Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jason T. Bartlett

Model Cities

The Model Cities program was the last major urban aid initiative of the Great Society domestic agenda of President Lyndon Johnson (1908-73). The legislation called for the coordination of federal services to redevelop the nation’s poorest and least-served urban communities. In 1967, North Philadelphia was designated for renewal under this program.  Rather than serving to unify policies, however, the question of how to combine redevelopment with citizen participation exposed not only the inadequacies of the federal program but also the widening racial fault lines between white elected leaders and the city’s African American communities.

[caption id="attachment_19899" align="alignright" width="204"]Photograph of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Model Cities program was the last major urban aid initiative of the Great Society domestic agenda of President Lyndon Johnson. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

The national program’s origins can be traced to a memorandum that Walter Reuther (1907-70), president of the United Auto Workers Union, sent to President Johnson in May 1965. In bold language the labor leader encouraged the president to launch a comprehensive attack on the structural, social, and economic roots of poverty in six “demonstration” cities. The appeal’s rhetoric struck a chord with a president eager to build not just houses, but communities worthy of citizens who lived in his Great Society. In September, Johnson directed Robert Wood (1923-2005), secretary of the new Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to chair a task force of industry executives, intellectuals, politicians, and administrators, to bring Reuther’s proposal to life.

Model Cities evolved in response to the concerns of urban mayors who had grown weary of the Community Action Programs (CAP) created by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Charged with securing the “maximum feasible participation of the poor” in antipoverty programs, CAPs were largely run by private and nonprofit organizations. Relatively free from oversight and political control, they had the potential to become a new base for empowering poor and minority residents. Model Cities attempted to rectify two competing concerns. It sought to address African American dissatisfaction with federal urban renewal policy by instituting new comprehensive measures; yet, it failed to define clear lines of leadership and authority. Increasing racial tensions, sparked by riots that spread throughout American cities in the late 1960s, added a sense of urgency to the program’s design while the escalation of the wars in Southeast Asia drained funding for social programs, limiting room for political maneuvering.

In an effort to leverage congressional support, the task force expanded the program to sixty-six cities at a cost of $2.3 billion dollars. When the president unveiled the plan in January 1966, it quickly met resistance. Critics railed at the program’s cost and accused the president of catering to antiwar and African American demonstrators. Those sympathetic to the bill asserted it was too small to seriously address the challenges of the urban crisis. Prospects for the bill’s passage seemed grim, but Johnson intensified his lobbying effort to secure the necessary votes. In its final form Model Cities were created in 150 locations while the final appropriation was reduced to a mere $900 million dollars. When signed into law on November 3, the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act of 1966 mandated a stringent timeline for submitting planning grants, but only vaguely outlined the terms for community participation, while asserting that local elected leaders would maintain ultimate authority.

Mayor Tate Lobbied for Model Cities

Several Philadelphians were influential in the passage of the Model Cities legislation. Mayor James Tate (1910-83), who also served as the president of the National League of Cities, lobbied for the bill’s passage. William Rafsky (1919-2001), vice president of the Old Philadelphia Development Corporation, served on the task force that drafted the legislation, while Democratic Congressman William Barrett (1896-1976) introduced the bill in the House of Representatives and then negotiated a compromise with Republican members of the Subcommittee on Housing to assure its passage. Confident that this insider participation would deliver a substantial share of the new appropriations to Philadelphia, Tate instructed city planners to concurrently draft the city’s grant request. As a result, Philadelphia became the only city to meet the program’s February 1967 deadline. However, in its haste it failed to consult any of the quarter million people who lived in the target neighborhood of North Philadelphia.

When the city finally sought community support, city activists, including Alvin Echols (b. 1931), expressed wariness and demanded guarantees that they would play a significant role in the planning process. Echols, director of the North City Congress, a coalition of fifty-eight local organizations, proposed the area’s community structures be incorporated as equal partners in the city’s planning process. Eager to comply with federal guidelines in a timely fashion, Tate agreed. On April 29, 1967, approximately 500 neighborhood representatives voted to form the Area Wide Council (AWC), a federation of 125 community organizations, as the community arm of the Model Cities program. William Meek (1921-95), an educator, social worker, and assistant director of the Wharton Centre, a North Philadelphia Settlement House, became the council’s first director.

[caption id="attachment_19902" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and while photograph of a street of row houses, many of which look abandoned or have been damaged in some way. There is trash in front of the buildings, and a dog on the sidewalk. In 1967, North Philadelphia was designated for renewal under the Model Cities program. The area was chosen because of the effect deindustrialization had on its neighborhoods, which became filled with abandoned properties. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

The AWC represented a diverse community through a network of sixteen neighborhood “hubs.” While this structure ensured the broad representation of community organizations and individuals, its slow-moving democratic nature proved incompatible with the requirements of professional planners. Factions quickly formed within the council as radicals pursued a confrontational strategy of applying pressure on City Hall with position papers and public demonstrations. As a result, the two sides developed a mercurial relationship punctuated by communication breakdowns and the replacement of the first three Model City administrators. Speaking at the Third International Black Power Conference, held in Philadelphia in the fall of 1968, Robert “Sonny” Carson (1936-2002) applauded the radicals’ efforts to plan from the bottom-up and resist the power of white politicians. AWC moderates worked tirelessly to preserve relationships with elected leaders, and in December 1968 successfully negotiated with the city’s Economic Development Unit to submit a proposal in accordance with HUD’s guidelines. This compromise plan, which called for creating seven community corporations (four  controlled by the AWC), represented the high point in the city and council’s relationship

The council’s tenuous position was revealed in 1969 when Goldie Watson (1909-94) was named the fourth Model Cities administrator. A close ally of Mayor Tate, Watson was a seasoned political operative and a resident of North Philadelphia. A teacher and small business owner with deep roots in the community, she challenged the AWC’s position as a representative voice. The election of Richard Nixon (1913-94) to the presidency that same year dramatically altered the operation of federal anti-poverty programs. Once a champion of citizen participation, HUD reversed course and mandated that federal funds be channeled through established city institutions. This shift in policy dovetailed neatly with Watson’s management of Model Cities. In an effort to consolidate her position, she consigned the AWC to an advisory role, diminished its representation in the community corporations, reduced its budget, and implemented new policies and bookkeeping procedures to curb the activism of its increasingly fractured and radical membership.

Area Wide Council Files Suit

Convinced that Watson aimed to undermine the role of citizen participation, William Meek rejected the new structure and protested Tate and Watson’s undemocratic power grab. The AWC filed suit in August 1969 accusing the city of violating provisions of the Demonstration Cities Act by not including a representative community voice in the planning and implementation process. The refusal of hardliners to negotiate with the city proved costly as the AWC lost vital public support.  When the case was dismissed in November 1969, Watson seized the advantage, announcing the formation of a new interim citizen’s committee that included nineteen former AWC members. With its reputation in ruins, and its membership depleted, Meek and the AWC continued to fight. A protracted legal battle ensued. When the AWC emerged victorious in July 1970, it could claim only a pyrrhic victory. The legal battle to ensure community participation left the council in ruins while the city continued to implement the Model Cities program without the council's input.

[caption id="attachment_19895" align="alignright" width="300"]The president of the Somerset Knitting Mills is shown here looking over the architectural rendering of the new building in 1976 The Somerset Knitting Mills Company, an apparel manufacturer, was once located at 640 North Broad Street but was searching to move its factory to a new location. To preserve the over 400 jobs the Mills provided, the PIDC-Model Cities partnership financed the company's relocation to Seventh and Spring Garden Streets. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Watson and her associates molded the Model Cities program into a tool of political patronage. With some exceptions, their efforts were typically small in scale, exorbitant in cost, and failed to involve the community in any significant way. By 1972, these practices provoked charges of widespread corruption and nepotism prompting HUD to threaten the termination of all funding unless significant changes were made. Seeking to retain federal monies, the recently elected mayor, Frank Rizzo (1920-91), initiated new policies and directed the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC) to lead a reorganization of the Model Cities program. Under PIDC’s direction, Model Cities concluded its efforts to develop black capitalism in favor of a new strategy that supported and retained existing businesses. The PIDC-Model Cities partnership financed the relocation of the Somerset Knitting Mills Company, saving 400 jobs, the first in a series of inner-city industrial development projects.

In 1974, after nearly eight years of halting progress, this idealistic, ambitious, and contradictory federal policy was discontinued and replaced with a system of community development block grants. Critics and supporters alike agreed that funding was spread too thin to be effective. In some communities Model Cities launched a new era of identity politics and opened avenues for minority leaders to pursue careers in public service. In Philadelphia, minority residents who had been historically denied access to the power and resources to shape the future of their community, found it difficult to penetrate the existing white power structure. While black capitalism received a modest boost, the program’s lofty promises were compromised by hardened racial lines, ineffective leadership, greed, mismanagement, poor supervision, ineffective internal controls, and poorly delineated lines of authority. These internecine battles took center stage, leaving the vision of comprehensive urban renewal a casualty in the ongoing struggle between City Hall and advocates of community control.

Jason T. Bartlett holds a Ph.D. in history from Temple University. His dissertation, “The Politics of Community Development: A History of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation,” examines the fifty-year history of the nation’s first comprehensive community development corporation.

Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC)

In the 1960s, after leading protest campaigns to expose discriminatory hiring and open thousands of jobs to African Americans, the Reverend Leon Sullivan (1922-2001) founded the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), a vocational, educational, and life skills training program designed to prepare young men and women for full-time employment. Moving beyond protest to address the barriers of poverty and oppression, the OIC quickly expanded into all corners of the city and ultimately grew into a national and international movement that trained millions of workers from all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The OIC first opened its doors on January 26, 1964, inside a refurbished jailhouse at Nineteenth and Oxford Streets. The building, emblematic of the area’s urban decay, became a potent symbol of hope in North Philadelphia. The OIC’s skeleton-key logo promised “To Open Any Door” and proudly proclaimed Sullivan’s self-help motto, “Helping People Help Themselves.” Trainees started in the “Feeder Program,” which sought to eliminate the stigma of remedial education by confronting the candidates’ learned sense of racial inferiority. Students took courses in African American history to develop a deeper appreciation for their heritage and to cultivate a new sense of self-esteem, identity, and pride. Building on this newly fortified base, students received supplemental instruction in communication skills, basic reading, writing, arithmetic, consumer education, interpersonal relationships, and personal hygiene. Candidates then progressed to the OIC Technical Skill Center for training in a wide variety of manufacturing jobs. Sullivan extolled the virtues of OIC trainees, negotiated with businesses to hire them, and cultivated additional financial and instructional support from corporate leaders.

OIC’s early years were challenging. Funding came from a patchwork series of donations from parishioners at Zion Baptist Church. At one point, Sullivan and his wife, Grace (1924-2011), took out a loan against their home to make payroll. Ironically for a self-help program, a massive infusion of federal and philanthropic funding helped stabilize and expand OIC beyond Philadelphia’s borders. In March 1964, a $200,000 grant from the Ford Foundation provided vital funding. In December, OIC received a $458,000 grant from the Department of Labor to administer job training and education programs. In the summer of 1965, OIC won the support of Lyndon Johnson (1908-73) and his War On Poverty and received a $1.7 million dollar grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).

Senator Robert Kennedy’s Support

In 1966, the OIC National Institute was developed to coordinate activity between branches and to oversee the program’s expansion. In a well-publicized visit, Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-68) extolled the virtues of combining public and private monies to stimulate economic development. He later helped incorporate an OIC branch into the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, the nation’s first federally funded comprehensive community development corporation, in Brooklyn, New York. A $16.8 million federal grant in 1967 opened twenty-four new centers across the nation. By 1968, the potent combination of federal, philanthropic, and private funding increased service to 150 cities. Later that same year, the first international branches of the OIC were established in Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia. By the early 1990s, OIC International supported twenty-nine centers in seventeen countries.

With OIC as a cornerstone, Sullivan’s “Progress Movement” sought to drive a wedge into the capitalist system and open new opportunities for African American self-help, self-improvement, and entrepreneurship. To spur this new era of black enterprise Sullivan created the Zion Investment Association and the Zion Non-Profit Charitable Fund to confront the deep structural inequalities of the economy. OIC graduates easily found work in one of several subsidiaries. The Progress Plaza shopping mall on North Broad Street helped develop black-owned businesses while providing new jobs and services for the community. OIC graduates took to the factory floor of Progress Aerospace Enterprises, where they developed components for a General Electric defense contract. OIC-trained seamstresses working at the Progress Garment Manufacturing Company produced textiles for national firms. Employees at Progress Products manufactured auto parts for General Motors. Seeking to redress inner-city housing segregation, Sullivan purchased an apartment building in the predominantly white neighborhood of Oak Lane and later built the Zion Gardens and Opportunity Towers apartment complexes. These were the first in a series of new housing options designed to support those with physical disabilities, limited incomes, the homeless, and the elderly.

Sullivan’s bootstrap rhetoric emphasized traditional American themes of self-help, which were warmly embraced by white conservatives seeking alternatives to the social programs of the Great Society. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sullivan navigated the nation’s shifting political crosswinds as he touted the value of the OIC as an important incubator of black capitalism. President Richard Nixon (1913-94), deeply enamored of Sullivan’s success, pledged his personal support during a campaign stop in 1968. Once elected, Nixon renewed the Johnson administration’s support for the OIC and secured additional funds to foster commercial development in black communities. Later, when Nixon’s “New Federalism” threatened to replace dedicated funding for the nation’s anti-poverty programs with block grants administered by the states, Sullivan and his allies in Congress worked to ensure that OIC would remain a national contractor for manpower training programs. A $32.6 million grant in 1973 and a $44 million grant in 1974, under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), allowed OIC to prosper at a time when other anti-poverty programs were terminated.

Sullivan Joins Board of General Motors

Sullivan’s attention shifted away from OIC in 1971 when General Motors named him as its first African American board member. Using this platform, Sullivan began a decades-long struggle to deploy the Global Sullivan Principles as a tool to end apartheid in South Africa. This shift in priorities coincided with new federal guidelines that decentralized OIC’s management structure. The combined forces of deindustrialization, the slumping U.S. economy of the 1970s, mounting debts, and deteriorating relationships with local businesses served to weaken the OIC. The anti-government platform of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) ended support for social programs and forced OIC branches to secure new revenue. The lean years of the 1980s and 1990s served as a crucible, forcing OIC to close some branches, reorganize others, institute new financial controls, and adapt its training programs for the hospitality and service sector workforce. Internationally, OIC programs served as the vanguard for Sullivan’s development work in Africa.

The OIC model blended Sullivan’s Baptist faith, the protest techniques of the civil rights movement, and economic empowerment concepts espoused by Isaiah Montgomery (1847-1924) for a free black colony, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) for the Tuskegee Institute, W.E.B. DuBois' (1868-1963) advocacy of cooperative economic development strategies, and Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) for a nationalist investment program. These forces continued to unfold throughout the 1960s in the Poor People’s Campaign of Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) and A. Phillip Randolph (1889-1979) and in the Freedom Budget for All Americans of Bayard Rustin (1912-87). Critics have contended that the OIC’s focus on individual transformation reinforced ideas central to the “culture of poverty” thesis, which argued that personal irresponsibility contributed a subculture of helplessness and dependency. Others suggest that Sullivan was more successful at positioning himself as an elite power broker than he was at undermining unjust economic structures. However, Sullivan was more than a conservative apologist for American capitalism. In the early decades of the twenty-first century, OIC remained one of the nation’s most successful job training programs as well as a fixture in North Philadelphia. Its development marked an important moment of transition in the northern civil rights movement away from protest and toward a new form of corporate Black Power.

While the liberal interracial coalition of the 1960s failed to create a color-blind society, the OIC-Progress Movement demonstrated the strength of African Americans to resist persistent racism and discrimination through the power of their own churches, communities, and institutions. OIC employment training and industrial development programs demonstrated the power of community-based organizations to transform federal policy, confront structural inequality, and promote economic security as a core component of the civil rights-Black Power movement. Even after his death from leukemia in 2001, Sullivan’s vision continued to animate the OIC’s mission to support people from all communities and all neighborhoods as they sought to climb the economic ladder.

Jason T. Bartlett holds a Ph.D. in history from Temple University. His dissertation, “The Politics of Community Development: A History of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation,” examines the fifty-year history of the nation’s first comprehensive community development corporation.

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