So You Want to Change a Bad Neighborhood, Do You?

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Bad neighborhoods – what can we do about them? Respectable parents warn their children to steer clear of them. Slumlords collect their rents from them. Politicians make promises to clean them up. Rich kids in BMW’s sneak into them to purchase drugs. Elected officials argue over how much of the city budget should be spent on them. Police patrol them. Teachers try to inspire students to get out of them. Publicly, we all say that we want to see bad neighborhoods transformed into healthy places for children to grow up. And that can certainly happen. But first we have to get honest with each other. Do we really want to see change? Badly enough to take some heat? Let’s see.

First of all, we will have to get past the romantic notion that neglected communities must be empowered to rebuild themselves from within. Some advocates preach that it is disrespectful for outsiders to initiate change, that somehow this diminishes the dignity of existing residents. In truth, ignoring a community and allowing it to degenerate into a ghetto is far more demeaning and insensitive than imposing positive changes. Certainly, residents must be taken into account, communicated with, invited into the planning process. But we must be honest enough to acknowledge that the expertise, resources and connections essential for the revitalization of a deteriorated neighborhood have long ago departed. Mega-doses of outside energy and leadership will be required to turn a blighted area around. The process of change should be respectful but it will not come without causing disruption. Change is always difficult and often painful. Even so, the commitment to change must not subordinate itself to the whims of neighborhood politics or to the rhetoric of out-spoken, nay-saying activists.

Is the city ready? Is there a corporate will to refocus public dollars, enforce building codes, commit planning staff time, re-allocate police presence, apply for grants, enter into partnerships with the private sector, condemn land, oppose slumlords, and face into controversy? If there is sufficiently strong consensus among city council members and community leaders to lock arms and put their combined energies behind the venture, the odds of success have just increased dramatically.

Who is the visionary? Without a vision the people perish, said the prophet of old. Has a vision for community transformation been growing large in the spirit of some leadership-type person? There is a very big difference between a vision and a bright idea. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. They are the staple of entrepreneurs and creative people. And many good things come of bright ideas. But a compelling vision has a magnetic quality about it. It draws people and their resources around it. Coincidences converge. People are inspired. Magic happens. But a vision must be both communicated and managed – thus the crucial role of the visionary. The visionary is both the spokesperson and guardian of the vision. The visionary stays the course, keeps the project from getting sidetracked by diversionary issues, protects it from being dissipated by too broad a focus. His or her role is more of a calling than a job. City and neighborhood support are important; committees and taskforces and boards are necessary; but a visionary is essential.

Does the vision make good business sense? As important as renovated houses, good youth programs, better trash pick-up, and stepped up policing may be, such treatments do not address the underlying sources of pathology that cause communities to deteriorate. Neighborhoods decline because of dis-investment. Homeowners move away, landlords defer maintenance, the quality of life declines, property values depreciate, legitimate businesses leave, illegitimate enterprise fills the void. Loading up a depressed neighborhood with services – faith-based or otherwise – does nothing to reverse that downward spiral. As a matter of fact, concentrating social services can actually draw more needy recipients into an area – hardly a good community development strategy. Re-investment is needed. Bottom line: the community must be re-neighbored. While it is important to preserve (and create) affordable housing options for existing low-income residents, strategies to attract middle-income neighbors back into the area are essential. Urban pioneers propelled by their hearts rather than investment opportunity can lead the way. But it is the charming streetscapes, restored bungalows, clustered town-homes around private courtyards, loft apartments – the familiar handiwork of real estate developers – that will draw young professionals (and their resources) back to the neighborhood. A community will never come back to life through subsidies and services. Economic viability is the only thing that will build and sustain a healthy community.

And then there is the whole issue of the spiritual health of the neighborhood. Community rebirth is different from personal regeneration that can enable individuals to rise above the destructive influences of their environment. Community rebirth transforms the seedbed of pathology. But that’s a later discussion. It’s a matter of triage. Let’s stop the bleeding first.

Still interested? Let’s talk.

Bob Lupton

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