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posted: 8/15/2013 5:00 AM

Editorial sought to challenge a tired phrase

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I got my first personal introduction to what has come to be known as NIMBY syndrome in Clinton, Iowa, back in the 1970s. As a cub reporter, I attended meeting after emotional meeting as residents of a particular Clinton neighborhood rose up to rail against a proposal for a housing project for low-income senior citizens. Their consistent refrain? "We have nothing against old people, but our neighborhood is the wrong place for them."

This attitude has become so prevalent that its acronym -- for Not In My Back Yard -- has found dictionary entries in resources from Merriam-Webster to Wikipedia. In newspaper jobs from Michigan to California and back to Illinois, I've watched it play out dozens of times, always with that same refrain.

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In truth, it's important to acknowledge, the condition is more complex than to deserve the generally pejorative tone with which the term is used. People can hardly be blamed for wanting to protect their families or the value of their property, and sometimes projects really aren't right for a given neighborhood. Moreover, it's easy for people to condescend to the NIMBYs who oppose developments until such a project is proposed for their own neighborhood, a role reversal I've also seen and covered. But also in truth, it cannot be possible that every project proposed for every neighborhood is wrong.

It's with this backdrop that I've watched with some dismay over the past three years as three separate proposed developments for housing for the mentally disabled in three separate suburbs have wound their tortuous way through the complicated mechanisms of local government only to be rejected at the final stage amid cries of outraged neighbors and the trepidations of town leaders. In editorials about each of those projects, some but not all written by me, the Daily Herald has repeatedly asked, how can so many proposed sites always be wrong?

In the course of making that argument, we offended some towns and individuals. That was not entirely unexpected, though our intent was not to insult anyone but to shake up everyone. And "everyone" is a key word. There's shame enough on this issue to go around for all players, not just leaders. One wonders, for example, why residents remain so quick to react in fear, why developers can't work more closely with towns to find sites that can pass muster, what information sources like us can do better to describe needs and proposals or answer key concerns.

That the very topic defies reasoned debate was evident in some reactions to our editorial. Interestingly, the wounds of which some complained had little to do with the theme of the editorial, and others found in our tone criticisms or judgments that never appear in our language. Some officials in Buffalo Grove, for instance, felt unfairly singled out because a paragraph in the editorial cited a letter from that town regarding an Arlington Heights project. Buffalo Grove, the officials pointed out accurately, has an exemplary record on advocating for mentally disabled individuals, even to the point of being one of the few suburbs with a specific commission devoted to the needs of the mentally disabled. In retrospect, I wish we had considered such facts more carefully in crafting that editorial; they might well have helped us better explain our point about leadership.

But it's also true that Buffalo Grove's record on assisting the disabled, or that of any other town, was not the theme of the editorial. Arlington Heights, which rejected the development that concerned Buffalo Grove, has a specific staff position of disabilities coordinator. Mount Prospect actually approved and developed a site for disabled housing that is getting rave reviews. Other suburbs have a widely varying array of approaches to accommodating if not serving disabled citizens. These are admirable efforts, such as they are.

But few of them are helping to find needed housing, nor perhaps more importantly to dispel the prejudices and misplaced fears too often at the root of complaints about such housing for citizens who have little or no ability to advocate for themselves. One editorial may not generate that help or reverse more than three decades of acquiescence to the phrase, "I recognize the need but this is the wrong place to address it." But I hope it at least can make us feel embarrassed enough about trotting out the phrase to try something different.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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