Op-Ed: What Can’t We Get Right
After decades of trying to solve urban problems, much has changed yet much has remained the same. Now we’re set to repeat our mistakes in Norfolk’s St. Paul’s Quadrant
BY ALEXANDER FELLA
Approx. 30 minute read.
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
When the Urban sprawls of China were faced with the looming threat of staggering population density, the politburo attempted a new solution by recycling an old problem. The buro’s acrimonious attempt to patch up city pitfalls was a novel albeit failed move: to build exact replicas of famous European cities right next door to their old cities. After demolishing the homes of Beijing and Shanghai’s most vulnerable, the plan was the displaced citizens would take up residence in the new swanky side of town. In reality, what happened was those who were forcibly evicted simply stayed in their own city, further tightening their grip of a population density already at critical levels. China’s bargain buying into building urban environments failed in part because the scheme simply replicated the same urban hazards it was simultaneously trying to solve. And now, urban planners in Norfolk, Virginia, are falling into a similar trap. The city's plan to rennovate St. Paul's Quadarant is going to disaplce almost 10,000 Public Housing residents, and the situation is dire.
While China’s solution to the problem of overcrowding may seem novel at first, in fact Beijing’s plan has at its core the same thinking being deployed across the United States to solve remarkably similar urban issues. Particularly, this way of thinking is a slight of hand trick. This way of thinking promises liberation from a problem created by more purchase into the thinking that caused the problem in the first place. What I mean is, as a community we face a proliferation of non-profits, NGO’s, and faith-based organizations dedicated to tackling similar urban issues. Many of these urban non-profits are unintentionally reinforcing the same problems their organizations were created to solve in the first place. And urban activists with their finger on the pulse of social justice are left with more hand wringing and head scratching over the largely impotent interventions of a national mobilization of these kinds of centers. Great strides have been made in local communities tackling issues of urbanization- hard fought battles have been won in order to rectify urban planning mistakes of the past. But while we are learning from our history, we have incidentally carried those same mistakes of the past with us into the present. Much has changed, yet the backdrop of this change draws into sharper focus how much has remained completely stagnant. Locally, eviction rates in Hampton Roads and Newport News remain in the top 5 worst across the country. Nationally, life expectancy is steadily declining as longevity gaps continue to widen between neighboring communities with concentrated poverty. Portsmouth’s life expectancy is 6 years lower than Virginia Beach. Similarly, a widening wealth gap is set to see Black and Latino families reach a median wealth of zero by the 2050’s. Despite an initial downward trend, homelessness has reversed its course to rise over the last two years, and rising sea levels continue to threaten urban and rural communities. These problems are not new, they have been prevalent for decades- and that is precisely my point. We are still working to solve the same problems that we have been working to solve for the last 20 or 30 years.
How did we arrive at this point? And importantly, why can’t we seem to get it right? This broad set of question is what I, along with a collaboration of writers, researchers, doctors, social workers, and community members, intend to explore with the Urban Renewal Center. This new season will see new writers, new thinkers, and a host of new series dedicated to asking and attacking this question from multiple fronts and perspectives.
So what went wrong? Or rather, what is it we can’t seem to get right? In short, our thinking is weak. We are continually offering “weak” answers to “strong” questions. What are weak answers? There are two answers. First, like the examples given above, weak answers are answers to problems that uphold a system they are simultaneously trying to work against. Second, these weak answers are housed inside an expressed xenophobia towards the practice of theory. I will come to the second part below, for now let’s start with the first part. In order to solve the problems of urbanization, we are further buying into the mechanisms that created the problems we are attempting to solve in the first place. As noted already, the last twenty years have seen an exponential growth in the number of community action centers targeting systemic urban issues while also holding up the structures which generate the issues they set out to solve. Weak answers are answers that only use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, subsequently making his house stronger.
Take Seattle for an example of weak thinking. At the moment, Seattle is on the verge of implementing a major re-zoning initiative. This plan will re-zone certain neighborhoods from single-family to multi-family use in order to offset growing population density. Unhappy with a potential dip in property values, neighborhood watchdog committees eager to keep status quo have launched lawsuits to block Seattle’s re-zoning plan. Both opposition and support groups whose members count themselves among urban justice activists have flooded town halls, engaging in the delightful finger pointing that the other groups are the real racists. It appears that neither group has stopped to question the nature of zoning laws in the first place. Rather, in this instance each group seeks to solve the problems created by zoning laws while endorsing the system of zoning laws. Invariably, this will lead to more urban issues resultant from zoning laws later down the road. Similarly, Los Angeles, a city with a national penchant for homelessness, has engaged the help of micro-real-estate developers to solve the problems of homelessness created by real-estate developers in the first place. Los Angeles’ solution to homelessness buys further into the mechanisms of housing, zoning, debt, and leasing structures that sustain the problems of homelessness those systems helped create in the first place. We are learning from our past only to repeat it, first as tragedy then as farce.
Good leftist liberals spearheading transformative campaigns often go for broke on the millennial orthodoxy to ‘move fast and break things’, and not necessarily in that order. Coming up short on viable models of reimaging the core of urban communities, much of what passes for activism today is stuck thinking from inside a hall of mirrors. In this hall of mirrors, every problem is simply an inverse of a solution, and every solution is simply an inverse of the problem it is attempting to solve. The problem and the solution are mirror images of each other, the two images reflect and feed each other. In a sense, our thinking becomes to reliant on the kinds of thinking that got us into the problem in the first place. If every solution to urban problems is rooted in the very problem we’re trying to solve, we will never outsmart or out think the problem we are working to solve. Consider weak answers like that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Bueller attempts to put his stolen car in reverse to reset the odometer and fix the damage that’s been done. Ferris’ solution is simply the inverse of his problem, and it only makes matters worse.
Ultimately, this means it is increasingly difficult to conceive of a new kind of life together outside of the urban setting which already so closely polices the limits of our thought. In a hall of mirrors we are always destined to end up right back where we began. Weak answers will never give us to strong answers for strong questions.
And we are facing very strong questions. These questions make up a who’s who of urban challenges no doubt familiar: gentrification, gerrymandering, evictions, food desserts, lack of access to medical care, gang violence, domestic violence, police violence, anemic infrastructure, exhausted public schools, rising sea levels, and much more. No doubt this list is as familiar in Hampton Roads as it is in cities across the world. Cities suffer from a family resemblance of problems from the Ger districts of Ulaanbaatar to Sao Paolo to Seattle and Norfolk. 100 and 200 years ago, it was cholera and Spanish flu outbreaks in poor inner-city neighborhoods. Now it’s the killing of unarmed black youth and lead filled public water in poor inner-city neighborhoods: same story, different plague.
Now, as political pop-ups dedicated to tackling these urban issues began to mobilize, simultaneously a politics of moral certitude atrophied around coded language of prideful-guilt and arrogant-humility. In the face of minority groups disproportionately feeling the negative effects of urbanism, self-checking leftists suddenly struck by their own reflection became convinced the inverse of their problem was their solution. Such morality found a strong footing among religious congregations, many of whom already had the wagons circled around feeling good about feeling guilty.
The story from here is a familiar one. When backyard politics became the focal point of a new religious orthodoxy, an anxious flock eager to wash the feet of Section 8 tenants found their pastors taking up a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. Armed with a little bit of guilt, well-meaning church folk hell-bent on salvation bused-in on bended knee to deprived neighborhoods. Centers were erected, clarion calls sounded, congregants rallied to the wretched of the earth. But what was a Kairos moment across America’s faith-based organizations turned out to be a stalemate. Crisis response was executed with near perfection, but long-term solutions to systemically change the conditions routinely putting people in crisis in the first place were no where to be found. The answer to the call extended only so far as a volunteer opportunity with a click of the tongue and shrug of the shoulder, because, well, what else can we do? Problem solving inside a hall of mirrors makes it difficult to imagine long-term alternatives to our alternatives- without which, such rallying cries generate more bite than bark.
Let me pause for a second to highlight the point I am making about communities of faith. As I noted above, it may seem that I am overly dismissive of the work urban activists have done so far, particularly the work done by faith communities. As I said, hard fought battles have been won. And faith communities routinely execute short-term crisis response with near perfect precision. If you need a meal for a night, or a temporary shelter, or a building to be renovated, congregations are very good at providing these services. These services are important, and faith communities play a critical role in providing a safety net for people in need of immediate support.
However, faith communities have lagged behind in providing comprehensive wraparound services necessary to help individuals break the cycle of poverty. Financial and nutritional education, reliable transportation, stable housing, and employment readiness programs are some of the few wraparound services necessary to help people develop long term independence. These kinds of services help people become less dependent on the kinds of crisis response programs that churches are already operating so efficiently. As a community of faith, churches are uniquely positioned to offer these long term wraparound services. More, it is in the DNA of faith communities to serve the most impoverished among us. Christianity in particular was founded by a dark-skinned Jew from a backwater town who was a social outcast, and spent time hanging out with other social outcasts.
My critique is not merely from the outside looking in. The Urban Renewal Center is a member of a faith community, and closely tied to First Presbyterian Church. But as James Baldwin remarked “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” And now more than ever, it is time to exercise a love for congregations as a critique of where we have fallen short.
Here, I want to bring in the second point I made earlier about weak answers. Recall the first element of weak answers supports a system it also tries to dismantle. The second element of weak answers is that they are typically theory-phobic. Not only do many weak answers to urban issues tacitly endorse a system they are trying to dismantle, they also discourage the practice of theory necessary to anchor actionable social justice. It’s hard to say just what theory is exactly, but everyone knows it when they see it: It’s the stuff that goes on in academia, the stuff that’s written about in books no one wants to read, and the stuff that gets talked about in conferences no one wants to be at. By theory, I mean the lengthy, cruelly erudite interrogations across academic disciplines into the micro and macro systems that create the issues activists organizations try to solve. Theory isn’t as sexy as marching, but it’s important. Though, no doubt we’ve all been exposed to the routine expressions of a desire to act over a desire to think. Expressions like “talk is cheap,” “the time for talk is over,” along with finger-wagging that “armchair experts” are disconnected from the pragmatic reality of urban justice.
But why shouldn’t there be a general aversion to theory lurking around urban activism? Does theory not only belong to the ivory tower? For so long the institutions of higher education have long closed their gates to women, minorities, and the poor while stacking governments with officials from these institutions to tell citizens they know best. And if anything, the uncovering of admissions biases favoring the ultra-wealthy has not worked to fix this tarnish. But what can be held up as genuine critiques of the academy cannot become short hand for the national bipartisan cold-shoulder given to experts and thinkers in the academy
If one ingredient to weak answers is their rejection of the practice of theory, it is because theory is seen as disconnected from the realities of everyday life. This disconnection is partly warranted, because theory needs to be somewhat disconnected in order to see alternative solutions to urban problems. As I previously mentioned above in the example about Seattle: while action committees battle it out over which group’s zoning-plan is really racists, some urban theorists are calling into question why cities need zoning laws in the first place? Some legal scholars are challenging us to rethink notions of private property, and debt. These lines of thought push our problem-solving imagination to the limit by calling into question the very core of urbanism. However, it is not hard to imagine the response by some activist that challenged things like zoning, debt, and private property during an urban crisis: “People need homes now, please, this is hardly the time?” or “that looks good on paper, but it’s not realistic.”
It may seem that I am dismissive of the work urban activists have carried out so far. I am not. As I said above, hardworking activists have brought hard fought victories. And this is especially true for the seismic shift in American popular religion orienting towards a gospel of social justice. I welcome a transition for congregations into a form of gospel worship centered on community living. I think great strides have been made by non-profits and churches in creating greater bonds between neighborhoods that privilege and neighbors that have been forgotten about. William Barber’s Moral Mondays Movement and Poor People’s Campaign are examples of these kinds of gains. And I am proud to say in Norfolk, the Urban Renewal Center has played a large role in building bridges between people who live three miles away from each other and have never met. However, for many urban non-profits the rush to action without the kinds of theoretical frameworks necessary to anchor their campaigns end up endorsing an orthodoxy they seek to dismantle by offering solutions that create more problems.
St. Paul's Quadrant
Inaugurating the Center’s new season with talk about weak answers is not child’s play. In Norfolk, at this moment, weak answers are running a massive urban restoration project. Currently, Norfolk is redeveloping the St. Paul’s area in attempts to reduce concentrated poverty and generate financial independence for residents. As it stands, the plan is to forcibly relocate the roughly 4,200 low-income and Section 8 residents away from housing tracts under severe threat from climate change. Starting this Summer (2019), Norfolk will issue residents 120 day notices to move. Families are being given the option to either receive a housing voucher for the city to cover the cost of housing in the private sector, or to move into other public housing. There is also an option to take a voucher with the possibility of returning to the St. Paul’s area in 10 years after redevelopment is completed. On the face of it, the potential pitfalls are huge. Currently, less than 5% of available housing in the city of Norfolk will accept housing vouchers. Many long-term Norfolk residents will be displaced outside of the city.
The St. Paul’s Redevelopment Plan is a prime example of offering weak answers to strong question. In a hall of mirrors, the solution to the problem of concentrated poverty is creating wealth and displacement. In the city’s attempts to secure the latter for its most vulnerable citizens, the price is severing family networks, kinship ties, ease of access to child-care, long standing roots to the area, and children’s school continuity. Most ironic of all is that because Norfolk has little public transit infrastructure, those that will be forced to move out of Norfolk will face the threat of having to find a new job. Consider Yvonne Bryant. Bryant has lived in Norfolk her entire life. “This area is convenient for me,” she said “because I’m on a bus line for my job. I’ve been at my job for 24 years. If I leave this area, I will lose my job.” More, Bryant remarked, she needs to remain in Norfolk in order to care for her mother who has dementia. Of the recorded 4,200 St. Paul’s residents, roughly 2,200 of them are children. Parents whose children are supported by a network of neighborhood volunteers, car-shares, teachers, and friends will suddenly be faced with having to rebuild those precious networks.
Now, Norfolk has implemented a strategy to have case managers dedicated to assisting each family that will be forcibly displaced. Only, that 4,200-residents number is half of the story. Some have estimated that in fact, if one factors in the amount of people living in the St. Paul’s area that are not listed on the lease then the number can be as high as 8,400 to 9,000 St. Paul’s residents. These residents are what as known as “ghost-tenants.” Those living in St. Paul’s who are not officially on the lease are ineligible for Norfolk’s housing voucher plan and case management assistance. Because ghost-tenants aren’t officially on the lease, the city is shrugging its shoulders about their responsibility to help them find new homes. This means that Norfolk’s plan will generate more homelessness and escalate poverty, two outcomes Norfolk was trying to work against. To put that in perspective: say you live in Ghent, Norfolk. Now imagine over half of everyone that lives there is given a 120-day eviction notice. Only this half isn’t eligible for housing assistance from the city that is evicting them. Within 120 days your neighbors, and your neighbors-neighbors are gone, with little options to find a new home.
In Norfolk’s attempt to eliminate concentrated poverty, the city’s plan will displace networks of families, severe long-standing roots in the community, threaten job security, and do little to decrease concentrated poverty. Norfolk’s plan props up a system it is trying to work against. And if the time for talk is over, how will we hear from those who have not been counted?
If this sounds like another familiar story, that’s because it is. Breaking up families and severing kinship ties were long used by slave owners in order to maintain power over enslaved peoples. Removing people from their families, and displacing them from their homes has long been an effective way to break the spirits of those attempting to advance in a system already stacked against them. Similarly, this is not the first time United States agencies have reneged on a promise to a group of people and forcibly moved them from their homes without having a suitable replacement home. A similar strategy was employed in the endless stream of promises made and broken to Native Americans who were forced from their homes to reservations. History is repeated, first as tragedy and this time as farce. Because this time the tragedy comes with a sales pitch about opportunity.
Where do we go from here?
In 1951 then-Mayor of St. Louis, Joseph Darst, said “We must rebuild, open up and clean up the hearts of our cities. The fact that slums were created with all the intrinsic evils was everybody's fault. Now it is everybody's responsibility to repair the damage.” In order to repair that damage St. Louis constructed Pruitt-Igoe, the most famous failed public housing project that opened in the 1950’s and was demolished by the 1970’s. Though Darst’s quote is from the 1950’s, it captures the spirit of what’s being said about the St. Paul’s redevelopment today. Only, Darst’s and Norfolk’s ‘solutions’ to repairing the damage done in the past are mirror images of each other. St. Louis built public housing, Norfolk is tearing there’s down. Dart’s plan was a failure. And Norfolk’s plan is on track to equally be a failure. Weak answers fuel more weak answers.
For the Urban Renewal Center, this Spring and Summer will see a continuation of our engagement with urban justice in the community. We will also be interrogating weak answers to strong questions. In doing so, we will be expanding our research and editorial branch of the Center by inviting diverse thinkers to build a robust coalition of writers. Above all, this season will see the Urban Renewal Center reimagine pressing urban issues in Norfolk, and in communities globally. If the Urban Renewal Center cannot imagine alternatives to weak answers, then our solutions to urban problems will continue to look a lot like China’s solutions- building exact replicas of the same problems right next door.
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