A Modest Proposal: Inner City Hall

by Janice Christensen

Let’s face it. People get wrapped up in their own problems. Neighborhoods have their own concerns. People in other parts of the city just aren’t interested in helping solve the problems of the inner city. There’s been a lot of talk about “healing the rifts” of the recent mayoral election, and everyone “working together” to make our city a better place. I have to tell you, I don’t see it happening. I don’t see people from the edges of our city coming in to “work together” to help solve the problems of the inner city. We need to look at this situation honestly and quit throwing platitudes and lame metaphors like “kaleidoscope” at it. Quite simply, I think this needs to be a bootstrap operation. Back in the days of Imperial Russia, a bright young politician by the name of Peter (eventually called “the Great”) came to power. He had a bunch of new ideas and a lot of energy, and he immediately found himself caught in the stranglehold of an enormous, Byzantine bureaucracy that preserved the status quo like embalming fluid. So, with a flash of genius, he cut the bureaucracy off from any real influence on the government and left all the bureaucrats in place to happily shuffle papers among themselves. Then he set up a new, efficient government alongside the old one. A government that swiftly put his new policies into place. Of course, Peter could do that because he was Emperor. But maybe it wouldn’t be that difficult to do here, especially in a setting where there is a vacuum of power and action and in a place that not very many people really care about. We could call it Inner City Hall. We could divide the Inner City up into very small sections — maybe four square blocks each. Each section could have a volunteer representative that would attend meetings of the Inner City Council. The representatives would work together to prepare a list of the concerns of each and every household in the neighborhood. An Inner City Health Department could really start looking into the health problems caused by bad air, moldy houses, rats, cockroaches, lead paint, lack of decent food and poor nutritional choices, unhealthy water, and poor access to health care. An Inner City Sanitation Department could demand regularization and improved efficiency of garbage pick-up, and coordinate neighborhood clean-ups. In the beginning, the main function of the Inner City Hall would be to call attention to the problems of the Inner City, and to help our City officials focus their attention on problems that are too easily overlooked. Well-thought-out, well-articulated statements of the issues will help begin the problem-solving dialogue necessary to address the problems of our poorest neighborhoods. But those statements of the issues must come from within our own neighborhoods, and the action does too. No matter how well-meaning people are, if they don’t live in the neighborhood, they just cannot see the problems of that neighborhood. Period. Can’t be done. Now, because this is capitalist Amerika, whenever anybody has a new idea, somebody is bound to say, “Show me the money.” After all, we don’t have an Emperor like old Peter the Great in our back pocket who’s going to help us set up this new government. But there might be a way we can make this work. In the beginning, the Inner City Hall would not need any funding, because it would run on that most basic of all currency: human energy. There would have to be some freebooter, start-up, sweat equity kind of input to get it up and running. Eventually, however, funding would become necessary, once we get to the point of needing to rebuild our homes and finance our schools. And, no matter what platitudes anybody tries to hand us, we can be absolutely, positively sure that nobody is going to give us that money willingly. That’s where the Inner City Attorney comes in. One of the nastiest things about our country today is the extent to which it has become a litigious society. But if that’s the game, I say let’s play it to win. There are lots of people we can sue. We could start with landlords who are taking advantage of poor people. And those usurious paycheck loan businesses. Maybe banks that charge poor people to cash their paychecks. A county that raises bus fare, knowing that the main effect will be on people who can’t afford a car. A city that charges people to park their cars on the streets, knowing that the only people who will be affected are those who can’t afford a garage. Businesses that hire single moms coming off welfare, then have policies in place that don’t allow them take time off to take care of sick kids. Or businesses that make new hires wait three months before they get benefits, then fire them just before they qualify. I’m sure the Inner City Council can come up with a list to keep the Inner City Attorney busy for a long, long time. There is a precedent for this. In fact, you’re holding one of the fruits of this strategy in your hands. The Riverwest Currents was able to move from being a small quarterly newsletter to a full-fledged community newspaper thanks to a start-up grant from a fund to improve fair housing practices. That fund was created from the proceeds of a class action suit brought against an insurance company for the practice of “red-lining,” denying, or overpricing homeowner’s insurance in certain areas of a city. One of the people behind that class-action suit was a bright young politician named Marvin Pratt. A guy who I hear might be looking for a job these days. It might not pay as well or offer quite as much power as some other jobs in the other city government, but hey, Marvin, I hear Inner City Hall is looking for some experienced help. And I say, IT’S TIME!

CORRECTION: An April 2004 article in the Currents about a “green development” at E. Kane Place referred to the plan as having a “lower density that allowed.” That’s not quite right, according to Julilly Kohler, who hopes to develop the space. She says, “it’s lower than the City sometimes looks for, but still higher than regular zoning which doesn’t allow more than one building per lot.” This means she would have to get a zoning variance if the sale is finalized.