ROBERT OGILVIE, NARRATOR/DIRECTOR, PLANNING FOR HEALTHY PLACES: I'm Robert Ogilvie, director of Planning for Healthy Places, a project of Public Health Law & Policy. This podcast, A Voice in the Process, explores the link between redevelopment and public health in San Jose.
San Jose has taken an innovative approach to redevelopment. All redevelopment agencies in California are required to get resident input on the projects they propose. But San Jose proactively involves community members, local businesses, and elected leaders in setting priorities for each neighborhood.
PAUL PEREIRA, NEIGHBORHOOD TEAM MANAGER, THE STRONG NEIGHBORHOODS INITIATIVE: We take capital dollars to build capital projects and in the process of doing that we enroll and engage the community and we build social capital.
ROBERT OGILVIE: But residents didn't always play such a prominent role in redevelopment efforts. The San Jose Redevelopment Agency was created in the mid-1950s, during a period of explosive population growth in what would become Silicon Valley. During its first decades, the agency mostly invested in building downtown office and retail projects. Meanwhile, the city's residential neighborhoods struggled with poverty and gang activity. In the 1990s, San Jose residents demanded that the redevelopment agency focus more of its resources on neighborhood needs. It began to fund programs that brought community groups and city agencies together to clean up graffiti and organize neighborhood watch programs. The redevelopment agency's Strong Neighborhoods Initiative, which grew out of these efforts, was created in 2002. Today, the initiative helps residents form coalitions and decide what revitalization projects they think should be funded.
PAUL PEREIRA: We're about understanding the neighborhoods and the needs, and really working with them and allowing them to really come up with what their priorities are, and then working with them to actually implement those priorities.
ROBERT OGILVIE: That's what makes the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative unique.
PAUL PEREIRA: The common theme that I see other agencies doing wrong is internally they come up with a list and they tell the community, "This is what we think you guys need." We did it completely the opposite.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Once community members have identified the changes they'd like to see, they work with closely with city agencies to implement them. Davide Vieira is active in his local strong neighborhoods coalition, which meets once a month in a local community center.
DAVIDE VIEIRA, MEMBER, FIVE WOUNDS / BROOKWOOD TERRACE NEIGHBORHOOD ACTION COALITION: We become a forum where we can funnel the people's wants and needs and desires upwards.
ROBERT OGILVIE: One of the priorities for Vieira and other residents was creating a park on a vacant 14-acre property in the middle of their neighborhood. Joan Rivas-Crosby is the head of the coalition.
JOAN RIVAS-CROSBY, CHAIR, FIVE WOUNDS / BROOKWOOD TERRACE NEIGHBORHOOD ACTION COALITION: It was just acres of weed-filled, trash-filled, crime-attracting property and it was just awful.
ROBERT OGILVIE: But even after Selma Olinder park and the adjacent Forestdale Totlot were built, people didn't always feel safe walking there. The playground in particular was a magnet for crime.
DAVIDE VIEIRA: Gangs were burning pallets, there was garbage and syringes, and I mean, it was bad.
ROBERT OGILVIE: The playground lies between a low income, mostly Latino neighborhood and a new, market-rate development next to Selma Olinder park. Because of the drug dealing and violent crime in and around the totlot, residents avoided it and the park altogether. The neighborhood was about to demolish the playground when it decided to try one last ditch effort: putting a sidewalk through it. This new path connected the low-income side to the middle-class development and the park.
DAVIDE VIEIRA: I don't think we knew that it would be successful, but at least it was something to try. And it worked! Son of a gun, it worked.
ROBERT OGILVIE: A $14,000 sidewalk changed the way people used the area. Suddenly, people started going to the totlot again. Yadel Lopez lives in an apartment next to the playground on the low-income side.
YADEL LOPEZ: Now , almost everyone is going through there. Yes, the truth is that it's good. It was a big change.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Not only were there more people outside, but the community had earlier persuaded the developer of the new, market-rate homes not to build an 8-foot wall between the two neighborhoods. At the insistence of the redevelopment agency the developer built the houses with more windows facing the street, and put them right up against the sidewalk. The result was that new homeowners were integrated into the neighborhood. Those changes led to a dramatic decrease in crime.
PAUL PEREIRA: We hit a milestone in the beginning of August. It's now been a year where we haven't had an act of violence in that neighborhood. There hasn't been a shooting, a stabbing, and it's the longest stretch that we had in over 30 years.
ROBERT OGILVIE: Walking through Selma-Olinder park, you can see that it's now a vibrant center of activity. The park isn't the only investment the redevelopment agency has made in the neighborhood. It has also spruced up the facade of a local grocery store, planted trees, and put in streetlights, traffic signals, and sidewalks. All those changes happened with input from local residents.
PAUL PEREIRA: Sometimes people aren't asking for a lot. They're not asking to have a city or an agency to come in and do some grandiose makeover of the neighborhood. They can come up with some of the best ideas on their own. And then we just implement them.
ROBERT OGILVIE: The level of neighborhood involvement in San Jose is exceptional. The Strong Neighborhoods Initiative is one of only a handful of similar programs in the country. Many redevelopment agencies see community engagement as a lengthy, potentially messy process. But the San Jose experience shows that it actually has many benefits. When the community chooses redevelopment projects itself, those projects get done faster, less expensively, and with more local support.
For Planning for Healthy Places, I'm Robert Ogilvie. For other podcasts in this series and more information on redevelopment and public health, visit www.healthyplanning.org.
ChangeLab Solutions, formerly Public Health Law & Policy
Robert Ogilvie and Hannah Burton Laurison
Lyssa Rome, Paul Lancour, Geoff Triplett (GTrip Music and Sound Design), and Jessica Zdeb
This podcast was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to Public Health Law & Policy and the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative.
Lydia Daniller, Lyssa Rome, History San Jose, San Jose Code Enforcement
History San Jose
The Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Jose
Kip Harkness, Erik Larsen, and Janice Rombeck
San Jose Code Enforcement
Final music provided by Mevio's Music Alley: music.mevio.com