Something is working. In inner cities. In neighborhoods long left behind. Communities are coming alive. Some of the same communities many of us had given up on as not salvageable. The ones with dirty streets and abandoned cars. With vacant, run-down housing and boarded up storefronts. With poor city services. With gangs and drugs and violent crime. With no jobs for the unemployed. With despondent and dependent people. The communities where the people who could do so had moved out. The slums. the ghettos.
We’ve not seen those latter terms on the front pages much in recent years. That is largely because something happened in many of these communities in the last decade, and grew. Not in all, of course; and during the decade other neighborhoods slid into despair. But now many disadvantaged communities are in fact discernibly better; and some are even transformed. The best known is the South Bronx, once the “Calcutta of American cities” and now a pretty decent place to live, work, do business, and raise families. There are other urban communities, less celebrated, that have attained this status and still more that have clearly made progress toward it.
These reviving communities have cleaner streets and lots; new or rebuilt housing, community facilities, and commercial facilities; lower crime and a sense of safety; good things for kids to do; new businesses and new jobs and job training; new places to shop and gather and talk. Residents plan and work and make things happen; and city agencies listen and respond. People are even moving back in. There is still a way to in many neighborhoods; but in some, these days, things have progressed to the point that the main issue is gentrification and preserving affordable housing.
What happened? For one thing, for three-quarters of the decade of the 1990s, the nation enjoyed the longest peacetime expansion in living memory. That clearly helped. The tide rose so strongly and for so long a time that water gathered around a lot of mired boats that had not been reached in shorter expansions. But this explains only some of what happened. To extend the old economic metaphor, those boats needed to be pried loose, repaired, refitted, and restocked; crews installed and trained and supported; and leadership put aboard to chart a purposeful course and engage with others in the fleet. Without these things, the boats would stay mired—or perhaps float but drift aimlessly, at the mercy of the economic winds.
What was needed in cities were policies, mechanisms, institutions, and systems that could help neighborhoods that had fallen behind to catch up, that could do some good in bad times and take full advantage of boom times. What was needed in the neighborhoods was something that married national and local funding with technical competence and neighborhood enterprise and responsiveness–something that mounted a broad assault on the multiple, interlocking problems of these neighborhoods. That something in most of these communities was one or more Community Development Corporations (CDCs).
What happened in many cities in the decade of the nineties was that, as a nation, we took some tools and institutions (like CDCs) that had emerged over the last decade or two and some that had been around longer that. We created some new organizations and discovered some new mechanisms (for instance, the Low Income Housing Tax Credit). We cobbled them all together into reinforcing systems. And we developed and fine-tuned this assemblage. The Urban Institute, a leading national policy research organization, has called this an “institutional revolution.”
This apparatus is probably not in its final form–it will undoubtedly evolve further as this new decade progresses. Nor is the job of restoring healthy, attractive American inner city neighborhoods complete. More must be done if urban neighborhoods are to realize their full potential to contribute to the vitality and competitiveness of American cities and metropolitan areas.
But, in many communities, these new systems are quite advanced, with a decade- long record of substantial accomplishment and even greater potential, despite some inevitable failures. In essence, what happened is that we learned how to make community development systems that pretty much work. After trial and error and much effort, we as a nation, are getting it; the evidence is there to see–tens of thousands of units of affordable housing; millions of square feet of commercial, industrial, and community facilities; and a broad range of community organizing, planning, and human services.
This report is an introduction to a major catalyst and funder of these systems in 23 cities, most of which made significant progress during the nineties. We are a unique entity–a partnership of public, private, for-profit, and non-profit funders committed to the revitalization of urban communities. We began in 1991 as the National Community Development Initiative, or NCDI. Thew report explores how we were founded, the work in neighborhoods across the country, and what was accomplished in the first ten years.