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Ferguson, Freddie Gray, and the Limits of Urban Tourism Development

This week in North Philly Notes, Aaron Cowan, author of A Nice Place to Visitpremieres his new promotional video for the book and explains the shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy in the wake of police violence.

Nice Place to Visit

In A Nice Place to Visit, I examine the attempts of four cities – Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. Louis – to remake themselves into tourist destinations in the second half of the twentieth century. Though each location had its own unique characteristics and variety, these cities – and many others like them – followed a similar pattern of substantial public investment in an “infrastructure” of tourism: massive downtown convention centers, fancy new chain hotels with impressive atriums, and recreational facilities like sports stadiums and festival marketplaces. These were accompanied by aggressive marketing campaigns from professional convention and tourist bureaus, often supported by tax dollars.

All of this public subsidy was justified, said political leaders and business executives who supported them, because tourism provided the best route out of the “urban crisis” of the postwar period, and would bring prosperity by generating new tax revenue, and especially new jobs for urban residents hard-hit by the loss of manufacturing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. In the early 1970s, as the city of St. Louis debated a bond issue to finance a new $25-million convention center for the city, promoters promised the new convention business drawn by the structure would bring “a resurgence of the city’s heritage, a return to the halcyon era of easy-going good living, good dining and good entertainment.”

The transformation from gritty industrial city to sparkling tourist destination was not an easy one, however, and in nearly every case tourist development failed to provide the panacea it seemed to promise. Service jobs in new hotels or restaurants could not offer the wages or benefits that union-backed industrial labor had provided. Furthermore, the substantial public debt incurred by cities to build tourist facilities meant diverting scarce funds from core functions like education, infrastructure maintenance, and emergency services. Finally, while new convention centers and entertainment districts drew visitors to downtowns, they did little to stem the exodus of middle-class (mostly white) residents out of cities and into suburbs.

The shortcomings of the urban tourism strategy have been thrown into sharp relief in recent years by the widely-publicized protests over police violence. In the late summer of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri an unarmed 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer. The death of Brown catalyzed a protest movement demanding an end to racially-biased policing practices. Protestors and heavily-militarized police clashed throughout the fall of 2014 along the town’s main thoroughfare of West Florissant Avenue, a short 15-minute drive from the St. Louis convention center, now dubbed the “America’s Center Convention Complex.”  The following April, Baltimore erupted in a series of protests after the death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man, due to injuries sustained at the hands of police. While most protests were nonviolent, a small group of rioters destroyed police cruisers and storefronts.  Maryland National Guard troops occupied the central city,  standing guard over the city’s Inner Harbor, the central location of its tourist facilities including the city’s convention center, hotels, National Aquarium, and Harborplace waterfront marketplace.  Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have faced similar challenges in achieving racial justice and overcoming the economic and social legacies of postwar urban segregation.

The historical narratives of these cities should, then, give us pause regarding the role of tourism in contemporary cities.  Just as past urban leaders pursued downtown hotels and convention centers, today casinos increasingly flourish in the Rustbelt urban landscape, and cities are grappling with the challenges of tourist-oriented “sharing economy” businesses like Airbnb and Uber, which threaten to diminish hospitality tax revenues or disrupt established parts of the economic sector. While tourism is indisputably an important element of urban economies, A Nice Place to Visit suggests that cities would do well to temper the belief that tourism-driven economic development is a cure-all, and, furthermore, to remember that the benefits of such development are rarely equitably distributed. Truly successful cities are those that are not only “nice places to visit” but also communities that provide economic opportunity and social justice that make them good places to live.

Follow Aaron Cowan on twitter @aaronbcowan.

 

What happens when the protests end?

In this blog entry, Harold McDougall, author of Black Baltimore, looks at growing civic infrastructure from family and neighborhood connections to show the “powers that be” that little people matter

Recent events in Baltimore are a reminder of the need to build “civic infrastructure” in inner-city communities like Sandtown, the neighborhood in which Freddie Gray lived, a neighborhood I studied closely when writing Black Baltimore, more than twenty years ago.

Sandtown then was home to many community-based, self-help efforts that provided examples of what participatory democracy, on a small scale, should look like. News reports from Sandtown in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death show they are still there—Rev. A.C. Vaughn’s Sharon Baptist Church, the New Song Community school, the Sandtown-Winchester Improvement Association, ”helicopter” parents and grandparents, trying to guide their kids through the maze.

black baltimoreI celebrated the indigenous social capital of these small-scale efforts in the book, calling them “base communities” because they reminded me of the Christian study circles organized by liberation theologists in Latin America. Groups of no more than twenty, seminar-size, where people could connect, reason together, figure things out and take action.

Friends and colleagues challenged my idea, arguing that while intimate and powerful, these small groups were not scaled to solve the problems they could see. Employment? Education? Police misconduct? Environmental damage? How could a group of twenty people respond to such large-scale issues?

So I went back to the drawing board, trying to figure out how to take base communities to a scale large enough so they could impact the issues people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face without sacrificing the intimacy and trust that made them so powerful, so important, so precious.

It was quite an undertaking, assisted by serendipity and caring people as much as by scholarship and hard study. It’s taken a long time.

The process started at a National Civic League annual meeting I attended, where former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley gave a speech comparing American society to a three-legged stool. There is a government leg, a business leg, and a community leg, he said. Bradley got the audience’s attention by declaring that the government and business legs are very long while the community leg is very short, making the stool—and the society—unstable.

How can community be lengthened, strengthened, so that it can balance business and government? Episodic flare-ups, through demonstrations, protests and other forms of mobilization, are not enough. Once grievances have been addressed, or the protesters silenced or co-opted, activity tends to subside. Civil society needs an ongoing civic infrastructure if it is to impact government beyond periodic elections, and business beyond individual consumer choice.

But how to build that infrastructure, how to knit those base communities together?

Then I met Don Anderson, a lawyer and social activist who was also an African-American descendant of Thomas Jefferson. He had come across some of his ancestor’s writing on “Citizen’s Assemblies.” The assemblies were to be sized to a Congressional district, and would select their Member through a series of caucuses. The Assembly’s most intriguing aspect, however, was its structure, and its potential to do a lot more than elect a Member of Congress.

The building block of Jefferson’s assembly was a neighborhood council of seven families, comprised of one representative from each family. Each council in turn selects its own representative, and these seven people meet as a “conference” representing seven councils (49 families). Finally, each conference sends a representative to an assembly representing all the conferences in the congressional district. The assembly conveys information—and instructions—from the constituent base to the member of Congress. (The model’s democracy was apparently a bit too direct for the Founding Fathers, and it never left the drawing board.)

This was what I was looking for.

Today, Sandtown numbers approximately 9,000 people. A Sandtown Citizen’s Assembly could aggregate families directly, and empower the people of the neighborhood. Such an Assembly could hold local government more closely accountable—schools, the police, elected officials—not from the distance of the voting booth but up close and personal. The Assembly could also perform some functions parallel to government, such as community mediation. (I called this the “politics of parallelism” in Black Baltimore)

The Sandtown Citizen’s Assembly could also check businesses and banks engaging in exploitative or high-handed practices. Past examples include the boycotts and selective buying campaigns of the civil rights movement, and labor’s boycotts and public shaming campaigns. Co-ops such as those Gar Alperovitz has described [http://democracycollaborative.org/] could round out the Assembly portfolio, creating “social” businesses, micro-enterprises, and other “off-the-grid” sources of income.

Protests emerging from the hassles people in neighborhoods like Sandtown face every day have erupted all across the country.  These protests are, at bottom, about a political and economic system that just doesn’t care about little people until, like Lilliputians, they get organized.

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