New Orleans We told you so, and we’ve been telling the same story for more than 50 years: community organizations stabilize and improve neighborhoods. It seems almost ridiculous to have to state the claim. Seems like this should be common knowledge by now, but here it is, we’re saying it this time because in the contemporary world of big data and exhaustive social science investigation, we’ve now got studies that prove the basic claims that community organizers have making for years.
I had seen a glancing mention of this study in some paper, so I tracked down and read the book this week. I’m talking about Patrick Sharkey’s book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence. Sharkey is the chair of New York University’s sociology department and scientist at Crime Lab New York, so he’s no drive by commentator throwing his opinions in the wind, nor is he a community organizer like myself with a herd of horses in this race. He’s in favor of crime going down and urban neighborhoods stabilizing and rebuilding, so he’s neither neutral nor objective, but his voice needs to be heard and heeded.
He and several of his students did some careful research that attempted to track falling crime rates in neighborhoods with rising rates of community organization activity in the period between 1990 and 2012, coincidentally a period in which much of ACORN’s growth and expansion was most profound. Their study did not look only at New York City, but spread its work throughout the country citing examples from Texas to Los Angeles to Chicago and many places in between.
Sharkey and his team found that community organizations were a huge factor, perhaps a determining one, in the decrease of crime in many areas that triggered stabilization and often renewal. As he writes, community groups represent “…new guardians looking out over city streets [and] are not just public and private security guards but also residents, mobilized in new organizations specifically formed to build community life and control violence. And their presence is a crucial part of the story about how urban communities have changed over the past twenty years.” He doesn’t argue that we did it alone, but he doesn’t back away from the conclusion of his data on the rise of such nonprofit activity, saying, “…the hard work of community groups, combined with the enhanced presence of law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and private security forces that helped bring about the drop in violence across urban America. The most fundamental change that took place in U.S. cities was the transformation of public spaces. Streets that had been abandoned for decades were taken over by police officers, security guards, and community groups.”
I include these passages because they should become part of funding proposals for private and public support of community organizing all over the world. Sharkey recognizes the fact that our organizational voices have been crying in the urban wilderness as well and shriveling for lack of support. He acknowledges that the “…wave of community mobilization that spread across U.S. cities in the early 1990s, after decades in which community organizations struggled for public support.”
We’ve been making the case. Sharkey and his team have provided yet more evidence. Support for community organizing should be part of the first line of defense and advance, not simply more heroic stories of individual heroes trying to save their homes and that of therir neighbors, ignored by City Hall and everyone else.