Rebuilding the Inner City: A History of Neighborhood Initiatives to Address Poverty in the United States


I know an educator who often finds herself muttering, as she reads about the most recent wave of budget cuts for education, that we do not lack ideas about how to improve our educational system, but commitment. While that commitment has also been absent when it comes to the problems afflicting urban America, after reading Robert Halpern’s recent history of community development, I am tempted to believe that we also lack new ideas about how to rebuild the economic, physical, and social infrastructure of our inner cities.

Halpern suggests that in the global economy of the late twentieth century, communities are no longer salient units of economic organization. Capital, unconstrained by neighborhood, municipal, state, or national boundaries, exploits the internecine competition between those jurisdictions, in search of the lowest bidder. The consequences of that competition are felt at all levels, as people are laid off and government budgets eviscerated. Any credible effort to “rebuild the inner city” must include responses to these consequences. In crafting such responses, those committed to community development are caught on the horns of a dilemma: Whether to work within the framework of capitalism, or whether to challenge the very terms of capitalism in an effort to develop the beginnings of an alter-native system.

Neither approach is neutral. The first strategy, which can be described as market-driven, is founded on the premise that residents of inner city neighborhoods have been ill-served by the locational and hiring decisions of businesspeople. Solutions based on this premise are calculated to re-align market incentives to facilitate inner city business development. The businesses thus incentivized are no different from businesses not located in urban neighborhoods. They must remain responsive to market pressures and be fully connected to suppliers of capital, labor, and raw materials, and to customers, outside of the inner city. Their success is predicated on that connectedness.

On the other hand, the inner city has disproportionately borne witness to the downsizing of America. Inner city neighborhoods are defined by rates of unemployment and poverty that are much higher than the national average, in no small part due to the flight of jobs and capital. Some assume this flight is endemic to capitalism. Under this view, any rebuilding effort(a) requires a critique of that system and (b) must include antidotes to further flight. Many community-based economic development efforts have started from a strongly skeptical posture with respect to capitalism, and have been infused with social values ranging from environmentalism to community control to worker ownership. Advocates of this view imply that community-based development efforts merely contribute to the deterioration of what little community we still have if they cease to aspire to fuller social change.

Unfortunately, after nearly thirty years of what we know of as the community development corporation, revitalizing one’s immediate community, neighborhood, block, or building is no longer sufficient. As Camilo Jose Vergara points out, selective renewal efforts remain limited in their scope, and may ultimately cause more harm than good in terms of their effect on entire communities. The modest goal of revitalizing that which is most local-itself hardly an easy task-seems inadequate given the problem.

Halpern’s history of the community development movement repeatedly raises the problem of how advocates should respond to the constraints of capitalism. As a work of history, Halpern’s account is quite helpful, both for its summary of past initiatives and for its highlighting of recurring problems. Halpern is less helpful, however, when it comes to offering new solutions. His own analysis and policy descriptions do not break new ground.

This review proceeds in three parts. The first outlines Halpern’s argument, the second focuses on his analysis of the goals and accomplishments of inner city economic development efforts, and the third offers an alternative framework within which to consider the goals, accomplishments, and future directions of the community economic development movements

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