Robert Fisher on (Conservative) Community Organizing in the US: 1946-1960

There’s conservative community organizing  and CONSERVATIVE community organizing, and I appreciate that there’s a section on the second in  Let the People Decide? It’s even more depressing than the interest-group model of democracy. It’s hard to get through, I looked at this kind of stuff closely in LA and one day the book will out, but this stuff is racist and grim and not much of that awful rhetoric has changed. Trump has drawn it out with a vengeance.

Fisher writes:

Prosperity and repression formed a powerful recipe for halting dissent, and few did not fall in behind the cold warriors. (70)

Alinsky saw it happening, as did others. Going back to the post-war period, Fisher writes:

the anticommunism of the early 1950s made a wasteland of his community organizing. people were afraid to stick their necks out and get involved. Radical activity atrophied. (73)

Social work organizing did rather better of course.

There is a brilliant quote on the conservative reaction to Shelley v Kramer (the lawsuit that ended restrictive covenants):

Mr Speaker, there must have been a celebration in Moscow last night; for the Communists won their greatest victory in the Supreme Court of the United States on yesterday when that once august body proceeded to destroy the value of property owned by tens of thousands of loyal Americans in every state of the Union by their anti-covenants decision.
— John Rankin, representative from Mississippi, 4 May 1948

The capacity of the right to connect Moscow to any kind of organizing for the good astonishes me every time, just as the effectiveness of their red baiting does. Though that said, I’m not sure if racism isn’t the more powerful undercurrent of anti-red hysteria. But all of this conservative organizing is based around fear and the desire to improve property values — themselves formed in a climate of fear. So Fisher looks here at the neighborhood improvement association — focused on enhancement and protection.

Enhancement includes efforts to secure public services, promote uniform and homogeneous development, control taxes, provide neighborhood-based self-help programs or services, and, in general, oversee the development of the community. Most important, however, the association serves to protect property values and community homogeneity by opposing commercial development and excluding members of lower classes and racial minorities. (79)

Improvement associations work quietly and cooperatively behind the scenes as interest-group “brokers” for their neighborhood. (80) More interest group politics, but most effective as well, as they support the status quo over all. Such organizations tend to be more affluent people, long lasting and can exert a lot of pressure in local politics.

Don’t we all know it.

Still, this shows what a long damn history there is of neighborhoods financing things like mosquito fogging, street lights, pavements, every damn thing government should provide. Instead you have cities like Houston proud of limiting ‘government role’, so entrenched in this strange contradictory ideology.

It was good to read this history of white flight and active organizing to keep white suburbs, only possible through mass government subsidy of suburb developments. There’s much more about this in Sugrue’s work on Detroit or As Long as They Don’t Live Next Dooror Crabgrass Frontier or any of the many books on the fight against segregation. But not enough on books on organizing or urban planning, that is for sure.

[Fisher, Robert (1994) Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.]

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