City Hall

New Year, New Decade, New City, We Can Do This Thing, But ...

Meredith Lawrence
Victor Obaseki, Dallas' first equity officer, gives a tour of the Undesign the Redline exhibit at Dallas City Hall, produced by a New York nonprofit.
We start this new decade in the city with two facts staring us in the face. Fact One: Truly powerful new ideas are on the table right now that will help us take away the sharp bite of social inequity, greatly reduce crime and, most important and valuable, harvest the vast human potential offered us in children born to poverty.

From our greatest burden and cost, those kids will soar to become one of the city’s greatest assets. But …

Fact Two: Very little action on the new ideas will come from City Hall. Doesn’t mean the promise isn’t there on the table. But the lack of energy and imagination at the city, especially in the person of our new mayor, will mean we must look for leadership elsewhere in the city. Might as well bite that bullet right away.

The new ideas are flowing together from a host of sources, people and places, all of them looking at the same thing. And I hope you will not look at this first as dismal failure, which it may be, but instead as a signpost telling us where we need to make our most important course correction.

None of our great national efforts to eradicate poverty, on which we now spend an annual sum estimated by some at a trillion dollars a year, has achieved the goal of eliminating or even greatly reducing intergenerational poverty. With programs for food and public health, we have ameliorated the worst physical costs of poverty, but a consensus of research has emerged to show that children born to poverty in America stay there, even if they have enough to eat.

And maybe we didn’t need the research to know that, most of us. In recent years, a great deal of churn and bitterness has erupted from conversations in which people seem to be saying the same thing in angrily different ways — that if the goal is to eliminate poverty, we’re sure getting a lousy return on our trillion bucks a year.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson was almost verbally beheaded by outraged critics in 2017 when he said (in one of the last prominent public remarks I can remember from him) that poverty is a state of mind.

If the goal is to eliminate poverty, we’re sure getting a lousy return on our trillion bucks a year.

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Oh, it was terrible. It was victim-blaming. It was right-wing. It was racist, but … wait. It was Carson. Oh, well, it was awful, anyway.

And yet, what if Carson was trying to say what poverty is not? It must not be hunger, because you can give people food, and they stay poor. It doesn’t seem to be what Carson was talking about, housing, because … same thing.

Racism and victim-blaming are always clear and present dangers in this kind of conversation, but that’s where the new research and the hopeful signpost come in. The best known name in this field today is Nadarajan “Raj” Chetty at Harvard University, but Chetty stands among a whole army of researchers — William Julius Wilson, Robert Sampson, Patrick Sharkey, Richard Rothstein and a bunch more I’m not smart enough to know — all of whom have found themselves focused on the same thing: neighborhoods.

In 1993, Todd Clear, a criminologist at Rutgers University, pointed out in an opinion piece in The New York Times that 70% of the prison population in New York State came from eight neighborhoods in New York City. It was the kind of laser-focused insight that spurred a body of research into the role of places in fostering intergenerational poverty, crime and social dysfunction.

We spoke here a couple years ago when he was in town about Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Rothstein points out that almost all of the nation’s most dysfunctional urban neighborhoods were designed and mapped by the federal redlining campaign of the 1930s and '40s. Even though they were racially segregated, most of these had been relatively prosperous and economically diverse places before redlining; all of them were subjected to starvation of civic and economic resources as a result of redlining; almost all of them were surgically dismembered by new freeways built right through the centers of them in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

The profound effects over time of this kind of designed and decreed ghetto-ization are the subject of an important paper published in 2019 by Purpose Built Communities, an Atlanta-based nonprofit. The paper is called “Poverty and Place” (also the title of a 1997 book by Paul A. Jargowsky). Some of the findings are deeply gut-wrenching, especially the ones dealing with the human potential of children.

Basically, the Fates could send only newborn babies that should have become great neuroscientists and concert pianists to these neighborhoods. By the time life subjects those babies to the amount of sheer terror, violence and deprivation their neighborhoods will inevitably rain down on their innocent heads early in life and development, much of their magnificent potential will be hardened, flattened and reduced to whatever it takes to survive in a really scary and depressing place.

So, wait. What was the good news again?

The good news is that, if we designed this, imposed and enforced it, then we can undesign it, unimpose and unenforce it. Ben Carson and I can agree on something. Giving people food, even giving them housing doesn’t move the dime in terms of lifting them out of poverty. In fact, we can agree on more on that.

Nobody lifts anybody else out of poverty. I have to concede Carson a kernel of truth (you don’t have to, don’t worry). Maybe the central error and original sin are in believing that one human being can design another’s life.

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In this Federal Housing Administration map of Dallas from the 1930s, areas in red show zones where federal home loan guarantees and other federal aid were prohibited because there was a minority population.
People lift themselves out of poverty. But it’s really hard for poor people to do it (maybe what Carson misses) if the massive authority of government keeps pushing them back down.

The Purpose Built Communities paper says it this way:

“The application of this idea to our work is obvious: if the outcomes that we worry about in education, public safety, health and economic mobility are the consequence of the underlying dynamics of cities and neighborhoods, perhaps our focus should be on creating the conditions that best support the independent emergence of those positive outcomes rather than trying to engineer them through silo-based programmatic interventions.

“Healthy neighborhoods produce healthy outcomes, because they contain the conditions out of which those outcomes can emerge independently.”
This new focus on place, on neighborhoods and human potential offers us a whole new menu of actions we can get to work on right away. First we must begin with the big idea, the goal. We have to believe that we really can solve things and actually can build a better city by building better places, places with better schools, better law enforcement, even better curbs and gutters — anything and everything that was withheld before.

The good news is that, if we designed this, imposed and enforced it, then we can undesign it, unimpose and unenforce it.

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We have to believe that we can move the dime on core problems — all that stuff we’ve been arguing over so long and so bitterly, the trillion bucks a year and so on.

Once we have the guide-star of a better city fixed firmly above us, then we need to get to work on reordering our priorities. The way we divide up city bond money now, for example, is witless, undirected and idiotic. What even is the plan? Is it to make sure each of 14 council members gets her and his share? Why would we waste scarce resources that way?

Fact Two, I said at the top, is that very little new thinking or energy can be expected from our new mayor, which is a great shame. Recruited and funded by the city’s downtown business and old-family oligarchy, Eric Johnson’s platform and now great mission have been to restore “civility” at City Hall, which apparently means reducing criticism of and opposition to the wishes of the downtown business and old-family oligarchy.

He was an odd choice. His thin-skinned reclusiveness in office so far — won’t even talk to anybody he doesn’t think is a friend — indicates he must be a lot better at pleasing a roomful of old-family oligarchs than at political leadership.

When he was running for office, Johnson denied the city even had a murder problem, because he didn’t want to talk about anything more difficult than manners. Months later, with much of the city scared out of its socks by a soaring murder rate, Johnson dashed off a petulant letter to the city manager asking why he hadn’t done something about it already.

The most important takeaway from Johnson’s first six months in office is that he is deeply incurious about core causes of problems chewing at his city from within. If he has any familiarity with the research discussed above, he keeps that candle under a very dark bushel. The letter to the city manager was his public confession that he has no ideas of his own.

But the city has many other places to look for leadership. Maybe it comes from the academic community, from the nonprofit community, from the non-First-Baptist faith-based community (NFBFBC). Maybe the leadership we need will come from other units of local government. Who knows? Who cares?

And, of course, we must expect resistance, especially from the mayor’s patrons. He is propped up mainly by a narrow cabal of people who have made their money, a lot of money, steering scarce civic resources into their own lucrative land plays and real estate deals. If we mean to establish a new set of priorities aimed at building a better city, we can no longer afford that kind of soft corruption.

But we can do it. That’s the big bright window in front of us as we embark on a new decade in Dallas. We can do it. We can build a better city. The ideas and the tools are right there on the table. Waiting for us. Calling out.