The Meaning Of 'Community Renewal' Is Not What It Used To Be
The City of DeKalb has begun a project to revitalize a troubled area of the city. In the past, “renewal” often meant “removal and replacement,” but not these days. WNIJ’s Guy Stephens looks at recent efforts toward neighborhood revitalization.
Guy Stephens' report on neighborhood revitalization (Friday Forum, Dec. 1, 2017)
The area in DeKalb designated as Annie Glidden North includes some retail, some older residences, a number of fraternities and sororities, and apartment complexes that were built for a surge of students that hit Northern Illinois University a couple of decades ago. Enrollment has since dropped, and low-income families have moved into what was supposed to be transient housing. The area has few services for those families, or others. It also has seen an uptick in crime.
Camiros, Ltd., an urban-planning firm that specializes in neighborhood revitalization, has worked in a variety of places throughout the United States, including northern Illinois. Adam Rosa, a principal with the firm, says that each site -- and its mix of problems -- is unique.
But he says they have things in common: Most are communities that evolved in often unplanned ways and now are distressed. There’s something else important that they share.
“The residents have come together to create a plan, a strategy, a roadmap, to improve their communities,” he said.
That was true in DeKalb. The city engaged Camiros as a consultant and began putting together a project, holding public meetings, and forming a task force including all the stakeholders. That means residents, owners, students and others who live or work in the area, along with officials from the city, county and NIU.
Rosa says his firm works with communities to facilitate changes, combining resident input with its experience on what has worked elsewhere. Some things can be done fairly easily -- such as improving lighting, building façades and the like. But, Rosa says, the next step is up to the stakeholders. The residents of Annie Glidden North, like other places he’s worked with, must come to a consensus on what they want it to become.
“Does it transition into more of a family neighborhood? Does it transition back to primarily a student neighborhood? Or is there an equilibrium in the middle that can really be achieved?” he asked. “And, if so, what other amenities are needed -- community spaces, parks, retail spaces -- to make it a whole neighborhood?”
Once that vision is established, Rosa says, work can begin to encourage the types of investment, both public and private, that will be needed.
Mim Evans, a research associate with the Center for Governmental Studies (CGS) at Northern Illinois University, she says a lot of cities are experiencing change for a variety of reasons.
“And what DeKalb is trying to do is to find a way to incorporate all of this without displacing anyone,” she said, “but find a way to bring it all together so you have a new equilibrium.”
That new equilibrium, ideally, would provide an improved quality of life for all its residents. Evans says that’s not always been the case with neighborhood redevelopments.
“It’s been much more of a ‘Let’s generate a more vital economic hub for the city,’ or, ‘Let’s make the university more attractive by redeveloping the area right at the edge of the university,’” she explained.
Evans thinks other communities should take note of DeKalb’s approach, an important part of which is having good data. That’s where the CGS comes in. Several years ago, it began helping DeKalb city officials with strategic planning, including a study that Evans says was innovative.
“They realized that getting a really good handle on what was going on with the housing stock – the condition of the housing stock, who lived where, what it cost, what the surrounding environment of the residence in each neighborhood was something really basic to being able to plan for the future of the community,” Evans explained.
The study helped delineate the city’s neighborhoods, like Annie Glidden North. Evans says it also helped focus on where the city had problems and begin to look at a targeted solution.
Evans says feedback from residents was and is necessary – what people say is still very important, she says -- but numbers can be very useful in revitalization project like this.
“The advantages of having a data base, at least to begin with, is you are starting from an objective point rather than a perception,” she said. “And the other is that you can measure your progress.”
CGS Director Diana Robinson says that, while it has taken the leading role in other projects, it’s using its expertise in a supporting role to Camiros on the Annie Glidden North project.
That means making sense in a process that continually refines the plan and its objectives. The refining is done by a series of meetings, with as many people as possible who want to have a voice participating.
“The information collected at these public meetings then becomes synthesized and packaged so we can feed it back to everyone and say, ‘Is this what you said? Do we understand it accurately?’ and then we move on to the next level,” Robinson explained.
Rosa agrees that it’s much better than the days of top-down urban renewal projects of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, where the deal was done with minimal community involvement. Firms like his are working much differently now.
“What you’re really trying to do is to have the community take ownership of the plan so that, as you move through the process, they’re all involved, they’re giving their feedback, they’re giving their ideas,” Rosa said. “And as you get towards the end, they become the biggest champions for the plan itself. It’s not Camiros’s plan, it’s the neighborhood’s plan. They’re going to stand up for it.”
And, Rosa says, do things like go to city council meetings to keep pushing it forward.
He cites the example of another troubled neighborhood where Camiros helped in Rockford, starting several years ago. Rosa highlighted the effort on the city’s Ellis Heights area as a success story at the first DeKalb public meeting.
Ron Clewer is the chief operating officer of Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. Until this year, he was executive director of the Rockford Housing Authority and worked closely with Camiros and others on the Ellis Heights project.
Clewer says that Ellis Heights -- like Annie Glidden North -- had a number of problems. But instead of writing the area off, authorities helped residents create a revitalization plan and empowered them to solve some of those problems, like making sure kids got to school safely.
“The community came together and started walking kids to school in groups in a ‘walking school bus,’” Clewer recalled. “Neighbors started reaching to neighbors -- and not just people in the neighborhood but from the community -- to trim back trees that had overgrown and pick up trash in the neighborhood.”
He says that, as residents then pooled their resources with the city’s to make other improvements, like sidewalks so kids wouldn’t have to walk in the street, and fixing up home exteriors.
The Rockford neighborhood recently celebrated the opening of new affordable housing and, before that, a full-size grocery store that provides residents easier access to healthy food choices. There were other investments, too. Clewer says those are just some of the things that can be achieved with a good plan and its adoption by both residents and the community at large.
Rosa says he can point to successes in other cities, too. Clewer says that, along with Rockford’s example, they should give hope to those working on projects like Annie Glidden North.
There are naysayers. In both Rockford and DeKalb, people have objected to pouring resources into what was perceived as a blighted community. After all, some said, there’s crime and other problems in other parts of the city. So why the effort on this one spot?
Clewer says that sentiment is common in these cases, wherever they are. He answers with an analogy.
“If you have an area of our body that is unhealthy, the rest of your body is not going to be healthy,” he said. “If you work holistically to improve that area of your body that has a challenge. Or, at worst, you've seen them cut out. When you cut that out, it’s not good for that community or your body.”
In other words, healthier neighborhoods equal healthier communities. And, he says, when you look at why something bad is happening, remediation and revitalization often turns out to be cheaper in the long run for the larger community than just reacting to a neighborhood’s problems as they arise. Besides, he says, it’s a better way to a balanced community than simply relying on, say, gentrification – for practical and moral reasons.
“At the end of the day, there are only so many wealthy people in the world with enough disposable income to support those kinds of neighborhoods,” Clewer said. “And pushing out people of modest means is just not an acceptable way to develop community, when what we should be doing is developing community for everybody.”
Rosa and Clewer both say it takes time – sometimes years, as it has in Rockford -- to see how efforts like those in DeKalb will play out. But, they say, as long as everyone involved stays engaged – and keeps listening to one another -- they have a reasonable chance of success.