Citizen Participation, Neighborhood Planning And Empowerment Of The Poor

The Rebirth of Urban Democracy by Jeffrey M. Berry, Kent E. Portney and Ken Thomson. 1993. Washington, DC The Brookings Institution. 326 pp. Cloth $36.95. Paperback $16.95.

Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood by Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar. 1994. Boston, MA  South End Press. 336 pp. Cloth $40.00. Paperback $16.00.

The Clinton administration has revived hopes of the federal government providing significant support once again for citizen participation in government and the planning and redevelopment of poor, inner-city neighborhoods. Proposals for the designation of empowerment zones, including six urban zones, and federal support for community development banks are two of the best known Clinton programs. Two recent books shed considerable light on how such goals might be pursued locally.

The Rebirth of Urban Democracy is a study of five cities which have promoted systematic support for citizen participation through neighborhood and community-based organization: Birmingham, Dayton, Portland (Oregon), St. Paul, and San Antonio (where HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros was formerly mayor). The authors, researchers from Tufts University, seek to answer the question of whether there is greater urban democracy in these five cities than in ten other comparable, medium size American cities which have not adopted such policies. Their analysis and conclusions are based upon considerable survey data from these cities.

Streets of Hope is a case study of one neighborhood – the Dudley neighborhood in Boston’s Roxbury area. A poor, minority (93 percent black, Hispanic and Cape Verdean in 1990) neighborhood, it is the site of a unique experiment in neighborhood democracy and redevelopment called the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). DSNI is the only community organization in the U.S. to obtain the right of eminent domain, aimed at allowing it to reclaim abandoned land on which to rebuild. Dudley and Roxbury have been devastated by redlining, urban renewal-caused displacement, racial blockbusting, housing abandonment and arson, and unemployment exacerbated by deindustrialization.

Berry et al ask three questions: 1) is participatory democracy possible? 2) do neighborhood associations promote policy responsiveness by local government? 3) does citizen participation in neighborhood associations promote citizen empowerment? Their five study cities have the following systems: 1) Birmingham has a citywide Citizens Advisory Board composed of representatives of 95 neighborhood groups; 2) Dayton has seven elected citizen Priority Boards; 3) Portland has seven District Coalition Boards representing neighborhood organizations and citizen Budget Advisory Committees for major city agencies; 4) St. Paul has 17 elected District Councils and a citywide citizen Capital Improvement Budget Committee; 5) while San Antonio does not have the type of neighborhood participation system which the other four study cities have, its Communities Organized for Public Services (COPS), representing Hispanic neighborhoods, is nationally known. The five cities provide a variety of support for neighborhood organizations and services.

The authors generally conclude that these cities represent successful efforts at collaboration with neighborhood organizations. They cite four factors for success: 1) a strong motivation for success; 2) successful design of the programs; 3) sophisticated balance between the political interests of the parties; and 4) a level of success before external problems could undercut the system. They found no evidence that neighborhood participation in city governance produced major conflicts or political gridlock.

The authors revisit the debate over the very idea of citizen participation, particularly by the poor, in local government. They critique Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous indictment of the federal anti-poverty program (Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding [1969]). They reject Moynihan’s arguments about the failure of citizen participation.

However, in measuring the extent to which there is greater citizen participation in politics in their five study cities, the authors generally cannot find clearcut evidence of greater participation or neighborhood influence on citywide agenda setting and decision-making. Instead, they find a mixed pattern. A disquieting finding, reminiscent of the 1960s experience in the federal anti-poverty and model cities programs, is that the least participation in neighborhood organizations in their five examples (except for COPS) came from low-income residents.

They conclude by arguing for greater citizen participation because they believe that this will make for stronger democracy at the municipal level. They cite three necessary conditions: 1) citizen control of the process; 2) cooperative city administrators; and 3) a citywide system.

The experience of DSNI is a good test of their arguments. DSNI formed initially in 1985, a result of neighborhood concern over a proposed New Town plan of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA). After an initial meeting in February 1985, where some residents challenged how representative the proposed organization was, the board of what became the DSNI was changed to ensure that residents were a majority (16) of the 31-member board.

With limited foundation support, DSNI engaged in its first campaign (“Don’t Dump on Us”) in 1986, aimed at preventing the city sale of abandoned lots. In its 1987 neighborhood plan, DSNI sought to reclaim abandoned land for housing and commercial development and to prevent displacement. However, in order to obtain title, usually a lengthy city-initiated process, it proposed a unique solution – its designation by the BRA as a Chapter 121A development corporation with the power of eminent domain. Its campaign was called “Take a Stand, Own the Land”. Except for Missouri, ordinarily this power is reserved to public redevelopment agencies. The most significant part of this book is the detailed recounting of DSNI’s campaign to win then Mayor Ray Flynn’s endorsement and approval by the BRA, both of which DSNI accomplished against daunting odds in November, 1988. This came against a background of planning for a new mass transit station in Roxbury and unsuccessful referenda, opposed by Flynn, to allow Roxbury to secede from Boston.

Once DSNI was so designated, it then took several years to implement this power of eminent domain. Under the leadership of former Berkeley, California progressive mayor Gus Newport, DSNI’s director from 1989 to 1992, DSNI gained foundation support for its plans and proceeded on many fronts in its neighborhood revitalization efforts. It broke ground for its first housing in November, 1993. In 1993, DSNI had a staff of 12 and a budget of $840,000. A Panamanian immigrant succeeded Newport, becoming DSNI’s first resident executive director.

DSNI epitomizes the slogan of empowerment of the poor and neighborhood control. In 1993, DSNI issued a “Declaration of Community Rights” reflecting this. So far, over a decade it has succeeded in carrying out these aims, although active participants number in the hundreds, not the thousands. In 1990, Dudley had 24,000 residents (about half in its core area), about one-third of whom lived below the poverty line. The average income of the neighborhood’s population was only about one-half that of the entire city, while the unemployment rate was twice as high as that of the city as a whole.

DSNI’s success follows the three requirements outlined by Berry et al. Whether this experiment can continue until the neighborhood is totally revitalized remains to be seen. A similar and much publicized experiment has been under way in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood for several years, spearheaded by the Enterprise Foundation. For a comparative view of a similar attempt at community control, Allan Heskin’s book about the Route 2 experiment in Los Angeles is highly recommended (The Struggle for Community, 1991).

While these books point toward successful efforts toward greater citizen participation at the neighborhood level in the six cities profiled, it is unclear to what extent most cities either support neighborhood associations and community development corporations (CDCs) or encourage greater participation in governmental decision making by representatives of such groups. In Shelter Burden: Local Politics and Progressive Housing Policy (1993) Ed Goetz did find that local governments generally expanded financial support for CDCs in the 1980s. Certainly, the network of CDCs has grown in many cities.

However, without federal mandates tied to such federal programs as CDBG, it is unlikely that most municipal governments would voluntarily seek to share power with neighborhood-based organizations. Even in Boston under the administration of Ray Flynn, elected on a platform aimed at redirecting redevelopment from downtown to a better balance with the city’s neighborhoods, DSNI had to fight long and hard to gain the BRA’s agreement, after pressure from Mayor Flynn, to give it greater power. Empowerment of the poor and their representatives is not easily accomplished. However, the examples discussed in these two books give hope that this can be accomplished and is not necessarily dependent upon federal mandates.

W. Dennis Keating is Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Urban Affairs, Cleveland State University.

Organize, Organize, Organize: Excerpt from Streets of Hope:

Organizing is the renewable energy that powers DSNI’s human, economic and physical development. The most important resources of any neighborhood are the people who live there. To maximize that resource, successful community revitalization must have at its core an organizing agenda with the goal of involving all parts of the community in the comprehensive redevelopment of the neighborhood.

For decades, community development has largely meant the delivery of services and the building of structures, not organizing. Some of the War on Poverty’s Community Action Programs of the 1960s did involve organizing and, in the words of one historian, “those few communities that stressed nonviolent mobilization and community organizing got more results in terms of institutional reform and better services than those who focused just on services.” However, by 1966, most Community Action Programs practiced “traditional client-bureaucratic forms of service provision and accommodation to political and bureaucratic elites” – elites who were opposed to the mobilization and leadership of poor people in their Model Cities.

In 1966, the community development movement took a significant turn when, after touring the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, Senator Robert Kennedy co-sponsored federal legislation to amend the Economic Opportunities Act – the core of the War on Poverty – to provide government support for community development corporations. By the late 1980s, several thousand CDCs were operating around the country, responsible for the construction and rehabilitation of well over 100,000 units of housing and hundreds of economic development projects. The problem is that in most neighborhoods where CDCs operate, new buildings go up, but for community residents the old obstacles to essential resources, jobs and services remain.

Most CDCs, like government and business planners, have focused on the product, such as affordable housing, and not the process of making development resident-driven and comprehensive. They are “based in communities,” but they are not “community-based.”

Community development consultant Bill Traynor – who formerly directed the Coalition for a Better Acre, an unusual CDC discussed below – writes:

“If the primary success story of the past 25 years has been the development of a legitimate, skilled nonprofit sector with the capacity to create and preserve housing, jobs and businesses, the major failure has been the dominance of a narrowly focused – technical – production-related model of community development, which is estranged from strong neighborhood control and which does not impact many of the issues affecting poor neighborhoods.”

This model is recreating the same dependent, service delivery/client relationship that has dominated the lives of poor inner-city residents for more than two generations. Often times it acts as little more than a delivery system for projects with marginal impact on neighborhoods, projects defined by funders and lenders rather than by community residents. The model has confused the building of power with the building of structures.

When unaccompanied by large-scale organizing and inclusive action, physical development is a technical process that excludes. It is a disempowering tool. Community development in the truest sense is only possible when the community is organized to control development. Few CDCs have engaged in this broader approach to community development. Blending the realities of housing development – cost effectiveness, technical expertise and cooperative deal-making – with the requirements of successful organizing – inclusiveness, great independence in thought and action – has proved a daunting challenge for many a neighborhood. Yet it is a challenge that must be met.

In her urban planning masters thesis, Ricanne Hadrian examines two organizations that have successfully combined organizing and development: Coalition for a Better Acre in Lowell, Massachusetts and East Brooklyn Churches in New York. Unlike DSNI, both organizations regularly act as developers. Like DSNI, they found that the product-oriented approach of development can coexist with the process-oriented approach of organizing when organizing is seen as the guiding force that creates the development opportunities. They “have always been clear about their missions; the roles of organizing and housing development are in tandem, with organizing the primary goal.”

If community development is to succeed, the organizing agenda must guide the development agenda. It is the organizing activity that excites residents enough to get involved and provides the organization the strength to move its development agenda forward. It is through organizing that residents exercise leadership, achieve immediate goals, forge a comprehensive, long-term vision and translate that vision into reality.

It is through organizing that the organization exhibits momentum, rather than inertia. It is through organizing that residents can resist pressure to accommodate their vision to political and bureaucratic elites.

At DSNI, the commitment to organizing was regularly reiterated by the board and staff. Organizing Director Ros Everdell says, “We train everyone in DSNI, all staff and leaders, to see themselves as organizers.” As president, Ché Madyun has chosen to avoid immersing herself in development details and focus her attention on organizing and overall organizational priorities. DSNI’s staff was structured with he organizing, development and human development directors all on the same level. Far more DSNI members are regularly involved in day-to-day organizing activities than in planning or physical development. Development planning takes place in combination with other organizing. Rarely did DSNI hold a meeting where only long-range planning was discussed; usually immediate issues were also addressed. DSNI’s successful campaign to shut down the trash transfer stations, for example, took place in the middle of the process of developing the comprehensive master plan.

In Gus Newport’s words, “The foundation and the glue which has held DSNI together is the organizing component.”

Reprinted with permission of South End Press.

Dennis Keating
Dennis Keating is an emeritus professor in the Department of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. He has written widely on housing, neighborhood development, and urban planning. His 2016 history of Cleveland's Tremont neighborhood was published by the History Press. He is a member of the board of Future Heights and its Planning and Development Committee in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

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