It is time to end top-down development in Birmingham and utilize the skills, talents and creativity of the people who live here. It is time to stop seeing Birmingham as a city of profound lack and to see it as a city of untapped potential It is time to turn the city’s development over to the people.
In early 2013, I wrote an article for this publication arguing that gentrification was happening in Birmingham. After many public debates and more than a few insults thrown both ways, public opinion has shifted from outright denial of gentrification to reluctant acceptance that Birmingham’s revitalization is “uneven.” While I would argue that gentrification is uneven by nature, now is not the time to parse words, but to look for alternatives. Luckily, these alternatives are on the cusp of being created.
The Dynamite Hill-Smithfield Community Land Trust (DH-SCLT) is a project created by Susan Diane Mitchell and Majadi Baruti, two residents of East Thomas Neighborhood of the Smithfield Community living on the historic Dynamite Hill. A community land trust (CLT) has been traditionally used as a means to create permanently affordable housing and homeownership opportunities for low income community residents. In a CLT, the community controlled trust owns the grounds of a parcel of property while the individual home or business owner owns the improvements on those grounds.
Keeping the land in trust keeps it out of the real estate speculation market and protects low income communities from displacement during land grabs and gentrification. The hallmark of this federal program is dual ownership and stewardship, and the most successful of these CLTs is Dudley Neighbors’ Incorporated in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. DNI was given the power of eminent domain to reclaim unused and abandoned properties from absentee owners.
In contrast, DH-SCLT has a much broader mission in scope. Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Baruti are planning the trust to not only be a place for permanently affordable housing but also community-based land use planning, a buffer against gentrification, continuously productive urban landscapes via urban agriculture, especially aquaponics, cooperative and small business creation, green community space and an ethic of bottom-up decision making and community control.
This ethic of bottom-up decision making and community control is the methodology of Magic City Agriculture Project (MCAP), an organization that I co-founded in 2011 and now work for as a consultant, called asset based community development (ABCD). Almost all community development in Birmingham is needs-based community development, which sees communities as deficient or lacking and in need of repair. In contrast, asset-based community development utilizes the skills, talents and creativity of the residents that live in these neighborhoods. Instead of seeing neighborhoods as broken, ABCD sees the opportunity to capitalize on the talents that exist.
When you see a feeding program or a utilities program, these are needs-based community development; and, while these are necessary in the interim, community development’s goal should always be to make such charity based programs unnecessary. ABCD is a long term strategy to capitalize on existing talents in a neighborhood to build homegrown institutions of self-governance.
DH-SCLT is an example of asset-based community development. After years of working and receiving input from Birmingham communities, MCAP designed a strategic plan with community land trust as part of the plan. Members of the community, Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Baruti, decided that they wanted to create a community land trust as a means to control land and buffer against coming gentrification. They also expanded greatly the idea of a CLT that was in the MCAP Plan to the CLT being a culturally, politically and economically rooted institution in their home community.
MCAP and other regional and national organizations such as Highlander Research and Education Center, The Southern Grassroots Economies Project, US Green Build Council, and Grounded Solutions, LLC are aiding in training, financing and technical assistance. Importantly, neither MCAP nor DH-SCLT received any financial or technical support from local organizations other than The Rice Firm, LLC and Revolutionary Solutions, the latter of which is a cooperative of which I am a worker-owner. The former is the law firm of the president of MCAP, Richard Rice.
The technical assistance and financing by supportive organizations and individuals act as a support system for a community development project led by Ms. Mitchell, Mr. Baruti and the people of Smithfield. The structure of asset based community development relies on a network of different types of support organizations, local, regional and national, that undergird a project chosen and led by the community. All of this was done with a less than $50,000 a year budget. DH-SCLT will exist as a legal entity within the next few months, and while there is much work to do, there will be a genuine democratic, community-created and -controlled economic institution in Birmingham within the year.