At Home in a Changing World

Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era, by Thad Williamson, David Imbroscio and Gar Alperovitz. Taylor & Francis, Inc., 2003. 412 pp. $29.95 (Hardcover).


For community development devotees interested in connecting local and global issues – and who have the stomach for all the details – here is a book for you. Shelterforce readers have been urged to think beyond the confines of their community and become allies in the struggle against corporate globalization (see Shelterforce #111).

Making a Place for Community analyzes a “triple threat” to the economic and social stability of communities. Globalization increases economic volatility and job insecurity as companies move or threaten to move. States and cities compete with one another in the “chase for jobs,” a race to the bottom to see who can lure a corporation with the largest tax breaks. Finally, suburban sprawl undermines both urban and rural communities. The result of these trends is the steady erosion of the capacity of communities to self-govern.

But this erosion is not inevitable. While we are usually told that “the market must … control the fate of communities,” Williamson et al cite numerous counter-examples to argue “the obvious reality that public policy can help achieve local stability.” For example, they suggest that university towns and state capitals – something of an ideal in the book – are made stable and relatively prosperous as a result of government investment.

The next section of the book, which describes effective policies and institutions, has the strengths and weaknesses of a catalog. It contains information about 15 federal job-stabilizing policies (from empowerment zones to military base conversion); five ways of strengthening local multipliers (including local currencies); six local or state policy measures to support communities (such as corporate accountability for subsidy recipients); and eight types of state- and municipally-owned enterprises (from public utilities to the Green Bay Packers). After detailed descriptions of employee ownership, community development corporations (CDCs), community development financial institutions (in five subsections) and four types of community land trusts, they still have five additional categories of “other place-based ownership models.”

Making a Place for Community will almost certainly tell you less than you know about the field you are most engaged in. But you will surely learn things you did not know about many other areas. For example, it was helpful for me to learn about Trade Adjustment Assistance funding for education and training for workers whose company has relocated overseas, just as I found out that 140 people in our community were losing their jobs because the plant that employed them was relocating to Brazil.

As the director of a CDC, I found this analysis of CDCs insightful:

    [T]oo few CDCs engage in the type of comprehensive economic, social, and political development activities their original founders envisioned … We believe the key to tapping the full community-stabilizing potential of CDCs lies in a revival of the spirit of this early vision … Of particular importance, we believe, is community-owned and -controlled business development and commercial revitalization that creates jobs for local residents… Also important is a renewal of advocacy and community organizing capacities.

However, other sections provide no critical analysis. For example, their section on faith-based economic development offers no reflection on criticisms that have been raised about faith-based efforts.

The authors do offer a clear and concise overview of various approaches for restructuring global financial institutions and reforming global trade policy, including a summary of the Global Sustainable Development Resolution proposed by Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). This section was illuminating but disappointing in its scant attention to the consequences of corporate globalization in poor countries. I believe that most people who are concerned about community stability here would want to understand better how proposed reforms would affect the three billion people outside the United States who live on less than $2 a day.

While I enjoyed and learned a great deal from the book, I found its broader analysis unsatisfying in several ways. First, there is too little attention to issues of equity or economic justice. The authors argue that freeing up local communities to govern themselves better “would open up new possibilities for more egalitarian, inclusive politics and policies at the local levels.” But this neglects the many communities that use what power they have to exclude and segregate, and the broader efforts for equality that usually transcend local communities. Any meaningful effort to redistribute wealth fairly must be national and international in scope.

Political analysis of the feasibility of their proposals is also weak. They argue, remarkably, that eliminating $125 billion in tax breaks favoring businesses and replacing them with $75 billion in policies that strengthen community economic stability “does not require directly confronting and overcoming powerful and vested interests.” At a time when the president is working to eliminate the tax on dividends with little regard to the effect on the poor (or on the much-loved, bipartisan Low Income Housing Tax Credit), we are not going to sneak in the back door with a few clever policies that preserve our communities against the rush of capital to make the most it can, wherever it can.

In the end, the authors do not make an argument sufficiently large for the terrain they stake. If we want community economic stability, we will need much more than the policies and institutions they catalog. We will also need a powerful movement, backed with a more persuasive vision … something a bit more like a gospel than a catalog. In the meantime, this book provides a useful starting point.

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