bronx via banna kelly

Neal R. Peirce: The Man Who Championed—and Helped Save—the American City

When I started researching my first book, The Living City: Thinking Small in a Big Way, in the mid-1970s, I visited the seemingly most-desperate urban neighborhoods in the U.S. All of the experts—from planners to housing officials to editorial writers—saw no future in these blighted areas, which had been abandoned by local government and the middle-class families who followed the generous subsidies to the suburbs. Instead, these places were largely occupied by low-income families trying to hold on to the threads of once-thriving communities. The prevailing wisdom was that cities were dead, their usefulness finished. The future lay in the suburbs, and the car culture that supported them.

A handful of activist planners, however, saw something different and were assisting local residents in defying the experts. Ron Shiffman—the founder of the Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development, and in many ways the father of community-based planning—took the urban affairs columnist Neal R. Peirce (and later me) to see two neighborhood rebuilding efforts in the South Bronx: the Peoples’ Development Corporation on Washington Avenue, and the Banana Kelly work on Kelly Street. These were bootstrap efforts led by inspired local residents, who were rebuilding what experts said was hopeless, and they were doing it one building, one block, one neighborhood at a time. It was inspiring, especially since no modeset government or private foundation assistance was yet forthcoming. 

Grass roots rebuilding efforts in the South Bronx, circa 1970s, via the Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association.

Neal was among the first to spotlight these efforts and give credibility to these innovative groups. Reading about the small, local achievements inspired groups in other cities to initiate their own rescue and rebirth programs. His writing, I believe, helped launch this grassroots movement.

No one else in the local or national press thought to challenge the experts, to visit the neighborhoods, to talk to the energetic and hopeful participants.

No one else in the local or national press thought to challenge the experts, to visit the neighborhoods, to talk to the energetic and hopeful participants, to understand their vision, and, most of all, to observe their remarkable work. No one but Neal, who died recently of brain cancer at the age of 86. Neal had the ability to be inspired by the accomplishments he saw, to understand the enduring value of local neighborhoods, to grasp the wrongheadedness of national and local policies that dismissed this value. He saw the damage done by Robert Moses’ urban renewal bulldozers and local housing expert Roger Starr’s Planned Shrinkage policy. Under Starr’s plan, embraced by New York City at the time, all support for struggling neighborhoods would be withdrawn, remaining residents moved, existing buildings bulldozed, and empty lots land banked for future development. Neal thought these plans were insane. Instead, he saw potential where others saw hopelessness. He understood that no big, expansive program would single-handedly save cities, but that small, indigenous efforts would, over time, continue to spark revitalization.

“You can’t bail out the South Bronx one teaspoonful at a time,” Starr said to me, when I interviewed him about what I was observing. He was fundamentally wrong, because that’s exactly what happened. And once modest government and foundation support was finally added to the mix, the teaspoon became a soup spoon, and then a ladle, and the slow, steady efforts eventually added up to big change. Developers woke up and began investing where the locals were making things happen—and then later claimed responsibility for the success they never would have attempted without the industriousness and savvy of local “citizen planners.”

Neal understood all of this. In his national syndicated column and in many books, he championed the successes that no experts were ready to acknowledge, let alone witness firsthand. Architecture critics were writing glowingly about new buildings and large-scale efforts, like Co-op City and Roosevelt Island in New York, that helped vacuum out remaining residents from the deteriorated neighborhoods that officials wanted vacated. At the time, no one but Neal wrote about what was happening on the ground.

In The Book of America (written with Jerry Hagstrom), Neal noted: “The gritty determination of many of the South Bronx’s indigenous groups to build a more decent environment for themselves in the face of every conceivable obstacle, and even while some Manhattan-based urban ‘experts’ preached a gospel of ‘planned shrinkage’ to terminate city services to the South Bronx, this was perhaps the most exciting, heartening story we found in America’s devastated city areas in recent years.”

Neal inspired me and, more important, reinforced my own impressions. I was excited by the grassroots efforts I was seeing, but it was hard to hold on to a belief that this would incrementally lead to urban rebirth in U.S. cities, when all of the so-called experts with impressive titles were casting aspersions on these efforts. Reading Neal’s work, talking to him, being encouraged by him when we met face to face—all of this had an enormous impact and gave me confidence that what I was observing contradicted the credentialed voices’ doom and gloom.

The other person who reaffirmed my observations was Jane Jacobs, whose seminal books, especially Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities, demonstrated that this incremental development by “many doers,” not big planners and developers, is what had always built and rebuilt cities. I would visit her in Toronto, report what I was seeing and discuss its potential. She was so excited by it that when she came to New York, she insisted on touring Kelly Street. Again, led by Shiffman, we went, and Jane’s enthusiasm for the project reinforced my belief in the power of my own eyes.

Neal also wrote about the importance of public spaces, celebrated the early work of Project for Public Spaces, and observed the critical importance of public transit, the growing damage of automobile-based development, and the value of local businesses. These ideas are common wisdom today, but back then they were dismissed by the powers that be. Equally significant, Neal wrote about Gail Cincotta in Chicago and her National Peoples’ Action Network, an organization that was exposing redlining by banks and other corporate lenders. This national attention bolstered Cincotta’s crusade, which eventually led to corrective national policies. The Community Reinvestment Act compelled banks to lend in neighborhoods where their deposits came from and in turn helped save neighborhoods that otherwise might have been abandoned.

This past September, Neal was in New York to participate in a forum on the electoral college, held at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. He had written a book in 1968 calling for the direct vote by the people and warning about presidential elections being decided by the Electoral College. The next morning, over breakfast with a group of like-minded urbanists, we talked about how even today, perhaps more egregiously than ever, big projects and plans are what policy leaders—and journalists—look to for needed change. “Maybe they have to learn the hard way all over again,” he said.

Featured image of the South Bronx via Reuters.

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