Dudley Street neighborhood development

I’m reading an interesting book by Robert Putnam called “Better together” which tells the stories of different initiatives to build communities and develop neighborhoods.

One of the stories in this book illustrates the power of bottom-up participatory open collaborative emergent approaches to neighborhood development as contrasted with more top-down planned hierarchical approaches. And I think this story can also be a jumping off point to propose a vision of how gift circles could catalyze neighborhood development.

The book tells the story of the Dudley Street neighborhood in the 70’s and 80’s which was “low income, high crime, poor schools, burned-out buildings, acres of vacant lots used as dumping grounds, abandoned cars, and the night lit by fires. The smell of smoke hung in the air, mixed with the stench of rotting trash.” “Arson was so common that children considered the fires entertainment.”

Nelson Merced, executive director of La Alianza a social services agency, brought together many agencies to form the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative to work out a plan to rebuild the neighborhood. They then brought the people in the Dudley neighborhood in a meeting to discuss their plan.

“Merced explained the background and the aims of the proposed initiative. Someone else in the planning group described the board structure. Then, in the words of Bill Slotnik, co-chair of the meeting ‘All hell broke loose;. People did not know what the foundation wanted, they feared being displaced by the kind of urban renewal that had razed whole neighborhoods in Boston’s West end – the same clean slate approach that destroyed vibrant neighborhoods in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Portland, Oregon, and many other US cities. Local resident Che Madyun asked how many of the group seated at the front of the church {in the planning group} lived in the neighborhood. Perhaps one peron raised a hand. Tito Fuster, who worked at Alianza and was part of he advisory group, remembers how eloquently the residents argued that the so-called neighborhood initiative would be under the control of outside agencies, not the neighborhood, and said “We want to be sitting at the table”

“Remarkably when the advisory group reconvened they told the audience that they agreed with the criticisms and announced that they would scrap their laboriously crafted plan. They promised to hold open meetings to discuss a new governance structure, one that would give a controlling majority of board seats to residents. This response was unusual and surprising for several reasons. Defensive stubbornness seems a more likely reaction to hostile public criticism.. Resident control of a neighborhood improvement program was unorthodox – and especially so for a devastated neighborhood like Dudley. Holmes describes the incredulity in the world of professional planners and grant makers when word of the new organization spread.”

Whats interesting here is that the traditional top-down expert-based planned approach to neighborhood development did not work here. Instead a hybrid approach which included aspects of a more bottom-up, participatory emergent approach which gave more power to the residents of the neighborhood was taken.

This approach has paid dividends and over the years the neighborhood has revived.


I’d like to put forth here the vision of an even more bottom-up emergent participatory approach than happened in the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative approach. And that would be to seed the Dudley Street neighborhood with gift circles. This could begin activating the neighborhood to help itself and build community. Then when there was a network of gift circles in the area, community projects to clean up the neighborhood could source their volunteer help from the gift circles.

This approach is even more bottom-up because it relies even less on external agencies coming in and initially organizing everything. The gift circle vision would develop the leadership and coordination abilities of the residents themselves, and then allow the residents to craft the plans.

In the actual hybrid Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative the community began to coalesce over large community projects. In the gift circle model community coalesces at the one-on-one scale as people help each other individually, and also at the circle level. From these two size scales a variety of smaller projects may get proposed and flower. And then from this base of smaller scale relationships and projects, larger community projects can flower. This provides an even more resilient and complex adaptive system framework from which neighborhood actions can happen.

In Ashland, this last year the gift circle there helped catalyze the formation of a community gift economy holistic health clinic. In Marin, the gift circle there helped play a role in the birth of a community hub space.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s