Bringing The City Back To Life


A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival

By Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio

Westview Press 285pp $25

For all that voters heard about urban policy during the Presidential race, you would think America's cities had died a quiet death and been unceremoniously buried at sea. The silence of both parties about urban problems was deafening. That's partly because most voters are now suburban--and that's who both Gore and Bush pitched their appeals to. And it's partly because a rising economic tide has lifted the boats of enough poor city-dwellers to mute any concern about those still treading water.

But there is another explanation for the apathy, say community-development veterans Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio in their accessible and detailed chronicle of the nuts and bolts of urban revitalization Comeback Cities. Academics and businesspeople, they say, unwisely continue to write off the cities. They mistakenly believe that the middle class has fled, never to return; that poor schools, crime, and other social ills will overwhelm the poor left in urban areas; and that cities will shrivel and die as manufacturing, which once provided ample employment, evaporates.

Such thinking is nonsense, the authors contend. Grogan and Proscio, a Harvard University administrator and a former New York City official, respectively, have written a smart and clear-headed narrative that makes a strong case for a brighter urban future without underplaying the problems still at hand. The book, aimed at policymakers, has its wonkish stretches. But it is generally free of jargon and strong on narrative, making it interesting enough to engage any reader seriously concerned about our cities.

Grogan and Proscio believe it is easier to revitalize city neighborhoods than most people think. They don't, however, favor gentrification, which drives out the poor and brings in the young and trendy. Rather, they aim to replicate what has taken place in the past 20 years in Cleveland's Hough district and New York's South Bronx. After Jimmy Carter drew attention to the latter area in a 1976 visit, its desolate Charlotte Street became an icon of urban dysfunction. Since then, new housing has been built, retailing has revived, and public order has been restored. You won't mistake the South Bronx for a new yuppie haunt, say the authors. But it is now something even better. "Poverty is still significantly higher than in most other parts of New York," they concede. "The South Bronx has not regained its former grandeur, nor is it likely to do so. It has instead become something more necessary and more lasting. It has become pleasant and livable."

Key to the turnarounds are Community Development Corporations (CDCs), neighborhood-based nonprofit organizations that first emerged after the War on Poverty in the late 1960s. They have sprung up to meet a variety of needs--but housing is the field in which they have made the greatest impact. One of the first CDCs was the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp. in Brooklyn, formed in 1967. Since then, dozens of CDCs have arisen.

Most began small, when residents banded together to figure out how to get money for housing. The best of these groups are also fiercely independent of partisan politics and patronage. For 13 years Grogan was president of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC), a Ford Foundation-backed intermediary that raises funds for CDCs. He relates how in the 1980s, LISC faced down Detroit's famously tough mayor, Coleman Young. The mayor had refused to work with local CDCs unless he controlled who got the money. "LISC, just as bluntly, replied that, in that case, LISC would prefer not to have a Detroit program. The mayor relented... Soon, the performing CDCs were getting the lion's share of available public funding as well, with no political strings attached." Housing in Detroit is now on the rebound.

The process can take decades--but it works. Between 1988 and 1997, CDCs with odd names such as Mid-Bronx Desperadoes and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Assn. (Motto: "Don't Move. Improve.") helped put up 10,000 new units of housing in the South Bronx.

Unlike urban activists in the contentious 1960s, CDC leaders made alliances with business and local politicians to help obtain funding. New York, for example, put $1 billion into South Bronx housing during the 1988-97 period, while the same businesses that had often written off poor neighborhoods invested $365 million. Much of the private money was a result of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), which directs banks to make credit available in the communities where they do business. Fearful that federal regulators would not approve banking mergers unless they could show a good CRA rating, bankers opened the credit tap. CDCs also benefit from programs that give investors tax credits for backing low-income housing.

The CDC mission has been successful because the organizations are small, nimble, and intensely local. The housing that they develop is generally home to a stable tenancy. Those residents in turn become a lure to retailers, allies with police against crime, and a constituency more able to wring improvements out of local schools.

Sound like a win-win situation? Not without help it isn't. The authors note Congressional attempts to roll back the CRA in 1999. And CDCs are not immune from problems: Banana Kelly, for one, has recently come under fire for alleged mismanagement. But one CDC does not a movement make. With continued backing from business and government, the reconstruction of the cities could be what the authors term a "postideological" victory. That would make the new split-levels now lining Charlotte Street special indeed.