Neighborhood Planning and Community-Based Development: The Potential and Limits of Grassroots Action


William Peterman

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    I first became involved with neighborhood planning and community development when I was on the faculty of Bowling Green State University in Ohio during the 1970s. Almost by chance I developed an association with the Toledo Metropolitan Mission (TMM). TMM had received a small grant to assist an ad hoc group of citizens on the fringe of the urbanized area of Toledo in an effort to fight urban sprawl.1 I first inquired about the effort and then volunteered to help. At the time, TMM, the action arm of the Toledo (Ohio) Council of Churches, was headed by an ex-priest, Jerry Ceille, who had previously been an associate of the well-known Milwaukee activist priest, Father Groppi. It was through working with TMM and Ceille that I initially came to discover how community organizing, activism, and community-oriented research could bring about effective community building.

    Building on my initial work with TMM, I applied for and received a National Science Foundation “public service science residency.” The short-lived residency program (I believe it lasted only 2 years) allowed me to take a year's leave of absence to work full-time with TMM. During this year, I worked on several neighborhood issues being supported by TMM. I helped a group of churches plan and implement a dial-a-ride medical transportation system for inner-city seniors, helped another group of seniors develop plans for an activity center, and helped found the Greater Toledo Housing Coalition. The highlight of this last activity was traveling to Cincinnati to present the case for the very first challenge ever made under the then newly enacted Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).

    After my residency was over, I continued to work with TMM on a voluntary basis, but in 1979 I got the opportunity to go to the University of Illinois at Chicago and to become the director of the newly formed Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement, a unit of the College of Architecture, Art, and Urban Planning.2 The search committee for the director was looking for an academic with experience in doing community development, and my work with TMM had made me somewhat unique among those who had applied. In a written document in which I articulated what I hoped to be able to do as director of the Voorhees Center, I argued that research and technical assistance were important for supporting community organizing and community development. I also stated that I believed that universities had an obligation to serve the needs of the communities in which they are located and that an outreach center was one way that this obligation could be met.

    During the approximately 11 years that I directed the Voorhees Center, I had the opportunity to work in a variety of Chicago's communities, with many different community organizations, and on a variety of topics ranging from an inventory of art owned by the Chicago Park District to the opposition of a sports stadium complex on Chicago's near west side. In each instance, the Voorhees Center responded to a request for assistance from the neighborhood and partnered on projects with community-based organizations or areawide organizations concerned about neighborhood development. A few of these efforts are documented in this book.

    I have always considered what we did at the Voorhees Center to be research in that we were constantly seeking to find new ways and means to improve the quality of neighborhoods and the socioeconomic well-being of neighborhood people.3 We, ourselves, did not become directly involved in community organizing but instead worked alongside of individuals whose mission was community organizing. It was the dual efforts of research and organizing that resulted in most of our successes. It should be noted, however, that neighborhood work of this type is not easy, and our failures were as numerous as our successes.

    In 1991, I left the Voorhees Center to become a regular faculty member in the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Urban Planning and Policy.4 Then in 1995, the opportunity arose for me to apply to head up yet another urban center, this time at Chicago State University, a medium-sized comprehensive teaching university on Chicago's south side. I applied and was offered the position. So now, once again, I am attempting to bring the resources of a university to bear on the problems of urban neighborhoods.

    I began writing this book with encouragement from several of my colleagues, and I hope that I can live up to their expectations. In many ways, I no longer believe as I did 15 to 20 years ago that community-based efforts are the only way to do urban development. Nor do I believe that community-based organizations are always fair, equitable, and right. And although I am hopeful about the future of our cities, I am not optimistic about current trends relating to poverty, immigration, affirmative action, and overall fairness.

    I believe that to do successful neighborhood work, one must be a realist. Global, national, and local forces have significant impacts on what happens in neighborhoods, and no amount of community organizing at the local level will change these forces. Racism and sexism cannot be countered by working only at the neighborhood level. But unorganized and unassisted communities, whether they be communities of place or communities of common interest or identity, will always suffer more than those that have come together to determine what they want and expect and have identified and obtained the resources needed to at least make progress toward their visions. On my office wall hangs a small poster with a quote from the legendary labor activist Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living” (Jones 1925, p. 41). I have always tried to follow Mother's charge.

    It is argued that cities have always been the center of civilization (Mumford, 1961). Despite some progress toward revitalizing some parts of some cities, our metropolitan areas remain in trouble, fragmented politically and socially, with too many poor and disadvantaged people compelled to live in deteriorating areas far from jobs and other opportunities. We tend to call places where the poor and disadvantaged live neighborhoods, although many of these places have few if any neighborhood amenities. But it seems to me that as our neighborhoods die, so do the cities in which they exist, and ultimately the entire metropolis suffers. So, even though there are significant forces that work against the empowerment of local communities, it is still important and essential to work to improve the quality of life in our central cities. Doing good in central-city neighborhoods will ultimately benefit us all.


    The material in this book covers a period of nearly 20 years. Over those years I worked with numerous people, many who helped me either in my work or in my thinking about neighborhood development. All these people, at least their thoughts and deeds, appear in this book. Although I cannot possibly acknowledge them all, I must at least single out several individuals.

    This book would never have been written had it not been for the encouragement of my good colleague, Myron Levine of Albion College. Myron insisted that I put aside my vow to never write a book, and he got Roger Caves, Bob Waste, and Margaret Wilder interested in what I might have to write. They, in turn, got Catherine Rossbach of Sage to show up at my office door one day at Chicago State University. Catherine not only convinced me I should write a book, but she also kept me going throughout the entire process. My wife, Jean Peterman, can also take credit for helping me get to the end. Because her book was published before mine, she showed me, by example, that I could do it.

    I have always thought of students as being my colleagues. In the projects that make up the case studies in this book, I was lucky to have had the assistance of several excellent students. Among them were David Browne, Sherrie Hannon, Ken Brierre, Mary Ann Young, and Jean Gunner of the University of Illinois at Chicago and, more recently, Elaine Davis and Allegra Henderson of Chicago State University. Most of my good ideas have resulted from lively discussions with these and other students. I particularly value and miss my conversations with Sherrie Hannon, who was without a doubt my finest student and who died much too soon.

    Three individuals have played key roles at various parts of my professional career, and they must be singled out. They are true partners—Hallie Aimee, Stanley Horn, and Shiela Radford-Hill. Their role in shaping my ideas about neighborhood development cannot be underestimated.

    Finally, I must acknowledge my current colleagues at Chicago State University—Mark Bouman, Celeste Henderson, and Mike Siola. These three have made it possible for me to continue applying what I know and to help meet at least some of the needs of the communities that make up the southeast and far south sides of Chicago. They also help me to keep my spirits up when things are not going just right. That I could write this book while expanding the outreach work at Chicago State University suggests that they know their jobs and do them well, sometimes despite my interference.


    1. My wife was on the committee that awarded the grant to TMM. Following one of the committee meetings, she mentioned the project to me as one that I might be interested in. I subsequently contacted TMM about it. Although skeptical at first about working with some unknown young academic, TMM's director, Jerry Ceille, eventually accepted my offer to assist in the project on a pro bono basis.

    2. Along with the Center for Urban Economic Development (CUED), the Voorhees Center became the model on which the university's “Great Cities” program would be developed in the 1990s. At the time I became director of the Voorhees Center, there was little support for grassroots activism on the part of the University of Illinois at Chicago administration, and the center initially got a poor review because it did too little “scholarly” work and did not bring enough grant money into the university.

    3. Sometimes what we did would result in work that could be published in academic journals, but often it did not. Publishing and grant making were not the primary goals of the center, and this occasionally got us in trouble with our academic colleagues.

    4. I was followed as director of the Voorhees Center by Patricia Wright, who had been on the staff of the CUED at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Under Pat's guidance, the Voorhees Center has continued to assist community-based efforts throughout Chicago and, in my personal opinion, has carried the work of the center to a new and higher level.

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    About the Author

    William Peterman is Professor of Geography at Chicago State University, where he is coordinator of both the Fredrick Blum Neighborhood Assistance Center and the Calument Environmental Resource Center. Both centers work with local community organizations, agencies, and governments to focus the resources of the university for the purpose of community problem solving. Dr. Peter-man received his Ph.D. from the University of Denver, specializing in the area of urban geography. He has had 25 years of experience creating and maintaining university/community collaborations. He previously was associate director of environmental studies at Bowling Green State University and was director of the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has been the senior faculty fellow for the Illinois Campus Compact for Community Service and has received community service awards from the Chicago United Way/Crusade of Mercy, Chicago's Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, and HOPE Fair Housing Center of suburban Chicago.

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