Eunice Lowery is thankful for the simple things, like walking calmly home down 118th Street during the early morning hours when she gets back from work. Not so long ago, the stretch between Lenox Avenue and the next corner on Fifth was a sprint that felt like a marathon.
“I used to run down this block at night,” Lowery says, chuckling now. “Some guys kept there a lot, hanging out.” The men blocked the corner, warming their hands over flames from a trash can.
Seven years ago, even the days here were at the mercy of drugs and misery. Packs of wild dogs roamed the block, pushing open front doors that were barely holding on at the hinges.
Across the street from Lowery’s building was a sprawling vacant lot and three city-owned tenements, where mothers cooked with umbrellas over their heads to keep the roaches from falling through hole-scarred ceilings into the food. Electricity, if it came at all, arrived through extension cords from the hallways. One elderly resident got used to climbing down a ladder to use the bathroom, ever since his floor gave way and his toilet landed in the basement, pipes miraculously intact.
Lately, it’s getting harder for Lowery and her neighbors to remember those days. Bright street lights banished the men from the corner, while locks keep dogs and dealers out of brand new and newly renovated buildings. A Mount Sinai health clinic has opened on the block, housed inside a community center run by the Children’s Aid Society, a huge multipurpose social service agency. And almost all of the children on the block are going to a Catholic school three blocks away–tuition-free.
Such a complete turnaround is almost unheard of, even when a block is the site of a neighborhood revitalization project, as this one is. But as far as anyone can tell, the project on 118th Street is one of a kind. Most of what is happening here is the result of the commitment–and the cash–of a single man.
In 1992, the block was adopted by an investment banker named William Ruane. His initial plan was to outfit one Harlem street with a dedicated social worker who would go door to door, peddling social services. After his deputies talked to social workers and other experts on poverty, Ruane realized that he needed an experienced partner to help make it happen. That’s where Children’s Aid came in, and that’s how this unlikely experiment began.
Ruane’s no typical benefactor. He’s not interested in quietly handing his millions over to reputable foundations or social work professionals. Ruane cooked up the plan, named Carmel Hill after his $14 million personal charity, mostly by relying on the instincts that have made his Sequoia Fund a Wall Street legend. He runs the revitalization program remarkably like a business, with “bonuses” to reward residents for positive changes in their lives and flexible management geared toward results. Except in this case, community improvement is the bottom line.
The first thing Ruane realized was that he was wrong. Simply offering residents social services wasn’t enough. The problems of the residents on this block were completely interrelated, and to transform their lives his project would have be comprehensive, improving housing, health care and education as well as social services.
Purely by accident, Ruane had concocted something strikingly similar to projects that foundations have been nurturing in poor urban neighborhoods over the last decade or so. Insiders know them as “comprehensive community initiatives,” or CCIs–neighborhood programs that tackle multiple problems at once.
Foundations have put millions of dollars into urban community organizations, having them develop and carry out plans designed to transform poor neighborhoods. Harlem and the South Bronx have been home to CCIs. There’s even one next door to the Carmel Hill block, on 119th Street, where organizers from the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families helped tenants in 11 buildings take control of their drug-infested block. The idea at the heart of these projects is that in order for changes to be profound and enduring, local residents must be actively involved in repairing their own neighborhood.
The Carmel Hill project interprets the notion of neighborhood power very differently. While it has encouraged tenant and block associations, the program doesn’t put residents in the driver’s seat. Rather than foster grassroots organizing, Ruane relies on a conviction that an entrepreneurial attitude can change everything.
“He bet one resident $250 that he couldn’t stop smoking,” remembers Ann Hamm, the social worker Children’s Aid hired to watch over the block. “I thought he was getting taken–I kept waving my hand to warn him.” Just as he had hoped, Ruane lost the wager, and the winner got both the money and a chance to break his habit. The man, says Hamm, doesn’t smoke to this day.
To some community development experts, there’s something condescending about a wealthy outsider dangling money in front of poor people. “A lot of people would object to this,” says Pat Jenny, a program director at New York Community Trust, which funds neighborhood revitalization projects. “It can be seen as paternalistic in some ways, like a really good employer who does everything for his employees.”
But the program is getting nationally recognized. The Pew Partnership named it one of 19 “Solutions for America,” local ideas that are worth exporting to other cities. Children’s Aid is also sold on Ruane’s generosity and what it has brought to the block. So are the people of 118th Street. They’re not complaining that Ruane’s charity is modeled more on Daddy Warbucks than the Ford Foundation.
“They said that they were about to make this a model block. Believe me, they are living up to their word,” says Jean Vest. Even though she has lived there for 20 years, she was contemplating moving away, before Carmel Hill started up.
“Sometimes that’s it,” agrees Herman Bagley, who heads Children’s Aid’s community centers and convinced Ruane to take on 118th Street. “That’s what it takes. It’s money.”
Bill Ruane approaches the block he calls “our little town” uncannily like an investment–one that just happens to be in people’s lives instead of a stock fund. He brings that peculiar balance of exhaustive research and blind hunch that Wall Street players rely on to steer them toward high returns.
For example, before Ruane visited 118th Street for the first time, he had researched the household incomes of the kids the Children’s Aid community center served, and tenants who lived across the street. “He even knew who had telephones and who didn’t,” Bagley recalls. “It was impressive.”
A founder of the investment firm Ruane, Cuntiff & Co., Bill Ruane is probably best known for running the highly profitable Sequoia Fund. He was also one of the first investors to put money into investment king Warren Buffett’s funds. In other words, Ruane is very, very wealthy.
He doesn’t have any grand ideas guiding his largesse–just a sense that he needs to help people who got dealt a bad hand of life’s cards. “I like to create something where I will do some good,” says Ruane.
Ever the pragmatist, his initial focus was to help people make the most of what’s already out there. “There are a lot of services offered to people and they don’t know about it or don’t do anything about it,” he continues. “I wanted to test that theory.”
So Ann Hamm was hired to make referrals–putting people in touch with programs that can help them get answers about public assistance, find affordable clothes and furniture, get mental health counseling. But when Hamm showed up for work in 1992, her big challenge was to get weary and distrustful tenants to even talk to her. “They wouldn’t even open the door,” she recalls. When she finally did get into the apartments, she saw shocking testaments to the power of water and the damage it could wreak.
“We had no idea that the primary issue was housing,” says Hamm, who was a mental health counselor at the time. “I have known poverty, but I have never seen poverty like this. My soul was rocked.” That called for a quick turnaround of priorities–the first of many for a project that can revise or reverse course on Ruane’s say-so. “I expected to do a lot of therapeutic counseling and referrals to entitlements,” Hamm adds. “But the tenants didn’t want to talk until their housing needs were met.”
Most of the residential property on this block was abandoned. Of the four occupied buildings, three were being managed by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The VP of the Carmel Hill Fund got Ruane a lunch meeting with a friend at HPD. Soon city contractors showed up to fix roof leaks and bad plumbing, repair the boilers, and install new locks and doors.
Then in 1994, HPD launched the Neighborhood Entrepreneurs Program, through which the agency would train and appoint private managers to take over city buildings. Hamm fought to get 118th Street slated for NEP, which brought more extensive rehab and a new landlord, Victor Solomon, a former public school teacher with a personal commitment to the neighborhood. “A lot of kids in the block were my students,” he says. Solomon and Hamm worked with the local police precinct to identify a half-dozen drug dealers in the buildings and get them out. And it was that simple. Aside from those buildings, there’s not much more on 118th Street, where the community center, a public school, and a temporary shelter run by Children’s Aid take up much of the block.
One of the reasons that 118th Street was easy to overhaul was because many of the residential buildings were owned by the city. Though Rheedlen’s Community Pride project successfully organized tenants–seven buildings formed co-ops under TIL, while four others went to NEP–the rest of densely populated 119th Street is out of Rheedlen’s hands. It’s filled with privately owned brownstones, some of which still host drug dealers.
By luck or design, Ruane, Hamm and Children’s Aid have an entire block that they can watch over. Inevitably, they are also benefiting from Harlem’s housing boom, which has driven private buyers and nonprofit organizations to invest in the neighborhood. New Caanan Baptist church has also rehabbed four abandoned buildings on the corner of Lenox and 118th, while another church built apartments for seniors on the Fifth Avenue corner. And the New York City Housing Partnership is erecting seven townhouses where the vacant lot once stood.
After living on 118th Street for 22 years, Pamela Williams credits Carmel Hill with nothing less than a total turnaround. She’s pleased Ruane is sending her son to St. Paul’s school down the street. But most of all she likes that the block is sedate and low on traffic–human, drug and otherwise. “It was more congested,” she says. “Now it’s cleaner, quiet.”
Williams is in a position to help maintain the peace, as president of the block association that Carmel Hill formed three years ago. With guidance from the fund, the block association was responsible for getting the city to install the street lights that make Lowery feel comfortable at night. Members also wrote to Con Ed to protest the utility’s plans to close a local payment center. Williams says the efforts schooled her in persistence: “Anything takes a little work, takes a little time.”
But residents don’t have a say in the program’s direction. That’s up to Ruane. They are only beginning to reach the point where they will not need Hamm’s help anymore. And according to neighborhood development experts, that could potentially leave 118th Street vulnerable.
“If you just plunk down an initiative and not have citizens involved it will be okay in the short term,” says Brandeis University public policy professor Andrew Hahn, who has studied the long-term impact of CCIs. “But there’s intense interest in sustainability over the long term.” Hahn says without resident involvement, community members may lack the political skills to keep resources flowing into their neighborhood over the long term. Ruane hasn’t set himself an exit date for 118th Street, but his plan is set to expand to another block in the next few years. At that point, the focus of Carmel Hill will shift.
“The involvement and direction of residents and their voice in these projects is an absolute critical necessity,” agrees Rebecca Stone, research associate at Chapin Hall Center for Children, which evaluates community initiatives for foundations. The aim, she says, is to teach residents how to be proactive citizens with a deep stake in the community and a understanding of how to negotiate the system, so the neighborhood won’t fall apart again once program organizers–and their money–leave.
Yet community developers acknowledge that getting residents involved in comprehensive community initiatives is perhaps the toughest task of all. People struggling with poverty don’t always have the time or energy to get involved in resident advisory boards for revitalization programs, and nonprofit organizations don’t always connect with the people they mean to help. Though CCI experts are reluctant to talk about it, more than a few such programs have failed to attract a critical mass of participants; they end up relying on standby community institutions like churches to see these projects through. “It’s time-consuming,” says Hahn. “There are huge cultural differences between middle class program people and community people. It’s a challenge.”
On 118th Street, Ruane’s resources grease the way. Residents happily note that the monthly block association meetings are catered, complete with dessert; they may also win a few dollars in a raffle. Lowery makes sure to stop by meetings before she leaves for her night job. “What block association has food?” she says. “I’ll tell you, that food is good.”
The incentives also play an important role in Hamm’s work. In the first year of the program, after a resident died from stomach cancer diagnosed too late, Ruane decided to offer what he calls a “bonus” of $25 to every resident who got a medical check-up at the clinic that Children’s Aid had on the block or other local facilities. Almost everyone took him up on his offer.
Ruane’s money also buys an annual picnic at Bear Mountain. And for one day each summer, the block becomes an amusement park, with rides, Velcro walls and inflatable play rooms. Pony rides, too. “There are ponies in Harlem,” says Hamm, proudly. “No one has ponies in Harlem but us.”
All this generosity is possible because Ruane has decided that he will spend whatever it takes to make this one block a better place. In the first years of the program, the budget was set at a modest $60,000 to pay for Hamm’s salary and fund general operations. That was later bumped up to $164,000 to hire more social workers. But money really is no object, explains John Franks, a good friend of Ruane’s who administers the Carmel Hill Fund. According to tax records, the fund has shelled out $198,000 in 1997 and $395,500 in 1998 to the Carmel Hill program. “Whatever is needed,” Franks confirms. “We really don’t have an operating budget.”
There’s one obvious reason Ruane’s bill has gotten so steep lately, and will remain so for the foreseeable future: He is sending 78 neighborhood kids to St. Paul Roman Catholic School three blocks east. He has promised to cover tuition for all of them straight through high school; he’ll even pay for their uniforms.
This exorbitant gift was the result of spur-of-the-moment inspiration, after Carmel Hill surveyed 80 kids on the block and found out that they were going to 26 different schools, sometimes traveling long distances. “I don’t understand it and I don’t care,” Ruane says, with typical focus on solutions. “I said, let’s find them a school to go to together. So we got back in the car.”
Searching Harlem once again, Hamm and the other social workers were looking quite specifically for a Catholic school. “I really feel that education can make a difference,” he says. “I got a good education at a simple little Catholic grammar school in the Chicago area.” Ruane wanted to give them what he considers a solid education and discipline, and the same chances to succeed that he did.
He noticed that half-empty and closed schools were the norm in Harlem. Initially, he even approached a priest about reopening one. Then Ruane hit on St. Paul, which was merely in serious trouble. Enrollment was dangerously low. But things turned around after Ruane’s kids started going there. (He negotiated a bulk discount on their tuition.) The school’s reputation grew quickly, to such a degree that other community residents began to send their children there as well, bringing enrollment back to capacity.
Ruane is now pouring resources into improving St. Paul, consulting with successful educators who specialize in low-income areas. “A very ambitious goal would be to have the children reading at the same grade level as P.S. 6 at 81st and Madison,” Ruane says, referring to one of the highest-scoring (and wealthiest) public schools in the city. “I believe it can be done.” In Hamm, he also has someone who can help students deal with problems at home, often a big reason why kids struggle in school.
As with the housing on the block, the project has secured a school Hamm can keep a close eye on. (Ironically, none of the children living on 118th Street now go to the public school on their block.) And once again, rewards are doled out for desired behavior. Each year the 10 best students go on an excursion–they’ve been to The Lion King, a fancy restaurant, summer camp and Washington, D.C. Prizes also go to the students who make the greatest improvements.
Lowery’s grandson Jaquan Flores, who is in sixth grade, says the trips aren’t the point. He is fiddling with the zippers and openings in the black canvas bag that the kids got along with their Christmas presents from Carmel Hill. He got free movie tickets, while his younger brother, Norman, got a play keyboard. “It’s not just the trips,” he says, his gaze focused on the bag. “I want to do well in school.”
Whether it’s their own ambition or his incentives, Ruane doesn’t really care why students love school as long as they do well. “There’s something heartwarming,” he says, “about sending these kids to school.”
By every outward measure, Ruane’s strange gamble has worked. Kids are committed to school. Tenants have floors and ceilings, and someone to talk to when they’re feeling frustrated. “You have to give credit to Carmel Hill–they really brought the block a long way,” says Lowery.
Results like these are hard to ignore in the community development world, where achievements are often measured by how many residents show up for meetings. Now the Pew Partnership is having the program evaluated to see if the project is everything it’s cracked up to be, and whether it makes sense to export it elsewhere. “We wanted to see how to replicate this in other neighborhoods,” says Carol Hamner, deputy director at Pew.
But Pew will have to ask some serious questions about what will happen when Carmel Hill eventually leaves. Are happy residents the same thing as a transformed neighborhood, with the cohesiveness to stick together? Do scholarships and renovations equal an infrastructure that will endure for a generation? At a time when government and nonprofits are as obsessed with measuring results as the business world is, it’s tempting to dismiss the process of encouraging residents to get involved in their neighborhood as inefficient. But it may also be equally misguided.
Hamm insists that the changes she and Carmel Hill have brought are here to stay. “When we begin to provide services on another block we still will be maintaining this block,” she says. “We will not leave this block until this block is empowered.”
As for what that much-abused term means to her, Eunice Lowery isn’t sure, and she isn’t even thinking about how long the good times here will last. As for working to keep it going, she appreciates the block association for the food and street lights. But between work and her grandkids, she really doesn’t have more time to invest.
For now she’s just happy that the junkies are gone, her grandkids can play in the street and she can walk without fear. “I used to be embarrassed to say I lived on 118th and Fifth Avenue,” says Lowery. “But now I’m proud to live here.”