One woman changed the face of her neighborhood and she urged others to take control of their communities during a program in honor of a man who stood for change.
That's the message Majora Carter, eco-entrepreneur and urban revitalization strategist, stressed during the Anacostia Community Museum's 28th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. program on Jan. 18. Carter, a MacArthur Fellow, implored the packed house at the Baird Auditorium of the National Museum of Natural History to stay in their neighborhoods and become more assertive.
"I don't think Dr. King would be particularly pleased with the way things have turned out recently: Communities are now racially segregated and not economically diverse," said Carter, 46. "One of the unintended consequences of the civil rights movement and integration ... is reduced economic diversity."
"Big changes came in the '70s, cities lost lots of manufacturing jobs," she said. "People and businesses [left]."
Carter, who hails from the South Bronx, fought the "bright flight" that she and other youth faced while growing up. "We were told to measure success by how far one could get away from the neighborhood we were born in," she said.
However, after graduating from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., and obtaining her Master of Fine Arts in 1997 from New York University, the young professional was forced to return to her parents' home due to debt. While walking her dog along the Bronx River waterfront she noticed a large industrial area that had turned into a dump.
Carter experienced an epiphany.
"I thought what is the opposite of a dump? If we can transform a dump, we can transform thinking about the community. People from inside our neighborhood can believe in it as well as people from the outside," Carter said.
Carter sought change and teamed up with neighbors – primarily youth and busy mothers. She said they started with $10,000 seed money from the U.S.D.A. Forest Service program in 1998 and eventually secured more than $3 million in 2006.
An abundance of "green jobs" and new technology job training quickly spread throughout the neighborhood. For example, storm water management, healthy recreation centers, green roofing, furniture from recycled materials, stores, and greenways for pedestrians and bikers lined the streets. The efforts revitalized the once-blighted community.
Carter's community is not unlike many neighborhoods in the District. She calls them "hinge areas," neighborhoods ripe for gentrification and targeted for development that doesn't serve longtime residents.
With help from neighbors, she combats two types of real estate and community development: One is gentrification that "plans to make places really nice, pushing poor people out," Carter said. The other, reflects planning that assumes certain neighborhoods "will always be poor and then only supplied exclusively with heavily subsidized housing."
Carter offered an alternative.
"Parents want to see their own kids doing the transforming. People really want to know that they don't have to move out of their own neighborhood to have a better one. They want a secure hometown," she said.
Carter's speech inspired Sariane Leigh, 35, the publisher of the blog, Anacostia Yogi.
"I've followed Majora Carter for years. She has given us practical tools [that include] building alliances, and project-based development. If the Bronx can do it, so can we," she said with a smile.
James Larry Frazier, 64, chair of Anacostia Community Museum's advisory board applauded Carter.
"Majora Carter's speech is confirmation of the existence of the museum and its mission, an affirmation of its current exhibit, 'Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement.' It helps promote the purposes and ideals of community – that of nurture and support – not only for Anacostia but for the region and the nation."