Neighborhood Planning: Uses of Oral History
June Manning Thomas
Michigan State University

Neighborhood planning for community improvement in America’s distressed central cities is particularly difficult because the physical environment may have daunting problems and the social environment may appear unapproachable. Oral history as a technique can help access information from those “at the margins” of society who live in distressed neighborhoods. This article analyzes the potential benefits of oral histories for neighborhood planning. It also analyzes interviews conducted with board members of two Detroit community organizations to glean lessons about the importance of residents’ personal experiences within the neighborhoods. The author suggests that collecting such historical insights could become a productive part of neighborhood planning. Keywords: oral history; neighborhood planning; neighborhood; African American, Detroit

cholars are still exploring the connections between history and urban and regional planning, an effort that this journal is aiding in great part. We are beginning to learn more about specific historical events and processes related to planning, as well as about how this evolution has affected cities throughout the world. However, we are just beginning to tap the potential uses of history as a tool for informing and guiding difficult problems in contemporary urban planning in a way that moves beyond description and toward prescription. One area of concern is how to tap the experiences of neighborhood residents as a source of guidance for current and future efforts in neighborhood planning. At this point, we know much about certain aspects of neighborhood planning, for example, that effective planning is one of the skills that effective community-based organizations must have. A few studies have begun to explore the specific role and nature of the planning function in organizations’ development and success,1 and case studies have provided variegated knowledge about the history and development of neighborhood initiatives.2 Still needed is additional information about how research involving the residents themselves can help to start, maintain, and enhance
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally presented to the Society for American City and Regional Planning History. It is supported in part by a research grant from the Aspen Institute.
JOURNAL OF PLANNING HISTORY, Vol. 2 No. 1, February 2004 50-70 DOI: 10.1177/1538513203262047 © 2004 Sage Publications





neighborhood improvement efforts. Some texts3 suggest that the kind of information systems necessary for neighborhood planning include demographics, history of the neighborhood, land use information, housing quality, and so on. Such texts seldom explain how planners and community leaders can use localized historical information about the neighborhood or the collective memory4 of residents to prepare for action. One methodological realm that offers great potential for gaining additional knowledge and strategy is oral history. The value of oral interviews has been revealed in a number of previous studies on community development, notably by Herbert Rubin,5 but the use of oral history in community development has been commented on less often. I will define specific narrative-related needs for neighborhood planning, explore the potential for oral history, offer examples from interviews in two Detroit neighborhoods, and suggest ways in which professional historians might further aid this process.

We will begin with a short exploration of the concept of neighborhood planning, which is based on the neighborhood as the primary unit of analysis. As Peterman notes in his book Neighborhood Planning and Community-Based Development, the concept of neighborhood used by urbanists today is not agreed upon by all, in part because “the neighborhood” actually is a relatively new concept in human history.6 Much of what the planning profession accepts as a neighborhood really refers to a concept that is more akin to a mid-twentieth-century residential subdivision, as designed for middle- or upper-class families. Some refer to work such as Gans’s Urban Villagers as proof of the existence of neighborhoods as a social construct, but Peterman reminds us that Gans argues that “ethnic villagers” made up only one type of at least five kinds of residents in contemporary cities and that conglomerations of people varied widely.7 In a similar vein, Jane Jacobs notes that city people are mobile and tend to pick friends and colleagues from throughout the entire city, and so she argues that the concept of neighborhood should be very fluid.8 Peterman reviews these various perspectives and concludes by suggesting that a neighborhood, or what we consider to be a neighborhood, may differ for different times and different places.9 This might explain why the concept of neighborhood seems more compelling for some residential areas (in some cities) than for others; the term “neighborhood planning,” for example, is more likely to refer to central-city neighborhoods than outer-ring suburban neighborhoods. Peterman also points out that the definition of “neighborhood planning” varies greatly among urban scholars. Jane Jacobs essentially views the smallest level of neighborhood as the street level and therefore implies that this is the level at which some planning should take place. Bernie Jones defines neighborhood planning as a smaller version of citywide planning,



and many of his techniques are those used for municipal planning.10 But Barry Checkoway suggests that neighborhood planning could be either top down or bottom up.11 Bottom-up planning at the neighborhood level involves grassroots organization and may include the creation of formal organizations such as community development corporations (CDCs). As Peterman notes, limiting neighborhood planning to areas in which CDCs flourish is too exclusionary. He suggests that the planning that takes place at the neighborhood level in today’s cities relates closely to advocacy planning and equity planning. Both of these are theories of planning that address issues of power; both imply that planners must see planning not as value neutral and serving some general public but rather as requiring acknowledgment of different publics, and both advocate planning representation for disadvantaged groups. From the bottom-up perspective, neighborhood planning therefore aims to plan for the future in a way that helps create the process of capacity-building community development in affected neighborhoods. If we accept this definition of neighborhood planning, then the special needs of such neighborhood planning become clearer. Peterman describes three of these special needs. First, neighborhood planning must be a collaborative process, involving a number of experts including planners, but also involving neighborhood residents and community organizers. True collaboration implies that all parties should be equal because it is necessary for everyone to respect everyone else’s opinion. The second requirement is that the process of neighborhood planning should be relatively open and transparent, so that residents can understand everything that is taking place in terms of techniques and processes, and so that the planning process is an educational one. Third, he suggests that all neighborhood planning be driven by the community, with focus placed on the neighborhood’s agenda, not the planner’s agenda. The process of social change should be one of empowerment, as defined in a number of ways, including increasingly investing community members in the ability to make decisions about the process and results of planning.12 To this list of three requirements for neighborhood planning, we can add a few others from additional authors, requirements particularly appropriate when neighborhood planning is being carried out in urban areas undergoing a process of social and economic change. In such circumstances, Baum notes, neighborhood planning may need to overcome likely fractures of race, class, and ethnic background. It may also be necessary, he suggests, for the planning process to overcome residents’ grief over the changes that are taking place in their neighborhood, if these are not for the better.13 Furthermore, implicit in Peterman’s list and noted elsewhere, neighborhood planning may need to involve organizational development, as described by a number of authors including Vidal.14 Thus, neighborhood planning as here defined is a complex process, necessarily involving an array of purposes and multifaceted requirements. We



now turn to a discussion of the planning tools that might be helpful in this process and of how historical methodology might assist.

Mandelbaum has suggested that all planning relies on a toolbox of techniques that falls into four major categories: models, theory, information systems, and narrative.15 Of these four, theory and narrative seem especially useful for the special needs identified above, and history seems useful for both theory and narrative, but particularly narrative. In the venue of neighborhood planning, quantitative models are used hardly at all, and other models, such as physical or architectural ones, come much later in the process as plans are being implemented in a physical form. Conceptual (as opposed to quantitative or physical) models, in this context, are essentially the same thing as theories. In the arena of theory, referring to the theoretical underpinnings of planning for neighborhood change can be quite helpful, particularly concerning some of the subjects discussed above such as advocacy planning and equity planning. Some examples also exist of planners using theories of organizational change to guide their work with community development.16 Although generation of planning theory has relied not so much on historical work as on theoretical frameworks constructed in other ways, a historical perspective can lead to the development of theoretical concepts about how specific social systems operate and change, as, for example, with Lawrence Vale’s recent historical assessment of the evolution of change in several public housing neighborhoods in Boston.17 Planners rely heavily on the third area, information systems, which ranges from analysis of census data and other social survey results to geographic information systems. But this overall genre may not contribute to a community development perspective, although for the actual act of neighborhood planning, it is necessary to assess current conditions and past trends in a quantitative sense, and involving residents in data collection and analysis can be empowering. Information systems are historical, however, only in the sense that data are historical. The fourth area, narrative, holds real promise for meeting the special needs identified above by Peterman, as well as for helping us identify other specific ways (besides theory building) that history can contribute to the necessary tasks involved. What exactly is “narrative”? This term includes a lot of potential approaches. We will briefly discuss four18: qualitative interviews, involving focused dialogue around a number of key questions of concern; storytelling, which is the narration of some event or experience; history, a broad term that includes traditional mechanisms of exploring written materials relevant to the subject at hand; and oral history, one method of history and an approach that I suggest has special potential for



neighborhood planning. Although all of these techniques are related in some way, each has its own special contribution to make to this discussion. In terms of community development efforts, the qualitative interview is very useful as it may directly address specific questions of importance, such as what has made economic development in a specific neighborhood successful or not. One could use the results of such interviews to create either overarching theories or incremental suggestions for strategic action. Perhaps the best example of this range of uses comes from Herbert Rubin, who interviewed a series of community development practitioners to discern key principles of practical applicability. His approach was to take various pieces of his interviews that related to key themes and to use this collection to advance theoretical and practical knowledge, as described in his book Renewing Hope within Neighborhoods of Despair: The Community-Based Development Model.19 In some circles of planning scholarship, storytelling has also emerged as a tool. Eckstein defines stories as “verbal expressions that narrate the unfolding of events over some passage of time and in some particular location.”20 The communicative planning movement relies on dialogue that can be framed, in many instances, as a process of storytelling, and authors such as Forester, Mandelbaum, and Rein and Schon have illustrated some of the possibilities.21 In the book Story and Sustainability: Planning, Practice, and the Possibility for American Cities, edited by Eckstein and Throgmorton, several authors suggest the benefits of storytelling, which would appear to be more incident specific or context specific than qualitative interviewing and more cohesive in describing a given set of events. Rotella provides a personal narrative account of her interactions with a Chicago neighborhood environment that describes social and economic decline in a way that models and information systems could never do.22 Just as compelling a chapter comes from author Joe Barthel, who relates stories of people traumatized by urban decline and then creates his own theoretical framework for explaining why people react to neighborhood conditions in a way that leads them to criminal activity.23 Throgmorton’s other book Planning as Persuasive Storytelling: The Rhetorical Construction of Chicago’s Electric Future narrates events surrounding community-based protests against utility plans by a prominent corporation to comment on community power and social change.24 In a few cases, history that relies on traditional, largely written sources of information has been used as a vehicle for understanding neighborhood planning. This is particularly true when the history of efforts in specific neighborhoods can be woven into a more general assessment of planning history. An example is Thomas’s Redevelopment and Race, which uses the experiences of Detroit’s Mack-Concord—one particular neighborhood that did not experience traditional urban renewal—to analyze how racial



change affected neighborhood planning efforts during the 1950s and 1960s and how neighborhood planning failed because of racial turnover.25 A reliance on a few contemporary interviews and largely written sources recorded in the past, however, as in that narrative about Detroit, makes it difficult to envision how such history can help inform community development within the context of contemporary neighborhood planning. Oral history is a technique that is quite allied with qualitative interviewing and with storytelling, and it is a form of history that may be potentially well suited for the needs of neighborhood planning as defined here. Although thus far in planning scholarship, oral history appears to have been used either to create narrative accounts of prominent planners26 or, in a few cases, to illuminate the role of minority citizens whose accounts would not otherwise be known,27 other potential exists.

One pair of authors has suggested that “oral history does not differ from the unstructured interview methodologically, but in purpose.”28 Some have suggested that oral history involves a range of strategies, from using a list of preconstructed questions to asking a person to tell his or her story in the way he or she chooses, but that in general it shifts attention away from “the right questions” to “the process,” which is to engage in dialogue about events and experiences.29 Perhaps the best introduction to oral history comes from examining several well-regarded oral history works. A particularly powerful compendium of accounts is Portelli’s The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories, in which the author uses oral histories he collected from workers in Italy and Kentucky to draw compelling lessons about history, social change, and research, in ways that in effect rewrite official accounts of major events from the perspective of the working class. From this book and other allied writings, we may anticipate several benefits of oral history, many stemming from the method’s ability to involve unheard voices in a dialogue about planning. Oral historians, for example, have offered extensive insight into the need to place researcher and subject on an equal basis for trust to facilitate dialogue, a topic explored in some depth by Portelli.30 The technique can become an extraordinary tool for empowerment, as with Kerr’s work with the homeless in which a massive oral history project led directly to a movement for social change.31 And oral history is particularly adept at soliciting input from those for whom no written records exist or who are unlettered or relatively powerless, as illustrated by both these authors. As argued forcefully by John Stanfield II, methodological approaches such as oral history have particular potency among peoples at the “margins.” Oral data gathering is important, he notes, for understanding the nature of people affected by “the marginalization and



exclusion of populations from centers of capitalistic modes of production, such as inner-city residents and Appalachians.”32 He advocates “the collection of oral histories that allow the examined people of color to articulate holistic explanations about how they construct their realities.”33 Such an approach also connects with recent efforts to view planning history as an activity involving ordinary citizens, such as women and marginalized minorities who have striven to improve their communities, rather than just professional planners or prominent city leaders.34 The need to tap resident knowledge is particularly important in distressed central-city neighborhoods precisely because they need whatever resources may be available. Resident initiative, wisdom, and participation are important potential resources. It may be possible to use dialogue with neighborhood residents as one way to assist with this task. Oral history offers a potential avenue for providing such dialogue. The technique is fairly simple, or can be: it largely involves finding knowledgeable people to talk about the history of their lives or their communities, providing a framework for conversation, and then listening very carefully to what they have to say.35

We will offer some of the results of one project as a way of generating additional thoughts about the potential linkages between neighborhood planning and oral history. The overall study that generated the data tapped for this article involved interviewing approximately thirty people associated with five active community-based development organizations (CBDOs) in Detroit and Battle Creek, Michigan. The research was based on qualitative interviews containing questions about vision and strategy in neighborhood planning.36 People associated with these organizations who were interviewed ranged in age from their early twenties to well more than eighty years old. Some were staff members, such as community organizers and housing directors, and others were board members; they were of different races, and all were significant players in their organizations. Something unanticipated happened with four of the interviews. Although these four residents seemed willing to answer the questions, which were set to elicit only cursory information about the person’s background and much more about neighborhood planning, in these cases people themselves turned the interview into an oral history session. (Oral historian Portelli notes that when people seem to “take over” an interview, it is often best to let them because the researcher must be able to listen and “show your respect for what people choose to tell you.”37) The four people whose opinions we feature in the present discussion focused heavily on the



history and evolution of their neighborhoods, or rather on their experiences in their neighborhoods, drawing in particular on autobiographical experiences. The four included two African American women of mature years (“Esther” and “Maple”), one African American man (“Eric”), and one mature Anglo American priest (“Father Bill”). The oldest was Maple, eighty years old; Eric was in his thirties.38 According to the executive directors and staff of the two central-city Detroit CBDOs in which they served, all four were pivotal players in helping to create plans for neighborhood improvement; her CBDO director called Maple “the heart and soul” of the organization. Maple and Esther were the two who most completely launched into oral histories, escaping the confines of the structured interview and instead relating extensive personal histories that offered portals into the collective memory of the neighborhood, and most of the commentary to follow comes from them. Maple and Esther lived near each other in a predominantly African American area of west-central Detroit that has had mixed success in neighborhood improvement. A capable CBDO has existed since 1984, staffed at first by volunteers from a religious order. It has accomplished a number of things, including rehabilitation of apartments and development of new multifamily housing, but this came after years of progressive socioeconomic decline, abandonment, and demolition. As did Williams in her intense description of oral history dialogue with two female, African American public housing resident leaders and Richer and Abron in their oral histories of two women in the Black Panther Party, we will use lessons gained from these conversations to extrapolate to more general situations.39 The two men also provided historical narrative. Eric belonged to the same CBDO as Maple and Esther. He moved out of the neighborhood but came back to participate and serve as president of this west side CBDO; Father Bill served on the board of another CBDO, on the east side of Detroit, in a largely African American neighborhood that witnessed progressive physical deterioration but also benefited from a CBDO’s presence. The thirty interviews (including each of the four described here) were taped over two hours for each subject, but in no sense did these interviews involve exhaustive narrative over several hours or days, as in many oral history projects. The results reported here, then, are exploratory. We should also note that the author and her graduate assistant were both African American and that the tone of the interview was such as to suggest some rapport based on race and perhaps gender for the women, which raises issues addressed by oral historians such as Portelli and DeVault.40 We will revisit these issues in the Conclusion’s summary of practical applications. We can classify their comments in general into three thematic areas: a sense of what was, focusing on the positive and negative trends they had personally witnessed over time in the neighborhood; a commentary on



organizational development, looking at what had changed with their neighborhood group; and a dialogue concerning the potential of triumph over adverse conditions. A Sense of What Was As these four, in particular Maple and Esther, narrated much of their life histories, a consistent theme was a longing for the past, when the neighborhood was in better condition. In Maple’s youth, the west side and another neighborhood near Pershing High School “were the nicest neighborhoods for black people. And I have been fortunate enough to live in both neighborhoods.” She noted that people were more self-sufficient at that time: “My daddy used to rent a mule and plow and would cultivate a whole city block [to feed] momma, daddy, and eight kids.” She evoked her memories of a time of flexible adjustment and entrepreneurship in a conscious effort to show that strengths of Depression-era parents deserved to be emulated, if possible, in a neighborhood where hopelessness was too common. Father Bill was an elderly priest who had a strong sense of the neighborhood’s history that translated into his attachment and dedication to its revitalization. He knew that most of the founders of his congregation’s church building had originally come from the British Isles and that they were working-class laborers. A motivating force behind his many hours of volunteer service to the local CBDO appeared to be his desire to help bring back a semblance of those better years, which he described in some detail. Eric, the fairly young president of his CBDO, did not know neighborhood history that took place before his three decades of life, but he remembered his experiences well enough to use that memory as part of his vision of the future. He narrated accounts of what it was like to grow up in the neighborhood when it had more people and services. “I grew up here, and my brothers and sisters grew up here . . . making it obviously a family, a communitytype area.” His concern was to make the community like that again, “but that means you’ve got to have resources that make a lot of people want to make it a community. That means you’ve got to have commercial [uses] in the sense of being able to go to stores and things like that; and cleaners and banks and things like that. So that’s why [Project X] includes a commercial center, a potential area for jobs.” Negative memories of the past seemed just as important to the respondents as the positive ones. Father Bill was able to contrast the origins of the parish with conditions just before and then after he appeared.
There were some attempts at outreach in the 1980s, early 80s and so there was some community meals, those kinds of things, trying to get people to just meet each other because at that point people . . . were pretty much living inside their homes with bars on the windows and, you know, all of that. . . . There were kind of continual drug houses . . . I remember they used to stop, drop somebody off over here on [X Road].



They’d come and walk down the alley into a drug house, get their drugs and then get picked up over here on [X Road]. And the prostitutes, when they got hassled on [Y and Z Roads], they’d come back into this area.

Esther grew up in the neighborhood but then moved to California for a number of years. When she and her husband returned in 1981, taking over Esther’s deceased mother’s house, they were surprised to find how far the neighborhood had declined. The physical devastation was bad enough, but Esther also presented a series of stories to illustrate social disintegration. In one part of her narrative, she recounted what it was like to live next to a house filled with criminal activity: “They used to have knife fights. My husband got in the middle and stopped an actual knife fight going on. . . . There was a house next door to us and they ran three shifts. There were three, eight-hour shifts. It was the fencing house. That’s where they brought stolen goods, next door. Prostitution. They sold dope.” As she continued, “See, my mother was still back here [before we returned]. My ears were deaf to what she was saying about how the neighborhood has changed.” Her mother remembered the better times and saw the changes, pointing them out to her emigrant daughter Esther, who for years was “deaf” and did not understand; but Esther eventually became a convert to neighborhood improvement. Organizational Change and Direction Another theme that emerged in the accounts was the changing nature of neighborhood organizations. Esther’s organization, for example, has been more active than most in Detroit in combining preparation for new construction with selective rehabilitation. To understand why, consider how she interwove the story of her CBDO with her personal history to show how she was able to help change the organization’s programmatic direction. One of Esther’s stories is how she, under newly destitute financial circumstances, had become a champion of historical preservation on her organization’s housing board. In part she supported preservation because of her growing interest in salvaging what she could of her mother’s house, as she and her husband struggled with unemployment. She noted that her old house had many of the same features that middle-class urban pioneers valued: wood floors, magnificent doors and high ceilings, a clawfoot iron bathtub, and most particularly a huge, old-fashioned kitchen sink. Piece by piece she collected articles and photos displayed in home improvement magazines and created a scrapbook showing what upscale preservationists wanted and what she was able to do in her own house that was comparable. This scrapbook she carried around and showed freely to all interested parties, along with her before-and-after pictures of nearby lots that her husband began to clear of weeds and debris. Her home became, in many ways, a showpiece.



Becoming more attuned to the innate beauty of what others had begun to accept as a ghetto, she realized that tearing down all the older housing was not necessarily the best strategy. Her older neighbors and brother helped her see the light:
Interviewer: What do you see the residents want? What is their vision of what they want? Esther: They want, they want their houses that can be saved to be saved. They want help with doing that. The houses that need to go, everybody’s in agreement. Tear down anything that’s raggedy and that’s an eyesore. . . . But the few that stood here and stayed through all the turmoil, trying to hold on, help us. The older blacks, they’re looking, saying okay, we helped you get an education. [My brother said] blacks are labeled as tearing up property or tearing up neighborhoods, but you educated ones are no better. You are no better than those who tear down, because . . . what you all want to do now is come and tear down our remaining houses and just put up something new without keeping what’s here, restoring, building up. . . . We want new housing but keep something as a reminder of where our parents came from.

At one point, her CBDO planned only projects based on clearance of large tracts of land and construction of townhouse complexes, with isolated and half-hearted housing rehabilitation designed to “modernize” older homes. The overall strategy, reminiscent of urban renewal, was to bring in the bulldozer to the few remaining houses and build new complexes from scratch. In contrast, the approach this woman advocated, with her scrapbook-based storytelling campaign, was to keep those houses standing that could be kept and then to rehabilitate them in a manner that acknowledged their historical roots. Gradually, she was able to move her organization’s agenda toward a more mixed-use strategy, one that combined new construction with rehabilitation based on the model of historic preservation. The history of this effort helps explain the reasons behind the evolution of the CBDO’s strategy and helps give this strategy legitimacy. Father Bill remembered well the hiring of his CBDO’s first permanent executive director and saw the continual surveying of needs assessment each summer as a repeat of a successful strategy. As he noted, early efforts involved getting a community person to go out and do a door-to-door survey, which they barely accomplished because of timidity and fear. They thought the primary need was housing, but those issues were “way over our poor little heads. . . . We also saw the need for the youth, a place to play.” They put together a job description and received funds from various faith organizations. “We looked for six months and got every kook in the world . . . all of a sudden we had four applications . . . all of whom were well-qualified.” “Mrs. Floyd,” the winner, was the outstanding candidate because of her optimism, “street smarts,” and familiarity with the community. The ease with which she was able to knock on doors for needs assessment, organize block parties, and start youth programs helped create a strong residentbased organization that pursued a number of strategies including housing development, for which Mrs. Floyd was not particularly well trained. Father



Bill’s memory served as commentary on the roadmap that led to organizational development and leadership. Maple’s memories of organizational capacity were quite specific, of long standing, and prescriptive. She remembered strategies dating well before the CBDO’s 1984 founding, during the time when block clubs and neighborhood associations blanketed Detroit. Shortly after describing her father plowing vacant land, she noted that the Westside Human Relations Council “was a first-class organization . . . made up of block clubs. I bet you there was a hundred block clubs or more. . . . The leadership was good and the people, you know, they kept up their property; it was just a different thing than what Detroit is now.” She wanted to see this as a current strategy:
Maple: I tell my neighbor next door all the time; I say, “I want your house to look just as nice as my house.” Interviewer: So you’re saying it’s important for them to get involved in block clubs and join various associations. Maple: Not various associations; whatever association is over [this area]. See, first you have all of these different, little block clubs. . . . Then you have the association as a combination of all of those, so whatever the association does . . . can pull from all of these people here. And that’s what I would like to see [my CBDO] do. As a matter of fact, they have said this is what they have wanted to do, but in order for them to do that, we need to have a plan to go back into the neighborhoods now and to encourage people to have their individual block club.

Maple is harking back to days no young people remember, when neighborhood associations were a vital part of black Detroit. One image of associations in that city is of the white homeowner’s associations, which built up during the middle of the twentieth century to guard against black intrusion.41 In fact, however, Warren in 1975 documented the existence of an extraordinary network of block clubs and associations created by blacks, and Thomas has noted that the city’s social planners, in the 1950s, played a significant role in organizing such groups.42 Proponents of social capital have suggested that organizations such as block clubs can indeed serve as the foundation for neighborhood empowerment.43 Maple was advocating a strategy, based on her memories, that she saw as part of a successful effort carried out decades before. Eric’s main contribution to the discussion on organizational change was to explain how he, himself, elicited personal historical accounts as a means of building organizational capacity. In a remarkable passage, he described this in some detail:
I think the second thing to do is to, to try to go out and talk to people in the community. What do you like, what don’t you like, how are things. Think back to a time when, when you really enjoyed living in the neighborhood: What do you know, what do you remember about the community during that time? So maybe it was twenty-five years ago, and maybe they remember that, you know, there was white people living in the neighborhood as well as black people living in the neighborhood. And maybe they remember that every lot was filled with a house, and maybe they remember that the department of transportation buses ran up and down the streets on a regular basis, or



whatever they remember, and try to pull back some of those [good things]. You can’t bring back all of those things, but you can start to focus on what made people happy; that’s, that’s an important thing, trying to revitalize a neighborhood is [bringing back] what . . . made people feel happy.

Dedication and Triumph The third theme that seemed to emerge was of dedication and triumph over adversity. Father Bill, for example, told about a corner that was “overgrown with bushes”; his church bought two lots, and their neighborhood organization obtained funds to build a park. A number of residents pitched in to construct the park, and it remained well maintained over many years. Father Bill then went on to describe other changes made in the distressed neighborhood, changes that related to far more important issues than creation of a park. Citizens had gone on to make important statements about crime and the social order in their neighborhood.
So a couple of things happened during that same time. One was a woman . . . had her purse snatched and an old guy about seventy, eighty years old took after the young man and the fire truck was coming back from a run and saw it and so they joined in and so that was one thing. [Another example:] A prostitute came back in one of these streets here with her John and the ladies in the neighborhood ran her out. So to me it just said, you know, things are changing. You notice the sign, the weathered sign on the front of the community center, change is coming.

Father Bill’s stories of these triumphs served to offset the stories of how bad things had been. It is a short step from stories of dedication and triumph to a sense of vision. Note Maple’s comments as she describes how her neighbors and their “spirit” were affected by bad times and then moves on to praise those who stayed:
The drugs that have been thrown in on us and all this violence and all this stuff, it has done something to the spirit of the . . . neighborhood; it’s made a lot of people cynical and . . . feeling hopelessness and all that. And then the people who could move out— first you had “white flight,” then it’s followed by “black flight,” and “black flight” is still in progress. . . . The people who remain, we have the faith, we believe, we have a vision, and we have faith. And one thing the neighborhood planning process can do, it can give people faith and it can give them a vision and it can give them hope.

Maple had a vision, and she recognized that others did as well. She served as an inspiration to her comrades because she still planned to keep on working to improve the neighborhood despite the fact that she had already lived eight decades. This explained her continued work with her neighborhood and her organization:
There are things that I personally have committed to myself to do, and this is what [my CBDO] is doing. And you asked me about the vision of what I see for [my CBDO]. I see [it] reaching out and touching the people in a way to make it a beautiful community.



Because we can. . . . I try to sell them on the idea that it isn’t how much you pay for your house, ghetto is a state of mind and we could have our beautiful spirit of a community right here. And the spirit that I have, I try to engender it to the people that I come in contact with in every way that I can. Where I live over there, I bought the house next to me, the house next to that, and right now I have, I have planned to have a center for the kids in the community. I want to do something for the children, because, see, if we don’t try to help save our children, we can forget it.

Esther, who also represented this spirit of triumph, told many stories about herself and her husband during her verbal autobiography of life in the neighborhood that illustrated great courage and dedication. As an example, she talked about an alcoholic neighbor. Esther, noting that the children had not been bathed in months, sent soap and washcloths to their house. When that did not work, she went to the woman and “very lovingly and kindly [I] started working with the children and lovingly telling them, now this is what you do every day; wash up here, this is for that, bring the clothes back to us. We’ll wash them.” The mother watched warily. The pastor and his wife began to buy clothes for the children and to teach them how to buy food cheaply when the wife noticed they were hungry and stealing food.
I felt a need to show these children how to survive without stealing and I went to the Eastern Market and I’ve never done anything like this before because I didn’t have to. At the end of the day the farmers, they leave food out. People can come in afterwards and you could pick some good food up off the ground or at the end of the day you can get food very reasonably priced. . . . But it dawned on me they may not even have a dollar or two. . . . I said [to the children], you may get in a position where you don’t have money to buy food for your family. I said, but always remember what I’m telling you, you never have to steal food. You can always come down here and get you some fresh food for yourself and for your family. And people started giving us crates of food.

Esther’s husband, a transplant to his wife’s mother’s neighborhood, was concerned because all of the vacant land in the neighborhood, which included a considerable amount of acreage, was unsightly, producing weeds five to six feet tall. Esther was concerned only about getting the grass cut in front of their house and in the vacant lot next door, which they bought.
Well, my husband saw beyond that. He said, “No, honey. I’m looking at [an area] as far as my eyes can see; when I look out my front window I want everything nice.” I said, what are you saying? He said, “I’m saying, every lot in the —00 block and every lot in the —00 block is gonna be cut.” . . . Now that was his vision, and you had lots that had been grown over. Up to twenty years you had broken bottles, debris, tires, furniture [accumulating], because the city didn’t pick up bulk but once a year. So now you’ve got all these sofas. You’ve got all this junk. It looked like hell. That’s exactly what it looked like. And you can almost . . . it looks hopeless and if you pass by that every day, you almost accept it. You figure, well, that’s the way it is.

The husband began a systematic campaign of neighborhood cleanup. Despite heart problems, he first used an old-fashioned sickle to cut the high weeds. When the city did come finally to cut the big lots, they left the junk behind, and so things actually looked worse. So the two of them began to



rake and bag all the junk, even though each lot was 145 feet long. This is the reaction he got from neighbors:
People came from literally everywhere to look because he started doing this day after day after day. He’d get out there at six in the morning, all way to night, all though the heat of the summer day after day, so people started coming out. So they would come out and they would say: “Who’s paying you to do this? You know,” they say, “you a fool. That’s city property. Let the city cut it.” So he would say, “People don’t [should not] live like this. We live here. Something must be done.” Others would come out and say, “Oh, you’re really blessing us. You’re encouraging us. We can see light now. We’ve seen it like this for so long we sort a like accepted it.” Most of them are senior citizens. One lady came out and gave him sixteen dollars. A guy on a corner who owned a store, he gave him a couple of Vernor’s Ginger Ale [drinks] a couple of times. Here’s some pictures he had taken. This is before, all of it was like was five or six feet [tall], but you can see the trash.

In this one-man campaign to transform the neighborhood, Esther’s husband succeeded as best he could. His key victory was in rousing his neighbors to action. He started alone, digging up old sidewalks with a shovel and trimming trees with a saw, so that people could finally walk down the sidewalks. He continued to cut the lots he had cleared. Finally, he convinced people on those blocks—all of whom lived on limited incomes, including themselves—to donate fifteen dollars a month to the effort to cut cityowned lots. People came and helped rake or pick up papers. When he died, in 1994, a young man in the neighborhood who had been a drug addict bought a new mower and continued his work. In the meantime, their CBDO had begun a program, in large part inspired by this effort, to contract with the city to cut on their behalf the lots that they owned. Soon that CBDO began to cut hundreds of acres every summer. Esther proudly carried and showed her before-and-after pictures of the neighborhood the way some people proudly show pictures of their grandchildren.

The accounts about “what was” offered both positive and negative memories about the past. Portelli noted in his accounts of Italian workers that many of them who had gone through the same traumatic times—labor repression, as opposed to our neighborhood degeneration theme—recalled the events in differing ways that were in fact instructive. The fact that people wanted to remember good times in the past may have been a natural part of surviving in a neighborhood with obvious problems. But Baum has noted that nostalgia can be a barrier, a way of failing to link the past and the future in a proactive way, which required forgetting much of the past. He would suggest that the need is to allow people to share pleasant memories of the past but to encourage hard assessment of current realities and likely futures.44 Some oral historians have noted that older people tend to



overlook the obvious poverty of the past and inflate such moral values such as fortitude and adaptation, as described by Maple, as an indulgence in nostalgia.45 In this case, the respondents seem to balance good and bad memories, however, and use this balance in positive ways. They understood that the neighborhood had indeed gone down, and yet they had also seen positive movement from some very bad times and appeared to be using these as a way to support neighborhood redevelopment efforts. Eric, for example, used his memories as a visioning exercise: part of his vision included a neighborhood with families that included people of all ages. This vision, which was also a historical memory, made his hard work to support the construction of new family housing all the more important. It also spurred action to build commercial facilities, in testimony to the days when residents could easily go to local stores (which are almost absent from the neighborhood now). Images of the past and how good life was previously drove the priest to work to improve the present. Images of past horrors provided a benchmark for measuring the quality of life in the area, which had improved somewhat in both neighborhoods. Such memories suggested how bad things could be and served to help motivate these actors to become involved in progressive efforts to change things for the better. In the case of the second theme, organizational development, the linkage between personal histories and positive change seems even stronger. Here accounts of scrapbooks, personnel hires, and previous organizational strategies provided direct feedback concerning what had worked in the neighborhood and what had not. One could easily argue that such knowledge could be extremely useful; it might be possible to collect such accounts as one form of organizational analysis. In this case, all of these people served actively on CBDO boards with which they shared such knowledge, but the question arises concerning how many other people in the neighborhood, not currently serving on boards, might retain such organizational history wrapped up in their personal stories and how tapping such knowledge might influence current strategy. Eric asked about personal memories as a way of influencing organizational development, but it is not clear how deeply he probed. Comments on the third theme, concerning experiences of dedication and triumph, showed that people had experienced changing very bad circumstances with efforts that generated a sense of pride and accomplishment. Remembering earlier terrible conditions, which the community organizations have helped to allay, conceivably gave these residents a sense of power and allowed them to feel optimistic about their continuing efforts to improve the future. In the context of abandoned housing and weeded lots, it is not hard to understand why a neighborhood griot who tells about acts of kindness



toward neighborhood children and acts of heroism in the face of ridicule would have power. It is little wonder that Esther had influence in her organization. It is probably not uncommon, particularly among the oldest residents of such neighborhoods, to find people who could cite such stories, when asked. Like Maple, Esther began to tell her stories in the context of discussion about the history of planning and change in her neighborhood. She obviously saw her and her husband’s efforts as being precisely what “neighborhood planning” was all about: creating a sense of community and responsibility for one’s neighbors. It is also significant that her CBDO steered the researcher to talk to Esther and Maple as a means of understanding the legacy of efforts to improve their neighborhood. The CBDO looked to these local residents as repositories of information and motivation. Unearthing such experiences of dedication and sacrifice could help lay the groundwork for future improvements. To the extent that such stories are shared among other residents, they have the power to motivate further action, just as the example of individual initiative—one man cutting grass alone—spurred other residents to action. Stories of battle and triumph from the inner city—stories from people struggling to revive neighborhoods abandoned by everyone else—allow us to analyze and to better understand as well as to more effectively plan for the future. Not incidentally, they also help us to admire the power of the human spirit. Of the six requirements that we identified for bottom-up neighborhood planning at the beginning of this article (collaborative process, open and transparent methodologies, community-driven impetus for change, ascending above fractures of class and race, overcoming grief, and organizational development), these conversations suggested a potential contribution of oral history to at least three specific needs. Contributions to creating a collaborative process could come from engaging people in interpreting the past and envisioning the future by means of accessing their personal histories. Esther’s narration shows the potential for using personal history as a force for empowering individuals to direct community change. And the commentaries on organizational development relate, of course, to the potential for aiding organizational development. It is also possible that such narrations, when guided by skilled local leaders such as Eric, could help with a fourth task, which is creating a more open and transparent process for neighborhood planning. To do so, however, would require understanding some practical considerations concerning the use of oral history in such a context.

The question might here arise concerning how exactly such use of oral history would come into being. One should note that some historians, years



after having developed elaborate and reflective studies to collect neighborhood oral histories, have been frankly disappointed in the results. Difficulties include the tendency of respondents to veer into topics of importance to their individual lives but not to the broader picture and the inability to use resulting interviews in any meaningful sense.46 And yet we know from the text above and from authors such as Delores Hayden47 that memory of place and experience can be a powerful tool for present-day improvements. And so we will end by considering two things: first, what conditions might be necessary to create greater usage of oral history in neighborhood planning and, second, what specific contributions professional historians might make to this process. Concerning conditions needed, what may be necessary is to consider oral history as a tool only in a context in which an active program of community development is taking place. While it would be interesting and instructive to collect oral histories in key neighborhoods as a way of recording lost voices, it is not difficult to envision such a project becoming an exercise in simple collection or in futility. An alternative would be to look at oral history as Eric does, that is, as a way to gain insight needed for the advancement of an existing community development agenda. This implies, in U.S. cities, the existence of a formal community organization charged with forwarding such an agenda, and so this might also be a condition. This also implies that this organization would be active in community organizing or in otherwise engaging residents on an ongoing basis in the process of envisioning a better future, that is, in planning. It would be necessary for at least some residents to live in the neighborhood who have historical memories to tap, not a frivolous requirement given the turnover in some areas. And it would be necessary to have someone involved in the situation with some expertise in oral history (or in other qualitative, narrative-based techniques). Hence, we come to the second consideration: the role of historians. We might envision two sets of contributions, the first by professional historians who write about oral history as a method and the second by professional historians who could help with training neighborhood planners. Both of these contributions revolve around the fact that not many people know how to participate in an oral history project, much less to direct it and integrate it into community development efforts. And as I have discussed above, I am not talking so much about what one might call full-scale oral history projects as about using the technique for specific planning purposes. The historical literature offers many methodological findings important for situations in which oral history is being used. One set of comments, for example, concerns how to observe and analyze the relationship between the person who is interviewing and the person who is being interviewed. As we noted, shared African American heritage appeared to affect our interviews in positive ways. Sometimes race can be a source of rapport, as can class, birthplace, gender, political leanings, and so forth, but it is possible



with conscious understanding of the factors at work to build bonds without comparable personal characteristics, or in spite of them.48 One way to do this is to frame questions in such a way as to free the respondent to open up, in a manner described by several oral historians. Another allied discussion is the problem of using written transcripts, which is a feeble way of recording the complex dynamics of what takes place in interviews.49 These findings could be of great benefit to others besides oral historians. Another potential contribution is training. Since these techniques are not widely known, it may take focused efforts to bring them into use. Both professional planners (who are likely trained only in quantitative techniques for data collection) and neighborhood leaders (who may have a natural affinity for narrative techniques but not recognize their applicability) could benefit from such training. They would then be more likely to use the method. If we can work out these concerns, we may thereby gain great insights, sources of inspiration, potential strategies, organizational analysis, and visions. Collecting oral histories could become an additional source of support, encouragement, and guidance. Such histories could not merely document neighborhood experiences but could also enhance organizational ability to help improve future conditions. This is, indeed, an appropriate role for history: “By tracing one’s personal roots and grounding one’s identity in some collectivity with a shared past . . . one acquires stability and the basis for community. . . . The necessity of history is deeply rooted in personal psychic need and in the human striving for community.”50

1. B. Checkoway, “Six Strategies of Community Change,” Community Development Journal 30, no. 1 (1995): 2-20. R. Stoecker, “The CDC Model of Urban Redevelopment: A Critique and an Alternative,” Journal of Urban Affairs 19, no. 1 (1997): 1-22. 2. P. Medoff and H. Sklar, Streets of Hope: The Fall and Rise of an Urban Neighborhood (Boston: South End, 1994). 3. B. Jones, Neighborhood Planning: A Guide for Citizens and Planners (Chicago: Planners’ Press, 1990); W. R. Morrish and C. Brown, Planning to Stay: Learning to See the Physical Features of Your Neighborhood (Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed, 1994). 4. For an explanation of the role of history as memory and characterization of history “as natural as breathing,” see in particular G. Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 199. 5. H. J. Rubin, Renewing Hope within Neighborhoods of Despair: The Community-Based Development Model (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000). 6. W. Peterman, Neighborhood Planning and Community-Based Development: The Potential and Limits of Grassroots Action (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000), 11-12. 7. H. Gans, The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans (New York: Free Press, 1962). 8. J. Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage, 1961). 9. Peterman, Neighborhood Planning, 22. 10. Jones, Neighborhood Planning. 11. B. Checkoway, “Two Types of Planning in Neighborhoods,” Journal of Planning, Education and Research 3 (1984): 102-9.



12. Peterman, Neighborhood Planning, 165-66. 13. H. S. Baum, “Forgetting to Plan,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 19, no. 1 (1999): 2-14. 14. A. Vidal, “Can Community Development Re-invent Itself? The Challenges of Strengthening Neighborhoods in the 21st Century,” Journal of the American Planning Association 63 (1997): 429-38. 15. S. Mandelbaum, “Narrative and Other Tools,” Story and Sustainability: Planning, Practice, and Possibility for American Cities, eds. Barbara Eckstein and James A. Throgmorton (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 185-94. 16. See Peterman, Neighborhood Planning, chap. 5. 17. See both L. Vale, From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), and L. Vale, Reclaiming Public Housing: A Half Century of Struggle in Three Public Neighborhoods (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002). 18. A number of other techniques exist as well, notably case studies. For a full listing of several qualitative techniques, see V. J. Janesick, “The Dance of Qualitative Research Design: Metaphor, Methodolatry, and Meaning,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, ed. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994), 212. 19. Rubin, Renewing Hope. 20. B. Eckstein, “Making Space,” in Story and Sustainability, 14. 21. Ibid., 23, 25. 22. C. Rotella, “The Old Neighborhood,” in Story and Sustainability, 87-112. 23. J. Barthel, “The Meanest Streets,” in Story and Sustainability, 227-42. 24. J. A. Throgmorton, Planning as Persuasive Storytelling: The Rhetorical Construction of Chicago’s Electric Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 25. J. M. Thomas, Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). 26. See A. Garvin, “Philadelphia’s Planner: A Conversation with Edmund Bacon,” in Journal of Planning History 1, no. 1 (2002): 58-78. 27. Authors C. Connerly and B. Wilson used oral histories to help construct “The Roots and Origins of African American Planning in Birmingham, Alabama,” in Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows, ed. June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996), 201-19. 28. A. Fontana and J. Frey, “Interviewing: The Art of Science,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, 184. 29. K. Anderson and D. Jack, “Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses,” in Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, ed. S. Gluck and D. Patai (New York: Routledge), 11-26, cited in D. Jean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly, “Personal Experience Methods,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, 419. 30. Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991), chap. 2. 31. D. Kerr, “‘We Know What the Problem Is’: Using Oral History to Develop a Collaborative Analysis of Homelessness from the Bottom Up,” Oral History Review 30, no. 1 (2003): 27-45. 32. J. Stanfield, “Ethnic Modeling in Qualitative Research,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, 184. 33. Ibid., 185. 34. Lerner, Why History Matters, 368; L. Sandercock, Making the Invisible Visible: A Multicultural Planning History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998). 35. This is of course an oversimplification of what can be a very demanding venture. Even seasoned oral historians may stumble over the manner and approach they should use to talk to subjects; see, for example, the confessional K. Anderson and D. Jack, “Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses,” in Women’s Words. However, the technique does not require extensive training and can be used as simply another framework for extensive interviews of interesting subjects, chosen well and with purpose: see the diversity of approaches in a special issue of Oral History Review 29, no. 2 (2002). See also Studs Terkel’s comments in Envelopes of Sound: Six Practitioners Discuss the Method, Theory and Practice of Oral History and Oral Testimony, ed. S. Terkel, J. Vansina, D. Tedlock, S. Benison, A. Harris, and R. Grele (Chicago: Precedent, 1975). 36. The line between oral histories and oral qualitative interviews is not a strong one. H. Rubin and I. Rubin, Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995). See the



similar but contrasting definitions of “oral history” and “research interviews” in D. Clandinin and F. Connelly, “Personal Experience Methods,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, 413-27. 37. Portelli, Death of Luigi Trastulli, p. x. Oral histories need not “guide” subjects and may indeed seek spontaneity. See, for example, Hoberman’s description of his methodology when interviewing residents of a New England town. M. Hoberman, “High Crimes and Fallen Factories: Nostalgic Utopianism in an Eclipsed New England Industrial Town,” Oral History Review 28, no. 1 (2001): 17-39. In terms of stories, compare these with the “fairy’s tales” told by the women in Ritzdorf’s class, who offered keen insights into issues of gender and personal security in urban situations. M. Ritzdorf, “The Fairy’s Tale: Teaching Planning and Public Policy in a Different Voice,” Journal of Planning Education and Research 12, no. 2 (1993): 99-106. 38. Real names are not used because under federal “Human Subjects” guidelines administered by my university, these informants were told that their names would not be publicized. For the same reason, their organizations are not named since their specific roles within the organizations are sometimes described. 39. R. Y. Williams, “‘I’m a Keeper of Information’: History-Telling and Voice,” Oral History Review 28, no. 1 (2001): 41-63. “‘Comrade Sisters’: Two Women of the Black Panther Party,” in Unrelated Kin: Race and Gender in Women’s Personal Narratives, ed. G. Etter-Lewis and M. Foster (New York: Routledge, 1996). 40. Portelli, Death of Luigi Trastulli; M. DeVault, “Talking and Listening from Women’s Standpoint: Feminist Strategies for Interviewing and Analysis,” Social Problems 37, no. 1 (1990): 96-116. 41. T. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996). 42. D. Warren, Black Neighborhoods: An Assessment of Community Power (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975); J. M. Thomas, Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). 43. S. Cochrun, “Understanding and Enhancing Neighborhood Sense of Community,” Journal of Planning Literature 9, no. 1 (1994): 92-99. 44. Baum, “Forgetting to Plan.” 45. M. Hoberman, “High Crimes and Fallen Factories: Nostalgic Utopianism in an Eclipsed New England Industrial Town,” Oral History Review 28, no. 1 (2001): 17-39. 46. L. Shopes, “Oral History and Community Involvement: The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project,” in Presenting the Past: Essays on History and the Public, ed. Susan P. Benson, Stephen Brier, and Roy Rosenzweig (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986). 47. D. Hayden, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995). 48. Portelli, Death of Luigi Trastulli, chap. 2. 49. Ibid.; Kerr, “We Know What the Problem Is”; DeVault, “Talking and Listening.” 50. Lerner, Why History Matters, 118.

June Manning Thomas, PhD, FAICP, is a professor of urban and regional planning at Michigan State University (MSU), with a joint appointment at the MSU Extension, where she codirects an outreach initiative titled Urban Collaborators. She has published books and articles on topics related to social equity, notably Redevelopment and Race: Planning a Finer City in Postwar Detroit (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), which has won the ACSP Paul Davidoff award, and Urban Planning and the African-American Community: In the Shadows (Sage, 1996), coedited with Marsha Ritzdorf.

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