I Watched My Neighborhood Decline:
I spent most of my childhood living in working class neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh. As a youngster, my brother and I didn’t think of our community as being impoverished; there were small neighborhood stores, and community associations and organizations. Compared to other parts of the city, however — and compared to the suburbs — our neighborhoods lacked a number of amenities.
I learned to avoid adults who spent most of the day in bars, or hanging out on street corners. But there were also many positive role models in this working class community. There were adults who got up early in the morning and went to work in the Steel Mills, in auto repair shops, and in the city’s sanitation department. We even had a few doctors and administrators in my neighborhood.
As time went on, more and more of these adults either moved to better neighborhoods, if they could afford to do so, or they lost their jobs when the steel mills and factories closed down, and they were forced to move to other parts of the country in search of work. The old neighborhoods I grew up in continued to deteriorate. Increasingly I overheard adults saying that our neighborhood was no place to raise children. Eventually, my parents moved our family out of there as well.
As a teenager, I came back to the old neighborhood to visit my friends. I was startled by the decline I saw. Once vibrant stores were now boarded up. Buildings that were once teeming with activity were abandoned. Strong young men and women were frustrated with their inability to find jobs. Community centers, which once offered music lessons and art classes, now focused on the bare bones of just providing a place for young people to be — to keep them off the streets — without really offering anything to enrich their minds or their spirits.
I thought that I knew what was inside of the people in my old neighborhood. I thought I knew something about their spirit, afterall, I grew up with them. Geographically, it was the same neighborhood, but in many significant ways it had changed. This bothered me. I needed to know how neighborhoods declined and what could be done to prevent this from happening. I needed to try to understand what caused the growth and decline of urban environments. This led me to a career in history and social work; focusing on community development.
I soon realized that if I wanted to be effective in revitalizing neighborhoods, like the one I grew up in, or preventing the decline of other neighborhoods, I would have to acquire an essential base of knowledge and set of skills that would complement the values I already grew up with. This cluster of values, knowledge and skills, I hoped, would help me to be effective in the basic phases of social work practice: engaging the target population; assessing the situation; intervening, with a specific method, or strategic objective, in mind; and evaluating the outcome using both quantitative and qualitative data.
I learned that this “values, knowledge, and skills” paradigm should not be thought of as being a strictly linear process; evaluation could also occur in the midst of intervention, which could lead me to change and fine-tune my methods of intervention as I go along. I also learned that I should re-assess the local situation during the process of intervention, testing and challenging my initial assumptions. I found that it is often even necessary to re-engage residents and other stakeholders, even if they were strongly supportive when they were initially engaged. Over time these residential and commercial stakeholders may lose sight of their original vision, and may begin to feel alienated or disconnected from the process of change. Engagement is not a one-shot deal. Engagement means re-engagement; it is an ongoing process. This is a positive situation because it means that information must flow back-and-forth; no community interest-group can take the support or interests of other groups for granted.
This article will help you to explore the multiple methods and approaches that are used for understanding human behavior in the urban environment..
Conversation and Community:
How We Came to Un-know What We Once Knew:
I grew up moving back-and-forth between working-class urban neighborhoods and white suburban neighborhoods during the 1980s and 90s. I experienced, first hand, the power of intergenerational communication for informal education and the transmission of knowledge. I also felt the effects of what happens when that intergenerational dialogue breaks down. “How we came to unknow what we once knew” describes what it was like to be a participant of that intergenerational dialogue, and the aftermath, once that dialogue was broken.
Questions: What Type of Intervention in Urban Environments?
The Urban Landscape and its Demographics
Before one can intervene, effectively, in an urban environment it is helpful to pose a number of questions that will challenge conventional thoughts about demographics and urban living. Here are some of the questions that help to stretch my thinking about the urban environment:
What does it mean to be “urban”? What are some of the perceptions of “the city” in the public imagination? How is urbanity portrayed in popular media?
What is the relationship between urbanity and poverty? We know that poverty can be found anywhere, in small towns, in big cities and in rural areas. What is unique about urban poverty, and what does urban poverty have in common with these other forms of poverty?
How is public space, in the city, used and contested? How do different populations mark out, and control, public space? What are the effects of the encroachment of private interests on what was once public space for social gathering?
What are some of the anti-poverty initiatives that have been specifically targeted toward urban environments? How well have they worked? What have been their strengths? What have been their weaknesses?
How is population diversity correlated to property value? In many urban centers the hottest property value is in those areas that can boast of a diverse population of “knowledge workers” — usually a young, well-educated, highly mobile and racially and culturally diverse group. How does racial and ethnic diversity factor in with other attributes — such as educational attainment, skilled labor, and community identity — to determine property value?
What is the relationship between social integration and stigmatized populations? How are populations stigmatized for not being part of the social mainstream? What are the benefits of assimilation, for the “outsiders”? Why might outsiders resist assimilation into the mainstream?
What do we need to know about the diversity within diverse populations? What is the significance of diversity — in terms of sexual orientation, formal education, religious affiliation, gendered formal and informal social networks — within populations that are conventionally thought of as being homogeneous? How many subcultures can we find within a population that is, itself, thought to be a subculture?
To what degree does a community tolerate deviancy? How do communities handle social deviancy that is not fully tolerated?
How are children, in the city, socialized? Who socializes them? What roles do adults play in the process? What roles do peers play? What role does commercial culture play?
What roles can we expect professionals and non-professionals to play in efforts to bring about community improvement? When is it important to engage the formal leadership in this process? What are the best methods to engage them? When is it important to engage informal leadership? How should they be engaged?
What can be done to make human and social service agencies and institutions more responsive to the shifting cultural dynamics of the neighborhood? How can they become more responsive as demographics and household compositions change?
How do populations gain access to resources — whether tangible or intangible — that lie outside of their current social network and sphere of engagement?
Different Ways to Understand Human Behavior and Urban Environments:
An Outline of Useful Theoretical articles:
There are a number of theoretical articlees for thinking about urban environments; here are a few of them:
Organic neighborhoods: classically described by Jane Jacobs in The Death and Life of American Cities (1961), which argues for cities that develop block, by block, through the organic growth of neighborhoods. How does the organization attempt to foster more sidewalk traffic and more trust and interaction among the people who live and/or work in the neighborhood? What evidence do you have that the organization prioritizes the “sidewalk” experience of the neighborhood?
Social Order: suggested by James Q. Wilson in his Atlantic Monthly article, with George L. Kelling, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety” (1982), in which he argues for a return to policing based on maintaining public order. How does the organization attempt to battle the perception of unattended property and discourage unattended behavior in public? What evidence do you have that the organization attempts to curb deviant public behavior as a strategy for neighborhood development?
Public Space: described by Mitchell Duneier in his qualitative study Sidewalk (1999), where he describes the role of street venders as “public characters” who help, informally, to maintain public order. How does the organization attempt to address the use of public space in ways that engage otherwise stigmatized populations in the larger community – in creative and non-conventional ways? What evidence do you see that the organization values “public characters” in public space?
Clusters of Creative Workers: In The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) Richard Florida calls for creating a social environment of tolerance for eccentricity in order to attract and hold the new “creative class”, who fuel the growth and development of high-tech and information-oriented economic activity. How is the community analyzed in terms of the social networking of the “creative class” in the service economy? What evidence do you see that the organization attempts to foster an environment that will be attractive to that creative class?
Culture of Poverty: Daniel Patrick Moynihan and William Julius Wilson identified the role that culture plays in the perpetuation of poverty. Rather than approaching dysfunctional culture as if it occurs in a vacuum, culture of poverty theorists, today, take structural factors (such as racism and the economy) into consideration as the systemic context in which dysfunctional behavior occurs. What evidence do you see that the organization defines the culture in the community as being dysfunctional, as opposed to empowering? How does the organization attempt to transform that dysfunctional culture?
Abundant Communities: John McKnight, argues, in The Careless Society and its Counterfeits (1996) and The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (2012), that there is a difference between being a consumer and being a citizen; there is a difference between providing services and providing care. Citizenship calls upon the creative faculties of individuals, and the connectedness of communities and associations. By being actively engaged, as communities, in education, health care, public safety, environmental protection, economic activity, and local food production, people will live healthier and more secure lives. How does the organization attempt to identify, and draw upon, strengths the community has developed? To what extent does the community organization seem to focus on community assets as opposed to community deficiencies and needs? What evidence do you see that the organization is using (a) the language of assets or, (b) the language of needs?