City Lit: Cities of Hope

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In the community development industry, Paul Grogan is a legend. When he took over the Local Initiatives Support Corporation and its affiliate National Equity Fund 15 years ago, they were small, scrappy (some would say sleepy) Ford Foundation demonstration projects. Armed with a rare combination of intelligence, charisma, political savvy and pushiness, he transformed them into juggernauts of money, financing thousands of units of low-income housing, doling out millions of dollars of grants and turning a bunch of unaffiliated, ragamuffin community-based organizations into an industry that siphons billions of dollars into inner cities. Grogan has cajoled, arm-twisted and rubbed elbows with just about everybody at the community development trough, and those of us working in the sector owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Of course, with gratitude comes resentment, and LISC is sometimes accused of taking a paternalistic attitude towards constituents. (So has the institution that Grogran went to work for in 1999: Harvard.) Needless to say, a rush of curiosity and just a little cynicism overcame me as I opened my personal copy of Comeback Cities, compliments of our friends at Citigroup.

With minor exceptions, Comeback Cities does not disappoint. Grogan teamed up with Tony Proscio, a highly regarded former Miami Herald editor and a veteran of the community development world himself. The result is an engaging history of the community development movement, full of examples of unstinting courage, as well as daily bedevilments most of us will recognize: petty politics, racism, greed, economic redlining and flaky funders.

Rich with gossipy anecdotes, Comeback Cities tells the story of revitalization through the undersung leaders of the community development industry. Not only is this fun to read, it credits the real heroes behind neighborhood revitalization–the often forgotten, under-appreciated or misunderstood changemakers. If the book sometimes undersells urban woes (like racism) in its unabashed optimism, it’s a small price to pay for the respect it affords local heroes like Mid-Bronx Desperadoes’ Ralph Porter.

Grogan and Proscio argue that neighborhood revitalization came to cities across the country not by accident, but due to fundamental shifts in economics and the political power structure. They identify four signal trends: less crime, more money, the rise of the grassroots development movement and the demise of old-style urban politics. Thanks to this “surprising convergence of positives”–and not to economic happenstance–the American city is back.

You can’t write about revitalization without talking about crime. Although they lavish praise on Mayor Giuliani’s “zero tolerance” policies, the authors dispel the myth that crime reduction must come before neighborhood revitalization–best exemplified by New York City former Police Commissioner William Bratton telling a group of housing experts that “absent what we did in reducing crime, fixing up the housing would have relatively little positive impact on the city.” Using the Broken Windows theory itself, Grogan and Proscio make a compelling case that it was Koch’s multibillion-dollar housing initiative that assured Mayor Giuliani’s crime reduction:

    “In the purest version of the ‘Broken Windows’ argument, it is the physically deteriorated environment that licenses antisocial behavior–which begets more serious crime. The boarded-up houses, vacant lots, and abandoned cars provide the spawning ground. They [police] could deal only with the social manifestations of the deteriorated community.”

But the real cogs in urban revitalization are community development corporations (CDCs). By retelling the now-mythic story of President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 visit to a devastated South Bronx, the authors masterfully create a historical framework for the CDC movement. Carter’s arrival to acres of urban graveyards on Charlotte Street turned out to be a seminal moment: It focused attention on local grassroots organizations, like Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, who were struggling against extraordinary odds to develop housing and build what Robert Putnam would define, 20 years later, as “social capital.”

Next came private capital. Private investment in inner-city residents, businesses, developers and investors didn’t happen by accident. The authors rightly credit this change not to a surging economy, but to a little thing called the Community Reinvestment Act.

The authors also credit Harvard business professor Michael Porter’s influential research on the competitive advantage of the inner-city marketplace. Porter has a cult following, and a charismatic, white, tenured Harvard business school professor telling investors to find new market opportunities by taking the A train increased the private sector’s willingness to invest in inner cities–underscoring the “safety in numbers” mentality that drives most businesses looking at our communities.

But while the authors understand the market forces and the government’s role in creating modern redlining, they forget that banks are no longer the primary financial institution for most Americans. They have been elbowed out by Merrill Lynch, Fidelity, Prudential and the like, who have little if any obligation to invest in minority neighborhoods. Without the entire financial services industry, the investment trend the authors celebrate will fade.

Comeback Cities is an important book just for its contribution to the regrettably thin body of critical analysis on the community development industry. I don’t think the authors adequately acknowledged the impact of racism on inner city neighborhoods, and they treat idealists who think poverty can be eradicated as naive. But in spite of this, Comeback Cities should be required reading for politicians, policymakers, CDC directors and city dwellers of all stripes.

Darren Walker is Chief Operating Officer for the Abyssinian Development Corporation.

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