The Rebirth of Community

NEAL R. PEIRCE

February 15, 1993|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

NEW YORK — New York. -- 'Tenant Meeting -- Reunion de Inquilinos -- Monday -- Lunes -- 7:30 p.m. -- Community Room. Now that the plumbing is fixed, what about the antennas? What about sanitation issues?''

Posted in the lobby of one of the many buildings owned and managed by the Mount Hope Housing Corporation, the hand- lettered notice is suggestive of what's happening in the South Bronx today.

Twenty years ago as landlords abandoned block after block and vandals stripped buildings and torched them, the flames of destruction were reminiscent of Dresden in 1945. Ten years ago an amazing wave of rehabilitated housing was rising, eventually to cover hundreds of blocks. Today, with the arrival of tens of thousands of poor newcomers, many of them immigrants, some straight out of homeless shelters, there is a burning new need: creating community.

Community-development corporations and their allies are facing similar challenges across America's poorest neighborhoods. What do you do when kids in the buildings you've rehabilitated start to join gangs? When a huge share of your renters are very poor single mothers?

Heroic groups, including Mount Hope, Banana Kelly and the MBD Housing Committee (formerly Mid-Bronx Desperadoes), are learning that rehabbing housing, the rage of the '80s and still an emergency need today, is no longer enough. Community-development corporations have to become -- or get others to become -- full-scale community builders in neighborhoods where there are no doctors, no supermarkets, few if any day-care facilities, and few programs to reach and engage vulnerable young families.

Now comes the Surdna Foundation, in an alliance with nine other funders, with an ingenious plan to help strong community corporations become planners, catalysts and incubators of comprehensive revitalization. The goal is nothing less than to turn their neighborhoods into full, supportive, functional communities.

With its $5-million pool for a three-year program, Surdna did something remarkable. It didn't ask the community groups to come up with proposals. ''That's murder for groups that are already over-stretched,'' notes Surdna's president Edward Skloot. Instead, Surdna selected six particularly strong and mature South Bronx corporations -- groups already managing 8,000 housing units with about 500 employees and budgets totaling $40 million. Three are African-American-led and three are Latin-led including Promesa, a drug-rehabilitation center that has blossomed into a full-service center and is now the state's largest Hispanic community-based operation.

''This is a major test by the communities themselves, not top-down but asking each to devise its own strategy,'' Mr. Skloot explains. Each group set up a revitalization task force. Each was given money to hire a revitalization-program developer, a community-outreach person, and $7,500 in ''walking around money'' to get small-scale projects off to a quick start.

Already, the groups have identified and started work on a broad array of projects, among them permanent doctors' offices for primary care; parenting groups and child care; security patrols; physical planning; recreation space; employment training for youth, and organizing firms for a business-improvement district.

The community-development corporations, says Anita Miller, the former acting chairman of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board who directs the program, ''all say this is what we started out do to -- not just housing but to rebuild our community. But we never had the time, staff or resources to think this way before.''

Ms. Miller is a savvy, hard-charging veteran of years of foundation work with community groups who knows how to plug them into levels of government and professional expertise and money that few community groups rarely see. ''A big part of my job is to get the CDCs to think widely and strategically. And if they don't want to get into some service themselves, figure who else in their community will,'' she says.

Pushing the groups to widen their horizons is the only hope for many neighborhoods, Ms. Miller alleges. ''We were making such good progress until crack hit, destroying the fabric of these communities. Now we have AIDS, random killings, heroin coming back. The level of difficulty is much higher.''

But the community leaders are bright, intelligent and totally dedicated, she says. And the group of six, which in the past often competed for scarce foundation or government dollars, are working collaboratively with lots of joint programming and cross-fertilization of ideas.

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