Opening Remarks, CORO Neighborhood Leadership Program

On March 12, 2013 Jonathan Fanton remarked on the mission and values of the CORO Neighborhood Leadership Program, which trains individuals working in various New York City organizations to build networks and attain the skills necessary to strengthen local neighborhoods. For more information on CORO, click here.

CORO Leadership
March 12, 2013

1). It is a pleasure to welcome you to the home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, now the Hunter College Roosevelt Institute of Public Policy.

There are actually two houses, built by Franklin’s mother Sara in 1908 who gave one to Eleanor and Franklin as a wedding gift.

Roosevelt heard of his election to the Presidency in this house and later put together his cabinet and formulated the early New Deal right here.

He understood the importance of community development. Hear his words in a 1933 Fireside Chat talking about employment creation and economic development. Our program “will succeed if our people understand it — in the big industries, in the little shops, in the great cities and … small villages. There is nothing complicated about it and there is nothing particularly new in the principle. It goes back to the basic idea of society and of the nation itself that people acting in a group can accomplish things which no individual acting alone could even hope to bring about.”

He and Eleanor would be pleased that a new generation of leaders dedicated to making New York City a pathway of opportunity for all gathers here to reflect on your Fellowship experience.

I was reading over your short bios  and am impressed with the work you are doing all over the city and the many creative projects underway. And a special welcome to Felicia from Union Square Partnership.

2). As you know, Rob and I worked together at the Union Square Local Development Corporation and BID for many years and I learned a lot from him, lessons that inspired the MacArthur Foundation’s substantial Investment in reviving Chicago’s poorest but promising neighborhoods.

MacArthur joined with other foundations and financial institutions to form The National Community for Development Initiative now called Living Cities which worked with LISC and Enterprise in 23 cities across the country.  What we did in Chicago was studied and often replicated across the country.

They called it the Chicago Model.  But I called it the 14th Street Union Square Model because the key elements came from my work with Rob.

3). The transformation of Union Square from a “needle park” haven for drug dealers to a family friendly gathering place for recreation and relaxation, food and fun, commerce and conversation is a thrilling story.

Looking back here are some of the key drivers for change, factors you will recognize in your own neighborhoods.

Institutional leadership matters, in our case the largest business employer Con Ed and the most significant institution, The New School.  Presidents Charles Luce and Jack Everett and their staffs quickly recruited neighborhood leaders and businesses to help.

Getting the footprint right is important, in our case anchored by Union Square and several blocks either way on 14th Street formed a natural neighborhood.

Achieving some early victories to show that improvement is possible if we work together, in our case holding events in Union Square Park for children and families to show that it was a clean and safe place to come and promoting new business openings through ribbon-cutting events to broadcast that Union Square was open for business.

Forging an alliance with city agencies is critical, in our case the 4 precincts that come together in the area, the Parks Department, City Planning.  The sensible zoning changes in the mid 1990’s were critical to economic development at the right scale. Along the way we got a lot of help from people like Henry Stern and Joe Rose.

Getting the balance right between economic development and preservation of the community and its values is critical.  Also having a plan, block by block, building by building is essential even as a base line from which reality often departed.

Vision is critical.  Mid-way in my 17 years as co-chair we stopped to clarify what our values and characteristics were.  From that exercise came, for example, the concept of diversity — residential, commercial, institutional, the arts, a mix of people by class, race and age, a transportation hub where people from all over the city meet and mix.

And from the vision came a consensus about the future.  For all the high theory about community development what matters most are the people.  We were neighbors and colleagues but more importantly friends.  A couple of years ago Rob organized a 30th reunion of the Local Development Corporation with an amazing turn out, spirits that surpassed high school and college reunions. And a great appreciation to Rob for his leadership which was indispensable for all we accomplished. He brought the best out in all of us, built our commitment, lifted our spirits, bridged differences, made things happen.

A final thought:  time and patience is essential and, vigilance, so progress achieved is maintained.  The job is never done.  A healthy community is resilient, able to absorb adversity, grasp opportunity and embrace change.

You are all younger than I by some years.  Looking back over my career I can say my work with the Union Square – 14th Street Local Development Corporation at BID ranks at the top of what gives me a feeling of pride and satisfaction.  So I salute you for the work you are doing to make our city stronger one neighborhood at a time – a city that is more just and human with opportunity for all.

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