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Friday, September 30, 2011

Prospect to MLK - What's in a Name Change?

Councilman Jermain Reed has asked that Prospect Avenue be renamed Martin Luther King Ave. Many cities have either done this on a permanent or an honorary basis for a major thoroughfare that runs through their African-American neighborhood. It is designed as a sign of respect and honor for MLK and to generate a sense of identity and pride for the neighborhood.  Outsiders typically refer to the MLK designation as code for a neighborhood that whites want to avoid. The white disdain should not be a reason to avoid the honoring of Dr. King.

Councilman Reed's motives are being questioned in the blogosphere - this is apparently the pet project of his mentor, Alvin Brooks. Mr. Reed is carrying the water and that is a fine and noble tribute to his mentor. We can't fault him for that.

Mr. Reed, however, has decided to blow this name change up into a fantasy silver bullet - he claims it will be the start of a transformation on Prospect and will be a source of peace. I find that very hard to believe. A name change is not a silver bullet, though it may provide a more positive imaging for the local neighbors. Don't count me as one of them, though. I live 1/2 block from Prospect. I think I can speak to its problems, potential, and why a name change is not enough.

The most recent changes that I am familiar with on Prospect are the Shops at Linwood and Prospect, the Prospect Corridor Plan, the Bluford Library remodel, and the new Walgreens at Linwood.  These changes have done more for Prospect than any name change ever will. They represent investment, community, and a purpose. Sadly, they are not championed by our current or former representatives as part of a strategy. Mr. Reed says he will go door-to-door on Prospect to get the name change and seek revitalization! Why? What will that do unless you have some steps to take? If you need some, I'm here to help.

Plan for Prospect Corridor (from someone who lives and works there - Viable Third Community)

1. Prospect is used as the travel lane for East Patrol - nightly there are cops in high speed mode racing up and down with sirens blaring, followed by the ghetto bird. Change the police practice.

2. Prospect is the number 2 bus route on the KCATA (I believe that was the case if not currently the case). It has no MAX, it has no streetcar. Get a MAX on Prospect and get some decent bus shelters and street scape put in as has been done on Troost.

3. Support targeted business and community commercial support at the Shops of Linwood and Prospect. Keep business local, profits, local, and investment will reap rewards. We need a social enterprise business center and incubator and we need a fresh/whole foods outlet (farmer market, co-op retail, and sustained support for nutrition). We need sustainable community development that includes green building, green jobs, and a chance for ownership by local folks to invest their sweat, life, and hope into business success. We have the density and the income for a range of businesses in this area. Get strategic and don't accept the nonsense peddled by people who do not understand the intricacies of community economic development. The Glover Plan will not work here unless you are ready to subsidize it's construction and operation for at least 20 years. If so, then build it.

4. Support community enterprises, not social services and non-profits. There is a huge difference and people need to learn and implement this. The Emmanual Community Center is wonderful! But it could be a social enterprise and not just a non-profit. Help these organizations learn to become self-supporting, not just dependent on charity and subsidy.

5. Expand the Bluford Library with a computer center in the Linwood Shops on the West side of Prospect. Computers are the #1 resource for people in the area and the Bluford library is woefully understocked.

6. Put a zoning overlay onto all of Prospect Corridor for mixed use and height. Be mindful of the Sante Fe Historic area and use that as a branding advantage on that part of Prospect. Fill in the vacant land with housing and stores and subsidize them as needed. If we can pay for the Block Building downtown, we can pay for some decent construction on Prospect. Organize a corner store initiative to incentivize these stores to carry fresh foods (as has been done very successfully in Philadelphia) and to upgrade their appearance and operations.

7. Make a CID on Prospect and get the trash picked up. That's a no-brainer.

There you go. You just got some free expertise. This is my plan for Prospect. Contact Viable Third Community if you want to get going on this. I'm already on it! 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shoulder Responsibility for Urban Ills - Yes We Can, Yes We Must

The KCMSD - Kansas City Missouri School District has just lost its accreditation from the state. This was not a surprise, but it is tragic, considering that it lost it 11 years ago as well. A month ago the latest and greatest urban school superintendent walked out the door for the greener pastures of Detroit. Better salary, more power, and no messy loss of accreditation to have to live with. Apparently, the average tenure for an urban school super is about 18-30 months. Some speculate they move along so quickly because the local district gets frustrated with their lack of progress and fires them. I have no doubt this does happen. But in the case of the supposedly elite superintendents, I think they leave when the going gets tough.  They are well trained in the art of organizational management and it works well for them if they are allowed to run the district as an autocrat. But public schools are just that - PUBLIC - and accountable to voters, citizens, corporate and civic leaders, organizations, businesses, and anyone else who wants to ride herd on the performance of the district. Most urban superintendents I've seen are pathetic at public engagement, parent engagement, compromise, and communication. If they could just run the schools in their little bubble, they would be happy and successful, maybe. But they can't and they blame it on the board, blame it on parents, blame it on the community that they are "uncomfortable" and must leave, or they can't satisfy anyone and are asked to leave. No one is managing expectations. No one is framing the progress. And no one is keeping the superintendent in check and instead allows them to bring in whatever new program they represent, bring in whatever consultant group they are associated with, and like a snake oil salesman - promise results that never come.

The KCMSD Board of Directors gave the last superintendent a great deal of leeway and supported him in near unanimity and without much question. He left anyway. The board is being blamed for a district that slides farther away from full accreditation. The teachers are being blamed for ineffective teaching as evidenced by sliding test scores. The parents are being blamed for not being good role models and for not adequately instilling the virtues of school attendance into their children. Much of the finger pointing is coming from the civic leaders - most of whom do not live in the district, let alone send their children there, and from suburban people who routinely thank God they are not in the District. What have they done to help the situation besides stand as Pontus Pilate and absolve themselves of all responsibility?

Urban problems are vexing. We all know this. But as airick leonard west has pointed out in his comments on today's decision , the improvement of the school district is similar to the improvement of urban neighborhoods. They are linked, they are difficult to turn around, and they require a long haul process of engagement and attention - not a quick fix or a silver bullet. Everyone - and that means everyone from Henry Bloch down to the convenience store clerk at the BP Station across from Central High School - must be involved in promoting the success of our scholars in the KCMSD. Read airick's post for his take on how to be involved and have an impact. Read the joint op-ed by Mayor James and Superintendent Green in the Star. The City is prepared to step up. Mayor James talked on Saturday about a 3 year reading program city wide (across all 14 school districts) to get kids up to grade level before third grade.  A nascent alliance of urban youth groups called Heartfelt Change is planning to provide services and attention through an out of school suspension program, so that kids who get kicked to the curb for fighting and worse, will have a place to keep up, get help, and address their issues instead of just hanging out on the streets.

We all have to take a role and shoulder responsibility for the success of our District. That means getting real with the scholars - mentoring, supporting, bringing time and talent to schools, donating, cheering, coaching, and doing whatever is necessary to bring these scholars to success.

Yes we can. Yes we must.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Chamber's Big 5 - Urban Neighborhoods - I have the solution

The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce has released their Big 5 Goals for the metro - to which the Chamber will devote member energy and resources. Here is the one of most interest to me...

The Urban Core Neighborhood Initiative - Co-Champions: Terry Dunn, President & CEO, JE Dunn Construction Group, & Brent Stewart, United Way of Greater Kansas City

You can’t have a hole in the regional doughnut. And as former Chamber Chair John Bluford (Truman Medical Centers) said during the Big 5 discussions, “Poverty is the number one negative factor in determining the health and health mortality of the general population.”

Jackson County’s poverty rate is high when using the official formula – 15.4 percent of the population. That number is higher still for what most experts consider a more accurate measurement of poverty (200 percent of the federal poverty level). Use that measurement, and Jackson County’s poverty rate is 34.2 percent.

Dunn and Stewart are already meeting with key leadership, organizations and foundations, and hope to have a strategic plan within the next 90 to 120 days. Violence is one critical area of focus, along with education and economic development.

I actually applaud the Chamber's recognition of the need to improve urban neighborhoods. It's finally recognition that they can't just leave for the suburbs and expect their business climate downtown to thrive. So now they are going to fix what they made wrong by leaving KC in the first place, taking their investment, jobs, property tax, and retail dollars with them.

I have an easy solution that does not require a 90-120 day planning period (which is what this Chamber task force is doing right now). My solution will guarantee results that existing residents cannot achieve. My solution will never be implemented because it requires too much sacrifice by the fixers.

My solution - have chamber members move into the urban core. I don't mean as gentrify-ing interlopers or as gated subdivision fortress dwellers. I mean, move into the urban core and work daily to solve this problem. Live the urban core every day and work to make it better. Share in the sacrifice and give generously from your own self to generate a sustainable community.  Stand side by side with the thousands of good citizens that are here trying to make their neighborhoods, blocks, and the urban core a quality place to live. 

My solution will be rejected, but I am putting it out there as a real one. I know it is real because I do it, every day.