Finding the Gold in "Tough" Neighborhoods

To transform economically and socially depressed areas into healthy, vibrant communities, we have to focus on their strengths and trust residents to solve their own problems.
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This article originally appeared in the author's book, How to Design Our World for Happiness.

The biggest problem in many communities—especially low-income ones—is caused by perception more than reality. A part of town gets the reputation for being "tough," or "declining," which is constantly reinforced in the media and local gossip. A negative incident happening there is widely reported as more evidence of "social breakdown," whereas the same thing occurring in another place would be thought of as "an unfortunate event" and quickly forgotten.

Grand Boulevard's residents were not hapless victims; they were taking matters into their own hands.

Making things worse, many well-intentioned efforts to help these afflicted areas wind up stigmatizing the community even more. The whole focus is on everything that’s wrong: bad schools, bad crime, bad housing, bad gangs, bad economic opportunities. Even the people who live there come to feel negative about where they live and helpless to do anything to change things. It's all just bad. Yet even in the most economically and socially challenged communities, there are a lot of good things going on—shared dreams, community assets, and ways that people come together. These are the building blocks to make things better.

Walljasper book cover.This article is adapted from Jay Walljasper's book, How to Design Our World for Happiness. Download the full pdf for free!

On paper, things looked bleak for the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in Chicago in the early '90s. Eighty percent of children there lived in poverty, and a third of adults were unemployed. Yet below the surface, not visible in government statistics or a quick drive down its rundown streets, there was reason for hope. This largely African-American community of 36,000 on the city's South Side was home to no less than 320 citizens groups working to improve life in the neighborhood.

Grand Boulevard's residents were not just hapless victims waiting for someone from the outside to rescue them; they were taking matters into their own hands. These community groups—which ranged from church committees to senior citizen centers to mothers' support groups—were mostly involved in the basic caretaking such as providing support for single mothers or taking in children whose parents were in prison.

Eventually many of these groups organized themselves into the Grand Boulevard Federation, which started addressing more complex issues such as creating jobs in the neighborhood and improving social services. They formed partnerships with government agencies, non-profit organizations and businesses, such as United Parcel Service, which reserved 50 part-time jobs for Grand Boulevard residents needing to get back on their feet. This made a difference in Grand  Boulevard—both in concrete economic and social measures, but also the community’s own faith that they can solve their problems.

Drawing on the abilities and insight of local residents empowers them, Kretzmann says.

"For the last 40 or 50 years we have been looking at communities in terms of their needs," says Jody Kretzmann, co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. "We have run into a brick wall with that approach."

Kretzmann and his colleague John McKnight of Northwestern pioneered a new approach to urban problems that starts with looking at the assets that exist in a community, rather than just looking at what's wrong. This empowers people, Kretzmann says, drawing on the abilities and insight of local residents to solve a neighborhood’s own problems. This does not mean, he is careful to note, that troubled neighborhoods don’t need outside help.

Kretzmann suggests all local revitalization projects begin with an assets inventory—which can be as simple as a list of what’s good about the neighborhood. Solicit the opinions of everyone, including youngsters and senior citizens, when compiling your list.

Jim Diers, a veteran activist who has held workshops throughout Seattle to help residents improve their neighborhoods, says, "The assets a neighborhood can build on range from natural features to a school playground, great stores, networks, organizations, artists, and the whole range of human and financial resources, energy, creativity, and ideas. Whether it’s a restaurant with especially delicious food, a gigantic cedar tree, or a longtime resident, a neighborhood treasure is something that makes us glad we live where we do."

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