This is the first in a series of articles about a new approach to neighborhood well-being.
For nearly two years, I have been spending a great deal of time in Olneyville, a low-income, predominately Latino neighborhood on the west side of Providence, Rhode Island. My work has led me to a sobering conclusion: The current approach to community well-being will not save the American city.
In a prior article, I wrote about the Walking School Bus. Every morning and every afternoon, adults accompany children through Olneyville as they walk to and from school, sparing children from walking unescorted through some rough parts of town. The bus is a perfect example of the dominant approach to community improvement, and what Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak recently called, “the New Localism.” It is funded by the Rhode Island Department of Health (DOH), which received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. DOH in turn funds One Neighborhood Builders, a community development corporation in Olneyville with a long track record of success and collaborative community-building in the neighborhood.
ONE NB, as it is known, acts as a backbone organization for about a dozen other community-based groups. It disburses the funds, provides organizational support, and takes the laboring oar in building relationships and trust among the various groups, of which the school bus is one. And in fact, this program is state-wide. The Department of Health also funds eight other backbone organizations across Rhode Island, which in turn support the work of scores of small, local organizations, all of which apply their unique expertise to help eliminate health disparities between rich and poor communities in Rhode Island.
If you’re not careful, you can get lost in a blizzard of acronyms: CDC funds DOH, which funds ONE NB, which disburses money to a bunch of other groups, all of which are known to the cognoscenti by their initials. But it isn’t necessary to wade into all that. What matters is that local residents and groups identified a simple but serious problem—kids can’t get to school—and solved it by working collaboratively, creating a congenial partnership that involved residents, the non-profit sector, and the state and federal government. Problem solved. Many of the stories I uncovered in Olneyville follow the same basic pattern: the community identifies the problem, then solves it by working collaboratively with the private, non-profit, or municipal players best suited to the task.
Yet precisely because the partnership solves the immediate problem, it is easy to miss its limitations. The bus has only a marginal effect on the economic well-being of the adults who participate in the program and is certainly not enough to lift anyone out of poverty. It has even less effect on the financial health of the community as a whole. It brings no new expertise into the neighborhood. It does nothing to alter the conditions that made the Walking School Bus necessary in the first place, and does not provide residents with a skill that can be leveraged to address those conditions. In short, the Walking School Bus makes living in a distressed neighborhood slightly less toxic and is therefore undoubtedly a good thing, but we should not confuse it with anything that challenges, or even questions, either the existing economic or political order, or the dominant approach to community well-being.
And worst of all, as limited as its impact is, there is nothing about the Walking School Bus that prevents it from ending tomorrow. If the CDC cut its support, if the RI DOH shifted its funding priorities, if ONE NB decided to take its work in another direction—if any of the links in a long chain were cut—the bus would stop running. All the benefits that flow to the community hinge on decisions by agencies and actors who, to one degree or another, are physically, psychologically, and morally distant from Olneyville, leaving the neighborhood entirely at the mercy of its funders.
And that funding is perennially at risk. An exhaustive report by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine found that funding for youth programs was “modest compared with the number of children who need assistance.” As the authors observed, “if there is one barrier above all others to an ample supply of high-quality community programs for children whose parents cannot afford to pay for them, it is the lack of reliable, stable funding streams to support them.” And what is true for youth programs is true for every dimension of community life in a low-income neighborhood.
The dominant approach to community well-being, captured so perfectly by a bus with no wheels, can achieve salutary results. With some tweaks and better funding, these results can be improved substantially. Nearly all the writing about community well-being calls for precisely these tweaks. They’re good but they’re not enough, and the dominant approach will not save the American city.
Change in an American city is inevitable. Yet that change can either be an active or passive process. A neighborhood can either act or be acted upon. If a neighborhood does not take charge of its fate, others will. People and institutions that are remote from the neighborhood will decide how the space should be used and what is best for the people who live and work there. They will decide whether to build more housing, and whether that housing will be affordable. They will decide whether to invest in public health, and what those investments might look like. They will decide how the neighborhood is policed and how the children are educated. They will decide whether to build a highway that rips the neighborhood apart to make life easier for those living in a distant suburb.
And more often than not, when others have decided what is best for a low-income community—especially communities of color—they have not made it better. They have made it much worse. The unavoidable lesson of history in this country is that, when outsiders set the priorities, low-income black and brown neighborhoods will have too much of what they don’t need and too little of what they do. They will not have safe, healthy, affordable, and economically viable neighborhoods. Instead, they will have neighborhoods that are under-served and over-policed.
If a neighborhood wants to avoid this fate, it must resist. It must insist on a very different future. It is possible to transform a distressed area into a thriving community. But I have chosen my words carefully. These places must be created; they will not happen by accident or chance, and they will not happen if the residents of these neighborhoods do not mobilize, organize, and act. It is also possible to sustain these neighborhoods. But this too will not happen on its own. In fact, in many American cities, successful low-income neighborhoods are not sustainable; in the 21st century, their very success is what makes them prey to the forces of gentrification and displacement that will ultimately make them unaffordable to all but the very wealthy. To create and sustain a vibrant, affordable neighborhood for low-income residents of a modern American city is a conscious act of resistance.
But what does resistance mean in the 21st century? On the one hand, it means (ideally) an engaged population, whose needs and aspirations are solicited and promoted by a well-curated and diverse network of organizations that channel their expertise into concrete programs for the benefit of the residents, and who leverage their philanthropic, private, academic, and municipal connections to bring services and funding, as well as private capital, into the community. It is a collaborative, non-confrontational model that envisions community well-being as the end result of a congenial partnership among residents, non-profit providers, the public sector, and private capital. It does not threaten or even question the prevailing commitment to existing economic or political institutions. In fact, it is less about resistance than relationships. This is precisely how Olneyville got its Walking School Bus.
Ultimately, however, this congenial partnership will not be enough. So long as distressed neighborhoods remain resource-poor, the power dynamic in this partnership inherently favors those with greater political and financial clout, which will almost always be those who live and work outside the community. The arrangement therefore threatens to reduce poor communities and their non-profit advocates to supplicants, and thus makes the neighborhood prey to shifting political and financial pressures. As a model of community well-being, it tends to work only when it is in the interest of the powerful to allow it to work.
In the 21st century, a potent set of forces has put this partnership under an impossible strain. Structural changes in the American economy that intensify the economic and political divide between rich and poor, a dramatic decline in federal support for cities, a sharp rise in race-tinted populism, and a much-ballyhooed return to the city have combined to reduce public funding and squeeze private capital. The net is an increasing inability or unwillingness on the part of political and economic elites to devote the resources necessary to create and sustain healthy, safe, and viable neighborhoods for the urban poor.
In this environment, a partnership that depends on public and private largesse will simply not do the trick. Ultimately, politicians will accede to demands that they support the wealthy rather than the poor, and capital will flow to where it can get the greatest return. Here’s a perfect example: Like many municipalities, the city of East Providence (adjacent to Providence) requires that developers set aside a certain fraction of each new development as affordable housing, a requirement known as inclusionary zoning. But developers can pay their way out of the requirement. In late 2017, developers paid nearly $1 million to East Providence to relieve it of the obligation to build any affordable units in a development of 228 apartments going up on the city’s waterfront. Asked to explain itself, a senior official for the development corporation said simply, “We’re a market rate developer.”
Today, therefore, the partnership must be revised. To meet the demands of the day, communities must adopt an additional set of tools that can protect them from feckless politicians and footloose capital. Today, resistance also means collective ownership and local control, backed by law. It means removing wealth from individual ownership and placing it in the shared hands of the community, which holds it in trust for the benefit of the group. And it means endowing this trust with the protection of the law, to insulate it from private profitmaking and political manipulation. In short, it means loosening the political and financial hold of modern capitalism. In an age when the failure of unregulated capitalism is becoming more evident every day and people are looking for viable alternatives, options like the neighborhood trust cannot be implemented quickly enough.
In today’s political and economic climate, the temptation is strong to transform a distressed urban neighborhood by gradually making it unaffordable to those of modest means. But that is just another way of saying that only the wealthy get to live in safe, vibrant neighborhoods, and that the poor are destined always to live in distressed conditions. I refuse to accept that. Can a distressed urban neighborhood save itself without setting the seeds of its own destruction? The answer is yes, but only if it controls its own fate.
What that control looks like is the subject of my next column.