Friday, January 23, 2009

Debating Neighborhoods

"(But)they're intervening in a situation in which they have limited capacity to deal with larger structural and political forces that are undermining these communities."

Alice O'Conner, quoted in: Ryan Blitstein, Great Society 2.0, Miller-McCune, vol 2, no 1.

The topic is a new round of community investment in Chicago called the New Communities Program, the latest version of a comprehensive community initiative (CCI). The basic idea is that poverty has many dimensions; viable interventions need to deal with lots of these factors at once in specific places if poverty is to be overcome. Even if we had a more robust set of poverty-alleviation policies at the federal and state levels, we would still need to weave these puzzle pieces together with families and communities. What micro contexts offer the best opportunity for this weaving -- neighborhoods, schools, faith institutions? Or, do we believe that good policies automatically do the trick?

What I've found compelling about New Communities is a couple of things that differentiate it from lots of other CCIs and community interventions. First, it is strategic and action-oriented,not trying to do everything at once. Second, in the best of neighborhoods, it works with a lead organization that in turn builds partnerships. Third, it has a central intermediary, LISC, that coordinates learning, gathers and focuses investment, and builds capacity. Finally, I've always been struck by the modesty of New Communities in relation to solving the big problems like poverty.

Some people think the age of neighborhood development is over. Mobility rates in many inner-city neighborhoods are extremely high, 50-60% in some of the neighborhoods I'm familiar with. Moreover, many important social networks and communities simply are not completely spatially based -- like new immigrant communities that are dispersed in metro areas yet have focal points in commercial areas or community facilitaties.

And then there are the mixed-income communities and regional equity debates.

Who knows what the evaluation of New Communities will show -- if, indeed, one can evaluate it in some sensible way. Alternatively, we might want to ask: What can we learn from New Communities? Where does this more modest, strategic-oriented approach work? Where is it insufficient? What does neighborhood and family progress really involve? What are good metrics? What policy changes would make a big difference for this kind of work?

President Obama and his team should pay attention to these questions as they prepare to roll out their version of Promise Neighborhoods.

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