On Sunday, I returned to the States after spending the holiday break in South Africa with my family. I have to get this out of the way first: South Africa is an absolutely incredible country, and I am still absorbing and relishing the experience. Later this year, the world’s attention will be squarely on South Africa, as it hosts the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and I have no doubt that, nearly two decades after the fall of apartheid, the world will collectively rediscover one of the most culturally diverse and beautiful countries on the planet.
It is also simply astounding how far South Africa has come since apartheid. As luck would have it, our tour guide in Capetown, Mark, was the son of Reggie September, a former Member of Parliament and a principal in the Government-in-Exile during apartheid. Mark was a wealth of knowledge on his home country, to which he returned, after living in London for nearly twenty years, one month to the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He made sure we all understood that, despite its progress, there is still a lot of work to be done: Unemployment is at 30%; skilled workers are at a premium because exclusionary and discriminatory practices during apartheid prevented millions of black Africans from achieving even a minimal education; only 15% of people make enough money to pay taxes; and there is a massive housing problem, with millions living in shantytowns and squalor. It is beyond heartbreaking, made doubly so when you consider that South Africa, however richly beautiful, is the wealthiest country in the continent of Africa and that their slums, I was told repeatedly, pale in comparison to those found in India.
I won’t pretend to understand the dynamics of race relations in South Africa, except to say that it is obviously complicated. During apartheid, less than a dozen white families essentially controlled the bulk of the country’s wealth, and today, the gap between the rich and the poor is extreme and obvious. For example, the best-selling cars are almost all luxury brands, because only the wealthy can afford a new car.
Without a doubt, we face real inequalities and challenges here in the United States, but it’s always instructive to remember the global context.
While I was away, a local radio personality, Jay Johnson, paid KLAX-TV to air a self-produced documentary titled Black in Alexandria. It sounded intriguing to me. I was a fan of the CNN special Black in America, which I thought offered an insightful and objective cross-section of perspectives on contemporary African-American identity. I asked a friend of mine to record Black in Alexandria so I could watch it as soon as I returned home. I should make it abundantly clear that my opinions on this documentary are exclusively my own and should not be, in any way, construed as any type of official response.
Ostensibly, the documentary seeks to examine the differences between “black Alexandria” and “white Alexandria” and is vaguely framed as a call to action, with the subtitle “Alexandria: The Time is Now.” I have never met Mr. Johnson, who claims to have moved to Alexandria only four years ago, and I am not familiar with his radio show or his entrepreneurial endeavors. Mr. Johnson begins with a provocative and interesting observation:
As a resident of Alexandria for the past four years, it’s (sic) a big distinction between what the blacks and the whites have to enjoy– everything from housing to jobs to opportunities, basic opportunities. Even our recreational parks are different, and it’s a widening disparity over the years. Nothing really has changed or gotten better.
Although I think his phrasing was slightly awkward, I agree that much of the infrastructure in older, predominately African-American neighborhoods is in obvious need of improvement. Mr. Johnson juxtaposes photographs of blighted infrastructure with photographs of Charles Park Extension and Compton Park. Perhaps unwittingly, one of the photographs he uses to illustrate blight was of a building on Jackson Street Extension, one of Alexandria’s most vibrant commercial corridors. To be sure, the building is the exception to the rule, but its inclusion undermines Mr. Johnson’s implicit thesis that blight is somehow contained in certain areas of town. Although there is no doubt that blight is more concentrated in older, inner-city neighborhoods, Mr. Johnson reminds viewers that blight is, in fact, a problem throughout the City.
I also find it slightly disingenuous to imply that the City’s newest park, Compton Park, is somehow only enjoyed by white Alexandrians, particularly considering that African-Americans visit the park on a daily basis and numerous African-American families live in close proximity to the park. We should celebrate Compton Park as a standard to which all parks should aspire, instead of ignorantly portraying it as an example of inequality.
Mr. Johnson then introduces viewers to residents of District Three, beginning with a man identified as Harvey. Harvey suggests that the City doesn’t need to hire additional police officers and that, instead of investing in spray parks, for example, the City should invest in after-school programming for at-risk youth and for the elderly. I respect Harvey’s opinion, though I think a few things need clarifying. First, I believe our crime statistics clearly and definitively illustrate the need to augment public safety services, but it should be done while also building up the support and respect of the community in which it serves. And second, it is important that we don’t confuse money available for capital projects with money available for programming. So while it may sound logical to suggest the government could simply re-appropriate money for a capital project in order to fund an after-school program, for example, it’s simply not possible.
Next, Mr. Johnson interviews District Three Councilman Jonathan Goins, who states that he reads, on a weekly basis, reports from the City Administration on where and how money is being appropriated and spent and that, compared to the way things were in the past in his district, there is now a “vast difference.” Given the context and timing of Mr. Goins’s statement, one could assume that the “vast difference” to which he refers implies the City is spending far less in his district than in other areas of the City, but I seriously doubt that is what he meant, considering that, under the City’s SPARC initiative, Mr. Goins’s district will be the beneficiary of the single-largest infrastructure investment of any district at any time in the City’s history. All told, with investments in numerous road improvements and extensions, enhancements at the Port of Alexandria, the potential revitalization of the Downtown Hotels complex and the Riverfront, and catalytic investments in housing, District Three stands to gain well in excess of $150M in both public infrastructure and private-sector investments during the next few years.
Jay Johnson then takes viewers to the site of the Hodges Stockbarn, which he calls “the most controversial piece of parcel (sp)” in the City of Alexandria. Frankly, I have never understood the controversy. A couple of years ago, it looked as if a private developer intended to purchase the defunct stockbarn in order to turn it into a junkyard, a proposal that immediately alarmed residents and community leaders. In order to safeguard against this, the Mayor took action, and the City Council authorized the purchase of the 14-acre site with the hope of redeveloping it into a mixed-use development. As Mr. Johnson stated in the very beginning of his documentary, there is an obvious need to improve housing opportunities and options in many of Alexandria’s predominately African-American neighborhoods, and a recent comprehensive study, conducted by J-Quad, a minority-owned business with an expertise in residential development, identified access to quality, affordable housing as the number one issue in this particular neighborhood. In addition, the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program independently assessed this particular neighborhood as in need of new affordable housing opportunities. So, armed with this data and with the results of neighborhood surveys, the City sought to sell the back portion of the stockbarn property in order to make way for the private development of a moderate-income, gated apartment complex, reserving the remaining eight acres for commercial development. The project was publicly advertised and competitive, and ultimately, it was awarded to an investor recognized as one of the nation’s top 100 multi-family developers. Almost immediately afterward, even before a shovel had hit the ground, the project won awards of its own: the Obama Administration’s Neighborhood Stabilization Program dedicated $1.25M toward the development, and the Louisiana Housing Finance Authority ranked the project #2 in the State. This development will mark the single largest investment in the Lower Third neighborhood in nearly thirty years, but for reasons still unknown to me, when it came time to rezone the property, many of the very people who had vocally and publicly supported new, quality, and affordable housing opportunities suddenly stood in opposition.
The reason? Apparently, a small handful of people now believed the entire 14-acre site should be a commercial mega-development. Sure, it sounds awesome, and there is no question that this neighborhood needs and deserves new commercial development, which is precisely why the City reserved the front eight acres for retail. But we should all be honest: New retail developments, even in the wealthiest pockets of the country, remain at a standstill, and when they decide to invest, retailers base their decisions on the population and median income of the area in which they service. Improving housing conditions and providing opportunities for moderate-income residential developments are critical to attracting private-sector commercial development. For whatever reason, there seemed to be a belief that if the City simply changed the zoning of the entire property and denied a $10M+ private-sector residential development, then a commercial mega-developer would suddenly appear, even though none had ever done so before and despite the availability of other property nearby.
I will never understand the need or the reasons for the controversy and can only conclude that opposition was mounted for political reasons, which, for a time, threatened to destroy a massive and catalytic investment and turn down over a $1M in support from the federal government.
Either way, everything Mr. Johnson says about the commercial viability of the stockbarn remains true, except when he states that the Council, by voting against a commercial-only zoning overlay, rejected to give Lower Third “parity” with the rest of Alexandria, a statement I find to be incendiary and deceptive.
Mr. Johnson also interviews Dr. Velva Boles, who speaks passionately and persuasively about embracing her own African-American heritage and the need for young African-Americans to believe in their individual futures, though I believe Dr. Boles stumbles when discussing politics. She turns an awkward phrase about the impossibility of an African-American being elected President, despite the election of President Obama, and she seems to have no concept of how long Mayor Roy has been in office.
Jay Johnson then asks, “Is this a black and white issue?” and then answers the question with “Unfortunately, yes,” adding that we should look at the numbers coming out of City Hall, with the implication that those numbers reflect an inequity.
Well, Mr. Johnson, with all due respect, instead of relying exclusively on the biased conjecture of a small group of people with their own personal, financially and politically-motivated agendas, I have looked at the numbers coming out of City Hall:
* The largest redevelopment project in the history of the City, with the vast majority of spending in and around predominately African-American neighborhoods.
* The creation of the first-ever Diversity in Action program, which offers technical assistance and micro-lending opportunities to small, emerging, women-owned, and minority-owned businesses.
* Complete racial parity in top-level administrative and divisional leadership, which includes African-Americans leading the Police, Fire, Community Services, Legal, and Human Resources Divisions.
* A majority African-American City Council, the governing authority of the City.
* Since Mayor Roy was elected, the City has increased the business it conducts with minority-owned business nearly ten times.
Perhaps most puzzling to me are the comments made to Mr. Johnson by Ms. Sibal Holt, a local residential construction contractor. I first met Ms. Holt a couple of years ago after a City Council meeting. She introduced herself as a native New Orleanian, recently relocated to Alexandria, who had previously worked as a representative of the AFL-CIO. A few months later, I sat across from Sibal on the Invesco Stadium floor in Denver, as we watched Senator Barack Obama accept the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States. For many in the audience, it was an incredibly profound and emotional moment, and I will forever remember the intensity of pride and joy that shone on Sibal’s face that night. Seriously, I was moved.
From what I gather, Ms. Holt now builds houses; the City of Alexandria does not build houses.
I personally wish her all of the best in her work, but despite her claims, the City conducts far more than 1% or 10% with minority-owned businesses.
Jay Johnson then features a radio interview he conducted with local attorney Bridgett Brown, who seems to suggest that the Mayor is guilty of personally pocketing $12M in public funds and who, with that simple (and, in my opinion, recklessly and stupidly defamatory) statement, completely erodes any notion that Mr. Johnson’s documentary sought out an objective and unvarnished attempt at unity.
While I admire the stated intention of Mr. Johnson’s documentary, I believe that it ultimately fails as it devolves into inflammatory and politically-motivated divisiveness, with little regard for the facts and without any desire for a counterpoint.