Brighton – a small, tightly woven community of artists and art galleries, is located Northwest of Over the Rhine and downtown Cincinnati. It retains a ghostly atmosphere – a quiet neighborhood, where age-old nineteenth century Italianate buildings sit dormant against a backdrop of a modern city, now beginning to regain its former prominence. Walking these narrow streets, a person can, for a moment, almost feel the history of a once bustling and vibrant neighborhood, which today, is virtually abandoned. Its streetcar and subway lines were long ago removed, its storefronts boarded up, sealed or displaced. However, this neighborhood was, at the beginning of the 20th century, an epicenter for a radical form of Community Organizing known as the Social Unit Experiment.
The Social Unit Experiment, envisioned by the National Social Unit Organization (NSOU), carried out an ambitious plan from 1917 – 1920. Designed in part by Harvard Sociologist, Wilber C. Phillips, the plan was initiated in Mohawk-Brighton (Modern day Brighton). The experiment arrived in Cincinnati in connection to a new philosophy, which reimagined the urban planning and social network of city neighborhoods through a self-sustaining social structure.
According to Phillips, each person was to become a component of a “genuine and efficient democracy.” The Social Unit Plan organized residents living in Mohawk-Brighton to be accountable for the health, safety and welfare of each other. Each person was part of a hierarchical organization, which instilled individual leadership to residents through a block-by-block community organizing approach. This method assured, in theory, that all would have a voice in participatory neighborhood planning.
The experiment, lasting four years, was able to achieve significant milestones for improving quality of life in Brighton, but its longevity, however, was ended by political forces at home and overseas. The program would ultimately lose its financial support, become attacked from former Cincinnati Mayor, John Galvin and be accused of having “socialistic tendencies.”
Phillips would go on to publish Adventuring for Democracy in 1940 and later develop a nonprofit organization called the Social Unit Institute to continue his research.
Have similar models of community organizing taken place in your city or neighborhood? Could this level of community organizing be possible again? Please respond with your thoughts.
Credits: Photographs by Geoff Bliss. Images and data linked to sources.