America and urban America, near-synonyms for two generations,
stand at a crossroads, their destinations in doubt. It can no
longer be assumed that the fates of African Americans and the
nation’s cities are entwined, that each will prosper or decline
in tandem with the other. A great wave is building that threatens
to wash across the urban landscape, loosing Black populations
and institutions from their moorings and casting them – adrift.
Big Capital assembles itself to drown a dream.
is also the potential for self-rescue through vision and with
tools that are near at hand. The cities will be transformed,
of that there is no doubt. But unless Black political institutions
transform themselves more rapidly than Big Capital’s rush through
the urban core, there will be no base for collective African
American action, no harbor for the dreams of a people. The nation
itself will lose its soul to the disconnecting, atomizing fury
of organized greed.
scenarios are in motion. In Washington, DC, a corporate servant
sits in the Mayor’s chair, plotting with Big Capital to make
the city “fit” to receive 100,000 new residents while simultaneously
creating unlivable conditions for many tens of thousands of current,
overwhelmingly Black Washingtonians. Their fate is to become
scattered human detritus, exiled to other, untenable locations.
The dream of popular Black power in the metropolis, never and
nowhere equal to its potential, leaves with them.
the nation, big city executives dance merrily to corporate “Renaissance” tunes
that are, in reality, themes of exodus and expulsion of the Black
working class and poor. Pushed out by corporate-dictated public
policies that celebrate youth, affluence and whiteness, families
and entire neighborhoods retreat across jurisdictional lines
to nearby “suburbs” that are demographic near-duplicates of their
formerly affordable neighborhoods. An exaggerated, misleading
narrative of Black upward mobility through suburbanization is
popularized, based on data that actually reflect, in large part,
the push-out from central cities.
tools for the people
popular forces are gathering, too – and some of them have money
as well as numbers and brainpower. In Milwaukee next week, labor
unions and community activists will hold a “Tools
for Communities that Work” conference, co-sponsored by Good
Jobs First (GJF). Washington-based GJF, headed by Greg LeRoy,
has taken the lead in scrutinizing the $50 billion in annual
state and local subsidies to private corporations – gifts of
cash, public property and future tax revenues that drain cities
of the resources to resist corporate domination, and set in motion
the triaging of services that make urban life viable for poor
and middle income residents.
Janis-Aparicio is one of the stars of the Milwaukee conference.
Her Los Angeles
Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), part of a Growth
With Justice Coalition of church, labor and community groups,
seeks to make developers accountable to the community. The Coalition’s “Community Impact Report” would “require developers to list the
potential effects of a project – everything from the number of
affordable housing units included to the type of medical and
health benefits the contractors would provide for their workers – and
go through a public hearing before beginning construction,” according
CIR fits with the Catholic principle that even private goods
are not to be used without attention to the impact on the whole
community," Vincentian Father Mike Walsh, associate pastor
of St. Vincent Church in Los Angeles told The
Tidings, a southern California weekly Catholic newspaper. "We
must be careful that we don't invite business at the expense
of poor people who have less of a voice in the process anyway."
group combines “a vision of social justice with a practical approach to social change,” through “a
powerful coalition of community organizations, unions, religious
leaders, academics and elected officials.” In practice, that
means putting limits on the power of money to shape the destiny
of the cities. Two years ago, writes Bobbie Murray in The
Nation, LAANE “came up with a new accountability concept that has caught
national attention in the movement: community benefits agreements.”
agreements include job standards and more. In 2001 LAANE
leveraged $29 million in city subsidies to a mixed-use development
in a struggling area of North Hollywood to win parks, a youth
center and mitigation of problems caused by increased truck
traffic. The developer also agreed to pay for fifty spots
for low-income children at a planned childcare center and
to provide free space for a community health clinic. A new
grocery store will be required to sign a card-check neutrality
agreement, making it easier for workers to organize, and
75 percent of the development's expected 2,000 retail and
office jobs must be living wage. Finally, says Roxana Tynan,
LAANE's director of accountable development, "the language
around local hiring is the best and clearest that we have
grassroots accountability organizing,” writes Murray, “California
is the gold standard.” LAANE is a partner in The California
Public Subsidies Project, which pressures developers and the
public sector to accept Community Benefits Agreements. The
report was co-written by Greg LeRoy, of Good Jobs First:
are critical because of the current “back to the city” movement.
For the first time in decades, many large U.S. cities are
experiencing population growth. Sports stadiums, entertainment
arenas, hotels, office parks, “big box” retail outlets, upscale
residential projects and other such developments are occurring
much more often now in already-inhabited areas. These projects
offer tremendous opportunities for low- and moderate-income
neighborhood residents, but hold tremendous risks as well.
many of these projects are bringing sorely-needed jobs
and tax revenues back to areas that have been disinvested,
there is no guarantee that the “ripple effects” of the
projects will benefit those residents who need them most.
CBAs give a role in the process to community residents,
and help insure that the people who remained loyal to the
cities during the darkest years share in the benefits as
urban areas are rediscovered. Developers of these large
projects have a particular social responsibility, not only
because they are moving into existing communities, but
because taxpayer dollars subsidize their projects.”
than just a mechanism to pry loose a few jobs from developers,
the goal is to awaken communities to the possibilities of
their own futures, to mobilize citizens to stand up to Big
Capital and the Black, brown and white politicians that serve
it. It is through movements such as this that a new Black
politics can be born.
step leads to another
California and elsewhere, the Living Wage Movement is the tie
that binds most of the players together. Greg LeRoy looks forward
to a “terrific broadening of the living wage movement to expand
into subsidies.” San Francisco this week passed a ballot measure
to raise the citywide minimum
wage to $8.50, boosting the salaries of more
than 50,000 low-income workers “with only moderate costs for
most businesses affected,” according to New York University’s
Brennan Center for Justice.
labor was midwife to the Living Wage Movement. In 1994, Coalition
of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) President Bill Lucy, Secretary-Treasurer
of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees
union, brought together the “AFSCME-led coalition of labor and religious
leaders in Baltimore [that] won enactment of a law that required
private firms to pay their workers a living wage, or lose their
contracts with the city.” (See “The
Living Wage Movement: A New Beginning,” May 8, 2002.) More
than 110 cities have passed Living Wage laws, to date.
will be the weighty presence at the Milwaukee “Tools
for Communities that Work” conference,
November 9 – 12. With $4 billion invested in its Housing
and Building Trusts, the AFL-CIO’s pockets are deep enough
to earn a seat at the urban development table. (The total
value of pension funds is $7 trillion but,
as Greg LeRoy points out, “In no case do
unions have more than half the seats” on the boards that
administer those funds.) Activists will engage union executives
in a discussion of “Labor, Sprawl and Smart Growth,” a
debate that inevitably leads to the need for public intervention
to tame and resist, rather than hold the hands, of Big
President Lucy, in his capacity as AFSCME’s number two executive,
is urging local presidents and secretary-treasurers to
find ways to “marry” social investment strategies with
projects undertaken by churches, even the storefront kind.
He encourages his troops to “broaden
their thinking” to examine what can be done with union
pension funds “within the scope of their authority.” And
there lies the essential urban challenge to labor in general,
and Black labor most particularly. Labor accepts (and the
CBTU embraces) its social responsibility to the larger
community. Union pension managers also have a fiduciary
responsibility to the men and women whose deferred
wages they are investing. The world of development is much
like a battlefield. Sometimes, there can be no quarter.
example, anti-union Wal-Mart, the ultimate “big box” retailer,
packs a kill-radius of miles. "There are times when a
project is so bad, it should just be stopped in its tracks.
Like Wal-Mart,” says Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy
executive director Janis-Aparicio. “It's a death star, killing
all the local businesses."
labor cannot muster the popular forces necessary to beat
back a Wal-Mart invasion of a neighborhood, it cannot protect
its social investment in that area – its fiduciary responsibility.
more dreams deferred
corporations “rediscover” the cities, unions must leap with
all four feet into the realm of city planning, and allocate
substantial resources to those urban movements and community
institutions that can ensure the viability of union-backed
projects. Labor must commit itself to safeguarding the assets
and internal economies of the cities by aligning itself with
those who will fight Big Capital’s most destructive, people-dispersing
must take the lead in nurturing Plans, tailored to every targeted
locality. In the process of formulating plans for the cities,
people’s dreams become tangible – and as Dr. Martin Luther
King understood, dreams are the real stuff of movements. It
is the stuff that is lacking in far too many Black-led urban
political groupings, circles that care more about a piece of
the next corporate contract that floats their way than the
stability, prosperity and dignity of African Americans as a
here to read Part 1 of this series.
here to read Part 2 of this series.
here to read Part 4 of this series.
here to read Part 5 of this series.