A Neighborhood Rises Out of Inner-City Blight

The right mix of individual responsibility and outside aid brings renewal in East New York

Josephine Mitchell exudes a quiet contentment and clarity of purpose. Raised on the abandoned, hopeless streets of East New York in Brooklyn, she ran with a wild crowd straight into the traps that seem to accompany being poor in the inner city today. But from alcoholism to homelessness to despair after the murder of her son, she's survived it all.

"I feel like one of the chosen ones, and I think, 'Why me? Why me?' Then I think, 'Why not me?'" says Ms. Mitchell, who has been "clean and sober" for seven years.

Mitchell's personal transformation - she has also just completed two years of college - is one of tens of thousands of such stories that are signaling hope for America's ravaged inner cities. Burned-out neighborhoods are slowly being reborn, sometimes block by block, thanks to the personal determination of individuals like Mitchell and federal and state funds. With investments in training, education, child care, and housing, as well as tax incentives and other innovative strategies to create jobs, the tide of pessimism is slowly being turned.

"I think we're on the cusp of a historic moment when America's cities begin the comeback," says US Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros. "And I don't mean that hyperbolically."

Mr. Cisneros readily admits that the situation in many inner cities remains dire, and shrinking federal resources make the battle tougher than ever. Welfare reform alone is expected to take $60 billion out of urban economies during the next seven years.

Reason for hope

But Cisneros is adamant there is reason for hope. Violent crime has declined steadily since 1992, unemployment among central-city residents dropped from 6.2 percent in 1993 to 5.2 percent in 1995, and the urban home-ownership rate increased from 48.7 percent in 1990 to 49.5 percent in 1995.

"It's going to be very, very tough, but we've learned a lot about what community groups can do for themselves," he says.

Many urban planners agree, but are far less sanguine. They can point to neighborhoods that have been revitalized. Parts of the South Bronx that were once used to showcase urban decay now look like pleasant suburban neighborhoods. In Detroit's Victoria Park, dozens of abandoned buildings have been replaced by 157 new homes, a shopping center, and a new police substation. Most major cities can boast of at least one beacon of hope.

But they are still the exception to the rule, and required vast amounts of public subsidies. "If there were a magic formula that you could say then, 'This is what you'd need to succeed,' then there'd be more of it," says Marilyn Rubin, a professor of public administration at John Jay College in New York. "I think a lot of it is the will of the people involved - sometimes it takes a superhuman effort. But you never know what makes one neighborhood work and not another."

Genesis Homes, the private, nonprofit housing development in East New York where Mitchell now lives, embodies many of the principles that appear to be key to successful revitalization. Rising from between littered lots and decrepit row houses, Genesis Homes was built in 1992 by the Housing Enterprise for the Less Privileged (H.E.L.P.), a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, with a grant from the city and the state of New York.

Designed as a permanent home for the formerly homeless, the 150-unit apartment complex stresses individual responsibility, hard work, and commitment to community values. But it also offers an array of support services.

"We're concentrating on one area, revitalizing it, and then allowing it to radiate outward to build an entire neighborhood," says Toni Lyde, director of tenant services at Genesis.

Half of the tenants are formerly homeless, the other half are low-income working families. They live in a four-story building of apartments with balconies centered around a courtyard. It's dotted with lush, green trees, benches, and two playgrounds teeming with kids. A security guard buzzes everyone in and out.

"I don't have anyone coming in here trying to sell drugs to my child, or trying to get my child to sell drugs for them," says Robert Best, a single father of three who works for the state of New York. "We all look out for each other's kids. That's one of the pluses."

Another plus is the wide array of social services within the complex, including a day-care center and after-school programs. For adults, education classes provide the opportunity to earn high school diplomas. There's a job-training program, a library, and support services ranging from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to a private medical practice.

"It would be very hard for me to ask for help on the outside," says Mitchell, who's now studying criminal psychology. "But here people come up to you and offer you help - they don't pressure you, they just say, 'Listen, I'm here for you, if you want.' Out there they just take you to detox and leave you."

All of the services, which are free, are open to residents and anyone from the community who is interested.

Rent accounts for only about half of Genesis's $2 million dollar annual operating budget. Income from the sale of low-income tax credits makes up most of the rest.

Tax credits are one of the strategies Congress developed to spur private investment in affordable housing. In 1988, it passed a law which provides tax credits on a dollar-for-dollar basis to low-income housing developers. The developers sell the credits to businesses who use them to offset their profits. The developers then use the income to help retire their debt so they can keep rents affordable, as the law requires. But since Genesis was built with a $26 million grant, H.E.L.P. uses the income to fund social services.

"We try to bank most of it and use the interest," says Richard Motta, an executive vice president of H.E.L.P. "Right now, our financial plans show we can continue to provide the current level of services over the next 25 years."

But Mr. Motta doesn't think that will be necessary, for two reasons. First, the longer someone lives at Genesis, the fewer services they'll need. And second, tenants already work in the complex, and the long-term goal is for them to take over its administration. The tax-credit money can then be used to support services in other complexes.

"What we're trying to do now is use Genesis Homes as a hub on a wheel and build satellite communities around it," Motta says. "We're already talking to the city about the lot across the street."

Motta and others recognize that jobs are key to revitalization, so they're engaged in a two- pronged strategy. Tenants at Genesis Homes must work a minimum of two hours a week doing maintenance, security, day care, or other jobs.

"It helps keep our operating expenses down, but it also instills a sense of community, a feeling of accomplishment that makes people want to do more," says Ms. Lyde, noting that 75 percent of the residents work many more hours than the minimum.

Wanda Chambers, a formerly homeless mother of six, helped out doing security at Genesis when she moved in four years ago. She then went through the job-training program and now is employed as a security monitor at a homeless shelter. "I'm still here, I'm doing fine," she says.

Attracting business

But not everyone with training is so successful. Commercial businesses have fled East New York over the past 30 years. So another long-term goal is to attract private investment. They've already started with the only private medical practice in the area.

"There were a bunch of Medicaid mills and clinics, but there were no private offices," says Alonzo Sherman, a doctor and a founder of Hinsdale Medical Management, which opened its first office at Genesis in July, 1993.

With no real competition and a needy population, the business has boomed. Hinsdale has opened four new offices in similar neighborhoods throughout New York and is building a fifth. As a policy, the company hires and trains people from the neighborhoods.

"Not only do the employees have a vested interest in their community, but their patients come in and see that people in their community do have worth and can have jobs," says Milo Pinckney, president of Hinsdale.

Hinsdale has also started an internship program to give high school students early exposure to basic job training and skills.

Mr. Pinckney and Genesis are trying to win over other entrepreneurs. Pinckney hopes someday to attract a supermarket.

That would be just fine with Josephine Mitchell. Although she knows the progress made so far is small, she says just the idea gives her more hope for the future.

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