Urban Mechanics

Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood
Revival
, by
Paul S. Grogan and Tony Proscio. Westview Press, 285 pages,
$25.00.

In Comeback Cities, Paul S. Grogan and Tony
Proscio make the case
that ordinary people can "change, create, and make use of
market forces
to alter the fundamental economics of their neighborhoods."
They offer a
well told and hopeful story of grass-roots activity
breathing new life
into cities--even in such blighted areas as New York's South
Bronx.

Their focus is on the work of community development
corporations
(CDCs). "With government support, and a minimum of
regulations," the
authors say, CDCs "are among the most effective vehicles for
public
investment in the inner city."

The authors draw on the success of the national organization
Grogan
headed for 13 years, the Local Initiatives Support
Corporation, or LISC.
(Grogan is now an executive at Harvard University; Proscio
is a former
journalist and government official who is a consultant to
nonprofit
organizations.) Founded more than two decades ago by the
Ford Foundation
to provide financial and technical support for community
development
groups, LISC has played a major role in encouraging CDCs in
their
efforts to attract investment, jobs, and people back to
struggling
neighborhoods. Comeback Cities is an elaboration of
Life in the
City
, a 1997 study by LISC and the Center for National
Policy. In turn
the book follows paths blazed in the mid-1990s by the U.S.
Department of
Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under Secretary Henry
Cisneros,
including the 1996 HUD report Comeback Communities: The
Revival of
America's Cities
.

Grogan and Proscio provide many examples of what CDCs can
do. For
instance, in Newark's Central Ward, which was the site of
riots in 1967,
there has been an "amazing turnaround" led by the New
Community
Corporation (NCC). Founded by Father Bill Linder, a Catholic
priest, the
NCC has created more than 3,000 houses and apartments and a
supermarket-anchored shopping center. There are day care
centers and a
nursing home, a job-training-and-placement center, an
elementary school,
a credit union, and a newspaper. Now private developers are
building
market-rate housing nearby. "What the community organization
created was
not just a string of successful projects for its residents
to take pride
in," the authors say. "It created a market, in which other
enterprises
found ways of adding value, making money, and widening the
recovery in
ways that needed little or no civic or philanthropic
prodding."

There are many links that make such public-private
partnerships
work: Federal, state, and local government are instrumental
(together
they pumped literally billions of dollars into the South
Bronx alone
during the past two decades). Banks and other private
lenders and
investors--moved both by the "carrot" of the federal
Low-Income Housing
Tax Credit and the "stick" of the federal Community
Reinvestment
Act--are key. And retail chain stores and real estate
developers, lured
by the prospects of new inner-city markets, are important.
As well, some
CDCs have played a role in supporting urban anticrime
efforts based on
community-oriented policing, and in sponsoring charter
schools geared to
improve career opportunities and to retain and attract
working families
as neighborhood residents.

Comeback Cities is less impressive when the authors
stray from their
direct knowledge of CDCs and range into national policy.
Chapters on
public housing and welfare reform, "deregulating the city,"
and "the
'third way' in city hall" are the weakest. And factual
errors crop up
throughout the book. CDCs have sprung up across the
nation--but how
many? There are "more than 2,500" on page 56 and "more than
3,600" on
page 69. Atlanta's Techwood--which was not, as they report,
"America's
first public housing" (that distinction belongs to New York
City's First
Houses)--got its $42-million federal grant in 1993, not
1994. The law
requiring local public housing authorities that receive
federal funds to
demolish one "slum dwelling" for every new public housing
unit built was
passed by Congress and signed by the president in 1937, not
1949.

Those may be minor points, but this one isn't: Most of the
major
public housing reforms of recent years were first proposed
by President
Clinton and Secretary Cisneros in the Housing Choice and
Community
Investment Act of 1994. That legislation passed the House
but was
blocked in the Senate. Grogan and Proscio incorrectly state
that the
impetus for such changes came from the Republican takeover
of Congress
in 1995 and that Cisneros was merely responding to the
hostility of
congressional conservatives. Such misinformed research and
inadequate
fact-checking undermine the authors' credibility as
national-policy
experts. Their book does a service, though, in spreading the
news about
the many wonderful accomplishments of grass-roots efforts
and
public-private cooperation to revive American cities.

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