Thursday, August 5, 2021

Jeremy R. Levine's "Constructing Community"

Jeremy R. Levine is Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies and Sociology at the University of Michigan.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Constructing Community: Urban Governance, Development, and Inequality in Boston, and reported the following:
Constructing Community is an ethnography of urban governance and community development in some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. The book has 3 key takeaways: First, nonprofits—including community-based organizations and foundations—matter a lot in cities; second, they matter specifically in terms of democratic representation (sometimes undermining) and inequality (sometimes exacerbating); and finally, even under the best of circumstances with the most community-driven nonprofits, no organization or participatory process can ever fully empower or represent the community. The reason? There is no such thing as "the" community. The title's play on words is a nod to the political construct of "community," a concept that carries undeniable moral authority but obscures considerable diversity on the ground.

Page 99 covers some, but not all, of the book’s central arguments. The page describes a coalition of nonprofits that wanted to develop a contiguous greenway along a 9-mile rail corridor. Greenways are very popular, and the nonprofit leaders hoped to gain access to new resources by planning one. The coalition ran into two big problems during their planning, however. First (and most important), a greenway was quite literally impossible. Yes, there was some vacant land adjacent to the rail line, but most of the land was residential or included cross-streets. In short, there was no “way” for the greenway. The second problem was political: Each nonprofit in the coalition wanted a neighborhood-specific project. A greenway stretching through multiple neighborhoods did not help each organization’s standing as a community representative that brings resources to “their” community.

The specific scene on page 99 documents how these nonprofit leaders understood and ultimately resolved the dilemma. Essentially, they re-constructed the community to fit their political objectives. Rather than think of the greenway as an actual contiguous park, they opted for an “innovative” design that included a contiguous bike path on city streets with “loops” into neighborhood-specific projects like small parks or community gardens—conveniently, one project for each neighborhood represented in the coalition. One nonprofit director called it “a greenway with grapes.” The greenway was reduced to little more than a squiggly line on a map, and the neighborhood-specific projects were connected only in theory. But the nonprofit leaders gained something very valuable in the process. By drawing shapes on a map and reframing disparate projects as part of a larger greenway—by, in effect, constructing new community boundaries—these leaders gained access to new planning and development resources.

So, if you were to land on page 99 of Constructing Community, you’d see an example of nonprofit leaders constructing community boundaries and determining what kinds of resources were available to poor urban residents. You’d miss the point about how all of this matters for inequality, which is described in other examples.
Follow Jeremy R. Levine on Twitter and visit his website.

--Marshal Zeringue