Reshaping Community Development

The 5th City Project


Iron Man on Grid


The 5th City Project set out to reconceive the nature of community organization and development.  Launched in a small Chicago neighborhood in the early 1960s, it intended from the start to be a replicable demonstration of the capacity of local people to transform their own communities–even when these were seemingly hopeless urban ghettos or desperately impoverished rural villages.  The 5th City model laid out a remarkable picture of what comprehensive development anywhere could look like, along with a new and different approach to catalyzing the needed changes in the people and on the ground.  In the decades that followed, it would become the basis for thousands of grassroots initiatives in community transformation around the world.



In 1963, the Ecumenical Institute moved its office and staff residences from the Chicago suburbs of  Evanston, IL to the inner city of Chicago.  Its new base of operations, carefully chosen, was on the West Side, in one of the most distressed parts of the city and one with an almost exclusively black population.  It had high crime and unemployment, a large number of run down or abandoned housing units, inadequate public services such as trash pickup, deteriorating schools and virtually no locally owned businesses.  There was little access to healthy foods and an absence of opportunities for any kind of meaningful civic involvement.

The staff researched  the overwhelming problems faced by its new neighbors in the West Garfield Park community and set out to develop a comprehensive plan  to address them.  The 5th City Community Development Project that emerged would be a primary expression of the Institute’s three overarching strategies: contextual education, spirit motivation and community formulation.

The staff designed the 5th City Project to be nothing less than a model and a demonstration for developing authentic human community across the planet.  It would be comprehensive, capable of addressing every aspect of the economic, political and cultural life present in any community.  At the same time, it had to be “contentless,” meaning that the decisions and actions of the local people would provide the specific content.  The staff made it clear that they would be part of the community formulation process only as catalysts, enabling the community itself to determine what changes it wanted and how it would go about achieving them.  Finally, the methods used to engage the community in making and implementing those decisions would need to be applicable in local communities everywhere.

These methods arose from the Institute staff’s own highly participatory lifestyle and decision making processes.  As these methods were tested, refined and reshaped in 5th City, they would later become the basis for the extensive future work of its successor, ICA, the Institute of Cultural Affairs.  These would include major projects in U.S. and international community development, as well as facilitating organizational transformation and launching educational experiments that ranged from preschools to job training programs and ventures in higher education.

At a time when many communities were adopting  a more confrontational and adversarial approach to motivating people cut off from resources and services, the 5th City Project charted a cooperative and collaborative course.  While insisting on the primacy of the community to make the decisions about its future, every effort was made to work with the existing structures and public services.  The result was a partnership form of urban renewal.   Rather than seeking to build community by stoking outrage and anger, people formulated a shared and attractive vision of their desired future, identified the blocks to that vision and developed long and short range plans for bringing it into being.  The Institute assigned members of its own staff to work in the community on a daily basis, alongside its existing and emerging leadership.

5th City first took its name from 5th Avenue, the northern  boundry of the community. Later, the name came to symbolically refer to any community that made a comparable decision to assume full responsibility for its own future.  Five fundamental principles or presuppositions defined what came to be seen as distinctive features of the 5th City approach:

1.  Delimited geographical area: A way to clearly delineate the physical boundaries of the project was essential to the comprehensive approach.  It fostered a strong sense of community identity in which the whole community could participate, reducing the sense of chaos created by the seeming impossible task and enabled a clearer picture of the maze of problems to emerge.  It curtailed the dissipation of energies and made it possible for the project to reach to the last citizen.

2.  All the problems:  Every issue facing the community needed to be acknowledged and addressed simultaneously..  Piecemeal approaches spread out over a long time frame would fail to get at the real issues and would not create the needed morale for action.  Indeed, such approaches tended to cultivate negativity.  Problems reinforce one another, and in order to move one problem toward significant solution, it was necessary to move them all.  This meant developing an analysis of all the problems in order to understand their interrelatedness and make it clear how they mutually supported one another.  From that perspective, and by targeting  and  focusing on the major underlying contradictions of the community which this revealed, it was possible to impact all the problems of the community at once through the actions that were taken.

3.  All the people: Every person and every age level had to be involved, and right away.  Just as community problems reinforce one another, so the postures of the various age groups powerfully influence each other.  If the elders were neglected, they could communicate images of hopelessness and submissiveness to the young.  If one group decided to do something, its members would find they needed the support of the rest of the community to be effective.  To form an authentic community identity, all the people had to have the opportunity to participate in a significant way in the decision making that would shape their destiny.

4.  The Depth Human Problem: This was the single, most critical reality that had to be dealt with immediately and forever after.  In distressed communities, it is always some form of self depreciating and thus debilitating image of oneself and one’s community.  Every person and every people operate out of a deep seated self-image. Practical actions result from that interior image and the self talk that accompanies it. When one’s self-­understanding is of being a second-rate human being, that one cannot succeed or is not worthy of success, very little can be accomplished.  This recognition was at the root of everything that had to change, with all else resting on it.  Unless the imagination of the citizens was somehow refurbished or recreated, nothing else would be lastingly altered.  Images  of authentic self-esteem had to come into being in order to release the needed  motivation, courage and creativity that reformulating a community required.

5.  Symbols are key:  Everything that happened in the community would ride on the power of symbols.  Symbols include songs, celebrations, festivals ,rituals, recognition of accomplishments and the graphic image of the geographical area itself, along with its distinguishing name, landmarks, art pieces, stories, rites, statues,  flags and insignia, its leaders, heroes and respected persons.  These things were foundational to inclusive social change because they were essential to reshaping the existing images of self-depreciation.

An effort that deals with a substantial body of people depends on symbols.  In creating any community, large or small, a sense of commonness in mission must be developed.  A commitment to its corporate task defines a community, and this is mediated through living symbols that are crucial to the morale and expectation in people.  These symbols make the difference between ongoing social despair and fresh, creative energy.  In 5th City, they had to permeate every principle, model, strategy and structure of the reformulation effort.


This sixteen block area of Chicago known as 5th City would quickly become a globally recognized community development project.  The symbol of the Iron Man, the black statue erected by the community to depict its people, full of holes yet standing tall, would find its way into rural villages from India and Kenya to Australia and Venezuela.  Its story would inspire community initiatives across the United States and in dozens of countries where grassroots people undertook their own renewal efforts.  It would be held up as an exemplar for urban renewal by Chicago mayors and become the subject of documentaries, one narrated by Oprah Winfrey.  The community, over the years, would host and provide tours for visitors from many other countries.  Its preschool program would win national awards for its innovative approaches to early learning and helping to instill images of self worth in its young people.

In the midst of this influence and acclaim, the practical reality was that things were always falling apart in 5th City and having to be done over, restarted or put back together.  There were remarkable successes to celebrate, but also crushing disappointments from which to recover.  Local leadership had frequently to be reconstituted and plans revised to accommodate unanticipated setbacks.  Institute staff worked directly in the community for several years and then celebrated the handover of their roles to the local leadership.  What was remarkable was how, over the decades since its inception, a core of those dedicated local leaders has kept the vision of 5th City alive and the energy for continual change flowing within the community.

The methods and models developed, tested and refined in 5th City became the touchstone for all the Institute’s future work in building community.  The work in 5th City was the basis for the more than 5,000 Town Meetings held during the US Bicentennial and for the hundreds of Human Development projects subsequently launched in rural village communities around the world.  Its participatory methods and approach to strategic thinking and planning helped give shape to the new form of group leadership known as facilitation and was the basis for the formation of the International Association of Facilitators twenty years later.

The 5th City Project was a venture in organizing and changing a particular neighborhood in urban Chicago, but it was always much more than that.  Its model of what a fully functioning human community could look like was breathtaking in its comprehensive vision.  The reports and stories of what its people had accomplished catalyzed the creativity and motivation of many far beyond the city of Chicago.  5th Citizens, wherever on the planet they might show up, would be marked not by always having phenomenal success in turning around their distressed communities, but by having been themselves transformed in and through their collective effort.  They would be people living out of a profound yes to their own lives and the communities into which they chose to pour those lives.




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