Saturday, September 04, 2004

Yesterday at the wedding I had the chance to reconnect

with Rachel's (the bride) parents, both east coast educators. Larry teaches at Harvard.

The last time we met, I was deep in ambitious plans to try to effect Arts & Culture in the city of Richmond, and had begun to circulate a paper I'd written with the hope that I could influence others to join my vision. As it turned out, her parents had recently visited one of August Wilson's plays and -- upon their return to the east coast -- sent the program to me that included a brilliant statement about the magic and importance of theater in African American performing arts.

Yesterday, he reminded me of that in a brief conversation, and I wondered where that dream had gone to?

Jennifer and I are still very much involved in trying to interest the powers that be to allow us to take over the Arts & Cultural aspects of this city so that we can bring some of the richness of the performing arts that we've both been involved with for many years. There simply is no permanent structure to city government at this point, so no souls with whom to commune around this critically important aspect of urban life.

Over the past six months we've met with the city manager (now resigned) and with four subsequent interim managers. Every important position in this city is presently held by temporary officers. Only about a month ago yet another interim city manager was hired on a six month contract - while a national search is held for a permanent one.

Our proposal has been shelved for the time being, because the arts will probably be the last area explored for reorganization. Yet, it's the arts and culture that serve as the glue that makes all else possible. I doubt if anyone of importance has even read our proposal, or that anyone has seen the need to. As I've often said to Jennifer, "...we keep running around this city with answers to questions that nobody is asking!"

This city has a civic center that was built about 40 years ago. These buildings were awarded historic landmark status on the basis of having been the first civic center in the nation that incorporated the arts and culture as integral elements. (Have a feeling that I've written about this before ...) The campus (surrounding a spacious green plaza) consists of the main library, the convention center that holds a television station and the arts center (classes and exhibitions), the city hall, and police and fire department administrative offices. Subsequent elected officials over many years seem to have totally forgotten that legacy, and there is little interest in using the center as originally intended.

Over a year ago, due to the need to retrofit city hall for earthquake safety, the administrative offices moved (temporarily) to a lovely building on the marina, abandoning the downtown civic center to growing weeds and neglect. There is some consideration by some citizens for making this shoreline site the permanent home of government -- to the dismay of many others. However, the convention center (art center and television station) remain in use though seriously under-utilized. Due to budget restraints (a polite way of saying that the city is in financial meltdown) the library's hours and staff have seen a severe cutback. This movement of the city's main offices out of the old downtown has increased the desolation that had already eroded economic life and discouraged development over many years. Still, more "empty nester" housing is presently under construction -- in a brand new transit village just a few blocks away from the old civic center. It is a peculiar kind of planning without rhyme or reason to an eye unaccustomed to the complexities of redevelopment; mine.

How does this effect my Arts & Culture plans? Everything depends upon our ability to convince this city that it is squandering one of the most important civic complexes in the county. We already have what nearby cities are crying for -- an important performing arts center -- and despite ambitious nonprofits giving it their best efforts -- other nearby cities may be years away from realizing their dreams of having just such an asset. And, we are using the convention center as simply a space to rent out and not as the marvelous venue through which to express the rich and unique cultural life of this city.

Find myself wondering at times -- when I look around at the decaying inner core of this city -- filled with historic buildings begging for restoration -- why?

About 30 years ago downtown was abandoned in favor of building a brand new shopping mall at the edge of the northern boundary. Just as Henry J. Kaiser Corporation walked away and abandoned the shipyards and all of its associated structures at the end of World War II, the city did the same for the historic downtown that had served that population so well. The theaters and department stores and banks and offices gradually were given over to storefront churches, used clothing stores; and eventually institutions that served "the poor." Sound familiar? The only truly viable operations in the old downtown district are Kaiser Hospital, the Social Security Building, and the Social Services Agency. There is a small strip mall but the air of impermanence hangs over everything like a shroud. Micro-businesses are born and die within months of inception, and dreams die from lack of the oxygen of pedestrian traffic in an area where fear overcame trust decades ago.

In those moments when I have the time to think about it, I find myself wondering if it might be possible to estimate the millions of dollars that have been lost over those thirty years? Lost tax revenue, public safety, poor civic image, etc., and if we could calculate those losses, how on earth can we continue to let those lovely old brick buildings lie in ruins, discouraging all attempts at change? Wonder what the daily losses amount to in today's dollars? And, can any city continue to sustain those kinds of losses without economic collapse? Can we afford to NOT create the vibrant Arts & Entertainment that I envision for those long neglected sites?

What on earth is it costing us NOT to restore those buildings -- and all those lives of African Americans who wait each day fearing gentrification? Of the city's 40% Black population that has resided in Richmond since the end of the great war, I'd probably guess that 90% live in that downtown area in the Santa Fe, The Iron Triangle and North Richmond districts. These are the areas of the city that are most effected by continuing and persistent poverty, high crime rates, and desparation.

Perhaps I'll dig out that paper and add it to my blog. You never know who will see it and say a resounding "YES!"

And, yes, I'd give up the National Park position quicker than you can say "Arts District!" But meanwhile, I'll continue to explore all things "Rosie" until there are signs that the city is ready to dream along with me.

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