Issue #148, Winter 2006
When Goliath Comes
Reviewed by Randy Stoecker
Promise and Betrayal: Universities and the Battle for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods, by John I. Gilderbloom and R.L. Mullins Jr. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005, 228 pp. $24.95 (paperback).
Can universities rebuild disinvested neighborhoods? In their book,
Promise and Betrayal: Universities and the Battle for Sustainable
Urban Neighborhoods, John Gilderbloom and R.L. Mullins attempt to
tell the story of the University of Louisville Housing and Neighborhood
Development Strategies (HANDS) program and its effort to redevelop one
of the poorest sections of town.
The HANDS program was a multi-year comprehensive community development
program that began in the mid-1990s. It was housed in the university
and funded by a three-year, $1.5 million U.S. Department of Education
Urban Community Service Grant, with a funding match from the university.
HANDS' focus was on redevelopment of the severely disinvested Russell
neighborhood in Louisville's central city. Guided, but not governed,
by both a community and a national advisory board, HANDS brought together
an impressive coalition of government, neighborhood, city and even corporate
players to successfully build affordable housing, reduce crime, educate
children, enhance resident access to technology and provide social work
case management services. The university's interest in community engagement
extended beyond HANDS with the creation of an urban design center called
the Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods
program and a variety of other services to Louisville neighborhoods.
The goal of the HANDS program stems from a specialized strategy of
urban universities to target a single neighborhood for redevelopment,
a strategy that is promoted, in particular, by HUD's Community
Outreach Partnership Center funding program. The authors note that,
around the country, the practice has not always served neighborhoods'
interest, and some of these programs have actually been smokescreens
for displacement and gentrification. The emphasis at HANDS, unlike many
other programs, was on participation and partnership - involving residents
in making decisions about how the neighborhood would be redeveloped
and partnering with other players to bring in resources to accomplish
While I find the tale of the program impressive, I am left skeptical
in the end. Some of that skepticism is likely the result of how often
I have seen universities harm communities rather than serve them, bludgeon
them with help or take credit for the hard work of others. But another
part of my skepticism comes from how the authors tell the tale.
Gilderbloom and Mullins present lots of information about the outcomes
produced by HANDS, but neglect to tell us about much of the process.
And it is, after all, the process that we all need to know about if
the book is to move beyond self-congratulation to providing lessons
to others. Only in the third chapter, which describes the Russell neighborhood
design process, is the process of community-university partnership treated
with any detail. This chapter describes who was included in the design
process, the steps of the design process, and some of the interactions
between the design team, residents, nonprofits and government agencies.
The authors briefly explore the capacity issues of the developer that
hindered implementation of the Russell plan, and the lack of knowledge
transfer from experts in the community design team to others that could
have expanded the partnership's impact.
Aside from the discussion in Chapter Three, however, we get little
sense of the real messiness of community-university partnerships. There
is little direct discussion of the problems recruiting faculty, managing
students, massaging egos, smoothing over neighborhood faction fights
or bringing in powerful players without thwarting neighborhood interests.
Therefore, when the authors try to present a model of a successful university
partnership in a later chapter, it's unclear how it connects to the
HANDS experience. So few details are included that I am even left wondering
about several pertinent facts of the program, such as who came up with
the idea of HANDS, what kind of fights were required to get it going,
what kinds of relationships were built to make it last as long as it
did and what challenges were faced along the way.
Like so many stories of community-university partnerships, this one
is written as if the HANDS program were wholly responsible for the redevelopment
of the Russell neighborhood. The authors do question whether it is fair
to present the story that way, but not too critically. They present
a long list of partners who were also involved in neighborhood development
but offer very little sense of their roles. There are a few testimonials
from advisory committee members and from the elderly woman who bought
a new home for the first time in her life. And though the program was
said to emphasize participation, there are no testimonials from residents
about their involvement in producing those much-discussed outcomes.
Indeed, this neighborhood development model is extremely top heavy with
university actors and government agencies; residents seem to have been
relegated to a supporting role rather than a governing one. Most interestingly,
the authors' description of the "community organizing" program
focuses on how they got 500 computers into the community, instead of
how they engaged and empowered the community. There is no mention of
building a residents' organization, engaging in collective confrontation
with city hall, achieving real decision-making power for the neighborhood
or changing the urban power structure.
The way the story is told in Promise and Betrayal sheds light
on Gilderbloom and Mullins's bias toward the university. There's an
underlying assumption that the university is a neutral turf where people
can come together to solve issues, a premise on which much of the book
is based. (I work with a lot of neighborhood activists and have yet
to find one that sees the "university" as a neutral place.)
They also emphasize the centrality of university administrators and
boards in supporting university civic engagement, community outreach
and community development programs. Yet, as I have traveled around the
country, the biggest barrier to such work is faculty. Indeed, when the
authors end the book on the sad note that the university refused to
apply for more federal funding to support neighborhood development,
they cite its College of Business and Public Administration as being
Promise and Betrayal offers few lessons for community practitioners.
But those on the university side of the relationship who are trying
to do the right thing will find some important lessons about university
politics. While Gilderbloom and Mullins present what is considered a
successful example of university-led community revitalization, the story
they tell also points to the continuing, problematic trends in higher
education civic engagement programs that try to "help."
Randy Stoecker is an associate professor in the department of Rural Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Center for Community and Economic Development at the University of Wisconsin-Extension. He has worked with and written extensively about community organizing and development groups since the mid-1980s. He moderates COMM-ORG: the Online Conference on Community Organizing and Development at http://comm-org.wisc.edu.
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