Getting on board: A conversation with Erika Poethig

Posted on

Erika Poethig

Erika Poethig

Community Progress is pleased to welcome Erika Poethig, Institute Fellow and Director of Urban Policy Initiatives at the Urban Institute, to our Board of Directors. We recently spoke with Ms. Poethig about her work and passion for urban policy, the transcript of which is below.

In our last issue, we interviewed Presley Gillespie, Executive Director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corporation. We look forward to sharing interviews with our additional new board members in a future newsletter: Mike Brown, President of Prima Civitas; Margaret Dewar, Ph.D, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; and Scot Spencer, Associate Director for Advocacy and Influence at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Community Progress: How did your passion for policy — particularly urban and housing policy — start? What inspired you to dedicate yourself to this field?

I like to say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. My dad, Richard Poethig, grew up in New York City during the Depression and went on to become a minister in the Presbyterian church, but dedicated himself to urban policy and moved with my mom to the Philippines in the 1950s, where I was born (in the 1970s). His mission was helping squatters organize into unions to claim land rights in the Philippines in the ’50s and ’60s. We then came back to Chicago and he ran an institute focused on helping the church work in urban areas.

I inherited my father’s book collection of some of the original texts from the ’50s and ’60s on urbanization and it was always striking to me to see, in some ways, how far we have come and how much we are still grappling with the same set of issues, both domestically and internationally, related to urban challenges.

CP: You’ve worked on housing and urban issues from just about every angle: local and federal government, philanthropy, and the nonprofit sector. What have you learned about how all these different sectors interact?

Not always easily, actually! And I come from Chicago, where there’s a high degree of emphasis on collaborative efforts across the sectors, particularly the local philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, but you really need to have bridge builders.  One of the things I like to say we borrowed from that Chicago experience — those of us who came as part of the Obama administration — is really identifying those people who would have the responsibility to build those bridges across sectors; to do that not only between sectors but then even busting some silos within the sector, too.

CP: What is one of the most promising trends you’ve seen in American cities, especially those that face significant vacant and problem properties challenges?

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the scale of vacancy and abandonment as a scourge, if you will, on neighborhoods. I love to see — and you see this in Philadelphia perhaps most clearly, but it’s evident in other places as well — strategies to really activate vacant spaces and reclaim them.  These efforts recognize that spaces are being used, albeit sometimes for illicit activities.  It is exciting to see local strategies that re-envision vacant properties and design them for a new generation.  As the Horticultural Society is doing in Philadelphia, using [vacant lots] in ways that are built up but can still be activated in a period before they might get [permanently] reutilized as part of the built environment.

(Editor’s Note: The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society is engaged in temporary reuse of vacant lots, including through the creation of pop-up gardens)

CP: What is one example of a vacant or abandoned lot getting put back to reuse that you’ve found particularly inspiring? Either in your own community or that you’ve seen elsewhere.

Just about twenty years ago, when I was still in graduate school and working at DePaul University on a new outreach program, I was assigned to work with a set of homeowners on one block in the west Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago. We were applying our strategic planning skills to help them re-envision what that block could look like…I did that over a number of years with this community. We called it the Super Block, and one of the things they wanted to do was turn a vacant lot into a park.

This was a partnership with the local police district, and so the district commander was able to attract the attention of the Parks Commissioner (and we were able to attract other attention as well) that allowed us to do just that. We converted the empty lot into a park that was partly managed by the neighbors, but got the attention of the Park District, as well. Once we had completed the park and some other things on the block, Mayor Daley came out [to visit]. This Super Block project became a cornerstone of the city’s community policing strategy across the city.

At the time, the concept of community policing was relatively new, and it spoke to a whole different strategy that had officers on the street relating to residents, solving problems. On this project, the local beat officers were very engaged, so the police decided to replicate the strategy we developed in other parts of the city, where they identified a high crime block and created a facilitated process to help the community develop a strategy. This is an approach where you just take one block, focus the attention on that block, and let it be an example of what can be done, and it helps inspire neighbors to do the same on other blocks.

CP: What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone who is just getting started in this field?

Something I heard Angela Glover Blackwell say that really inspired me is, “We have to assume we’re going to be successful.” As we acquire land, and land bank it, we have to assume that we’re going to be successful. And we have to then have strategies that also preserve affordability, or preserve this asset that we’re acquiring, and believe that it will one day be an important part of the city revitalization strategy, even if it’s fallow or not utilized as part of the built environment for some period of time.

CP: What most excites you about joining the Center for Community Progress Board of Directors?

I’ve just been so impressed by how quickly Community Progress, in its short history, has really articulated a direction for the field, has brought a cross section of local government, people in the academy, and nonprofits together, focused on a set of challenges, and lifted up a set of stories.
I’ve worked closely with Tamar Shapiro in the past and really respect her leadership and am excited to work with her on the Board — and a terrific set of fellow board members who bring their deep experience to bear on these issues.