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The Unrecognized Power of Neighborhoods

Our local surroundings hold the key to saving the environment, the economy and the American Dream

by Jay Walljasper

OPublished in Notre Dame magazine


You may get a glimpse of our future strolling the tree-lined streets between Notre Dame and downtown South Bend. That few people ever make that walk—too far, too slow, too dangerous—doesn’t diminish the importance of places like this in determining the fate of America and, perhaps, the earth.

These few blocks illuminate our hopes and fears, the problems we face and the solutions we seek. What happens in such neighborhoods over the next few years will decide whether or not we move in the direction of environmental sustainability, social harmony and economic stability.

Meandering down these streets you’ll come across big new dream homes, designed in turn-of-the-20th-century architectural splendor, sitting not far from 1970s prefab houses well on their way to becoming shambles. You’ll see a tidy old bungalow with a tree swing in a well-kept yard standing near an empty lot, where someone else’s dream home once stood. American flags, Blessed Virgin statues and Obama signs are sprinkled throughout the neighborhood in front of houses large and small.

Near the campus, blonde kids pilot tricycles along the sidewalk while their parents, coffee cups in hand, trail close behind. Closer to downtown, African-American teenage girls dance in the street, all smiles and agile footwork. There’s still a small store on Howard Street, presided over by an immigrant who sells much of what a household needs. On the East Bank Bike Trail, commuters in business suits whoosh by in one direction while joy-riders in spandex head the other way. People sit out on their front stoops throughout the area—some offering a friendly nod as you stroll past, others ignoring you with what feels like a note of wariness.

These streets, despite the troubles they’ve seen, offer us an opportunity to overcome such pressing problems as global warming, economic decline, energy upheavals, street crime, environmental destruction, housing affordability, racial polarization, family breakdown and social alienation.

Yeah, right, you might think. We’ve been tackling these issues for decades, and look where it’s got us. Little progress has been seen anywhere, especially the inner city.

But take a closer look. Things that would appear outlandishly optimistic in other places are everyday occurrences here. People leave their cars behind—along with CO2 emissions and congestion—to bike or walk to work. There’s racial diversity and a mix of incomes. Investment is flowing into the district, as witnessed by new houses the University constructed along Notre Dame Avenue and plans for a fresh-from-scratch business district on nearby Eddy Street, even though crime is still perceived as a problem by some.

One great asset of this part of town, and other older neighborhoods across America, is something as simple as sidewalks, which make it easier to break out of your private sphere by taking a walk and talking to neighbors. That’s an impossible dream in many new subdivisions.

The biggest reason this place is central to solving 21st-century challenges is that it remains a lively, intact neighborhood—which is the level of social organization most effective for fixing problems and pursuing opportunities. For a hundred years, however, we’ve been told that large problems need to be addressed with large-scale plans. And over and over, from Soviet bureaucracy to L.A. freeways to the Cabrini Green housing project, that notion has turned out to be spectacularly wrong.

The mounting crises today call for a shift in thinking. To engage people, long-term, in addressing the pressing issues of the day, they must see results where they live. Humans are by nature villagers—that’s how we lived for many centuries, and it’s the way most people still feel comfortable operating today. The neighborhood is simply the modern version of the village.

When people sit around a kitchen table with friends and neighbors to make improvements in their community, a kind of alchemy arises—their enthusiasm turns into something valuable. Drawing on local wisdom and shared personal bonds, they devise innovations no outside expert would ever conceive. And when they roll up their sleeves to put these ideas into action, results happen more quickly and smoothly than plans promoted by business, government or outside activists.

This is how you change the world, block by block, capitalizing on the brainstorms and hard work of people living in a particular place. Little improvements made in small corners throughout the world add up to something huge.

That’s why a growing number of social observers point to the neighborhood as a vastly underrated tool for human progress. Ron Sakal, co-director of the Center for Building Communities at the Notre Dame School of Architecture, says, “We believe that when you go in and repair what’s wrong in a neighborhood, make it a vital place again, that has a real influence on bigger issues like the environment and social justice.”

What’s particularly hopeful is that any neighborhood—wealthy or poor; newly built or long established; suburban, small town or city—has the potential to help change the world. All it takes is for people who care about that place, and about the broader threats facing us today, to put their heads together in search of solutions.

As Harry Boyte, a veteran of the civil rights movement and prominent author on community issues, notes, “In the 1960s, we thought the revolution was right around the corner. Now, we are coming to understand that it’s around every corner.”

Here are examples of this neighborhood revolution in action.

Even a small step makes a difference 
Dave Marcucci lives in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, a prosperous place he once felt lacked a sense of community. So three years ago he built a bench in his front yard. This raised eyebrows up and down the block. “Why aren’t you putting the bench in the backyard where you can enjoy it?” neighbors asked. “This bench is for you,” he replied.

When the bench was ready Marcucci threw a party, inviting everyone to come sit on it. From that point on, his neighborhood was never the same. Older people took to walking around the block again, because they had a place to stop and rest. Kids sat on it waiting for the school bus. “It’s worked out really well,” Marcucci says. “I’ve met my neighbors and other people I’d never met before.”

Even his skeptical neighbors have been won over. A family around the corner has installed a bench in their own front yard as a spot for people to gather.

How one neighborhood changed the world
 Citizens along a busy street in the Dutch city of Delft grew tired of cars racing past their homes. So one evening they hatched a plan to do something about it. Under the cover of darkness, they dragged old couches, coffee tables and plant stands out into the street, arranging them in a way that would not block traffic but would force drivers to slow down to pass through.

It worked marvelously, until the police came. It is obviously illegal, no matter how sensible the reason, to park your sofa in the middle of the street. The Dutch police, however, knew a good idea when they saw one, and soon the municipality of Delft was erecting their own devices to slow traffic in busy streets around town.

The idea, dubbed traffic calming, soon spread to other Dutch cities, then throughout the world. You see it everywhere across America today, from speed bumps in the shopping mall parking lot to brightly painted crosswalks or sidewalks that extend out into the intersection. These tame traffic and remind motorists that the streets do not belong exclusively to them.

The local folks in Delft did not ask permission to make their street safer. They just did it, proving to city officials how well the idea actually worked. If they had petitioned the city council or transportation office to test out these plans, their streets would still be full of speeding cars, and no one else would even know about traffic calming.

Hope rises in hard-hit inner cities
 Dudley Street, a small corner of Boston’s struggling Roxbury district, experienced all the ills associated with inner city life: drugs, crime, unemployment, failing schools, redlining, family breakdown. It also had a particularly high arson rate, as building owners reportedly burned down their own properties to collect insurance money. Left behind were hundreds of vacant lots, which were commandeered by garbage haulers for use as illegal trash transfer stations.

The neighbors—a mix of African Americans, Latinos, recent immigrants and elderly Irish and Italians—successfully pressed the city to crack down on the dumps. Empowered by that victory, they pushed to make further changes to their community. The local Riley Foundation offered to help them and sponsored a public meeting to outline a recovery strategy based on the typical formulas for low-income community development. A number of people spoke up to say that they wanted to forge their own plans for the neighborhood. The foundation graciously went along, and a community visioning session was soon held.

What became clear was that the people of Dudley Street didn’t view their home as an urban ghetto but as an urban village—not so different from the rural communities they came from in the Caribbean, the Cape Verde Islands (near Africa) or the American South. They rejected the usual high-rise housing and strip mall stores, wanting instead homes that fit with the historical character of the neighborhood and shops that had a main street feel. Today, Dudley Street actually feels like a village, complete with tidy new houses with picket fences, a town common with a bandstand and independently owned shops. Along with the impressive physical changes to Dudley Street has come a new sense of hope and possibility.

Saving the planet in your own backyard
 Neighbors in the Harmony Village neighborhood of Golden, Colorado—a fast-growing suburb west of Denver—meet for breakfast once a month to trade ideas and share resources for fighting global warming and other environmental threats. Dan Chiras, who welcomes everyone into his kitchen for coffee and conversation, outlines what they’ve been able to accomplish in his book Superbia: The group “proposed Harmony Village residents install solar panels on the roofs of their homes and that the village use energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs in outdoor fixtures. They routinely write letters to politicians and recently saved a nearby piece of land that was slated for development.”

In Portland, Oregon, more than a hundred residents of the Boundary Street Neighborhood have worked together to restore native plants along the banks of their local creek. “We’ve tapped into neighborhood expertise—one guy has a Ph.D. in biology,” notes Dick Roy, one of the organizers. “We’ve taken advantage of all the good energy to make our neighborhood more environmentally stable.”

Taking action starts with talking 
Adell Young admits that for many years she dreaded talking with her neighbors in the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. That’s because her son was out on the street selling drugs. But problems finally got so bad that she reached out to people on the block in desperation, and found that many of them were in the same sad situation. Sitting together talking about the problems, it dawned on them that as parents and relatives they had some influence over the dealers.

Their first step in reclaiming their block was to venture down onto the streets, where they offered bowls of chili to the dealers as a symbol that wholesome food can nourish them while drugs will eventually kill them. This brave group of mostly older women who entered the drug dealers’ territory made a powerful statement that the street belongs to everyone. “We showed them what they were doing to our homes,” Young says. After a number of evenings when Young and her neighbors stood up for their dreams of a drug-free community, the chastened drug peddlers cleared out.

These efforts soon blossomed into an informal organization called Every Block a Village (www.ebvonline.org), which is now active on more than 50 blocks of Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. These groups not only work to rid their neighborhoods of drugs, they tackle other pressing issues, such as the lack of critical health care services on the West Side. Young proudly notes how new programs that provide preventive health counseling and kidney dialysis services began with Every Block a Village groups raising $33,000 by selling tickets to chicken dinners and raffle contests.

Communities and climate change 
Common sense tells us that local organizing can improve the conditions in a neighborhood. When it happens across many communities, it could also make a serious dent in national problems like poverty, crime, affordable housing and social fragmentation. But what about climate change? What about spikes in energy prices and dwindling supplies? What about the teetering economy? How can working in our own neighborhoods avert such crises? Aren’t all these problems beyond the scope of local solutions?

Well, yes and no. These looming threats call for profound changes in our society. “Radical” changes, you might say, but that word better describes the way things have been going up to now. “The last 50 years has been this giant bubble of fossil fuels,” says Michael Lykoudis, dean of the Notre Dame School of Architecture, “and we wasted it. We blew it on big cars, big roads and buildings that won’t last.”

Yes, you and the family next door are unlikely to discover more oil, sequester carbon from the atmosphere or resuscitate a global economy addicted to cheap energy. But action on the local level is essential in fashioning a more sustainable way of life that can lead us out of danger. Neighborhoods are where crucial actions will be carried out: cutting back on driving, promoting energy conservation, reviving hometown economies, instilling community connections and keeping up people’s spirits.

Neighborhoods were widely seen as relics of a nostalgic past during the decades when we could painlessly and without guilt drive 15 miles to the grocery store and 50 to the office, but they suddenly make sense again. Many Americans are now scouting around for the nearest bus stop and scaling back on fancy restaurants in favor of potlucks with folks across the street. If there’s no public transit serving your part of town and you don’t know your neighbors except as someone to wave at through the windshield, the coming years could feel very harsh. Neighborhoods with a strong sense of community, places where every activity does not begin with the turn of an ignition, have a decided advantage.

Indeed Christopher B. Leinberger, a real estate professor at the University of Michigan with 30 years experience as a consultant and developer, argues in a much-talked-about article in the Atlantic Monthly that today’s affluent subdivisions in far-flung suburbs may become tomorrow’s slums. “Despite this glum forecast for many swaths of suburbia,” he writes, “we should not lose sight of the bigger picture—the shift that’s under way toward walkable urban living is a healthy development. In the most literal sense, it may lead to better personal health and a slimmer population. The environment, of course, will also benefit.”

A classic solution
 “Suburban sprawl is the worst form of ecological disaster we created in the 20th century,” declares David Mayernik, a Notre Dame professor of architecture, “and to reverse it is not going to be easy.”

But that is exactly what the Notre Dame School of Architecture plans to do with its unique emphasis on urbanism and classical architecture. Since 1989, the school has broken with modernist orthodoxy in the profession by boldly teaching students that durability, sustainability, beauty and designing buildings that fit into their surroundings is more important to architecture than work that is merely cutting-edge or visually dazzling.

“For years, people were snickering behind our backs about classicism,” says Lykoudis, the school’s dean, “but they aren’t anymore.” Now Notre Dame architecture graduates are receiving starting salaries 17 percent higher than the national average.

The Center for Building Communities (CBC), launched at the architecture school two years ago by the husband-and-wife team of Ron Sakal and Sallie Hood, devises strategies for preventing and repairing sprawl. Emphasizing the three Es—environment, equity and economy—CBC provides the real estate and construction industries with practical ideas that meet today’s urgent needs.

In their private practice, Sakal and Hood worked with the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a breakthrough plan to accommodate future growth within current city limits.

“The idea is to show how Santa Fe can keep on growing for 100 years without acquiring additional land,” Sakal explains. “The way to do that is to retrofit low-density suburban areas of the city to become more like classic neighborhoods.”

Plans for more density in a neighborhood often meet sharp resistance, based on people’s fears of being overrun by traffic. But putting more pedestrians on the street rather than more cars, which is central to Sakal’s vision of community revitalization, is usually welcomed as a positive step that makes a neighborhood safer and more interesting.

“We show students how they as architects and urban designers can encourage street life. Walking is central to a vital neighborhood. Positive things happen on the sidewalks and public spaces of a place that happen nowhere else. People engage with their neighbors. That doesn’t happen in a car.”

Themes of neighborhood vitality and sustainability flourish throughout the Notre Dame architecture school. Traditional urbanism—the way neighborhoods were designed before the intrusion of freeways and strip malls—is the core of the curriculum. Students are also enriched by the experience of living in the classic city of Rome, where they study in their third year of the architecture program.

“For us the definition of traditional architecture is something that’s good enough [that] you want to pass it on the next generation,” says Lykoudis. “Then you add to it to make it better. That’s the best way to be sustainable and make great communities.”

The common good 
The mission of reviving the neighborhood as a center in our lives fits squarely with Catholic social teaching, points out Father Kevin McDonough, who served as vicar general of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis for 25 years.

“The whole Catholic Church is organized parochially, that means by neighborhood,” says McDonough, now pastor of two inner city parishes: Saint Peter Claver in Saint Paul, which is largely African American, and Incarnation in Minneapolis, which is heavily Hispanic. “It’s one of the basic principles of how we look at the world. Indeed, a lot of social justice organizing has gone on in neighborhoods that has had wide support from those in the Church.”

The Catholic principle of subsidiarity also champions the view that neighborhoods provide us an excellent forum for making necessary changes in society.

Father Andrew Greeley, the famous author and University of Chicago sociologist, explained how subsidiarity ideally works in his 1977 book Neighborhood: “Nothing should be done by the international community that can be done by the state, nothing by the state that can be done as well by the city, nothing by the city that can be done by the neighborhood.”

Greeley wrote his book as a spirited defense of neighborhoods, especially the Catholic neighborhoods of his beloved Chicago, against the onslaught of social engineers ripping neighborhoods apart to build freeways, housing projects, industrial complexes and other mega-developments. He also punched back at liberal critics who viewed these ethnic enclaves as hotbeds of bigotry and archaic parochialism (in the negative sense of the word).

That now seems a distant time. Liberals today are likely to support programs that empower neighborhoods to chart their own course. And Irish, Polish, Italian, German, French-Canadian and Czech neighborhoods throughout the Midwest and East are mostly gone. Pews at some of these old parish churches now are filled with new immigrants from Latin America and the Philippines, or young families with no defining ethnic identity who are moving into the neighborhood. Other urban Catholic churches shut their doors when European ethnic parishioners migrated to the suburbs.

But the idea of the neighborhood still figures prominently in the culture and even the theology of Catholics. Notre Dame’s Mayernik, author of Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflection on Renaissance Italy, notes that throughout Italian history, "Each church was essentially a community center. They served the neighborhoods. The whole ethos of the Church was that each community took care of itself and the Church took care of the community.

“Catholic tradition,” Mayernik continues, “is built on the belief that we are going to be here for a while and that we should make things as good as we can—even on the idea that we can have a taste of paradise. This created something of an ethic that we should build beautiful buildings and create vital communities.”

His Notre Dame colleague Philip Bess closes his book Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred with an epiphany he experienced a few years ago at the annual sports banquet of his son’s Catholic school in the neighborhood where Bess has lived for most of the past two decades. He realized that he knew 60 people in the room and a hundred others by name or face.

“It hit me, with a startling existential immediacy,” writes Bess, “that this is what it means to live in a good community: a fair amount of chaos naturally proper to free beings but also a network of relationships from intimate to casual to anonymous, grounded in a variety of common activities and beliefs as well as (and not least) place.”

One of the chief lessons, both architectural and religious, that Bess offers his students focuses on, “the moral and intellectual virtue of life lived in a community. That’s the purpose of cities and, by extension, neighborhoods: to make people happy and virtuous.”