Reform Consolidation and the
Postreform Reaction in New York
The wide variety of community organizations that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s reflected political conflicts within the postreform movement over the nature of urban decentralization and the feasibility of widespread citizen participation. While ideologues remained committed to community control and participatory democracy, other, more accommodative, proponents of decentralization sought to expand the territorial scope and qualify the strict adherence to citizen participation among postreform activists. As with many movements for social change, the demands of ideological purists offered the more pragmatic activists an opportunity to secure concessions from public officials and helped make some forms of community power feasible options within reform regimes.
As community empowerment became a more common demand in cities, reform officials attempted to address the demands for urban decentralization. At times, such attempts represented preemptive and co-optative strategies designed more to preserve reform centralization than to address a postreform agenda. At other times, however, community-power experiments were initiated by mayors who, in seeking to extend their personal political bases, sought electoral alliances with community-based interests outside of the reform regime's traditional governing coalition. In these latter cases, community-power experiments were often legitimate, sometimes quite radical, efforts to satisfy postreform demands.
The evolution of postreform politics from its radical origins to its more moderate institutionalization is exemplified by the New York City experience. Indeed, New York's current community board system, the most far-reaching community- empowerment program in the nation, reflects the overall evolution of postreform politics. This chapter examines several examples of New York's early decentralization efforts and is intended as an immediate historical and conceptual backdrop to the analysis of the community board system, which, in the wake of the 1975 fiscal crisis, helped institutionalize postreform politics in the city. The chapter examines the range of grass-roots organizing in New York City from community self-help groups, which were exclusively locally focused and politically participatory, to community development corporations, which adopted a territorially interactive approach and were less committed to the notion of widespread participation.