Friday, June 16, 2017

A Tale of Two Cities: Reflections on the Minneapolis and St. Paul Mayoral Races

Minneapolis and St Paul are two cities.  No, not two separate cities, but two cities each within
themselves. Both are shining cities on the hill for those who are white, affluent, and live in the right neighborhood.  They are cities of concentrated poverty, racial disparities, and lack of opportunity for  people of color, the poor, and those who live in the wrong neighborhoods.  The defining issue for the 2017 Minneapolis and St Paul mayoral elections ought to be about rectifying the difference between the two cities–providing justice to all to prevent the conditions that led to the deaths of   Jamar Clark and Philando Castile, but so far that has not been the case.
Minneapolis and St. Paul are great cities with a wonderful quality of life, for some.  But both are  hugely segregated by race and income.  It was that way nearly 20 years ago when I worked for the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race and Poverty and we documented that segregation.  Over a generation little progress has been made. They remain cities with  neighborhoods torn by concentrated poverty, race, crime, and disparate educational outcomes.  They are cities where wealth is concentrated in the urban core and in a few neighborhoods, leaving many others behind.  Mayor Hodges, and before her R.T. Rybek and before him Sharon Sayles Belton, all promised to put money into the neighborhoods, to delivery economic development for the least advantaged, and either failed or ensnared in the demands of downtown urban development.  The same is true for Chris Coleman and before him Randy Kelly and Norm Coleman.
This year, largely  the candidates are failing to talk about the other cities within Minneapolis and st Paul that have been left behind.  The candidates do not seem to run on the quality of city services such as making sure that the streets are safe,  plowed, and pot hole free, that the garbage is picked up, housing codes are enforced, or the police respond when called.   Instead they are running against Donald Trump, talking about bringing more events such as the Super Bowl or other sports events to their city, or being the greenest city in America.  All lofty goals but not what cities are about.  Or in the alternative, when they do discuss the core issues of poverty, homelessness, or city services, they fail to mention something simply–how to pay for it.  Minneapolis and St Paul have finite resources, property taxes are going up rapidly, and the traditional middle class feel squeezed that they cannot afford to stay in their homes anymore, or that they cannot buy or rent a place in the city.  Raising taxes is not the solution.
The issue for Minneapolis and St Paul is social and economic equity. Fundamentally, the defining issue for the two cities is creating economic opportunity for all.  It is making it possible for individuals, regardless of race or neighborhood, to have a decent job, a choice of where to live, a voice in where to send their children to school.  The role of the mayor is steering investment, encouraging economic development, making it possible for people to create their own businesses.  Expand the economic base for all, especially those who are left out already, and that is they way to generate the resources both to finance the city and help those who have been left behind.
Such a vision for the two cities requires several things.  Neighborhoods need to be diversified.  Concentrated poverty neighborhoods are no good for anyone.  There needs to be a mix of people, incomes, and structures in every neighborhood.  Rethinking the two cities’ comprehensive plans is one step.  Allowing in some places for more intensified or mixed development, to allow some people to  invest in their own neighborhoods will help.  Yet private investors and banks will not act on their own to finance this.  Both cities need to think of their own investments in terms of streets, sidewalks, and  other services such as code enforcement.  The cities can help foster the conditions for economic development in their various neighborhoods, but they can also do things such as provide micro-financing to help some communities and guarantee loans in some situations.  Make neighborhoods attractive for all to live and invest it.  Deconcentrating poverty is one step in making neighborhoods more opportunity-based.  Thus, both place-based and mobility strategies are needed.
But that is not enough.  Businesses or people invest where there are skilled workers.  Strategies to attract and remain college graduates and provide real training for those lacking skills too are important.  Better partnerships among the local colleges, employers, and workers to train and connect businesses to people should be on any mayoral candidate’s agenda.    Quality services, the amenities of parks, libraries, and the arts are too what candidates should be discussing.  So too should they be talking about schools.  No, mayors cannot improve schools themselves, that is not their job.  But they can provide the conditions that make it possible for children safely to go to schools, or to live in neighborhoods that support learning though the maintenance of libraries and communities centers, for example.
Finally, both cities must directly confront the discrimination that exists within their borders.  More aggressive human rights enforcement is one answer.  The tragedy of the deaths Minneapolis  and St. Paul residents Jamar Clark and Philando Castile is a story of both racism and failed economic opportunity.
I certainly do not pretend to have all the answers. Yes, I have worked as a city director of code enforcement, zoning, and planning, been housing and economic planner, consulted and trained many local governments, and taught and researched planning and urban politics and local economic development for years.  None of that means I have all the answers.  But what I do know is that a city is its people, that all neighborhoods should have opportunity, and that what the mayoral candidates in both Minneapolis and St. Paul should be talking about is how to grow the economic opportunity  for all and how they plan to pay for the visions they have.

No comments:

Post a Comment