When I read about efforts to build community, I continue to be struck by the fact that those who operate at the neighborhood level seem not to pay real attention to the economic world. They focus instead on building housing, having more and better services including shops, getting people to work together, and having more programs to deliver services in some organized way.
Yet it does not take a lot of effort to see that if every able-bodied person in a community had a job, many of the other problems and solutions to them would decline in importance. Indeed, many of the concerns about community building are about replacing those things that money can buy.
Imagine, for example, wealthy people living in a high-rise community, say on Chicago’s Gold Coast, New York’s Park Avenue, or San Francisco’s Nob Hill. In most cases, their effective social community does not overlap with their territorial community. Instead, it is either built around work and/or some social clubs. They pay people to look after their children, to provide adequate education, to take care of their health, and, in addition to the good policing they get, they pay for extensive security systems including doormen, patrols, and alarms of various sorts.
As one moves down the economic scale, the role of voluntary community activity and coming together plays an increasingly larger part. Parents supervise the Little League, neighborhood watch programs are established, people keep their eyes on each others kids, they organize to keep some undesirable use (to them) such as a halfway house out of the community, and they may pester the teachers in the local public schools for delivery of better education or a good after-school program.
Normally, residents of urban communities do not work in the communities or neighborhoods where they live. One of the great inventions of modern cities was that areas developed specializations of use, and that residential areas often are some distance from where people work. To the extent, then, that community building is about jobs, efforts to create them must often take place outside the community.
That part of the story has gotten more complicated in recent years, because it takes two earners to make what one used to, and women who might do many of the activities listed above (e.g. keeping their eyes on their neighbors kids or putting pressure on the schools) are less likely to have the time. Moreover, as companies move to the suburbs, many of the jobs that people now go to are much farther away than they used to be, and most of the jobs are less likely to be industrial and more likely to be in some of the so-called service and retail areas.
As one moves further down the income scale, the role of the neighborhood working collectively seems to increase in importance. Because people have less, they need to help each other more. They have to band together to get the resources that are properly due to them; they have to police their neighborhoods aggressively because so many unemployed people are hanging around, some of them drinking too much or doing drugs or working in illegal activities to provide some sort of income. They must work together to supervise youth under threatening conditions and work with the police to crack down on troublemakers, even while frightened about possible retaliation.
One problem with community building as community building is that it confuses the results with the cause. Practitioners hope that by increasing the capacity of residents to work together to solve collective problems, these communities will be better places to live. To some extent, this may be true. But in some respects, it is a little like trying to gather up the water to pour back in the pipe after the water main has broken. The issue is not how to deal with the consequences of unemployment and lack of incomes, but how to deal with the unemployment and lack of incomes themselves.
Consequently, any community-building effort that is serious and not simply palliative must move economic questions to the forefront. The challenge is to figure out how to do that. There is no one magic bullet. Methods to encourage business start-ups and self-employment – such as for-profit business creation and individual development accounts – should be in such a program. Job training and placement programs designed by working with employers as Project Quest in Texas does are also important. Systems of transportation that bring workers to distant jobs may also be useful. In addition, youth apprenticeship programs, such as those by the Fifth Avenue Committee, which teach youth real skills in short supply in the labor market, would be desirable.
In short, community building must start with connecting people to the economy. Without incomes, it is hard to imagine what people in communities can do to really make a difference in their lives.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Core Issues in Comprehensive Community-Building Initiatives, a February 1996 report from the Chapin Hall Center for Children. The full report is available for $10 from Publications, Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, 1313 East 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637; 312-753-5900.