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Streets of Hope

Updated on October 30, 2008

Streets of Hope

Throughout the history of urban planning since World War II, planners have been confronted by the need to identify and target neighborhoods for special treatments and interventions. This has been true regardless of whether planners were operating in the context of the Federal urban renewal, community action, Model Cities, or Community Development Block Grant programs, each of which required some form of neighborhood targeting, or within the context of general land use planning in which appropriate land use designations must be developed for a diverse set of city, suburban, or small town neighborhoods. At both the national and local levels, planners have recognized that the relative lack of resources to address neighborhood issues and problems has required the development of sound approaches to neighborhood identification and targeting.

Quite simply, with relatively few resources, planners have to be very selective in how they allocate resources to the neighborhoods in their cities. Moreover, neighborhoods have varying needs and problems and therefore planners must take care to identify and target neighborhoods with policies and programs that are appropriate to the specific issues confronting each neighborhood.

Consistent with these persistent imperatives, this paper’s purpose is to help planners think about ways they can refine their procedures for identifying and targeting neighborhoods with appropriate policies and programs. Fundamentally, planners have used two approaches to identifying and targeting neighborhoods. The book Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood," by Holly Sklar and Peter Medoff, chronicles the story of the Dudley Street neighborhood, builds upon these approaches and identifies specific indicators that planners can use to identify and target neighborhoods for revitalization initiatives.

Medoff and Sklar highlight the implications of planners failing to recognize a neighborhood’s social and organizational fabric. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) is a neighborhood organization operating in the economically depressed Dudley Street neighborhood just two miles south of downtown Boston. As detailed in Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) had effectively concluded that portions of the Dudley Street neighborhood were not salvageable and in the mid-1980’s put forth a $750 million new town strategy that would radically transform the neighborhood with new commercial, light manufacturing, and mixed- income residential development. In a 1979 report, the BRA had also said that the Dudley Street neighborhood’s problems were in attributable, in part, to the apathy that pervaded the neighborhood, said Medoff and Sklar.

As it turned out, the Boston Redevelopment Authority had read the neighborhood entirely wrong. Beginning in the mid-1980s, various leaders and organizations within the neighborhood

came forth to organize the Dudley Street neighborhood residents to take action on the neighborhood’s problems, to challenge the City of Boston’s government to take on more responsibility for cleaning up the many trash-ridden vacant lots in the neighborhood, and to build effective alliances with Boston’s Mayor Raymond Flynn and with several foundations, all of which enabled the neighborhood to develop its own neighborhood plan and begin the process of redeveloping the neighborhood to meet the needs of its existing residents. (Medoff, Peter and Holly Sklar. 1994)

The general lesson to be learned from the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is that neighborhood identification and targeting requires planners to do more than look at various measures of physical, economic, and social need and to do more than simply look at whether a neighborhood is potentially attractive to private economic investment. Planners must also look at what Roland Warren has called a neighborhood’s horizontal and vertical ties. A neighborhood’s horizontal ties reflect the strength of social networks and the overall social fabric within a neighborhood: how strong are the personal ties between people living in a neighborhood, how strongly do residents feel attached to their neighborhood. A neighborhood’s vertical ties reflect the relationship that neighborhood has with outside entities: government, banks, industry, realtors, residents of other neighborhoods, foundations. In the Dudley Street neighborhood case, residents with a strong commitment to staying in the neighborhood had emerged as effective leaders in the community and were successful in attracting key support from both city government and several foundations.

In their model of neighborhood change, Temkin and Rohe (1996) have made a similar argument and have posited that a neighborhood’s social fabric and relations with outside

institutions help determine the degree to which a neighborhood responds negatively or positively to the various outside economic, social, and political forces that influence a neighborhood’s well-being. Their view is consistent with the community organizing case studies that have shown how poor neighborhoods have been able, with significant social networks and the help of outside resources, to stem the tide of urban decline (Temkin, Kenneth and William Rohe. 1996) (Medoff and Sklar, 1994).

Not surprisingly, the process of neighborhood identification and targeting first requires the identification of neighborhoods, said Medoff and Sklar. Consistent with the belief that neighborhood identification and targeting should be sensitive to the social fabric of neighborhoods, it is imperative that planners work with neighborhood residents to delineate neighborhood names and boundaries that conform to those utilized by neighborhood residents and organizations. After all, if planners are to build upon neighborhood social fabrics, they need to use neighborhood names and boundaries that reflect those fabrics.

Medoff and Sklar identify the information that is needed in most instances to target neighborhoods for revitalization initiatives. In examining neighborhood needs, planners generally look at five dimensions of neighborhood need: 1) physical and environmental conditions, 2) accessibility to public and private services and facilities, 3) quality of local public services and facilities, 4) social conditions, and 5) economic conditions.

Physical and Environmental Conditions: The dimension represents what are often the most visible characteristics of a neighborhood’s quality of life and are frequently manipulability by physical planning and design. Attention is focused on building condition as reflected by actual field or windshield surveys, as well as by market value and incidence of code violations. Special problems, including, but not necessarily limited to arson or poor drainage, can have a significant impact on neighborhood quality.

Accessibility to Public and Private Services and Facilities: Although we have become an automobile-dependent society, the mobility attendant with the automobile is not equally distributed. The poor, the elderly, and children are especially dependent on being able to walk or take public transit to shopping, schools, parks, and libraries. Even for those who have access to an automobile.

Quality of Local Public Services and Facilities: Clearly, the quality of local public services and facilities can have a significant impact on neighborhood quality. Medoff and Sklar (1994) provide a comprehensive guide to evaluating public services, incorporating both resident surveys and objective indicators such as park usage rates. Because each public service has its own performance measures, planners should consult this book for detailed ideas on how to measure the quality of specific public services. Because residents are the primary client for most public services, it is common for city governments to directly ask residents, through surveys or focus groups, to comment on the quality of public services in their neighborhood. This book provides an overview on using surveys in obtaining resident opinions on neighborhood quality. (Medoff, Peter and Holly Sklar. 1994)

Social Environment: Indicators of a neighborhood’s social environment are useful for both identifying neighborhood needs as well as identifying the horizontal and vertical ties discussed earlier that indicate a neighborhood’s capacity for addressing its problems. Population data from the U.S. Census are critical for understanding changes in the number and type of people living in the neighborhood. Myers Analysis with Local Census Data: Portraits of Change (1992) provides a comprehensive guide to neighborhood population change analysis. (Myers, Dowell. 1992)

Economic Conditions: Finally, a neighborhood’s economic conditions can reflect its needs as well as its economic potential for revitalization, said Medoff and Sklar. While data on income, homeownership rate, housing cost burden (usually measured by whether housing costs exceed 30 percent of gross income), property tax delinquencies, public assistance, and assisted housing can provide useful measures of need, they also provide significant indicators, especially when measured over time, of economic change and therefore the potential for future economic change. (Medoff, Peter and Holly Sklar. 1994)

In short, Medoff and Sklar pointed that strong prophecy scolds and admonishes, but it also provides hope. It offers the community a convincing and often passionate critique of the present, as well as a glimpse of a vision into a more just and faithful future. Today, particularly in our struggling urban neighborhoods, we need the pull of a vision, the strength of hopefulness, more than ever.

This book is one of the best known and most powerfully hopeful contemporary stories comes to us from Boston's once-devastated Roxbury neighborhood, where local residents began in 1985 to organize around a compelling vision under the umbrella of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. The Dudley Street story, rich in community-building lessons for all kinds of communities, is recounted in both a wonderfully-written book, Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood, and in a powerful hour-long video called "Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street."

This book is chronicling the struggles of DSNI's resident founders to ensure that people who actually live in the neighborhood will control the organizing and planning process. What emerges from this central principle of resident control is a powerful, locally-determined vision for a racially and ethnically diverse, economically viable community. Continuous resident commitment contributes to significant organizing victories. DSNI is perhaps best known for its success in wresting the power of "eminent domain," which allows the group to control vacant land in the community, from the City of Boston.

Medoff and Sklar confront tough questions: How do local communities take real power? Can a very diverse community unify around a common vision? How can the often-separated tools of community organizing, community economic development and community planning be joined together in a more powerful neighborhood toolbox? How can a neighborhood's young people be brought into the center of community-building activity? For these and a host of other challenges, the Dudley Street experience provides valuable lessons.

People of faith both clergy and lay leaders have played an important, but never dominant, role in the Dudley Street story. For faith-based community builders across the country, these two thoughtful accounts of effective prophecy and action provide both guidance and hope.


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      9 years ago

      Great! Thanks for the review. Good, condensed summary. Thanks!


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