Another Neighborhood Is Possible

dsni logoMy mission to seek out interesting examples of innovative community building recently brought me to Boston where I was fortunate to be given a tour of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. Wow!

By 1984 over 20% of properties in the Dudley Neighborhood triangle were abandoned.   Many had been burned by their owners for insurance money, and many had become trash dumps.  The neighborhood had also suffered from divestment, and redlining. DSNI was created to empower the diverse residents of the neighborhood to take control of redevelopment so that it served the people and not the interests of developers.

dsni property map

A key success was when the Boston Redevelopment Authority approved Dudley Neighbors Inc. (DNI) the power of eminent domain.  In situations where there was arson, neglect, or back-taxes owed, DNI could go to property owner, offer to buy the property, and if they didn’t accept they could simply take it from them.  All but one property owner took the money.  Now, over 60 acres in the area is part of a Community Land Trust, and over 200 affordable housing units have been built, including 78 units organized under two Cooperatives.  DSNI and DNI have also created about 3 acres of garden space and a massive green house, a playground, and about 5000 sq ft of commercial development.

Design window dsni

Neighbors using the Dudley Design Window, a transparent dry-erase board, to envision possibilities for a large city-owned piece of property that will be developed according to neighborhood guidelines and given to the Dudley Neighbors Inc. From the DSNI website dsni.org.

But they count their most important achievement as that of organizing and empowering the residents of the neighborhood.  From their website, “Partly through its diverse, 34 seat Board of Directors including 16 residents from each of the 4 major ethnic groups (African-American, Latino, Cape Verdean, White) plus 2 additional Board-appointed residents, 3 youth, 7 nonprofit agencies, 2 churches, 2 businesses, and 2 CDCs, Dudley residents and its community partners develop strategies that will ensure that local residents are the primary beneficiaries of the community economic growth, and that human development and environmental issues are addressed.”

Walking around the neighborhood with my guide, Bayoan, who’s lived in the area his whole life, I couldn’t help thinking, this is what everyone wants!  This is the kind of community that Intentional Communities are trying to recreate, but here it’s managed to re-emerge from the wreckage of urban decline, and done in a way that honors the existing residents and relationships and culture, and keeps it financially accessible.

It’s not like this hasn’t been tried in countless other places.  Why has it worked so spectacularly here?  That’s not an easy question to answer, but you can bet people will be trying to tease out the lessons learned for years to come.  Check out the documentaries Holding Ground and Gaining Ground featuring the initial and ongoing successes of this remarkable neighborhood.

With any luck we’ll get someone from DSNI down to the conference to tell their story, and at the very least we’ll be screening the documentaries.