"This kind of community work is time intensive," he says. "And sometimes that doesn't fit into the routine of sitting down and writing. You get less reward for going out and hanging out and trying to do things like change communities and more for publishing papers in journals."

This "publish or perish" paradigm, he argues, is why so many inner-city programs, particularly community-mobilization strategies, have failed in the past. Researchers, often underestimating the interconnectedness of the forces that cause urban blight, end up falling back on models that target a single "cause": crime or drugs or declining education or unemployment or gangs or limited health care. The result is a sort of Whac-a-Mole game.

"We target aspects of a huge problem," White says. "We put Band-Aids on cuts all over the place. There are all these programs right now designed to make a change in communities. And they're all doing the same thing. They're saying, 'Find the problem, and fix that one thing and we'll be OK.'"

"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Jennifer Silverberg
"We have got to fight for peace in our neighborhoods. This time we've got to get our civil rights from each other. And when we do that, it's gon' change America. It's gon' change the world," says James Clark.
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.
Jennifer Silverberg
Unlike many other academics, Norm White immerses himself in the neighborhoods. He spends his free time cruising north city and county, stopping to talk to residents sitting on porches or walking down the street.

White and Clark instead constructed the Neighborhood Alliance model to be dynamic, to address all the negative forces that plague a neighborhood.

It's a daunting task.

"I admire Norm for what they're trying to do," says Bursik. "But, goddamn, I mean, you're getting at the structural roots. That's not easy to shake."

But while the plan to saturate a community with resources and personal attention may be ambitious, it is not unique. The most promising parallel is the much-better-funded Harlem Children's Zone, created by Geoffrey Canada in the 1990s. While Canada's model centers on charter schools, he also developed a network of social services to address all the peripheral needs of the students, things like health clinics for families, violence-prevention initiatives and "Baby College" workshops for new parents.

Measuring the actual effect of any model can be tough. Since 2009, the crime rate has decreased by 36 percent in Hamilton Heights and 31 percent in Penrose, compared to 8 percent in St. Louis as a whole. But there are too many variables, and there's been too little research to definitively link these numbers to any particular initiative.

For instance, in the last few years Hamilton Heights has had a neighborhood-accountability board installed, a police command van added, the Department of Justice's community-based "Weed and Seed" program initiated, and, after police officer Norvelle Brown was shot and killed by a fifteen-year-old in 2007, the police increased their presence throughout the neighborhood. Were all these factors equally responsible? Or was one significantly more effective than the others?

Measuring the model's effectiveness, though, is White's next task. Before he and Clark expand Neighborhood Alliance, they want to fine-tune it. He's been gathering data. On some days, Clark's platoon hands out surveys in addition to fliers. The surveys ask residents what resources they need, what needs are being met and how they think the neighborhood can be improved. It won't be a band of outsiders dropping in and knocking on their doors. It'll be neighborhood guys like McClain and Robinson.

White and Clark hope for the model to be replicable in other cities. In 1982, social scientists posited that maintaining order in urban neighborhoods could prevent outbreaks of more serious crime — and the theory, known as Broken Windows, was used to set policy in numerous cities after its success in New York in the late '80s and early '90s. With poverty deepening across the Midwest and Rust Belt, St. Louis might offer a relevant laboratory for a new age: If you can fix St. Louis in 2011, you might be able to fix Cleveland and Detroit and Gary, too.

Of course, any assessment of Neighborhoods Alliance raises the question: How much of its effectiveness is tied to the model, and how much is tied to James Clark?

"You have to be able to replicate the model without the dynamic leader," says White. "It can't just be about personality. Because when that leader isn't there, what happens to your model?"


Looks like two or three hundred people are in line outside St. Louis Community College-Forest Park's theater. They're all here to get warrants cleared at Better Family Life's amnesty program. This year, Clark got 44 municipalities, including the city of St. Louis, to forgive outstanding misdemeanor warrants for those who participate in the program and then face their original charges in court.

This line may be the most telling sign of Clark and Better Family Life's credibility around St. Louis. Halfway up the concrete ramp, a man in a red polo tells the woman next to him that he couldn't believe he was about to get his four warrants forgiven. "Coulda swore this'd be a sting," he says with a chuckle.

But people know Clark. He's built a brand, and if Mr. Clark says your warrants will be cleared, you can believe him.

The auditorium fills up, and Clark takes the stage. Under his black suit jacket is a white T-shirt with "Put Down the Pistol" in large maroon letters.

"Lemme tell you how this whole amnesty thing started," he says to the crowd, as they scribble away filling out vouchers for the amnesty. "We would take in an individual. We would give them the necessary education. We would give them the necessary skills. We would help them get credentials. We would walk them through the oral interview, help them prepare for the written exam. We'd take them all the way to the point of getting a job. They would get hired. Monday would be their first day. Monday, they would meet their supervisor. He would take them to their cubicle, show them their desk, hand them their employee handbook. And he'd say, 'By Wednesday you need to have a clear police record check to human resources.' Tuesday would be their last day."

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