When Goliath Comes

Promise and Betrayal: Universities and the Battle for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, by John I. Gilderbloom and R.L. Mullins Jr. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005, 228 pp. $24.95 (paperback).

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Can universities rebuild disinvested neighborhoods? In their book, Promise and Betrayal: Universities and the Battle for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, John Gilderbloom and R.L. Mullins attempt to tell the story of the University of Louisville Housing and Neighborhood Development Strategies (HANDS) program and its effort to redevelop one of the poorest sections of town.

The HANDS program was a multi-year comprehensive community development program that began in the mid-1990s. It was housed in the university and funded by a three-year, $1.5 million U.S. Department of Education Urban Community Service Grant, with a funding match from the university.

HANDS’ focus was on redevelopment of the severely disinvested Russell neighborhood in Louisville’s central city. Guided, but not governed, by both a community and a national advisory board, HANDS brought together an impressive coalition of government, neighborhood, city and even corporate players to successfully build affordable housing, reduce crime, educate children, enhance resident access to technology and provide social work case management services. The university’s interest in community engagement extended beyond HANDS with the creation of an urban design center called the Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods program and a variety of other services to Louisville neighborhoods.

The goal of the HANDS program stems from a specialized strategy of urban universities to target a single neighborhood for redevelopment, a strategy that is promoted, in particular, by HUD’s Community Outreach Partnership Center funding program. The authors note that, around the country, the practice has not always served neighborhoods’ interest, and some of these programs have actually been smokescreens for displacement and gentrification. The emphasis at HANDS, unlike many other programs, was on participation and partnership – involving residents in making decisions about how the neighborhood would be redeveloped and partnering with other players to bring in resources to accomplish the plan.

While I find the tale of the program impressive, I am left skeptical in the end. Some of that skepticism is likely the result of how often I have seen universities harm communities rather than serve them, bludgeon them with help or take credit for the hard work of others. But another part of my skepticism comes from how the authors tell the tale.

Gilderbloom and Mullins present lots of information about the outcomes produced by HANDS, but neglect to tell us about much of the process. And it is, after all, the process that we all need to know about if the book is to move beyond self-congratulation to providing lessons to others. Only in the third chapter, which describes the Russell neighborhood design process, is the process of community-university partnership treated with any detail. This chapter describes who was included in the design process, the steps of the design process, and some of the interactions between the design team, residents, nonprofits and government agencies. The authors briefly explore the capacity issues of the developer that hindered implementation of the Russell plan, and the lack of knowledge transfer from experts in the community design team to others that could have expanded the partnership’s impact.

Aside from the discussion in Chapter Three, however, we get little sense of the real messiness of community-university partnerships. There is little direct discussion of the problems recruiting faculty, managing students, massaging egos, smoothing over neighborhood faction fights or bringing in powerful players without thwarting neighborhood interests. Therefore, when the authors try to present a model of a successful university partnership in a later chapter, it’s unclear how it connects to the HANDS experience. So few details are included that I am even left wondering about several pertinent facts of the program, such as who came up with the idea of HANDS, what kind of fights were required to get it going, what kinds of relationships were built to make it last as long as it did and what challenges were faced along the way.

Like so many stories of community-university partnerships, this one is written as if the HANDS program were wholly responsible for the redevelopment of the Russell neighborhood. The authors do question whether it is fair to present the story that way, but not too critically. They present a long list of partners who were also involved in neighborhood development but offer very little sense of their roles. There are a few testimonials from advisory committee members and from the elderly woman who bought a new home for the first time in her life. And though the program was said to emphasize participation, there are no testimonials from residents about their involvement in producing those much-discussed outcomes. Indeed, this neighborhood development model is extremely top heavy with university actors and government agencies; residents seem to have been relegated to a supporting role rather than a governing one. Most interestingly, the authors’ description of the “community organizing” program focuses on how they got 500 computers into the community, instead of how they engaged and empowered the community. There is no mention of building a residents’ organization, engaging in collective confrontation with city hall, achieving real decision-making power for the neighborhood or changing the urban power structure.

The way the story is told in Promise and Betrayal sheds light on Gilderbloom and Mullins’s bias toward the university. There’s an underlying assumption that the university is a neutral turf where people can come together to solve issues, a premise on which much of the book is based. (I work with a lot of neighborhood activists and have yet to find one that sees the “university” as a neutral place.) They also emphasize the centrality of university administrators and boards in supporting university civic engagement, community outreach and community development programs. Yet, as I have traveled around the country, the biggest barrier to such work is faculty. Indeed, when the authors end the book on the sad note that the university refused to apply for more federal funding to support neighborhood development, they cite its College of Business and Public Administration as being the roadblock.

Promise and Betrayal offers few lessons for community practitioners. But those on the university side of the relationship who are trying to do the right thing will find some important lessons about university politics. While Gilderbloom and Mullins present what is considered a successful example of university-led community revitalization, the story they tell also points to the continuing, problematic trends in higher education civic engagement programs that try to “help.”

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