Do Public Neighborhood Centers Have the Capacity to Be Instruments of Change in Human Services?

Article excerpt

In recent years public officials have shown renewed interest in neighborhood centers as vehicles of innovation in social planning and locality development. Part of the attraction comes from the need to replace fragmented, centralized systems with coordinated networks of services at the neighborhood level (Adams & Krauth, 1995; Healy, 1991; Lord & Kennedy, 1992; Reitan, 1998; Schorr, 1997). Cutbacks in funding for human services have sparked interest as well. Neighborhood centers can mobilize scarce resources and provide feedback to ensure that local service needs are met efficiently (Bond, 1990; McLaughlin & Irby, 1994; Poole & Van Hook, 1997). Another source of interest stems from civic distrust of public bureaucracies. Neighborhood centers can restore civic trust in government institutions by involving citizens in the planning and delivery of human services at the grassroots level (Chapin & Denhardt, 1995; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993; MacNair, 1981; McKnight, 1995; Vasoo, 1991).

In this article we examine the capacity of neighborhood centers to perform critical leadership functions in social planning and locality development when public bureaucracies administer them. Data reported in the article were gathered through an independent study of 45 public neighborhood centers in Orange County, Florida, where public officials plan to use them to address mounting human services problems in the area. But findings from the study indicate that most of these centers reflect the characteristics of static rather than dynamic organizations. Major adjustments in their goals, funding, technology, decision making, and performance will be required before public officials can count on them to lead innovations in social planning and locality development. Public officials interested in assigning similar leadership functions to neighborhood centers in other communities should benefit from the findings of the study.

Historical Perspective

Neighborhood centers cover a variety of types and nomenclatures. Although most neighborhood centers are called community centers or family centers (DeAth, 1989; Downie & Forshaw, 1987; Horel, 1987), a few still include the term "settle ment" in their name, reflecting their long-standing affiliation with the settlement house movement (Smith, 1995). In addition, some neighborhood centers offer a variety of services, whereas others deliver one primary service (for example, Head Start or recreation) and various subsidiary services (for example, information, referral, parent education, and child care) (Healy, 1991). Finally, many neighborhood centers serve a broad spectrum of people, but others limit services to people who are economically disadvantaged (Bond, 1990; Halpern, 1995).

Using Rothman's (1974a) three-dimensional model of community organization, the historical functions of neighborhood centers divide into locality development, social action, and social planning. Neighborhood centers were chiefly involved in locality development and social action during the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, many of the early neighborhood centers drew life and inspiration from the settlement house movement, which adhered closely to principles of democracy and of social justice (National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, 1960). These centers, Smith (1995) argued, involved a wide spectrum of citizens in planning and decision making, redistributed power and resources to disadvantaged segments of the community, and directed services toward family and neighborhood strengths rather than pathologies. Halpern (1995) disagreed, however. He maintained that settlement houses rarely hired neighborhood residents as staff, particularly in positions of authority, and that settlement lea ders, not local residents, usually made key decisions about use of resources.

Social planning gradually usurped locality development and social action as the primary function of neighborhood centers. …