Cersonsky: Democracy in New Haven

All Possible Worlds

Douglas Rae’s “City: Urbanism and its End” reads like a tragedy. We first meet late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century New Haven: a proudly localist “sidewalk republic,” a well of civic fauna and a hotbed of manufacturing where city and business stand united. Then enter the automobile, aggressive national corporations, destructive zoning laws and questionable revitalization projects, and we’re left with a city that no one except for local Nutmeggers thinks of as “the city.” That would be New York.

How are we to return New Haven to its former glory? We know now that we can’t simply hotwire decaying neighborhoods with grand utopian schemes. “The projects,” once the consensus answer, stand and fall as emblems of planning failure. Recently we’ve turned to other means. Perhaps most promising is Yale’s contribution as an investor in local business and as the city’s largest employer. And then there’s education reform, which, like the monumental urban renewal schemes of the Dick Lee era, will receive its first prominent test in New Haven.

The local fruits of a $16 billion dollar endowment and of innovations in social policy are worthy of praise. Yet fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what Yale does, or what City Hall does. If we want to rebuild, diversify and make desirable our private sector and our neighborhoods, our governance must come not from government but from communities.

I don’t mean to say that we should cut spending, not necessarily. But for every 360 State, every subsidized university employee’s home and every dollar spent on social services, there must be a civil society to meet it halfway, from the bottom up. If not, then beautiful buildings and patched-up windows are just eye candy.

This thinking is not new. In a landmark 1997 study, epidemiologist Felton Earls and colleagues showed that “collective efficacy” — the willingness of neighbors to intervene on behalf of the common good — best explains reductions in urban violence. Fifty years earlier, Jane Jacobs observed that “failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government.” While her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” was radical in its day, it is now as commonsensical as it is canonical.

As I discovered, old-school New Haven civil society is alive and well in our city, thanks to the work of community organizers. Recently I got to sit down with three of New Haven’s finest, Kevin Ewing DIV ’07 of West River and the Hill, Ken Janke of Fair Haven and Lee Cruz of Chatham Square. They’re a diverse bunch — Ewing is a pastor, Janke is from Dallas and Cruz is former director of the New Haven/León Sister City project, a binational non-profit — yet they speak the same language, one of RFK-style idealism coupled with seasoned intellectual authority.

What is community organizing? A buzzword, for one. Some associate it with “change” and its post-election offspring, Organizing for America, others with an effort to leverage the power of the powerless against that of the powerful.

In New Haven, community organizing is neither Marxist nor Democrat. Here, community organizing is about community.

Cruz, Ewing and Janke define what they do as building “relational culture,” which, unlike an “affinity group,” does not feed on a shared interest or cause. It’s synonymous with collectivism, but reflects an on-the-ground willingness to get to know one another and work together rather than some predefined identity. In the language of political economist Karl Polanyi, it is achieved rather than ascribed.

How do you get relational culture to happen? You in-source. You identify local possibilities and leaders and you build neighborhood collaboration around them. The key is that the parts are already in place. The Feeding of the 5000, as Ewing has it, was a miracle not of alimentary alchemy but of getting people to share.

The goal of community organizing is to get the community to take back the community. It’s a triumph of voice over exit, and it’s just what Jane Jacobs ordered: “unslumming” requires a self-determination whereby the “successful people” are inclined to lead rather than leave.

For every abstract framing, Cruz, Ewing and Janke have real-life results to back it up. Cruz describes one man who launched a neighborhood food collection program and another who started giving English lessons out of his house. Ewing recounts the story of a woman who planned a street-sweep and got to meet her neighbors for the first time. And Janke tells of an informal Halloween festival that brought in several hundred local kids and an e-mail from a new resident saying that the event “affirms for me that my wife and I made the right choice in buying our house.”

These examples may sound simple, but in New Haven, they’re far from universal. When Cruz says that the relational paradigm “is a way of possibly organizing the entire city,” he speaks of a future only faintly in sight. That’s where the city comes in.

With the days of authoritarian urban “renewal” in stark hindsight, our city must shift its approach from doing for to doing with. Like its organizers, it must recognize potential sources of community and invest in them from the ground up. This means greater emphasis on community organizing and fewer minor one-off cultural events, however well-meaning. The city may find, as has Cruz in his role at the local community foundation, that once it nourishes its grassroots, it is able to scale back funding.

What about us, the student body? We should follow the lead of Rutgers’ “Empower Our Neighborhoods,” a student-run organizing coalition well-integrated into surrounding New Brunswick, New Jersey. The politically active among us have knocked on countless doors, and there’s no reason we can’t refocus our energy from politics to the people who answer our knocking.

In the process, we and our local leaders must break from our forebears and judge projects and programs on their ability to stimulate relational culture rather than their flashiness. “There is no way to build community,” says Cruz, adapting Martin Luther King, Jr., “Community is the way.”

James Cersonsky is a junior in Timothy Dwight College.

Comments

  • Ben Berkowitz

    James,

    This is great stuff. You should come visit us at SeeClickFix, the home of community governance, sometime.

    Read more here: http://seeclickfix.blogspot.com/