Last summer, Oakland had plenty of bad tidings. The city was once again making national news because of its skyrocketing crime rates. Officials were tinkering with ballot initiatives to hire more cops and debating the merits of potential programs for at-risk kids. But behind the scenes, a team of bureaucrats was hammering out an ambitious pilot program to fix the most intractable problems in some of the city’s most hellish neighborhoods.
Although the city’s plan doesn’t have a name yet, it’s based on a model developed by Felton Earls, a professor from Harvard’s School of Public Health, whose work in inner-city Chicago has shown that successful neighborhoods have a kind of social cohesion that’s lacking in more problem-plagued areas. A neighborhood succeeds, he has found, when residents are willing to take action for the common good, and when informal neighborhood social networks are linked to institutions and governments that have the clout to help the residents achieve their goals.
Earls’ multiyear, multidisciplinary research project — known as the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods — is groundbreaking, experts say, because it and other studies pinpoint one of the key reasons neighborhoods fail: apathy. “What Dr. Earls has shown is the biggest buffer against crime is collective efficacy,” says Caterina Roman, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center in Washington, DC. “That is really the feeling that you know your neighbors and you’re willing to act for the betterment of your neighborhood. Just getting rid of the broken windows and disorder, some of the research has shown, isn’t enough.”
The Chicago experiment hasn’t come cheap. Funded primarily through private foundations, its price tag has ballooned to $51 million since its inception in 1995. Its goal is to assess how a community’s environment influences individual development, and how such blights as crack houses and uncollected garbage affect a place and its residents. “If we are to show that where you grow up is more important than your temperament or your IQ or your family — or even equally important — that is a major contribution to science,” Earls told The New York Times in January.
A progress report isn’t due out until later this year, but people familiar with the project say neighborhoods that have embraced the program have shown improvements and potentially long-term positive impacts on their children. “The question was, couldn’t we do something that was small and focused geographically in Oakland that will really make an impact?” says Page Tomblin, a planner with the city’s department of human services.
On the home front, officials from Oakland and Alameda County have selected test neighborhoods for what will initially be a two-year reprise of Earls’ experiment. The idea is to build from the ground up: Residents meet with members of a local government task force to voice their problems and offer ideas. The bureaucrats, in turn, pledge to help focus attention on these concerns within their departments.
The task force includes representatives from the Oakland police, parks and recreation, public works, and the city attorney’s office, and from Alameda County’s social services, community health, probation, education, and mental health divisions — the project will be part of their normal job duties. Meanwhile, the city is hiring neighborhood organizers — paid for with private grant money — to reach out to the residents of these target areas.
The bureaucrats hope to coordinate efforts to ensure that one area’s problems aren’t simply shunted to the next neighborhood over. Their goal is to engage residents in problem-solving and to create flexible partnerships open to fresh approaches. Any specific community improvements will depend entirely on what residents say they need. If they want a park cleaned up, more police patrols, or a new community center, Tomblin says, the city and county are pledging to do all they can to make it a reality.
It all sounds nice on paper, but what do the experimental subjects have to say?
The two pilot areas come from a list of five selected by the Oakland police for their high crime rates. The first is a several-block swath of East Oakland’s Sobrante Park neighborhood near the San Leandro border, where warehouses and industrial buildings mingle with homes along trash-strewn streets. Fortified iron bars, fences, gates, and signs warning of guard dogs send a strong signal: Stay out! Protecting one’s family from the street is clearly a big priority here.
The occupants of these homes are primarily longtime African-American residents and newer Latino immigrants. Vital stats: 11 percent of households on government assistance; 21 percent living below the poverty line. But while the area crime map lists homicides, carjackings, drug dealing, and armed assaults, Sobrante Park also boasts a $40,000 median income and a 50 percent home ownership rate — which makes it slightly better off than some Oakland ‘hoods, including its fellow guinea pig.
The latter is a West Oakland rectangle flanked by San Pablo Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Way on two sides and 30th and 33rd avenues on the others. Half of its mostly African-American residents live below the poverty line, 20 percent are on the dole, and the median annual income runs a meager $19,000. Its once-beautiful turn-of-the-century Victorians are made less welcoming by the familiar iron bars, chain-link fences, and warning signs. And despite its location just north of downtown, the neighborhood’s only convenience would appear to be a host of liquor stores.
Getting the locals involved will be among Oakland’s toughest hurdles, the Urban Institute’s Roman points out. “This is community by community, block by block as to whether it works,” she says. “You have to have the community residents on board and saying, ‘We’re ready, and we’ve come to our breaking point.'” All it takes, she adds, “is one good leader or one good tenant association,” but finding that or even creating that kind of leadership takes a sustained effort.
It also takes money, something local governments lack these days. A new community center, for instance, doesn’t come cheap. Tomblin expects the project will be able to get additional foundation grants, but the city’s ability to attract large sums of private money for this effort could be a major hurdle.
Residents are well aware of the challenges: Ask around these neighborhoods and you’ll discover a mixture of hopeful optimism and bitter skepticism. “I think the program is a great opportunity to get Oakland back on track,” says Phyllis Hall, a longtime denizen of the targeted West Oakland zone who works at Hoover Elementary as a parent advocate and is familiar with the city’s plan. “There are neighborhood organizations working to get us back on track, but this is an opportunity to try and tie all those groups and the city and county offices all together.”
Hall says the biggest problems she and her neighbors face are a lack of jobs, liquor stores that stay open too late, and rampant crime. This pilot project, she thinks, “is not going to be the same government-as-usual program.” Those involved have a “real passion for the community and the youth” and “a vested interest in seeing this work.”
In the Sobrante Park neighborhood, however, an older man riding his bike practically laughed aloud when told of the project. Although he wouldn’t give his name, he said he’d lived in the area 25 years and had seen enough to know that bureaucrats weren’t going to do much to fix it up. “They’ve been saying that for years,” he scoffed. “It’s just the same here. Nothing ever changes.” When asked to name the biggest problems in his neighborhood, the man asked for money and then pedaled off angrily when he didn’t get any.
At Scotty’s liquor store across the street from Sobrante Park, clerk Tony Jensen watched an inebriated homeless man staggering outside his front window. “Oakland is a badass city,” he said. “There’s no fixing it. Everything is messed up. Nothing changes. Everything gets worse.”
Jensen, a fifteen-year neighborhood resident originally from Mexico, claims the area’s drug dealing is out of control: “You can call the Oakland cops and they don’t show up for two to three hours.”
A paucity of cops wasn’t evident that morning. One squad car was seen patrolling the neighborhood. Later, two more went squealing past, lights flashing and sirens blaring. One of Jensen’s customers, who identified himself only as Gordon, is an African-American man in his thirties who has lived around here three years. He agreed with the clerk that drugs are the major neighborhood scourge. To deal with it, he opined, “you have to get kids some type of opportunity, midnight basketball leagues, YMCA-type centers. You give them alternatives to working at McDonald’s. You need a lot of economic opportunities.” Pressed for his full name, Gordon refused, citing fear of retribution by drug dealers.
Over in the West Oakland zone, an African-American woman who identified herself only as Janet seconded Gordon’s notion about lack of opportunities. Janet, the only person among several approached on the street willing to talk to a reporter, was on lunch break from her job — which she declined to identify — drinking liquor from a paper bag. In her straightforward assessment, the city and county haven’t a prayer of fixing her neighborhood — only residents can do that. “Everybody needs to get off they ass and get a job,” she said, dashing across MLK Jr. Way on her way back to work.
It doesn’t take an expert, apparently, to reach the same conclusion as the experts: Officials can try to make things happen all they want, but their success will ultimately depend upon the will of the people. From the look of things, at least, the task force has its work cut out for it.