Baltimore's Sandtown-Winchester is one of America's toughest neighborhoods. Racked by crime and joblessness, pocked with run-down row houses, abandoned buildings, seedy liquor stores and weed-filled lots, it offers hardly a scintilla of hope for its 10,000 residents.
But with a little luck, this bleak 72-square-block stretch of West Baltimore, an African-American community, could turn into one of America's most startling recovery stories.
The inspiration began with James Rouse, the inventor of America's urban festival marketplaces, who founded the Enterprise Foundation to promote affordable housing for "the poorest of the poor."
Baltimore's Mayor Schmoke agreed to make the revival of Sandtown-Winchester a critical mission for a city government not previously known for the vigor of its bureaucracy.
Then, in progressive steps, the people of the neighborhood themselves were drawn into planning what kind of a community they wanted, and the constellation of new services that would be needed.
The goal is not to create a Cadillac model of social-service extravagance, but rather to prove, in Mr. Rouse's words, that welfare dependency and physical decay "are correctable" and that a new community dynamic "will cost less to correct than supporting the neighborhood in its current non-working state."
If the Sandtown partners succeed, they will have given new meaning to the word "holistic." Single-shot efforts will do little, they say, to generate progress on housing, education, employment, health care, social services, public safety, block clean-ups or community gardens. All have to be attacked simultaneously.
"Anything that's not working, we can make it work," says Mr. Rouse. "It sounds enormously difficult, but it's a far easier job than trying to work on single pieces like drugs or jobs. When you're working on the entire system, each piece strengthens the other."
In the long run Sandtown-Winchester will have to take responsibility for its own fate, says Leonard Jackson, a long-time resident who has been active in planning the Sandtown undertaking and is a liaison between the community, the Enterprise Foundation and the city:
"We have a community strapped by poverty and crime and other problems of collapsing systems. We have people in poverty used to being served -- they don't feel empowered. We have a cadre of youth running around feeling disenfranchised. The key is bringing all those people together and letting them know this is their community and the responsibility is theirs."
The three-year long process of goal-setting by Sandtown-Winchester's own people reached a climax in March when 200 residents met to "ratify" the plan to transform the neighborhood.
The key entity is a community corporation, with residents holding a majority of its board seats, entrusted with managing the entire recovery process. Primary health-care clinics are being set up in the schools and residents are being trained as preventive-care outreach workers. A new center oversees job training and job placement for residents.
The city is cooperating through community policing programs to involve residents in fighting crime. The city schools, at the mayor's urging, are pledging major improvement, including adult education and full-day kindergartens and after-school care for kids of working parents.
And the Mount Street Community Center is being made into a "one-stop shop" for government services. Its "family-support teams," composed of a social worker and a resident, will fan out into the neighborhood to link residents with services.
Projects valued at nearly $50 million have been planned, begun or completed. The Healthy Start program deals with infant mortality. A $17 million "Nehemiah Housing" project will put 227 town house-style homes on the site of a blighted old bakery building. Anti-crime patrols are under way. Residents have organized and run a food and clothing cooperative and 30 community gardens have been started.
So far, there's no statistical evidence that the efforts have made a difference. The statistics underscore the long and tough road ahead. Forty-nine percent of residents live in poverty, 79 percent in substandard housing. Drug use is rampant, 90 percent of births are to unmarried women, and the murder, assault and armed robbery rates are among Baltimore's worst. Neighborhood schools are so abysmal that 20 percent of high school students drop out each year.
Mr. Rouse honestly admits that the lives of no more than 400 or 500 people have been touched, and that the effort has had to overcome deep reservoirs of suspicion and hostility.
But the sponsoring partners are promising careful statistical evaluation of the progress in Sandtown-Winchester. And the Enterprise Foundation is so enthusiastic about the model that it intends to create a "transformation center" to help 20 other cities follow suit. A first adaptation is likely in Miami, where Enterprise is working with the Miami-Dade Community College in the Overtown neighborhood.
"I hope we're starting an acceptance of the idea that it's possible to transform life at the bottom," says Mr. Rouse.
For the sake of America, we all have to hope his hope comes true.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.