Sender: H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing & Subject: Re: PAPER: "Before the Neighborhood Organization Revolution" <COMM-ORG@UICVM.UIC.EDU> ========================================================================= Date: Tue, 30 Apr 1996 12:01:06 CDT Posted by Wendy Plotkin <>

I'd like to add a wrinkle to the story that Patricia Mooney-Melvin tells in her paper "Before the Neighborhood Organization Revolution: Cincinnati Neighborhood Improvement Associations, 1890-1950". In this paper, Mooney-Melvin describes the attempts of neighborhood associations -- often on the periphery of Cincinnati, and in some cases newly annexed areas -- to obtain improvements from the city such as sewerage, water and streetcar lines.

In his seminal work, CRABGRASS FRONTIER: THE SUBURBANIZATION OF THE UNITED STATES (New York: Oxford, 1985), Jackson suggests that the efforts of similar groups in many cities in this era were regressive, in that they were asking for a shift from user funding of improvements to city-wide funding. It was the practice in the late 19th century of many cities to assess the abutters and those benefitting from improvements for the bulk of the cost of the improvements. Jackson cites Roger Simon's THE CITY-BUILDING PROCESS: HOUSING AND SERVICES IN NEW MILWAUKEE NEIGHBORHOODS, 1880-1910 (Philadelphia, 1978) and its observation that some immigrant groups such as Poles explicitly discouraged improvements so as to avoid tax increases (which I am assuming are special assessments in this case) and apply the savings to the acquisition of a home. On the other hand, developers working on the outskirts of the expanding cities and in the suburbs called for citywide funding of these improvements, arguing -- along with reformers -- that relief from the congestion of the crowded city centers would work to the benefit of the entire city.

Jackson offers the specific example of Atlanta from Howard Preston's AUTOMOBILE AGE ATLANTA: THE MAKING OF A SOUTHERN METROPOLIS, 1900-1935 (Athens, GA, 1979)

Howard L. Preston . . . has documented the way in which Atlantans within the city limits, one-third of whom were black, subsidized the necessary municipal services of unincorporated Fulton County residents, most of whom were white and on the whole better able to pay for schools, police, and street repairs. Preston discovered that more than 50 percent of the local tax revenues collected in 1937 and earmarked for public schools in Atlanta suburbs came from Atlanta taxpayers. This was true for highway maintenance, health costs, and police expenditures in unincorporated sections of Fulton County. (132)

I am not sure to what extent the situation Jackson describes would apply to the Cincinnati groups in Mooney-Melvin's paper -- but it suggests that the advocacy of the neighborhood improvement associations is also interesting in terms of its relation to the larger and complex competition for city resources among neighborhoods.

Wendy Plotkin COMM-ORG ========================================================================= Date: Fri, 3 May 1996 12:42:57 CDT Posted by David Swain <>

I'd like to respond to Wendy's recent comments in relation to the Mooney-Melvin paper As I've done in the past, I'd like to bring some of the complexity of the reality I know to bear on the discussion. If I've said some of this here before, I apologize in advance. I find it hard to keep track....

The question is about who gets and who pays for infrastructure improvements.

Several not directly related comments:

First, a possibly anomalous example that I believe is instructive -- sidewalks. Rather consistently, residents in more wealthy neighborhoods and subdivisions in my town of Jacksonville have opposed putting in sidewalks (they are "unsightly" and encourage kids' play around immaculate lawns etc.), while residents in less wealthy neighborhoods generally want them (a place for the kids to walk and play out of the street). Currently, sidewalks aren't required by the local codes. However, something else called safety walks are, on one side only, along streets near and leading to public schools. Safety walks are narrower than sidewalks. So, what we might call class politics has restrained public spending on sidewalks. (If the rich don't want them, it's not worth spending public infrastructure dollars on them in poor neighborhoods). But kids' safety policy, agreed on by all classes, has led to the construction of narrow sidewalks in some places in most neighborhoods, despite the desires of the rich in their neighborhoods and to the satisfaction of those in poor neighborhoods.

Second, my organization did a citizens' study a couple of years ago on geographic equity in the distribution of basic public services by the City of Jacksonville (a city/county consolidated government serving 700,000 residents with a jurisdiction of 840 square miles).

[Ed: For information on David's organization and on the city of Jacksonville, send e-mail to with the message: GET SWAIN INTRO]

Basically, we found that city infrastructure construction-project decisions have for some time been made primarily on the basis of improving geographic equity. A former city government and former county government had had very different levels of public services. When they consolidated in 1968, a major political promise was to bring all areas up to a certain level of services. For the city this has meant in particular paving literally hundreds of miles of formerly unpaved roads, and putting in hundreds of miles of sanitary and storm sewers to replace outhouses, septic tanks, and open ditches. The greatest concentrations of these efforts have been in low-income, African American neighborhoods that had been pretty much ignored by both old governments.

Who's paying for all this? The taxpaying public. Why? A conservative population and a very strong developers lobby, which have consistently defeated any efforts to institute impact fees. One result is certainly that our town has lower levels of public services and infrastructure overall than others which have chosen to combine tax dollars and impact fees to finance both catchup and new development infrastructure needs. For instance, the accepted standard for drainage in our comprehensive plan is that a five-year storm will not flood the ground floor of buildings; however, it may and will--and does--flood streets and yards, right up to the doorstep.

In terms of promoting equity among neighborhoods with differing classes, races, and political clout, our comprehensive plan (required by state law) has made a big difference. Regardless of the adequacy of the standards adopted, the plan does direct city officials to achieve at least a certain minimum standard throughout the county. Since dollars aren't available to meet the adopted standards everywhere all at once, the result has been a priority setting process that has led to a concentration of spending in low-income, often African American neighborhoods, because they tend to have the most deficient infrastructure, based on past political decision making. Maybe there is hope for us with planners.

Much of what I've described is not known to local residents and neighborhood groups. We're now in the process of trying to change this. One strategy has been to get the City of Jacksonville to publish an annual Equity Index with indicators of relative service delivery by neighborhood. The first one is in print, with 1994 numbers, and 1995 figures are now being compiled for the first annual update. We're also trying a couple of strategies to get neighborhood groups more involved in the city's budget decision making process. Other cities are way ahead of us in getting neighborhoods plugged into city politics and policy making. Ed Schwartz' work in Philadelphia in particular comes to mind.

[Ed: Ed Schwartz's remarkable WWW site stocked with information on obtaining social justice at the neighborhood level is at

and on the COMM-ORG WWW (

W. Plotkin, COMM-ORG]

Wendy concludes her post by referring to the "competition" for city resources among neighborhoods. I find that notion somewhat oversimplified. As my examples have attempted to show, not all neighborhoods want to compete for the same things, and sometimes policy making about services is made without neighborhood input, much less competition. Furthermore, it's possible that planning-based decision making can have the effect of furthering redistributive policies that improve equity rather than the opposite, which one would expect to result from "politics as usual."


[Ed: To obtain the paper, the comments, and auxiliary materials, all with one command, send e-mail to with the message: GET NEIGHBOR PACKAGE

To obtain the paper alone, substitute the message: GET NEIGHBOR IMPROVE

To obtain my comments, add or substitute the message: GET NEIGHBOR COMMENTS

- W. Plotkin] ******************************************************** David Swain Associate Director Jacksonville Community Council Inc. 2434 Atlantic Boulevard, Suite 100 Jacksonville, FL 32207

phone 904-396-3052 fax 904-398-1469 ********************************************************