Help and Hope for the Inner City

The head of a community-development support group comments on grass-roots urban efforts

MIXING his metaphors, Paul Grogan says, ``The mushrooming movement of community-development corporations (CDCs) is spreading like the kudzu vine in inner cities across America.''

Mr. Grogan, president of the New York-based Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), the largest community-development support organization in the United States, has helped almost 900 CDCs by providing millions of dollars in grants, loans, and technical assistance over the last 15 years.

CDCs are nonprofit grass-roots organizations formed in distressed neighborhoods by residents tackling entrenched prob- lems with entrepreneurial spirit. At least 2,500 exist today in varying stages of maturity and development.

Quietly, steadily, like kudzu, most CDCs have taken root, and are changing the dynamics of neighborhoods by providing affordable housing along with a growing list of social, business, educational, and health services.

Some experts say that if the growth of CDCs continues, they could become the main catalyst for pulling inner cities back from social violence and economic hopelessness. Already they are altering the way some mayors govern their cities. But the success stories of most CDCs can't compete with the drama of headlines about violence and drugs in cities.

LISC, with two or three other similar national organizations, has become a leader in finding ways to allow millions of dollars in corporate funds to join millions in government funds. The objective is to send the money in a new direction, to support community-based solutions. Since its inception by the Ford Foundation, LISC has raised more than $1.3 billion in donations and investments for CDC activities.

Grogan, who served as neighborhood development director under former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, says: ``CDCs manufacture terrific options for public investment, for projects that revitalize democracy and create a civil society that has been lacking in some communities.''

The following are excerpts from an interview with Grogan in Boston.

Many people suggest that conditions in the inner cities are hopeless.

Society is perilously close to giving up on cities, but these little groups [CDCs] are accomplishing stunning things, and I suppose we are in a race against the negative verdict [of hopelessness]. CDCs are coming into greater visibility because they work. They have overcome their central liability of a few years ago. Even sympathetic people then would say CDCs are interesting but anecdotal. One little remarkable group fixed up a bunch of houses. But there are thousands of these organizations now. [Secretary of Housing and Urban Development] Henry Cisneros has jumped on the CDC movement, and within the limits that the federal government has, he is really helping. And the Senate just passed a $382 million bill to help finance community development in inner cities. Private business and national foundations are already pouring millions into CDCs.

What has led to the growth of the CDC movement?

It springs from the well-established habit that Americans have of refreshing their institutions, and inventing new forms of cooperation where previous [forms] have been ineffectual. The CDC movement has not come out of nowhere; it refers to the fundamental strains in our history, the thing that [historian] Alexis Tocqueville talked about, America's love of associations, the new forms of cooperation that we invent.... Housing [in the inner cities] was a natural place to start; it is the tissue of the neighborhood, a marvelous vehicle for developing the capacity to do things and create relationships. It was also a way to draw in the mainstream institutions that had been isolated from neighborhoods. But CDCs have never been just about housing as an objective, but as vehicle to broad community revitalization.

What are the elements that make CDCs successful?

What gives rise to a CDC is a group of people within a neighborhood who are activated by an event or condition - drug dealers starting to operate or maybe abandoned housing has worsened. The people step forward and take responsibility.... Second is pragmatism. After the initial mobilization, they know it will take time to solve the problems. Third is integrity, the understanding that they can't become the captive of a political impulse, or a forum for a few individuals with a private agenda. Then, when LISC is invited, we want to know if the banks will help. Are they willing to lend? Is community development a priority for local philanthropy? Does government recognize the legitimacy of strong, independent neighborhood groups? LISC, as a catalyst, tries to move all this in a positive direction.

Are you perceived as a threat by some institutions or politicians?

Yes, in some areas. But the story here is the new level of cooperation between mayors and CDCs. In the '70s, some mayors viewed community groups as the breeding ground for political opposition. But now there is a new breed of political executive like the mayors in Philadelphia, Cleveland, Seattle, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee who take the idea of reinventing government seriously. They see CDCs as a way to keep a check on their own bureaucracies, even as a way of governing differently, and bypassing the bureaucracy. For instance, in Indianapolis the housing and community development programs are run by a committee consisting of a LISC director, the city's development director, and the head of the Indianapolis Neighborhood Partnership. The mayor is saying this is how I want to govern.

What is the nature of most CDCs?

Most CDCs I've talked with are virulently antiwelfare. CDCs bare the consequences of large concentrations of dependent people in their neighborhoods. CDCs are trying to help people take responsibility and do something with their lives. Most CDCs are probably ... are socially conservative, very pro-business ... and into an ethic of personal responsibility as a way of reestablishing civic norms to make it tolerable to raise children and walk the street. A CDC is not just a fix-up program; it wouldn't go very far if it were because the forces of encroaching chaos are so large, in terms of the level of dependency on drugs, that CDCs couldn't be successful unless they had this other dimension.

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