What I Talk About When I Talk About NIMBYism
In reporting the news of neighborly dissatisfaction with a women's shelter coming to Anacostia, as with the now-dead effort to bring at-risk young people to the J.F. Cook School in Truxton Circle, I've offended some people by calling them NIMBYs. So I think it's worth defining what I mean by the term, which I use intentionally and deliberately.
NIMBY: Not In My Back Yard. As in, 'I don't object to this [homeless shelter/windmill/trash transfer station/Walmart/meth clinic] in principle, but I'd rather not have to deal with it in my neighborhood.' That definition holds true even for the people who would add, 'because my neighborhood is already a dumping ground for that kind of crap' or 'it's just not the right place for that kind of thing.'
Wikipedia says that the word is typically used pejoratively. I'd counter that it's only seen as a pejorative term because not wanting to have to deal with negative things, even if you're fine with putting them in some other community, is generally regarded as selfish. The other side of selfishness, though, is simply the desire to improve your community, which I don't doubt is the motivation behind those who are opposing a women's shelter in Anacostia. Therefore, to me, community activism and NIMBYism aren't mutually exclusive.
It's not like I don't understand the NIMBY impulse. Early on in my time at City Paper, Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School flyered its Columbia Heights neighborhood—where I live—with a notice that it would be requesting zoning relief for an affordable apartment complex to be built on its parking lot. The neighbors, fearing for their property values, reacted with shock and outrage that the school wanted to build low-income housing right behind their expensively renovated rowhouses. I thought this was a somewhat ugly sentiment, but being honest with myself, had to realize: I wasn't happy with the prospect of a years-long construction project in my back yard. Of course, as a renter, I had the freedom to make it not my back yard anymore.
It does get more complicated when we're talking about issues of oversaturation. You can objectively argue that lots of social services may doom a neighborhood's chances at revitalization, while spreading them throughout a city would keep the collective impact low enough to allow all of their host neighborhoods to thrive. But you also have to understand why social services locate where they do: Nonprofits don't have a lot of money, and land in depressed areas is cheap. Plus, it's where many of their clients who aren't homeless tend to come from. By those metrics, putting a women's shelter in Georgetown becomes less realistic.
So I don't use NIMBY as a value judgment, but as a consistent way to describe a certain type of opposition. If you see it as an insult, maybe that's because you recognize the nature of the definition as negative. And then you should truly ask yourself what you think about the fact that it applies to you.
Prince of Petworth also had an interesting discussion on the subject recently.