House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods

House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods

House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods

House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods


Not long ago, neighborhoods such as the South Bronx, South Central Los Angeles, and Boston's Roxbury were crime-ridden wastelands of vacant lots and burned-out buildings, notorious symbols of urban decay. In House by House, Block by Block, Alexander von Hoffman tells the remarkable stories of how local activists and community groups helped turn these areas around. For sixty years, federal policy has attempted with little success to solve the problems of housing and poverty in America's inner cities. Yet increasingly, local organizations are picking up where Washington has left off. In a series of dramatic and colorful narratives, von Hoffman shows how these groups are revitalizing once desperate neighborhoods in five major cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. The unlikely heroes include: the tough-talking Bronx priest who made apartment buildings for low-income people glisten in the midst of ruins and despair; the "crazy white man" who scrambled to save Chicago's historic Black Metropolis from the wrecking ball; the Boston cops who built a task force that put the brakes on youth gangs. Thanks to locally-based, bootstrap efforts like these, in inner-city neighborhoods across the country, crime rates are falling, real estate values are rising, and businesses are returning. Von Hoffman also shows that grass-roots work can't do it alone: successful revitalization needs the support of local government and access to business and foundation capital. Based on years of research and more than a hundred interviews, this book is the first systematic account of the dramatic urban revival now going on in the United States. House by House, Block by Block will be a must-read for anyone who cares about the fate of America's cities.


On a sunny day in August 1980, California governor Ronald Reagan, campaigning for the presidency on the Republican ticket, stopped on Charlotte Street in New York's South Bronx—the epitome of America's desolated innercity neighborhoods and the place where President Jimmy Carter had famously visited three years earlier. Reagan stepped out of his limousine and took in the scene. He declared that it looked like London after the Blitz.

The candidate stood amidst the rubble and empty shells of buildings and delivered a speech. He attacked Carter for failing to keep his promise to rebuild the South Bronx and proclaimed that he would bring it back by attracting private businesses through tax incentives.

A small crowd of people across the street would have none of it. “You ain't gonna do nothin'!” they shouted. “Go back to California!”

Undaunted, Reagan crossed over to speak to the hecklers. “If you'll just listen,” he began, “I'm trying to tell you—I know now there is no program or policies that a president can come in and wave a wand to do this.”

The message did not go over well, and Reagan drove off. Yet, however unwelcome the notion was, history seemed to support the idea that government was powerless to save areas such as the South Bronx.

Since the end of World War II, few great issues have perplexed Americans as much as the decline of central cities. For decades the federal government tried one program after another to stop the inner city from deteriorating. All in vain. First white upper- and middle-class households fled, then African American and Hispanic working families departed. As the inner city became the dominion of the poor and the pathological, city-government agencies withdrew like a retreating army.

The destruction of the inner city took on an inexorable quality. Buildings were deserted, vandalized, and burned. Epidemics of violence, gangs, and drug addiction swept through the streets. The wail of police and fire engine sirens provided background music to an endless stream of television and newspaper stories about sordid crimes and calamities. Most Americans dismissed the inner city as a dismal place given over to crime, gangs, and arson and to be avoided at all costs.

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