What Happened to the Push for More Nonprofit Community Development?

New Orleans    Community development corporations, once seen as an important tool for neighborhood revitalization, may not have fallen on hard times, but it has become increasingly invisible in many cities. Partly the strategy, heavily funded and much-touted in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, shriveled as the huge federal funding programs diminished and the ideological dominance of private sector and market-based development suck the money and air out of the development space. Partly the strategy receded as studies like those by David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and something of an urban expert, could not prove that CDCs, as they were called, had been successful enough to make a difference in deteriorating areas, especially compared to gentrification. Many CDCs became more service operators than jobs or housing developers. There were, and are, of course huge exceptions some of them very successful, but there numbers are no longer legion and their record more mixed.

When CDCs were ubiquitous, community organizations were often pushed, carrot and stick, by funders and their own search for stability and institutional status in this direction, building grocery stores, small businesses, community centers, and housing developments. Unions like the Teamsters in St. Louis and the AFL-CIO local federation in San Antonio became known for their senior housing and other services. Churches, as anchor institutions in many cities, tried to take on the task. Not so much anymore. It was hard work, requiring significant resources and managerial skills often stretching organizations far outside of their missions and expertise.

I was thinking about this while in Buffalo and talking to my friend and comrade Bill Covington and hearing about his church and how much they have continued to buck this diminishing trend of abandoning community development by doubling down in Buffalo’s predominately African-American east side and creating something rare, a buffer zone protecting the community from the expansion of the medical center. St. John Baptist and its social conscious isn’t a new thing. They pride themselves on being in the Martin Luther King, Jr. wing of the Baptist Convention and having committed civil rights Reverends Jesse Jackson, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, and Al Sharpton speak and preach to their congregation. They started down this trail of community commitment first by creating a credit union, but more recently they have expanded to a community center and school projects, including a charter school, and, most importantly, a clutch of community development corporations focuses largely on reviving and creating affordable housing in the East Side Fruit Belt area.

Their community development corporations consist of McCarley Gardens housing complex which are 150 unit 2, 3 and 4 bedroom tri-level apartments and St. John Tower a 150 unit Senior Citizen unit. The St. John Fruit Belt Corporation is the producer of a $54 million combine of single-family, subsidized housing units and town homes. Listening to Bill Covington on Wade’s World, it seems that they are continuing to break ground on additional affordable housing projects, including more desperately needed rental units. The financing, not surprisingly, largely comes from state, federal, and local pubic sources.

Community development is not for everyone, and it is not a magic bullet for curing poverty and turning around deteriorating neighborhoods, but it makes a difference, and it’s encouraging to see a success story in some faith-based institutions that are still committed to making community contributions and playing a leadership role benefiting everyone, regardless of theology and ideology.

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