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Lawrence Harmon

Creating resilient communities

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / February 20, 2011

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BOSTONIANS THINK they wrote the book on overcoming urban blight. Outside advice isn’t welcome. But Jim Capraro of Chicago seems to have captured the city’s ear on the subject.

Capraro is the chief consultant for Resilient Communities/Resilient Families — a three-year effort to organize residents in poor sections of Boston. The Boston affiliate of the nonprofit Local Initiatives Support Corporation has hired him to recruit and train local leaders who can identify and address the problems that plague their neighborhoods. He is setting up shop in Mattapan, Dorchester’s Codman Square, and Roxbury’s Warren Street corridor.

The city’s leading foundations and businesses think Capraro deserves an audience. They’ve contributed $2.8 million to the effort. But will Chicago-style community organizing catch on here any more than Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza? Boston is still a thin-crust kind of town.

Boston is also among the least blighted cities in America. One reason is the work of about 20 nonprofit community development corporations that buy and rehabilitate rundown and abandoned properties in the city. Though founded by neighborhood organizers, these nonprofit groups have professionalized over two decades to a point where key staffers are more likely to rub shoulders with mortgage bankers, government officials, and foundation presidents than neighborhood folks. Capraro is pushing the Boston groups to reconnect with the neighborhoods they serve.

The last thing the city needs is a bunch of amateurs trying to negotiate multimillion housing deals on behalf of the poor. But Capraro has some valid points. Community development efforts in Boston and elsewhere have grown stale. There’s too much emphasis on affordable housing in places where lack of commercial development, poor transportation, or runaway crime may be bigger blocks to success. The same old faces occupy positions of leadership. Foundations often drive the social agenda, not people living in the affected areas. And no one is doing enough to identify younger leaders.

Capraro, 60, hopes to change this by asking the following question: “If this neighborhood is the best it can be in 10 years, what will it look like?’’

Capraro’s background practically qualifies him as an honorary Bostonian. He grew up in the 1960s in the white, working-class section of Marquette Park on the southwest side of Chicago where his neighbors reacted violently to racial change in the neighborhood. Later, he worked with legendary community organizer Gale Cincotta at National People’s Action in Chicago, where they coined the term “redlining’’ to describe the actions of bankers who withheld mortgage loans in racially changing neighborhoods. It was a catchier term, Capraro said, than “urban disinvestors.’’ Capraro should feel right at home in Mattapan, where bankers in the 1960s and ’70s pioneered a variation of redlining — providing low-interest loans to minority homebuyers only in one narrow area of the city.

Lillie Searcy, director of the Mattapan Family Service Center, will be overseeing one of the Resilient Communities initiatives in Boston. She’s not sure yet what issues will emerge. But she is certain that the neighborhood will improve if she can get Mattapan’s Haitian immigrants talking with the neighborhood’s African-Americans and then get both groups talking about common interests and goals with residents in the nearby suburbs of Milton and Canton.

That fits Capraro’s philosophy.

“Good organizing isn’t about issues,’’ he said. “Issues come and go. Good organizing is about values. It’s the values that bind.’’

The Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation in Dorchester and Nuestra Comunidad Development Corp. in Roxbury will be the other sites for the organizing initiative.

This could wind up being a windy exercise. But a $250,000 direct grant from the Boston Foundation suggests otherwise. The foundation often pushes its agenda regardless of community consensus. But Paul Grogan, president of the foundation, has become concerned that an absence of old-time organizing in the neighborhoods is inhibiting the rise of new leaders. One of Capraro’s techniques is to identify talented people who are outside the power structure of the neighborhood. Grogan also sees potential for residents to create new commercial and public safety initiatives along the expanding commuter rail line that traverses Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury.

Foundation grants, said Grogan, are usually aimed at improving people or improving places. It’s not often that a chance comes along to do both simultaneously.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.