Vision Quest

Print More

Renay Peters is one of 3,300 reasons the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is legendary among community organizing groups. During a membership meeting in St. Patrick’s Church in Boston’s Roxbury section, Peters is on a roll, spelling out her ideas about what makes a good neighborhood business with about 150 neighborhood residents like herself. Some of them wear headphones, through which they can hear translations of Peters’ words in Spanish or, for the neighborhood’s many Cape Verdean residents, Portuguese.

A new homeowner who traded up from public housing, Peters speaks from firsthand experience. “We don’t need McDonald’s. We don’t need Starbucks,” she says, as the crowd cheers. “A good example is Ideal.”

The noise level at St. Patrick’s peaks at the mention of Ideal Sub Shop, one of Roxbury’s entrepreneurial jewels. Revered as a symbol of local economic power, the place is flush with community pride, down to its fresh cold cuts, daily-delivered bread and moderate prices. Ideal’s owner, Gino Teixeira, is a neighborhood guy who has served on DSNI’s board of directors since 1989. But as the people here know, opening the business was nearly impossible, because for years banks refused to issue loans in Roxbury.

Now the Dudley Street initiative is working to bring businesses–and the jobs and retail variety that comes with them–back to Dudley Street.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is the rare community organizing group that can take credit for rebuilding a neighborhood. A mix of red-brick apartment buildings, empty lots, a few green spots and some construction cranes, the two-mile strip, like many parts of Roxbury and nearby Dorchester, is seeing a surprising renewal after years of full-throttle decay. Today, thanks to DSNI, residents can buy produce at the Dudley Common farmer’s market and hang out at the new park on Dennis Street. There are fewer abandoned cars. Fifteen years ago, Dudley was filled with vacant lots. Now, 600 of them host housing, food production and playgrounds. A new community center and greenhouse business will soon join them.

Many of these accomplishments arose from an unusual agreement between the organization and the city, in which Dudley Street won the power to do what it wanted with tracts of undeveloped land. With that power of eminent domain, the organization is now rebuilding its faded commercial strip. And it’s doing that by putting neighborhood residents in the driver’s seat. “Our belief is that residents should control the future of the neighborhood. That’s not just physical development but human development,” says DSNI project director May Louie, who oversees Dudley Street’s Rebuilding Communities Initiative project.

Large-scale economic planning is not usually a job for laypeople. And no wonder: The process calls for untangling a complex web of financial, political and land-use considerations, work that vexes even experienced planners. But Louie and her colleagues have forged ahead, relying on group decision-making tactics more commonly used in corporate executive suites than in church meeting halls.

Since its start in 1985, Dudley Street has been run by a board drawn from residents, businesses, community agencies and religious groups, and elected by residents every other year. Ever since, DSNI has pushed that neighborhood democracy as far as it can go. So when it came to deciding what the area’s future could look like, the organization’s leaders decided it wasn’t enough to have a committee draft plans that residents could then vote on. People who wanted to have a say in a sea change–who responded to flyers plastered on car windshields, or had their doorbells rung by kids who spread news of the meeting (in exchange for promised ice cream and brownies)–would have the chance to reconstruct Dudley Street, together.

_______

Dudley Street board member Paul Bothwell, a one-man think tank on grassroots organizing, is always on the lookout for new ideas. Sometimes they show up in unexpected places. Five years ago, when a group from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management briefed him on new brainstorming techniques it was developing, Bothwell immediately recognized the potential. These ideas, although developed for corporations like Ford, could also help Dudley Street residents identify the best ways to improve the neighborhood.

Known as systems thinking, the MIT crew’s scientific approach to collective planning allows people to make better decisions by helping them identify their own interests. Usually, systems thinking is used by corporate executives to evaluate management plans. At Dudley Street, it has become the backbone of an intensive process for reimagining the neighborhood’s economic life.

This “visioning” process started by convening small groups of residents to consider the most basic elements of life in the neighborhood. At early meetings, a facilitator would ask questions like “How would you describe our community right now? What does it look like to you?” Very quickly, people mentioned obvious problems, like “We have too much litter.” All of these went on large Post-it notes on a board. Then someone grouped together clusters of notes that touched on similar themes. Patterns soon emerged, as well as a clearer sense of what people didn’t want.

Subsequent sessions focused on what residents did want, with questions such as “What do you dream this community could be like?” Those ideas, in turn, generated a clear mandate for DSNI. “The idea is that your thinking generates something new in somebody else’s thinking,” says Bothwell. “It’s not just about what comes into our heads. It’s about how to foster ideas and not shut them down.”

What emerged was a concept of an “urban village” with self-sustaining businesses, plenty of green space and no shortage of housing. But such a plan leaves many questions unanswered. In a neighborhood that some residents fear is ripe for gentrification–a problem that has overwhelmed the nearby South End–questions such as whether new homes should be houses or apartments, or whether shops should be high-end or discount, are far from trivial. The meeting at St. Patrick’s focused on coming up with solutions residents wanted to live with.

At the meeting, residents considered three scenarios presented by a group of MIT urban planners. The first would just add housing to Dudley Street. Another scenario called for suburban-style retail with parking lots out front. The third was a classically urban combination, with apartments over storefronts.

To make sure residents quickly digested the implications of each of these scenarios, residents broke into groups to discuss them. The result, as the evening progressed, was three-ring organizing. After listening to the planners’ presentations, audience members wrote down what they liked about each scenario on a green sheet, what concerned them on a yellow sheet, and what they disliked on a red sheet. Using the surveys, DSNI will derive a set of community standards for the redevelopment.

Earlier, in a corner of the hall, residents had stuck Post-it notes on a neighborhood map, listing their wants and needs. “It’s a good way to put down our thoughts of what we want to see in the community,” says 15-year-old Lorne Johnson, as he tacks a note to the board. One of the best things about the process is it permits more than just sober-minded requests for housing, libraries and local businesses. Johnson’s request–“stuff to entertain”–was typical. Several notes alongside it each listed the same four requests for leisure businesses: a movie theater, sit-down restaurant, ice cream parlor and bookstore.

Jill Priluck is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.