Can Block Clubs Block Despair?

One bright spring morning, Peter St. Jean set out on an unusual scholarly expedition. St. Jean is a sociologist at the University of Buffalo who studies the relationship between concentrated poverty and crime. He drives a maroon Nissan Pathfinder, which that morning he'd loaded up with video cameras, two mounted on tripods and pointed out the rear side windows and one more up front, fastened with Velcro to the center of the dashboard.

"This way we'll see every angle," explained St. Jean, a 39-year-old man of Caribbean origin with a shaved head, thick, muscular arms, and the compact build of a wrestler.

St. Jean wasn't at work on a documentary. He was doing field research, and had invited me to tag along as he gathered footage on an SSO run, or "systematic social observation," a method of capturing on hidden camera the physical characteristics and social activities in a neighborhood.

He pulled out of the driveway of his ranch house in Williamsville, a suburb where he lives with his wife and two children on a tree-lined cul-de-sac bordering a creek. We were heading toward a very different place: the east side of Buffalo, the poorest part of a city that has seen its population shrink and its tax base plummet at alarming rates in recent decades. "Enjoy this feeling," St. Jean said as we turned onto Williamsville's Main Street, passing boutiques, a shopping plaza, and a beauty salon. "You won't have it for long."

Sure enough, as we neared the city, the landscape altered. We passed an empty lot overrun by weeds, then another strewn with garbage. The boutiques gave way to liquor stores and boarded-up buildings, many emblazoned with graffiti: "DUCE." "CRIP." "DANGER!"

Before becoming a sociologist, St. Jean spent 12 years in the U.S. military: He's used to navigating his way through treacherous environments. After half an hour, he pulled up in front of a house with a partially collapsed roof where, he said, a few months earlier the body of a woman named Michelle Hicks had been found bearing signs she'd been strangled. The block looked run-down and desolate, the kind of place where it was all too easy to imagine a homicide happening.

St. Jean started driving again. He turned on to a street, only a few blocks over, that looked very different. The lawns of the row houses lining it were neatly trimmed. The garbage was arranged in tidy stacks in garbage cans. Trees had been planted along the divider, and some of the dwellings sported their own gardens. At the entrance to the street was a sign: "Help Us Keep It Clean." It had been placed there by a block club, a grass-roots organization formed to encourage neighbors to meet and discuss their shared concerns. No major crimes had taken place on this street in recent memory, a fact St. Jean attributed to the higher level of trust and cohesion among its residents.

Can such a seemingly mundane factor explain why one block in a neighborhood is safer than another? For several decades, the debate over the myriad problems of America's inner cities has been dominated by two schools of thought: on one side, liberals who have emphasized the structural factors (racism, poverty) at their root; on the other, conservatives who've stressed the behavioral pathologies (out-of-wedlock birth, criminality) they believe are to blame. Yet over the past decade, a new theory has emerged to explain why some areas fare better than others even when their residents face similarly daunting odds. It stresses neither jobs nor personal behavior but something at once more elementary and more difficult to capture: the nature of the social interactions taking place among neighbors, and the degree to which they foster a shared capacity to solve problems and enforce collective norms. These qualities appear to have a powerful effect on everything from the level of violence in a community to the conduct of adolescent youth to the likelihood that a neighborhood will remain poor, which is perhaps why a growing number of scholars and policy-makers are interested in teasing out what exactly fosters such traits.

The first indication of this dynamic came nearly a decade ago, in August 1997, when the journal Science published a seven-page article titled "Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multilevel Study of Collective Efficacy." It reported some findings from one of the largest social-science research experiments ever launched in the United States.

The experiment took place in Chicago, where, in the mid-1990s, surveyors fanned out into 343 "neighborhood clusters" -- geographically contiguous tracts consisting of roughly 8,000 people each -- to interview thousands of residents. One of the elements the surveyors were measuring was the level of "social cohesion and trust" in a community. To gauge this, surveyors asked residents to rank, on a five-point scale, how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements: "People around here are willing to help their neighbors"; "This is a close-knit neighborhood"; "People in this neighborhood can be trusted." A second set of questions sought to measure "informal social control" -- the capacity of adults in a community to work together to achieve a sense of public order. Here, individuals were asked how likely they thought their neighbors were to intervene in various situations: when a fight broke out; when someone was spray-painting graffiti; when the local fire station was threatened with budget cuts. Researchers supplemented the interviews by crisscrossing the city in vans fitted with video cameras to conduct systematic social observation of street life in various neighborhoods.

The results of the survey were striking. Throughout Chicago, the levels of violence and social disorder were markedly lower in communities where the sense of social cohesion and shared expectations about the willingness to intervene were higher -- qualities that, taken together, constituted something the designers of the experiment called "collective efficacy," This was true in some predominantly black neighborhoods as well as in several white ones. It applied to some middle- and working-class communities, but also to some of the poorest neighborhood tracts examined. And it appeared to explain why similarly impoverished neighborhoods do not always share the same fate: When researchers compared two neighborhoods with similar levels of concentrated disadvantage (unemployment, percentage of welfare recipients) but different levels of collective efficacy, they found that in the neighborhood where collective efficacy was higher, the odds of being victimized by a crime were 30 percent lower. The chance of being murdered was 40 percent less. The absence of collective efficacy, the study found, correlated even more powerfully with some types of violence than did poverty or race.

"I consider it one of the most important criminological insights in the last 20 years," said Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, co-director of the Institute for Child and Family Policy at Columbia University, described the study's impact to me as "huge." Brooks-Gunn is a psychologist who studies childhood development. She has published papers showing that collective efficacy can play a role in delaying the age of sexual initiation among youth, particularly among adolescent girls. She said there are studies under way evaluating its effects in six countries, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Collective efficacy is a variation on a concept known as "self-efficacy" that was coined several decades ago by a Stanford University psychologist named Albert Bandura. Bandura postulated that individuals are capable of overcoming any number of disadvantages if they believe their actions will make a difference in their lives. Studies showed that when children were convinced they could solve math problems, for example, they were more successful at solving them than peers with more talent who doubted their own abilities. "A resilient sense of efficacy enables individuals to do extraordinary things by productive use of their skills in the face of overwhelming obstacles," Bandura observed.

Over tea one day, Felton Earls, a professor of social medicine at Harvard who co-authored the original Science article, told me that collective efficacy applies the same insight to neighborhoods and groups. It's a theory that emphasizes the capacity of residents to overcome obstacles on the basis of shared expectations -- specifically, that they can work together for the common good. A small African American man with dark, pensive eyes and a neatly trimmed gray beard, Earls grew up in New Orleans, in a black community that was far from affluent. "But we didn't think of it as poor," he told me. There were "no gangs, no drugs," he said, "There were many indications of high collective efficacy, and by that I mean supervision of kids. There was music. There was church."

Collective-efficacy researchers like Earls don't claim that structural factors like racism and poverty are unimportant. What they do contend is that even people facing severe disadvantages have the capacity to organize themselves in ways that can make a tangible difference, both at the neighborhood level and on individual blocks. A few years ago, a graduate student at the University of Chicago decided to measure the level of collective efficacy on different streets in one community, Grand Boulevard, a poor, mostly black neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. That student was Peter St. Jean. In his forthcoming book, Pockets of Crime, St. Jean shows that some blocks in Grand Boulevard have much higher levels of collective efficacy than others, and that these areas tend to be less dangerous.

But what exactly was at work on those safer blocks? Earls told me that back in 1997, shortly after the article in Science appeared, he was called in to a meeting with thenAttorney General Janet Reno. "Reno said, 'I don't like that term collective efficacy, but what you've found seems very important,' " he recalled. "Then she said, 'How do you produce it?' "

The answer, some scholars believe, may lie in the formation of grass-roots organizations, particularly in poor communities at greatest risk. "What makes collective efficacy necessary in the first place?" St. Jean asked me over lunch after our SSO tour. "It's usually when a block or community is under challenge and when public authorities haven't dealt with things. Garbage doesn't get picked up, resources are missing, people are unsafe. So people are forced to organize, collectively."

One evening last spring, I accompanied St. Jean to a meeting of one such group, a block club called the Trinidad Neighborhood Association. The meeting was held in a small room with bare white walls tucked inside a low-slung concrete building, normally a park shelter, on the east side of Buffalo, not far from the area we'd seen on our SSO run. About 20 people, many of them African American women, sat in chairs haphazardly arranged around a table. They watched as a woman in purple sweatpants spoke with a community activist from a housing organization about the logistics of getting her building painted. The activist's two young daughters doodled with crayons in a coloring book as she spoke, glancing up on occasion to see if it was time to go yet. Some of the adults in the room looked tired, others glassy-eyed and bored. But nobody got up to leave. Enough had evidently seen the positive impact of the block club's presence (weekend night patrols of men from the neighborhood, coordinated efforts to foreclose properties inhabited by drug dealers) to turn out for such gatherings.

There is a school of social-action theory, grounded in the work of the legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky, that argues that lasting social change can only come from self-empowerment at the grass-roots level, not least because underprivileged people can't rely on others to help them out. At the block-club meeting, Lisa Banks, head of the Trinidad Neighborhood Association, seemed to be reading from the Alinsky handbook when, after St. Jean introduced himself and explained that he was conducting a study of groups like theirs, she expressed a desire to learn one particular thing: "How do we empower ourselves versus having someone else do it for us? That's what I want to know."

After the meeting, St. Jean underscored the transformative potential of the sentiment she'd expressed. "Did you hear that?" he asked me, slapping his hand on the steering wheel of his Pathfinder for emphasis. "It's a point of pride. The people in that room don't want handouts; they want to learn to do things for themselves."

The research on collective efficacy indeed implies that government programs won't necessarily alter the dynamics in poor neighborhoods. But if this is what collective efficacy is ultimately about, should policy-makers just sit back and leave it to poor people to fix their problems themselves? Was Banks reading from the handbook of Saul Alinsky or of The Heritage Foundation?

The emphasis on getting individuals to take action certainly could play into the hands of conservatives who believe that the only thing poor people need to turn their communities around is a bit more pluck and resolve. Focusing on the social dynamics within neighborhoods also risks obscuring the larger structural inequities poor communities face. On the other hand, as even many progressive scholars who study urban poverty will admit, while structural inequality surely matters, it doesn't explain everything. Insisting otherwise can have the perverse effect of robbing poor people of agency -- and of obscuring important differences among neighborhoods that racial and economic factors can't explain.

Collective efficacy offers scholars and policy-makers a way to talk about such differences without playing into the reductive "culture of poverty" cliché or necessarily discounting the significance of other variables. In fact, the 1997 article in Science acknowledged that neighborhood activities can accomplish only so much. "Collective efficacy does not exist in a vacuum," it stated, but "is embedded in structural contexts and a wider political economy." One thing that undermined social cohesion, the authors noted, was a high rate of residential instability, a common problem in the poorest neighborhoods, which is why efforts to promote homeownership mattered.

So do policies that reduce racial segregation. According to Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard who helped design the Chicago experiment, middle-class black neighborhoods tend to be less stable than middle-class white neighborhoods because they are far more likely to be surrounded by areas that are low-income, low in collective efficacy, and segregated.

Not long ago, I visited North Kenwood/Oakland, a neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, in Sampson's company. A decade ago, this area was a blighted war zone through which many people in neighboring Hyde Park, home to the University of Chicago, feared to drive. It is no longer that way.

"This is just amazing," marveled Sampson as we passed a sunlit park where kids were playing on swings, "because this was all a no-man's land not long ago. Visually, what you have to imagine is block upon block of empty lots and abandoned buildings." On the day of our visit, what greeted the eye -- in addition to the park, some basketball courts, and a bevy of attractive brick townhouses -- were tractors and bulldozers cordoned off behind scaffolding and brightly painted billboards advertising posh new apartments ("Elegant Eight-Room Townhouses,""New Wave of Contemporary City Living") that would soon be going up for sale.

What changed? One thing is collective efficacy, which researchers from the Project on Human Development measured again in 2002, seven years after the survey cited in the Science article was conducted. North Kenwood/Oakland showed the single biggest increase of any neighborhood in the city, Sampson told me. "I think a lot of that has to do with optimism, a vision of things turning around," he said.

But the optimism didn't arise out of thin air; government intervention and investment by the private sector also played a role. In 1998, North Kenwood/Oakland residents cheered as a cluster of high-rise projects were torn down. Mixed-income housing was built. Developers who'd long shunned the neighborhood started pouring money into it, not least because people who were more affluent began moving in. Although the neighborhood is far from upscale, it's not as segregated as it once was, or as poor.

After having lunch at a restaurant in Hyde Park, Sampson and I made our way to Englewood, an impoverished neighborhood where little has improved of late. Along the main drag, Ashland Avenue, the only businesses seemed to be funeral homes and the occasional storefront church. We pulled up to a stoplight, and a man in tattered jeans, a torn T-shirt, and oversized sneakers appeared, lurking ominously on the edge of the road. He stared vacantly into the distance, then hopped the curb and started zigzagging erratically through traffic. Mercifully, when the light changed, the man bolted away from the onrushing cars, sprinting at full speed back over the curb until he tripped and sprawled out on the sidewalk.

Sampson let out a sigh. "This community rates very high on our cynicism and desperation measures," he said. "The idea that people don't care about each other, that you've got to watch out for yourself, is very widespread." A month before our visit to Englewood, a 10-year-old girl named Siretha White was killed by a stray bullet while standing in her aunt's home. Eight days earlier, another fatal shooting had occurred. Afterward, residents organized a march against violence.

"It's not like people here don't care," said Sampson. But turning the community around will require "some outward stimulus, investment, an institutional neighbor with resources."

We were about to head off to another area when Sampson suddenly made an abrupt right turn, then another, then a third. "Hold on," he said. "Did you see that?" I hadn't, but what Sampson had spotted, at the entrance to one of the streets, was a sign for a block club: "No Loitering, Gambling, Drugs, Gangs." A few blocks over, young men had been hanging out on the crumbling stoop of a boarded-up building. Not on this block, though, which alone among the streets in Englewood we'd seen did not have a single abandoned unit on it. "It's like this little island," said Sampson, "and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts there's less crime on this block than the ones surrounding it." He made a mental note of the exact location. "I feel like going back to interview the people here. I want to know what the reaction has been. And why this block but no others?"

It's possible, of course, that a single block club in a place like Englewood can't ultimately counteract the range of negative forces pressing down on it and other, similarly destitute communities. Yet one of the most intriguing findings of the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods is that an area's collective-efficacy ranking turned out to be an extremely accurate predictor of future prosperity -- or lack thereof. Communities that ranked near the bottom in collective efficacy in 1995 were virtually all poor five years later; those that ranked higher had all shown improvements. A community's future well-being was more closely tied to its present-day level of collective efficacy than to its present-day level of poverty.

Implicit in the work on collective efficacy is the idea that poor people are not merely the products of their environments but also have the capacity to shape them. That is why Felton Earls and other researchers at Harvard are conducting an experimental project designed to spur collective efficacy in Tanzania. It is why Peter St. Jean is undertaking a study of block clubs in some of the most impoverished pockets of Buffalo.

A decade after welfare reform, many people may have forgotten that the urban poor exist, or may have concluded that they are simply beyond saving. Perhaps this would change if we recognized that the effort to save them can sometimes be a condescending impulse: that strong communities exist in some places where outsiders don't expect to find them, and that, where they don't, it is neither naïve nor quixotic to imagine intelligently designed policies that can help ensure they one day will. 

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