Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative

Gaining Ground

The movie, Gaining Ground, documents the community organizing that went into creating DSNI. Courtesy of Gaining Ground

Creating the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and Strengthening Community Voice

In the early 1980s, the Riley Foundation, a small, Boston-based family foundation, was looking for ways to refocus their grant making.  According to Robert Holmes, Jr., a trustee of the Foundation, they wanted to find a way to attract other foundation attention to some of the poor neighborhoods in Boston through a neighborhood-directed initiative.[1]  The initial meetings that came out of the early Riley Foundation conversations gave birth to the DSNI.  However, it was neighborhood residents who advocated for the greater community control and resident voice – the characteristics that came to define the DSNI.  It was in those first crucial meetings where DSNI’s structure and strategy were formed that included significant resident ownership, control, and direction of the new organization.

The road that DSNI traveled in obtaining eminent domain authority was essentially a community organizing process that built its strength from the bottom up.   Door-knocking to spread the word of its efforts and gain resident and business leader support was at the center of their work.  This grassroots base allowed them to take advantage of the political opportunities had opened up for a greater voice in city politics – most notably the election of a reform mayor.

After getting elected on a reform platform in 1983, newly-elected Mayor Ray Flynn was looking for ways to establish some credibility in low-income African-American and Latino communities.  After decades of disinvestment and neglect from the city, Roxbury and other low-income Boston communities of color had had their fill of municipal neglect and were looking for new ways of finding solutions to persistent problems in their neighborhoods and in the city.

Initial efforts focused not on eminent domain, but on the acute problems of day-to-day life such as rampant illegal dumping.  Addressing these issues first allowed DSNI to gain community-wide support and build leadership from within the neighborhood.   The organization built resident confidence in their political skills and also increased the power of their collective voices.  It increased the visibility of the DSNI and the community both inside and outside the neighborhood.   Success in their initial efforts to shutdown several illegal garbage transfer stations brought important tangible victories, energizing the community and its leaders.

 DSNI hired its own consulting firm and planners to develop an alternative, community-led comprehensive plan for the neighborhood.  DSNI involved over 200 residents in a series of meetings to develop a plan that included job and business development, affordable housing, human service provision, improvements in education, playgrounds and public space, and youth development[2].  Realizing it needed additional power to accumulate a “critical mass” of vacant land to make its dreams possible, DSNI then set out to leverage its community-based power into power at the municipal level.  Organizers and staff members began discussing the possibility of community controlled eminent domain with key Flynn advisors.  Before long, the city adopted DSNI’s comprehensive plan for the neighborhood and quickly followed that by agreeing to grant them the power of eminent domain.

[1] Holding Ground

[2] Holding Ground