Another way to battle blight

EVEN in Philadelphia, with its 40,000 vacant properties and a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, the Kensington neighborhood still shocks. On a frigid afternoon, a prostitute lingers in the shadow of the elevated train tracks, waiting restlessly for customers. Husks of long-closed factories stand amid thigh-high winter wheat. Streams of garbage flow down the streets, as if both the people and the city government had agreed to forsake the effort of propriety.

In recent months, this neighborhood has also been terrorized by a killer who choked and raped his victims in the area’s ubiquitous abandoned houses and vacant lots. If only these deserted places could be charged as accomplices to the so-called Kensington Strangler’s three murders and two sexual assaults, and for aiding and abetting the drug use and prostitution that have caused so many of the neighborhood’s problems. But the empty lots with their discarded furniture and ghetto kudzu and the weather-beaten houses with boarded-up windows won’t be going anywhere soon.

It’s been nearly 30 years since James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling published their broken windows theory, positing that the torn social fabric that allows for vandalism also encourages other kinds of crime and disinvestment in a neighborhood. The theory validated the inclination to improve the built environment first, in the hopes that once a sense of confidence has been restored other aspects of an engaged community will follow. And in places on the cusp of gentrification or economic recovery, like certain New York areas in the ’90s, quality-of-life campaigns have been proven to clean up the streets and reduce crime.

Indeed, as gentrification has slowly crept northward in Philadelphia, Kensington residents have gained some hope from a newly branded arts corridor, a few rejuvenated parks and street improvements, all thanks to the efforts of an invaluable local community development corporation. But this scattershot approach has failed to create the kind of holistic change needed in this neighborhood — or its counterparts in St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit and Baltimore.

Many cities have also sought to transform undeveloped lots into green space and urban agriculture. It’s a natural fit and, again, in Kensington a full city block has been converted from an industrial brownfield to an admirably active farm. But land-based strategies that try to reinvent this vacant lot or that blighted ground do little to stem the larger social trends that created the spatial problem in the first place.

Philadelphia, like many Rust Belt cities, was so deeply hurt by the loss of manufacturing that began in the 1950s that it has yet to recover. Gone were the jobs that even high-school dropouts could leverage to achieve stable lives, and with them went the housing stock. Today, we are left with a city where the number of jobs requiring postsecondary education has grown, while more than 60 percent of Philadelphia’s adults read at a sixth grade level or below, creating a miserable mismatch that leaves both employers and the unemployed in need.That’s why any plan to mitigate the vacant property crisis must not only include innovative urban planning, but also try to restore employment opportunities. We need to literally build jobs on neglected and undeveloped land.

There are a number of organizations in Philadelphia that provide models for dealing with vacancy and joblessness as intertwined problems. For example, the Job Opportunity Investment Network, a public-private partnership, supports workforce training programs that have a hyperlocal impact.

One such program is the West Philadelphia Skills Initiative, which provides low-skill residents with intensive education and then matches graduates with jobs at the prestigious universities and medical centers within walking distance of their homes. While the jobs help people leave poverty behind, they ensure that the new wealth created remains in their neighborhoods, helping stabilize these downtrodden communities.

Roots to Re-Entry enrolls convicts in a horticulture vocational and life-skills training program that, upon their release, leads to landscaping jobs. Part of the training includes growing organic food that is donated to Philadelphia’s neediest, showing how this work can nourish impoverished neighborhoods.

Such programs can teach residents the skills they need to reimagine the urban voids they encounter every day. Cities, in turn, should partner with neighborhood groups to determine the most suitable abandoned buildings and lots for development, luring companies and projects that would employ newly retrained residents.

Strategies that deal with vacant spaces by generating new paths to employment aim to do more than fixing broken windows ever could. They seek to change the dynamics of the local economy by creating better communities, not just prettier ones, where abandoned properties are viewed as job sites rather than crime scenes waiting to happen.

Diana Lind is the editor at large of the magazine Next American City and a 2011 Van Alen Institute fellow.

Article originally posted on Public Voice for Public Space.

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