Book Review (Revitalizing Urban Neighborhoods, Reinventing Cities)

The Last Best Hope:

Planners and Organizers Work To Empower Residents

Revitalizing Urban Neighborhoods, edited by W. Dennis Keating, Norman Krumholtz, Philip Star. 1996, University Press of Kansas.

Reinventing Cities: Equity Planners Tell Their Stories, edited by Norman Krumholtz, Pierre Clavel, 1994, Temple University Press.

American urban neighborhoods face a real threat of becoming “little more than places that people who have no other resources are forced to occupy,” according to Revitalizing Urban Neighborhoods. Community organizing and community-based development remain the last best hope to preventing this decline, the book suggests, and to restoring the neighborhood to its rightful place as the center of civic life.

Revitalizing Urban Neighborhoods, edited by W. Dennis Keating, Norman Krumholtz, and Philip Star, all of Cleveland State University, is a compilation of case studies and analyses of urban neighborhoods where citizen-based planning efforts have taken hold and reversed or at least slowed the process of decline.

The book’s first section begins with an overview of the initial growth of urban neighborhoods and moves on to examine the transitions these neighborhoods have undergone, trace the history of organizing methods neighborhood groups have used to withstand these changes, and analyze the impact of federal policies on this process.

The case studies that follow underscore the importance of organizing in creating progressive community change in urban neighborhoods where problems of racism, poverty, and crumbling infrastructure threaten to encroach or have already taken hold. Stories from Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles detail the successes and pitfalls of each city’s neighborhood development program. Each case study provides analysis as well as narrative, with much for community development practitioners and academics. The case studies examine overall models, from Faith-Based Development to Community Development Corporations, with equal effectiveness. Each chapter is by a different author, though, and so the book lacks a cohesive thread, leaving readers – for better or worse – to draw their own conclusions and form their own overall analysis.

Where Revitalizing Urban Neighborhoods focuses on the power of communities’ collective efforts, another book by Krumholtz, this one with Cornell University Professor Pierre Clavel, examines practitioners’ efforts. Reinventing Cities: Equity Planners Tell Their Stories is a compilation of autobiographical essays by 11 urban planners whose work has focused on leveling the playing field for communities fighting off neighborhood decay.

These 11 all worked for city governments and used their positions to strive for redistribution of wealth, power, and access, helping grassroots organizations’ voices be heard above the clamor of developers’ dollars. With an eye toward turning traditionally closed processes into participatory systems, these planners were quite innovative in their methods, and their stories are compelling. Before each interview, the “snapshots” of each city help provide a context, with demographic data and political histories worthy of entire books themselves compressed into two pages.

The essays are introspective, offering much about each planner’s background and ways of thinking. Their stories offer both variety and similarity; anyone who has worked in community planning will find themselves nodding along in recognition and agreement with descriptions of ecstatic successes, devastating setbacks, endless meetings, and recurring fantasies of leaving the field altogether.

A single concluding chapter synthesizes threads from each piece, and offers steps by which equity planning could become less the exception and more the rule in city and municipal governments. Where the practitioners’ essays leave off, the academicians pick up in this final chapter, addressing a large concern that equity and participatory planning go beyond pluralism, toward a more integrative mode of planning. Bringing marginalized groups to the core of a city’s planning process is indeed a huge step towards a truly participatory system, the book concludes, but addressing their concerns in isolation is to further marginalize them.

“I am absolutely convinced that with the right value system on the part of the city administration and the right kind of staff, any planning department in the country can have a high level of citizen participation . . . without getting into tremendous, unsolvable adversarial situations,” claims Billie Bramhall, who worked as a planner in Denver under Mayor Federico Pena. “It is possible to make equity planning a win-win situation for developers, neighborhoods and city governments.”

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