========================================================================= Date: Sun, 28 Apr 1996 16:52:25 CDT Sender: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing & <COMM-ORG@UICVM.UIC.EDU> Subject: Abstract: 1910s Neighborhood Organizing in U.S. Posted by Wendy Plotkin <U13972@uicvm.uic.edu>
Patricia Mooney-Melvin, Associate Professor of History at Loyola University in Chicago, is one of the leading historians of neighborhood organizations in the U.S. She has written articles and a book, THE ORGANIC CITY (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987), about the Social Unit Plan of Wilbur Phillips in the first two decades of this century (see below) and has edited AMERICAN COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS: A HISTORICAL DICTIONARY (New York : Greenwood Press, 1986).
She is past president of the National Council for Public History, her term running from March 1994 to March 1995. Her public history-urban history intersection comes with a short booklet published in 1993 called READING YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD: A BRIEF HISTORY OF EAST ROGERS PARK. It grew out of the Rogers Park/West Ridge Centennial celebration, and is available from the Rogers Park/West Ridge Historical Society. [In a separate posting, I'll describe that booklet.]
She is also the Director of Loyola's Public History Program.
The increasing identification and acceptance of neighborhoods as meaningful areas led to organizing activity at this level. Mooney-Melvin writes
Advocates of the organic, or inderdependent, city believed that city life could not be understood nor its problems met, unless the process began in the neighborhood. ... As the fundamental social unit, the neighborhood was seen as an 'elaborate nexus of interrelations, needs, and ambitions.' Sufficiently small enough to be comprehensible to and manageable for the average citizens, it was at the same time large enough `to include, in essence, practically all the problems of the city, state, and nation.' (61)
The attention to neighborhoods was based on a Progressive era concern for the future of American democracy in light of the growth of expertise -- how were Americans to reconcile citizen involvement in decision-making with the need for experts to address the complexity of society, especially in the urban milieu?
Mooney-Melvin's article outlines in detail one of the most important neighborhood initiatives of the era, Wilbur C. Phillip's "Social Unit Organization." This was an attempt to organize neighborhoods into distinct resident and expert components that would engage in an on-going dialogue about the needs of the neighborhood, and implement programs to meet these needs. Phillip's background was in child health and welfare in New York City, specifically the movement to ensure the purity of milk. Milk was often adulterated or spoiled in this period, and child mortality was believed to be based in part on its impurity. Mooney describes how Phillips came to see that improving milk quality alone did not significantly decrease the incidence of infant mortality. In response, Phillips enlarged his concerns to child health and welfare in general. In moving to Milwaukee in 1911, he was able to develop an intensive, neighborhood-based intervention that dispensed preventive care and health information to Milwaukeeans.
Phillips' experience with the New York milk program and the Milwaukee Child Welfare Commission were pivotal in his development of the "social unit organization" plan, one
centered around the establishment of a 'democratic' structure through which citizens could partcipate directly in the control of community affairs while at the same time making use of the highest technical skills available. (63)
It was highly structured, consisting of block workers and Block Councils (block level resident organizations), Citizen Councils (comprised of Block Council delegates), Occupational Councils (professionals serving the neighborhoods, such as physicians, nurses, and settlement house workers), and a General Council, bringing all of these together at the neighborhood level.
Phillips' plan gained popularity among leading thinkers of the time, including Herbert Croly, editor of the NEW REPUBLIC. It led to the creation of the National Social Unit Organization (NSUO), which sponsored a three year demonstration of the program. The NSUO eventually decided on Cincinnati as the location of its pilot program, due to the enthusiasm expressed by social service agencies and citizens. A "competition" was held among Cincinnati neighborhoods to be selected as the site of the initial program, and in 1917 a Cincinnati Social Unit Organization (CSUO) was established to oversee this selection. Among the many neighborhoods offering proposals, the Mohawk-Brighton neighborhood was selected due to its generous offers of support.
Mooney-Melvin hypothesizes that the eagerness of the Mohawk-Brighton neighborhood for this type of program was related to its insecurity about sustaining its status as a newly-formed middle class neighborhood:
By banding together in groups, whether social, economic, or religious, 'zone residents sought to realize their aspirations,' however imprecisely defined, and 'to control their community.'
Threatened by both their physical and generational proximity to the slums,
...the residents of Mohawk-Brighton, and more particularly the neighborhood leaders of this community, on the cutting edge of the slums, were more interested in pursuing an activity that they viewed as an opportunity for neighborhood betterment. (71)
Upon selection, the neighborhood organized itself and decided on child welfare as the first focus of its activity. This focus catalyzed the establishment of a Physician's Council (9 men), a Nurse's Council (1 from each of the 4 nursing organizations in the area), and a Social Workers' Council.
In its first weeks, it
established a neighborhood bulletin to serve as a 'medium for the expression of the community's thought,' and to assist in the exchange of information between the various groups active in the neighborhood. (73)
It chose a headquarters, prepared a budget for the private and public local funds made available to it, and rented a headquarters for the health center.
In December of 1917, the Mohawk-Brighton Social Unit Organization launched its infant health program. This program offered educational sessions throughout the neighborhood on preventive health care, and a survey of the neighborhood to identify its infants. Nurses visited the infants, and encouraged the mothers to bring the infants in for examinations. According to Mooney-Melvin
By the end of 1918, the nursing staff had made 5,388 visits to 576 babies, and, of the 576, over two-thirds had received full medical examinations. By 1919, there existed in Mohawk-Brighton, one observed noted, 'a markedly greater interest and intelligence about child care.'(74)
The enthusiasm over the infant health care program spread to an interest in preventive care for the entire population. By 1920, the neighborhood organization offered "prenatal care, general bedside nursing, medical examinations of all preschool children, and supervision of local tuberculosis cases, in addition to postnatal examinations." (74)
In a sense, the service was established at an auspicious time, challenging the capacity of the health care program, which rose successfully to the occasion. In 1918, the U.S. Children's Bureau announced a nationwide "Children's Year" with the primary object of alerting the nation to "correctible defects" and the benefits of "periodic medical examinations." Also involved in the campaign was an organization that was an off-shoot of the U.S. involvement in World War I, the Women's Committee of the Council of National Defense. The Children's Year campaign encouraged many mothers to bring their children in for health examinations, boosting the census of the neighborhood health center.
A second phenomenon that tested the health program was the 1918 influenza epidemic that ravaged the U.S. population in these years. Hearing of the epidemic in the East, the neighborhood organization initiated preventive measures before the "Spanish flu" arrived in Cincinnati. It flooded the neighborhood with publicity about the expected flu and means of preventing or treating it. That the incidence of death from the influenza was lower in the neighborhood, in spite of having a higher number of cases, was attributed by some to the efforts of the health center.
In its work in these years,
the Mohawk-Brighton Social Unit Organization established one of of the most comprehensive neighborhood health-care programs in the country.
According to Mooney-Melvin
the Neighborhood Social Unit Organization brought trained health personnel into a 'working relationship' with the citizens of the district and stimulated a 'local health consciousness.' (76)
In spite of these successes, anti-Communism, politics, loss of financing, and internal conflicts led to its demise. Cincinnati's mayor accused the Mohawk-Brighton organization of manifesting an "alien" philosophy in its work, implicating it as being just short of Bolshevism, the bogeyman of U.S. political life in these "Red Scare" years. In THE ORGANIC CITY, Mooney-Melvin expands on the controversy, and the aspects of the Mohawk-Brighton organization considered most objectionable. Although the membership of social unit founder, Wilbur Phillips, in the Socialist Party at an earlier stage in his life, was cited as evidence of complicity, this appeared to be minor. More important was the attempt to organize residents at the local level, something seen as too similar as the "soviets" of the Bolshevik experiment.
Apart from the red-baiting, Mooney-Melvin suggests that the mayor's opposition originated in the political threat that the social organization represented to the political machine and its precinct organization. An analyst from this period observed that
'beginning with a small phase of community life its expanding organization may...have absorbed new functions until it would finally take the place of existing political machinery.' (ORGANIC CITY, 154)
Bureaucratic concerns of the Cincinnati Health Department that the neighborhood's program was "undercutting" its efforts led to the withdrawal of support of that key agency -- in spite of a favorable city referendum in support of the program. In general, many of the city's social service providers stood by the model of "top down," professionally-provided service that had emerged from the charity and settlement house movements. They viewed the involvement of the citizenry in social service planning and delivery as unsettling, at the least.
Cincinnati, like many other cities, favored the institution of financial federations, which centralized funding campaigns and, in many cases, program-making. Leaders of those interested in financial federation were concerned, not with cooperative democracy, but with the machinery and financing of social work. These proponents wanted 'efficiency through expert leadership rather than democratic self-determination through the joint efforts of citizen and specialist.' (ORGANIC CITY, 156-157)
The loss of financial support resulting from the withdrawal of city and social service support eventually caused the closing of the Mohawk- Brighton Social Unit Organization.
Aside from these external influences, the "social unit" program did work fully as planned. The Block Councils did not put into practice the programs based on the block workers' familiarity with the neighborhood -- and the block workers then ignored the Councils. Many of the professional groups were less active than the physicians, social workers, and nurses. The program was never accepted by many in the neighborhood, in part because it threatened existing programs.
Mooney-Melvin concludes that, in spite of the demise of the "social unit" experiment in Cincinnati, it serves as model of democratic organization at the neighborhood level, and involved neighborhood residents to an extent than had occurred in the past.
I am interested in the thoughts of the organizers and students of organizing in this seminar about the extent to which the experiences of this early neighborhood-based organization are similar to their own -- or of other articles and/or books on this topic.
Wendy Plotkin COMM-ORG U13972@uicvm.uic.edu