A Local Urban Community

downtown apartment dwellers form group to get to know their neighbors

Lauren Fisher, photos by Andrea Paulseth

For the Phoenix Park Urbanites, there are no officers, no bylaws, no structure, really. And if there was, it just wouldn’t be right, says Deb Marshall, the founding member. This social group of people who live or have lived in the downtown Eau Claire apartments between Phoenix Park and Madison Street meets for brunch and bunco, kubb and coffee, often enough to keep the neighborly love percolating. Through the group, Deb has engineered the easygoing, natural vibe of a neighborhood where people like each other and they do something about it.

“For those who are interested in plugging in, it’s a chance to get to know other people.”

Marshall moved into the first riverside apartment in downtown Eau Claire, right across the street from Phoenix Park, in June 2010, just after her son graduated from high school. With her “lawnmower” off at college, she wanted to live somewhere that was low-maintenance and close to shops and services. Almost immediately, she recognized that she also wanted community, so she tried to form a social group.

“I just wanted to have fun,” Marshall said. But at the time there was only one apartment building on the river, and she couldn’t get up much momentum. It wasn’t until after the next two Moeding Partners complexes and then three Commonweal buildings were finished that there were enough interested residents to start the Urbanites.

One of the people who hopped on board was Scott Rogers, governmental affairs and workforce director for the Eau Claire Chamber of Commerce. He moved into 225 RIverfront Terrace with his wife in 2014 – they were the first tenants to move into the building.

“For those who are interested in plugging in, it’s a chance to get to know other people,” Rogers said of the Urbanites. Rogers is an administrator for the group’s Facebook presence, where he and others post notices of meet-ups, announcements about the neighborhood, or lookout requests for package deliveries.

The community-building mentality of the Urbanites extends beyond social media groups and gatherings. Marshall has invested in the character of her neighborhood by decorating a public space in the hallway where she lives. In a once-bare nook on her floor, she placed a few wicker chairs, a table, and a bookshelf, creating a free library for her fellow residents. She maintains the selection, making sure that the shelf is well-stocked and never overfull. All it took was a vision and a quick chat with the building supervisor to make it happen.

Marshall also makes a concerted effort to reach out to people as they move into the neighborhood. She keeps a flier on the building’s bulletin board with information about the social group, and always introduces herself to people she hasn’t seen in the halls before. She wants people to know that even if they aren’t interested in throwing themselves into the community, she is still happy they are there.

Last fall, the Phoenix Park Urbanites scheduled a community potluck in the courtyard between the 225 and 231 buildings. Marshall woke up to a drizzly day and doubted that people would still show up to the event. To her surprise, more than 30 of her neighbors came, dishes in hand, and the commiserating commenced. Snacking and chatting took place under the cover of umbrellas, and the guests played games and won door prizes. A happy community comes together, rain or shine.

Tips for Urban Community Building

1. Reach out. This is a real “you can’t win if you don’t play” situation. Say hello, and introduce yourself to your hallway neighbors, if not to anyone you see in the building! Make sure to talk to new people and start things off on the right foot.

2. Take Ownership. If you have an idea for how to make your apartment building or neighborhood a better place, take matters into your own hands. Take a page out of Deb Marshall’s book and beautify a nook, or work with building managers to put art on the walls. Put up a bulletin board. Something not working? Be the person who says something.

3. Be regulars. Schedule regular meet-ups that are open to anyone. Try getting together in public spaces within walking distance – you’ll be supporting local businesses and strong communities in one fell swoop! Make sure to notify your neighbors in the way that works best for them: Some people are more comfortable with social media invitations, while others will appreciate an email notification or personal outreach.

4. Break the Ice. Have a few games or projects planned out to get the conversation going. Try out games that encourage people to ask each other questions about their lives and work. And prizes never hurt.

5. Keep trying. Even if the first event you try to plan doesn’t work out, don’t give up! Keep in touch with the people who are interested, and keep reaching out until you hit your stride. Rome wasn’t built in a day.