Community Development: It’s Time to Question the Basics


"Harlem Children's Zone Mad 125 jeh" by Jim.henderson - Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons -

“Harlem Children’s Zone Mad 125 jeh” by Jim.henderson – Own work. Licensed under CC0 via Commons





“Dudley Department Store, Washington St, Roxbury MA” by John Phelan – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

The last issue presented a case study of a significant past Community Development initiative using Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood . This issue expands upon that initial effort, offering an unasked for critique of several community development issues/principles. The review is meant to be positive and helpful. It reflects an outsider’s sense that this very significant economic development approach is at a crossroads. My recommendation is that community developers might open a dialogue on two long-standing conceptual pillars that seem to me to be dysfunctional. As a benchmark I will dredge up a perspective, almost seventy years old, that might ground this dialogue.

Community development, as an economic development approach, shares five defining characteristics.  On some level, the various movements within community development share a common concern with (1) neighborhoods, (2) where the low income disadvantaged minorities live (low-mods of yore), (3) because they are driven into, and locked in, these geographies due to structural and personal behaviors that necessitate having to change people’s/society’s behavior by (4) attacking concurrently a wide array of resident problems (comprehensiveness) more or less simultaneously (5) in a manner that can foster societal reform as well as personal achievement thereby reducing aggregate societal inequality.

In this critique, I question if community development contains an inherent goal conflict that pulls its initiatives in different directions–ultimately tearing them apart. Goal conflict intensifies the difficulty of successful initiative implementation and puts stress on each of the  above defining characteristics. In particular, the first and the third characteristics (neighborhood-level and “comprehensiveness”) have caused the most distress in specific community development initiatives. Essentially I suggest community development abandon “place”, i.e. neighborhoods (thereby returning to it is 1950’s roots) and redefine “comprehensiveness” to render it more realistic and useful to foster societal change.

Community Development Evolves from Sandtown

Baltimore’s Sandtown was representative of a Foundation-led approach common in the 1980’s and 1990’s. By the turn of the century community developers had recognized the limitations of the Sandtown model. Serious questions were levied upon place-based community development (neighborhood) and “comprehensiveness” that saturated the programs/projects of this era. In frustration with the Sandtown-model, community development moved on. Over the last couple of decades there were many initiatives, but. frankly , with some exceptions (Harlem Children’s Zone, for example), few unqualified successes. Community developers became more aware, certainly more sophisticated. For example, they realized that neighborhoods, were not identical. “Civic infrastructure” and “collaborative capacity”(Richard C. Harwell et al, “Community Rhythms”) were important to potential success. Community development has also recognized poverty has moved to unlikely places, such as suburbs. Finally, deindustrialization’s effect on distressed residents could no longer be ignored.

But even as community development got smarter/moved on, it continued to define community development initiatives as fundamentally place-based neighborhood level initiatives and it failed to realize that comprehensiveness operates on several levels, not just on the array of programs in a given project initiative. In my opinion, community developers simply redesigned, and then downplayed these issues–clothing them in language that obscured conflict between divergent goals. In so doing, community developers have continue to amble down the same streets and paths that had characterized community development for more than a half-century, if not seventy-five years.  When outcomes do not satisfy either participants or residents, a”Groundhog Day” repetition of concerns and alleged inadequacies in programs and approach follows. Community developers, especially foundations, have been evaluating and questioning programs and performance constantly over most of the last decade. I fear the frustration is escalating, while the “Groundhog Day” effect keeps reappearing.

I simplistically offer that the root of this frustration lies in (1) community development’s stubborn failure to resolve the conflicting nature of its two ultimate, seldom articulated, goals inherent in place-based social change: physical redevelopment and socio-economic assimilation–and (2) the disruptive impacts arising from attempts at “comprehensiveness” that make initiative management “an impossible dream”.

Place/People-Based Social Reform

What is my so-called goal conflict inherent in community development neighborhood revitalization?

Community and Development–Is community development concerned with developing a community (which occupies a physical space, a neighborhood, for example) or is it focused on the residential development/empowerment of those who live in the community–allowing them to enter mainstream society, thereby reducing social/economic inequality? Can community development do both–in the same project at the same time? Or must it chose one or the other? Is there a gap, if not a real conflict, between place-based and people-based goals?

Two purposes or end points of community development neighborhood revitalization are (1) assimilation of residents into political, social and economic mainstream, or, (2) “placed-based redevelopment”–physical revitalization of a neighborhood to restore lost prosperity, economic vitality, community, and quality of life. One is people-focused; the other is place-focused. Comprehensiveness, which allows a wide variety of both place and people-based initiatives into each project initiative, hints these two goals can be combined within individual project initiatives.

I question that.

Over the intermediate and long-run these purposes/goals are conflicting; the first unravels the second–and vice versa.

To me in a nutshell that is a question and a dilemma inherent in community development as an economic development approach.

Community is ultimately about fixing up a “place” in which distressed/non-distressed residents live. Presumably, the community, and the place, is in decline. Decline is usually defined as physical decline (aged, distressed housing, obsolescence, inadequate infrastructure, etc.), and resident’s “decline” defined in terms of negative statistics or dysfunctional demographics. Neighborhood physical decline has roots in “broken”neighborhood residents. Propensity to crime, loss of economic vitality, lack of education, broken families, stagnant paychecks, mortgage defaults and community conflict and residential frustration become linked to physical development (housing, for example) and service delivery. In essence I argue “comprehensiveness” operates on another level and its existence obscures the inescapable conflict between place and assimilation-based community development. The belief is that physical redevelopment and people change can be combined through programs in a given community development project or initiative. Again, I disagree–they cannot.

"NWAJeffcoSheriffSign" by Xnatedawgx - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -“NWAJeffcoSheriffSign” by Xnatedawgx – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Physical revitalization can be achieved by altering the composition of a community, as well as modernizing the physical base (substantial rehab or new housing). The latter, subtly and indirectly, increases the cost basis of a housing unit and puts parameters on “who” can own or rent the unit. Physical redevelopment, housing in particular,  is a double-edged sword. It can improve the lives of those who already live in the community, and/or it can bring new elements into the community that “improve” the neighborhood. The illusion induced by comprehensiveness allows all types of housing programs into the CD initiative. In many terribly run down neighborhoods, existing housing must simply be torn down and replaced with new units. Potentially this”removes” existing occupants. How this results in assimilation into mainstream society, I do not know.

The second goal, “assimilation”, usually translates into personal or individual improvement/breaking down barriers resulting in that individual’s accommodation into mainstream society. Assimilation is people-building–making a community’s residents viable economically, politically, and socially. In this case, the physical space is involved only to the extent it helps, or gets in the way of individual empowerment and assimilation into the mainstream. But assimilation requires the movement from dysfunctional to functional, from unskilled to skilled, from insecure to secure, from unemployment to employment. Success in any of these objectives does not require continued residence in a given physical space–indeed, it may necessitate moving away or create opportunities for personal mobility to a “better” space or to a job. Assimilation is not place-based.

Physically, some neighborhoods can be too far gone to save. The illusion of comprehensiveness inhibits sensitivity to the distinction between saving people and saving a neighborhood. In our Sandtown example, the organic community development initiative focused on replacing housing on a multi-block scale (in the old days called urban renewal) while the Foundation World joined in with a variety of individual-level assimilation-goal programs. It did not go well for either goal. Physical redevelopment to be successful means triaging neighborhoods–working on those whose viability is stressed–not crushed. It may even mean working on suburban neighborhoods! This idea is out of the question in contemporary community development. Physical neighborhood revitalization can be unduly burdened in a community development initiative. Worse, to the extent assimilation is achieved, it is highly likely the individual will leave the neighborhood–over time, if not immediately.

If one wants to combine these two goals in one neighborhood project, one must change place and the people who reside within that place–simultaneously. That is rather ambitious given that community development selects the “most” low-income, disinvested and discriminated neighborhoods/residents. No community development project seeks to change dysfunctional resident  behavior and values  in places like Hollywood, Georgetown, Grosse Pointe or a middle-class suburb. Community development selects out distressed neighborhoods in serious physical decline populated by residents who are discriminated against, unemployed, and unable to enter the mainstream on their own. There is no triage in community development. In other words, choosing the most distressed neighborhoods maximizes the goal conflict between place-based community development and assimilation.

One example is helpful. Place-based redevelopment can replace existing distressed residents with new residents able to invest their own money and sweat into the neighborhood. This is otherwise known as gentrification. Gentrification saves the village, by destroying the previous community. “Comprehensiveness” permits one to believe that with the right mix of programs one can somehow combine “older/distressed residents” with newer, presumably wealthier residents and maintain the “community”. When I see gentrification in the newspaper or on TV (New Orleans is a good example), however, it looks like a Neo-Liberal or racial invasion to both low income occupants and to the Progressive media. Talking about diversity seems one thing; living it appears quite another.

Get out of neighborhood revitalization and housing almost entirely–spin it off and delink it from comprehensive/assimilation-oriented strategies.

Multi-Headed Comprehensiveness


“Comprehensiveness” obscures goal conflict. Operating underneath community development’s “comprehensiveness” tent, diverse programs appear to possess a coherence that I believe can be an illusion. Comprehensiveness can take several forms or levels. The historical one, alluded to in my Sandtown article, was the huge number of policy areas (education, job training, housing, personal and work skills–and countless others) that were typically included in a single neighborhood initiative. A multi-policy area initiative, it is believed, is required if one is to attack the pathologies, each reinforcing the other, that condemn a person to live in the ghetto neighborhood. Attacking any one policy area allows the pathologies associated with other policy areas to overwhelm any success generated by addressing one policy area. So the practice is to attack as many as one can simultaneously. Physical redevelopment becomes part of the attack.

There is a second level of comprehensiveness that mixes “rationality”, policy experts, and neighborhood participation into a single neighborhood project initiative. This is what I tried to get in my last issue  when I talked about the two cultures that distinguished between organic community development from foundation-led community development. The foundation culture is rational, policy-driven, planning-based, data-driven, focused on evaluation and introspection–and bureaucratic/academic at its core. This rationality, policy, data, and bureaucracy is dumped upon a poor unsuspecting neighborhood. It supposedly can be integrated into the fabric of that neighborhood through community participation, managed community involvement, intelligent and open (i.e. flexible) local leadership, public hearings and planning groups, shared stories or narratives or god know what device.

It is a continued source of community development frustration as to how top/down change can be successfully interwoven with bottom/up change.

A third level of comprehensiveness is the compulsion to leverage individual change into societal reform.  It is hard, nearly impossible, to see how neighborhood-level change can be used achieve national or metropolitan societal, economic and political reform. The National Housing Service experience may be the exception that proves the rule. Recognizing the obvious truism that change in any one neighborhood is a drop in the bucket–and how does one best deal with systemic concentrated poverty, longstanding inequality, disinvestment, discrimination and deindustrialization that has, in theory at least, created these low-income ghetto neighborhood is entirely a separate process. But macro-level reform, layered on top of changing individual behaviors, values, skills and attitudes of neighborhood residents makes for an impossible set of tasks. This is an “impossible dream” which sounds great when you “sing it”, but in real life contributes heavily to community development frustration. Rethink this level of “comprehensiveness”.

But my concern is with all three levels–and the residue comprehensiveness brings into a community development initiative. Four issues arise.

The first is one I have repeated time and again. Community development, in my opinion, is, at heart, a “people-based” approach to economic development. Instead of working with businesses, or sectors, or clusters, community developers counter the ill effects of each on the downtrodden of society. Moreover, recognizing that “drops in the bucket” initiatives and individual people-change are nice, community development has always held larger aspirations: to change society–to reduce inequality, to empower. So, I suggest, focus on that–delink that from place-based, drop-in-the-bucket initiatives. If one truly wants to change society, do it, and stop issuing never-ending conceptual tomes evaluating failed place-based initiatives.

The second issue I have is the comprehensiveness “dream the impossible dream” aspect. If anybody really thinks changing people is easy then they should get married, and/or have children. Try changing your partner or raising children before one tries to change neighborhoods full of disadvantaged and often desperate people. The experience might teach many that changing and shaping “people” is virtually impossible even if you love them and live with them. “People” ought to want to change, if change is to have any potential for effect. Just because one has found a neighborhood with lots of eligible candidates for change, it in no way means they want “your” change. This is obvious, I’m sure–but no one seems to ask the question before a project is conceptualized and funded. Let me gingerly suggest that success in “people-change”–essential to assimilation—is predicated on working with those “few” that really want “your” change. Assimilation-intended programs may find sufficient numbers of these folk in a city-wide, not specific neighborhood, set of programs.

"ACORN Protest" by RICHIR. Original uploader was AaronSchutz at en.wikipedia - Transferred from en.wikipedia(Original text : Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Commons -“ACORN Protest” by RICHIR. Original uploader was AaronSchutz at en.wikipedia

Thirdly, recognizing that people-change confronts a wide variety of barriers, policy areas, and obstacles that need to be addressed, the focus should be on the barriers that prevent the individual’s assimilation. In the past, a job has been the single best solution for most. Given deindustrialization that is no easy task–but can I suggest a “back to the future” type initiative–a foundation-financed, small scale New Deal Works Progress Administration or Civilian Conservation-like program with skills and education (as the Army used to do) thrown in. This, no doubt, is the last thing most community developers have in mind–but hear me out. Employment programs such as these have worked–it kept my father on the straight and narrow and he raised a wonderful son. Like charter schools, I suspect, demand would be high and standards could be introduced into the program. Only those who want such a program should be encouraged to apply for it. Others will want specific skill-based training (culinary, for example); that’s fine. In either case, pay trainees, combine with education, and expect performance–and keep them employed long enough to develop skills, discipline, and a resume.

Maybe, just maybe comprehensiveness justifies too many separate programs from different vendors who need more administrative coordination? Maybe comprehensiveness dilutes an initiative with programs from the “what’s hot and  happening now school of thought”? Maybe comprehensiveness encourages too much rationality, bureaucracy, ineffective shared decision-making? Maybe comprehensiveness involves too many moving parts to ever hope to be sustained for sufficient period of time so it can be effective? Maybe comprehensiveness allows community developers to overthink, and inhibit any back to the basics approach? Maybe, I’m just wrong?

So Where Does This Take Us

As an outsider, I see CD at a crossroads today. In the course of writing these articles and in my research I sense revealed an honest concern as to how to proceed into what appears to be a fairly volatile short and intermediate term future. So for free, I offer my two cents worth.

Assimilation versus place-based redevelopment are mostly opposite goals. They are the Scylla and Charybdis of community development. That goes a long way to explaining why community development keeps resorting to some form of “comprehensiveness”. With comprehensiveness one does not have to deal with goal conflicts. It’s easier not to build bridges over fault lines. (1) Let’s not try to “square circles” by pursuing two goals that are mostly zero-sum. (2) Rethink comprehensiveness, in all its levels, to reduce the number of “conceptual moving parts”.

The CD “Policy World” has lots of money, bureaucratic/policy capacity, and good ideas. But when it attempts to link them up with a “place-based” neighborhood group things haven’t gone so well. They come from vastly different “cultures. Operationally, these “fusions” have been frustrating–and lead to episodes like Sandtown in Baltimore.51gGY-hU2qL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

Everybody in community development knows Paul Ylvisaker ? If any single individual can be credited with conceptualizing LBJ’s Great Society–Ylvisaker is my best candidate. The Ford Foundation’s famous “Gray Areas” Program, headed by Ylvisaker, was the foundation and launching pad for the Great Society and laid the foundation principles for the Community Development approach.

Ylvisaker used place, i.e. neighborhoods as “gray areas” that merely housed  deserving candidates for assimilation, “making first-class citizens“.  Distressed neighborhoods were the “gray areas” “that represent(ed) a social process deeply embedded in the history of every great American city. However, as industry and the middle class abandoned the central city in favor of the cult of the suburb, what was once a process of transition, and aspiration and self-improvement for the immigrant from abroad, for the rural uprooted, for a wide assortment of human beings who are at the ‘bottom of their life’s ambitions’ was now a dead end … Gray areas were a ‘wretched form that has lost the saving grace of a noble function (assimilation)”. (“Community Action, Urban Reform, and the Fight Against Poverty” Journal of Urban History, July, 1996, Gray Areas, p. 606).

Ylvisaker never intended to revitalize “gray area” neighborhoods–he wanted to assimilate the people who live in them.

Add to the an observation made in a 2003 by Michael Bailin (president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation) questioning how foundation-supported programs such as neighborhood improvement “that try to reform huge, complex, entrenched multi-billion dollar public systems–with a staff of 25 people and around $25 million in grants” can be effective. “We are fighting battles that had tested the power and wealth of serial U.S. Congresses and presidencies. It [is] a battle of Homeric proportions fought with Lilliputian resources. How could we ever imagine that we could accomplish anything so significant in our lifetimes?”. These comments support my expressed concern regarding the various levels of “comprehensiveness” and its devastating artificially imposed complexity it imposes on programs, administration, and resources.

Keep initiatives as simple as possible. Simplify goal complexity–pursue one ultimate goal, not two. That goal I suggest is assimilation.

That is my free “two cent” advice.


Where to begin? We need a Glossary to explain what you mean by key terms. Everywhere you read in official documents where “economic development” is used, it is assumed that it means business development. It does not; these two terms are not the same. One is a public sector term, while the other is a private term.

Until we have professionals in place who have actually wkd in the CED field, who understand basic planning terms, & the difference in goals, objectives, methods, metrics, strategies, and priorities designed to produce socioeconomic outcomes in real, structural, terms, we will be spinning our wheels, accomplishing little.

I see no commentary from those in the field in this site, and very little in other sites, which reflects a lack of interest and professionalism. Too many in the public sector act as if they work for the Chambers of Commerce “to create jobs”. Gee, why isn’t the Chamber working to pave streets and fix sidewalks?

We are far behind the curve, and much of this is such a waste of time. I see no real peer group in which to interact or exchange ideas; the status quo is alive and well.

Comment by Fernando Centeno, CED on November 7, 2015 at 1:47 am

In community economics the distinction is made between endogenous and exogenous development. They represent two very different growth paths that often diverge in terms of outcomes. Very insightful article.

Comment by David Kay on November 10, 2015 at 5:02 pm

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