Saving the city

October 19, 1998|By Arnie Graf

THERE are sins of omission and there are sins of commission. The policy of benign neglect, which reflects both types of sins, has been our country's urban policy for the past two years. This policy has slowly but certainly begun to transform many inner-city areas into South African-like townships.

What are townships? They are desolate places where thousands of people reside inside crumbled infrastructures. The schools are old and barely work. They lack basic amenities. Because there is virtually no meaningful investment, there is little legitimate commerce. Lawlessness and violence are the daily expression of hopelessness and despair.

Every morning thousands of people stand in line waiting for vans to bus them to their jobs in the downtowns of the major cities or to the suburbs. Every evening, at the end of a long day's work, they wait in line to be bused home.

Fleeing the city

The corporate sector abandoned our older metropolitan areas long ago and the government has followed close behind. At best, the national government has paid periodic lip service by putting small amounts of money into a small number of programs. The empowerment zone idea is an example of placing a small bandage over a gaping wound. It is a cruel tease. At worst it has poured large amounts of money into unproductive programs with little oversight.

Comparing South African townships with our inner-city areas may seem to many to be greatly overdrawn. After all, our older areas have running water, sidewalks, paved streets and other essentials that are missing in many townships.

This is true, but those who think that this analogy is overdrawn, should spend some time in the inner city. Look at the vacant buildings and the crumbling sidewalks. At night, watch the streets fill with youngsters roaming about aimlessly. Observe the thriving drug trade. Duck the random gun-fire. In the morning, drive alongside the vans on Interstate 95 that take city residents to their low-paying jobs in Howard County.

Townships are not a stated policy; nevertheless, it is what we are evolving into.

What should be done? Targeted massive investment in re-building the infrastructure of these areas needs to take place. If massive U.S. investment in the International Monetary Fund is considered to be essential for the well being of the world, then a similar investment in our own communities is imperative.

When George Bush was confronted in the 1980s, he said that we had more will than wallet. Now that we have a state and national surplus, we are told that what is needed is a tax cut. In truth, we have the wallet but not the will.

We are degraded in some way when we allow millions of our fellow citizens to live in township-like areas.

There has been much talk of sin and repentance lately from our politicians and the media. Sins are those actions or behaviors that separate us one from another and from God. True repentance comes not from talk but from actions that turn us around.

Our inner-city areas are in a sinful state of neglect. It is time to invest. It is time, through our actions, to repent.

Arnie Graf is a representative for the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national organization that trains community leaders and works to empower low- and moderate-income people.

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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