Commentary

Wilson: Top-down thinking won’t solve poverty

CorrespondentJune 20, 2014 

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Few things in life satisfy as well as a pithy quote, and minister Angeloe Burch delivered a well-crafted zinger at a meeting earlier this month on what to do about Northeast Central Durham.

“Before I stand in the pulpit and preach about going to hell,” Burch thundered, “I want to deal with the folks who are living in it.”

Burch was talking about Mayor Bill Bell’s initiative aimed at turning around one of the city’s most pathological areas. Specifically, Bell has zeroed in on Blocks 2 and 3 of Census Tract 10.01, the worst of the worst.

Now, Northeast Central Durham isn’t really an outlier of the infernal regions, but it’s close enough to qualify as a contender.

Durham has wrestled with the violence, poverty, drug abuse and other indicators of socioeconomic failure in Northeast Central Durham for more than 20 years. Essentially, nothing has changed.

So you really can’t blame the residents for being skeptical of Bell’s anti-poverty initiative. Been there, done that.

This time, however, some of the stalwarts in Northeast Central Durham got up a head of steam and walked out of the second of three planning sessions for initiative volunteers and leaders. They disinvited themselves, saying the effort is too much of what has produced so little: government direction from the top down.

This mini-rebellion left the meeting adrift, and Bell was quick to recognize that his initiative needed a new rudder. He postponed the third and final meeting to regroup and refit.

The walkout was orchestrated by Communities in Partnership, an ad hoc group in Northeast Central Durham that rightly demands appointment of more residents to the initiative’s leadership.

Bully for the partnership. If it took an embarrassing episode to get attention and action, the group scored a hit. At the time, there was little representation from Northeast Central Durham in the initiative, and none in the leadership.

All these people want is a voice in determining the future of their neighborhoods. Retired district court judge Craig Brown went to the core of the issue when he said Northeast Central Durham will be heard or “I’m going to have to raise some hell.”

What Bell and the other initiative planners seemed to miss is that people live in neighborhoods. They do not identify with numbers like Census Tract 10.01. Such sterile designations are the product of the census bureaucracy, which drapes them with all manner of statistics useful for Bell’s initiative.

And by any measure, Census Tract 10.01 is fertile ground as a test case for the initiative. Unemployment is endemic, per capita income is in the cellar, housing is among the worst in Durham, crime is a constant in the lives of residents – you name it, you’ll find it there.

If Bell’s initiative has any chance of success, the people who live in Northeast Central Durham must not only be brought into the process but also given a stake in its direction. After all, they are the ones directly affected by it.

Direction from the top down amounts to nothing more than central planning. It objectifies people, strips them of individuality and neuters them. They become, as the residents of Northeast Central Durham have become, weary of unfulfilled promises.

They see a new, increasingly prosperous downtown rising, but they are restricted to the margins, a caste of disposable people whose poverty reproduces itself in every generation.

It’s been said time and again that money alone can’t cure poverty, but it certainly helps.

Money comes from jobs, and there aren’t enough in Northeast Central Durham to sustain it. Just one well-paying firm with 100 employees could inject a continuing stream of money and hope into the blighted area.

One thing for sure: Government can’t bring prosperity to Northeast Central Durham, but it can lay the foundation for revitalization by making the area more attractive to businesses with tax and other incentives.

Perhaps those who walked out on Mayor Bell will now walk in as full-fledged contributors to his initiative. I think he got the message.

Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.

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