As the landscapes of our cities evolve, school buildings remain a constant. Desperately in need of repair, modernization, and beautification, especially in the urban areas, schools are frequently called upon to provide essential support services for the families and communities of the children they serve. To meet the new dual demands of education and social service programming, urban school districts are beginning to invest in neighborhood revitalization and modernizing school facilities.
Low-income communities of color have long struggled with racist, discriminatory land use practices that diminish health, safety, and quality of life. It is not uncommon to see residential areas opened up for industrial development, houses located next to freeways and toxic polluters, and new freeway development and truck routes targeted at these communities.
The question is: Do these communities have the
power to change these zoning practices and revitalize their
neighborhoods? How can they leverage their needs against developers and
decision-makers seeking to gentrify their communities?
Empowering the Poor
The Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) has worked for nearly 30 years to empower poor communities to become meaningful participants in their neighborhood’s policy decisions and development processes to:
* ensure healthy neighborhoods
* maintain and create affordable housing
* preserve community character and culture
* promote sustainable communities.
"We had a sense of power. People saw they could make changes. People who got jobs through the Committee would come back to give something back to the community. People on the street knew… that this Committee was doing something for them. I learned things in the Mission Coalition Organization that I’d never have learned anyplace else. And they worked other places, too.” So said the late Rich Sorro, executive director of the Mission Hiring Hall, a nonprofit job placement agency in San Francisco’s Mission District, in a 1996 interview shortly before his death.
Over 25 years ago, Rich Sorro was a leader in the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO)—an important organization in the history of the neighborhood and the city. The MCO grew out of the Mission Council on Redevelopment (MCOR), formed in 1965 to either control or stop a plan to make San Francisco’s Mission District an urban renewal area. San Francisco’s low-income communities had already experienced the bulldozer approach of federally-funded urban renewal and had learned that early community action was the only way to halt the bulldozers.
When the city’s Redevelopment Agency began eyeing the Mission, organizers and activists were ready. The urban renewal proposal for the Mission was defeated in early 1967 by a slim 6-5 majority in a combined city council/county board of supervisors meeting. MCOR suffered the fate of single issue organizations—it won its victory and disbanded. But many of its leaders and organizers remained in the Mission.
Then in 1968, Mayor Joseph Alioto announced his intention to include the Mission District in San Francisco’s Model Cities application to the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), if a broadly-based group of Mission District leaders came together and asked him to do so. Afraid that this might turn into a Trojan Horse for urban renewal, veterans of MCOR banded together early to provide leadership for the coalition, which was called the Temporary Mission Coalition Organization (TMCO) and recognized as the neighborhood’s voice in Model Cities planning. The leaders, however, agreed that the organization, unlike the MCOR, would be multi-issue in character and would not limit itself to participation in the Model Cities effort. After a founding community convention was attended by over 800 delegates and alternates, “Temporary” was dropped from the name.
Ever wonder what it would be like to build a city from the ground up? To create a vibrant and diverse neighborhood with parks, schools, community centers, libraries, transit stations, businesses that serve every income level, and employment centers that are accessible to all? In the Coyote Valley region of San Jose, a community-initiated planning process is making this vision of equitable smart growth a reality.
Imagine cities as places where working people can afford to live and raise their families, where there is concern for clean air, water, and land. Imagine vital exchanges across generations and beautiful places where people gather. Urban life is at its most vibrant when people from various parts of the world bring together their music, food, cultural systems, and religious expressions. All of these make for cities that manifest the strength and brilliance of the human garden.
Moving the Environmental Movement
For the better part of the last century, the conservation movement and its offspring, the environmental movement, have had a negative view of cities. It started with John Muir’s celebration of nature in reaction to the ugliness of industrial development, urban pollution, congestion, and noise. But this bias against cities is changing. Environmental groups now acknowledge that the way we live in cities is at the nexus of many environmental challenges.
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