DRESSED in old clothes and overalls, the 5,000 suburbanites—men, women and children—looked ready for weekend chores in house or garden. Instead, they were on their way to help thousands of New York City slum dwellers clean, repair, paint and decorate 43 of the city's grimiest, grittiest blocks. By nightfall, when residents gave their guests an outdoor buffet, the scabrous streets were conspicuously cleaner and perhaps a little more habitable, with balloons waving from fire escapes and pastels brightening alleyways.

Last week's cleanup, titled "The Thing in the Spring," was not a headline project. It was hardly a billion-dollar item and scarcely caused...

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