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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Race and Loathing in America

I posted 3 new news articles about problems in Camden. The articles are interesting, but it is the comments to which we need to give attention. Wow - blood in the water and the racists, neo- patriots, anti-tax/anti-government haters come out of the woodwork. The theme of the commentary is that Camden residents are to blame for all their own ills, the city's decline and inability to rejuvinate, the high taxes in NJ, and the fiscal woe of suburbanites. Maybe Camdenites cause cancer too.

Given the story on Dr. Gates at Harvard this week, we begin to see that not much has changed yet in the post-racial America. On the Courier Post site there is a steady cacophony of haters that repeat their mantras over and over and dominate the public sphere. I can't change their minds, but I do think that their residual impact is real and needs to be addressed. The constant "hater soundtrack" eats into the psyche of this city and people begin to nod, agree, and give up. The Judge's upbeat messages sound laughable against the soundtrack of the anti-Camden chorus.

Camden has deep, multiple, problems that are not easily overcome. The city may never turn around. But the city can be a great place for low and middle income people to live with dignity, safety, and with decent public services. People like to pontificate that you have to get the schools fixed, otherwise no company will come here. Or you have to get the crime down, or no employees will live here. Rutgers has the same mentality - we won't get more students unless the city is "fixed." I have a completely different viewpoint. You have to give people a reason to come and stay, and they will. This city does everything it can do to actively dissuade people from coming here, staying here, and liking this city. No amount of waterfront development will overcome a lethargic and rude bureaucracy. No amount of redevelopment funding will overcome a school district that won't communicate with its constituency. We like to think the problems of Camden are completely insurmountable unless we have zillions of dollars. It's just not the case.

I really don't care who is running the city - whether it is George Norcross, Dana Redd, Governor Corzine, Judge Davis, or the Chief of Police. What I do care about is that the city be run for the benefit of the residents and that the institutions have as much pride being in Camden as the many residents who are from Camden have. Go to a Camden High School football game or reunion and you will see the pride. Do people throw trash on the street? Yes. Does open air drug dealing exist? Yes. Does that mean there is no respect for the city? No. It means that people are behaving accordingly in a dysfunctional place. If there are no trash containers on the street and if they are not regularly emptied, why should I care if I throw trash on the ground? If there are no jobs and no plan to create jobs, why should I disregard the one activity where I know I can earn money? And don't start throwing morality at this. People who see that a Harvard professor can be arrested in his own home because he is black are not going to buy into a morality defense of a racist system.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Camden Redevelopment 101

I attended a planning board meeting tonight, City of Camden, that was held in the Crammer Hill neighborhood. The meeting was a legal session to take testimony from the planners and from citizens. The planning board was to vote on the plan at the meeting and if approved, send it on to City Council for approval. What transpired was a succession of rookie mistakes in how to bring a community plan forward, how to conduct a public meeting, and how to generate community consensus. In the 1980s, the Boston Redevelopment Authority presented a plan to the Dudley Street Neighborhood and said here is what we are going to do for you as we redevelop your neighborhood. The neighborhood revolted and came up with their own plan, worked with the BRA, and the neighborhood is still doing well today. It is the textbook example of what went wrong, what to do instead, and how good the outcome can be. Apparently the Camden planners missed that class.

Here is some unsolicited insight on how the City of Camden might proceed with their neighborhood planning, how to bring them up for public approval, and what they might get out of the process.

1. the city did a good job in having meetings with the community, focus groups, charettes, and all the other forms of input, dialogue, and citizen involvement. But it was all organized by the city planning staff and their consultants. None of this was citizen led or driven. Buzzzzzzz. 1st mistake.

2. the final version of the plan was finished by the city staff in May, but until tonight, the residents had not seen it. Buzzzzzzzzzz 2nd mistake.

3. the neighborhood is 73% latino. there was no translator nor were any of the materials available in Espan~ol. Buzzzzzzzzzz. 3rd mistake.

4. the city staff and consultants went to great length to assure the residents that no pieces of property on the eminent domain list were occupied, nor would they try to acquire any occupied properties. Eminent domain is a huge issue for residents in Camden and is the cornerstone of most neighborhood organizing against redevelopment. Planning staff just had to make one correction to the plan - 8 properties listed as vacant, but now they find in fact they are occupied. Then during comments, a business owner points out 3 of his properties on the acquisition list but he is using them - so please take them off. Buzzzzzzzz. 4th mistake.

I'd had enough at that point and left the circus.

Here's how this could have gone smoothly, been done in partnership with the community, and had a result that all parties could live with.

1. the presentation of the final plan to a group of 100+ residents should be done by the community group with the staff. Leave your consultants on the sidelines. they have no credibility in the neighborhood. If you don't have a plan that neighborhood leaders will step up and present, then your work is not yet done.

2. the community leaders should make the presentation to the planning board with the staff and consultants. they should have a scripted role to play, not be relegated to the comment line. It's just so demeaning and disingenuous to have your consultant spout about all the public meetings you had while the community leaders are orchestrating people to stand in line to make their statements opposing the plan. If people are adamantly opposed to what you are proposing, then you need to keep working to find an acceptable compromise. Neighborhood is not just a geographical concept. It is social fabric.

3. DO YOUR HOMEWORK - don't come to a legal hearing when you have not checked your occupancy list for a year. You will (and did) get blindsided when people who live and work in the neighborhood on a daily basis point out your errors. You lose all your credibility.

4. Respect your constituency. Don't have your consultant go through all the neighborhood stats, leading off with 73% latino, and then not have a translator or other bilingual preparations. It is insulting.

I'm not trying to be an I told you so, but this stuff is basic planning 101. The city should be embarrassed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What is Bias?

Note: the cartoon is from Mike Luckovich blog

The Senate hearings are on and apparently a number of Senators feel that the default setting for the judicial, legal, and rest of the world is the way they see things. Coincidentally, this view emanates from a white, male, perspective that is generally skewed by wealth and education. If you think differently, you are "biased." Judge Sotomayor is getting that "bias" thrown at her at every Republican turn to speak. Well, guess what fellas. It is 2009 and not everyone thinks as you do. In fact, we elected (with a solid majority), a president that thinks differently than you do.

Those that blast Judge S. are certainly entitled to their opinion, to use their venue to espouse that opinion, and to vote accordingly. But I am so very tired of having their opinion defended at my expense. That somehow my opinion is un-American, socialistic, "biased," or some other denigration. Just stand for your own opinion and stop throwing me under the bus.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Another soulja gone. Too much to bear

I was cruising on FB and looking at pages of friends I hadn't heard from in a while just to see what's up. I went to the page of one of my new Camden friends, Dafiq Rasheed. There were zillions of posts on his wall, all about him being gone, RIP, and yes, he died.

I went to the Atlantic City newspaper and found his obit, a story about his death and couldn't believe it. Still can't. In shock. This was a great young man. He ran for city council in Atlantic City this June and lost (I blogged about this previously). He was smart, wanted to make a difference in his community, had style and ambition, and knew how to play the game. He transferred to RU-Camden in January and that's when I met him. I don't even remember how now, but we had instant rapport. He would come by my office to talk politics and about racial issues. He was out to save Atlantic City, but cared about Camden too. He was 19.

My world is a bit upside down right now. He died last week and the funeral was last Thursday. I didn't know a thing. Apparently he drowned at a pool party. What? How can this be?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Going to KC - the time has come

I leave in 4 hours for the airport to fly to KC for a noon funeral for our beloved DeShawn. I spent the evening doing anything but thinking about this. But now the flood of issues spill forth and writing is the only way I know to express what I feel.

Despite the haranguing I took from the blogosphere this week on Citadel, I know that what I do and say works for me and that I must do what I do. It is why I met DeShawn and I am better for that.

I've been called a do-gooder, a hero, a sycophant, a narcissist, a dangerous subversive, a pioneer. It is very odd to have people comment on what they see as your motives for how you live your life. Eveyone is entitled to their opinion, including me. Tonight, my opinion is dark and foreboding. I feel like an impotent charlitan who thinks they can make an impact on the world only to see that it is a grain of sand on a vast beach.

I can intellectualize for hours about the urban condition and race relations. I can craft rings of logic around racists and dullards that will tie them in knots. I can champion a cause, advocate for a position, sit in judgment, and create understanding with the best of them. But none of these skills I possess will change the fact that a young person died. Cynics will attest that thousands of people die every day and more are born every day. It is like life is some huge conveyor belt where we get on and fall off - either during the journey or when the belt comes to an end. Realists will say, it is what it is and it is inevitable. Preachers will comfort us, friends and neighbors will join in commraderie to support the living, and the chapter of the world that had DeShawn in it will be closed. He was here and now he is not.

But we all have an impact on the next person - whether intended or unintentional. Whether it is Scrooge or George Bailey - each person affects the next. Some people look at it like dominos where the impact is sustained, each to the next. I think of it more as a ripple effect that ebbs and flows and gets pushback. Ripples don't die out, they just meet an immovable object that pushes back and moves the ripple in another direction. That's how I want to think of DeShawn. Not as gone and forgotton, but a ripple that met an immovable object and is now pushed off in a new direction. His energy is still with us though his body may be finished. That energy is roaming and is affecting people he didn't even know - like the people that are reading this. He affected me in ways that he was never aware of. So maybe we aren't impotent and maybe we aren't charlitans. Maybe we should not feel dark and foreboding, but enlightened and flush with the understanding that our "life" is energy that never ends. I'll see DeShawn tomorrow in the faces of his family, in the grief that will pour from friends and neighbors. I'll feel his energy in the hope that we all have for others to not have their ripple interrupted so soon. I'll know he is out there moving his energy to have interactions in new ways that we don't yet comprehend. It will be a good day.