Recently, Dr. Grossmann’s master-level course, Building Sustainable and Resilient Cities took a field trip to Homewood to have a tour of Cluster 4 with Operation Better Block’s (OBB) Gabby DeMarchi. The current Homewood grant project team members are in this class along with other first and second year Falk School of Sustainability graduate students.
Gabby DeMarchi’s training as a social worker aids her in her work in the community by giving her a wholistic approach and a person-centered, community-based approach. In this country, there is a harmful view that tends to blame the individual person for their hardships or their community struggles. However, community-based organizations like Operation Better Block and people like Gabby do not subscribe to that view, rather, they have a human focus, looking at the problems within the systems of government and a history of racial and socioeconomic discrimination and a lack of access to resources that has isolated this community. Gabby’s approach is to be engaged with the community on a personal, first-name basis, and to follow the lead of the residents on what the priorities of the community should be and the best ways to approach each challenge, while recognizing and building on strengths and assets of the community. Having worked at nonprofit organizations, I heard some familiar themes of the need for shared resources and partnerships with the nonprofit community as the services intersect, and the need for more staff members at each nonprofit, so that there can be a dedicated staff position to focus on a certain project or area, rather than everyone “wearing so many hats.”
The energy and feeling of the neighborhood are that there is a rich history and pride in this close-knit – community. There is a desire from the local residents to stay in their communities and to be engaged in any improvements or developments. There is a desire to learn more about items like weatherizing homes, how to acquire abandon lots to use for community gatherings and block parties and the goal to make the area better especially for their children. There was a lot of talk about engaging the schools, and one of the most proud projects was a parklet for the school children and gardens and tree planting by The Junior Green Corps. I enjoyed hearing of the development of the programs run by OBB that came out of the personal community surveys like the Bridges to Benefits, Junior Green Corps, Phresh Project, and the Cluster Plans. One of the biggest strengths of Gabby’s approach is that she meets the residents in their preferred manner of communication, visiting their homes, hand delivering or picking up items, inviting them to stop by, or calling on the phone. It shows a knowledge of the area and residents and a respect for doing work together with them. Mr. Adams, who we met, explained his appreciation and respect for Gabby, and his distrust of some elected officials. Once of the biggest reasons is that Gabby has taken time to get to know the residents personally, visiting them, surveying them, attending their meetings, but following the lead of the residents.
Gabby shared that she works with attorneys to provide pro bono work for the residents to gain the title of the homes, and to get important documents like wills, powers-of-attorney, and health directives. These legal documents can be a barrier to attaining but can provide safety and stability for the residents once secured, so that as development or revitalization comes to the area, the current residents are legally protected against eviction once they have the official home owner title. As Gabby explained on our tour, there are certain section-8 HUD housing, senior housing, and new housing, a problem with, as she described, “slum lords.” It will be interesting to learn about the plans and how new buildings can be zoned to be more inclusive to the current residents and not simply benefit new residents who are able to buy newly built homes or condos.
The interaction of environment and social issues were on display throughout the tour, as we saw the areas available for the desired parklets for children had contaminated soils and were near by busy roadways with high air pollution. There is a need for more storm water management to protect homes from flooding and less mold and indoor air pollution, but there is a complicated relationship in OBB or the Homewood residents acquiring the properties that are being held by the City, owned by the Port Authority, or that have “tangled titles.” Although there are many challenges and bureaucracy, OBB and the residents will continue to work together one block at a time on the residents’ top priorities.