#087 May/Jun 1996

The Soul of the Neighborhood

Why do we call community-based development an “industry” rather than a “movement” these days? “Industry” is such a satisfyingly hard-nosed word. It says, ‘we are engaged in the pursuit of […]

Photo courtesy of NYCStreets CC Bynd

This mural in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood was created at the request of Brooklyn Community Board 7, focusing on traffic and pedestrian safety education as well as cultural diversity. It was designed by the Groundswell Community Mural Project's flagship Summer Leadership Institute.

Photo courtesy of NYCStreets CC Bynd

Why do we call community-based development an “industry” rather than a “movement” these days? “Industry” is such a satisfyingly hard-nosed word. It says, ‘we are engaged in the pursuit of something tangible, quantifiable. We produce!’

Just compare: the “civil rights industry” or the “conservation industry.”

The very uniqueness of what community-based development organizations do and stand for raises a dilemma. We develop bricks and mortar things and programs with outputs: units of housing, square feet of commercial space, job placements, day care slots. But we do development not for development’s sake, but to build community, to nourish the human spirit and social bonds among the people in the neighborhood while using business skills to regenerate the neighborhood’s physical and economic base and connection to mainstream institutions.

So we are as much a movement as an industry. The dual social and bricks-and-mortar mission is the essence of why the community-based development strategy is powerful and what sets it apart from other forms of fighting poverty.

Over the past 20 years or so, the pressure to produce captured almost all the attention of CBDOs and their funders. Yet recently there’s been a growing recognition among practitioners, funders, consultants, and observers of the field that an emphasis on bricks and mortar is not enough to save the ‘soul’ of neighborhoods. It takes paying attention to the people part of the neighborhood, setting the environment for them to care about and invest in themselves and each other.

The irony is that over the years, as CBDOs downplayed their explicit social mission and emphasized their technical capacity to do hard deals, a field of research has asserted that it is a strong social fabric that brings about economic health, rather than vice versa. Hard and soft are irrelevant distinctions when both are needed to bring about change.

The other irony is that CBDOs have in effect been nurturing social relationships all along. But they have done so without an adequate vocabulary because social mission has not been a legitimate discussion for such a long time. And they have done so while already straining under other pressures, such as the pressure to ‘go to scale,’ brought on by the success of development.

Now the growing recognition of the importance of “social fabric” gives us an opportunity to frame a vocabulary that articulates the social mission as part of the community-based development strategy and to find practices that are consistent with what CBDOs are already doing.

What people in neighborhoods call “neighborliness,” helping each other build a home, teaching kids how to network and get a job, taking turns in a crime watch, academics call “social capital” or “social fabric.” “Social fabric” means the web of relationships among people in the community and the expectations of trust, reciprocity, and solidarity that arise from those relationships.

Social fabric is the connectedness that makes people in a community willing to act on each other’s behalf. These are “the ties that bind,” as Senator Barbara Mikulski (a former community organizer) has so aptly framed it. The “ties that bind” work both ways: it may be difficult and time-consuming to serve on a tenant committee that makes and enforces resident rules, and to know that other tenants are observing each other by those rules, but it saves the building and makes life there a lot more safe and pleasant.

“Communitarian” is another useful and parallel term, made popular by the recently formed communitarian network of academics, researchers, and policy makers. Communitarians emphasize that a good society lives within a moral framework of shared rights and responsibilities. Communitarians urge a renewed sense of collective obligation, our “habits of the heart.” These terms are useful to community-based development’s vocabulary and in capturing the interest of funders, researchers, and policy makers who help shape what happens to CBDOs and their neighborhoods.

Fostering a neighborhood’s social cohesion is distinct from delivering services, though services – health care, education, day care, job training – and physical and economic development – decent housing, enough jobs, local businesses – are the soil in which human relationships grow. Social cohesion is also distinct from organizing, which usually involves a struggle to influence outside powers around a particular issue, though organizing is a tool in social fabric activities.

Social Mission Eclipsed By Production

Many CBDOs feel that they work more or less divorced from most neighborhood residents. “We drag people along and pretend large buy-in,” one Cleveland CBDO director said. There are very solid reasons for this.

  • CBDOs, whether with a staff of three or 15, are stretched thin doing development. Funders and neighborhood needs keep pressing them to increase output.
  • CBDOs feel that they can’t be all things to all people.
  • Groups that came into existence for a single purpose, such as to run training and employment programs, may not at their founding have had a social mission for the neighborhood.
  • No one is funding social cohesion. No one even gives a CBDO credit for doing it. Funders have only recently funded social service initiatives as part of their ‘holistic’ community development concept. They certainly aren’t funding organizing or activities they would say are ‘soft.’
  • Not much is known about what works in social cohesion practices, and how to measure success.

Social Development is Integral to Community Development

In the fight against the exterior and internal forces isolating and destroying poor neighborhoods, reweaving the social fabric is as important as changing the economic system. One cannot be accomplished without the other. Researchers such as Robert Putnam contend that “the networks, norms, and trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” establish the community context that is the prerequisite for development. They say that this is as true in rural as in inner-city neighborhoods.

Neighborhood groups know that if youth in the neighborhood aren’t part of putting up the basketball hoop, they may tear it down. CBDOs know that if job trainees don’t have moral support from their peers and help with the troubles of daily life, they are likely to drop out of the program. Housing groups are building front porches on a lot of affordable homes these days, to make it easier for owners to socialize with their neighbors and keep an eye on the block.

CBDOs also find that focusing on the strengths of the people in the neighborhood is a powerful way to take advantage of the neighborhood’s assets and its capacity to do for itself. This work counterbalances what may otherwise become a staff-driven development technocracy that estranges the very people it’s supposed to represent and recreates the same dependent, service deliverer-client relationship that people abhor in the welfare system.

Just a few decades ago, “everybody’s mom was your mom,” as people from poor and minority Chicago neighborhoods put it when a local organizing initiative asked about their vision of what a good community looked like. “Everybody’s mom was your mom” meant that people looked out for the safety and well being of each other’s children, and other people in the neighborhood besides your parents were there to educate you about what was an acceptable code of conduct and to enforce that code. People want that mutual caring back in their lives. In poor neighborhoods, often isolated from the rest of the locality, suffering high degrees of family breakdown, violence and distrust, there is a special urgency to build that sense of mutual responsibility and cooperation.

CBDOs Are Already Engaged In Social Development

Every time a CBDO builds a house, opens a business incubator, makes it possible for local women to run a day care enterprise, and attracts investment dollars back into the neighborhood, the CBDO is doing a form of social development. Using physical and economic development to deal with the external forces undermining their neighborhood – disinvestment, plant closings – the CBDO restores at least part of the foundation upon which people can regain hope, revive their capacity to strive and achieve, and rekindle their human relationships.

Every time a CBDO runs a job training and crime prevention program in a way that emphasizes self-sufficiency and personal responsibility, it is undertaking a form of social development. It is using service delivery to deal with the internal forces – drug abuse, teenage parenthood – harming neighborhood residents and relationships.

Further, the CBDO as an organization is itself a ‘communitarian’ model. It represents collective action in a fragmented, individualistic society. It is a group of people who tackle problems with the tools of mutual self-help, partnership, collaboration, and cooperation. In a society where self-interest is defined as the driving force of human action, the CBDO stands apart by acting for the community’s common good.

This work is all the stronger because it is achieved in and on behalf of a physical place, the neighborhood, which follows only after the family as the most central bond of human relationships.

Reclaiming The Social Mission

Beyond the bricks and mortar, CBDOs are trying many approaches that make their social capital activities more robust and intentional.

Neighborhood organizations recognize that development is most effective when done in ways that draw on residents’ strength. They know they can connect to people through organizing and community vision setting, which are explicit ways to serve as the authentic voice of the community. But CBDOs can experience incredible frustration in trying to find money and staff time for these activities. So they turn to other ways. Supporting the founding of a community development credit union, for example, creates an opportunity for people to set priorities and to engage each other while creating a mechanism for recycling wealth within the neighborhood.

Like many other CBDOs, Warren Conner Development Corporation in Detroit convinces local corporations – in this case, hospitals and nursing homes – to collaborate in identifying growing types of jobs and setting up training programs for residents to fill those jobs. Warren Conner helps the participants stay in training and then hold onto jobs in two ways: it trains neighborhood residents as “family coaches,” providing participants and their families one-on-one counseling and practical information and advice; and it holds weekly Dinner Clubs, complete with child care and transportation, the occasion for families to build friendships, talk about problems, and reinforce each other’s sense of accomplishment. In essence, Warren Conner is re-creating the social networks that are the necessary context for economic health.

Development and service delivery can be structured either to foster people’s sense of personal and mutual responsibility or to push them into the status of victim and client, receiving charity in a climate of entitlement. It’s the difference between doing ‘with’ and doing ‘for.’

Hope Communities, a Denver nonprofit low-income housing producer, trains mothers living in its housing to visit new mothers living nearby and help them learn how to care for their infants and deal with problems in their daily lives. The mothers are willing substitutes for the extended families so often missing in today’s society.

When CBDOs use a ‘communitarian’ approach, they imply that people have a responsibility not to be just a bundle of needs but people who can give back, to their own potential, their children, their family, their neighborhoods and institutions. Parents who take turns at the day care center, mothers teaching each other about nutrition, job trainees who help each other stay in the course, all are examples of the communitarian approach. This approach draws on many models, from pioneer barnraising, to African communal practices, to the culture of Native Americans.

CBDOs have a rightful place as a carrier and articulator of values. Here’s where many groups get cold feet. Like many Americans, community developers may think that values are strictly individual and value-setting is solely the job of families and religious institutions. The ability of a community to set its own shared moral values, however, is central to its strength. A public life empty of moral meanings and shared ideals does not secure freedom but offers an open invitation to intolerance. If the neighborhood does not have a clarity of values, others will impose it.

CBDOs, when they are democratic and rooted in the neighborhood, are ideal institutions to engage people in values-setting in a non-authoritarian way that reflects their values – not those of some outside interest, such as TV. The CBDO is taking an appropriate role when it brings people together to discuss and articulate their vision for the common good, for the ‘common unity.’

What the CBDO is doing, essentially, is recreating the environment where “everybody’s mom is your mom.”

The sense of connectedness makes an immense difference in how people feel about where they live. This sense can be nourished by everyday activities – basketball practice, choir, the babysitting co-op, the neighborhood newsletter, holiday festivals (Cinqo de Mayo and the Fourth of July), birthday celebrations for 90-year-old residents, pot luck block club dinners, victory parties.

The CBDO doesn’t have to go it alone in these conscious efforts to build social fabric; it can find other neighborhood groups to collaborate with in making sure such activities happen.

In neighborhoods that are isolated ghettoes of the poor, many CBDOs are redefining their mission to focus on attracting people with a mix of incomes to their neighborhoods and helping current residents achieve greater self-sufficiency. As so many researchers (foremost among them, William Julius Wilson) have found, people need contacts and role models to help them get jobs, learn new ways of behavior, and believe that a better life is attainable.

Hough Area Partners for Progress, in a Cleveland neighborhood just now inching back from decades of disadvantage, is building 20 $200,000 homes in its Renaissance Place development. These homes all face the street and have front porches to fit into and be part of the neighborhood, and the common space is open to families who live in apartments nearby.

Though community development derives rightfully from within the community, there must be mutuality from institutions outside the community. What are the responsibilities that city hall and corporations have to their communities? It’s rather hard to make a difference at a micro, neighborhood level in the face of macro economic and social disorganization.

Paul Greene, the former assistant director of Hough Area Partners for Progress recalled recently how “the heavy industry has gone elsewhere. So where the fathers and grandfathers came up from the South to get jobs at GM, their kids are sitting on the streets. If there was a job at GM, the kids could work, buy a house, get married, and they would do that instead of selling drugs. But the jobs don’t exist. The kids are so marginalized, they don’t have a sense of social responsibility, they don’t see society as being responsible to give them the opportunity to help themselves. We’re not going to replace the steel industry, a major component of the economy, by selling hot dogs out of our basement.”

Some CBDOs are now formalizing their expectations of outside institutions through a written Social Contract document. This is what the New Kensington CDC in Philadelphia has done. Its Social Contract formally binds residents, businesses and government to work together on initiatives totalling $39 million in new investments that over ten years will result in 1,400 jobs for residents, more than 600 new or renovated housing units, and over $3 million in new tax revenue for the city. More than 225 residents actively participated through six committees to create a Contract document that reflects their dreams.

All Life Is Interrelated

All of these efforts require time, money, education, and staffing. Just as neighborhood groups have more work to do here, a major change in outlook and action has to also come from funders, to give support and explicit credit for social fabric activities. Researchers need to turn their attention to understanding the elements of community-building and what it takes to nourish them. With guidance from true neighborhood leaders, funders should devise a new accounting scheme in which social fabric measures at least equally with economic and other standards.

When CDCs first emerged in the 1960s, they were designed as remediating institutions for disadvantaged neighborhoods. The rest of the nation was presumed to be intact. What’s different today is that most Americans feel there is something wrong at every level of society. If Americans are looking for ways to assert communal bonds, they could recognize community-based groups as a homegrown “social invention” worth learning from. They could recognize, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, that “All life is interrelated. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This paper is based on interviews with CBDOs and on a meeting of communitarians and community developers held in Cleveland in the Fall 1995; the project was funded by the George Gund Foundation of Cleveland.


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