Essays on People, Place & Purpose

Investing in What Works for America's Communities

The Past, Present, and Future of Community Development in the United States

by Alexander Von Hoffman

In the Inner City, a New Day Dawns

Across the country the new wave of housing developments stabilized the lives of low-income people and served notice that their neglected neighborhoods were worthy places in which to live and invest. The most spectacular example of the transformative effect of housing development on dying communities came in New York’s South Bronx, the international symbol of urban degradation. In 1986, Mayor Edward Koch declared a 10-year plan to rebuild homes on the rubble of abandoned and arson-destroyed apartment buildings that pocked the city’s landscape. Unlike the old central command model of the public housing and urban renewal programs, the Koch administration opened the city’s coffers to anyone who had a plausible project. The city eventually put up $5 billion to develop or renovate more than 180,000 dwellings, and the largest share (65,300 units) went to the troubled borough of the Bronx. Yet diverse developers—large and small, nonprofit and for-profit—using an array of approaches and programs rebuilt New York. In the process, CDCs—including the colorfully named Mid-Bronx Desperadoes and Banana Kelly in the Bronx and St. Nicholas Neighborhood Preservation Corporation in Brooklyn—demonstrated their abilities to lenders and boosted the number and size of their projects.23

By the late 1990s, buoyed by an expanding economy and an influx of immigrants, areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn had undergone a startling makeover. In the vicinity of community development efforts, property values were rising and crime rates falling. Gone were the abandoned buildings, raging fires, and open drug markets, and in their stead were well-maintained apartment buildings, newly built row houses, and bustling boulevards of shoppers. Young people played sports in well-maintained parks. So normal looking was the South Bronx that when a delegation from inner-city Baltimore arrived there in 1995 to learn about community development, they initially thought their trip had been a waste of time. Looking around, the first-time visitors had decided that such a normal-looking place could not possibly offer lessons in how to save blighted neighborhoods.

Although no other city would match the scale of New York’s massive effort, CDCs during the 1980s and 1990s sparked similar revivals in inner-city neighborhoods from coast to coast. In the Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods of Boston, on the West Side of Chicago, and in South Central Los Angeles, savvy CDC directors helped fill in the unsightly and dangerous vacant lots and buildings on their streets. In Washington, DC, the pioneering efforts of Jubilee Housing in Adams Morgan and the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights helped ignite a process that by the 2000s would turn these formerly crime ridden and dwindling communities into booming fashionable districts. If community development was stronger in coastal cities and the Midwest than in the South and Southwest, it nonetheless had a visible impact on inner-city neighborhoods that had been left to die not long before.

Although new housing development could make a dramatic impact on fortunes of a low-income neighborhood, the leaders of the effective groups believed that housing was only one component of community development. In addition to housing development, groups such as the Vermont-Slauson Economic Development Corporation in Los Angeles and Greater Southwest Development Corporation in Chicago helped to start or expand businesses and revive inner-city commercial thoroughfares. Organizations such as Newark’s New Community Corporation offered a broad array of social services including child care, job training, and drug rehabilitation. Some groups introduced medical clinics to their neighborhoods. A few such as South Bronx Churches operated schools. In Atlanta, the Reynoldstown Revitalization Corporation developed housing and ran parenting classes, classes for school dropouts, and an antidrug program. But its centerpiece program has been the Wheelbarrow Summer Theater, an annual community arts festival.24

New Visions of Comprehensiveness

The broad range of activities pursued in the name of community development reflected the recurring theme of holistic urban revitalization that appeared in the nineteenth-century Settlement Houses, reemerged in the New Deal projects, and had inspired Great Society antipoverty efforts. During the heyday of community development, it reappeared specifically in the form of comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs). These initiatives, often spurred by program officers in philanthropies and financial intermediaries, aimed to coordinate a set of locally determined and collaboratively diverse programs that would uplift impoverished neighborhood and residents together.

The forerunner and a prototype of comprehensive neighborhood renewal efforts is the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston, which like many CCIs emerged under unique circumstances that may not be easily replicable. When an alliance of local social service agencies, CDCs, and churches founded the DSNI in 1984 to upgrade an area of approximately 1.5 square miles in the Roxbury section of Boston, for instance, it garnered an extraordinary amount of interest among the local residents. The reason was fear: the Boston Redevelopment Authority had recently proposed an urban renewal plan that, with its call for construction of office towers and luxury hotels, raised the specter of demolition and gentrification of the Dudley Street neighborhood. A group of concerned residents took over the DSNI and transformed what was supposed to be a large-scale social service operation into a new kind of locally based redevelopment-planning entity.25

With the backing of a local foundation, the DSNI’s new leaders were committed to strong neighborhood representation and community organizing. Their first executive director was an experienced community organizer, Peter Medoff, who won credibility for the group by leading a successful campaign to force the city government to get rid of abandoned cars and illegal trash transfer stations that plagued the neighborhood. To counter the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s urban renewal plan, the DSNI put together a series of well-attended community workshops in which residents devised a master plan for developing an “urban village” of houses, parks, and shops for the Dudley Street neighborhood. In an unprecedented accomplishment for a community-based nonprofit, the DSNI in 1988 acquired the power of eminent domain from the city’s redevelopment agency to supervise the development of the neighborhood’s 177 acres of vacant lots. Within the next 10 years, the DSNI oversaw the development of 300 vacant lots into 225 new homes, playgrounds, gardens, and community buildings.

The DSNI took a broad approach to the problems of the Dudley Street neighborhood. Besides physical development, the DSNI addressed issues of public safety, youth development, and environmental justice. From the beginning the organization was committed to organizing and resident participation, and so residents themselves determined the areas in which the DSNI would be active. Whenever possible, the DSNI did not manage projects directly but instead encouraged and coordinated local agencies and nonprofits to carry out the DSNI agenda.

The DSNI relied on local CDCs and minority developers to develop or rehabilitate housing and started the Agency Collaborative to coordinate human service programs within the neighborhood. The wide range of programs it adopted helped inspire the comprehensive community initiatives of the 1990s.26

In 1991, an officer of the Surdna Foundation started the Comprehensive Community Revitalization Program (CCRP) in the Bronx, creating another prototype for comprehensive community development. With funds from several foundations, Anita Miller, a veteran Ford Foundation and LISC program officer, instituted a $10 million program to improve six Bronx neighborhoods. Having helped a number of Bronx CDCs get off the ground, Miller was able to identify experienced and successful organizations to help to diversify their programs.27

Like the DSNI, the organizers and funders of the CCRP placed great store in local participation and community planning. To carry out “quality-of-life physical planning” in each neighborhood, the local CDC put together a task force of its own leaders, residents active in community affairs, service providers such as police and teachers, and local merchants. The task forces in turn organized neighborhood forums in which local residents and government representatives and officials, with the help of planning consultants, drew up plans for their neighborhoods. The leaders of the CCRP also believed that collaboration was a powerful tool for community development. They felt that bringing together representatives of various elements of neighborhood life was in itself an achievement because it would lead to later collaborations to solve the problems raised in the community forums.28

Under the CCRP, the participating CDCs moved into or expanded their efforts in new areas of community development. One of the most impressive results was the creation of five new family practice health clinics in areas of the Bronx in which the local residents were forced to obtain most of their health care in hospital emergency rooms. True to the goal of collaboration, the CDCs provided the facilities for the primary health-care clinics, and the city’s large hospitals ran them. In addition, four of the CDCs participated in a state program of immunization and lead screening. Other projects that grew out of the CCRP included employment training centers to teach basic job skills, professionally run child care centers, the development of new public parks, neighborhood safety efforts, and several economic development enterprises.29

Comprehensive Community Development Catches On

Following these stirring examples of wide-ranging community development, foundations during the 1990s created numerous comprehensive community initiatives. Begun in 1990 by the Ford Foundation, the Neighborhood and Family Initiative targeted poor neighborhoods in Detroit, Milwaukee, Memphis, and Hartford. The Ford Foundation worked through a philanthropic foundation in each city to guide the formation of a collaborative committee. In the collaborative committees, neighborhood residents, business owners, and professionals developed a local agenda, for which representatives of the city’s government agencies, corporations, and nonprofit organizations served as resources. The same year, the Enterprise Foundation and the City of Baltimore began the Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, a multipronged effort—including education, social services, job training, and community organizing—to address in systematic fashion the social, economic, and physical conditions of Sandtown-Winchester, an impoverished district of Baltimore. In 1993 the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative began to fund existing community organizations in Denver, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston to lead campaigns for comprehensive renewal in their home neighborhoods. Other foundations such as The Pew Charitable Trusts followed with their own comprehensive initiatives.30

In general, the collaborative groups created by these comprehensive initiatives took on a diverse range of neighborhood issues— such as safety, education, housing, social services, employment, and collective action—and accomplished a great deal of good. Yet the projects tended to be isolated “one-off” deals, which the new collaborative organizations either maintained as specialized activities or let expire once the funding ran out. More to the point, the holistic improvement of a neighborhood by many parties working together synergistically never happened. Despite a new school, new houses, and useful programs, the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood remains impoverished and untransformed.

As in the past, the leaders of these efforts at comprehensive community development aimed higher than their reach. Looked at more closely, neither the DSNI nor the CCRP was truly comprehensive. By far the DSNI’s greatest accomplishment lay in land planning, in which it had been fortunate to have enjoyed the crucial support of the mayor and the head of the city’s neighborhood development agency. In the Bronx, the purpose of the CCRP was less to transform communities completely than to expand the accomplishments of local CDCs beyond housing.

Other comprehensive community initiatives bogged down for a variety of reasons: vague goals; strained relationships between the visionary officers of sponsoring foundations and leaders of local organizations; lengthy deliberations of community groups over the agenda; and strategies that were not always lined up with other community efforts. As a result, reformers and philanthropic program officers began to question whether a systematic, all-embracing approach to community improvement was practical. With some notable exceptions such as the MacArthur/LISC New Communities Program in Chicago, many philanthropic organizations by the 2000s had backed away from comprehensiveness as a goal.31

Nonetheless, the federal government committed heavily to the goal of comprehensive community development through HOPE VI, a program intended to replace crime-ridden and physically deteriorated public housing projects with wholesome living environments. Beginning in 1993, HUD and local housing authorities demolished public housing projects, replaced them with houses that resembled and sometimes included private-market homes, and rented them to families with a range of low incomes. Although an expensive and controversial program, HOPE VI has produced several showcases—such as the Townhomes on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC or the Villages of East Lake in Atlanta. One of the program’s key goals has been to create vital communities for low-income people, and in pursuit of that goal many housing authorities—often in partnerships with nonprofit agencies—have taken a holistic approach by incorporating child care, job training, recreation, and health care into the new developments.32


Redrawing the Map of Poverty

By the start of the new millennium it was clear that the map of poverty had changed once again. In the large cities where the community development movement was strongest, the changes that had begun in inner-city communities now reached or passed a tipping point. Where once only a CDC or a few urban pioneers had seen the potential value of a neighborhood, an influx of upper-middle-class and wealthy professionals had driven up rents and home prices far above what unsubsidized low-income families could pay. In such gentrified places, subsidized affordable housing projects built in an earlier era of economic need now helped maintain a mixed-income character. Immigration also transformed the ethnicity of neighborhoods. The arrivals from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia had begun to write their own chapters of the history of their neighborhoods. Longtime residents of Los Angeles were startled to realize that the majority of people in the city’s historically African American neighborhoods—Watts, for example—were now Mexicans. Poverty had by no means disappeared, and after a long decline began rising again. By 2010, with the nation feeling the effects of the Great Recession, the proportion of Americans whose incomes fell below the poverty line hit 15.1 percent, the highest level since 1993.33

Complicating the problem were population movements that expanded the geography of poverty. Some poor people continued to reside in the old inner-city neighborhoods, some of which had extremely high rates of poverty. But increasingly low-income Americans, like their better-off fellow citizens, moved outwards in search of better homes, schools, and recreation. Both low-income African Americans and immigrants, long associated with inner-city neighborhoods, moved to the suburbs. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of poor people living in suburbs soared by 53 percent, twice the rate it grew in cities. Two-thirds of this increase took place during the recession after 2007. The great problem was that the governments of the towns where low-income people now made their homes often lacked the budgets, staff resources, and access to state and federal programs that large city administrations had.34

Community Development Gets Personal

Meanwhile, many in the community development field began to seek new approaches that were not necessarily “place-based” as were so many earlier efforts. During the 1990s, some in the field grew frustrated that too many community development efforts were restricted to one or another form of real estate development. In Los Angeles, for example, the comprehensive effort known as Rebuild Los Angeles evolved into an effort more tightly focused on small business development. Denise Fairchild left her position as LISC program officer to work on organizing trade associations for small ethnic businesses and increasing technological skills of inner-city workers. Whether because of an aversion to the real estate approach, the inability to devise a truly comprehensive strategy, or general intellectual restlessness, many national and community foundations chose not to support place-based project work directly.35

Perhaps the greatest change in thinking in the antipoverty field was the widespread adoption of the concept of asset building. The community development movement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s was built on the idea of improving the economic and community life of the places where low-income residents lived. If this generally included a host of programs that helped individuals directly, the emphasis was on the community. Indeed, CDCs often found that when successful, their efforts to increase the opportunity and skills of local people undermined their goal of a healthy community because individuals who prospered often chose to move elsewhere. The idea of asset building changed the overall priorities by focusing on increasing the wealth of individuals, not improving neighborhoods.

The theories of Michael Sherraden, a social work professor at Washington University, particularly influenced the officers of private funding agencies concerned with helping people escape poverty. Sherraden defined assets as wealth, including property and financial holdings, and his writings sometimes seemed to suggest that there was nothing that increasing poor people’s assets could not do. In one article Sherraden asserted that asset building would increase household stability, make people plan their future, “provide a foundation for risk-taking,” enhance a sense of well-being, elevate social status, and increase community involvement and civic participation and the well-being and life chances of the family’s children.36

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