Dudley Neighbors Inc. (1988)
Dudley Neighbors Inc. (DNI) is the name given to the community land trust formed in 1988 to serve the Roxbury/North Dorchester area of Boston, Massachusetts. DNI was an outgrowth of years of grassroots organizing and participatory planning by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI). These two organizations remain tightly intertwined today, sharing staff, resources, and a corporate umbrella. More importantly, they share a mission and vision of comprehensive neighborhood revitalization in which community ownership of land and community empowerment of the area’s residents go hand-in-hand.
Located less than two miles from downtown Boston, the Dudley area of Roxbury/North Dorchester is a trilingual neighborhood of more than 25,000 African-American, Latin American, Cape Verdean, and White residents speaking English, Spanish and Cape Verdean Creole.
Dudley’s population is among the poorest and youngest in Boston. Residents currently have an average per capita income of $12,332. Approximately 27% of the area’s population falls below the federal poverty line. The unemployment rate hovers around 13.6%. One third of the population is aged 19 years or younger; two-thirds is aged 35 years or under. Families with children represent almost half of Dudley’s households, a percentage that is twice as high as Boston as a whole.
By the 1980s, Dudley had a staggering amount of vacant land – a total of 1300 parcels, representing 21% of the entire neighborhood. This was a consequence of nearly three decades of disinvestment, redlining, abandonment, poorly planned urban renewal, and arson for profit. The neighborhood had become an illegal dumping ground for trash from around the city and state. In the dead of night and in broad daylight, trucks would roll into the neighborhood and deposit on the neighborhood’s vacant lots old cars, old refrigerators, rotten meat, toxic chemicals, and debris from construction sites.
In 1984, the Riley Foundation, one of the larger foundations in Massachusetts, decided to focus on the revitalization of Dudley after touring the most blighted sections of the neighborhood with Nelson Merced, director of La Alianza Hispana and Melvyn Colon, director of the Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation. The “Dudley Advisory Group” was created, made up mostly of community development corporations and social services organizations doing work in the area. On October 15, 1984, with 22 people in attendance, the group voted unanimously to establish a new organization. Three months later, it was given the name of the “Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.”
When the grand plans envisioned by this new initiative were first presented to the neighborhood, however, “all hell broke loose,” as one of the persons who was co-chairing that roll-out meeting, Bill Slotnik, later described it. Neighborhood residents like Che Madyun, Earl Coleman, and Fadilah Muhammad challenged the panel’s assertion that this was to be an initiative of, by, and for the community. “How many of you people up there live in this neighborhood?” they were asked. When only one hand was raised, there was an angry demand from the floor for resident control of the planning process – and the organization itself.
This triggered a fundamental reconsideration of the assumptions behind DSNI, forcing the Dudley Advisory Group to go back to the drawing board. The Riley Foundation and the nonprofit organizations that had backed the original approach were quick to accept the demand for resident control. They immediately began weaving this principle into the bylaws being drafted for the new organization. A 31-member governing board (later expanded to 35 members) would have a resident majority. Minimum representation would be guaranteed for each of the neighborhood’s four major cultures: African American, Cape Verdean, Latino, and White.
The election of the inaugural board of directors occurred on April 27, 1985. More than 100 people were in attendance, filling the front pews of St. Patrick’s Church. Once the board was elected and seated, Fadilah Muhammad and Nelson Merced were selected to serve as DSNI’s first co-chairs. The following year, the board unanimously approved a new slate of officers. Che Madyun became DSNI’s president. Melvyn Colon became vice president.
DSNI hired its first executive director in 1986, Peter Medoff. He had previously worked as a tenant organizer in New York City and had served as director of the Citizens Research Education Network in Hartford, Connecticut. He won the job at DSNI because he emphasized the need for community organizing and community empowerment to be at the center of the new organization’s plans for the neighborhood’s physical, social, and economic revitalization. That emphasis has continued to the present day.
By 1987, after an intensive process of bottom-up participatory planning, DSNI completed and adopted The Dudley Street Neighborhood Comprehensive Revitalization Plan. It laid out a blueprint for rebuilding the neighborhood, accompanied by an overall commitment to development without displacement.
Two years later, DSNI made history by becoming the first and only community-based organization in the United States to win the power of eminent domain. DSNI had begun assembling the funds to implement its Comprehensive Revitalization Plan, including the promise of a $2 million Program Related Investment from the Ford Foundation, but absentee owners of the neighborhood’s vacant parcels were reluctant to sell their land to DSNI. They had caught the scent of potential profits in the air. The City of Boston was in the process in rebuilding the subway line on the neighborhood’s western edge, a massive investment in public infrastructure. Private speculators had taken note and begun to buy land in the neighborhood.
“Take a Stand, Own the Land” was the campaign button that DSNI’s leaders distributed throughout the neighborhood as they lobbied Mayor Flynn and the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) for the power that DSNI would need to assemble contiguous sites that were large enough for building the affordable housing contemplated in the Comprehensive Revitalization Plan. They were asking for the legal right to compel the absentee owners of vacant land in the central part of the neighborhood, the “Dudley Triangle,” to sell their land for a fair price to DSNI. On November 10, 1989, the BRA board voted unanimously to grant the power of eminent domain to DSNI.
But it was not exactly DSNI that would exercise this power – or hold onto the land that was to be acquired. On advice of its attorney, David Abromowitz, who was made available on a pro bono basis by one of Boston’s most prestigious law firms, Goulston-Storrs, DSNI had established a subsidiary corporation in 1988, Dudley Neighbors Inc. Structured and operated as a community land trust, DNI was set up not only to exercise the power of eminent domain and to acquire land in the Dudley Triangle; it was also established to retain ownership forever, holding land in trust for present and future generations.
By holding onto the land – and by employing long-lasting ground leases to control the use and resale of whatever was built on its land – DNI positioned itself to be the permanent steward of affordable housing, commercial space, greenhouses, and other buildings that, in time, were to be constructed on its parcels. The goal, in every case, was to maintain the affordability of these buildings forever, while preventing their foreclosure during downturns in the local economy.
As later noted by Paul Yelder, the first director of Dudley Neighbors Inc., community-owned land was to be an antidote to the “ultimate dilemma of community development,” how do you avoid displacing the very people you are trying to help; or, in Paul’s words, “how do you improve a neighborhood, but still make it accessible, make it affordable?”
In the middle of the fight to win the power of eminent domain from the BRA, Peter Medoff stepped down as DSNI’s executive director. Over 50 people applied for the job. The person eventually hired was Gus Newport, who had served as the mayor of Berkeley, California from 1979 to 1986. He was the unanimous choice of DSNI’s board, joining the staff in December 1988.
From the beginning, DSNI defined its mission as more than bricks and mortar. As a new decade began, DSNI adopted the slogan “Building Houses and People Too,” highlighting its commitment to a holistic approach to Dudley’s revitalization. Community organizing was deemed to be every bit as important as constructing houses, parks, and playgrounds. Developing services and activities for the neighborhood’s youth were deemed just as important as finding jobs for the neighborhood’s adults.
To date, nearly all of the publicly owned parcels of land in the Dudley Triangle have been transferred to DNI and transformed into 225 high-quality, permanently affordable homes – including owner-occupied houses, cooperatives, and nonprofit rentals. Parcels under DNI’s control have also been used for community centers, the Dudley Town Common, a community farm and greenhouse, and neighborhood parks, playgrounds, and gardens.
In the meantime, DSNI has turned its attention to three strategic areas: sustainable economic development, community empowerment, and youth opportunities and development. Most recently, DSNI and DNI have focused on seeding and supporting expanded use of the community land trust model in Boston. Staff have given support to the newly established Chinatown Community Land Trust and have convened the Greater Boston CLT Network. The latter is designed to bring together existing CLTs, emerging CLTs, and other community-based organizations doing affordable housing or urban agriculture for the purpose of sharing information and resources.
Narrative contributed by John Emmeus Davis, edited by Harry Smith, 2015
To learn more about DSNI and Dudley Neighbors Inc., past and present:
- DSNI website
- Jake Blumgart, “Housing’s Forever Solution. “ Next City (August 10, 2015).
- BNN News Interview of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, August 2012 (YouTube video)
- Penn Loh, “How One Boston Neighborhood Stopped Gentrification in Its Tracks,” YES! Magazine (Winter 2015)
- Peter Medoff and Holly Sklar, Streets of Hope (Boston: South End Press, 1994)
- Leah Mahan and Mark Lipman, Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street. (1996 Video distributed by New Day Films, Hohokus, NJ,).
- Leah Mahan and Mark Lipman, Gaining Ground. Video distributed by New Day Films, Hohokus, NJ. (2012 Video distributed by New Day Films, Hohokus, NJ).
- James Meehan, “Reinventing Real Estate: The Community Land Trust as a Social Invention in Affordable Housing,” Journal of Applied Social Science 20: 1-21 (2013)
- Holly Sklar, “No Foreclosures Here.” Yes Magazine (Winter 2009)