By focusing not on the forces that create "urban wastelands" but on the growing set of private, public, and not-for-profit organizations that are revitalizing them, Harvard professor Alexander von Hoffman's House by House, Block by Block: The Rebirth of America's Urban Neighborhoods (Oxford) connects a seemingly disparate set of dots from five major cities (New York, Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, and L.A.) into a pleasingly optimistic sketch of what is possible when renewal efforts aren't limited to governmental initiatives alone. In fact, efforts such as public-housing programs, he explains, have often failed because of their top-down approach. His New York section zeroes in on the South Bronx's revitalization and describes many of the same forces described in Thabit's book (see above review) that led to the neighborhood's initial decay (white flight, real estate redlining, declining social services), but goes further in its analysis of the unpredictable patchwork of people, groups, and fortuitous circumstances (the boom '90s again get credit) that allowed for a change in direction and for hope in the community's future. While at times excessively detailed, von Hoffman's book sustains interest with his passion for the notion that there is no neighborhood that is beyond repairas long as government, community, and business work together. In that way, it's a long love letter to the possibilities of American democracy, when perhaps we need one most.
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