Review #132 Nov/Dec 2003

Telling the Community Development Story

Comeback Cities, by Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio. Westview Press ( 2000. 285 pp. $17 (paperback). House by House, Block by Block, by Alexander von Hoffman. Oxford University Press ( […]

Comeback Cities, by Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio. Westview Press ( 2000. 285 pp. $17 (paperback).
House by House, Block by Block, by Alexander von Hoffman. Oxford University Press ( 2003. 320 pp. $30 (hardcover).

If one sign that a movement has come of age is that people have started to write books about it, not just for each other but also for the wider public, then community development has finally reached that status. Two books, both written for the educated lay reader, bear witness to the changes taking place in America’s cities and show how the community development movement has played a central role in that revival.

As their titles suggest, the two books come at the subject from different perspectives. Comeback Cities, while providing some vivid vignettes of neighborhood rebuilding efforts, has larger fish to fry. Grogan and Proscio are writing to celebrate the revival of America’s cities, finding the principal reasons in a series of trends that the authors label “a surprising convergence of positives,” including the maturing of neighborhood-based revitalization efforts, the rebirth of the private market, the drop in urban crime and, more controversially, the unshackling, as they see it, of urban America from the welfare, public housing and public education bureaucracies.

House by House zooms in on the neighborhood. In a book teeming with confrontations between passionate neighborhood advocates and stolid politicians – in which the heroes are, in Homeric vein, soft-spoken, intellectual, quixotic, hearty grandmothers, hardnosed and practical, brash young men, risk-takers and zealots, and so forth – von Hoffman tries to capture the process by which community leaders, activists and developers, along with enlightened public officials, have actually begun rebuilding neighborhoods in five cities – New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

In contrast to Grogan and Proscio’s relentlessly triumphal view of the past decade, von Hoffman, while no less upbeat, allows the occasional shadow to enter his world. He recognizes that rebuilding neighborhoods does not come easily, that years of hard work are needed to make change happen, and that even then, success is not always inevitable. He has immersed himself deeply enough into the world of community development to understand much of its complexity, and makes an admirable, but not always successful, effort to convey the full dimensions of its achievement to the reader.

Both books are well worth reading, particularly for those relatively unfamiliar with the field, yet concerned about the state of America’s cities and inner city neighborhoods. There are few books around better than House by House for a community development practitioner to recommend to friends outside the field, to give them a feeling for the work that is going on in our cities. Similarly, Comeback Cities is a good, well-written introduction to the very real changes that have taken place in American cities since the beginning of the 1990s.

At the same time, though, I found myself not a little dissatisfied as I read these two books. While Comeback Cities bills itself as a corrective to decades of gloom and doom about American cities, a worthy undertaking, I ultimately found it wearing in its insistent emphasis on the positive, and its often one-dimensional stance on complex policy issues. One finds little recognition here that not all American cities have shared in the comeback they describe, or how fragile and uncertain that comeback often is. While I share their admiration for the people who have built a strong, effective community development network in Cleveland, that city – for all of the new downtown towers and the suburban McMansions in Hough – is far from revival, in any meaningful sense of the word. Both this book and von Hoffman’s, while trumpeting the market turnaround in cities such as Boston, Chicago or Atlanta, are far too dismissive of concerns about gentrification, and the effect of market pressures on the condition of those cities’ lower income families.

Much of Grogan and Proscio’s policy analysis seems equally one-sided. While they paint a powerful picture of how good intentions translated into law all but destroyed a once-viable public housing system in America’s big cities, it does not occur to them that perhaps it was those policies, rather than the principle of public housing, that might have profitably been addressed. In their enthusiasm for the HOPE VI program, they fail to ask the serious questions about how – in a comeback city or anywhere else – we are to house our poor. Their treatment of economic development, or public education, is no more nuanced.

House by House suffers from a different problem. It is full of trees, but the forest is often hard to spot. Von Hoffman describes so many neighborhoods, so many organizations, and so many heroic individuals that their stories gradually blur into a series of repetitive tropes – the reluctant banker swayed, the corporate executive converted to the cause, the politician’s arguments trumped by the eloquence of the neighborhood advocate – that become hard to distinguish from one another. While he tries to offer some lessons, or generalizations, at the end of each chapter, and at the end of the book, they are rarely developed in a way that would enable the reader to place the stories in perspective.

Moreover, von Hoffman’s sometimes superficial grasp of the details of the many federal and other programs he describes leads him from time to time into small errors. For example, he credits Reagan with the Section 8 program, which actually came into being in 1974, and blames him for abolishing the community development block grant program, which was still alive and reasonably well as of this writing. No big deal, perhaps, but troubling for a book that stakes so much on the credibility of its details.

The definitive treatment of the revival of America’s cities, as well as the reasons why some have revived and others have not, and the impact of the community development movement remain to be written. In the meantime, these two books represent a good start on documenting one of the most important, and most poorly understood, trends in American society today.

You can order this book through Shelterforce’s Online Bookstore.


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