by Henry Moore

Assistant City Manager and Director of Community Building,
Savannah, Georgia

From Great Parks/Great Cities: Chattanooga, 1998, a publication on an Urban Parks Institute regional workshop.

People all over the world, and in the media, tend to think of inner-city neighborhoods in a certain way. We think of crime, dilapidated housing, and unemployment. We think of them as “bad” neighborhoods. In our minds we create a map of what inner-city neighborhoods look like, a map of the deficiencies of that neighborhood, that I call a “needs map.”

In Savannah we attempted to paint a different map: an “asset map” that would recognize the strengths of our inner-city neighborhoods. We did this by looking at the talents of the individuals who were there. We were thinking about the clubs and neighborhood associations, and how they might be connected to institutions that have resources that can help those talented individuals and associations do something to help.

In the late 1980s, “crack” cocaine arrived in Savannah. It changed our neighborhoods and caused tremendous concern in our community. Before crack, the worst street problem was a wino lying on the sidewalk, or men drinking openly, walking the street and talking loudly to anyone that would listen. Everybody in the inner city knows what I’m talking about. But the drugs scared folks to death. And we didn’t know what to do.

“We asked the residents what needed to be done and they set the priorities”

Simultaneously, there was a lot of apathy in Savannah. Few people were coming to neighborhood meetings, and there were no public/private partnerships to speak of. Neither the public nor the private sector was doing much to make things better in those neighborhoods, and it was clear to us that the traditional methods of service delivery were not working. The only time residents were active was when there was a shooting or major incident.

The city manager decided to take matters into his own hands and called a meeting of neighborhood residents. He tried to talk to them about what they wanted to do about the situation, and establish some kind of vision for the community. At first, the residents were locked into the “problems”- overgrown lots, litter and debris, broken sidewalks, etc. But they soon broke through that and started talking about their visions for a better neighborhood. They wanted to be able to sit on their front porches, talk to their neighbors and let their children play in their yards. They wanted the same things that every family wants, but goes to a suburban neighborhood to get- safe, quiet, attractive, drug free streets and neighborhoods. Places to raise children and call home.

These meetings were the beginning of a process. Residents and city staff took walks through the neighborhoods on Saturday mornings and evenings after work, making a list of the things that they wanted to change, thereby creating a vision for their neighborhood. We called this partnership Showcase Savannah.

“People would…walk out to the street to ask, ‘What’s going on?’ and while we had them there, we’d have a meeting and talk about the neighborhood”

Early on we held a symbolic contract signing between the residents and the city manager at which the city agreed to target services, and the residents agreed to increase their involvement. The city government hired neighborhood coordinators who acted very much like community organizers- knocking on doors, identifying block captains, organizing meetings- doing whatever it took to get people together. We focused on removing the blighting influences in the neighborhoods. We targeted the drug spots, overgrown lots, dilapidated and vacant buildings, litter, debris and derelict vehicles. We had police officers on mounted patrols, bicycle patrols, and undercover detectives. We conducted sweeps, reverse stings, hidden video and audio recordings of drug activities, and driver’s license checks. We boarded up houses and put liens on properties.

After 24 months there were dramatic improvements. We had tagged 503 derelict vehicles and we towed away 73. We had removed 200 tons of litter and debris. The number of crack houses and open-air drug markets in one neighborhood had been reduced by 79%. In another, they were reduced by 67%. For two years, we tried every tactic in the book to attack open-air drug markets and fight blighting conditions.

Next, we tried a variety of things to get residents involved. We started recognizing people for the improvements they were making to their homes by holding “House of the Month” and “Yard of the Month” ceremonies. We held cleanup campaigns and celebrated our success with a block party at the end of each day. We held festivals that residents named “Friends and Family Day.” And we would even hold a “Block of the Month” event where we would close off the block and hold sidewalk meetings. We would schedule the event for 5:30 in the afternoon, and we would give out free azaleas. People would open their doors, walk out to the street to ask, “What’s going on?” and while we had them there, standing around getting their azaleas, we’d have a meeting and talk about the neighborhood. These were simply neighborhood pride events that would help show the community that we cared about them and that it was our neighborhood too.

It started slowly and took months to catch on. I can remember the agony of trying to get people to come to meetings. But although it was a slow process, we began to see improvements. And from there, we were able to tackle bigger projects.

However, we did see a falling off in participation after those first two years. We don’t know if this was because the successes that had been achieved created a lull, but we noticed that at each meeting we would see the same residents, mostly older women and a few men. There were no youth involved and no young couples. We knew that there was a danger that the momentum would be lost.

Grants for Blocks

The success of “Showcase Savannah” led to some national recognition. In 1992, the city received $20,000 because the Showcase Savannah Program had been a finalist for the Ford Foundation/Harvard University “Innovations in State and Local Government Award.” One condition of the grant was that you had to put the money back into the neighborhoods. We wanted to use the money to revitalize our campaign to reclaim Savannah’s neighborhoods from decay and drugs. I called John McKnight at Northwestern University, who is known for his work with communities around the county. He said: “What if you were to give some money for residents to improve their blocks, say $300 or $400, and let residents make the decisions, award the money and actually manage this program?” We talked to the residents about this idea and from those conversations, the Grants for Blocks Program was born.

The new grant program made money available to residents in grants of up to $500 each, for neighborhood improvement projects. Applicants had to be sponsored by local neighborhood association and, in the beginning, they even had to make a presentation before their peers. Then a committee of residents would make the decision about whether or not they would get their request. It was a phenomenal amount of work for only $500, and I thought, “This is not going anywhere, no one’s going to do this.”

“Since we had relinquished control over the grants and the process to the residents, we tried to find a way to showcase all of the things that residents were doing”

We thought that if we got 30 projects the first year that it would be an overwhelming success. In fact, we got 87 applications and, ultimately, 76 projects that first year. The second year, we had over 320 applications and 198 projects. Projects ranged widely. People were establishing tool libraries, planting flowers and trees, taking youths and seniors on field trips, and making parks from railroad rights of way.

There was an infusion of new leadership, and residents asked for different kinds of leadership training to compliment the tremendous increase in community leaders. They decided what type of training was needed and the city provided funding or helped locate the trainers. It was all resident-driven, and, of course, resident-centered. And there was really a “buzz” around town. You could hear people at beauty parlors, barbershops and at church talking about “Grants for Blocks” projects in their neighborhoods. And so, with $75,000 total we created more community spirit and resident activity than the $75 million the city had spent in the previous 20 years. It became an incredibly successful community development program.

“You could hear people at beauty parlors, barbershops and at church talking about ‘Grants for Blocks’ projects in their neighborhoods”

Since we had relinquished control over the grants and the process to the residents, we tried to find a way to showcase all of the things that residents were doing. One of our more successful ideas was to stage a “neighborhood convention.” This was a one-day event where residents would come and put up booths and talk about what they had done all year. Initially, we thought they would talk about their Grants for Blocks projects. Instead, they came to talk about the work that they had been doing all year. It was a big neighborhood celebration. Young people came to sing and dance on stage. Others displayed crafts and art. Neighborhood leaders came to be recognized as Project Leader of the Year, Block Leader of the Year, or House of the Year.

Neighborhood Housing Services of Savannah, a local nonprofit, contributed $500 for a “Spirit Award.” The “Spirit Award” would be given to the neighborhood association that brought the largest number of residents to the convention. And you would be surprised at what folks did to win the $500. They brought the cheerleaders of the youth football team. They brought every person that they could find who had uniforms; it did not matter if they were involved in neighborhood work or not, they would bring them to the convention in a display of pride and to win the award.

What were the results of all this work? We got residents to become community leaders. We had many more people attending council meetings, pressing for code enforcement action and contesting reasonings. We made housing improvements. The city won all sorts of accolades and awards. The neighborhood convention showcased the community work, and, although it was designed for people in inner- city neighborhoods, folks from other neighborhoods also came and said: “Gee, we want to participate too.”

So, in the convention’s second year, we brought people from the historic district, and from Southside neighborhoods, and brought the city together. It built up trust in citizens and government and has given citizens an opportunity to take control over their lives in the community and make improvements that they actually could see. It has also improved city services, because it made us pay closer attention to what residents wanted. We took the gifts of individuals, linked them to the neighborhood associations, block clubs and churches, and hooked it into government.

The lesson that is important here is this: We asked the residents what needed to be done and they set the priorities. We provided support to them and they did it. You can get residents engaged, but you have to be willing to invest some time in seeing the community build itself. It is much harder to do from the grassroots up. You have to wait for the community to get ready to take the leadership reins. Certainly, it is easier to tell people how to do it from the top down, but I can assure you that it won’t last unless it’s from the bottom up.

We’ve learned that people will invest in their neighborhoods and work hard to make them better if they have ownership in the community improvement program. The minute government got out of the way and citizens took over, the program was sustained.

Henry Moore is the Assistant City Manager and Director of Community Building for the city of Savannah, Georgia. He has held both posts for 17 years. During this time, Mr. Moore has helped develop and implement the Showcase Savannah Neighborhood Program. This program created a partnership with residents, financial institutions, and local government to address problems with crime, litter, dilapidated structures and other substandard conditions. In 1992, the Ford Foundation and Harvard University recognized this program as one of the 25 most innovative in the nation. Mr. Moore was a member of the National Advisory Council of Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation and is a former member of the Georgia Housing Trust Fund for the Homeless Commission.

A Bottom-Up Approach to Rebuilding Neighborhoods was last modified: March 7th, 2012 by Project for Public Spaces