Cities Revive, But What About the People?

Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival, by Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio. Westview Press, Boulder, CO 2000. 285 pp. $25.
Community developers owe important debts to Paul Grogan. Under his stewardship the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) grew many-fold, passing billions of dollars into our communities in the forms of loans, grants, and equity. Without LISC, far more of the low-income housing tax credit investments would have gone to for-profit developers from outside our neighborhoods. Instead, LISC has helped make investing in not-for-profit, community-based organizations in low-income neighborhoods standard business practice for many banks and corporations. This remarkable feat has led to concrete improvements in low-income neighborhoods around the country over the past 20 years.

Having recently moved on to become vice-president for government, community, and public affairs at Harvard, Grogan teamed up with Tony Proscio to author Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival. The book begins a much-needed dialogue. We have done a poor job of publicizing the work of community development, and an even worse one of developing a body of self-criticism to help us improve our work. Unfortunately, the framework into which Comeback Cities places community development – bundling it with neo-liberal privatization and deregulation initiatives – provides a starting-point too little attentive to issues of social, economic, or racial justice.

Grogan and Proscio’s argument, in brief, is that inner cities in the U.S. are rebounding in fundamental ways as the result of a “surprising convergence of positives” – community development, the rebirth of retail markets, dropping crime through policing practices, and “the unshackling of inner-city life from the giant bureaucracies,” especially the welfare system, public housing authorities, and public schools (page 5). They argue that these indicators of rebirth are more important than the “unreasonable and largely irrelevant” goal of eliminating poverty. While this “convergence of positives” may not have reduced the growing divide between rich and poor, or had much affect on the poverty rate, it has transformed many distressed urban communities into more stable, decent places where people actually want to live – no small feat given the blight that characterized so many communities just two decades ago. In addition, the authors contend, this bundle of successful policies should be celebrated because it is bipartisan and achievable – unlike metropolitan solutions like sharing tax revenues between cities and suburbs, which they believe are politically infeasible.

Their argument is made primarily through telling the success stories of people working on the ground. One of Comeback Cities’ strengths is its combination of respect for those doing the work with a belief that this work is possible in every neighborhood. It begins with the storied revitalization of the South Bronx – from the visits of Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Clinton, to the work of community development corporations (CDCs) like Mid Bronx Desperadoes and the critical roles played by the City of New York and “intermediaries” like LISC and the Enterprise Foundation. The book goes on to the stories of community developers Bethel New Life CDC in Chicago and Urban Edge in Boston, revitalized inner-city markets in Harlem and Newark, public housing reinvention in Atlanta, and community-policing in Boston and – remarkably – New York City.

Indeed, one of the book’s central failures is revealed in its declaration that “As Rudolph Giuliani has done in the Bronx and Brooklyn, it’s time to view community policing and community development as related components of a single assault on neighborhood disorder” (page 266). Many people of color living through the Giuliani administration, however, feel the “assault” has actually been on them. Unlike Boston, where the 10 Point Plan pressured police to work with and listen to community residents, Giuliani’s reforms focused on boosting low-level arrests with no effort to build bridges with communities of color. Many NYC civil rights activists believe these changes resulted in the NYPD’s recent record of police brutality and racial profiling. Yet Grogan and Proscio are silent on issues of race, as if they fear that naming structural racism as a cause for many problems will cause policy makers to abandon the effort of trying to solve them.

Places or People?

Comeback Cities celebrates the fact that our neighborhoods are doing better, but pays little attention to whether the people living there are better off. Many of us engaged in the day-to-day work of community development, while proud of the concrete accomplishments, are simply not satisfied with having our work framed as an effort to make our neighborhoods into pleasant places where people aren’t on public assistance. We are striving for something like “self-determination,” the idea that people individually and collectively ought to be able to control the major factors in their lives. Our goal is not to make poverty more dignified because people are working for it, but to have people earning enough that they don’t have to worry about finding housing and food from week to week.

In their chapter on “slipping the welfare knot,” Grogan and Proscio celebrate the 1996 federal “welfare reform” act and the subsequent reduction of the welfare rolls. They do not seem seriously troubled by the fact that people have not been able to increase their incomes by the work into which they have been forced. Remarkably (in a book with plenty of policy detail) they do not even mention the array of now widely accepted policies that would “make work pay” for low-wage workers: an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, living-wage laws, expanded health insurance coverage, enhanced labor organizing, or training focused on helping people build career ladders.

Finally, while the authors respectfully recount the role of community organizing in winning passage of the Community Reinvestment Act, they also take the following cheap shot:

The community organizing and planning of [the 1960s] was soon squandered on divisive or extremist political tactics, including the in-your-face style of protest that Tom Wolfe famously dubbed “mau-mauing.” … [E]very so often community groups still turn up with all the earmarks of what Fred Siegel …calls the “riot ideology:” racial demagoguery, demands for patronage, hints of unrest if demands aren’t met, a preference for confrontation over visible results … But today, fortunately, the old-style “mau-mau” operations normally stand out in bright contrast to the productive mainstream of community development…CDCs are becoming more and more effective at driving out these exploitative imitators. (pgs. 66-67)

This caricature has little to do with the actual direct action, grassroots organizing that has grown out of the civil rights movement and the work of Saul Alinsky. While often “in-your-face,” this organizing is driven by a quest for concrete results – an end to predatory lending, the establishment of living-wage laws, fair employment and housing practices – and doesn’t threaten violence as a tactic. It is often the only way that people without conventional access to money and power can make their voices heard, even if there is a CDC with a fabulous track record in their community.

It is certainly true (sadly, in my estimation) that many CDCs have shied away from direct action organizing. Perhaps a few bankers or government officials, maybe even a few suburban voters, will be reassured by this, and therefore choose to support much-needed programs. I am genuinely eager for their support, and therefore happy that Grogan and Proscio have written this book to help popularize community development. I am even happier, though, that there are more of us than the authors acknowledge who still believe that – along with concrete development efforts to build our communities – we need direct action, organized “people power,” and the spirit of the civil rights movement from which our work springs to confront the deep social injustice and racism that still characterizes our cities, and is at the root of so many of the problems we hope to solve.

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