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Issue 1: Community Revitalization

The Wisdom That Builds Community Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, Boston

by Greg Watson

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is a community-based planning and organizing entity in Roxbury, Massachusetts, two miles south of downtown Boston. The Dudley Street neighborhood is one of the poorest communities in all of Massachusetts, with a population of 24,000 Cape Verdean, African-American, Latino, and white residents and with one of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty anywhere in the state. We’re not a district, we’re not a neat political unit; we are basically an area that was defined by devastation and poverty, an area that has suffered in a number of ways — suffering sometimes even caused by well-intentioned policies and practices.

The cumulative effect of this devastation was that by 1984 the Dudley Street area had been reduced to 1300 abandoned lots filled with rubble. You could stand in the middle of the one and a half square mile area that we call the Triangle, and literally turn in all directions and not see a building. It was an absolute wasteland, where once there had been a thriving Irish-Catholic and Jewish community.

One of the programs contributing to the changes taking place in Roxbury was the G. I. Bill, which encouraged returning servicemen and their families to go and build homes in the suburbs. And over the years many people did leave the area. Redlining, abandonment, and neglect followed. When immigrants came in from Cape Verde and Puerto Rico, the community changed its character still more, and again people left. The Dudley Street neighborhood became an enclave for the poor and the disenfranchised, and in many cases residents were not citizens of this country.

There were a lot of slumlords in Roxbury hoping for urban renewal to make them rich. They were waiting for the same thing that had happened in the West End and the South End of Boston. They were going to hold on to their property until they could make a financial killing. But the community said no. They didn’t want urban renewal, and they stopped it. As a result you had a lot of people holding land and buildings they didn’t know what to do with. They realized they weren’t going to make their “killing,” but they were determined they weren’t going to suffer, either; they were going to minimize their loss. The way many of them did this was to burn their buildings down. Night after night after night there were fires. Everyone on the outside said, Oh look, they’re burning down their own homes, they’re destroying their own communities. What’s wrong with those people? It was not the people living there who were destroying their community; it was the slumlords who were burning down their own buildings in order to collect as much insurance money as they could on what they perceived to be a lost cause. They burned until the whole area was virtually flattened. Imagine 1300 abandoned lots in the middle of a community!

As Wendell Berry reminds us, once land is neglected, or looks neglected, it soon becomes even more neglected. Trucks frequently drove through or past Roxbury on their way to the dump, where they were being charged tipping fees to deposit their trash. When the drivers saw all the abandoned lots with no people around, they thought, Why pay a fee? So they’d come back after dark and dump their loads. Then they got so brazen that after a while, because nobody seemed to care, they’d come in the middle of the day and dump. There were sides of beef, old refrigerators, cars, rats and other vermin, and there was filth. People were becoming increasingly ill, and finally the community said, No more.

They held a meeting, and they said, We’ve got to do something about this. We’re going to make a stink, and we’re going to get these illegal trash transfer stations closed down. The TV cameras showed up, and right after that, Mayor Ray Flynn showed up. He had no real base of support in communities of color, but now he made a commitment. He said, I’ll do whatever you folks need to help you clean up this community. I will do anything: there will be resources, there will be money. You let me know what you want. Ché Madyun and others said, We need rakes and shovels and garbage bags to clean up the lots. And they did clean up. The TV cameras came again, and Ray Flynn looked good; this was a political plus for him.

Then the residents called Mayor Flynn back, and they said, There’s something else we need. He thought, Well, that’s okay; they probably just want more rakes and shovels. What the community said was, We’re going to develop a comprehensive plan to rebuild our neighborhood, and in order to do that we need control over the land, so we’d like the power of eminent domain over the abandoned land in our community. Mayor Flynn gulped and balked at that one; that wasn’t what he had expected. But they made a case for eminent domain. Many people rejected the idea. Even in the community there were those who said, No way. That’s the very tool that has traditionally been used to force poor people out of their communities. We don’t even understand the nature of that power. How do we know we could use it wisely? The residents held many meetings. They were very deliberate, they thought things through, and they decided that in order to rebuild a wasteland with hundreds of individual owners, they had to have control over the land.

Conventional wisdom says that wealth is having a job. Let’s bring in Wal-Mart, let’s bring in IBM, and they will give the people jobs. That’s not real wealth. Real wealth means you have some assets. It means you build on something that the community owns or that the individuals in the community own. There’s no more valuable asset than land. Farmers know that; we know that. The land is the ultimate source of wealth. So through hard work and with the support of Ray Flynn and Stephen Coyle, the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority, in 1988 the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative became the first and to date only community-based organization to be granted the power of eminent domain over a one and a half square mile area right in the heart of Boston.

The Ford Foundation came forward with a two million dollar loan to buy the abandoned parcels of land at fair market value. If there was a building on it, we couldn’t buy it; if the land was taken care of, we couldn’t buy it. What we were interested in were the parcels that were overgrown, that still had trash on them, that were attracting vermin. And because we weren’t acting as individuals but as a community, we formed a community land trust. A community land trust means what it says: land held in trust by the community. It is a democratic, nonprofit vehicle that removes land from the speculative market and holds it for multiple purposes: affordable housing, farming, small businesses, open space. The community land trust uses long-term ground leases to give area residents affordable and secure access to land. Residents own their own homes and pay a small monthly fee to the trust for the use of the land. Resale provisions on the homes ensure that home owners will receive a fair return on the investment in the building, at the same time excluding the value of the land—which has been enhanced by the efforts of the entire community—from the sale price. In this way the homes remain affordable for future residents.

Two hundred and twenty-five affordable homes have been built in and for our community: duplexes, single-family homes, town houses, row houses. The type and location of every single home were determined through a public process. The development effort was self-supporting, because ground-lease fees repaid the cost of land purchase. We never had to use one dime of the two million dollars of Ford Foundation money, although it did provide the Initiative with credibility in its early stages.

New Alchemy Institute dealt with physical technologies — greenhouses, windmills, fish farms. There’s another alchemy, and I’m going to call it civic alchemy, because it’s the community that makes things happen. It’s not enough to know you have the technology. You have to ask, Is this really an appropriate technology? Is it really going to benefit the community? Is it really going to enhance the process of empowerment and community building? And how do we make that happen? The community land trust was the answer to the last question. It was one part of a neighborhood system of self-governance. The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative created its own governing board, a 29-member board of directors elected by the community every two years to guide the Initiative’s planning and organizing efforts. These are public elections. Candidates for office campaign, and they take their role as community representatives very seriously.

Who plans our community? Not the experts. We’ll use experts, but we don’t want them to come and tell us what to do. We may consult with experts in order to understand how to get something done once we have determined what it is we want to do. It’s the community that then selects the developers and the architects. The architects have to come and present their designs at community meetings, and the residents do turn out for these meetings. This is participatory democracy and participatory planning at work.

We’ve talked to professional planners, we’ve read the textbooks, and we’ve had the consultants in, but if you want to know who’s guiding the Dudley Street project in Roxbury in terms of its strategy for urban revitalization, it’s Jane Jacobs. Read The Death and Life of Great American Cities, The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations; now, there is real wisdom. The wisdom we gain from our process for the most part comes from sitting around, maybe with a group as large as this one, attacking a problem and realizing that what we need to solve the problems facing us is collective wisdom.

In 1987 a comprehensive plan was developed with the assistance of a consulting firm called DAC, International. That plan laid out the vision for the creation of an urban village. It integrated housing, economic development, delivery of human services, and open-space needs, offering a model for a twenty-first-century village. This village suggests a certain scale, which limits the kind of businesses we’re looking for: we don’t want an anchor store or industry.

Civic alchemy is about process. The reason so many people are afraid of the process is because it’s messy. But there’s no way around the messiness. Community process is muddled. It’s time consuming, it’s aggravating, it’s frustrating. If done right, though, it’s also beautiful, and it works. We’re always teetering on the cusp between success and failure, order and chaos, and that is the honest truth. In a process like this, because there is so little precedent for what we’re doing, we are always teetering on the brink. Our success depends upon the faith we have in the process. There are times when the muddles get so bad that we’ve gotten stuck on a point for three or four days or even weeks. The inclination for most folks would be to say, That’s it. Or to let the director or somebody else come in, make a decision, and get it done. But if you allow the process to go through, what you will understand is that the breakthroughs often come as a result of breakdown. When the process breaks down, we have to say, We can’t do it within this framework; we have to jack our thinking up to another level.

So what kinds of new solutions did we come up with as the basis for our economic development strategy? One is urban agriculture. We’re going to have a community-supported farm. We already have one and a half acres in production. We have a farmers’ market right on our town common. It was part of one of the vacant lots that has been redeveloped into a public space. Now we’re building a bioshelter, modeled after the Cape Cod Ark at New Alchemy Institute, a beautiful structure that will integrate agriculture and aquaculture systems within a passive-solar greenhouse design. It’s going up on a brownfield.

“Brownfields” are sites whose pollution or perceived pollution makes them unattractive for any type of development, in contrast to “greenfields” or virgin parcels of land. Our urban areas have an abundance of brownfields; greenfields, on the other hand, tend to be located in suburbs or rural areas. The current dynamic between brownfields and greenfields leads to sprawl, resulting from the abandonment of urban areas by developers for cleaner (in both the environmental and legal sense) greenfields in the suburbs and countryside.

Just so you get a sense of the challenges facing this community as it rebuilds: we have fifty-four identified hazardous waste sites in our one and a half square mile area. Currently, we still have thirteen trash transfer stations. We know that the trash has to go somewhere, and things have to be recycled, but we think that thirteen within a one and a half square mile area is too many. We have to do something about that, and I’m totally optimistic that we’ll be successful. So we still have to organize and fight the battles that need to be fought, but for the most part we’re organizing around a positive vision. Organizing doesn‘t mean that you always have to be confrontational; it doesn’t mean that you have to identify an enemy. It can mean that you identify a shared vision and mobilize residents to make that vision a reality.

The Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative is not your traditional community development corporation. We see creating that shared vision as its primary goal. We have facilitated the process that brings the community together, with all the stakeholders in the community — residents; small businesses; city, state, and federal agencies — trying to agree on our vision and then on a strategy to get us from here to there. Now we are attempting to demonstrate a real, honest to goodness model of a livable — not just livable, desirable — urban community. If we can do that, and I think it’s happening, the way people think about revitalizing urban areas will change.

What we really want is a city of villages. We want density; we need density. We thrive on density. That’s what cities are built for. Suburban sprawl is a big problem, but we are saying, We want to bring back the people who left Roxbury for the suburbs. When we rebuilt homes, the first people who came in and bought the homes were people who used to live there. That was their home once, and now it’s home again. They couldn’t be there when it was 1300 abandoned lots because there was no place for them to live. Now there is a place. Now they can return home.

Dudley Village will become an extraordinarily vibrant multicultural urban village, where the cultural diversity, just like the diversity in nature, is a source of economic strength. You won’t see a Wal-Mart or a Burger King as dominant parts of our economic landscape. What you in fact will see are Cape Verdean, Puerto Rican, African-American, and European restaurants; you’ll see locally owned clothing stores and craft stores selling exciting and unique ethnic products.

Ten years from now, maybe as soon as five, when your friends or relatives come to visit Boston, they’re going to say, If we’re going to be in Boston, we have to go and see Dudley Village. They’ll want to see the realization of our urban vision. People are already coming for tours to see the community that raised itself from the ashes. We’re getting visitors from all over the country and even from as far away as Germany, Japan, France, and Russia. We’ve been asked to do seminars on community organizing. People from Russia say, We don’t know how to make decisions as a community. For such a long time we were in a system where decisions were made for us. Can you help us understand how to organize ourselves and plan as a community?

People are coming to us not only in person, they’re visiting us over the web as well. We have our comprehensive plan, the DAC plan, but you can’t find it in libraries; it’s not written as a book yet, although there is a book about the DSNI, we’ve put it on the web. We also put our urban village visioning-report there, and we get a lot of hits at that website.

I’d like to leave you with our vision of a vibrant multicultural village, which has risen from the ashes and using wisdom of the community to build and revitalize what was once a devastated area.

Excerpts from Questions and Answers

According to World Watch Institute, by 2015 China will have to import more food than the entire world can export, and with development running as it is elsewhere, we can expect that the prices for food in commercial markets are going to keep rising. As I understand it, under the free-trade arrangement if you have something you want to sell, like timber or food, if it is out in the market, you are required to sell it to the highest bidder, even if that bidder is from across the world. Now, if those kinds of things are going to happen, how are you going to preserve this village, this situation which sounds quite beautiful?

Let me try to answer that indirectly because we haven’t yet addressed the challenges of the North American Free Trade Agreement. We haven’t had to deal with it directly yet, but I will tell you that we are looking at what we can do to start putting safeguards in place. When I first came on at Dudley Street, I had remembered reading Jay Forrester’s book Urban Dynamics, published by MIT. He did a systems-dynamic analysis, looking at how cities can rebuild themselves. He also had a model that showed you have to be careful because if you put too much emphasis on affordable housing first and not enough on economic development, you set yourself up for failure. So I reread the book and then gave Jay Forrester a call. He said, I know about your project. Let’s talk; I’d like to hear more about what you’re doing.

When we met with him, he suggested that we had set ourselves up for that failure, but then we described our urban village strategy. The next week he came back and said, I think this will work, but you have a problem: How will you preserve your village? How, for instance, will you safeguard against high land values and superdevelopment and exploitation? The cost of land will inevitably rise as the value increases and as more people come in and housing develops. We told him, among other things, about the community land trust concept. We told him we limit the profit that can be made from the resale of any home we build within the land trust to five percent. We do this consciously to avoid the problems that go with speculation and to ensure that community people can continue to afford to live in the village, even as its value as a desirable neighborhood goes up.

The bank we were dealing with said, This is crazy. You can’t market these homes, because people are going to look at them as stepping stones, as an investment. All we said in response was, The risk we’re taking is that we think we can sell the homes to people who aren’t buying them as stepping stones but because they want to live here. We’ll soon find out if we’re right, because if we’re not, nobody is going to buy the homes. Of course, as it turns out, they’ve all been sold.

To answer your question: I’m hoping that those are issues we’re going to address. We probably do need to look at them before long. One other point that your question brings to mind is that the community has also embraced a local currency, and this is a tribute, more than to anyone else, to the folks at the E. F. Schumacher Society, who have made it a part of their overall economic development strategy. A local currency is not just a gimmick and not just a cute idea; it’s an integral part of the community-building process.

Import substitution is one of the major areas we need to consider as we look for strategies and opportunities for economic development. Roxbury residents are spending millions of dollars each year on purchases, but they’re capturing only a tiny fraction of that amount within the greater Roxbury area. What are the possibilities that the products and services now being purchased by Roxbury and Dudley residents from outside the community could be produced there instead, so that the money spent on them stays in the community?

How do you relate to the broader electoral struggles that are occurring, particularly the New Party’s efforts in the Greater Boston area, and do you see yourself becoming more active in the electoral arena?

We have to become more active, but to be honest, we’ve had greater participation in our own local governing process than we have in the electoral process. But, as many folks are now beginning to say at our community meetings, the leverage we’ve gained as a result of the eminent domain process and our success in the past won’t be sustained unless we encourage residents to participate in the broader process. If the attitudes of the residents are any indication, the tendency would be to look at some of the more progressive alternatives as opposed to the existing system.

For the past three years we’ve been actively involved in both voter registration and voter education, so it’s an integral part of what we’re doing, but our track record in the past has not been a very good one. This is mostly because people have become so disenchanted. We’ve got to turn that around now and translate the disenchantment into something more positive.

Remarks from the Speakers Panel

I was interested in the emergence of the social sector as represented by nonprofit and community-based organizations. This is sometimes referred to as social entrepreneurship, and it’s something we do need as a counterbalance to what’s going on in the corporate world, where entrepreneurs are lauded and supported and encouraged to do their thing. I think we’re seeing some innovative and creative approaches in this area. I’m not downplaying the seriousness of the challenges that face us, but I also see the opportunity; I do see folks understanding that they should mobilize. The social sector may exist in name and in concept, but it doesn’t yet have a sense of its significant cumulative resources. This situation could change. If the churches and other nonprofit organizations that do have resources, such as land, were to make some of it available for community development as we have done in Roxbury, it would be a major step forward.

There are resources, and we should be a little better about insisting on how those resources should to be used. The truth is, there’s a lot of money available. There is even a poverty industry. In our community people talk about the poverty pimps.

Nine million dollars went for a seven-year study of community and social engagement and “bowling alone,” and the people conducting the study never set foot in the community. Do you know what they found after seven years and nine million dollars? They found that neighborhood associations contribute to neighborhood cohesiveness! Those resources should have been funneled to the folks who are on the ground doing the social entrepreneurial work, who are the change agents, instead of going to those who conduct a study and then benefit as a result of being in the right place at the right time.

There are plenty of resources, but they need to be rechanneled. During the crisis in agriculture when people started focusing on sustainable agriculture, the entire Office of Sustainable Agriculture of the U. S. Government consisted of one person, and that’s pretty much what exists right now, even as we’re going through these tremendous changes.

As we look for solutions, we owe it to ourselves to develop a whole-systems approach and not be satisfied, as we often are — myself included — with just saying what’s wrong with an existing system. Are we who are interested in sustainability and community-building willing to shed our preconceived, hard-held notions about what’s right?

If we can begin to get established members of the social sector to work with grass-roots neighborhood groups such as DSNI and see if we can identify a shared vision, then maybe together we’ll find ways of encouraging sustainability. I remain optimistic—both in the short run and in the long run.

Greg Watson is the executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative. He was formerly the director of The Nature Conservancy’s eastern regional office. For three years he served as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture, where he worked diligently to develop a market for locally grown produce. He was also at one time the educational director at New Alchemy Institute.

© Copyright 1999 by Greg Watson and the E. F. Schumacher Society. This excerpted piece was originally delivered as one of the Seventeenth Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures. The full text is available in pamphlet form for $5 from the E. F. Schumacher Society, 140 Jug End Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230.


A version of this article has also been reprinted in Annals of Earth, a publication of Ocean Arks International, 233 Hatchville Road, E. Falmouth, MA 02536.

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