My friend and fellow Sac City teacher, Larry Ferlazzo, sent me an email the other night saying he was angry about something and wanted to do a post. Larry has a strong sense of justice, but let’s put it this way, he is not one to get hot under the collar quickly (unlike yours truly who can claim one natural red-head as an progenitor and has inherited the temper that went along with the hair color).
Larry’s done a really wonderful post at Are Some School Reform Technocrats Using Failed Urban Renewal Projects As Their Blueprint? It has a wonderful analogy between what was done to “redeveloped” poor neighborhoods in the 1940s-60s and what is being done now to reform schools for the poor, and the failures of both policy initiatives. I’d like to add a bit to that discussion.
Larry and I both come from the San Francisco Bay Area. He worked as an organizer, and dealt with the aftermath of redevelopment programs. Also earlier followers of his mentor, Saul Alinsky, had been very involved in fighting redevelopment efforts in San Francisco. I did my undergraduate and teacher credentialing program at San Francisco, which included classes in Urban Studies and community organizing efforts around this. So, when Larry and I talk about this, we have a background that makes it really clear what the parallels are to recent school reform schemes. I don’t know if the video that Larry pointed to about redevelopment made it clear enough about how it was carried out and why it looks just like deja vu all over again for Larry and for me.
This is a nice backgrounder on how redevelopment was carried out in San Francisco’s Fillmore and Western Addition, a largely African American neighborhood. The salient points (including stuff I’ve picked up over the years):
- The redevelopment was predicated on the lie that housing in the area was old and substandard. A PR campaign was started in the papers about rats and other infestations in buildings, and the Health Department went around “looking” for conditions to write up. When one house was found, that wasn’t enough, so they said the whole area was the problem (even when it wasn’t), making it easier to claim eminent domain under health and safety laws.
- New was better than old, who needs those rickety old Victorians? Modern housing is better! There was no respect for culture (the Fillmore was a center of black cultural life) or history.
- This is for their own good. They never had a really good plan for what to do with the residents who were living there. There was precedent for mass evictions as the area had become largely African American during WWII, when the Japanese Americans living there were interned, and new black workers coming for jobs in the war industry moved in (one of my husband’s law school professors was working with the Friends Service Committee among the Japanese in that area at the time).
- The neighborhood, and others sympathetic to their plight, resisted and won what few concessions they could from the process (there are some moderate and low-income developments owned by some of the African American churches that had been in the area), but the black commercial and cultural life never returned. Japantown, a “concession” to the Japanese American Community never coalesced as returning internees disappeared and integrated as quickly as possible into the suburbs that was, in the opinion of many, a reaction to their being singled out and interned.
- The results, even if the neighborhood improves, is that it usually just moves the residents to a new poor neighborhood, and takes the heart out of a community. As an example, when I was at NECC in Washington, D.C. it was clear that the Convention Center had been part of a redevelopment project that probably took out part of a residential neighborhood. I wandered around the center in search of an after party and stumbled on a low-moderate income housing development that was much older than the surrounding shop/restaurant/convention development. Folks there still looked poor, and the new restaurants/shops were catering not to the residents, but to convention tourists.
So let’s review the main ideas behind most urban redevelopment schemes:
- The need for change is predicated on a lie, or gross exaggeration of the problems being faced;
- Anything new is better than old;
- It’s for their own good;
- Resistance is not futile, but won’t change the larger forces against you;
- It may get you something new and shiny, but it won’t help the people affected, and it will tear apart the social fabric of a community.
If this doesn’t remind you of school reform schemes of the recent past, my next post will make the connection clearer.