Last week, for two days, more than 30 young urban leaders met in Philadelphia for the second annual Next American Vanguard conference. On the first day after introductions and lunch, along with about half the group, I went on a trolley tour of Near Northeast Philadelphia hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. We saw various redevelopment efforts from the garish-but-functional Piazza at Schmidt’s in Northern Liberties to the oddly suburban-looking subsidized housing further north in Kensington; there was something truly surreal about seeing two-story suburban style twin homes with large, well-manicured lawns just across the street from dilapidated Philly rowhomes.
Similarly bucolic are the “cleaned and greened” vacant lots in Kensington. I’ll admit that while on my first trip to Kensington, without a tour guide, I couldn’t rule out that the lots might be some sort of installation art. Until recently, vacant lots in Kensington lay fallow, in a sense — overgrown with weeds, and littered with trash, “literally waist deep” according to one community organizer we spoke with. Philadelphia Green, an PHS program, stepped in, cleaned the lots, weeded them, and planted grass. As a final, almost comical touch, they installed a bare-bones white picket fence, to separate the clean vacant land from the street. Philadelphia Green and other community development corporations clean the lots twice monthly. The result appears strangely idyllic, and almost poignant: a slice of suburban life tucked into the gaps left behind by decades of flight to the suburbs.
The effect of this simple cleaning and maintenance is not only visual, however. According to our tour guide, Todd Baylson of PHS, houses with cleaned and greened neighboring vacants have values as great as 20% higher than market, and those next to unmaintained vacants can fall as low as 20% below market; that’s a 40% swing in market value, just for cleaning up trash and planting grass. It’s a powerful tool for what one might call “soft” economic development in declining neighborhoods. No, there aren’t new businesses going up right now, but it does increase property values. And if you subscribe to the “Broken Window” theory of crime prevention, then you could see the obvious benefits of fixing up trash-filled vacant lots. And lastly, it’s not that expensive.
On the journey with us was Vanguard member Phil Kidd, a community organizer in Youngstown, Ohio. Youngstown is the first city in the Rust Belt to fully embrace the tragically euphemistic “Rightsizing” strategy for economic development. Having lost half of its population in the last half century, Youngstown resident have come to terms with the hard fact that they will most likely not return to their high water mark. So, they are planning to shrink, and Phil Kidd, through the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, is trying to help.
In fact, the economic development strategy of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation — a community development corporation that partners with MVOC — is modeled after Philadelphia Green’s. “Imagine Philadelphia Green operating in virtually every neighborhood in Youngstown,” explains Phil, on a recent phone call, “but with added capacity…strategic demolition, property acquisition, rehabilitation, home grant programs, neighborhood marketing.” Right now, they’re working on one neighborhood in particular, Idora, as a model for the rest of Youngstown, and — Phil hopes — other older industrial communities like Flint, Akron, or Syracuse.
Not surprisingly, the work is daunting. Just in Idora, the YNDC has to repurpose 130 already vacant lots, then demolish homes that are beyond repair, and renovate the salvageable properties. In many instances, they have to deal with the slow legal process of acquiring long-vacant properties, even the vacant lots. The frustration in his voice is apparent when he explains that “it’s taken us about 18 months to raise $1.6 million to do just this one neighborhood.”
There’s 37 neighborhoods in Youngstown, and not enough time. Worse yet, the federal government provides more roadblocks than it does guidance and money. The federal government doesn’t have a vision for shrinking communities like Youngstown. In Phil’s words: “Whatever money Portland’s going after, it’s probably not the same kinda of money that Youngstown is going after…we’re looking to take 22,000 vacant lots in Youngstown and find a productive use for them. Portland’s probably thinking about, you know, how does light-rail work in the northeast neighborhoods into downtown?…that is language that Youngstown will never speak for maybe thirty years. Hopefully in thirty years we’ll be talking about it. It’s just a way different context.
“This isn’t something that it’s like, ‘boy wouldn’t it be great if‘…we don’t have that kind of time here! We don’t have that. If this stuff doesn’t get fixed, if we aren’t able to cut the chains here, then we’re gonna lose these neighborhoods, and all these communities. And…all this talk of rightsizing and how sexy that kind of thing is right now, it won’t mean shit — it will not mean shit — if we can’t cut the chains, and let us do our work.”
Even though the YNDC is modeled after the Philadelphia Green program, when I asked him if they could successfully implement what we saw in Kensington, without missing a beat, he said, “No we couldn’t.” The problems that Phil Kidd and Youngstown have with federal urban policy are complex, and we will examine them in the next post here. Stay tuned.