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Starting about the mid-1950s, observers of American cities began to sound increasingly anxious. At first, many believed that urban problems stemmed primarily from the breakdown of physical planning and government services. In 1957, Fortune magazine produced a special issue, later a book, of essays that detailed the effects of the car, city government, the slums, sprawl, and, in Jane Jacobs’ provocative debut of her urban theories, the failure to revive downtown. As more neighborhoods turned into low-income minority communities, social problems, particularly the old issue of “juvenile delinquency,” entered the discussion about cities. From films like The Blackboard Jungle to West Side Story, America’s popular culture gave iconic form to the urban street gangs and by extension the neighborhoods in which they lived.

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The ideas in Investing in What Works for America’s Communities are just a start. We want to hear about what’s working in your community. Tell us about innovative ideas for addressing poverty and share examples of people and places that inspire you. We want to share these ideas and spark conversation about how to create opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.

Community service is a voluntary work done by individuals or organizations without being paid.

For more than a century, American reformers have struggled to remedy the problems of poverty in the places where low-income people live. At first, these social improvers could muster only a few isolated solutions, but by the end of the twentieth century, they had expanded their efforts to a large, dynamic, and sophisticated field of action. Today thousands of nonprofit community development organizations operate in the poorest urban and rural areas of the country. More impressively, they have helped stabilize community life and help individuals and families in some of the most forsaken neighborhoods in the country. The South Bronx, once the most infamous slum district in the United States, has become livable and vibrant.

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The spirit of resistance that flourished in the 1960s also inspired citizens to take to the streets to stop large-scale urban renewal and highway projects. Across the nation, they rallied to stop the government from tearing down their homes for a small number of public or luxury housing and from slicing 10-lane expressways through their neighborhoods to benefit suburbanites. Although not always successful, especially at first, the protests gained champions who articulated the intellectual case for their cause. In her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jane Jacobs, an editor at Architectural Forum, laid out a devastating critique of city planning that destroyed old buildings and neighborhoods and built instead monolithic public housing projects and soulless civic centers. In The Urban Villagers (1962), liberal sociologist Herbert Gans portrayed the residents of Boston’s West End not as alienated slum dwellers but as members of a vital community. Martin Anderson, a scholar of finance and management, blasted urban renewal from a conservative perspective in The Federal Bulldozer (1964).

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If the antipoverty experiments encouraged a comprehensive approach, the grassroots campaigns fed the idea that any plan to combat urban ills should involve, or better yet be written by, the people who were the objects of the initiative. Thus, a signature piece of the War on Poverty was the community action program, whose local agencies would carry out the panoply of antipoverty programs and legal services for the poor. The rule for the community action program was “maximum feasible participation” of the poor in the design and implementation of the programs that would affect them. Some community action agencies took this goal literally, threatening the local political status quo. In response, vexed southern and big-city politicians let Johnson and Shriver feel their ire in no uncertain terms. The Johnson administration in turn gave mayors more say-so in OEO and Model Cities, but never entirely rejected the principle of participation. Hence, in contrast to public housing, urban renewal, and highway construction, the antipoverty and community development projects of the 1960s enshrined, at least to some degree, a bottom-up approach.

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Meanwhile, in Chicago, a close-to-the-ground approach to urban problems known as community organizing had taken root. In the late 1930s, Saul Alinsky, a former criminologist, applied union organizers’ methods to help residents of the city’s Back of the Yards, an impoverished polyglot immigrant neighborhood, gain political power to force local government and institutions to respond to their needs. Alinsky then set up the Industrial Areas Foundation to organize the powerless of all stripes—Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and African Americans—in their home communities. During the 1960s, Alinsky’s brand of community organizing gained national attention, as Charles Silberman publicized Alinsky’s work in the best-selling book, Crisis in Black and White, and members of the New Left turned to the organizer to learn political tactics. Many years later Alinsky’s ideas would influence a young organizer in Chicago named Barack Obama.