ECCO bene: Organizing Neighborhood Government
Milton Kotler—father of the ANC

Milton Kotler: Oral History Excerpts

MK: When I first arrived in Washington, I lived on Capitol Hill. It was a logical place to live: I could wake up in the morning, have a cup of coffee, and walk over to Congress for a Hearing, all free of charge. In those days you could walk in and out of any place. From there I moved to Dupont Circle to 18th and Riggs. From there I moved to Corcoran Street between 17th and 18th street. I got married again and my wife and I moved to Adams Morgan into a great seven-room apartment overlooking Rock Creek Park for $125 a month and a great view from French windows of the sunset over Rock Creek Park. . Unfortunately the heating system broke down and we moved with our two children, Tony and Joshua to an enormous mansion on Fuller Street and Columbia road with 12 bedrooms for $175 a month. Those rooms were useful during the Anti-war demonstrations. The urban riots drove us north in 1969 to Chevy Chase DC. We came to McKinley Street. I also bought a farm in Vermont.

Q: So, you arrived in Chevy Chase in 1969. What were you doing at IPS?

MK: I spent my years at the Institute for Policy Studies doing neighborhood organizing and neighborhood development. I continued to write about neighborhoods and had some original ideas on self-governing neighborhood organizations. I met some interested ministers at the Urban Training Center for Christian Missions, where I was lecturing. One of these ministers, Leopold Bernhard of Columbus, was deeply interested in my approach to community organizing and invited me to test out some of my ideas on organizing. I went to Columbus and we formed the East Central Citizens Organization (ECCO). My approach was different than Alinsky’s and I broke with his protest approach. I didn’t believe in getting a bigger piece of the pie. I believed in self-government and neighborhoods having their own pies. I believed in breaking up the cities—having the neighborhoods become the basic unit of local government and coalescing into a metropolitan federation.

Q: Just so that we can get a fuller sense of the contrast you just made, when you say you were not advocating for a bigger piece of the pie, please elaborate on that point.

MK: Well, Alinsky was essentially a union organizer. He spent his life fighting management for more money and benefits for workers, not for control of management - a bigger piece of the pie! He applied the same principles to welfare mothers and all the community-based groups that he worked with—how to organize for more distributed benefits from government – direct payments, more services, etc.

Q: More generous subsidies from government.

MK: Yes. He was basically an organizer for subsidies. I came with an entirely different perspective. I came as a student of political philosophy—the polis, town meeting government, which we had in Vermont, Jefferson. I was looking at the neighborhood from a very different point of view—even a poor neighborhood.

Every neighborhood has a self-governing capacity. To me the neighborhood was a potential constitutional unit of government. So I was into local self-development, social development through direct assembly democracy of the residents. That is where we were very different.

There were other currents in community action at the time. There was the Black Power movement, which was a Nationalist movement. There was the white ethnic movement. There was the Reform politics movement in many cities. There were cross-currents intersecting we had contentious disputes.

From the Institute I organized neighborhood corporations in Boston, Louisville, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Brooklyn, and elsewhere around the self-governing ECCO model in Columbus. I did 14 years of that work. I developed an intellectual think-tank within IPS called the Institute for Neighborhood Studies, for which I raised independent money. I also had the good luck to meet Greta Smith, my wife now for 36 years and we had two wonderful children, Jonathan and Becca, as well as the frequent and loving company of Tony and Joshua.

Milton Kotler at IPS, 1968

Q: Before we go into that, it deserves mentioning that along the way you published Neighborhood Government: The Local Foundations of Political Life.

MK: That was in 1969 and the book was a reflective examination of my organizing experience from 1963 to 1969, most specifically with ECCO. The book was controversial when it came out and it is still in print.

Q: Yes—it was re-released in 2005 with a new introduction and, if I may say so, comes with stellar introductory endorsements from Hannah Arendt, Kenneth Boulding, Harvey Cox, and Paul Goodwin.

MK: It was a controversial book, because I called for breaking up the cities and devolving local government to the neighborhood level. Then the neighborhoods could coalesce into metropolitan federation. This was a very radical point of view, opposed to all the conventional planning and political thinking about strengthening the governmental powers of cities. In the book I drew upon my historical research to show that many of our neighborhoods were once towns that were annexed by a dominant town in the region. Neighborhoods as we commonly know them today are the leftovers of annexed towns. That is why they still have a social and civic identity.

Q: The book was published just as you were moving to Chevy Chase from Adams Morgan.

MK: That’s right. It was the same year that we moved to this house.

Q: After that, it wasn’t just the book. It wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. You were heavily engaged in the world of advocacy.

MK: Yes. I was an advocate and an organizer until 1981. I got substantial funds from the government—not IPS, which took no government money – for the neighborhood corporations with which I was working. I was supported only by my IPS salary. Neighborhood organizations that that I worked with were funded by Federal government agencies, - Office of Economic Opportunity, HUD (U.S. Department of Urban Development), Department of Labor, etc. In fact, I helped draft the model cities legislation, which was originally called model neighborhoods legislation. I had some political support.

Q: At municipal level in the District of Columbia, had the ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commission) legislation already been passed?

MK: No. That happened in 1974. I helped draft that legislation with Congressman Don Fraser from Minnesota. Greta and I did the initial organizing for the election of the first ANC commissioners. Greta wrote the ANC handbook for the new commissioners.

Q: When was that?

MK: Probably in 1974.

Q: Territory is central to your concept.

MK: Yes. Territory was central. This territory was organized as a legal self-governing corporate entity. We had a constitution; we had direct assembly governance and an elected executive council to carry out assembly decisions. We had direct funding from HUD and anti-poverty programs. The neighborhood was doing fairly well. When the riots broke out in cities all over the country, I’ll never forget during the Columbus riot there were fires or looting in the territorial boundaries of ECCO. Nothing was damaged or burned within that 5,000 resident territory.

Q: ECCO is a predominantly black community?

MK: Yes. The whole key to ECCO was the role that Leopold’s church played in the development. The first English Lutheran church was a white church in a black neighborhood. There were a few black members. They had a community center, probably the size of our Chevy Chase Community Center. It had once been a school. It was a big building with nothing to do. The whole issue of organizing was the legal transfer of ownership of that facility to the ECCO Corporation. That was a very formal process. Three hundred people showed up for the solemn legal transfer event – transferring real property to this neighborhood government. Up until then, ECCO had been running programs in the center, but did not possess ownership of the building. We had reached a point where the church membership was confident enough in ECCO to transfer this real property asset.

It was as if the Chevy Chase Community Center were transferred to the control of the Chevy Chase Citizens Association or the ANC. – no longer run by the city. Can you imagine what that would involve? That’s what we were doing in those days. It was the goal of neighborhood government to own and manage public assets in the community.

While the constitutional goal of neighborhood government did not succeed, its premise survives to this day in legally mandated Advisory Neighborhood Commissions here in Washington and in many other cities in the U.S. and other countries. This survival is documented in the Introduction to the re-issue of my book by Professor Terry Cooper from UCLA. ANCs have municipal mandates of advisory powers, budgets and so forth. Our ANC does not own or manage the Chevy Chase Community Center or the library for that matter, but imagine those properties being transferred to the ANC. You would see something different. You would see the abundant social initiative of our neighborhood exercising self-governing responsibility.

Our Chevy Chase Listserve is evidence of the social imagination and personal sense of responsibility that our neighbors have for the wellbeing of our community. We have so great discourse in this neighborhood, but it’s not attached to governing responsibility for public community assets - the Center, the Library, the schools. My idea was that neighborhoods should be constituted as local governments, ratified by state legislatures as governments and federated at a metropolitan level. As a matter of fact, (Senator) Mark Hatfield introduced legislation to that effect in 1972 He was a great friend and supporter.

Forgive me for introducing a thought that has puzzled me for years and which intelligent critics proffered back then and would do so today. Was neighborhood government a romantic idea? History moves on. Was it practical then and is it practical now? First, there is nothing wrong with romanticism. My generation would be content to rejoice in the social inventions of the 60s and early 79s as a gift of political romanticism in all of its cross-currents - town meeting government, Jefferson’s war republics, and anti-war movements, civil rights, the Greek polis, participatory democracy, etc. – all things of the past. It depends very much on how you view history. Is history linear with no return; or is history cyclical with inevitable return? This is a long discussion that we have no time to go into. But the critical financial condition of our annexing imperial cities and their crumbling infrastructure, might suggest the possibility of power devolving back to the neighborhood communities, which they annexed.


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