Photo: A “Robust Engagement” workshop was part of the Civic Innovation in Action Studio, May 12-14. Photo by Tom Clark for Knight Foundation.
Overview: Knight Foundation hosted 100 civic innovators at a Civic Innovation in Action Studio in Miami May 12 -14 to explore ways to harness talent, advance opportunity and promote robust engagement.
If you spend any time at all reading about American cities and what is happening in them today, the word “gentrification” will certainly have bubbled to the top of your consciousness, usually in a negative context. There’s no question that as cities have regained popularity among more affluent and upwardly mobile Americans, gentrification – with its attendant ills of displacement and homogenization – can cause problems.
The story that isn’t told as much is the one about how many places aren’t being gentrified — the places where poverty is chronic and entrenched. According to a report on the nation’s largest metro areas from Impresa Consulting, of 1,100 census tracts with poverty rates in excess of 30 percent in 1970, 750 still had poverty topping that rate 40 years later.
So what works to change the reality of entrenched disinvestment and poverty? As research for Knight Foundation’s recent Civic Innovation in Action Studio, we asked several civic leaders with a track record of successful redevelopment of disinvested neighborhoods for their thoughts on how to turn around troubled neighborhoods. Here are some of the themes that emerged.
Lori Healey held several senior positions for the city of Chicago under the administration of Richard M. Daley, most recently acting as his chief of staff. She says that when Chicago was looking at economic revitalization, the mayor’s office took a tough approach. “It takes a very committed chief executive of a city to call all the grocery chains into the office and say, ‘You need to invest in all my neighborhoods; if you want to do a store in a North Side neighborhood, you’ve got to do one in a South Side neighborhood,’” says Healey, who is now the CEO of Tur Partners LLC. “Mayor Daley would say, you’ve got to play hardball with the folks. You have to have a little political moxie to negotiate those kinds of deals…. There’s got to be a directive from the top that says, you will go out, and you will make sure that these things get done in these neighborhoods.”
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Without access to jobs, residential neighborhoods will never thrive. “I think in any deteriorated neighborhood today, either there needs to be some basis of nearby job employment, or good transportation access that connects to employment,” says Paul Levy, founding chief executive of the Center City District management district in Philadelphia. “The basis of any residential neighborhood is the employment base that it’s near or next to.”
“In this neighborhood, we are in an anchor district [with] about 50,000 employees in it,” says Susan Mosey, the president of Midtown Detroit Inc., a nonprofit responsible for community development in that city’s Midtown area. “That stability, and having a reasonable set of market dynamics operating in terms of people at least coming to your district – that doesn’t mean everybody’s engaging with your district, but at least you then have an opportunity to create strategies that can, over time, take more advantage of that market that’s coming.”
Know the market
Several of those interviewed emphasized the importance of deeply understanding the local market and the needs of partners, both in the private and the public sector. “[Do the] market analysis,” says Josh Rogers, president and CEO of NewTown Macon, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing downtown Macon, Ga. “If you’ve got the interested partners and you think you’ve got the embedded amenities, then is there actually a market and if so, what does that look like?”
“We retain a huge amount of updated data on the development climate here for everybody,” says Mosey. “Part of the thing in disadvantaged cities is you have to constantly be catapulting all of the nonbelievers into the fact that there really is a market here, and the market is at this price point, and it is this kind of a product people are looking for. You really have to have intelligent conversations with folks, and be able to counter their many reasons why they just don’t want to invest in a disinvested neighborhood.”
Take advantage of national trends
Seizing the historical moment can benefit redevelopment efforts. “Each city, each place has unique attributes that either make it competitive or may make it out of sync,” says Levy. “Philadelphia starts with great DNA. We have a 17th-century street grid that made us ridiculously obsolete in the 1950s, when everybody was trying to stuff every car and truck in the universe into cities. And today, with energy costs permanently high, dense and compact and intimate scale is sustainable.”
“A lot of what’s happened on the ground in Macon is represented nationally by changing demographics,” says Rogers. “America is younger, more diverse, waiting later to have children, willing to accept a higher level of finish for smaller square footage. The fact that America is urbanizing so quickly everywhere creates tremendous opportunity for nonprofits and partnerships focused on revitalization.”
Most importantly, play to your strengths
Each community has to be taken on its own terms, and developed with sensitivity to its particular character. “Know your assets,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, who did community development in Harlem with the Abyssinian Development Corp.. “Know what is distinctive about your community. Know how to market that. Know how to tell the story. Do that in a way that is bold and imaginative but that is also grounded in reality.”
Sarah Goodyear is a New York-based writer.