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Saving a Neighborhood Takes More Than Money

Burbank success shows work must be done on many fronts

September 06, 1997

The first, easy lesson of Elmwood Avenue might seem to be that money fixes everything. After all, the city of Burbank threw $6.5 million at the tiny cul-de-sac in the shadow of the Golden State Freeway to buy and refurbish rundown apartment buildings, kick out troublesome gang members and build a community center--a six-year effort that transformed the city's most notorious block into a manicured oasis that some neighborhood kids now jokingly call "Disneyland." Yes, big infusions of cash helped turn Elmwood around, but to say that cash alone fixed everything would be off the mark.

The real lesson of Elmwood Avenue is that saving even a single block from the cycle of decay and violence requires unrelenting effort on many fronts. From police. From housing officials. From social service agencies. From public works departments. From schools. By themselves, isolated efforts often fail. Only by coordinating a mission in a neighborhood--and then sticking with it for years--can cities and counties hope to reverse rot that creeps in over several untended decades. It can be a discouraging prospect to local officials looking for quick fixes through high-profile gang injunctions or camera-friendly painting parties to cover graffiti. And although few municipalities enjoy the resources that helped Burbank rehabilitate Elmwood, many of its so-called neighborhood intervention tactics can be duplicated, with responsibilities and costs shared by public and private agencies.

Burbank started with several advantages. Its coffers are relatively flush with tax revenues from the city's successful retail and entertainment districts. The neighborhood in question is small and definable, one of few trouble spots in a city of just under 100,000, so it was easy to assign resources and maintain focus. And the population around Elmwood has been relatively stable for years, allowing city officials to use the natural network.

Key to Burbank's success--and the success of similar efforts from Anaheim to San Jose--was control. By consolidating ownership of buildings, the city was able to weed out problem tenants who can be the seeds of future trouble and to ensure that regular maintenance kept remodeled buildings safe and clean.

In Los Angeles, roughly 35 times the size of Burbank, even identifying which neighborhoods to target is infinitely more difficult. And then there's the question of city resources already stretched thin. That's where partnerships come in. By working with private nonprofit agencies to secure and administer federal housing grants, city officials can leverage neighborhood programs that work. For instance, highly publicized gang injunctions in neighborhoods like L.A.'s Pico-Union are much more likely to succeed if followed by aggressive enforcement of more mundane laws like building and safety codes. Making residents safe on the street is critical, but so is making them safe in their own apartments. Unified ownership of buildings helps but is often impossible. Cities can encourage landlords to form associations and hire professional management to run their buildings and boot bad tenants. Owners who refuse to maintain their property can be prosecuted for code violations. Good buildings keep good tenants. And when fewer people move in and out of a neighborhood, the school population begins to stabilize, making it easier to create educational programs that keep kids straight and train their parents for better jobs.

The lesson of Elmwood Avenue is that, yes, money helps turn a neighborhood around. More important, though, are will, determination, organization and patience. Elmwood Avenue is a safer place, thanks to a multifaceted effort.

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