STREET SAVVY. Poor Philadelphia neighborhoods pull themselves back up
New York — The people who live in Philadelphia's worst urban areas are the ones who have found a way to improve life there. ``If people were to look at what was happening in community development, ... people's attitudes about the poor and about low-income neighborhoods would shift, because they would see that the people they think are simply interested in receiving government handouts are really working beyond their capacity,'' says Haskell G. Ward, a specialist on community and economic development who recently completed a study of Philadelphia efforts. ``They want to solve the problems themselves with their own solutions.''
Mr. Ward, a former deputy mayor under New York Mayor Edward I. Koch and a veteran of such institutions as the Ford Foundation, recently spent a year in Philadelphia studying neighborhood efforts to grapple with such problems as urban blight, inadequate housing, the lack of jobs, and the abundance of drugs.
His study, done for the Pew Memorial Trust, outlines the optimism that can be found in low-income neighborhoods when leadership and a commitment to change develop. But it also takes a look at why some earlier efforts to help the poor bogged down and how government and the private sector should help - but not impose solutions - in these communities.
``It is a study about neighborhoods and what people are doing to strengthen, and revitalize, and to arrest the rate and the direction of decline in neighborhoods,'' Mr. Ward says.
Some of these Philadelphians have national fame. Sister Falaka Fattah began the House of Umoja as an effort to deter youth gangs. She and her husband opened their home to members of their own son's gang. Today its program offers education, job training, and employment to Philadelphia teen-agers. Others are known locally. Alice Lipscomb of the Hawthorne Community Development Corporation got involved in saving her neighborhood from ``urban renewal'' that would have displaced many families.
The range of programs being tackled by such groups, which exist in most large cities around the United States, initially included weatherization of housing, energy conservation, block cleanups, and community gardens. As groups coalesce around such issues, they grow stronger, and begin to tackle more projects such as recycling centers, building rehabilitation, operating social services such as food pantries, and organizing tenants. Eventually community development turns to revitalizing businesses, starting ``incubators'' for light industry, and tacking community issues such as education.
What Ward found in low-income communities in Philadelphia was depth and savvy. Ms. Lipscomb, for example, began organizing 25 years ago around the issue of housing-code enforcement. Her neighborhood was poor and rundown, and the city had intended to raze it. Instead, the community banded together and demanded that the city help the residents.
In a neighborhood that the city considered too decrepit to save there now is tenant-owned cooperative housing.
Too often, Ward says, the human element has been so diminished that the people in a poor community do not consider that their lives matter, that others care about their lives.
And Ward says it will be a few years before leadership galvanizes around the problems of the most destitute. But he is convinced it will come. He says some groups working with low-income neighborhoods are already talking about doing an ``asset'' survey of an area, rather than the traditional ``needs'' survey.
The idea of including the poor in solving their problems was prevalent during the 1960s, Ward says. But sometimes turf battles over the huge sums of federal money being poured into urban renewal meant new political fiefdoms rather than neighborhood empowerment.
Today neighborhood groups get assistance from a variety of sources - some federal, state, and local money, some from the corporate sector (particularly when business is good), and some from foundations. While corruption and mismanagement in poverty programs was something Ward focused on during his stint in the Koch administration, he says he does not see evidence that it is a problem in these community-based groups.
As the economy shifts from an industrial base to a service-sector base, Ward says, many in low-income areas lose jobs and are not equipped to participate in the new job market. A faltering educational system means many of their children are not entering this new market, either.
``This is a matter of severe national concern, because you have side by side great affluence and great poverty,'' Ward says. ``They are the ingredients for a powder keg which I am afraid is beginning to manifest itself again.''
Community-based groups, run by local leaders, ``provide a framework that begins to deal with the strengths of people ... and this can be a way for those at the federal level to begin to look at ways of providing assistance, without taking in the solution to the problem,'' Ward says.