There Goes the Neighborhood by Andy H.

There Goes the Neighborhood by Andy H.

There goes the neighborhood

Last month, Neal Peirce at Citiwire took described a visit to Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince by a Miami planning firm (“DPZ”), and a British foundation:

Late in January… these visitors sponsored a ten day “charrette” — a democratic planning and ideas workshop, attended by officials, residents and other stakeholders. The goal: to review and respond to various scenarios for redeveloping a 461-acre area encompassing the earthquake-ravaged Presidential Palace… and several dozen surrounding blockst…

An intriguing possibility was raised by DPZ leader Andres Duany and embraced in the charrette: Why not encourage the individual center city blocks, typically quite large at 400 by 400 meters — to become semi-autonomous “urban villages”? These block-sized neighborhoods would have dual orientation: to the street, but also to secured central courtyards with spaces for small parks and parking areas.

Hank Dittmar, Prince’s Foundation CEO, saw an exciting civic potential: “Get landowners on the blocks to pool their interests into condominium-like arrangements,” as a step toward “drawing middle class people to the city center again.”

Dittmar had noted that Port-au-Prince residents who could afford it had chosen, like the hotels, to “go off the grid,” installing their own electricity and water filtration systems. So, he notes: “Our idea was to take that individual self-reliance, and turn it into a more collective form, and use that as a step-by-step building process toward creating a civil society.”…

Duany asserts that the idea of creating the urban villages for middle-class Haitians — including many former or potential government employees — has drawn “incredible resistance” from the many non-government organizations working to help Haiti’s legions of dispossessed poor: “They think we’re nut cases.”

But, Duany insists, “In the present difficult circumstances, it is unreasonable to expect municipal services to function properly and that it is therefore prudent to supplement the level of security, maintenance, trash collection, and the provision of utilities with localized arrangements–as is done in many cities by means a Business Improvement Districts (BID).”

Building a middle class is vital, he adds. “The country can’t operate without it.” Nor the city, Dittmar suggests. The revived blocks’ “beneficial activity and energy and income” can be a boon to the Port-au-Prince’s center…

(Duany says) “When we said we’d have initial funding for only six of these blocks, they immediately started calling each other and now the first block is coming together.”…

Plus energy, he notes: “After Katrina, people in Mississippi were moping.  Maybe because life already so hard, the Haitians have physically been affected less.  There’s a general nervous activity: Everybody is moving, trading, opening little shops.  There’s none of the lassitude after a disaster, waiting to be helped.”

I share this article because I think some of the insights gleaned from this Haitian charrette could apply equally well to Detroit.  When I lived there in 2007-2008, I learned that Detroit demanded a higher level of neighborhood engagement from residents than other communities where I had lived.  In the years since, it’s also become clear to me that the stronger neighborhoods in the city benefit from  a certain degree of that same self-reliance they saw in Haiti, a willingness to take initiative and make those “localized arrangements” to supplement city-provided services.  In these neighborhoods, business owners, residents and other stakeholders have long recognized that, as in Port-au-Prince, “municipal services… (often don’t) function properly.”  Then, of course, there’s the whole concept of “urban villages,” the archipelago of discontinuous settlements that would form the exoskeleton of the Detroit Works Project.

In the New York Times, A.G. Sulzberger (yes, son of the paper’s owner) reports on community-driven efforts in Grandmont Rosedale (HT to Katie, one of my former roommates from grad school who lives there):

They chip in for services the city has trouble affording, like snow plowing. They band together for neighborhood crime patrols. They run sports leagues, hold block parties and circulate community letters.

Engagement in real estate is another core element.  The Grandmont Rosedale Development Corporation, for example,

has been using donations and grant money to buy vacant properties, rehabilitate them and sell them — typically at a loss — to protect against the decay that follows emptiness and neglect.

Some individual residents are even turning into de factor community developers themselves:

Marsha Bruhn, a longtime resident and retired director of the Detroit Planning Commission, watched with alarm as several nearby houses fell into disrepair after their owners departed.

First she paid to have the lawns mowed. Then she ran off squatters. Finally, she took a bolder step: buying, renovating and reselling two houses. And she is in the process of trying to buy a third.

“I did it because I was tired of what was happening,” Ms. Bruhn said. “It was having a negative impact on my property, on our street and our neighborhood. I want to be part of the solution.”…

There’s an underlying ethos at work here:

James Tate, a City Council member and lifelong resident, said that commitment to the community — about a third of people here pay voluntary dues — protected the neighborhood.

“The lesson we learned,” he said, “is that it’s important that a neighborhood doesn’t slide into a blighted situation in the first place.”

And it’s a lesson that could apply to any city facing hard times, including suburbs (say, Southfield).  Note that, according to Tate, you still have two-thirds of residents who don’t pay voluntary dues.  While Grandmont Rosedale clearly has a bit of a free rider problem, there is still a critical mass of people willing to contribute their own dollars and time even when they aren’t required to, because they have a clear and immediate interest in doing so, and — this is key — sufficient trust that their neighbors will do the same.

Detroit is on the cutting edge of what I foresee will be a revolution in urban living and municipal government.  As more and more communities across the state begin to eliminate even core services to stave off financial takeover by the state, we are going to see the neighborhood emerge as the core unit of governance.  Neighborhoods that are able to effectively organize to provide their own services and to demand resources from the city will survive, and some will even thrive;  neighborhoods that can’t or won’t will decline into anarchy and will eventually depopulate.  Within a decade, it won’t just be happening in Detroit, or Saginaw, or Flint; it will happen in suburbs, small towns, and villages too.

Actually, wait – it turns out it’s already happening, the Free Press tells us.  There’s an auction in Huntington Woods to raise money to buy recycling carts; Redford Township is now providing its neighborhood watch on an entirely volunteer basis; and the Lion’s Club is raising money to finance landscaping of public park in Lincoln Park.  These are baby steps to the future.