Sunday, September 29, 2013

What is "Development" anyway?

Early yesterday (Saturday) morning an article was tweeted into my timeline with the description:
Vice lord drug dealer gets a city grant with help from an Alderman for a LIQUOR STORE. Because, Chicago. WTF
— Jeff Johnson (@Jeff_Johnson27)
While everything in this tweet is true, I have to say I came away with a different headline in my head from the article. No one is more cynical than I regarding Chicago Aldermen/women but I didn’t think Ald. Deborah Graham really came off that bad. Yes, she did help get a liquor store in an area that didn’t want it-but did want business-and yes the owner was a current/former gang leader/drug dealer. And yes, you’ll be shocked, shocked, that said current/former gang leader/drug dealer gave her financial contributions. But, in fairness to Graham, Frederick “Juicy” Sims clearly put some effort into hiding his background and worked around the restrictions typically put on felons in a typical way, he had a friend sign key forms.
It’s easy to rip the Graham for this but liquor stores are business-and Sims emphasized the “grocery” aspect of his store, eliminating “food deserts” is an explicit goal of the Mayor, and other as well. Having somebody front for your business is time-honored tradition in Chicago too, it’s common practice in building contracts when preferential treatment is given to minorities/woman to have somebody’s wife suddenly be the owner. As for the vetting process, well let’s remember that the comptroller of the city was hired after a conversation with two lawyers. While he was under federal bribery probe. 
This last point is important, there’s too much media attention paid to relatively small-fish corruption and not enough to the big fish. Big fish would be the tight nexus of corporations that walk in and out of City Hall, securing contracts for millions for stuff most people didn’t even know existed. Why does Lois Scott still have a job? It’s clear that her chief objective is to loot city hall,  she is “a specialist in public-private partnerships”. In other words, she’s an expert in taking public money, our money, and funneling it to private corporations. Which she happens have a stake in. What was the attempt to privatize Midway but a giant hand-out to the preferred corporate friends of the Mayor? Gee, it’s hard to follow why the mayor has millions in his campaign fund, when he doesn’t even have a challenger. 
But to get back to the Austin neighborhood the article did present the current dilemma of “development” for low-income neighborhoods, or any neighborhoods for that matter. As detailed by Richard Florida the so-called “recovery” has been very uneven, with most significant growth occurring in low-wage jobs, in some places, this has been nearly all of the job growth. The fact is, nobody really *knows* how to create economic growth, or the jobs that are the essential element. If it was easy, we’d have done it already.
The article detailed the projects the city tried to kickstart, but didn’t take, probably at least in part because of the poor quality of the applicants. But of course in a neighborhood like Austin I’m sure the attitude is take what you can get. But there are real questions here, how do you decide what to fund, how to fund, and what is the role of the community?
In my mind there are two issues here, one, what are best practices to “develop” areas, especially low-income, and two, what about the TIFs themselves which are the primary method of economic development in Chicago. I got into a bit of a conversation on twitter about this (read the storify version here, there is a great visual by @grantfoss). To sum it up, TIFs or no TIFs development has always concentrated on the downtown/Loop business district, to the general detriment of everybody else. It’s really the same old story, the transfer of money/services from the 99% to the 1%. But the current economic model is so in thrall with the “job creators” that it is taken for granted that corporate handouts are the only way to go, and hope there is enough of a “trickle down” effect to keep everybody else from starving. 
A person in the article states that the city has “no plan for Austin” but to be perfectly fair here, does the city have a “plan” for anywhere? It is truly amazing, to think in a city like Chicago, with some of the finest universities in the world, a vibrant non-profit community, and many active neighborhood associations, what passes for “development” is whatever hare-brained idea a corporate led-board came up with, usually led by the usual suspects. We need to expand the idea of “development”-how can we use the resources we have to create better opportunities for the most people? Is it possible to have true public-private partnerships when it comes to investment or *puts armor on* should the city invest and manage directly in some instances? Yes, that “increases” government but are the endless checks written to “consultants” really better? It’s not an accident these processes are opaque, that in spite of this being the digital age there is little transparency in any aspect of city, county, and state government. That is not by accident, the further you keep key information from the masses the less they will be involved. 
Just because it’s *always been that way* doesn’t mean it always has to be. While silly people are fond of comparing Chicago to Detroit, they are very different places. We have great wealth, both literally and figuratively. The question is how can we harness it to serve the people, the 99%, versus the 1%.

1 comment:

  1. I don't know how much you know about this alderwoman or this issue but you should probably do a little more research on her before you give her a pass. Alderwoman Graham knew exactly "who" she was helping and she and her lackeys likely helped this man craft his proposal to include all of the right buzzwords. Further, his name is listed on the grant application as the 'visionary leader' of this enterprise. The article in the Tribune clearly states that the grant application projects that his main revenue come from the sales of "liquor, cigarettes and lottery tickets" and that those items would have a minimal "mark-up". The application goes on to state that grocery items would be an 'additional' source of revenue, and would be marked up, to 2-3 times wholesale, as is customary in small neighborhood stores. Graham actively works to keep the members of her community in the dark about everything; that way it's much easier for her to serve the Democratic machine, who she owes her very existence to. Graham is not fit to serve this or any other community as an elected official. Try as she may, (and boy does she try), she will not be able to silence the educated, progressive, independent-thinking members of her community. I thank God for the remap because our numbers have increased and her days are decreasing.