Monday, September 20, 2010

Raze, Hell

Why spend all the effort to rewrite history when you can just erase it? I'm glad libertarians and Civil Rights activists are joining forces in Montgomery, Alabama.

Y'all remember Montgomery, right? A few important things happened there 40-50 years ago that led to the eventual dismantling of legalized race-based discrimination.

We've come an awful long way in 40 to 50 years as a society, haven't we? Today, in Montgomery, they're just dismantling homes. Predominantly, those homes belonging to low-income African-Americans, usually close to the historically significant civil rights trail.

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Now, I understand the need for many American cities to remove blight. I also understand that, in the South, the neighborhoods with the most blighted properties that recieve attention from municipalities will likely be low-income urban neighborhoods.*

Furthermore, these neighborhoods and properties are more likely be inhabited or owned by low-income African-Americans.

This is the result of specific demographic settlement patterns, mandated by the de jure and later replicated by the de facto versions of segregation and Jim Crow. We must also consider the very real legacy of generations of government focusing spending, property development and infrastructure improvement towards the suburban areas based on both the races of the populations being served and the geographical realities of settlement pattern changes (partly a response to desegregation).

All those paved asphalt streets and water lines you find in the suburban cul-de-sacs didn't just grow up from the clay.

Consider also the long term neglect required to truly destroy neighborhoods and communities by keeping blighted properties run down. Blight keeps property values down, stifles economic dynamism in a neighborhood, and can encourage more robust development of the criminal or rodent element in an area. Is it any wonder that municipal code enforcement was lethargic to address this issue in traditionally black neighborhoods? Do you think the local quality of life officers would let properties deteriorate so badly in more affluent parts of town? Perhaps those parts of town with the "proper" demographics?

Therefore, the resulting current-day blight removal programs in Southern urban areas are likely to disproportionately affect low-income African-Americans. That's not a difficult reality to grasp.

But let us take a step back: anytime the government takes property from anyone, there should be a clearly followed process of documentation and notification. I'm all about blight remediation (if possible) or removal (if necessary), but you cannot just tear down homes and send someone a bill because you've decided just recently to start enforcing code.

Especially if the pattern of removal appears racially motivated. As I outlined, any government agency responsible for this should be able to understand that they may easily appear so. If they choose to ignore this, they deserve every ounce of legitimate criticism they get. Not all of the individuals they expect to step aside may lack the resources or the will to challenge the authority or legitimacy of the government's claims.

A city or government must maintain their credibility during the process, and it is up to the people to demand that credibility. Tearing down viable homes while more derelict properties stand unattended is simply unacceptable. Sending letters to deceased individuals and considering that "notification" is unacceptable.

This isn't going to be an easy process. It will take work on the parts of governments and citizens. Honest mistakes will be made. But let us not kid ourselves about suspect motives. Actions speak. There is a way not to address blight, and way to start moving forward. One involves identifiable shenanigans. The second involves talking to the people in the neighborhoods first.


* - As what was once marginal land for economically and socially discriminated populations is now the urban core - making it possibly more geographically desirable or valuable than land occupied on the geographic margins.

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