Institution

McKenzie, Evan. 1994. Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government, New Haven, Yale University Press

Mansbridge, Jane. 1980. Beyond Adversary Democracy, N.Y., Basic Books

Peterson, Merrill D. (editor). 1966. Democracy, Liberty and Property: The State Constitutional Conventions of the 1820's, N.Y., Bobbs-Merrill

Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment, Princeton, Princeton University Press

Rakoff, Robert M. 1977, "Ideology in Everyday Life: The Meaning of the House", Politics and Society, 7#1: 85 - 104

Shilts, Randy. 1982. The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, N.Y., St. Martins' Press

Silverman, Carol J. 1983. Neighbors and Nighbors: A Study in Negotiated Claim, Ph.D. dissertation, Berkeley, University of California

Silverman, Carol J. 1986. "Neighboring and Urbanism: Commonality Versus Friendship", Urban Affairs Quarterly, December

Simmons, Louise B. 1994. Organizing in Hard Times: Labor and Neighborhoods in Hartford, Philadelphia, Temple University Press

Witte, John F. 1980. Democracy, Authority, and Alienation in Work: Workers' Participation in an American Corporation, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Wright, Gwendolyn. 1983. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in America, Cambridge, M.I.T. Press