Los Angeles Review of Books reviews Alison Hirsch's 'City Choreographer'
THE PHRASE “maximum feasible citizen participation” was not developed by a civil rights organization or an avant-garde arts group. The United States Federal Government penned it as a policy directive. The Economic Opportunity Act (EOA) of 1964 facilitated the creation of localized, federally funded Community Action Programs (CAPs) in poor neighborhoods. These CAPs (at first made up of private and non-profit groups) were given federal dollars to develop on-the-ground solutions to administer anti-poverty and redevelopment projects in cities. This was a broad, yet relatively undefined, mandate for active citizen involvement. It was believed that poor and minority communities would benefit from having a hand in creating the programs meant to change their material conditions, and that this “participation” would have a civic benefit — that it would literally enfranchise the previously disenfranchised.
Though considered only moderately successful in its first years, in 1966 the EOA was altered and the Community Action Program became The Model Cities Program. From 1966 until the program petered out in 1975, big city mayors were given the power of purse over these locally held redevelopment and anti-poverty initiatives. And while the language of “maximum feasible citizen participation” was replaced by policy clauses asking for “participation of the residents in the areas involved,” Model Cities specifically mandated that one-third of participants in groups developing anti-poverty programs be constituted by the poor themselves.
This War On Poverty neologism, “maximum feasible citizen participation,” can be seen as a subtext informing the 1960s, a decade referred to as the “decade of participation” by John H. Strange, professor of public administration at the University of Massachusetts. It’s also the subtext of Alison Hirsch’s book on influential landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, titled City Choreographer: Lawrence Halprin in Urban Renewal America.