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Neighbors First: The Transformative Role of Community Development Corporations in Developing Neighborhoods of Choice

By

Faith Weekly

Cities are the place to be today, which may mean significant changes for the historic communities that have populated urban cores. Community development corporations (CDCs) play a critical role in transforming these communities that suffered disinvestment as a result of urban renewal, loss of manufacturing jobs and outmigration into communities of choice. Revitalizing these communities to make them healthy, vibrant and thriving again presents many challenges. Through their grassroots efforts, CDCs have played a critical role in advancing positive transformation and ensuring that they are responsive to the needs of lower-income communities and residents. CDCs contribute a significant amount to their local economies through housing and commercial development and a range of community services, while also increasing household wealth, building the local tax base, revitalizing neighborhoods and creating jobs.

Benjamin Pearson tends lettuce at Farm 360

CDCs are nonprofit, community-based organizations focused on revitalizing the areas in which they are located, typically low-income, underserved neighborhoods that have experienced significant disinvestment. CDCs are involved in a variety of activities, including but not limited to development of affordable housing, economic development, child care, youth development, health care and community organizing.

CDCs play a critical role in building community wealth for several key reasons:

  • They anchor capital in communities by developing residential and commercial property, ranging from affordable housing to grocery stores and businesses.
  • Typically, at least one-third of a CDC’s board is composed of community residents, providing for direct grassroots participation in decision-making.
  • CDCs’ work to enhance community conditions often involves neighborhood organizing, a process critical for empowering residents and gaining political power.

It is often said that the best defense is a strong offense. This old cliché captures the essence of how CDCs have the power to transform disinvested communities into communities of choice. A CDC can serve as a barrier to those who may be willing to invest in their communities, but are offering products and services that are often exploitative and not in the best interest of residents. On the other hand, a good CDC can serve as a buffer, commanding the trust of residents because they have been engaged and given the opportunity to express their desires and hopes for their community.

The East Washington Street Partnership (Partnership) and the Englewood Community Development Corporation (Englewood CDC) in Indianapolis, Ind., are exemplars of a neighborhood seeking to create a strong offense. The Partnership is a collaborative effort to foster sustainable economic development and revitalization along one of Indianapolis’ most important urban corridors; it is one of three areas designated by Local Initiatives Support Corp. (LISC) Indianapolis as FOCUS (Fostering Commercial Urban Strategies) corridors. Partnership efforts seek to encourage residential and employment growth, improve property values and the local tax base, improve ecological quality, and promote the transformation of a long-neglected corridor into a vibrant, mixed-use urban address. Englewood CDC is also the lead organization for the comprehensive development of Englewood Village, an initiative of LISC Indianapolis through Great Places 2020.

In Indianapolis, the Near Eastside community is comprised of 20 smaller neighborhoods, including Englewood. The rise of neighborhood groups working together to foster a vibrant, healthy future for the community can be traced back as far as 1970, with the formation of the Near Eastside Community Organization, which served as an umbrella group that sought to support the area’s neighborhood organizations. Like so many other urban core neighborhoods in the 1970s, the rise of the interstate infrastructure triggered population and job loss for Englewood. By the late 1990s, the neighborhood had dramatically declined. As is often the case in community development, the faith-based community recognized the neighborhood’s decline and came to grips with it. In 1997, Englewood Christian Church formed the Englewood CDC; the Englewood Neighborhood Association formed in the early 2000s.

“We knew that we were a neighborhood in decline and that there were lots of neighborhood-based organizations doing things, but we weren’t doing things together through anything like a collective impact approach or collaborative approach. So, we knew we needed to organize ourselves first. In 2005-06, we did just that,” explained Joe Bowling, who serves as the director of the Partnership and as co-director of the Englewood CDC. As part of the Indy Promise Zone effort, Bowling also serves as the co-chair of the Work IndyEast Committee, maintaining a focus on job-creation activities.

“When we decided to move to Englewood, we also decided that our CDC needed to be a reflection of this neighborhood. So, everyone who works on our Englewood CDC staff, with the exception of maybe one or two folks, lives right here in the neighborhood. We’re shopping at the same grocery stores. We’re attending the same basketball and football games together. We see each other when we go for a walk. It really prevents that pro-dynamic of the nonprofit that wants to do projects ‘to’ a neighborhood as opposed to doing projects ‘with’ a neighborhood, because we are neighbors first,” Bowling said.

Murals, art workshops, concerts, films, and more placemaking activities

In 2005-06, neighbors united to form the Near Eastside Collaborative Task Force, in the spirit of gathering together residents, faith leaders, social service providers and organization volunteers. At the same time, LISC was rolling out the Great Indy Neighborhood Initiative (GINI) to support grassroots quality-of-life planning; they selected the Near Eastside as one of six demonstration neighborhoods. Bowling explained that this selection was a turning point for the community because it connected them to a network of resources and supports that they were not aware of. At that time, Bowling left his job in commercial real estate and assumed the role of community builder for the GINI. He was responsible for the grassroots design and implementation of resident-driven quality-of-life (QOL) planning delivered to the mayor in 2008. It was comprehensive and included seven action areas: affordable housing and development; business and economic development; education; family strengthening; leadership and neighborhood connections; livability; and public safety. The task force met twice a month for six months to draft this QOL plan, which included the participation of more than 100 organizations and the endorsement of over 600 neighborhood residents.

In the midst of starting to implement the QOL plan initiatives in 2008 and 2009, the project caught the eye of the Super Bowl Bid Committee (later the Super Bowl Host Committee), which was trying to land the 2012 Super Bowl for Indianapolis. The QOL plan was adopted by the Super Bowl Host Committee; from 2010 to 2012, the Committee paid for three staff, including Bowling, at the John H. Boner Community Center, where he worked full-time on implementation of the plan. While the NFL provided $1 million toward the implementation of the QOL plan, the balance of the $152 million investment was secured through traditional community development funding and local philanthropy. The total investment went toward projects chosen through the QOL planning process and included a $12 million state-of-the-art gymnasium and community facility (the Chase Near Eastside Legacy Center); a $49 million housing redevelopment; $20 million for the East 10th Street corridor; and $72 million in other quality-of-life improvements.

“My biggest takeaway from doing neighborhood-based QOL planning is I think that it is less about the specifics of the plan and more about the process and the connections that you make while doing the engagement and planning,” Bowling said. “It’s those connections and relationships that we made during the development of the plan that turned out to be helpful in providing a unified face for the community as we tackle big things. It is less about the particulars of the plan and more about the relationships developed during the process of the planning.

“For a lot of external partners who are not from communities like ours and want to help but don’t know how and don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, the QOL plan has been a wonderful way to get engagement in ways that they are more comfortable with. If they can say that the community has decided on these things together, that the community is saying with one voice that they want to see this happen, and that there is a blueprint in place, they can move with a little more confidence to help us implement the QOL plan objectives,” Bowling explained.

Today, Bowling’s primary focus is on the Partnership, whose efforts are guided by the East Washington Street Vision Plan. While the Englewood CDC serves in the lead role, they also partner with the Boner Community Center, other neighborhood-based organizations and other businesses to help work on revitalization strategies for East Washington Street. Bowling’s day-to-day focus is on working to support that real estate development project and existing or prospective small businesses along the corridor.

The vision plan seeks to partner economic and neighborhood revitalization in a manner that brings residents and jobs back, improves property values and the tax base, improves ecological quality and promotes the transformation of a struggling, degraded corridor into a vibrant, mixed-use urban address. Bowling said that Englewood CDC recognized that you can only go so far if your strategy is limited to affordable housing and homeownership. They are trying to be more comprehensive with the projects that they are undertaking on East Washington Street.

Bowling is also focused on Great Places 2020, a visionary community development project to transform strategic places in Marion County neighborhoods into dynamic centers of culture, commerce and community. As philanthropic, civic and private partners look toward Indianapolis’ bicentennial in 2020, they are engaging neighborhoods to make significant social and capital investments to enhance their quality of life and spur private investment. Great Places 2020 is a collective impact approach led by six implementation partners (http://greatplaces2020.org/what-is-great-places-2020).

CDCs across the nation are declining in number, especially since the Great Recession, due to dwindling federal funding. In larger cities such as Indianapolis, St. Louis, Memphis, Baltimore and Cleveland, major foundations have stepped up to give millions of dollars to CDCs to supplement federal funding.

While the number of CDCs is declining, the need for place-based work in disinvested communities continues to grow. Many communities that were once disinvested and distressed have been turned into communities of choice as a result of the transformative role of CDCs.

Faith Weekly is a community development advisor focusing on neighborhoods and housing at the Louisville branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.