Growing the inner city

When neighborhood equity increases, more residents have a personal stake in the community.

(an article originally printed in the January 25, 1998 Bimingham News)

For several decades landscape architects and city planners have engaged in commercial revitalization projects focusing on street trees, paving patterns, and building facades. An upgraded commercial strip looks nice for a while, but a beautification project will not succeed if areas just one or two blocks away remain as problems.

Seeking strategies that go beyond the surface--such as building equity in low-equity neighborhoods--was the topic of a pilot study hosted in Birmingham last weekend by members of the Global Network for Rebuilding. The group is a consortium of land planning professionals that provides aid to needful communities. Students and instructors of urban design from various campuses (including Viginia Tech and Alabama A&M) met with residents and local business owners to explore new ways to revitalize inner-city areas left depleted by the flight of capital to suburbia.

In tough times it is easy to point fingers. But it is at times like these that inner-city neighbors must pull together and recognize the commonality of their goals and objectives.

The multiplier effect of dollars earned and spent elsewhere by residents of low-equity areas of Ensley, Fairfield, Avondale and North Birmingham is largely enjoyed elsewhere. For that reason our study this weekend concentrated on the spawning of local enterprises and emphasized unity.

In many ways, the economies of low-equity communities can be likened to those of the Third World: Equity is controlled primarily by forces outside the community; little money stays within the community; the community stays poor. Our strategy is to improve the balance of trade by bringing and keeping more money within the community, thereby increasing overall community equity. When neighborhood equity increases, more residents have a personal stake in the community and can therefore be expected to take a greater interest in its upkeep and improvement.

How appropriate it is that a diverse group of workshop participants should come to Birmingham during the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Holiday.

The Global Network for Rebuilding had its origins in Birmingham in 1994; our work in providing aid to Bosnia has been encouraged and abetted by Greater Birmingham Ministries and the religious community here; and our aims are inextricably connected to Dr. King's teachings--a message deeply rooted in the American Dream.

On several visits to Sarajevo over the last three and a half years, to collect information for Global Network for Rebuilding projects there, I was a close witness to what happens when cooperation within a community falls apart.

Greed, envy and fear caused a sizable portion of Bosnia's racially homogeneous population to divide in a way that rewarded the most criminal of the society, enabling them to unleash violence on others in the name of nationality. The innocent majority, who wanted to live together peaceably, fell victim to extremists and the politics of divisiveness. They lost control of their communities, and in so doing, lost control of their lives.

Nightmare at bay

Watching Sarajevo's parks and other open spaces being converted into cemeteries that spread daily, I came to understand what Dr. King meant when he said, "We can either live together or die together." In keeping his dream alive civilized societies keep a nightmare at bay.

The concept put forward in the workshop encourages all those with vested interests in a neighborhood to work together by traditional means, exercising collectively their individual powers in order to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The community gains strength through activities that empower individuals and further define common purposes. The spirit of unity should extend to commercial cooperation, and recognition of the interdependence between local businesses and residents. Local employers should be encouraged to hire locally and buy from local suppliers. In turn, residents should support local vendors.

This emphasis on neighborhood in no way precludes recognition of each locality's place within the broader context. To the contrary, healthy neighborhoods make for a healthy city. A richer neighborhood tax base helps pay for schools throughout the city; a proactive neighborhood populace makes for more efficient policing; a better informed populace is better able to articulate its needs to City Hall and city planners.

The Global Network for Rebuilding concept also entails utilization of a non-traditional means to increase neighborhood equity--the neighborhood equity corporation--that provides a capability to raise capital both from inside and outside the community. Guided by a board elected by the community, representing resident and outside investors, the corporation's pool of funds could be used to finance the purchase of real estate properties adversely affecting the local market. Its funds could also finance enterprises that fulfill special community needs, such as day care, automotive care, taxi, home repair, bookkeeping or computer services.

Staffed by locals, the neighborhood equity corporation could itself be a provider of business services, and act as agent for the community buyers' club. A united community can achieve economies of scale unavailable to the individual. Through acting cooperatively, neighborhood buyers' clubs can negotiate discounts on insurance, phone bills, cable TV, and utilities.

A united urban community can even sell produce grown within the community through an agricultural collaborative. Its garden club can grow shrubs, flowers and ornamental trees to sell or to be used to improve the visual resource locally.

A united community can market its real estate to best effect, through a neighborhood real estate marketing helper. Improvements like lower crime, better visual resources and a palpable sense of community will draw buyers to the area and increase real estate equity for all.

A neighborhood corporation offers the technical means to gather and assess data on an ongoing basis, to assist in vocational training of residents, and to partner with the City in the interchange of information. Armed with Geographic Information Systems (G.I.S.) data of the sort used by urban planners, real estate developers and corporate marketing demographers, neighborhood equity corporation staff can help the neighborhood elucidate its needs to city officials, promote itself to outside investors and court retailers on behalf of the buyers' club. As the world grows smaller through the proliferation of high-speed data communications connections available to the public, inner-city organizations are able to access new ideas from the world over.

City in Microcosm

In many ways, each neighborhood is our city in microcosm. While our workshop focused on generating local cooperation through a neighborhood plan, it is understood that the success of any local plan is largely dependent on cooperation among neighborhoods within the city, cities within the county, and counties within the region. Ironically, it is new technology that proves the oldest point: A satellite downloads signals to a computer perhaps a world away, generating data that enables us to see that our small communities are truly part of a greater one.

From two hundred miles above, the distinctions of race, religion and wealth that balkanize Birmingham are invisible. Yet the roads and streams that connect us appear as they are, vital sinews and veins. From a distance Dr. King's dream, that all men can be brothers, seems possible. Closer to Earth here and now, it might be enough that we be neighbors.

(Jay Craig is director of the Global Network for Rebuilding and can be reached at or 1-205-933-2159. He wrote this for The News.)

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