Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Real Work of Community Organizers

At their National Convention, Republicans such as Mayor Giuliani and Gov. Palin belittled Sen. Obama’s experience as a community organizer. Sneering, Giuliani seemed to say it wasn’t a real job.

But this does not only injustice to the real work of community organizers; it flies in the face of their own smaller government platform!

By way of an example in Boston, Massachusetts, let me show how community organizers have accomplished a significant renewal of a depressed urban neighborhood, all at little to no cost to the taxpayers! Think about it, this:
  • Republicans and Libertarians should applaud how urban renewal can be accomplished by the private sector: no expansion of government and little to no taxpayer support. And by neighborhood literally picking up itself (as they say) by its bootstraps.

  • Democrats and Liberals should applaud how the process empowers the neighborhood, giving the people a direct hand in decisions impacting their neighborhood and its renewal.
My example: The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. This community-founded non-profit is involved in a range of activities from urban renewal (taking empty lots and designing/funding/constructing new housing and commercial space) to activities for kids and teens. Many of its leaders grew up in the neighborhood when things were at its worst and now witness the revitailzation, rising like the phoenix from the ashes.

Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiate's website ( sums it up as follows:

“The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) is a nonprofit community-based planning and organizing entity rooted in the Roxbury/North Dorchester neighborhoods of Boston. DSNI's approach to neighborhood revitalization is comprehensive including economic, human, physical, and environmental growth. It was formed in 1984 when residents of the Dudley Street area came together out of fear and anger to revive their neighborhood that was devastated by arson, disinvestment, neglect and redlining practices, and protect it from outside speculators.”

What the Neighborhood Looked Like

By the 1980s, urban decay hit heavily in the Dudley Street area. Disinvestment by land owners lead to deteriorating housing and commercial properties. Fires, many the result of arson, gutted many structures. The area was home to illegal businesses including chop shops (where stolen cars are dismantled and sold as parts to avoid identification), illegal drug traffic, and gangs.

The result of decades of decay was a “a staggering amount of vacant land (21% or 1,300 parcels) in the 1980s” (quote from website). This was the condition of the neighborhood when DSNI was formed in 1984.

So how does DSNI accomplish redevelopment?

Again, quoting the DSNI website:

“DSNI works to implement resident-driven plans partnering with nonprofit organizations, community development corporations (CDCs), businesses and religious institutions serving the neighborhood, as well as banks, government agencies, corporations and foundations. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative has grown into a collaborative effort of over 3,000 residents, businesses, non-profits and religious institutions members committed to revitalizing this culturally diverse neighborhood of 24,000 people and maintaining its character and affordability. DSNI is the only community-based nonprofit in the country which has been granted eminent domain authority over abandoned and within its boundaries.”

So, rather then the City’s redevelopment agency performing the planning and contracting out the construction work, all that is performed by the CDCs. All of this is accomplished by community organizers!

Check this out:

“DSNI's major accomplishment has been, and continues to be, organizing and empowering the residents of the Dudley Street neighborhood to create a shared vision of the neighborhood prioritizing development without displacement and bringing it to reality by creating strategic partnerships with individuals and organizations in the private, government, and nonprofit sectors. That shared vision first emerged from a community-wide process conducted initially in 1987 that resulted in a resident-developed, comprehensive revitalization plan.”

How can any Libertarian, Liberal, Socialist – or even Republican – not applaud this process? It is accomplished with little government intervention or expenditure; it engages residents in helping themselves revitalize their neighborhood!

And it has been successful – consider these accomplishments as noted on the DSNI website:
  • "Over half of 1,300 vacant lots rehabilitated for homes, gardens, parks, orchard, playgrounds, schools, community centers and a Town Common
  • Over 400 new homes built and over 500 housing units rehabbed since DSNI formed
  • Business and investment are growing
  • Visitors come from around the world
  • Residents who were children when DSNI began have become leaders throughout the community"
Tour of the Neighborhood

Some aerial photos and photos from the 2008 Walk for Dudley illustrate some of the successes.

New commercial and residential buildings:

1. Recently open for business, the mixed use building at Dudley and East Cottage Streets houses Project Hope (a non-profit organization focused on community health) in commercial space with 50 rental units on the upper floors. The Dorchester Bay EDC is responsible for

2. Almost ready for construciton are other mixed use buildings along Dudley Street near Brook Ave. Each has commercial space on the 1st floor and family-sized apartments upstairs.

This aerial photo shows the empty lots before the groundbreaking for these buildings:

On the left below is one of the mixed residential and commercial buildings near Brook Ave. On the right is the new home of Project Hope with 50 rental units on the upper floors.

Community Gardens:

Many of the abandoned lots have been turned into community gardens, growing a great varitey of vegetables and fruits. Below are photos of one of the gardens, this one run by the non-profit The Food Project (

Deen Street

The aerial photo below shows both a community garden location and some in-fill housing lots.

The picture below shows a six-family house under construction on Dean Street at the corner of Victor Street.

For more about the DSNI, see:

Other articles about the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative:

---New Village, “The Wisdom That Builds Community Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Boston” by Greg Watson:

---YES! Magazine, Winter 2009: Sustainable Happiness, “No Foreclosures Here,” by Holly Sklar:

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