Manifesto of Big Ideas: Distressed & Depressed Cities

Self-determination and survivalism replace desolation & despair

Why should the rich & privileged be the only ones to be protected by gated communities and armed guards?

If the law-abiding, hard working residents of crime ridden urban areas were allowed to ban together and secure their perimeters, they would gain the sense of self-determination & security that they yearn for.

How might they take control of their own turf? How might this look and unfold?

Assume that, for example, there was a 10 X 10 block area that was relatively depopulated, highly blighted and infected with extremely high crime. The best scenario might also include some well defined topographic/geographic boundaries. A combination of, for example, railroad embankment, interstate highway and some rivers forming its borders. 

What if…..

All the residents seeking to live within this safety zone agreed to the following conditions. My prediction is that they would jump at the opportunity to live under these mutually supportive conditions having been trapped in lawless neighborhoods where the borders are porous, the criminals run the streets and the police are overwhelmed running from call to call.

Residents of various income levels could live in this secured area in renovated apartments. Mixed income would encourage diversity, creativity, and camaraderie all of which is lacking in the majority of American neighborhoods be they occupied by households of high, low or middle income persons. 

Basic commercial conveniences (i.e., milk, bread, etc.) could be provided within this secured complex similar to the way that a commissary on a military base serves its residents. The greater the critical mass of residents, the stronger the demand for commercial services. Capitalism within a communal environment. Resident owned cooperative modeled businesses could replace the predatory liquor stores and check cashing businesses found in non-secured neighborhoods where the residents have little or no control over their environment and their consumer decisions.

CCTV video surveillance and license plate scanners could record all vehicles entering and exiting this safe zone ensuring that it remains a safe zone. At first blush this might smack of Big Brother domination but anyone who signs up to reside in this safe zone agrees to this ahead of time. These residents are refugees of the chaos of other neighborhoods and would gladly opt for this lifestyle. Those who are up-to-no-good would shun such an environment and to this I say “good riddance”.

The limited access points and monitoring of these access points could be attractively designed as Welcome Stations where visitors and residents alike could be greeted as valued human beings. This would include attractive landscaping and uplifting decorations/messaging. Who would not want to be a part of such a community? A computerized resident ID and vehicle ID system could expedite access to this safe zone and function similar to the way a hotel room card provides safe access to your room and is deactivated upon your departure from the hotel. To keep costs down, residents could volunteer to man the Welcome Stations with some supervision and oversight by local police patrols to both augment their presence and make sure that the volunteers are following proper procedure and do not become ‘loose cannons”. To what extent the Welcome Stations become reinforced (i.e., gated entry, bullet resistant, etc.) would depend upon the level of crime and chaos of the surrounding area.       

Residents within the secured safe zone would regularly volunteer for litter clean-ups. A community garden might provide a sense of community spirit, healthy products and a sense of self-sufficiency.

Community events (i.e., cook-outs, music, poetry readings, book clubs, movie nights, athletic events, etc.) could add a sense of community pride, self-sufficiency and self-determination. The scope of these programs and activities would be dictated by the size/scope of the residential population and the interests and enthusiasm of those residents. A community room/meeting area is recommended to coincide with this format. Costs could be minimized through volunteers and contracting or bartering with service/program providers should be considered.

How did I come up with this vision of a secured/supportive community?

After working over 30 years in public housing and in blighted, troubled neighborhoods, it occurred to me that people are happiest when they control their environment (and particularly their safety). 

I have sat in spotless, tastefully decorated apartments of residents of public housing. These same families live in constant fear and have absolutely no control once they venture beyond the door of their apartment. 

I’ve managed a condominium complex where the rate of owner-occupancy plummeted while the building and the neighborhood went to hell-in-a-handbasket all while I launched valiant efforts at community organizing and blockwatch formation. This is not to imply that renters are inherently bad people. It merely demonstrates that when people are thrust together with no commonality of interests, insurmountable problems ensue for which no amount of money can fix them. 

I’ve observed wonderful singular renovation/revitalization initiatives by well intentioned, noble groups such as Habitat For Humanity and a plethora of affordable housing non-profits. Their costly and excruciatingly time consuming initiatives are all too often overwhelmed by surrounding blight, crime and inertia/apathy. It reminded me of the sand castles I so carefully built at the beach only to be washed away by the rising tide.

Managing public housing sites and launching revitalization initiatives (Enterprise Zones, etc.) with programs to enrich the lives of residents, funding to fix the buildings and conducting lease enforcement and code enforcement all have value. However, my observation is that without a “securing the perimeter” to stop the madness and without a sense of all-for-one and one-for-all among the residents within that perimeter, the efforts fall short. We will never be able to provide enough programming for youth to keep them engaged and safe on a 24/7 basis. Every physical renovation is all too often accompanied by vandalism. I recall the day I decided to discontinue organizing neighborhood clean-ups. As we were diligently picking up litter, residents on porches affably waved to us while swigging beer and smoking pot. They were friendly enough but it was obvious that they wanted to take no part in such do-good activities.

Streetscape upgrades, facade improvements, planting of flowers and erecting welcoming banners in our blighted urban areas are valiant efforts. They are all for naught if overwhelmed by crime and apathy in an un-defendable space where the occupants do not share a common mission.   

Published by dunnwriteswell

Boomer who is late bloomer to writing. Healthy addictions include Book TV and exercise. Track all things historic, political, cultural, economic and social. Mixture of tough-love. Minimalist who is fiscally conservative and socially progressive. Realist not afraid to see the glass as half empty. However, still willing to consider outside-the-box, long term solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Old enough to appreciate the greater arc of history while remaining young at heart.

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