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Out Our Way

9226 Kercheval: The Storefront That Did Not Burn

by Nancy Milio
University of Michigan, 224 pp., $2.45 (paper)

Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life

by Milton Kotler
Bobbs-Merrill, 111 pp., $4.95

As a visiting nurse, Nancy Milio observed at firsthand the horrifying conditions in the Detroit ghetto and became convinced that she and other professionals could help the poor. She assumed that government funds could be raised for a community health program. She expected the Visiting Nurses Association (which had expressed an interest in some of her ideas on community medicine) to help her, and the police and public health authorities to cooperate. She also believed that the people in the community would be grateful for her time and energy.

When I started 9226 Kercheval I felt I could write the rest of the script. A proposal is written; a community board with little power is formed; a modest program with a few young professionals begins and continues for a year or two, after which the professionals leave for more powerful and attractive jobs, but the local residents never gain control of the program. A report is submitted, another experiment with the poor is written off as a failure, and a legacy of bitterness is left behind which merges with the anger and hopelessness that characterize lives in the ghetto.

That was the story I expected 9226 Kercheval to tell. But Nancy Milio seems unlike most people who set up programs in other people’s neighborhoods and then leave after a few years, for throughout her book one is made aware of her own education by the black people she worked with. Her project, the Mom and Tots Center, was initially designed to provide prenatal care for community women, but it was transformed into something very different. For example, the center wanted to hire neighborhood women, but they had no one to care for their young children. Although the project was prohibited by the terms of its grant of funds from caring for children, Miss Milio nevertheless helped to create day care facilities at the center. Young kids from the neighborhood dropped in, but instead of kicking them out, which would have separated the center from the community, she started a group for them. She was supposed to limit her work to prenatal care but she set up programs for baby care and family planning as well, doing what the people near the center wanted instead of acceding to the advice of professionals or the constraints of government financing.

The book shows, as Nancy Milio illustrates in her work,

窶ヲfirst, that health, as a quality of life窶ヲmust be mirrored in the process of undertaking to improve health. And that those who would involve others, especially the poor, in the process of healthful change, must themselves be involved: the one who would change others must himself be changed.

The subtitle of 9226 Kercheval is “The Storefront That Did Not Burn,” and the publishers make much of the fact that the Mom and Tots Center was not destroyed during the Detroit riots of 1968. That is not surprising, for such projects are more often destroyed by their sources of funds than by the people who live near them. Miss Milio writes:

It was a painful irony to know that at the very moment that Mom and Tots was going on record in the Congress as a successful OEO (poverty) program, the funds for its survival were being withdrawn by OEO.

Nancy Milio and her local staff learned how to write proposals, administer money, and still have the flexibility that is essential to keep up with the rising demands of the community. They set up medical services for the poor while teaching them to care for themselves so that they could eventually take over these services. The center attempted to free the community from dependence upon agencies and professionals from outside. After two years, Miss Milio left, turning the center over to people from the neighborhood, which is unusual, for few people are able to give up power in the interest of the people they are trying to help, or to trust them enough to do so. What had begun as an experiment in community health had to go beyond the experimental stage to survive. Miss Milio’s parting gift to the people she came to know is this moving and useful book about the center, one of the few positive examples of how local power and a more humane environment can grow.

9226 Kercheval was written in 1969 and describes events that happened between 1966 and 1968, when Nancy Milio left. The Mom and Tots Center is still at 9226 Kercheval Street, and although Nancy Milio is no longer directly involved in the center, she is still close to the community, as I was told when I recently spoke to people at the center. Each year the community has had to battle for the center to survive but so far it is doing so. Services have been expanded and the center now provides many different kinds of medical care: home visits by doctors, nurses, and community health workers; day and prenatal care; family planning. The baby clinic still exists as does the club for boys and girls. Some of the children who had been cared for from birth to five at the center will be leaving its nursery school for public school next year.

This prospect is grim, for the Detroit public schools, like most other inner city schools, are very different indeed from the center and are especially damaging to poor children. After a few years most of these children end up with a sense that they will never learn to read or write or know anything the teachers want them to know; they become convinced that they are failures. So it is not surprising that a fight for community control of the schools is beginning in the neighborhood of the center.

It is far from clear how the battle will end. Just as the public schools can undo the work of the center, the police and health and building departments, not to mention the unions, can harass the center and any local educational projects that grow from it if they become too threatening to the power of city politicians and bureaucrats. Programs like the center, therefore, will probably not be free to continue their work until communities have more control of all the public services that they need to survive.

But to define what community means in the cities is very difficult. Communities of interest exist there that are often not geographic. Most communal lives are not bound to place, but are often related to work or profession or education. For example, when I was living in New York, my friends were living throughout Manhattan, whereas the people who lived in my neighborhood were strangers to me. Our schools were controlled by the central bureaucracy, our streets policed by an outside force, and our health needs uncared for. We did not feel we had to know one another or had to battle to define how we wanted our community to be governed. We left that to the central authorities.

Ghetto neighborhoods, where there is less mobility, have perhaps a greater sense of community, but one has no greater control over one’s life in them. Occasionally, programs like the center or like the schools in the I.S. 201 complex or in Ocean Hill-Brownsville develop a budding sense of power, but they usually cannot develop an organization strong enough to mobilize the energies in the community. Community schools battle each other; the health people battle with the welfare department, which battles with the schools. There is competition among the schools themselves and a central authority maintains control. In most communities no larger view of how to gain more power seems to obtain.

Milton Kotler in Neighborhood Government provides the only comprehensive plan for seizing and maintaining local power that I have yet seen. He doesn’t use the word community much (nor does Nancy Milio, who talks about the “neighborhood” rather than the community and means by it the people who live in the ten or twelve square blocks around the center). By using the term neighborhood Kotler avoids having to define local communities of interest. The first point Kotler makes, and it is a useful one, is that battles for control should be territorial ones. He feels that what is needed is neighborhood governance of all the publicly supported services that affect the lives of people locally.

Kotler defines a neighborhood as “a political settlement of small territory and familiar association whose absolute property is its capacity for deliberate democracy.” He does not define a community as an association bound by common interest or common culture. He does not take up the question of creating a community of common political or professional concern, or even of social preference. Nor does he focus on particular institutions such as the schools or the police. The issue for him is political control of territory: the governing of that territory by its residents. According to Kotler self-government, which is to be achieved through a community corporation, “will cover the same areas as those of any government窶馬amely finance, imports and exports, war and peace, territorial defense, and laws.” This is not only abstract but evades the question of control of economic forces, including real estate, business, and services like gas, electricity, telephone, and public transportation whose nature it is to extend beyond neighborhood boundaries. Perhaps he would suggest a “user-controlled corporation” that cut across neighborhood boundaries for the governance of large-scale public utilities.

However it is not clear what Kotler thinks about the control of the economic resources in the community. In his book he says, “Having government authority is more fundamental to changing social institutions than having a vital economic role,” and he passes over the question of the economics of the community, except when he considers publicly governed resources like schools, sanitation, and the police. In this respect interesting questions arise. For example, what is the possibility of a functioning community government extending its control to the economic life of the community and setting up regulations for profit taking and for the public ownership of business? Is a “socialistic neighborhood” conceivable in a capitalist society? Small communistic communities such as those of the Shakers and Mennonites have been able to regulate themselves, but they are far from the Bronx.

Kotler’s advocacy of neighborhood government is not without historical basis. In the beginning of his book he traces the growth of cities through the domination by one small incorporated township of others by means of annexation and disenfranchisement. He also shows how centralized power grew as a powerful township gradually increased its territory with the help of business and often with the active collaboration of state government. Examples of this growth are all around us in the names of the incorporated townships that still designate sections of many cities. In New York the names Harlem, Bedford, East New York, Ocean Hill, Brownsville, Morrisiana, Pelham, Corona all come to mind. In Los Angeles, Watts; in Oakland an annexed community called Brooklyn. In Berkeley the same centralized control developed. The powerful and rich university township of Berkeley annexed the poorer working-class community of Ocean View, whose town hall and police department are still standing, though unused.

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