Let's be honest. The term "blight" has been appropriated to mean the condition of urban, substandard housing in communities of mostly black or brown people who apparently don't care about changing the dismal conditions in which they live. In fact, the residents are often blamed for the broken windows, graffiti, dilapidated structures and illicit, illegal activities associated with the neighborhood.
It is interesting how over time, an agriculture term used to describe the disease and vulnerability of plants has now been applied to conditions of urban neighborhoods and the people who live in them. In the early 20th century, sociological studies surfaced using blight as a metaphor to describe urban decay to build credibility of the concept as a rigorous study in traditional science attributing the decline in neighborhoods that occurred in a natural pattern.
The transfer of an organic concept to sociological one seemed to do little to address the cause of the diseases detrimental to the organism. Sociologically, this concept associated the neighborhood conditions to its residents and not the divestiture, shifts in economic opportunities and policies that affect the community. Blight is not about people; it's about the lack of resources.
One general approach to fighting blight has been to tear down abandoned homes and businesses thereby uprooting the people - with the assistance of public funds. This transforms not only the buildings, property values, and economic opportunities, but also displaces the people who make up the community. Today the term "blight" is a cash-term for grants and funding for urban renewal, often resulting in a shift in racial and economic makeup of the residents. In 1963, James Baldwin stated "urban renewal means Negro removal."
James Baldwin interview with Kenneth Clark
It is not surprising that government entities have a vested interest in attracting developers to revitalize underserved neighborhoods in hopes of increasing the tax base of its residents. But it adds insult to injury when the developers receive tax breaks and funding is allocated to more affluent, middle-class neighborhoods instead of those that need it the most.
Even farmers do more to avoid harm and disease in their crops with herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. They don't give up on the surviving crop because of a section of vulnerable crop. Why aren't we applying the same principles of prevention and intervention to keep blight from taking root in our neighborhoods instead fixing the problem after it seeds hopelessness in our communities? Conventional wisdom states "an ounce or prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Why not start with a human approach or asset-based community development for more sustainable solutions that draw on the skills and strengths of those in the community to revitalize neighborhoods? Organizations like the Asset-Based Community Development Initiative provide research, capacity building and action-based training to empower grassroots organizations to develop and build better communities from the inside out.
Asset Driven Community Development Map
Cities like Detroit have used a similar approach with its Blight Removal Task Force that empowers to develop and renew their neighborhoods.
(6) We all have a role in participating in neighborhood safety and beautification, and in holding developers and policymakers accountable. Armed with brooms and rakes, not guns, we can win the war to save our neighborhoods.