Neighborhood rebirth all around

March 23, 1998|By Neal R. Peirce

WASHINGTON -- Diverted for a few hours from the capital's scandal stories, a group of reporters were rounded up recently by the Ford Foundation and the Brookings Institution to take a look at ground-level recovery in gritty Washington neighborhoods.

In ravaged Ward 7, on Washington's eastern border, an area hit by a stunning 48,000 population loss in recent years, they got to see an oasis of revival -- a bustling supermarket and new quality apartments developed by the nationally recognized Marshall Heights Community Development Organization.

Closer to center city, the reporters witnessed the throbbing redevelopment in blocks struck by arson and plunder in 1968, and stagnant for a quarter century. Chief heroes of the rebirth: a panoply of community development corporations, including the Development Corporation of Columbia Heights with its spanking new shopping center on 13th Street, N.W.

Back at the Brookings Institution, a New Republic correspondent scoffed at what he'd seen. Why, he asked, bother with crime-ridden inner-city neighborhoods? Why not just abandon these places and help their residents move out?

It's an attitude community developers have heard before -- and bristle at. For years they've complained that their stories of remarkable, against-all-odds achievements, creating safer ground and economic hope where none existed, are either overlooked or discounted by the media.

Mix in the violent urban crime preoccupation of local television news and it's no accident that suburban America entertains an inordinately negative, why-bother attitude.

Seventy-three percent of Americans, according to a national survey sponsored by the National Low Income Housing Coalition and financed by the Surdna Foundation, can't name a single example of a successful affordable housing initiative by any nonprofit, such as a church or CDC.

Urban renewal

The information gap is all the more surprising in light of an estimate that the number of CDCs, faith-based groups and social service agencies active in community development has mushroomed to more than 8,000, according to Joseph McNeely of the Baltimore-based Development Training Institute.

The Ford Foundation, an avid supporter of CDCs since the '60s, notes a vital shift in this decade -- from heavy focus on housing to economic development, ranging from financing or assisting small-business entrepreneurs to developing industrial parks. Many CDCs are also sponsoring day care and job training.

Ford's sampling of commercial, industrial and retail property developed by CDCs includes 685,419 square feet in Cleveland, 556,000 in Washington and 610,700 in Philadelphia.

The Urban Institute and the consulting firm of Weinheimer Associates are about to release a comprehensive analysis of what's happening in the field -- especially the 23 cities where the multibillion-dollar National Community Development Initiative, supported by corporations and foundations, has been operating.

The report will show a rapid buildup of capacity -- nearly twice as many CDCs consistently producing housing in 1997 as in 1991, for example. It will also report a rapid expansion of CDCs into communities that previously didn't have them.

Why the growth? Strong new coalitions, the Urban Institute found, as civic and business leaders step forward to help fund the community groups and plan neighborhood revivals.

These rosy reports come with plenty of caveats. With the flood of people coming off welfare in many cities, CDC job-generating efforts risk being drowned in demand. Their capacity to create jobs is thin. They're just starting to create links for residents with employers in the suburbs, where most new jobs are.

Community development advocates still deal in a harsh world where serious investments, the big dollars that could make critical differences, are siphoned off for sports palaces and other glitter, and most federal spending and tax policies still favor the suburbs.

Still, the media could be a more constructive citizen. The Housing Coalition poll found the public turns a deaf ear to the litany of grim statistics on homelessness and the number of Americans lacking decent housing.

But on sample capsuled stories of grass-roots efforts, they responded very positively. Example: 87 percent gave an "effective" rating to this: "In downtown Houston, a group of nonprofit organizations financed 75 units of housing for very low-income families. Provided within the housing development are child care, work training and a learning center for the neighborhood."

Comparable stories drew ratings almost as high. "We need to shift the conversation from lamenting about how bad the problem is to what works and what it means to taxpayers and communities," said Helen Dunlap, president of the Housing Coalition.

There's a lesson there for community developers anxious to get their story across. But it takes two to tango. The media can serve itself (and its community) by reporting fully, sensitively on the energy, heart and skills being poured into community development. It's often said "good news is no news." It's time to rethink that.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 3/23/98

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