This week marks an important civic anniversary — the start of a movement that gave the people of Greater Boston a say in what happens in their neighborhoods, and gave many of those neighborhoods a second life.
Thirty years ago a group of local visionaries looked around and saw a Boston crumbling under the weight of urban blight — rising crime, vacant lots, abandoned houses. Corruption plagued the city programs that were supposed to come to the rescue and community groups had little voice.
Those far-sighted leaders looked outside to a newly formed national corporation based in New York whose mission was to help neighborhoods find their way out of poverty. That group with a mouthful for a name — the Local Initiative Support Corp. — agreed to set up its first local office here in Boston.
Today, Boston is a safer, healthier and yes, prettier place, where neighborhoods once written off as hopeless now thrive. LISC didn’t know how to make that happen alone, but it knew how to bring together the people who could: philanthropists, bankers, community leaders, businesses and, maybe most important, the residents themselves, who always know best what their neighborhoods need to get back on their feet.
Take Jamaica Plain. In the 1970s, Jamaica Plain and adjoining neighborhoods were nearly sliced through by a freeway that some brave residents managed to stop in what could only be called a civic miracle. They blocked the freeway, but not the urban decay that was already in full swing, including an abandoned brewery where 16 dilapidated brick buildings sat useless on five acres for the next several years. No investor would touch them.
Then LISC did what LISC does — it took the risk, loaning money to the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Development Corporation that bought the property. LISC was part of bringing together movers and shakers from every quadrant who were powerless alone but fortified as a team to come up with a vision and make it real.
Today, the Brewery Small Business Center is a totally occupied complex of retail and office space that employs twice as many people as the old brewery ever did (including a Sam Adams office, which continues to make a bit of beer there, for old time’s sake.) And vibrant Jamaica Plain has remained a welcoming and diverse community.
Since then around Boston, LISC has helped finance 12,000 affordable housing units that provide safe homes for 30,000 people. It has supported 2 million square feet of retail space — more than the equivalent John Hancock building. LISC is using new market tax credits investments to help bring fresh foods to our local communities, including one that will transform an old meat-packing plant into a food production facility in a two-fer--a dead building revives and provides needed local jobs.
And LISC is working to set up Financial Opportunity Centers like those operating in other cities across the country, to train and place people in jobs, then give them the financial skills to manage the paychecks they earn.
LISC Boston is honored to have played a part in three decades of hard work by so many groups and individuals who made the city’s most hard-pressed neighborhoods — Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan — better places to live. That work has preserved a place for long-term residents even as newer residents have been attracted to Boston’s neighborhoods.
But there is much more to be done. For every dark street corner now lighted, another stands dark. More businesses need to grow, grocery stores need to come in, there are always more workers than there are jobs and crime is a never-ending worry.
Even as that work continues, neighbors tell us they crave something else in their hometowns. They need a social connection. A local café to meet a friend for lunch, a spot where neighbors can gather.
Looking back over 30 years, Boston has come a long way. But our proudest achievement at LISC is the cadre of creative, savvy, dedicated people we helped bring together to make that happen.
The team is in place — this week to celebrate three decades of rebirth and renewal, next week to take on three more.
Bob Van Meter is executive director of the Greater BostonLocal Initiatives Support Corp.