Up from the ashes

Up from the ashes: How to reverse urban blight in five not-so-easy steps.

Thirty years ago, Codman Square was on fire. Houses were burning down in the neighborhood, five miles south of downtown Boston, at the rate of one per day, often for the insurance money.

That wasn't all. The commercial strip was emptying out, drug dealers were moving in, and crime was rampant. People would gather for neighborhood association meetings "and talk about how depressed they were: Who got mugged in the last month, what stores closed, who left the area for good, what buildings burned down," says Bill Walczak, who joined the association as an 18-year-old newlywed in 1972.

They weren't alone. The problem of urban blight has been vexing Americans since the end of World War II. But in recent decades, a maturing nonprofit sector has begun giving unprecedented attention to the question of how to revive a devastated area. Their conclusions have yielded some helpful lessons for communities worldwide struggling to save themselves in the 21st century. (See story, below.)

Their conclusions: It takes teamwork, inclusiveness, and political support. Money helps, of course, and often communities rally around new investments in the neighborhood. But more important than cash, experts say, is patience.

"First of all, it takes a generation," says Mr. Walczak, who today directs the Codman Square Health Center. For 25 years, the center he helped found has been the key to the area's transformation into what is now a vibrant community. "People think there's this magic bullet and if you find it you can save your community, but there isn't one. It's a bunch of little things."

Or basic things: Anyone who's worked on such a project knows it isn't easy. Each project comes with unique needs. Still, discussions with organizers and academics, citizens and developers suggest five common threads that are crucial to stitching back together a devastated community.

(1) A sense of place. A community has to see itself as worth saving. It needs a central idea around which people can coalesce - whether it's a history visible in cobbled streets and gaslights, a central church or school about which people who've stayed in the neighborhood have fond memories, or something as simple as a name.

"[When] you name a community, you give it a sense of place," says Joshua Kahr, a New York-based real estate developer. He cites the example of a Portland, Ore., developer who in the 1970s owned a number of buildings in an area of downtown that was basically a slum - until he hit on the idea of naming it. He had "Old Town" painted in big letters on the side of a water tower atop his highest building and started working with brokers to market the real estate to young artists.

The area has thrived. "But no one cared about it before it had a name," Mr. Kahr says. "It was just the place where you wouldn't stop the car."

Walczak of Codman Square agrees that hope, or consumer confidence in an area, is perhaps the crucial ingredient to getting revitalization off the ground.

"It's like the economy, the way it falls apart when people lose faith," he says. "It's the same thing with neighborhoods: If people think a neighborhood is getting better they will act that way even if it's not true." Unemployment can be through the roof, the schools can be a disaster, but neighbors will start picking up trash off the street.

(2) A group of tenacious leaders, reflective of the whole community. Reviving neighborhoods need "people with a certain kind of courage - maybe even foolish courage - in the face of devastation," says Alexander von Hoffman, an urban- affairs specialist at Harvard University. His book, "House by House, Block by Block: Rebuilding America's Urban Neighborhoods," details some of the nation's greatest success stories: Codman, the South Bronx, Los Angeles's Watts neighborhood.

That doesn't mean one charismatic leader. It means a broad coalition, including the "usual voices" - activists, religious and political leaders, philanthropists, developers - and voices less commonly heard: members of all the area's major ethnic groups, ordinary citizens who've never been politically active in their lives.

In Boston's Dudley Square, a neighborhood that 20 years ago could have been Codman's twin, a private foundation and a group of local leaders who'd joined forces to "save" the area learned that lesson in 1985. After hundreds of hours of meetings, the advisory group presented their vision for Dudley's future to a town meeting of about 200 residents. Citizens, furious that their future had been settled without their input, demanded a voice in the planning.

The advisory group agreed. Two-thirds of the resulting Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative board were community members, divided equally among the area's four major ethnic groups. Today Dudley Square is at the center of a neighborhood whose parks, healthy commerce, and improving schools attest to the initiative's success.

(3) A problem, and good conversation about it. Once a community group is assembled, "the tendency is just to lock them in a room and say, 'OK, have at it.' That's just about the worst thing you can do," says David Chrislip, a civic leadership consultant who works on community revitalization projects across the country.

All the group starts with, Mr. Chrislip says, is a shared sense that their community has a problem. They probably don't agree on what that problem is, and they certainly don't agree on what to do about it. So the first step is to facilitate an exchange in which every voice gets heard, every grievance aired. This is a slow process, as everyone who's taken part in such a conversation acknowledges, because fundamentally it's about trust, and trust doesn't happen on a deadline.

If participants have the patience to see the process through, however, they almost invariably arrive at a common sense of the problem they're facing - and a common vision of how to tackle it.

"Ninety-nine percent of life is about relationships, and this is no different," says Ray Kuniansky, chief operating officer of the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, which has spent the past decade helping local community groups turn around devastated areas of the city.

(4) A sustainable plan, and the people who can implement it. At some point, though, it's time to stop talking and get practical. Currently in Oklahoma City, a city with some of the worst public-health problems in the nation, a group Chrislip is advising has, after two years, just moved out of the talking stages.

The group of 125 - healthcare providers, social-service experts, businesspeople, activists, politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens - is aiming to revolutionize the way Oklahomans think about their health. It's a tall order, but the planning group includes everybody in the area who can play a key role in making that happen, and can continue on to tackle the related challenges of education and unemployment.

Besides, Chrislip says, community groups that aim for less - rehabbing a single building, constructing a swimming pool, repaving a street - often stop there, having failed to look systemically at what their area needs and what steps might really get them there.

After two years, the Oklahoma group is "starting the planning phase with a lot of their hard work already done, because they know what they want, and they've got on board a lot of the people" - with the skills, experience, and credibility - "to get them there," he says.

(5) Political support. The strongest coalition with the best plan is worthless without political leaders who take it seriously. Realistically, Chrislip says, you can't expect politicians to be behind every new neighborhood initiative that starts up. But the sooner they start coming to meetings, seeing a group's seriousness about change, and being engaged in the process, the better for that neighborhood's future.

Today, only three of some 900 buildings in Codman Square sit vacant. The health center is the largest employer in central Dorchester. In 2000 it founded a successful college preparatory charter school.

"This is still not nirvana," Walczak says, "but now, as problems come up, we know we have a way to deal with them."

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