We live in often depressing times, especially for those concerned with local autonomy and regionalism. It is easy to point out the flaws of society, to villify the corporations and governments that strip our communities of their resources, but sometimes it is difficult to promote anything different. Without good examples to point to, the job of community empowerment is far more difficult. In earlier posts I have discussed Upstate examples like the Ithaca Hour local currency project and the Battenkill Cooperative Kitchen, but rarely does one organization qualify as a comprehensive example for movements in local sustainability.
Yet, for every rule there is an exception and in the slums of Roxbury/North Dorchester, Boston, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) stands out as a model of what local people can do for their communities with a little bit of cooperation and determination.
In the 1970s, the neighborhood around Dudley Street was an urban wasteland. The effect of the pullout of businesses was exacerbated by a rash of arsons that left 20% of the neighborhood as abandoned lots. The community was largely made up of immigrant communities and people of color; everyone was poor.
In 1985 the DSNI was formed and began to have community meetings to plan the future of the community. Their original goals were modest: end illegal dumping in empty lots, start a multicultural festival and restore commuter rail traffic to the area. However, by 1988, DSNI had developed a comprehensive, bottom-up, neighborhood redevelopment plan. It was the first non-profit ever to get the right of eminent domain authority over vacant land; DSNI could seize and develop abandoned plots within an area known as the Dudley Street Triangle. The Dudley Neighbors Incorporated, a community land trust, was created to develop the area.
With the control over this land out of the control of absentee landowners and in local hands, the people began to put it to good use. Lots were set aside for the Dudley Town Common, 85 “tot-lots” (playgrounds), urban gardens and farms, and low cost housing. The Dudley Common was the first recognized and funded Town Common in an inner city in Massachusetts.
DSNI has organized yearly festivals, built community centers, made scholarships and murals and provided start-up funding for dozens of locally owned businesses. The organization has protected its members from hazardous waste, converted old drug houses to usable housing, tested the soil safety in home gardens, and completed many other small projects for the people. It provides leadership training to local people which has allowed for other movements, such as tenant's right's organizing to take place in the area.
By 1992, the Dudley Triangle won the "Best Kept Neighborhood" Civic Award from the City of Boston. It was incredible how for they had come in seven years. Today the organization has over 3670 members, has rehabilitated over 600 of 1,300 vacant lots for homes, gardens, food production, parks, playgrounds and a Town Common, built over 400 new homes and rehabilitated over 500 other housing units. The organization is working on helping its members with their taxes, an often difficult task for immigrant members (not to mention everyone in general) and continues with its other activities.
What is great about DSNI is that they are organized and run by local people for their own benefit. While the neighborhood organization was jump-started by an outside agency, since then the people have controlled their own destiny. For us here in often devastated Upstate communities, there is much to learn from Dudley Street. They did this all without permission from, and often in spite of the ineffective governmental and corporate officials who had abandoned them. They did it without an expensive outside PR firm or a state-created Master Plan. The best part is that it worked and continues to work today. We often despair to revitalize our communities and are apt to blindly turn to authority to solve the problem. Dudley Street shows us that there is another way, that it might be difficult and long, but in the end it is the only choice for the long term sustainability, health and self esteem of our homes.
-Posted by Jesse