Friday, August 16, 2013

Help Grand Rapids fight poverty

A few days ago the City of Grand Rapids tweeted this:

It caught my eye.  Currently there's a lot of interest, a real positive vibe - if you will - floating around the city because of all the investment in it by citizens big and small.  Unlike many cities in Michigan, you feel like Grand Rapids is going somewhere, has a real future.  As a longtime resident of the city, I would like that to be true.  I certainly do not want to go back to the days when downtown was empty and dilapidated.  It was like that when I graduated high school.  

Why was it like that?  There wasn't a sudden influx of indigents, after all.  Well, one reason was that older generation Grand Rapidians had a love affair with the suburbs in the sixties and seventies.  The country had a little prosperity bump after World War II, and people were flush - and sick of the constraints of cities.  They wanted a house with a yard. They wanted to try something new.  They wanted a little anonymity and privacy.  So they built to the north in Northview.  They built to the south in Wyoming.  They pushed into Comstock Park and Kentwood.  

Then the schools integrated and people's kids were being bused all over the city in a grand social experiment, and parents really didn't care for the fact that they couldn't pop into their kids' schools with a forgotten lunch or pair of gym shoes.  They didn't like it that they had no control over where and with whom their kids were taught and how long they'd have to sit on a bus in the morning and the afternoon, and they complained about it.  And the government said, "Shut up.  We know better than you.  This is progress."  So they moved out to Rockford and Hudsonville and Forest Hills where they could have their yards and control where their kids went to school.  And Grand Rapids lost a lot of good prospective homeowners and taxpayers and law abiders and community investors, and the city suffered.  

People with options left partly because they felt the City had no concern for their desires and needs.  They also left because when the first waves rolled out, the number of law abiding citizens still in the city relative to law breakers dropped: it became less safe to live there.  And when it's no longer safe, you get out.

This happened all over the country, and it was the same story everywhere.  Cities were left gutted and crime ridden.  With declining budgets, cities had fewer options except maintaining basic services (or not).  Detroit is the poster child for devolution.  It was once a beautiful city, a vibrant city, a great city.  Now it's a shell.  Soviet Russia was nicer.  Much nicer.  I know; I've lived in both places. 

I have a great deal of interest in making sure Grand Rapids does not become another Detroit.  Or St. Louis.  Or Baltimore.  I'd like to keep the lights on and the murder rate down.  I'd prefer it if the fun pastime of burning down houses didn't catch on here.  So, what to do?

Really the only viable answer to keeping poverty rates down is to encourage more law abiding, tax paying, home owning families into the city.  Grand Rapids doesn't have the money to "fight the war on poverty" and it doesn't have the money to patrol everywhere all the time, so it needs to draw in more residents who will willingly invest their time in making community.  When criminals become a greater share of a population, you have more crime, but when they become a lesser share, you will have less.  This is because people police others better than the police do, at the street level.  People who invest in their neighborhoods - and feel the city will back them up - don't put up with crime.  They form neighborhood watches and they keep an eye out for troublemakers and report them.  They paint over graffiti, and they restore old houses.  They plant trees.  They put their kids in the schools and they volunteer in them.  You see this with gentrification.  Bakeries open and crack houses close down.  They bring in dumpsters and clear garbage and old tires out of city lots and build community gardens.  Things get safer.  Criminals don't like it when people pay attention and complain.  They move out.  

Grand Rapids Public Schools do not have a great reputation.  There are some really solid schools, but most of the kids in GRPS come from families that stay in the city because they don't feel they have other options, and the test scores and graduation rates are poor.  What the City of Grand Rapids needs to do is to lure families who like urban living (and all the amenities cities have to offer) in with schools designed for their needs.  This means more investment in schools like City High because if parents feel they have good options for schools, they will move back into the city (or not move out when their kids get to be school age).  We need to go back to having neighborhood schools.  Grand Rapids has a number of very nice, very safe neighborhoods, but parents who live their know their kids won't go to school there.  So they make other arrangements.

Kids are a sign of growth and the future.  Any organization with a lot of young faces will stick around because when kids grow up loving something (a place, an activity), they usually stick with it.  The City of Grand Rapids needs to invest in families.  Whether this manifests itself as tax breaks or neighborhood schools, parks and playgrounds or active community/neighborhood watch groups, the focus can't be on the poor, if you want the city to be less poor.  The poor will always be with you, someone famous once said.  It's great to help the poor, but city planning should focus on getting and retaining people who think long term and put their money and their sweat into the city itself.