In 1966, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy toured Bedford Stuyvesant, an impoverished neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., where properties were either abandoned or neglected by absentee landlords. The abysmal conditions shocked the senator. Afterward, he met with community leaders and told them so.
“I’m glad you’re here,” replied Thomas R. Jones, counsel to the local NAACP chapter and a civil court judge. “But I want you to know that your late brother, Jack Kennedy, already had seen and understood these things, and we’re tired of being studied, Senator.”
In the year following Sen. Kennedy’s visit, Jones worked alongside Kennedy, Mayor John Lindsay, and Sen. Jacob Javits to create the nonprofit Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corp.—the nation’s first community development corporation (CDC). Restoration, as it came to be known, resolved to fight the poverty and economic isolation of the neighborhood by attracting private investment.
As the first chairman of Restoration, Jones used his prominence in both the court system and the neighborhood to bridge the vast divide between African-American community activists and white corporate and banking leaders. He understood the need to work in partnership with other organizations and other sectors, and was unrelenting in engaging the public and private sectors.
Restoration took the lead in rebuilding the neighborhood. It launched programs to rehabilitate abandoned housing, refurbish facades, build new homes, and promote homeownership. It built a commercial and cultural center and provided funding to local businesses. Since its founding, Restoration has attracted more than $375 million in investment to the 150 square blocks of Bedford Stuyvesant.
Restoration’s accomplishments under Jones’ leadership set an example for the nation. Other neighborhoods began to form their own community development corporations during the 1970s. And during the 1980s, federal funding gave the movement new momentum to build affordable housing. National organizations like the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and the Enterprise Foundation (now Enterprise Community Partners, Inc.) were formed to help these fledgling groups. During the 1990s, other funders joined the effort, including the National Community Development Initiative (now Living Cities, Inc.).
By 2005, the prototype that Jones helped create had spawned thousands of comparable enterprises. Some 4,600 CDCs were working to improve their neighborhoods. Of the 1.25 million homes this small army has built, nearly half have been completed since 1998. Of the 774,000 jobs created over the years, 527,000 came into being after 1998. CDCs clearly recognize that a community is much more than the houses in which people live. It includes jobs, the arts, education, health care, and more.
Jones served his country in many capacities, eventually becoming a state Supreme Court justice. He passed away in October 2006 at the age of 93. Jones saw his innovative concept of the CDC take root, blossom, and proliferate. The question is, where do we go from here?
When Jones helped launch Restoration, the nation’s inner cities were not just facing disinvestment, many were in turmoil. Jones set an example for how to bring people together and how to fight for government resources in the most difficult circumstances. To honor his memory and the memory of other pioneers like him, we must all redouble our efforts to find innovative ways to meet the development needs of our inner-city neighborhoods. Affordable housing and community development need to return again to a prominent place in our national and local agendas.
Mark A. Willis is executive vice president of the Community Development Group at JPMorgan Chase and a board member of Living Cities: The National Community Development Initiative.