Friday, May 21, 2004

Shades of the past ... .

Jennifer Ross and I met yesterday with two members of the Richmond city council. We made our presentation on the proposal we're honing for a hearing before that body in mid-June. The reviews were mixed, I think. They seemed to be persuaded by our enthusiasm, but underwhelmed by what they saw as our lack of awareness about the difficulties we would surely be facing in this financial and political climate.

To date we've met with the original city manager who has since retired in a surprise move (for health reasons). Since that time we've met with his replacement -- one of his assistant city managers who has since been replaced by another interim city manager who has already announced his intention of leaving in August. On Monday of this week we met with the man who was recently named as head of the Division of Parks and Recreation -- but who will replace the assistant-assistant interim city manager who is leaving to complete his doctorate after a trip to Paris in August! (Got all that?)

In addition, the present city council that has numbered 9 (by charter) will be reduced by 2 due to a sudden move caused by political pressure from the State to do so. That means that -- with 5 of the 9 up for re-election -- and the 5-7 other wannabees challenging them for the seats being vacated -- only three will be voted in. It will be a fiercely fought struggle for power in a city in complete chaos!

The city is facing a 35 million dollar budget deficit that has caused the lay-offs of 200 members of city staff. The climate is hostile and growing meaner by the day.

Into this miserable civic mess leaps Betty Soskin and Jennifer Ross of About Face Consulting, seeking to take over the management of the Civic Center Auditorium -- a facility that the redevelopment agency is looking at as a possible means for raising much-needed revenue. We're pushing arts & culture in a time when others are thinking World Wide Wrestling and indoor flea market - five days a week! This is literally what is being considered. You might call this pushing the river.

Back to 1978:

I'm situated in a crime-ridden poverty-stricken community with the powers that be telling me day after day that change would be impossible. "We cannot insure either your life or your property." And, "...we need neighborhoods like this so that when crimes happen in other parts of town, we know where to pick up the culprit." "Give up. Shut this down." And, from my friends on campus, " can you possibly expect to change what decades -- centuries -- has wrought?" From Bill, "Betty, significant social change is only measurable in decades; and sometimes centuries. Your idealistic attempts at chasing the sirens and trying to disarm the bad folks simply cannot happen on the timespan you've chosen for yourself." My response, "I know that social change takes decades to produce, but if you didn't have the Fannylou Hamers and the Rosa Parkses, and yes, the Betty Soskins out there -- in the short term -- chasing the sirens and disarming the bad guys -- there would be no social change for you social scientist types to measure!" As you can see, there are times when a mere doctorate is simply no match for ghetto logic (grin).

It took 7 years and pushing the project past the point of no return through 3 administrations, but in that 7th year it happened. On the 3000 block of Sacramento Street in South Berkeley, on the block that was the site of 1 quarter of the city's homicides in 1978, there now stands 41 units of attractive market rate housing and a community room for the tenants. The whore houses and "shooting galleries" are gone, but so is the Larks Club, Q Martin's barbershop, Jimmy Wiggins' dry cleaners, the pool hall and -- saddest of all -- the home that Q built years before with his own hands. All were bought out and all in the name of progress. Those who were property owners with legitimate claims were relocated and paid adequately for their homes. We discovered in the process that many of the homes and shanties on that block (on the residential side of Stanton Street) were occupied by squatters. The old house immediately across the street and that housed much of the illegal activity, had been long ago taken over by drug dealers who dared the rightful owners to try to collect rent. Those legal owners wanting to return were promised occupancy in the new homes, if they wished. In all, the city poured 8 and a half million dollars into that project, a signficant amount in terms of the times.

But that's how the story ended. The 7-year process leading to that end was anything if not problem-ridden. It wasn't a cake walk, but there were as many rewards as disasters, and many true friends made along the way. Many of those most heavily impacted by change were also those who participated in the achieving of it. This was the miracle that few suspected could be; the willingness of the few to sublimate their own needs to the welfare of the many. That is the soul of community, and being witness to this has served me well. In a place where need was so great and where there was so little to be shared, there exists nonetheless a quality of selflessness that cuts across everything. I'd seen little of this phenomenon either in suburban living or within the ivied walls of the university. Being a "Have not" breeds its own kind of awareness of the need to share. This was where I first began to understand that respect is learned through being respected, and rarely otherwise. I learned that love sanitizes the other side of the apple shared.

Once I laboriously learned what it was through my work at city hall, I was able to form and maintain a Housing Development Corporation through which the Byron Rumford Homes were created. The Corporation was made up of community people who learned the process right along with me, and together, we were able to bring that project into being -- from the clearing of the site, the choosing of the architect and developers, to the grand-opening a year later.

Back to 2004:

Yesterday we learned from the two council members we met with that the union's position was going to be a roadblock that we may not be able to overcome. After all, SIEU and 790 had just been severely pink-slipped and had taken a heavy hit with the workforce now having suffered two rounds in the layoffs over the past month -- with another coming soon.

Today we sat with our friends at the East Bay Center for the Performing Arts -- a 35 year-old institution that has seen recent 50% cuts in both its budget (down from an annual budget of 2 million to one) and a 50% cut in staff. It was all we could do to hold their attention as Jennifer slogged through our proposal. We were seeking their support in our effort to begin to bring together the arts elements now existing in the community -- under the roof of the convention center and its related facilities. The message seems to be "it can't be done." "The economic climate is too weak at this time."

I figure it's gonna take a bit more than my 500 ft. strategy to pull this off, maybe 650 ft. (given the gradual upgrade of my personal power over the years), but a look back at that other impossible dream gives me hope. Now I'm needing to give Jennifer a call and try to revive her spirits. after all, she didn't share the experience of the Byron Rumford Homes miracle. She isn't aware yet that "can't" is simply one more four letter word.

Oh to be fifty again!

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