As part of a new project at CAP, each month we will be featuring a guest blogger from across the agency. Kirk Wester Director of Neighborhood Revitalization Initiatives, is our second blogger.
As someone whose job it is to work to revitalize neighborhoods and to bring about systemic change, I am intrigued by the idea of a man named Robert Lupton, PhD. He developed an idea he calls, “Gentrification with Justice.” He starts with the belief that the deterioration of our nation’s urban landscape came as mobility and the capacity for independence paved the way for a mass exodus of resources from urban areas to the suburbs. In his book, Return Flight, he describes a neighborhood in his home of Atlanta, called Summerhill as this shift to the suburbs occurred following the Civil Rights Movement:
It happened so subtly, the changes were almost imperceptible. The merchants of Summerhill gradually shifted their businesses to the greener pastures of Atlanta’s broader economy. Professional and trades people found better jobs in higher paying areas. Those who could afford it pursued the American dream and bought larger homes in suburban communities. Everyone in Summerhill who was able took full advantage of the historic opportunities for better education, new careers, and advancement into public leadership.
Everyone who was able, that is. In all the excitement, those who were able overlooked those who were less able to capitalize on the new opportunities. The elderly, those in broken families, the closer to the poverty line whose energies were consumed by the toil of surviving – those people were left behind. Owner-occupied homes became rental properties and began to deteriorate. Stable families left, while fragmented families remained. The business district declined and eventually was boarded up. Churches closed. As the leaders withdrew, darker forces filled the void. Desperate people began to prey upon the vulnerable. The fabric of the community grew weaker as each strand was removed. And in the end, it came apart. In the end, the once proud neighborhood of Summerhill lay desolate and ruined in the shadow of the capitol’s golden dome.
It is not difficult to create a ghetto: simply remove the more capable neighbors. It is quite easy to produce a substandard school system: just withdraw the children of achieving parents. We can create a culture of chronically dependent people merely by extracting the upwardly mobile role models for the community. See how effortlessly all this has been accomplished in Summerhill? And in the thousands of other Summerhills of our cities? All it takes is for us to pursue our own dreams and concentrate only on what seems best for our own families and leave the job of being a good neighbor – neighboring – to agencies. … Programs do not restore communities. Only neighbors can do that.
Dr. Lupton goes on to describe his belief that part of the solution to our challenged neighborhoods is for those of us with means to consider intentionally relocating to areas of need and to “re-neighbor” our neighborhoods. This idea requires a sense of purpose and intentionality that is challenging but clearly seems vital to the task of revitalization. He suggests that “re-neighboring”, in turn, brings about a healthier community – one in which neighbors are diverse and interdependent upon one another. Further, it could bring about the stability and resources needed for a neighborhood to be revived.
This post was written by Kirk Wester, Director of Neighborhood Revitalization Initiatives.