#074 Mar/Apr 1994

A National Commitment To Community Development

Last January, The New York Times Magazine published “The Myth of Community Development,” by Nicholas Lemann. The article painted a gloomy picture of urban community development, citing failed programs and […]

Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Urban community development. Image shows Vice President Al Gore

Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Last January, The New York Times Magazine published “The Myth of Community Development,” by Nicholas Lemann. The article painted a gloomy picture of urban community development, citing failed programs and ever increasing neighborhood dissolution. At the end, Lemann acknowledged the positive impact of community development corporations and urged that their social activities – affordable housing, health services, job training – be supported, but that we disabuse ourselves of the notion that “ghettos” can ever truly be “revitalized.”

The publication of Lemann’s article generated considerable discussion. The Times published a number of responses, including one by Vice President Al Gore. We asked the Vice President if he would elaborate on his response, and tell us why the Clinton Administration’s Empowerment Zones will work while some past programs have not – how will these EZs be different in purpose and practice from past efforts?

The vice president’s reply follows. Responses from columnist Jim Sleeper of the New York Daily News; Marc Alan Hughes, vice president for policy development at Public/Private Ventures; and Robert O. Zdenek, senior program associate of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, also appear on Shelterforce.

On Martin Luther King Day, the President and I officially launched our Administration’s community empowerment program. We issued a challenge to all Americans to come together in a renewed and vigorous effort to uplift and support distressed communities in our inner-cities and rural heartlands.

Our challenge is not, as Nicholas Lemann charges in his Jan. 9, 1994, New York Times Magazine article, simply another “revitalize-the-ghetto scheme” in isolation from the mainstream of American life. Quite the contrary: Our challenge, as a nation, is to work together to help distressed communities and their residents join the mainstream of our country and realize the American dream.

No doubt, previous administrations have tried and, in some respects, failed to turn around the decline of our distressed communities. But we did not come to the White House to throw up our hands in frustration or merely to tackle the problems that are easy to solve. America still aches from poverty; too many children are still too hungry to learn; and the frustrations that have spawned violence and crime too shocking to comprehend scream out for our attention.

Our community empowerment effort is multidisciplinary – investing not only in places, but also in the people who live there. It bridges and coordinates human, physical, community, environmental, and, yes, economic development strategies. To characterize our community empowerment program as a purely economic initiative that enjoys only “lukewarm” support within the Administration is simply wrong.

We could not be more enthusiastic about this program. On May 4, 1993, the President announced the community empowerment legislation from the Oval Office. We then fought hard for its inclusion in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993. In September, the President asked me to chair a Cabinet-level committee – the Community Enterprise Board – to develop and oversee the program. The Board, which is part of our efforts to reinvent  government, is comprised of 15 federal agencies and departments that administer programs that reflect a full range of human, physical, community, environmental and economic development opportunities and challenges.

Since September, the Board, its members and their staffs, and I have been working feverishly to implement the legislation. We have been devoted to developing policies and processes that will fulfill the goals of the legislation. I have personally met with dozens of experts in this area (such as community groups, foundations, planners, business and elected officials) to broaden our thinking on these important issues. We have also been traveling around the country promoting our initiative.

As a personal matter, this initiative has been at the top of my agenda and that of Secretary Henry Cisneros of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (who will designate the urban areas) and Mike Espy of the Department of Agriculture (who will designate the rural areas). It has also received the full support of the federal departments and agencies that are members of the Board, each of whom has committed additional resources to support this program. For example, the Small Business Administration has developed a plan to target some of its considerable lending and community development tools to the designated communities. In short, our attention to this program has been far from “modest,” as Mr. Lemann contends.

The president’s community empowerment initiative also goes well beyond the business-as-usual economic revitalization efforts that have been tried in the past. Mr. Lemann claims that our approach to community development is doomed because it is based on a “coordinated and comprehensive” effort to rebuild a community’s “economic base” from the “bottom up” – an approach that was, according to Mr. Lemann, proven unsuccessful by, among others, the War on Poverty and Model Cities programs. He is wrong.

It is questionable whether any of the federal government’s past programs were actually based on a bottom-up, coordinated, and comprehensive approach to community development. Mr. Lemann himself concedes that programs of the past failed to design a workable relationship among the federal government, the involved state and local governments and the interested community groups and residents.

We learned through the work of the National Performance Review that (1) the federal government must respect the needs and desires of its customers by allowing them an opportunity to participate in the process and (2) fragmented federal programs do not effectively serve its customers and waste precious tax dollars. And our community empowerment program reflects those lessons.

In addition, our community empowerment program is not, as Mr. Lemann asserts, based solely on trying to “create a lot of new economic activity in poor neighborhoods.” The substantive principles underlying our community empowerment initiative focus on both the creation of economic opportunity and the development of truly sustainable community.

This program is dedicated to expanding economic opportunity – that is, creating jobs for residents in their community and expanding access to jobs in the surrounding region. It is also committed to creating sustainable communities – communities where the streets are safe, the air and water are clean, housing is secure, human services are accessible, learning is a life-long commitment and the residents’ civic spirit is nurtured – the types of human and social service investments that Mr. Lemann himself appears to embrace.

In criticizing our efforts, Mr. Lemann fails to acknowledge the types of private sector involvement that we have already secured to support our program – support that he admits is critical to economic revitalization. During the months that we have devoted to implementing this initiative, we have invested a great deal of time and thought as to additional private sector resources that could be attracted to designated areas. Fannie Mae, for example, has committed to work with the designated empowerment zones and enterprise communities to generate substantial investments for housing and homeownership.

Mr. Lemann also fails to acknowledge the valuable resources that exist in our urban areas. Wonderful natural resources and physical structures can be found in the hearts of many inner-cities. Also, many small inner-city businesses provide communities and their residents with the essential needs of life. Most importantly, there is a great human spirit and culture among the residents of America’s most desperate communities. These attributes provide the foundation for our community empowerment work.

With the community, the private and nonprofit sectors and governmental entities working together under our community empowerment program, we can help many of our decaying urban areas and poverty-stricken heartlands to become a part of America’s future. We certainly have an obligation to try.

Editor’s note: The Administration has prepared a set of guidebooks and applications that describe the philosophy and operation of Empowerment Zones/Enterprise Communities. For information, contact U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development, EZ/EC Team, Rm. 7255, 451 Seventh Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20410. 202-708-2035


  • NHI Activities

    March 1, 1994

    A roundup of the NHI conference Saving Affordable Housing: A Critical Examination of Successful Models, and other news notes.

  • Toward Comprehensive Approaches for Strengthening Communities

    March 1, 1994

    Last January, The New York Times Magazine published “The Myth of Community Development” by Nicholas Lemann. The article painted a gloomy picture of urban community development, citing failed programs and […]

  • Rebuilding The Ghetto Does Work

    March 1, 1994

    Last January, The New York Times Magazine published “The Myth of Community Development” by Nicholas Lemann. The article painted a gloomy picture of urban community development, citing failed programs and […]