Having Faith in Our Neighborhoods
The Indianapolis Front Porch Alliance
BY: Stephen Goldsmith
The scene on Indianapolis's east side seemed almost symbolic. On one side of the street was Shepherd Community Ministries, a center that served vulnerable and disadvantaged families. On the other side was a narrow alley where crack deals were made on a regular basis. It was as though the forces of good and evil were facing off across Washington Street.
Shepherd's director, Pastor Jay Height, was tired of worrying that the children he worked with every day might wind up on the wrong side of the street. So he came up with an idea: turn the crack alley into a park, a well-lit green area that drug dealers would shun. There was only one problem. To have the alley vacated, he would have to work with more than fifty separate contacts--agencies within city government, neighborhood organizations, utilities, assessors, and others.
Most people would have thrown up their hands and walked away. Instead, Pastor Height contacted the Front Porch Alliance (FPA), a city agency that works with value-shaping organizations, particularly faith-based organizations. Because the FPA employees understood how city procedures worked, they could help Pastor Height vacate the alley. "Granted, it is not always as successful as you would like, but in this case, we were able to make it work through teamwork," said Pastor Height, "And the neat thing to me is to be able to look at it and say, "Here is something beautiful."
Once the FPA cleared away government obstacles, many concerned organizations sprang forward to help make the neighborhood safer. Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, a private nonprofit group, designed the new park and supervised its construction. The two businesses that adjoined the old alley agreed to become the park's nominal owners. Volunteers from Youth for Christ put down soil and planted flowers.
This raises some important questions about why and how much government should get involved in troubled neighborhoods. Suppose you told Pastor Height's story to two political theorists, one traditionally conservative, the other traditionally liberal. The conservative would nod knowingly and explain that once cumbersome government regulations were out of the way, the neighborhood improved on its own. "Not at all," the liberal would retort. "The alley couldn't have been vacated if government hadn't become actively involved."
The director of the FPA, Isaac Randolph, puts it another way. "Everyone agrees that government has a core responsibility," he says. "But the core has a circumference, and the controversy is over the size of the circumference. Conservatives use a microscope to measure it; liberals use a yardstick." In Indianapolis, we have realized that neither approach is right. The traditional liberal belief in massive governmental intervention is misguided, but so is the idea that government should abandon neighborhoods altogether. There is a role for government to play in neighborhood revitalization. But what is it, if it is not the oversized federal programs that plague our cities today?