Intentional Investment in the Social Fabric of Neighborhoods Can Lift Families

Upstream City” by FPP Director Nora McCarthy ran as a column in The Imprint from 2022-2023.

When Paulette Bazil moved to Brownsville in 1996 with her mother and two young children, she invested not only in the house she bought across from Betsy Head Park, but also in the family life of her block. She joined a church around the corner and, bearing leftover donuts that she picked up near her job on Wall Street, hosted programs for local kids at the church, at her kitchen table and in her backyard.

“I have to raise my children in this neighborhood,” Bazil told herself. That meant building relationships. In her view, the way to keep her children safe was to connect them.

Dozens of studies have confirmed her perspective. Safety grows in neighborhoods where residents look out for one another and band together to solve problems. Health is better and crime is lower in active, connected communities, even when disadvantage is the same. The social fabric, like economic policy and the physical landscape, is an independent force in neighborhoods that profoundly shapes family life.

Importantly, neighborhood flourishing can be helped along by purposeful investment. Since research on “collective efficacy” first came out in 1997, cities nationwide have spent tens of millions of dollars on relationship-building approaches to reduce crime, starting with “violence interrupters.” Yet no concurrent effort has been undertaken to invest in the social fabric to strengthen family life.     

For parents, neighborhood networks act as patches to America’s frayed safety net. Small exchanges of neighborly care combat isolation. Acquaintances made at the playground or school drop-off form a network of wide, informal connections that support parenting and act as a pathway to resources. Then there are community groups that pull people together to solve problems. Collective action builds solidarity and combats not only injustice but trauma and despair. Taken together, these layers of connection and action enable neighborhoods to protect their people.

In places where structural disinvestment has depleted networks, parents are on their own. That has consequences. In its Community Health Survey, the New York City Health Department asks whether people in a community get together to discuss political and social issues, trust a neighbor with the key to their home, or would say something to a person who didn’t clean up after their dog. Neighborhoods lower on measures of social trust and control are higher on child welfare involvement.                 

When Rise, a parent advocacy organization, asked 60 New York City parents about their community care networks, some reported having no one to rely on. (Full disclosure: I led Rise when this research launched.) One mother wrote: “I was not able to find peer support in my community because everyone stayed to themselves and didn’t want to get involved in other people’s issues. I knew people in my community but didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask them for help.”

Her children entered foster care over a babysitting snafu that a kind neighbor could have stepped in to address.

Research shows that collective efficacy directly impacts a host of challenges that stress families. That includes domestic violencechild abuse and neglectadult depression and children’s development and behavior, as well as a health issues like asthma.

Paradoxically, child welfare itself may be disruptive to community networks. Parents say that fear of child welfare’s reach keeps them from opening up with friends and relatives about what they’re going through, as sociologist Kelley Fong documents in her forthcoming book. One mother told Fong that, as a strategy to limit vengeful calls, “I keep my circle small. I only deal with the few people that I only deal with.” Another echoed: “I feel like if I stay by myself, I’ll have no problems.”

In the past 10 years, New York City has invested in two multimillion-dollar initiatives that seek to strengthen community safety by weaving a tighter social fabric. Under the Crisis Management System, violence interrupters and credible messengers redraw community relationships by connecting with young people likely to commit violence and showing up for them to deescalate moments of tension and crisis. They also host vigils and other events to mobilize residents in acts of community resistance to violence.

And under the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, resident leaders in 15 public housing developments worked with the city to upgrade the physical environment and coordinate resources and outreach.

Before the pandemic triggered swells of violence nationwide, crime in NYC had reached a record low

Conceivably, these impacts may have carried over to reduce child welfare involvement. Neighborhoods in New York City where conditions drive high felony rates have high foster care rates, too. New lighting in public housing courtyards may have not only discouraged crime but encouraged parents to linger with one another as their children ran around. Summer employment for youth may have cut family conflicts just as it cut arrests. But these initiatives didn’t focus on networking families. As a result, young men in these neighborhoods may have new mentors to call in a tough moment, but young mothers don’t.

On the day I visited Paulette Bazil, she was up early counseling a young mother navigating a difficult relationship. She noted that many parents in her neighborhood don’t have family nearby, and some that do can’t get help from their families “because the freshness of the teen years comes between them.” What she imagines could help families knit themselves back together is “talking through things they have never said to each other” and making agreements that “put the past in the past and put the baby’s future in focus in what they do in the present.”

Many groups have developed peer support, restorative and transformative justice and community safety practices that call in community around families. However, these have largely not been invested in and scaled.

Bazil has also noticed that, since Betsy Head Park was dramatically renovated, it’s been a resource for mothers. Sports programs there afford them respite. Little moments on the sidelines connect them with other moms. These kinds of opportunities can be planned.

Equitable neighborhood investment around family life has been hampered in New York City in part because no government entity holds a charter to do that work. While community safety and other issues that fall at the intersection of multiple city agencies — like immigrant affairs or child care — are coordinated by a mayoral office or a team at City Hall, a “Children’s Cabinet” set up in 2014 was never meaningfully staffed for impact. In the breach, the city’s child welfare agency, ACS, has expanded its Office of Family Well-Being despite parent opposition.

Meanwhile, parents like Bazil have long done the work, seeding networks of community care and action with few resources. It’s been said that systemic racism acts on organizations in the same ways it impacts people, with Black and brown-led community organizations locked out of formal and informal access to capital and support to grow. Bazil long ago gave up on the time-consuming effort to seek formal funding. For reading times in her backyard, she paid for brown bag lunches for the children herself.

It’s possible to coordinate investment in trusted organizations that have a track record of responsive care in their communities. People know who they are. Bazil mentioned that, over the weekend, she planned to help a neighbor who throws an annual graduation party for kids in a local school. She also had agreed to let organizers of a block party against gun violence set up a grill in her front yard. Walking with me to the train, she knew everyone we passed.

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