When community development corporations were launched in the 1960s, their mission was clear: to empower the poor and revitalize their communities. In places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, New York, or Cleveland, Ohio (the sites of the earliest CDCs) the idea was not just to marshal private, public and nonprofit resources to eradicate poverty, but to foster greater participation by low-income residents in the political processes that affect their lives. The poor would have a place at the table – whether in the welfare rights movement or exerting more community control over school boards.
But as the War on Poverty fizzled, neighborhood development took precedence over people power. Although the CDC movement was still committed to improving inner city areas and services for residents, these organizations began to shift tactics and strategies. Pressuring the market to invest in long-ignored communities became a priority – not questioning the fundamental principles upon which the market functioned. Corporate and government partnerships were emphasized over organizing and political engagement. Federal and foundation funding priorities have also played an important part in shaping CDC activities over the last three decades. Most CDCs continue to focus on alleviating poverty, and many still provide training and opportunities for residents to take on leadership roles in their communities. However, there has been a clear evolution in how they define their most effective strategies.
The work of Hope Community Development Corporation in East Harlem, described in this article, raises important questions about the changing terrain of community development. Shelterforce invited Ellen Lazar, executive director of the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation in Washington, DC, and Brad Lander, executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee in Brooklyn, to respond. We invite our readers to join this important discussion. (Read a letter in response, in issue 127.)