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Out Our Way

In the Bay Area there are some small communities that were not incorporated into larger cities. Emeryville, for example, is a small town between Oakland and Berkeley set up by businessmen as an industrial haven with low taxes to avoid the domination of its larger neighbors. Kensington, a small unincorporated tract north of Berkeley, is a refuge for rich people who control much of Berkeley but want to avoid the taxes and the domination of the centralized government. Finally, the unincorporated town of East Palo Alto (also known as Nairobi), across the freeway from Palo Alto, is a poor and predominantly black community. Most of the people living there work in service jobs at Stanford University or in the rich Palo Alto township which has refused to incorporate East Palo Alto because it is considered an expensive burden. Therefore East Palo Alto does not have local police, sanitation, public works, or schools, and has to depend on the county for all of these services. The city of Palo Alto in refusing to annex East Palo Alto was acting in the same imperial manner as when it attempted to incorporate the rich campus of Stanford University.

However there is no inherent reason for East Palo Alto to want to be annexed, and in fact a movement toward incorporation is beginning there. During the last election a referendum was on the ballot in East Palo Alto to change the name of the community to Nairobi as a gesture of independence from the richer Palo Alto community. The referendum and the movement toward independent incorporation were defeated, though the battle is not yet over.

The problem in East Palo Alto as in many other poor communities is that to incorporate and control the government and to receive state and federal money require a high degree of organization as well as legal competence; while it is precisely poor communities that lack organization and qualified professionals who are willing to serve rather than exploit others. Kotler’s book contains the paradox that in our society the people most likely to benefit from his ideas are those least likely to have the power to carry them out.

Kotler describes what a neighborhood is:

The most sensible way to locate the neighborhood is to ask people where it is, for people spend much time fixing its boundaries. Gangs mark its turf. Old people watch for its new faces. Children figure out safe routes to home and school. People walk their dogs through their neighborhood, but rarely beyond it. Above all, the neighborhood has a name.

Neighborhoods, he finds, range in size from half a square mile to six square miles, and from 2,500 people to 75,000 people (although the latter figure makes me wonder about that community’s capacity for deliberative democracy). There are new neighborhoods, however, that have no names, that is, the student and “street people” communities that have developed in many cities and university towns. Some of these are beginning to show signs of stability, now that many former students instead of moving away from Berkeley, Madison, Cambridge, and Isla Vista are settling there. Although Kotler’s analysis is primarily aimed at developing a strategy for the acquisition of power by the poor, it equally applies to the newer neighborhoods of the hip.

The struggle for control of the neighborhood can begin, according to Kotler, with the creation of a community corporation (the book gives examples of several that already exist) whose members—all residents of the community meeting minimal requirements can be given membership—claim power over the public money coming into the neighborhood. This claim to political power over the use of taxes and the allocation of resources and services within the neighborhood can both generate discussion about what should be done and mobilize people to demand from the city and state the transfer of authority from centralized bodies back to the neighborhood. Something like this has taken place recently in control of education and the police of some communities, but a comprehensive plan for control as advocated by Kotler has hardly emerged. Yet, as Kotler says, the cities now don’t really control the neighborhoods, especially neighborhoods that are poor or black or hip. Perhaps he is right in claiming that the American city is “a floundering empire, no longer in control of the neighborhoods it has annexed.”

The development of a community corporation, “the legal incorporation of the local territory and the writing of a formal constitution of internal rule,” can come from any one of a number of already functioning organizations: from a community health program like the center on Kercheval Street, from a school or a local welfare rights group or a food conspiracy or rent strike committee. When a group needs to move beyond its own immediate province and is ready to start thinking about local control, it is ripe for incorporation and the struggle to seize power from centralized authority.

I think that Kotler is right in emphasizing neighborhood and territory instead of community of interest. Democratic participation certainly needs diversity and disagreement to develop, and it probably works best when the people making the decisions share the same piece of territory. Berkeley is worth mentioning in this respect. The recent elections put three radicals on the city council who, in spite of their political differences, agreed on the importance of the allocation of resources in Berkeley. The budget has recently been reviewed closely in hearings that seemed endless and were often tedious. But since each allocation was publicly scrutinized, for the first time anyone in the city who wanted to had a chance to challenge budget items and propose new ones. In fact more people came to address the council than had ever done before. There were long hearings on medical zoning, women’s rights, rents, hiring policies, the police budget, the public utilities.

Changes are emerging. After a long battle the conservative city manager and several other bureaucrats have resigned. A number of programs including neighborhood-based drug treatment centers and a center for rape victims have been given city funds. A commission to rewrite the city charter has been formed and it is likely that the city manager style of government will be changed in the next four years. There is serious talk about the establishment of neighborhood medical and day care facilities. At the moment there is a feeling in Berkeley that some degree of local control is possible, and many people who felt helpless and excluded in the past are willing to work on small but important changes.

This is still far from the neighborhood control advocated by Kotler. Berkeley has several neighborhoods with different interests and the city may yet be broken down into a group of federated neighborhoods with a central council. This is analogous to what Kotler envisages for America—a group of federated cities with no centralized control but with sanction from the state and with representation in the state legislature.

It is important to distinguish what Kotler is talking about from the centrally imposed decentralization that was current in educational circles several years ago. Mario Fantini, Marilyn Gittell, and Richard Magat in their book Community Control and the Urban School* give an account of the Bundy report on decentralization of the New York City schools in which they advocate a mild form of community involvement in the schools. Yet in summarizing the suggestions of the Bundy Commission, they reveal clearly the centralized nature of the so-called school decentralization plan:

  1. The New York City public schools should be reorganized into a community school system, consisting of a federation of largely autonomous school districts and a central education agency.

  2. From thirty to no more than sixty community school districts should be created, ranging in size from about 12,000 to 40,000 pupils—each district large enough to offer a full range of educational services yet small enough to maintain proximity to community needs and to promote diversity and administrative flexibility….

  3. A central education agency, together with a superintendent of schools and his staff, should have operating responsibility for special educational functions and citywide educational policies. It should also provide certain centralized services to the community school districts and other services, upon the districts’ request.

  4. The state commissioner of education and the city’s central educational agency should retain their responsibilities for the maintenance of educational standards in all public schools in the city….

  5. The central educational agency should consist of one of the following: (a) a commission of three full-time members appointed by the mayor or (b) a board of education with a majority of members nominated by the community school districts. In the latter, the mayor should select the members from a list submitted by an assembly of chairmen of community school boards; the others should be chosen by the mayor from nominations made by a screening panel.

The community is accountable to the central authority, which sets educational standards. Overriding principles need not emerge from the community and might be against its will. Moreover, the districts will be created by the central authority, not necessarily with regard to the neighborhoods in which people live. I have found that attempts at legislating decentralization or mandating change are self-defeating. Local power has no time to grow on its own; only “responsible” people, i.e., those trusted by the people already in power, are included in the plan. There is little chance for participation to develop on a broad scale or for the community to fight out its own internal disagreements in a public forum, define its own needs, and develop leaders it can trust. The growth of the community as a political unit with all its diversity and conflict will not happen when power is imposed or permitted too easily by a liberal though cautious central authority. For if the community steps out of line or fails to meet liberal expectations, the money and power will be withdrawn. The community cannot maintain its power when it lets itself become dependent upon official permission to act.

A group of schools in Berkeley (including one which I started and where I taught for three years) fought to establish the idea that parents, students, and teachers who want to make a school should be supported by public money but should also retain the right to determine the school’s curriculum and goals as well as control its facilities. Several schools managed to grow over the last three years, none with all the public money needed but at least with enough public money to survive.

Last year we received a visit from the Federal Curse. The superintendent in Berkeley applied to the Federal Government Experimental Schools Program for a grant to develop alternative schools throughout the Berkeley public school system. The school administration, which had before been opposed to both local control and alternative education, received a $3.2 million grant. The people involved in the existing alternative schools were not allowed to take part in the negotiations for this federal grant or to write the proposal. Suddenly almost everyone in the public schools was willing to call his school an “alternative school” and come out for local participation (not control, of course) to get some of the money.

While our opponents adopted our rhetoric, the district had to create a bureaucracy to administer the funds. We now have a “Director of Alternative Schools,” two assistant directors, a public relations office, several evaluation teams, a media team, a staff of secretaries and typists—and our own schools are as poor as ever. The money is now in “responsible” hands. Some of us wish the money had never been granted. It does nothing to improve the lives of the young or the powerless.

A program has to be strong both internally and politically in order to fight the power of existing bureaucracies to absorb money. Power has to grow within the community before outside money can be used effectively, and, in fact, if local power develops outside money may not be so necessary. The idea that an infusion of money tied to supposedly liberal ideas will enable people to gain greater control is naïve. People have to get power for themselves and then use whatever money and facilities they can manage to find, whether they get them by demanding their share of local taxes, by obtaining unrestricted government funds, or from contributions from foundations and from local churches, stores, and residents.

Kotler’s idea of neighborhood government seems remote at this time. As I mentioned before, poor communities tend to be demoralized in the first place. Moreover, it is hard to estimate the nature and the intensity of the opposition that might emerge if redistribution of power seemed imminent. Not only must the existing centralized authority be dealt with but all of the interests that it protects. There are old machine politicians, landlords who feel protected by the corrupt central city, businesses that are immune from effective regulation, incompetent public service workers, unions of teachers and social workers and others whose profession it is to serve the poor. One got an inkling of the hostility and the bitterness that can emerge during the struggles over Ocean Hill and IS 201; and these battles were limited only to the schools.

Individuals who dare to organize communities will be under constant pressure and will have to plan a struggle of years and not months. It is hard to sustain this if one is poor or powerless. When we tried to control the schools in Berkeley I had the feeling that no matter how threatening we became the established bureaucracy would simply wait for us to run out of steam or to wipe ourselves out, and then they would move back in. In fact, most of us were wiped out and the bureaucracy is moving back. We learned how right Kotler is in arguing that people will obtain control over their communities only by claiming and fighting for the right to that control—and also how far we, and others with similar concerns, were from taking real power.

  1. *

    Praeger, 288 pp., $9.00; $3.50 (paper).

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