Charlotte KahnWRITING IN The New York Times Magazine on "The Myth of Community Development" (January, 1994), Nicholas Lemann asks that "we think for a moment about why most people believe that the Great Society was a failure." According to Lemann, "the answer lies in the enduring physical and social deterioration of poor inner-city neighborhoods. The Government promised to turn them around, and instead they got worse." Relying on this "evidence" of deterioration, Lemann disparages the Great Society's urban redevelopment strategy -- a "bottom-up," "comprehensive" approach to "revitaliz[ing] neighborhoods" -- and prescribes in its place, as a matter of public policy, more human services and emigration out of the inner city.
Boston challenges Lemann's blanket characterization of America's cities and his dismissal of the impact of the War on Poverty. As physical artifacts, Boston's low income neighborhoods did not all get worse, and most of those that did are well on their way to reclamation. One would be hard pressed these days to find a part of Boston that fits Lemann's image of urban decay.
Boston has certainly had its share of familiar urban woes: a gradual but steady decline in manufacturing since the 1920s; a suburban exodus in the 1950s; block busting, redlining, racial steering and urban renewal that leveled and displaced whole neighborhoods in the 1960s; riots in the late 1960s; a violent response to school desegregation and white flight in the 1970s; federal disinvestment with attendant increases in hunger, drug use, and homelessness in the 1980s; rising violence, unemployment, and poverty in the 1990s.
Still, many of Boston's inner city neighborhoods have achieved something that may be anomalous in the annals of community development according to Nicholas Lemann. At least from Boston's perspective, reports on the death of the American inner city have been greatly exaggerated.
A few examples. The one-square-mile South End neighborhood -- a polyglot amalgam of diverse cultures and for a large part of this century the center of Boston's black community -- was for 25 years a major urban renewal site. Today the South End is not a wasteland testament to failed urban policy but a physically pleasant, multi-racial, mixed-income neighborhood. Although urban renewal and gentrification displaced many residents, the neighborhood did not lose its core population, its character, or its soul. Interspersed with the area's gentrified townhouses are subsidized housing units, comprising some 40% of South End housing, including the mixed-income Tent City complex, which commemorates a sleep-over demonstration following urban renewal clearance in the late 1960s and a 20-year struggle for community control of the site.
Within the South End sits Villa Victoria, which was developed over the past 25 years by Inquilinos Boriquas en Accion (IBA), a Puerto Rican community development corporation. Once a hotly contested redevelopment parcel, this "new town-in town" development is home to more than 3,000 people -- Latinos, blacks, whites, and Asian Americans. It contains blocks of renovated and new townhouses, mid-rise apartments, commercial spaces, a senior high-rise, a cultural and performing arts center, and community plaza.
Through the South End and three adjacent neighborhoods, on land slated in 1968 to become an extension of Interstate 95, runs the new Southwest Corridor park and transit line. The residents of five Boston neighborhoods mobilized in opposition to this highway project, leading to a decade-long moratorium on all new highway construction within Boston's inner belt. Along this linear public park and transportation corridor, which opened in 1988, wind lush community gardens, a bike path, recreational facilities, the new campus of Roxbury Community College, several "villages" of new affordable housing, three renovated public housing developments, a one-stop community health care center, a building materials cooperative, and incubator space for small businesses.
These and many other examples of successful community development in Boston have one thing in common. They were created by massive and sustained citizen action over decades by city residents, many of them poor, in strong and sometimes militant opposition to original official plans. Most importantly, they were created by people who refused to be moved out of the inner city.
But as projects rooted in community mobilization and opposition became official plans, and in the generation or so each took to complete, people neglected to draw the conclusion or even to test the hypothesis that inner city residents know what is best for themselves and their city. As a result, these isolated successes, and many others like them in Boston, have not yet formed in the public mind a whole as great as the sum of their parts. The great public policy debates in Massachusetts, as elsewhere, are still confined to recitations of the presumed failures of low-income communities and their residents.
Rethinking Poverty in BostonDespite this collective amnesia, as recently as the late 1980s it looked as though Boston might somehow defy the mounting odds against American cities. With a boom economy fueled by high tech industries, real estate speculation, Reagan's defense build up, and growth in the financial services sector, Boston's poverty rate dropped, public/ private partnerships of all kinds flourished, commentators across the country lauded Boston's model programs and glowing statistics, and the city basked in what Michael Dukakis, running for president in 1988, called the "Massachusetts Miracle." Hoping to understand how a city might tie this engine of economic growth to the challenges of persistent poverty, the Rockefeller Foundation selected Boston -- through the Boston Foundation -- as one of six target cities for its Community Planning and Action Program. The brainchild of James Gibson (then Director of the Rockefeller Foundation's Division of Equal Opportunity), the program was designed to explore how different cities would develop antipoverty strategies in response to local conditions and opportunities.
The Boston Persistent Poverty Project, as it is called, began this work with a survey of 17,000 poor and non-poor residents. Published in 1989 as In the Midst of Plenty, the survey showed that while the economic boom had significantly reduced poverty rates across the city, it had not lifted all boats equally: those with high levels of educational attainment had increased their income by more than 50%; others, despite high levels of full-time employment, were barely affected and still poor. In fact, the survey found that 40% of poor adults in Boston were working, but at wages insufficient to lift them above poverty. The report identified single parents, families of color, people with low levels of education, and people with disabilities as groups needing targeted strategies to tie their fortunes to the booming economy.
The economic bubble burst in 1989. Those at the bottom who had been lifted last and least were dropped first and hardest, and by 1990 it was clear that Boston was wrestling with the same grim statistics and challenges as most American cities. As it turned out, the overheated economy and Boston's very success with conventional community development had obscured the impact of forces well beyond local control and certainly beyond the scope of the War on Poverty's original goals.
Though wages had stalled nationally since the early 1970s, in the 1980s the nation shifted conclusively to a global, post-industrial economy. Boston lost 47% of its manufacturing jobs between 1980 and 1990 -- dropping from 51,300 to 27,300. Despite this sharp loss of blue collar jobs, many Boston households had taken advantage of growth in the services sector. But the recession of the early 1990s hit Boston especially hard. Between 1989 and 1992, while the median family income nationwide dropped by 4.8% and by 7.9% in America's cities, Boston's median family income dropped by more than 15%. With the Massachusetts economy bottoming out and a national recession hitting hard, Boston found itself in a fiscal crisis aggravated by the 1980s influx of crack cocaine and guns, worsening homelessness, and an AIDS epidemic.
At the same time, Boston had become home to many people from countries representing yesterday's headlines and political engagements -- Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea, Laos, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, the West Indies, Cape Verde, Brazil, Ireland, and Russia. While Boston's population had grown slightly to 574,000 over the 1980s, fully half of the city's residents had moved in and half had moved out. Almost 30% of the population had moved into the city between 1985 and 1990 alone; among large cities, Boston was second only to San Diego in the percentage of new residents who had moved in between 1985 and 1990. Of these new residents, one in four was a member of a newcomer immigrant group. Boston is now one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the nation, and more than 40% of all Bostonians are people of color. Once known for its strongly bounded white ethnic enclaves, Boston today is a city of strangers and new neighbors.
Finally, a demographic revolution had taken place within the family itself. By 1990, 43% of all children under 18 lived in single-parent families, and nearly two-thirds of Boston's children did not have a parent at home full-time.
Instead of a miraculous engine of growth and opportunity, Boston had become a multicultural quilt above a moribund economy. Boston's anti-poverty experiment would have to change course.
New DirectionsIn 1991, in an increasingly mean-spirited and racially charged political environment, the Boston Persistent Poverty Project convened a 43-member multicultural Strategy Development Group representing a microcosm of community groups, religious and labor organizations, and business and civic institutions to develop consensus on a long-term approach to combatting chronic poverty in Boston. Having seen so many proven and promising initiatives cut or eliminated in the ongoing fiscal crisis, Strategy Development Group members, a majority of whom had experienced poverty first-hand, were less concerned with identifying model programs than with developing the political will to sustain them. Representing hundreds of years of combined experience with anti-poverty programs, they sought to explore the structural nature of urban poverty. A cross-section of Boston's major racial/ethnic groups, they wanted to understand the causes and impacts of poverty in different population groups in Boston, and to ask themselves why poverty is more persistent -- a legacy passed from one generation to the next -- in some groups than in others. And finally, as veterans of earlier community development efforts in Boston, some members of the Group sought a strategy that could withstand the boom and bust political and economic cycles to which the poor are so often subjected -- a strategy that could draw on neighborhood residents' capacity to define and build their own future.
New Voices at the Center. The Strategy Development Group decided to begin by listening closely to community voices across the city, particularly those most likely to be affected by its work. In spring 1992, the Project sponsored a series of Roundtables, coordinated by community-based organizations and academic institutions, with panel participants representing Asian Americans, blacks, Latinos, whites, youth, and single parents -- the six groups whose experiences of poverty were explored (see Table 1, "Summary Findings of the Community Roundtables"). Community-based organizations also conducted Focus Groups in ten racial/ethnic communities and in seven different languages reflecting the primary cultural and linguistic sub-groups of Boston's major racial/ethnic communities: African Americans; Cape Verdeans; Haitians; Cambodians; Chinese; Vietnamese; Puerto Ricans; new Latino immigrants; long-time white residents and new Irish immigrants. More than 250 low-income Focus Group participants discussed obstacles to their economic mobility, their experience of attitudes toward race and ethnicity as contributing factors to persistent urban poverty, and their policy recommendations.
An important conclusion emerged from these community soundings: most policies and practices which "service" the urban poor are not designed to attack the root causes of poverty. In addition, many are profoundly disrespectful of the capacities of the poor to think and act on their own behalf, and are actually barriers to combatting poverty. Conventional policies directed at the urban poor begin from the premise that they are "different" from everyone else -- that people who are poor will respond more readily to punishment than incentives, to regulation than trust. This punitive view has resulted in both burgeoning bureaucratic oversight of poverty programs and recurring rounds of cuts which have virtually eliminated programs that once provided opportunities to build strong communities -- libraries, primary health care, youth programs, community centers -- and focused resources instead on expensive professionalized crisis intervention and the criminal justice system. This approach sends the message: "You have to hit rock bottom before you can get help."
By withholding resources for prevention and early intervention, public policies have contributed to the drugs and weapons in our schools and streets, the epidemic proportions of AIDS, rising family homelessness, and a massive increase in youth violence. In this environment, efforts to address particular symptoms of community distress in isolation may produce good model programs and sporadic success, but fail to create the broad political will, sustained strategic response, or economic and human development required to reduce poverty.
A New Approach. In recognition of the capacity for analysis and collaborative problem-solving expressed by the participants in the Roundtables and Focus Groups, Strategy Development Group members grew less willing to prescribe specific strategies and policy recommendations on behalf of others. Instead, the group began to discuss strategies to allow for the formation of more flexible and responsive policies that could lead to greater local autonomy and empowerment, and to collaboration across communities.
In the course of that discussion, the Group began to use a language that transcends both the futility and pessimism of recent anti-poverty initiatives. This new vocabulary speaks to the strengths, assets, and capacities of Boston's communities, and avoids the deficit orientation which emphasizes the problems of people living in poverty, focusing instead on their potential for economic and human achievement.
Many of the Strategy Development Group members themselves underwent something of a metamorphosis during this process. As the various initiatives of the Project moved forward, the Group invested its time and energy in building an atmosphere of openness and shared understanding. This, in turn, fostered a trust rare in Boston among a group so diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, class, and professional background. The result of this dialogue was process, product, and action, each building on and reinforcing the other.
Through this process of "deep listening" to the community and to one another, the Group concluded that we need a new broad-based approach to eradicating persistent poverty, one that turns conventional anti-poverty practice on its head. At its heart, this approach seeks to end poverty by building community. It calls for a fundamental shift from servicing low-income communities' deficits -- treating the poor as "clients" -- to investing in their strengths as colleagues, neighbors, and citizens. It builds on the cultural traditions, family networks, and institutions of low-income communities as a way to tailor more effective -- and more cost-effective -- strategies for community development. Finally, it requires a transformation in the way we think about poverty. It replaces the idea that poverty is intrinsic to certain people -- the "culture of poverty" -- with the conviction that poverty results from specific obstacles to economic self-reliance that can be identified and then reduced, removed, or overcome.
The Strategy Development Group crystallized these broad ideas in a set of seven "principles for a new social contract." Condensed and refined from the Roundtable and Focus Group findings, these principles were seen as a way to capture the wisdom of the community, and to ensure that the voices and experience of the poor themselves would inform and guide the policies designed to address urban poverty in Boston. Together they define a new framework for addressing urban poverty:
1. Incorporate those who are directly affected by policies at the heart of dialogue and community building.
2. Value racial and cultural diversity as the foundation for wholeness.
3. Foster active citizenship and political empowerment.
4. Build on community strengths and assets.
5. Ensure access to fundamental opportunities and remove obstacles to equal opportunity.
6. Support and enhance the well-being of children and their families.
7. Foster sustained commitment, coordination, and collaboration based on a shared vision and mutual respect.
Table 2 summarizes the old and new approaches. In contrasting these two approaches, the intent is not to suggest that all of the items in the first column should be abandoned, or even that the categories are mutually exclusive. Rather, the new approach suggests a shift in emphasis: from top-down crisis intervention, remedial programs, and social engineering to investment of more of our resources in community building from the ground up.
The New Approach in Action. If this sounds abstract, you need only visit one of Boston's neighborhoods to put flesh on the concepts. Visitors to the city's three old settlement houses, for example, are likely to see a roomful of residents, young and old, taking computer or art courses, an exhibit on literacy programs, with photographs of the participants and their own essays on what the program has meant to them, members of newcomer immigrant groups working on micro-enterprise projects such as jewelry making and catering, and young people working on a market feasibility study for a new diner in the neighborhood. These venerable institutions -- United South End Settlements, South Boston Neighborhood House, and Federated Dorchester Neighborhood Houses -- are among the oldest settlement houses in the nation, and are open to all, rich and poor, old and young, whether in need of tutoring, recreation, companionship, or services. Their directors live
in the community, and they are staffed by friends and neighbors of those they serve. These settlement houses have "reinvented" themselves to place their neighbor/ participants at the center of program development.
Another example of the new paradigm in action is Dorchester's Codman Square. Until recently, this multiracial neighborhood of 30,000 was written off as a part of Boston on the losing side of history. It is now sporting new housing developed by its tenacious community development corporation, a newly expanded community health care center -- which is planning to focus on community health rather than care, a new park adjacent to a 19th-century white-steepled church, and almost 40 new small businesses. Despite still-grim statistics about drugs and violence in the neighborhood, which seem to make weekly headlines, the neighborhood is in many ways thriving. Its success is due to organizational collaboration, and to the long, large vision of the local health care center and community development corporation. For the past five years, leaders and residents have gathered for breakfast once a week at Saints, a Caribbean restaurant, to coordinate and plan the next phase of community revitalization.
No community, however, expresses the new approach to community revitalization in Boston as profoundly as the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Roxbury, a "from the ground up" community-building initiative in one of Boston's poorest neighborhoods. An area of roughly 24,000 residents, the Dudley Street neighborhood fits the conventional profile of concentrated urban poverty. More than 30% of its families -- African Americans, Cape Verdeans, Latinos, and whites -- live in poverty, and more than 50% are single-parent households. Per capita income is less than one-third the Boston average, unemployment is around 20%, and 21% of the community's land is vacant.
DSNI is a coalition of 1,800 residents, social service agencies, businesses, and religious organizations working to revitalize the neighborhood on three fronts: housing, human development, and economic development. Founded to combat real estate speculation, redlining, political and service fragmentation, and chronic poverty, DSNI immediately identified the area's residents as its most important asset, and it has been working ever since to bring neighbors together and to galvanize the energy, creativity, and political will of its members.
In the proud words of a press release announcing the groups's recent tenth anniversary: "While the residents of urban neighborhoods throughout the country
suffer daily violence, lack of adequate housing, education and health care, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a multiracial and multicultural organization of neighborhood residents and institutions, is celebrating ten years of effective community organizing. . . . Among its extraordinary accomplishments, DSNI is the first neighborhood group in the nation to win the right to eminent domain. The group received a $2 million low-interest loan from the Ford Foundation to buy land under eminent domain and develop a community land trust. DSNI reclaimed and revitalized a local park, now home to a summer camp, youth recreation sports leagues and a multicultural festival. Vacant lots in the neighborhood that had become city dumping grounds will hold 300 new homes." In addition, the group has nurtured strong community leadership, including a youth group called Nubian Roots, developed a plan based on a unified vision of comprehensive community development which was adopted by the City's planning agency, created a job skills bank and a collaborative of human service agencies in the area, succeeded in getting local streets cleaned regularly, built community gardens on vacant lots, provided classes and assistance to prospective homebuyers, moved out mountains of illegally dumped debris, and closed down several illegal waste transfer stations.
The DSNI strategy, in short, is not to deliver services but to organize the community -- and in so doing to develop residents' capacity to think critically about the conditions affecting their lives, to define their best interests, and to create strategies for achieving them.
To Make Our Cities WholeThrough these and kindred projects, we are beginning to understand the key building blocks of community development, the intangibles behind the bricks-and-mortar successes: n relationships, within families and communities, and across communities, professional sectors, and racial/ ethnic groups;
n a commitment to building the skills of residents in community organizing, critical thinking, problem-solving, conflict resolution, negotiation, collaboration, and the use of information technologies;
n leadership at all levels;
n qualities such as determination, confidence, courage, patience, perseverance, hope, faith, love, and a willingness to cooperate. The problem is that these essential components of community development are typically the least visible, last funded, and first cut. That is why we have the perception that "nothing works." Because without them, nothing does work; and because they have not yet been used to measure either promise or progress on any broad scale. While many social planners, political commentators, foundations, and policy institutes continue to look for the single silver bullet that will finally cure or kill America's inner cities (whether community development corporations, vouchers, or welfare reform), the real solution is staring them in the face -- or would be if they were close enough to see. It is the people living in poverty themselves, with all of their untapped energy, ideas, and aspirations.
These ideas are not new. They drove the initial work of the War on Poverty. But they were not well understood then, and they were quickly ditched under pressure from all the usual entrenched interests -- from mayors' offices to social service bureaucracies to ivory tower academics.
But because these ideas are now so fundamental to successful initiatives in cities across the country, a new coalition, the National Community Building Network, has formed to move them forward. Supported by a number of national foundations, its members represent comprehensive initiatives in more than 25 cities. The people working in these cities believe that in the absence of a national macro-economic strategy to respond to the lack of decent jobs, inner cities (and poor rural areas, too) will continue to be canaries in the mine, calling the rest of the country to attention that all is not well with our economy. But we also believe that a comprehensive, bottom-up approach to chronic urban poverty -- an approach that builds on local conditions and community strengths and supports residents to revitalize their own neighborhoods and attain increased economic mobility for themselves and their families -- must accompany a macro-economic strategy for the greatest promise of success.
Despite the continuing bad press on the War on Poverty and the poor, community building as a strategy for overcoming the root causes of poverty is finally coming of age.
For more information about the National Community Building Network, contact Ed Ferran at the Urban Strategies Council, 672 13th Street, Oakland, CA 94612; (510) 893-2404.
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