Five years ago, a charming play opened in London that speculated about the behind-the-scenes conversation and intrigue between British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II during the 1980s. Handbagged (more info here and here) was a delight even to a pair of “colonists” seated in the mezzanine of the West End theatre. The Guardian referred to it as “…an evening of twinkling meta-theatre larkiness,” and we heartily agree. Its clever staging and intelligent banter recalled the political events that rocked the UK during that decade – miners’ strikes, Falklands War, Sinn Fein, and a visit by US President Ronald Reagan. Besides a certain smugness at having seen it, our real takeaway from the performance was its portrayal of a rarity among the Queen’s speeches – one where she veered unapologetically political. The message was “figurehead” becoming “conscience” in a thinly veiled condemnation of the Prime Minister’s iron-fisted handling of protests, privatization, and deregulation.
What do we mean by “conscience” in this sense? It would be easy to head down a serious rabbit hole on this (and scores of philosophers have); but, we want to think of this in the recent political climate. Edward Andrew’s 2012 book Conscience and its Critics: Protestant Conscience, Enlightenment Reason, and Modern Subjectivity traces some of the conflicting opinions and traditions oscillating between reason and conscience through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (obviously applicable to our discussion, given the study’s timing as it relates to the founding of the US).
Over time the perception of these disparate ideas would converge. And, in the wake of World War II, the United Nations was formed (1945), and it later adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Article One is explicit: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. It is in this context then that we refer to our leaders as having the potential to be our conscience, making and guiding moral and positive change.
In fact, since the end of World War II, political forces have focused in this manner on “…the goal of maximizing human flourishing – life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience.” The results of this largesse, according to Steven Pinker in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, include a worldwide increase in life expectancy, access to information, cleaner water and air, recognition of women’s rights, etc. These concepts relate to livability and should sound reasonably familiar to those who have followed IfYouWereMayor.com.
Divisive partisanship makes this common set of goals not only more difficult to achieve, but, frankly, requiring intrigue and cunning to overcome the siege laid out to thwart them. Efforts to mitigate this atmosphere have been largely ineffectual with social media’s data mining exacerbating an already deep divide. Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman published Conscience of a Liberal (2009 ) in an attempt to recalibrate the fundamentals of progressivism as the Obama administration took office. More recently, Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, published Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle (2017), a tome designed to reboot conservatism as a check on presidential power in the mold of Barry Goldwater, writer of The Conscience of a Conservative in 1960. As to how this kind of friction has affected the political atmosphere at the local and regional Charleston level? Battle lines have been drawn on several issues – compounded by limited public resources to address them – including roadbuilding v mass transit, flooding in the suburban areas v flooding downtown, and managing the tourism economy. By considering every stake as either/or the future of the area’s long term livability is much more uncertain.
Recent history has further complicated the possibility that leaders can be responsive, principled, and conscientious. Populism and propaganda threaten many of the world’s democracies, including our own where the population is divided by conspiracies and falsehoods. A Fox News analyst, Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, recently resigned from his position saying that “in good conscience” he could no longer be part of a “news” organization that is deliberately undermining the functioning of our government (here). And local television news outlets risk their credibility and hard-won legitimacy when their parent company, Sinclair Broadcasting, insists that local anchors read from scripts designed to sow division and fear (here). In light of the cloying and hypnotic drama associated with television news and clickbait social media, it is our good fortune to hit the pause button over morning coffee with a Pulitzer Prize-winning, locally-owned newspaper, The Post & Courier (link). Subscribe here.
Sustained grassroots resistance can be a powerful force to overcome some of the inertia that thrives on division. This activity can direct public officials, especially at the local and regional levels, to be more responsive to a range of constituent needs and concerns. For many years, individuals and families, neighborhoods and towns, cities and states have been at the mercy of powerful, wealthy, or corporate interests that insist governments curtail public investments in more livable communities, slicing funding for housing, transportation, and education. The results are nationwide housing needs that far outstrip supply (here); main streets that have been gutted by corporate homogeneity (here); and infrastructure neglected to the point of collapse (here).
Voters need to assert that their leaders cultivate conscientious decision-making that focuses priorities and investments on creating opportunities where people live and can thrive. What this might look like was on view at the Charleston Moves event highlighting the launch of the downtown Charleston People Pedal Plan (here). When the city’s new Director of Transportation, Keith Benjamin, stood up to address the crowd he began with a caveat — he had been “hit in the chest” when he got news of a deadly crash between a car and a pedestrian on the Crosstown the night before (here). He felt powerless knowing that making the pedestrian crossing safer would require wresting control of the thruway from the state’s DOT. He noted that he and the City needed everyone to get involved in making this possible since so many intersections throughout the city are under state control – a spot where creative solutions go to die.
This level of empathy – one that spurs action – is demonstrative of what we should look for in our leaders. Conscientious leadership will mean that we can all flourish.
In George Orwell’s story/essay “Shooting an Elephant,” the young British police officer (Orwell) is given “…a better glimpse than [he] had before of the real nature of imperialism—the real motives for which despotic governments act.” Called upon to “do something about” an elephant raging near the market area of Moulmein in Burma (now Mawlamyine in Myanmar), Orwell takes his rifle – “much too small to kill an elephant” – in pursuit. As he walks through the village, a crowd of villagers follows him. “…I had no intention of shooting the elephant…and it is always unnerving to have a crowd following you.” Upon spotting the elephant eating grass near the road, he stops. “…As soon as I saw the elephant I knew with perfect certainty that I ought not to shoot him…. But at that moment I glanced round at the crowd that had followed me. It was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute…. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all…. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it…”
Orwell’s parable of sorts is excruciating to read – the racism accompanying Britain’s colonial period is always at the surface and the details around the shooting are brutally inhumane.. This brief summary, however, illustrates one point made by Orwell with regards to people in positions of authority – particularly police – and how they might handle certain situations regardless of the level of crisis presented in a tense circumstance.
Have we come to expect a military-styled “mask” from our police?
Does social media heighten the expectation of lethal force by law enforcement?
Do we expect professionalism from our law enforcement – a measured, thorough, and considered response with lethal force as only a last resort?
Do we engage with law enforcement in positive and encouraging ways in an effort to build overall trust in the community?
How can the media – tv, newspapers, facebook, twitter, etc – help, rather than hinder, this effort?
With a position of authority come responsibilities that can vary according to the population and demographics. Technology has created a demand for transparency and accountability that many cities, states, and agencies are only just understanding the implications.
Some Background on the Use of Force
The Tampa Bay Times recently published the culmination of six years of investigative journalism on police shootings, entitled “Why Cops Shoot.”
Journalist Ben Montgomery wanted to know why no one was keeping track of police shootings in the country’s third largest state.He found that, while plenty of data was available for crimes like thefts and purse snatching, little data was tracked on police shootings, whether it was by Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement, the FBI, or the US Department of Justice. With Florida’s generous laws relative to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests (sadly, not the case in South Carolina), he reached out to law enforcement agencies in every Florida county, and secured more than 10,000 pages of police reports on shootings occurring between 2009 and 2014 where police officers were involved. By the time Montgomery had added media reports, court files, and interviews, the Times had a comprehensive database covering a longer period of time than any others compiled in recent years. The website provides case studies, video, and demographic data to zero in on circumstances when police shoot.
The things we found most interesting in this report, and what we want to consider as priorities, can make our local law enforcement align with an overall community goal of livability-for-all:
(1) Leadership matters
(2) Trust matters
(3) Race matters
Prior to the series publication in print, (April 2017), Ben Montgomery previewed some of his “Why Cops Shoot” research over the airwaves through a pair of podcasts (here and here) produced by the team at WNYC’s RadioLab. Standing out in Part 1 is the segment featuring former Daytona police chief Michael Chitwood (now sheriff of Volusia County). Chitwood’s ten-year stint as chief resulted in an alignment of the department’s arrest data with the city’s demographics-60% white and 40% black. Contrast this with the City of Charleston with a population that is 67.4% white and 26.9% black. Police department data indicates that between 2009 and 2017, a total of 69,000 arrests were made with 44% white and 56% black.
Chitwood’s tenure was marked by innovative law enforcement practices, such as the adoption of body cameras in 2012 before the technology was widely used. He recruited new officers from the historically black college Bethune-Cookman University, and instituted mandatory race and policing training. He developed training videos illustrating best practices for policing – the audio featured in the RadioLab podcast (and further here) offers fascinating insight into several strategies the officers utilize to successfully defuse a situation involving a man wielding a knife. And, he encouraged officers to be effective communicators. He said “[M]ost officers never fire their guns, yet they spend hundreds of hours at the gun range. They spend far less time training in active listening and communication.”
Many of Chitwood’s strategies are reflected in the “Guiding Principles on Use of Force” issued by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in 2016. While many officers agree with the principles, the Fraternal Order of Police and the International Association of Chiefs of Police have vocally been critical of some of the 30 guidelines. But, Chitwood defends them based on his experience as Daytona Beach’s Chief of Police. The city has a population of 62,300 permanent residents and a daytime population of 120,000. It has 8-9 million visitors a year. It is known for its raucous Spring Break crowds, NASCAR’s Daytona 500, and Bike Week, which brings some 500,000 rowdy bikers to town for 10 days every year. “But the city had just four police shooting incidents between 2009 and 2014. Three of the Daytona shootings involved an armed suspect who was endangering lives; the other person shot had crashed into a car, led police on a chase and drove at an officer.” No other city of its size can even compare.
When journalist Ben Montgomery interviewed Tallahassee (Florida) attorney James Cook (here), he gained some insight into other factors that can work against building a more effective and community-based policing effort. Cook, who teaches communities how to behave safely during a stop – Show your hands. Make slow movements. If asked to step out of the car, announce clearly that you’ll be removing your seat belt first. – describes how he thinks we reached this point: “…[P]olice violence stems from the militarization of police, and the spread of SWAT teams after the Watts riots in the mid-1960s…Police agencies use grants to buy military-grade equipment such as Bearcat armored vehicles, M16 rifles, and night vision goggles. These programs grew at the same time Washington launched the “War on Drugs” and passed laws to let police take cash and property from suspected criminals without even pressing charges. It’s called ‘civil asset forfeiture,” and its use has grown rapidly.”
The rise of “civil asset forfeiture” has undoubtedly compromised trust of law enforcement from many perspectives. To stem the practice Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder issued an order in January 2015 to prohibit federal agency forfeiture, “adoptions.” Unfortunately, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently announced a new expansion of the program as a necessary deterrent to terrorism and organized crime (CBS news coverage of the announcement can be found here). Civil libertarians and conservatives have joined with many law enforcement organizations, marginalized, and minority communities in attacking this move with full throttle concern (read the David French op-ed in the National Review here). Their challenges echo the opinion expressed by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who has noted that forfeiture “has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”
Recent posturing in Washington on the topic is not particularly helpful to local authorities. The Atlantic reports (here) that President Trump in a July 28th speech to police officers on Long Island called upon them to “rough up suspects” who were being brought into detention, a peculiar reminder of the mishandling of detainees during the early stages of the “War on Terror.” Police forces across the nation were quick to rebut this suggestion (here). Fortunately, reports of police misconduct are relatively rare in public media but an episode can be a startling reminder of the occasional miscalculations of law enforcement in the 21st century. A recent Washington Post story (here) chronicles a family’s harrowing early morning encounter with police who burst into their home with a search warrant that was based on a father/son experiment in hydroponic cultivation of tomatoes mistaken as a “pot farm.”
The Marshall Project reports (here) that Gallup pollsters found that “61 percent of whites report having a great deal of confidence in the police while only 45 and 30 percent of Latinos and blacks, respectively,” share the sentiment. This disparity has many communities seeking ways to build trust for law enforcement, especially in minority communities. It was troubling then that Deputy US Attorney General Rob Rosenstein was called upon to substitute for President Trump,who had rejected an invitation to address the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, the NAACP, at its recent 2017 national convention in Baltimore (here). In his short remarks Rosenstein, a former Maryland US attorney, noted “…prosecuting corrupt police is critical,” but “…most police are public servants who want to help…” In his conclusion, he did recognize that “…building public trust in law enforcement is one of our great challenges.”
Rosenstein’s substitution indicated that investment in building trust does not appear to be a priority for the current administration’s Justice Department. It may have been a reflection of what Ron Weitzer, a criminologist at George Washington University, noted in the Marshall Project piece – while some whites are shocked by incidents involving police misconduct or killings of blacks, many compartmentalize incidents as isolated or associate crime with minorities, and, as a result, remain confident in law enforcement. Unfortunately, the heavy lifting of changing “hearts and minds” must rely solely on efforts put forth within communities and through the media and other resources.
Missouri House Representative Shamed Dogan recently contributed an opinion piece in the National Review, “Pro-Black, Pro-Police Reforms One Year Later.” He echoed Rosenstein’s support of police, noting his sponsorship of a Blue Alert law in Missouri, whereby the public is notified whenever an officer is attacked. He has also pressed for pay increases for police officers (see the Charleston City Paper for a local perspective on this).
Dogan goes on, however, to note that serious obstacles remain to building the effectiveness and trust of law enforcement. One was civil assets forfeiture which, he contends, violates citizens’ due-process rights. Another is the need to devote attention to fighting against racial profiling, especially for conservatives. Dogan continues: “We need to ensure that our laws and our law enforcement practices live up to the words of former Attorney General John Ashcroft: ‘Using race …as a proxy for potential criminal behavior is unconstitutional, and it undermines law enforcement by undermining the confidence that people can have in law enforcement.’ It would be foolish to think that every accusation of racial profiling is justified or that most police officers engage in it. But it would be just as foolish to presume that racial profiling is no longer a problem, ignoring the lived experiences of African-Americans such as myself or [SC] Senator Tim Scott.”
In the RadioLab podcast introduction Ben Montgomery notes that the total number of police shootings in Florida, in the six-year time period from 2009 to 2014, is generally flat, even though media reporting would suggest that the numbers have been increasing. But, the greater likelihood of being black and being shot by police is covered in a special section on “Why Cops Shoot,” and it zeroes in on racial profiling.
Journalists Neil Bedi and Connie Humburg process the data and find that the disparities between black and white people who are shot remains higher than population statistics would support. While whites outnumber blacks 3 to 1 in the state of Florida, blacks are a disproportionate number of those shot. And, in those cases where the causes are debatable – when the person is unarmed; pulled over for a minor traffic violation; thought to be reaching for a weapon (but not); chased on foot; or, suspected of a minor crime like smoking pot or merely nothing at all – blacks are two to three times as likely to be shot.
Racial profiling is indeed an issue in law enforcement and three new books show up in the most recent New York Times Book Review that dig deep into the issue (here). But noone is really immune from the phenomena. A personality test developed by Harvard (here) can reveal even subtle tendencies toward racism in our thinking and judgment, and how that can be manifested in our day to day lives. Chris Mooney’s article “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men” points to some of the research that has led to training police to control implicit bias. However, police are very resistant to this – they don’t consider themselves racist and are often defensive when it comes to the topic. “Consciousness and awareness [of bias] are a start – and the psychological research is nothing if not a consciousness-raiser.”
Bringing It Home
Recent debates at City Council meetings in Charleston, South Carolina are illustrative of the schism between whites and blacks on the topic of law enforcement. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM), drawing on data that illustrates a disproportionate number of blacks involved in law enforcement activities, has repeatedly encouraged the City to hire an outside auditing firm to assess racial profiling levels in the Police Department. The Police Department has been resistant to these efforts, pointing to its Illumination Project as an action plan for community building that was developed over the course of a year in neighborhood meetings throughout the city between residents and police. It is thorough, data-driven, and purposeful in an effort to establish a strong community policing effort in the City of Charleston.
Allowing the Illumination Project to be implemented does not necessarily eliminate the need to specifically target racial disparities and profiling. According to the research overview for the Illumination Project, “…the surveys reveal significant differences of opinion [of the police] by race. On many issues related to whether the police do a satisfactory job, Blacks are closer to the ‘neutral’ position (on a sliding agree/disagree scale) while Whites are closer to the ‘agree’ position….Although popular opinion views these gaps as immutable, one of our more encouraging findings is that the gap between Whites and Blacks can be almost entirely undone by positive interactions with the police.”
With the retirement of Police Chief Gregory Mullen, the city of Charleston is at a crossroads, no less than when long term Chief Reuben Greenberg retired. A new police chief will be faced with a fast growing city where residents and tourists are often opponents on the city stage. Leadership at the community level should be fostered and law enforcement must see the possibilities that exist to make the city a vibrant and livable place for all. The plans are in place to strengthen community and police relationships. But the realities of race will remain a stubborn obstacle within our community until we recognize the issues and work to change them.
Spring tends to be the showiest time of year in the South – verdant & emerging green, wild pink & white blossoms, and the collapse of last year’s marsh grasses. The fragrances of first blooms intoxicate. A city like Charleston shifts gears as raucous students largely leave for summers elsewhere, and tourists begin their pilgrimages to beaches and festivals. The burdensome humidity has not washed out the sky’s vibrant blue. People emerge from their wintry [sic] cocoons, wielding hoes, shovels, and gardening gloves; kicking their less-than-swimwear-perfect bodies into gear through bicycling and running; seeking restaurant patios; or, joining the company of friends and families for this inaugural season of the grill. The seasonal transition when more time is spent outdoors highlights the importance of public space, especially parks, in our cities and towns.
The Trust for Public Lands recently published the latest edition of ParkScore, ranking the park systems in 100 municipalities in the US. The ranking evaluates three aspects of public park facilities: (1) Park size as a percentage of city area and median park size; (2) Investment including spending per resident and amenities (like playgrounds and dog parks) that expand the breadth of users; and, (3) park access due to how many residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park.
In top ranked Minneapolis, Minnesota, 15% of the city area is dedicated to parkland, 81 people are served per park acre, and more than 90% of the population lives within a 10-minute walk of a park. Compare this to 97th ranked Charlotte, North Carolina, where parkland represents 4% of the city area, 62 people are served per park acre, and more than 70% of the population lives beyond a 10-minute walk to a park. While dollars cannot tell the entire story, it is significant that Minneapolis dedicates $232.59 per resident, while Charlotte budgets only $44.80 per resident. The Charleston region is rich in park facilities by virtue of efforts by individual municipalities and county governments to provide ample recreation opportunities for area residents. An evaluation such as ParkScore is a good yardstick for determining the efficacy of our park systems, and we would like to know what the “ParkScore” might be for Charleston.
You may recall a little history on playgrounds in our blog post Playgrounds & Imagination. Charleston’s parks and public spaces correspond with the city’s early history with Washington Square opening in 1818. A wave of public parks came into being during a national “parks” movement between 1900 and 1910. Charleston’s Hampton Park, as it is now known, was created during this period on land that was previously the Washington Race Course of the South Carolina Jockey Club, then the location of an open air prison for captured Union soldiers, and eventually the location for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition of 1901-1902. Important to recognize with this history, however, is the caveat that the vast majority of early “public” parks is that they were segregated, limited to use by whites, until the Civil Rights era in the late 1950s.
A number of Charleston’s parks were either renovated or came into being through funding from the federal government. Congress created the Land And Water Conservation Fund (LSCF) in 1965, to invest earnings from offshore leases for oil and gas exploration to safeguard natural areas, water resources, and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans. In the past 50 years, the federal government’s LWCF has provided more than $16.7 billion through more than 40,000 grants to state and local governments. More than 75% of the total funds go to locally sponsored projects for close-to-home recreation opportunities, such as playgrounds, ballparks, soccer fields, and tennis courts.
All states must develop a statewide recreation plan every five years as part of the qualification process associated with applications for funding of projects. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation created its Tennessee 2020: Vision for Parks, People & Landscapes, a set of the state’s priorities for use of these federal funds. Its series of recommendations are substantiated through the results of public hearings as well as additional data gathered by the University of Tennessee’s Human Dimensions Research Lab. UT’s research established that support of the general public was significant and therefore, provided a basis for Tennessee’s state legislature to continue its funding support (partly matching the funds from LWCF) of public recreation resources across the state.
Further confirmation of the importance of parks can be found a little closer to home in the neighborhood that surrounds DeReef Park in Charleston. When the City struck a deal allowing homes to be built in the area – thinking that a new park located a mile away was a suitable alternative – neighborhood residents filed a lawsuit. The basis for their argument was that the park as recreational space received money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Several groups, including the National Park Service and the Gullah Society, have been working with the City to finding alternative park space in the vicinity to compensate the neighborhood for this loss. The lawsuit dates from 2013 and has now been resolved (here) with some decisions remaining on how to utilize the property that has been secured adjacent to the parkland. More can be learned of the history, the lawsuit, and importance for the neighborhood of this particular park here and here.
On a more festive note, this year marks a significant moment for Charleston’s city parks, the tenth anniversary of the Charleston Parks Conservancy – my, how time flies. In a recent interview with Conservancy Executive Director Harry Lesesne, we learned how the organization has grown and evolved from just a kernel of an idea that originated with philanthropist Darla Moore. With the successful completion of renovations to Colonial Lake in the past year, and its squads of citizen “Park Angels” – who can be seen weeding and planting in many city parks – the organization is now beefing up its staff to provide more robust organizational support, increasing its capacity in horticulture, and developing more programming in area parks. Look out for food truck rodeos, movies, concerts, and other seasonal events. This bumped-up capacity spells potential for collaboration with other organizations on park events. If you missed our earlier blog on the Conservancy, you can check it out here.
Community gardens have become a huge boon for the Conservancy with a variety of opportunities in several city parks – Magnolia Park, Medway Park, and Elliotborough Park. Lengthy wait lists exist for the 150 community plots. Each park also includes community garden beds dedicated to local food pantries. School children are involved in these efforts, including students from James Simmons Elementary School who work with the Green Heart Project at community gardens near Enston Homes.
The Parks Conservancy is also stepping up its game with other collaborative possibilities. The local arts organization Redux Studios is celebrating its new digs on Upper King Street, and taking substantial root in the community (more on this coming up soon). The synergy of these two organizations will be broadly felt later this year with the first in a series of temporary installations in Charleston’s Parks (here), launched in collaboration with the City of Charleston Department of Cultural Affairs and Artfields.
As the Parks Conservancy grows, people in Charleston will have more opportunities to become involved in their neighboring parks and strengthen their communities. Ultimately, it all makes a greater city to be enjoyed by all. At TEN, the Parks Conservancy is broadening its programs and creating a bigger vision for the future. Bravo!!!
The Journalists Resource at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government (here) puts 1962 as year zero in the history of big-box stores. In the five decades since, the landscape of retail has changed significantly. Hundreds of small towns and larger cities have seen main streets suffer and tax revenues fall to below-subsistence levels. The research noted that fourteen retail establishments close, on average, within 15 months of the opening of a Wal-Mart. Even while many cities court big-box and smaller-box retailers in the name of economic development, research indicates that corporate commerce is associated with: “…increased obesity of area residents, higher crime rates relative to communities that were not by stores, lower overall employment at the county level, and lower per-acre tax revenues than mixed development.”
The 1970 scene of Main Street in my southern hometown (pop. 8,000) terminated at the high school – like a courthouse in the county seat. It seemed symbolic of a time when education was considered to be a way to better one’s self and one’s community. The local economy and the middle class benefitted from industries such as an ITT engineering unit and an Army Ammunition Plant (MLAAP). Downtown extended to the railroad with a few blocks comprising the business district – shoe stores, banks, menswear, small department stores, record shop, jewelers, boutiques, movie theater, café, post office. You could find most of what you might need or want without going far. For a kid on a bike, it was rather idyllic.
But the town’s major employers were affected by coming changes – digital eventually replaced touch-tone service equipment and MLAAP ended its manufacturing processes when acquired by a privately owned manufacturer of ammunition. A locally-owned bank (subsequently bought out by a national bank) replaced the school when a new high school was built on the town’s outskirts. By1980, the town was wishing for a McDonalds or a Wal-Mart to “put them on the map.” What the townspeople did not take into account was the inevitability that many downtown businesses would shutter as result and some buildings would fall into permanent disrepair until demolished. Many of the shops serving everyday needs and anchoring the downtown – clothing, jewelry, and small department stores – no longer exist.
The situation is not unique to the U.S. however. The New York Times recently covered (here ) the circumstances affecting European villages, zeroing in on the French town of Albi, an hour northeast of Toulouse. Vacant storefronts are scattered around the old center near the 13th century brick cathedral. “…Tourist shops and chain clothing stores are open, but missing are the groceries, cafes and butcher shops that once bustled with life and for centuries defined small-town France…[T]he decline evident in Albi is replicated in hundreds of other places. France is losing the core of its historic provincial towns….tangible evidence of a disappearing way of life that resonates in France in the same way that the hollowing out of main streets did in the United States decades ago.”
As is often the case when U.S. municipalities use tax incentives and other public enticements to attract businesses, Albi’s city leader’s had invested in a new cultural center at the town’s edge. A shopping mall and grocery “hypermarkets” followed. These were evidence of the sharp rise in living standards between 1945 and 1975, a period when consumer demand could not be met by the small, city-center shops. Now, the town’s historic core, with its souvenir shops and chain stores, is primarily a haven for tourists.
The anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon is vast, and a controversial 2005 documentary – Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (stream it here) – presents some compelling evidence of a number of these correlations and some efforts to, as the film points out, halt Wal-Mart’s march. But, with Wal-Mart employing 1% of the total US workforce, curbing its growth, and that of the other corporate retail establishments, to benefit local merchants can be virtually impossible without aggressive measures to gain widespread public support at the local level, as was done in 86 communities as of 1999 (noted here).
One other, perhaps even more critical, reason to counter widespread corporate retail is its affect on the livability of cities and towns. In 2006, the American Journal of Agricultural Economics published the first study (here) of the relationship between big-box retail and local community social capital. Economists Stephan Geotz, Ph.D,. and Anil Rupasingha, Ph.D., outline the significant impacts across many professions and businesses related to corporate retail’s footprint, specifically the supporting network of businesses serving the mom-and-pop retailers:
“…This industry includes firms in the legal, accounting, transportation, warehousing, logistics, financial, publishing and advertising sectors that work closely with the retailers. In particular, local lawyers, accountants and bankers provide essential support services for the mom-and-pop stores, and these individuals typically are community leaders. With the arrival of Wal-Mart, and the attendant reduction in the demand for their services, these people can leave the community to pursue opportunities elsewhere. In the process, the social capital – the leadership – they embody is destroyed, and their entrepreneurial skills and other forms of location-specific human capital are forever lost to the community.”
Local newspapers suffer from reductions in ad revenues. As Geotz and Rupasingha further note, “…Local stores may commission the design and creation of flyers for insertion into local newspapers and they may take out ads. Wal-Mart does not follow this practice. With local advertising revenues drying up, compounding the effect of the Internet, local newspapers become unprofitable, eliminating a source of livelihood for local opinion leaders….Thus, a reverse multiplier works its way through the community.
“Social interaction among local entrepreneurs represents an important venue for sustaining and enhancing embedded social capital. As shoppers drive to the outskirts where Wal-Mart is located to buy goods and services, downtown stores close and local cafes and restaurants see their customer base dry up. Opportunities for dialogue and interaction among local citizens may be reduced….” More in reference to this study can be found here.
In Charleston, keeping it LOCAL is becoming increasingly difficult with the influx of chain retail, pricey commercial rent, and connectivity concerns. One bright spot in particular is Lowcountry Local First, a non-profit celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. LLF advocates and cultivates an “…economy anchored in local ownership, because local, independent businesses are the cornerstone of our culture, economy, and character.”
Lowcountry Local First provides resources related to creating, opening, and maintaining a local business, as well as tools to market your locally focused efforts. The organization is also active in community development concerns, by helping businesses kickoff in a flexible, inexpensive co-working space (LocalWorks) and, eventually transition to permanent commercial space (Commercial Space Advisory Committee). LLF works hard to foster relationships within the public sector to promote the interests of locally owned businesses; and, in 2016, LLF’s Executive Director, Jamee Haley was recognized as a South Carolina Ambassador for Economic Development by Charleston County. You can join LLF’s efforts here to make local businesses a priority in the Charleston community.
On February 2, 2017, If You Were Mayor co-founder Whitney Powers was honored by Historic Charleston Foundation as the 2017 recipient of the award for “Women Who IMPACT Preservation.” The festivities to announce and celebrate the honor occurred in the ballroom of the newly renovated hotel on Marion Square The Dewberry. Over two hundred people attended the event with proceeds directed to Historic Charleston Foundation’s Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative. This ongoing program has tackled such projects as the stabilization of the North Central neighborhood (read more here) and the creation of the Romney Street Garden. The following is a transcript of Ms. Powers’ remarks:
It is such an incredible honor to be standing before you this evening. I am humbled by Historic Charleston Foundation’s recognition. And I thank you all for being part of this occasion. I have been inducted into a club of real potency – joining the likes of past recipients Geona Shaw Johnson, Karalee Neilson Fallert, and Michelle Mapp.
And here we all are – Women – at a time that seems like a kind of re-recognition of the capital that we have always brought to the table. For Charleston, we can thank those who’ve gone before us – preservation leaders Dorothy Legge and Frances Edmonds, civil rights leader Septima Clark, and the abolitionist Grimke sisters. More broadly, there is Rachel Carson who prompted the regulation of deadly synthetic pesticides and brought about the modern environmental movement. I marveled at the film Hidden Figures and its portrayal of the contributions of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson – women who overcame race and female stereotypes as NASA mathematicians and engineers in the early U.S. space program. I look around at many of you who have started, or currently lead, many of this city’s vital organizations that advocate for a better city. And I see others of you who support and embolden friends and colleagues in infinite and unsung ways.
Sometimes things occur that remind us of our early invincibility and dreams. The recent death of Mary Tyler Moore brought to mind not only her iconic newsroom comedy and her best friend Rhoda – but also, for me at least, Marlo Thomas’ portrayal of That Girl and her smashing wardrobe. It wasn’t really a stretch to consider that I would be a fearless single, working woman from Mississippi who, in my 20s, found myself in Washington, DC, and, later, New York City.
I did not have a load of money, but it did not really require much investment to find like-minded people and feel empowered in those heady days of youth. By example, I joined those who protested against Royal Dutch Shell and its investments in apartheid South Africa and supported passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. We had a voice. We were carried forward on a wave of sexy optimism. Within ten years, apartheid would fall apart and Nelson Mandela would be elected South Africa’s President.
So I landed in Charleston almost 30 years ago, with little sense of my own limitations. I readily engaged alliances with old friends and new. I founded an architectural practice following Hurricane Hugo. And, perhaps, I had a bit too much focus on rebuilding a re-imagined architectural legacy, while most in the city were a bit more interested in the caprice of transactional real estate development. Yet, I found that preservation informed my architectural interests on every level, and, I have been fortunate to work with a remarkable slate of knowledgeable consultants and talented staff.
But, this honor is only partly about my architectural contributions to Charleston. When I started IfYouWereMayor.com two years ago, it was really an effort to empower people to share ideas and issues in advance of a mayoral race that would replace a leader whose decision-making prowess was generally accepted practice during a forty-year tenure. The backbone was research done by my late husband Edwin Gardner on the various metrics associated with the concept of livability; and, the initial seeding and germination came from great organizations in Charleston that were advocating for facets of what makes a city thrive economically, socially, and creatively.
Historic Charleston Foundation was one of those organizations, along with the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, Enough Pie, Lowcountry Local First, OHM Radio, Lowcountry Maritime Society, Quality Education Project, Charleston Moves, Wings for Kids, Metanoia, Meeting Street Academy, Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, Redux, Preservation Society, Coastal Conservation League, and Charleston Parks Conservancy. Over the course of the year-long campaign, our efforts found voice in numerous public forums with all or most of the slate of candidates. They certainly got an earful.
At this stage, the role in society of civic engagement could not be more critical. We now know that it is not enough to remain within the silo of any specific interest area – our collaborative voices are the only way to ensure that Charleston continues as a living, breathing city. Action comes from leveraging the voices of individuals and organizations that not only want to preserve, but to foster a future in the city – through its buildings, neighborhoods, local businesses, parks and green space, art, health, safety, schools, and connections. My work in this arena has reinforced my belief in the life of our city. Our work together must maintain diversity, promote innovation and economic opportunities, preserve our historic core, and ensure that social justice underpins our decision-making.
I am so proud of Historic Charleston Foundation’s commitment to a broad definition of “preservation,” and its efforts to promote connectivity, diversity, and authenticity in Charleston. Historic Charleston Foundation has been bold in its desire to look at the big picture of our region. They have offered capacity and voice to other organizations, and demonstrate a leadership that is the hallmark of what makes a city great. I could not be more honored than to be selected as the 2017 Woman Who Impacts Preservation.