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

For more than a century, American reformers have struggled to remedy the problems of poverty in the places where low-income people live. At first, these social improvers could muster only a few isolated solutions, but by the end of the twentieth century, they had expanded their efforts to a large, dynamic, and sophisticated field of action. Today thousands of nonprofit community development organizations operate in the poorest urban and rural areas of the country. More impressively, they have helped stabilize community life and help individuals and families in some of the most forsaken neighborhoods in the country. The South Bronx, once the most infamous slum district in the United States, has become livable and vibrant.

To build a decentralized system of neighborhood improvement and individual betterment was not easy. The community development field had to emerge from the shadow of the top-down approach embodied in the urban renewal and public housing bureaucracies. The antipoverty crusaders realized that they had to combine a passion for social justice with viable management and business practices. They learned to keep practitioners accountable for their work and to measure their accomplishments.

And the movement’s leaders had to grow and change, which they did by adopting new strategies aimed at building up the finances and assets of individuals, as opposed to simply looking at the problems of places.

To keep a decentralized system viable, of course, costs money. The current community development world could flourish only when new financial institutions along with philanthropic organizations, and especially government, offered sufficient financial support.

From the beginning, community development advocates have pursued the vision of a truly comprehensive strategy, one that would integrate approaches and overcome the barriers between types of services and the government and nongovernment entities that provide them. Now, in the twenty-first century, the vision of broadly collaborative approaches seems more feasible than at any time in the long and rich history of community development.

And yet to fulfill this vision the community development field must overcome the worst economic and financial circumstances its supporters have faced in the last 25 years.


To Fight the Slums

The concept of community development originated in the late nineteenth century when reformers discovered America’s “backward” areas. Socially committed women and men in Settlement Houses and charitable organizations confronted the ills of industrial capitalism: poorly paid immigrant and racial minority wage workers crowded into tenement apartments, cottages, and shacks in seedy neighborhoods near docks, trains, and factories. During the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, urban reformers connected poverty, overcrowding, crime, youth delinquency, and sundry other social ills to the unsanitary and unsightly slums where the working poor and indigents lived.

The sweeping Progressive agenda of political, social, and physical reform anticipated later comprehensive antipoverty strategies. The women who led many of the reform movements liked to call the totality of their efforts “municipal housekeeping.” Others talked of dealing with “the social question,” and historians later labeled it progressivism. But under any name, their wide-ranging attack on the evils of modern urban society embraced a welter of labor, education, and welfare measures, including attempts to improve the lives of the lower classes through better housing. But if Progressive reformers left the useful legacy of trying to counter the many aspects of poverty, they also handed down the less useful principle that outside experts would save society by imposing reforms on the people they were trying to help.

New Deal Community Building: Comprehensive but Top-Down

For the most part the Progressive reformers agitated in local and state government until the 1930s when the Great Depression and the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt gave outlets for their social programs in the federal government. True to its Progressive roots, Roosevelt’s New Deal encompassed a remarkably wide array of reforms, both visionary and practical. At times it seemed that he created a new agency to solve each individual social problem.

The idea of comprehensive physical and social planning ran through the diverse array of New Deal community development programs. At the large scale, the Roosevelt administration strove to develop rural regions, most notably through the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built electric power dams, taught new agricultural methods, and planned new towns in the impoverished Tennessee River basin. At the local level in America’s cities and rural counties, New Dealers rebuilt slums with public housing projects, which they designed as small planned communities.

Although New Deal programs were idealistic and well-intentioned, their top-down administrative structure was undemocratic. Like their Progressive forebears, the New Dealers believed that enlightened experts such as themselves should dictate the terms of the bright shining new world they would create. Although they would work with leaders of labor, religious, and racial organizations, the reformers in the 1930s for the most part failed to include ordinary people in their decision-making process.

The defect of this approach appeared early in the history of the public housing program in the form of the “neighborhood composition” rule. Responding to requests from field officers for a rule for selecting tenants for housing projects in racially mixed neighborhoods, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes set down the guideline that members of whichever race had predominated prior to demolition of the slums would be the only group to be admitted. This segregation policy would hamper the program for decades to come.

The Slum Returns as the Ghetto

World War II brought great changes to America’s cities. The construction of rapid transit systems and the Depression had in different ways helped decongest the densely packed immigrant city neighborhoods, but now the inner city filled up again. The boom in wartime industrial jobs started a migration of African Americans and people from other racial minorities in search of economic opportunity that lasted into the Cold War. But racism in white neighborhoods, real estate practices, and federal government policies combined with the newcomers’ relatively low incomes to keep increasing numbers of blacks locked into racial ghettos. Soon crowded homes and decrepit buildings like those that had horrified reformers at the turn of the century were back. Despite obvious racial issues—whites in Chicago, Detroit, and other large cities rioted and violently assaulted blacks who moved into their neighborhoods—and growing welfare needs, mid-twentieth century political leaders and reformers saw only physical problems. With little regard for the social dimension, they fixated on slum clearance as a remedy for the cities’ social and economic problems.2

Doubling Down on Top-Down

The Housing Act of 1949 inaugurated a new federal program, urban redevelopment, later known as urban renewal, in which a government agency staffed by experts took “blighted and slum areas” by eminent domain, demolished the buildings therein, and turned the properties over to private developers to rebuild. Realtors and urban planners had devised urban redevelopment as a way to staunch the departure of the upper middle class to the suburbs and stop physical and economic deterioration. Needless to say, this top-down program had no mechanism for consulting those whose businesses and homes were to be taken. Within a few years, civil rights advocates, angered at the demolition of massive numbers of African American homes, would deride the program as “Negro removal.” Yet the urban renewal projects that destroyed the predominantly white working-class West End in Boston to build luxury high-rise apartment buildings and razed the Mexican-American Chavez Ravine neighborhood in Los Angeles for a professional baseball stadium shamefully demonstrated that the program laid waste to low-income communities of other ethnic backgrounds as well.

The 1949 Housing Act also revived the public housing program, on hiatus during the war, with a fresh round of authorizations. The downtown powers of American cities—the mayors, businessmen, and civic leaders—thought public housing would kill two birds with one stone: clear the awful-looking slums and provide upwardly mobile African Americans with a new lot in life. They overlooked that public housing only provided for a fraction of the houses that were demolished, and they hardly ever thought about helping the displaced find new homes. Worse, during the 1950s, big-city officials built modernist public housing towers in racial ghettos to keep African Americans from moving to white neighborhoods, perpetuating the program’s tradition of racial segregation. The U.S. Interstate highway program, enacted in 1956, probably demolished more low-income neighborhoods, if it were possible, than either urban renewal or public housing.3 If the purpose of these postwar programs was to contain the poor and stop the spread of blight, they failed completely, largely because the destruction simply forced those low-income families who lost their homes to move to new areas.


The Other America

Starting about the mid-1950s, observers of American cities began to sound increasingly anxious. At first, many believed that urban problems stemmed primarily from the breakdown of physical planning and government services. In 1957, Fortune magazine produced a special issue, later a book, of essays that detailed the effects of the car, city government, the slums, sprawl, and, in Jane Jacobs’ provocative debut of her urban theories, the failure to revive downtown. As more neighborhoods turned into low-income minority communities, social problems, particularly the old issue of “juvenile delinquency,” entered the discussion about cities. From films like The Blackboard Jungle to West Side Story, America’s popular culture gave iconic form to the urban street gangs and by extension the neighborhoods in which they lived.

Nonetheless, the increasing affluence of Americans made it shocking to discover that grinding poverty persisted. In 1962, Michael Harrington published a searing portrait of deprived and invisible poor people in The Other America, a book that caught the attention of many of the nation’s leaders, including President John F. Kennedy. The dawning realization of poverty in the midst of plenty gave rise to a new generation of wide-ranging efforts to fight urban and rural social problems.

As in the past and many times since, reformers realized that solving the problems of the poor depended on coordinating a variety of efforts for economic development and human development. In 1958, two members of the faculty of the Columbia School of Social Work, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, started Mobilization for Youth to combat juvenile delinquency on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Cloward and Ohlin blamed slum conditions and racial discrimination for juvenile delinquency and in response set up Mobilization for Youth as a broad attack—including job training, mental health counseling, and educational programs—on neighborhood social conditions. Although Mobilization for Youth succeeded in galvanizing low-income residents to act on their own behalf, school officials, welfare workers, and other professionals became defensive. Many of the efforts broke down in mutual hostility.

In 1961, Paul Ylvisaker, an officer of the Ford Foundation concerned with urban and racial issues, started the Gray Areas programs in Boston, Oakland, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. With grants from the Ford Foundation to local school departments, governments, and nonprofit agencies, he hoped to reform the delivery of social services to respond in innovative ways to the needs of the residents of low-income racial minority neighborhoods. The engine of this experiment in comprehensive community development was to be a nonprofit agency. Although these trials gave form to approaches that would soon resurface in federal policy, the failure of Ylvisaker and his foundation colleagues to think through ways to coordinate disparate agencies or to allow low-income African Americans to participate meaningfully in planning the improvement of their neighborhoods undermined the Gray Areas projects.4

LBJ Declares a Comprehensive War on Poverty

The Kennedy administration responded to the growing sense of urgency about American poverty. Attorney General Robert Kennedy nurtured youth programs through the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, most famously Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU) in New York City, formed in 1962. Just days before he was assassinated, President Kennedy approved plans to launch a trial program as an attack on poverty in America. Soon after succeeding to the presidency, Lyndon B. Johnson raised the stakes by declaring not an attack but a full-fledged War on Poverty. In August 1964, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, and Johnson named Sargent Shriver to head the ambitious new agency that would carry it out.

As implemented by Shriver, the War on Poverty reflected the anti-poverty experiments but with an even wider scope. In the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) and subsequent programs such as Model Cities, the Johnson administration strove for systematic approaches to help Americans lift themselves out of poverty. Through “comprehensive community action programs,” Johnson declared in signing the Economic Opportunity Act, “We will strike at poverty’s roots.” He reeled off numerous approaches, including remedial education, job training, health and employment counseling, and neighborhood improvement. In the following years, the administration would add more education and human development elements: preschool learning through Head Start, itself a comprehensive approach that was to provide “health, educational, nutritional, social, and other services” to low-income children and their families; food stamps; Upward Bound for college preparation; and the child nutrition program.

The idea of comprehensiveness permeated the antipoverty measures of the 1960s. To coordinate the federal government’s multipronged attack on poverty, the Economic Opportunity Act set up an Economic Opportunity Council made up of the president’s cabinet secretaries and named the OEO director as its chairman. The fundamental concept of the 1966 Model Cities program was that focusing diverse programs and approaches in a concentrated area would transform a slum neighborhood and its low-income inhabitants. The OEO, and even more explicitly Model Cities, relied on an integrated approach to uplift that would break down the barriers between different types of social services. In practice, however, effectively coordinating separate and often jealous government agencies often proved infeasible.

The Rise of People Power

While elite policymakers mulled over what was the best way to solve poverty, on the streets of America’s cities the people had begun to act for themselves. The civil rights movement took center stage in the nation’s domestic affairs, blowing from south to north and country to city and raising expectations of African Americans for a better day. After dramatic confrontations such as the marches in Selma, AL, and the triumphant achievements of the Voting Rights Act and the 1965 Civil Rights Act, civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. pivoted to northern cities. In cities from Boston to Seattle, civil rights activists crusaded against racial discrimination in education, employment, and housing. The increasing appeal of black nationalism, which ranged from black pride to “black power,” and the emergence of militant nationalists, such as H. Rap Brown, challenged leaders like King who preached nonviolence and racial integration.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a close-to-the-ground approach to urban problems known as community organizing had taken root. In the late 1930s, Saul Alinsky, a former criminologist, applied union organizers’ methods to help residents of the city’s Back of the Yards, an impoverished polyglot immigrant neighborhood, gain political power to force local government and institutions to respond to their needs. Alinsky then set up the Industrial Areas Foundation to organize the powerless of all stripes—Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans—in their home communities. During the 1960s, Alinsky’s brand of community organizing gained national attention, as Charles Silberman publicized Alinsky’s work in the best-selling book, Crisis in Black and White, and members of the New Left turned to the organizer to learn political tactics. Many years later Alinsky’s ideas would influence a young organizer in Chicago named Barack Obama.

Taking It to the Streets

The spirit of resistance that flourished in the 1960s also inspired citizens to take to the streets to stop large-scale urban renewal and highway projects. Across the nation, they rallied to stop the government from tearing down their homes for a small number of public or luxury housing and from slicing 10-lane expressways through their neighborhoods to benefit suburbanites. Although not always successful, especially at first, the protests gained champions who articulated the intellectual case for their cause. In her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs, an editor at Architectural Forum, laid out a devastating critique of city planning that destroyed old buildings and neighborhoods and built instead monolithic public housing projects and soulless civic centers. In The Urban Villagers (1962), liberal sociologist Herbert Gans portrayed the residents of Boston’s West End not as alienated slum dwellers but as members of a vital community. Martin Anderson, a scholar of finance and management, blasted urban renewal from a conservative perspective in The Federal Bulldozer (1964).

If the antipoverty experiments encouraged a comprehensive approach, the grassroots campaigns fed the idea that any plan to combat urban ills should involve, or better yet be written by, the people who were the objects of the initiative. Thus, a signature piece of the War on Poverty was the community action program, whose local agencies would carry out the panoply of antipoverty programs and legal services for the poor. The rule for the community action program was “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in the design and implementation of the programs that would affect them. Some community action agencies took this goal literally, threatening the local political status quo. In response, vexed southern and big-city politicians let Johnson and Shriver feel their ire in no uncertain terms. The Johnson administration in turn gave mayors more say-so in OEO and Model Cities, but never entirely rejected the principle of participation. Hence, in contrast to public housing, urban renewal, and highway construction, the antipoverty and community development projects of the 1960s enshrined, at least to some degree, a bottom-up approach.

Perhaps because they were situated close to the people they were trying to help, community action agencies, Model Cities organizations, and community development corporations survived the political opposition and in the following decades slowly began to multiply across the United States.

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