Fragile Neighborhoods: Repairing America, One Zip Code at a Time, by Seth D. Kaplan (Little, Brown Spark, 272 pp., $30)
It’s been nearly a quarter-century since the sociologist Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, a book that documented the falling enrollment of American “chapter” organizations that had long bonded people together, such as the Knights of Columbus and Boy Scouts, and the decline of civic engagement in general. Since then, with the rise of the Internet, social media, and smartphones (not to mention rising rates of opioid deaths and suicide), Americans have become yet more isolated from their neighborhoods, communities, and even families. In response, many have decried the demise of “mediating” institutions: collective efforts that exist between the individual and the state and create thick, personal social ties.
Seth D. Kaplan, a Johns Hopkins professor specializing in fragile states, takes a different approach in his new book Fragile Neighborhoods. He profiles a series of nonprofit organizations that, bucking the trend, are working to repair the country’s social fabric, one neighborhood at a time—taking a “sideways” approach rather than a top-down or bottom-up one.
America’s problems are quite different from the issues confronting the dysfunctional countries Kaplan normally studies. As he notes, despite Americans’ fraying social ties, their nation still boasts a stable government, reasonably well-functioning institutions, and one of the world’s best economies. Conversely, the residents of fragile states often have an especially strong sense of mutual obligation—hardly a luxury when the government is weak.
Nonetheless, Kaplan’s extensive experience with international organizations trying to solve social problems proves to be an asset. He selects a handful of groups to focus on, explains what they’re doing right, and offers guidance to others wanting to join in.
The first is Life Remodeled, based in Detroit, which focuses on rejuvenating streets, homes, schools, and neighborhood assets by mobilizing volunteers, philanthropists, and contractors willing to donate their efforts. Working closely with the community to overcome initial resistance and investing more than $5 million, the group turned one neighborhood’s empty school building into a hub of economic activity and opportunity. Organizations there now offer job training and other services, a gym, a library, business tenants, and more. Revenue from tenants and space rentals make the project self-sustaining.
Next is Partners for Rural Impact, an education-focused effort in Appalachia. It offers art programs rooted in the region’s culture, as well as intense efforts focused on help for struggling students, college preparation, and early childhood interventions. Kaplan reports that the group’s programs boost high school graduation and test scores substantially.
Operating out of Baltimore is Thread, which provides, essentially, surrogate families to struggling kids starting in ninth grade and commits to help each child for ten years (by which point participants are in their mid-twenties). Each child is matched with up to four adults supported and coached by more experienced mentors. Volunteers pledge to be available around the clock for a year at a time; they “drive students to school, help them around the house, take them to movies, and provide food if needed,” and help young adults find jobs. Participating kids see far better high school graduation rates than similar peers.
The most tech-heavy effort Kaplan profiles is, interestingly, a Christian nonprofit dedicated to saving marriage, called Communio. While many businesses use big data to find customers and target ads, Communio uses consumer data and church surveys to find at-risk marriages and offer help in the form of more than 80 different programs. Divorce predictors apparently include the presence of young kids, an uptick in TV-dinner purchases, and new gym memberships.
Meantime, growing out of the East Lake Foundation, which revitalized one of Atlanta’s most troubled neighborhoods and brought violent crime down 90 percent, Purpose Built Communities helps local officials do the same in their own communities. The three pillars of the group’s approach are mixed-income housing (which can bring resources into a neighborhood without driving old residents out), school improvements, and general neighborhood institutions and facilities to serve residents and, where possible, attract tourists. The organization seems especially adept at coordinating the efforts of local residents, public agencies, and philanthropists.
Kaplan’s “operational lessons” from these programs include focusing on helping kids, targeting multiple areas simultaneously, empowering volunteers, making good use of data, and scaling up successful efforts to create national organizations.
In profiling these organizations, Fragile Neighborhoods does not quite tell us how to get more people involved in such efforts. How can the country restore the level of civic engagement and health that it exhibited decades ago? Cynics might ask how far efforts like these, however effective they may be in themselves, can go toward reversing longstanding trends and fixing deep nationwide dysfunctions, and how much money it would cost to scale them up meaningfully.
But the book is extremely valuable as a call to action—and as a guide to those looking to maximize the effectiveness of their own nonprofit organizations, donations, or volunteer efforts.