THE images of burning and destruction in South Central Los Angeles have served to remind Americans who watched this scene on television of the longer, slower destruction of our inner cities through years of neglect. Suddenly the public discourse has been filled with references to the Great Society and analyses of the social programs of the 1960s. Americans have begun to ask long ignored questions: What can be done? Where do we begin? What, if anything, works?
But the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 differ dramatically from the riots of the 1960s that triggered a national crisis of conscience and led to massive new federal anti-poverty programs. Today there are fewer answers and little money. We are mired in deficit spending, not riding an economic growth spurt. And we suffer from a confidence deficit, as well. The can-do American attitude of decades past seems a quaint memory seen through the murky legacy of Vietnam and the steady dulling of our national competi tive edge.
The record of the Great Society is complex. Some programs failed; others continue to succeed. Nonetheless, today's budget deficits lay a heavy, almost paralyzing burden on the collective American conscience.
Americans' pessimism is a more daunting handicap than our fiscal problems. We are a rich society and manage to find the resources to support whatever we think truly matters. Today long-deferred domestic problems have demanded our attention and are forcing a realignment of our national priorities.
How do we combat the belief that government is bound to fail in its attempts to solve problems and that our troubles are beyond control? We must find ideas to believe in. We must look for plausible strategies that will be able to command the necessary political and financial support.
There is at least one strategy on the urban scene that should help shake us out of our doubting, hopeless funk. With little notice or fanfare, in the last decade a remarkable network of grass-roots organizations have emerged within inner-city neighborhoods across America. Their goal: improve their own low-income communities by rebuilding and reinvesting. These organizations of local residents are known as community development corporations, or CDCs. They are comprised of neighborhood residents, accountab le to other local people.
There are thousands of CDCs across America, and their accomplishments have grown along with their ranks. They often start small, by renovating one apartment building, cleaning up a vacant lot, or establishing an after-school drop-in center. But these grass-roots groups have produced more than 320,000 affordable, decent homes and more than 90,000 jobs.
Community-based developers are successful because they are not alone. They are not another government program, yet CDCs work with local governments that provide low-interest loans, and, in some cases available real estate. And CDCs receive private sector support from corporations and foundations that provide financial and other assistance.
The recipe for CDCs' achievements is one of self-help and local accountability with a hefty dose of pragmatism. CDCs are results-oriented.
In South Central Los Angeles, for instance, a neighborhood now synonymous in most Americans' mind with blight and devastation, the scaffolding of the Roberta Stephens Villas stands as a symbol of something very different taking place. It marks the site of 42 of the first affordable apartments to be built in the neighborhood in a generation (happily the property was unscathed by the riots). A few blocks away, the historic Dunbar Hotel, also untouched by fire, has been restored as low-cost homes for 72 sen ior citizens and a museum of African-American culture. These developments were produced by and for the community.
More than a decade ago, when Miami's Liberty City also erupted in riots, business leaders rushed to respond, to arrive at some solution. Yet the millions of dollars spent, the well-intentioned but quick-fix programs that characterized outside help foisted upon the community, were not an effective solution for a neighborhood whose problems had been festering for years. A more thoughtful, longer-term, community-based revitalization effort has borne fruit. A local CDC, the Tacolcy Economic Development Corpo ration, offered its own plan for the neighborhood. With outside help to finance the community's own vision, Tacolcy attracted new business to Liberty City, including a Winn-Dixie supermarket.
And in dozens of other American cities, where social problems rarely make the nightly news but where poverty is a daily story, CDCs are fighting back against the forces of decay. They are building homes, attracting businesses, and providing services in places like Kansas City, New Orleans, and Boston.
As the nation grapples with the notion of a new urban policy, our leaders should look to the community-development industry for guidance, and see this growing movement as an example of the kind of plausible strategy America needs.
The work of local people, successfully rebuilding their communities, could be the spark that rekindles America's confidence in this fact: There are not only problems, but also effective solutions growing up before our eyes.