New Years post #7: Anacostia and sustainable economic development and revitalization
w commented on an earlier entry that he was distressed to see a comment against bike lanes in an article in yesterday's Post, "D.C.'s Ward 8 pins its hopes for economic improvement on Mayor-elect Gray." From the article:
Juanita White may be 75 years old, but on primary day the 24-year resident of the Hillsdale neighborhood says she rounded up dozens of people - many "complacent and standing on their corners" - and persuaded them to cast votes for Vincent C. Gray. ...
Mayor-elect Gray, she hopes, will transform her community - improving schools, tackling unemployment and boosting economic development so that "more educated people move in and become more involved in the neighborhood."
"I am hoping and praying for what he's going to do," said White, a longtime community and Democratic activist. "No man is God, but we need to have high expectations for him and we are going to be there to support him to see he does what he's supposed to do." ...
"We expect to see some improvement east of the river," said Mary Cuthbert, a Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member from Congress Heights. "We want to see it be the same like everywhere else they built up.
"And we don't need no bicycle lanes," Cuthbert said, referring to the perception that outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was more attuned to the concerns of affluent parts of the city. "We need a store where you can buy some pantyhose and a shower curtain, and we want to see people go to work."
While I can claim to have a fair degree of knowledge and experience on revitalization, given my start on the topic in the H Street NE neighborhood that is now considered a regional success and garners all kinds of national attention, I have to say that there are many things that contribute, and it's not a matter of strict "science" in that if you do X, Y, and Z, then bam, everything works out and you get the results you want.
-- Enclave development won't "save" Anacostia
-- Office buildings won't "save" Anacostia
-- Arson as a(nother) redevelopment strategem
-- Thinking really really really big for Poplar Point's park
-- Another example of an RFP (Request for Proposals) being inadequate, not a plan
In 2005, I wrote a blog entry on the book House by House, Block by Block: Rebuilding America's Urban Neighborhoods, by Alexander von Hoffman, which details success stories in urban revitalization. According to the book, there are five common threads to stitching a challenged community back together:
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.
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 von Hoffman. 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.
A problem, and good conversation about it. Groups start with 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.
A sustainable plan, and the people who can implement it. At some point, though, it's time to stop talking and get practical. 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.
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.
(Another book that's relevant to the topic is Bringing Buildings Back by Alan Mallach, which focuses on the development of aggressive programs to stanch abandonment. That's especially important for weak real estate markets.)
Right now, H Street is segregated at nightfall. During the day, African Americans generally frequent established hair salons, barbershops and clothing stores that survived the riots. At night, mostly white patrons hit a string of faux-dive bars that brush H Street with an edge similar to that of Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood.
The influx of bars is ironic, said Sharon Ambrose, a former Ward 6 council member. "I spent years getting rid of bars on H Street. Now, they open a bar a day," she said. The nightlife has created some tension as black bar owners and customers have complained about subtle and outright discrimination, Saleem said. ...
Woody mentioned a number of new minority-owned businesses, including Philadelphia Water Ice, as examples of the corridor's diversity. But Saleem said that of 148 businesses that have opened in the area in four years, only about 25 percent have been black-owned.
I have a joke that it is not only disinvestment that has led to problems in DC neighborhoods, that the ability to improve declining neighborhoods is also hindered by the quality and capacity of neighborhood participation. I used to "blame" residents for this, but now I mostly call it a question of "backwards looking leadership."
Somehow, people need to recognize that in the 21st century, urban problems require urban-specific and urban-appropriate solutions, as well as the recognition that to deal with something in 2011, you need to apply policies and practices that are relevant to the economic and social realities of today, not 1940.
The challenge for East of the River communities will be to create, execute, and implement a revitalization program that is inclusive, and focused on rebuilding people not just buildings and commercial districts.
Two other books, very very hard to find because they have been out of print for decades, are Building Neighborhood Confidence and Understanding Neighborhood Change: The Role of Expectations in Urban Revitalization by Rolf Goetze. He had been research director at the Boston Redevelopment Agency and these books are very practical guides to thinking in very focused ways--no b.s.--about dealing with disinvestment and how to spark reinvestment by the private sector, rather than rely on government investment to improve neighborhoods.