The First Week of 2018: A Drive-Through
Transformation of a city isn’t a quick job
A quick whip around the track:
Transforming a city takes time. The 19 people appointed to a council charged with enacting the recommendations listed in the much-anticipated Leading On Opportunity report from March have been moving at a pace that’s frustrated people who observe, correctly, that the community’s needs are urgent and need to be solved, now. The council, appointed in September and co-chaired by education consultant James Ford and Bank of America’s Andrea Smith, hasn’t named an executive director or hired staff. Progress has been minimal. The council members haven’t yet set up a system to measure it.
Ford hinted this week, during an episode of “Charlotte Talks,” that the pace will pick up after a director and staff are in place. The council—made up of corporate, nonprofit, and government leaders, plus regular community members—has limited time to meet. It took some months for the members just to get to know each other and overcome the discomfort of talking about the systems that keep poor people poor in Charlotte, Smith told host Mike Collins.
“When you say they’re uncomfortable, they’re uncomfortable because people don’t want to acknowledge it, because people live it and they resent the fact that other people don’t acknowledge it, don’t see it, are unaware of it?” Collins responded. “Why are they uncomfortable?”
“I would say D,” Ford replied, “all of the above.”
It’s fair to expect this kind of effort—which everyone involved has told us, since the infamous Harvard study, is Charlotte’s top-of-the-pyramid priority—to show more progress sooner than it has. “It’s surprising and disappointing that organizers did not better capitalize on the momentum generated by the task force’s good work,” the Observer editorialized in September.
Then again, we’re talking about a systemic problem, or series of problems, on a historically massive scale. The council’s work isn’t just a matter of getting site plans approved. It’s a matter of understanding all the structures—in education, economic development, land use, you name it—that have coalesced to create a stratified society. That doesn’t get undone in a month, or a year. Neither does the “zero-sum thinking,” as Ford put it, that leads people to believe that cities are arenas for class competitions, that one community’s success is another’s failure. It all takes time, and more good can come from right and slow than wrong and fast.
“Is the fix for all this all about money,” Collins asked, “or is there more to it?”
“Oh, no, there’s more to it,” Smith responded. “There’s a lot more to it.”
You could easily cover the lunkheaded utterances of U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte as a beat. I’d rather not, because I’d hardly do anything else, but Pittenger unveiled one this week that deserves special notice.
Yeah, about that. Over the holidays—because events had put me in the mood; I can be a real masochist sometimes—I viewed a British documentary about Able Archer 83, a November 1983 NATO exercise designed to train the armed forces for the possibility of nuclear war and which the Soviets had convinced themselves was the immediate prelude to an actual attack. One of the reasons why the Soviet Union was so paranoid was Reagan’s public “Evil Empire” declaration.
Long story short: the Soviets were a step, maybe two, from launching a full-scale nuclear attack against the United States. They were preparing to enter the launch codes until they saw the absence of hundreds of incoming blips on radar. “We may have been at the brink of nuclear war and not even known it,” former CIA director and Defense Secretary Robert Gates says in the film. (I was 13 at the time. The documentary pulses along to a soundtrack of New Order, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “99 Luftballons,” and other chill-inducing synth-pop classics that really brought back the nuclear dread.)
The political right has long seen Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech as a bracing moment of moral clarity and John Wayne backbone-stiffening that helped win the Cold War. But rhetoric has consequences. Rhetoric about nuclear war has potential consequences you can’t imagine until they become reality, and it becomes clearer every year how close we came. Pittenger’s comparison, in other words, shouldn’t comfort anybody.
Regarding the prospect of a new stadium for the Carolina Panthers: Please. Bank of America Stadium is a perfectly good NFL venue fresh off a $47 million renovation. The Charlotte area is one of the fastest-growing regions in the United States. There’s no better place for a stadium to be and no other city where the Panthers would perform better financially. The team’s new owner(s) would be stupid to move the team.
But you can count on the team’s new owner(s) to use the threat of leaving as leverage to extort as much taxpayer money as possible from the city, county, and state. City Council member James Mitchell, who chairs the council’s economic development committee, championed public investment in the renovations five years ago, and says his attitude toward the new ownership is: “What else can we do?”
Well, they can call the new owners’ bluff. The threat will come. The city’s public officials should ignore it and operate under the assumption that the Panthers aren’t going anywhere. It would be an excellent opportunity for the six new council members, elected in November on the promise of changing the way the city’s done business for decades, to prove the worth of their words.