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Next: A Resurgence of Community Development?

After the blue chip companies left town and with them blue and white collar workers, non-profits began to take their place, establishing headquarters in Baltimore. Maybe not a surprising transition, in a hard hit legacy city in a nation with growing poverty and shrinking government.

Druid Heights CDC title image

Druid Heights CDC title image

But the non-profits are not exactly flourishing. In the week after the Baltimore riots the community development corporation (CDC) located right at ground zero of the unrest changed its leadership. A smaller CDC in Sandtown folded long ago. A very successful CDC at Patterson Park went under when the recession hit. It is tempting to see this as an indication of a long standing and pervasive crisis in community development that the recent turmoil highlighted, especially because Baltimore's unrest originated in an area that experienced decades of community development-type intervention. The Atlantic's CityLab brought to a point in a recent article with this question:

Is it time to kick programs like Promise Zones and Choice Neighborhoods to the curb? Are these place-based initiatives, which funnel streams of resources to neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and racial segregation, futile in the face of rapidly expanding wealth gaps?

how community development is supposed to work

There are hundreds of diagrams showing how community development is supposed to work: some too simplistic, some too complicated, all somewhat idealistic. (This from the State of West Virginia, no stranger to poverty)

Through all of the Monday morning quarterbacking about the Monday night Baltimore unrest, the spotlight is finally shining not only on the poor, disinvested neighborhoods in Baltimore and elsewhere, places that were as invisible as Freddie Grey, but also on the right method of help, or even better, self-organizing. Questions that community organizers, sociologists and policy wonks have been asking for some time now emerge from obscurity and occupy the top of the agenda:

  • Who pays attention to the poor neighborhoods? What causes poverty?
  • Does city government neglect poor communities in favor of the swanky ones?
  • Are people more important than place, is social capital more important than place-making?
  • Is government and non-profit intervene even productive?
  • Can non-profits in place based intervention fix what market forces so powerfully wrecked in the first place?

What is the purpose of new leadership in a community development corporation if place-based interventions by charity, churches, non-profits or even government poverty programs are nothing more than the re-arranging of the chairs on the deck of the Titanic while the giant ship continues to sink?

Martin Luther King observed that injustice, whether urban or rural, cannot be overcome by philanthropy (or, let me add, by urban planning) alone.

"Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary." (Martin Luther King)

Painted window screens

Painted window screens, a Baltimore tradition. From Southeast CDC

More voices seem to raise precisely this concern. This Saturday, former Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley told the nation on the occasion of declaring his run for the presidency that "the economy is upside down and backwards," a rather radical conclusion for someone attempting to lead the largest economy on Earth. The CityLab question quoted above, comes from a discussion of an article by Peter Dreier, an university professor of politics whose findings CityLab summarizes thus:

What government and philanthropy should focus on is system-wide reform of the market system that perpetuates economic inequality. Neighborhood revitalization projects are trivial when what's really needed is an extreme makeover of capitalism.

Scholars Davide Maurasse and Jaclyn Bliss asked a slightly subtler question of "place or people" in a 2006 paper published in the Northwestern Journal of Law and Social Policy:

Place versus people-based approaches to urban development have long been debated among scholars, policymakers, and various community development practitioners. The divergence of opinion revolves around one fundamental question: should the primary approach to neighborhood development focus on geographical surroundings by refurbishing housing and attracting new businesses? Or, should the approach be to develop people by concentrating on economic and social empowerment for existing, longtime residents, especially those who are low income and of color? (Maurasse, Bliss)

As justified as these bigger questions of context are, down in the trenches of local community development corporations (CDCs) the issues seem less esoteric and much more urgent and direct. Odette Ramos, executive director of Community Development Network of Maryland wrote this in a letter to the SUN:

We must defend the community development nonprofit organizations who have been working tirelessly in West Baltimore for years and years. Housing opportunities are important, but they don't transform neighborhoods on their own. Systemic change relies on a number of factors, many of which were absent in Sandtown.
In addition to quality, affordable housing for a diverse population, [..], there must be drug treatment options [..]. Children must have after-school and summer school activities that provide meals. Job training programs tied to employer needs and subsidized equipment are needed to fill job openings when they occur.

Druid Heights CDC monthly meeting

Druid Heights CDC monthly meeting

Moreover, efficient public transportation is needed to get people to those jobs. Job training programs in Sandtown do little to help residents if there's no way for them to reach workplaces in the suburbs.

Other needed systemic changes include financial literacy and housing counseling, [..]. Quality grocery stores are important for health. And enforcement actions against bad landlords who have no interest in their tenants or the neighborhood's health must be vigorous.

All of these steps [..] can help achieve success [for] community development organizations already on the ground in Sandtown-Winchester.

Ramos' extensive scope of issues brings us right back to the question of the effectiveness of place based interventions: Can local interventions headed by non-profits or even the communities themselves really tackle all those issues to bring about the conversion from blight to prosperity?

Southeast CDC poster encouraging home buying in the community with many Latin immigrants

Southeast CDC poster encouraging home buying in the community with many Latin immigrants

Sandtown, the home of Freddie Grey, has been a testing ground for this question for decades. Decades ago, Jim Rouse, a veritable capitalist and leader of the then mighty Rouse development corporation picked Sandtown-Winchester as proving ground for a large-scale and multi-pronged experiment of place based intervention. "If we can change Sandtown, we can change any poor community in America" he liked to say. He knew, just as then-Baltimore City Mayor Schmoke did, to address housing, schools, and job training in a complex multi-prong approach that according to recent reports resulted in over $150 million dollars of investment in the area.

In spite of somewhat elusive results, Rouse's model has been replicated across America and continues to guide the practice of community development. Government programs with names like HOPE, Empowerment and now Promise have come and gone. The already noted Druid Heights CDC headquartered only a couple of blocks from the infamous intersection of Pennsylvania and North Avenues, has refined the heavy top-down approach and tackled poverty and disinvestment on many fronts from youth training, foreclosure counseling, forming its own construction force, rental and home-owner housing both as rehabilitation and new construction to the administration of a Main Street Program. The converted fire-house that serves as the command post and training center of the CDC vibrates all day with the bustle of a daycare center and the many initiatives that its thirty employees have running day after day.

Baltimore bike party in Sandtown on May 29 2015

Baltimore "bike party" in Sandtown on May 29, 2015 (Photo: ArchPlan)

But the spotlight and the cameras have no trouble finding blight, abandonment, high crime rates and all the other indicators of what can aptly be described as "the American ghetto" in Sandtown, Druid Heights and the all the other west and east-side communities. The rehabs and the new houses, the new homeowners, the community gardens, the churches and their social programs, the pocket parks and the renovated storefronts on Pennsylvania Avenue, they all do exist but can easily be lost in all the blight. So, something, clearly, isn't working.

Druid Heights CDC completed rehabilitation in Reservoir Hill with Mayor Rawlings Blake

Druid Heights CDC completed rehabilitation in Reservoir Hill with Mayor Rawlings Blake

It is easy to declare the $150 million Sandtown experiment and all its cast offs a failure, shrug the shoulders and push poverty, ghettos and the ugly side of our cities back into the shadow of obscurity. But this skeleton will not stay in the closet for long and simplistic knee-jerk reactions won't do any good. "Understanding precedes action," O'Malley noted in his presidential job application on Federal Hill from where Baltimore looked gleaming and prosperous. It is illuminating to recall his own strategies to understand how community development and government intervention has meandered through various phases in O'Malley's Baltimore and elsewhere:

Focus on blight or on strength?

It was O'Malley who shifted his predecessor's focus on the poorest communities to triage and a strategy dubbed "working from strength". This wasn't supposed to be some cruel joke on the poor, rather, it was a manager's way to strive for "the biggest bang for the buck".

The realization that a government dollar spent in a still largely healthy community on the verge of sliding would go much further than the same dollar spent in a "bottomless pit" like, say Sandtown.

So O'Malley with the help of consultants like Paul Brophy sought to leverage the dollar through partnerships with anchor institutions, attention to quality of life issues like efficient trash removal and, yes, the pursuit of petty offenses (the "broken windows" approach to policing).

To be sure how effective the dollar was leveraged, O'Malley instituted first "CrimeStat" and then CitiStat. He had little patience with slackers and the wind of the fear blew through his city agencies, fear of having nothing to show for in the infamous weekly CityStat meetings.

For a while it looked like efficient management could right the course of the city. Of course, today, this type of efficiency is highly suspect after the massive arrests and the languishing conditions of the very poor communities are seen as direct results of the policies of "broken windows" and "working from strength".

Mayor Schmoke at the ground breaking for brownhouse rehab in Sandtown 1994

Mayor Schmoke at the ground breaking for brownhouse rehab in Sandtown 1994 (Photo: ArchPlan)

After a phase that saw an indicted and convicted mayor here, Baltimore's current mayor appears to have chosen an "all of the above strategy": building from strength, relying on anchor institutions, the artists as urban pioneers, the millennials returning to cities, casino dollars fixing down on their heels neighborhoods (Park Heights and the casino impact area), developer incentives and TIFs, a complex "vacants to values" initiative to deal with the many abandoned properties in this city, a growth strategy (10,000 additional households in ten years" and even property tax reductions.

Everything and the kitchen sink. All that looked pretty good until that last weekend in April when Baltimore came unhinged.

While the actual violent rioting went on for only a short time, now, at the end of May, a tally of 395 riot damaged retail establishments dots an extensive map and the city experienced an unprecedented surge in violence completing its bloodiest month in history with 45 registered murders and countless shootings.

The "all of the above" approach doesn't look so much like a comprehensive strategy any more, instead it resembles helpless fumbling.

Lessons learned

What is to be done? Go back to Rouse's approach of fixing the poorest community first but stressing people over brick and mortar as Odette Ramos suggests? Continue what we were doing and pretend nothing happened (what the hospitality industry would like to do)?

Wait for a national revolution that rights the economy or the international downfall of capitalism, the mother of all revolutions as Peter Dreier seems to prefer? Or lock Baltimore up and throw away the key, an option that many suburbanites dream of?

The answer is like none of the above and possibly not even a combination of those options.

As is often the case in the face of an impending storm, it is hard to see which way the wind blows, all tested methods seem stale. Yet, it is useful to be reminded that Baltimore, although certainly not alone with its problems, is also not "the country" (as O'Malley asserted), there are big differences between US cities and states, and this is even more true looking beyond the borders.

Best practices, success stories and innovative solutions can be found around the world and also right here in Baltimore; many times they are deeply practical, not ideological and achievable without upending the entire system first.

Children expressing their love for Baltimore Display at Metro Gallery in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District

Children expressing their love for Baltimore Display at Metro Gallery in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District (Photo: ArchPlan)

From the successes and failures of recent decades, a number of lessons about community development can be gleaned, lessons that need to be applied in moving forward in more effectively:

  1. Community development is more than bricks and mortar, it must build social capital. What, then, is the future of community development? It lies in turning the architecture we have created to meet urgent challenges of human development. How can we turn a successful community organizing and real estate development system toward the goal of increasing educational outcomes, employment success, family asset building, and individual and community resilience to weather setbacks?
  2. Faced with vast landscapes of blight it makes sense to work from the edges and outward from islands of strength but no community anywhere can be simply written off.
  3. Blindly subsidizing first time homeowners with massive write downs way below actual cost does little to shore up an existing community, is financially not sustainable when scaled up and makes private, more market based approaches even less likely to take hold
  4. "Moving to opportunity" strategies may look good in terms of child development results but they uproot people, destroy social fabric and leave behind further diminished communities
  5. CDC and non-profit interventions are still too scattered, too underfunded and usually not large enough to shift the paradigm
  6. Affordable rental housing near transit on a large scale is an effective method of providing catalytic jump starts that may lure in market development (Enterprise Community Partners)
  7. Whatever is done needs to come from within and must be overseen by the affected community
  8. The trend towards cities should not be feared ("gentrification") but should be utilized to gather additional resources and to reduce the tax and fee burden that is inevitable with a shrinking population.
  9. Shrinking cities need to grow back and they need regional, state and national help to do so
  10. Core cities and regions need to be seen as comprehensive, interdependent systems.
The central challenge for community developers and their partners is to deploy effective strategies to promote human development. (Paul S. Grogan is president and CEO of The Boston Foundation)

What lies ahead?

Cities around the world are the petri dishes for tomorrow's societies, both the good aspects, and the bad. Change is rapid and nothing will remain exactly as it is, even the most intractable conditions may give way. Pretty much all disadvantages that define "insular poverty" (Kenneth Galbraith) today could be overcome by new models of education, goods delivery and jobs that don't require the current pattern of travel to education, shopping or jobs that puts areas like Sandtown at such a disadvantage.

The digital city must become one that employs digital power from the bottom up instead of the top down

The digital city must become one that employs digital power from the bottom up instead of the top down.

Each of the following innovations could prove disruptive, not only to old industries but also to the distribution of power and wealth that alter insular poverty by opening up what now are isolated islands:

  • New manufacturing technologies like 3-D printing may bring clean and small scale manufacturing not only back into the US but back into city neighborhoods and into the hands of those with little capital and limited or no academic skills
  • The Uber model of service expanded from people mobility to goods and services could provide access to goods and services to areas where there are none today and provide self employment and jobs for those who can participate with just a smart phone, a bicycle and good will.
  • Smart phones already provide communication and knowledge on unprecedented levels. Crowd sourcing and apps which still are a playground for the tech savvy will become rapidly more mainstream with consequences that nobody can yet gauge.

It is the city that even in its mega version of ten million residents or more is still much nimbler than most states or nations and it is in cities where bicycle messengers, pizza delivery, Uber, crowd funding and police videoing began.

Like Detroit, that has found light in its darkest hours and embarked in a flurry of people-based initiatives, Baltimore can take advantage of the spotlight and devise new ways of breaking out of the cycle of poverty and violence through ingenuity, innovation and experiment.

By combining old-style community development, local development corporations, non-profits and new technologies, the current paradigms can be altered and different results be achieved.

One can only hope that Maryland's newly elected governor is not adhering to the notion that the State should turn its back on Baltimore, the door shut and the keys thrown away, but instead understands, that the potential of this legacy still needs to be unlocked.

Druid Heights CDC poster

Druid Heights CDC poster

Now the entire region is struggling to find a way to solve them. What has become apparent is that government, nonprofit and private sectors will have to come together in order to reverse decades of poverty, crime and blight in the areas most affected by the riots. The Greater Baltimore Committee rallied for a united business front during its annual meeting May 11, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake calling for multi-year commitments from companies and not just Band-Aids. (BBJ) "Over the past couple of days, I think there is a far greater orientation toward learning and listening versus saying, 'Here's what you need,'" he said. "That, to me, is always a powerful way to start." (Augie Chiasera, president of M&T Bank's Greater Baltimore and Chesapeake region)

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

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