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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Three Stories

I have three stories to illustrate what I have been saying,

1.  Lawndale, Chicago.

In the late 1960s, a few of us were learning community organizing working with Father Jack Egan in Presentation Parish.  After some months, a root cause of the decline of the neighborhood was uncovered.  Upwardly mobile black people with steady incomes and down payments, trying to buy homes in a community where realtors were scaring out white owners, could only buy houses through land installment contracts, not conventional or FHA mortgages which were unavailable since the area was deemed "too risky"--simply because black people were moving there.  White intermediaries were able to get conventional loans using the black families' down payments and then "sell" to black families at inflated prices while retaining the titles.  Black families who missed payments were liable to eviction without any equity.  It was simply how the "free" market worked in most segregated cities of the North.

Through organization the families, experiencing the devastating results of higher costs, overcrowding, and deferred maintenance, learned about the practice and began to act to renegotiate their contracts to what traditional mortgages would have been in an open society.  It was a long tough action that included demonstrations, payment strikes, resisted evictions, and a major lawsuit.

As organizers we were taught that people only act on self-interest and were told by our mentors to keep our "theological values" out.  That certainly seemed to be the case since families were organizing and risking everything in order to get a better financial deal.  But then the chairperson of the Contract Buyers' League, Charlie Baker, at a general meeting in Presentation Hall declared:  "I'm glad I bought my house on contract." This seemed to violate the whole principle of self-interest. "Why?' he said, "because it brought us together."  I realized then that there was a higher good that the people were experiencing: the good of associated action, of people power, of community.  It was not the hope of getting a better deal for themselves that drove them.  It was the hope of building their neighborhood and community.  Out of this came all kinds of self-help efforts: block clubs, clean ups, mutual aid groups.

2.  Honolulu, Hawaii.

In the 1980s I took the position of Executive Director for a nonprofit health and community services planning organization in Hawaii. Moving with my family into a very "local" community, we learned to appreciate the values of the host community: their link to the "aina," the land not as a commodity; their "aloha" spirit; their "appropriate" technology in fish ponds, breadfruit cultivation, healing; their sense of spirituality in the ocean, mountains, volcano and especially the "aina."

This was the Reagan years in the US when unions were opposed, taxes on the wealthy were lowered, regulations to guard the environment and civil rights were lowered, government (except the military) was contracted, and human services were cut.  Companies were being attracted to "right to work" southern states to avoid paying workers more, investors were making fortunes, and the military was flush--so much so that a captain in the Navy at Pearl Harbor who was on my board told me that they were spending money just to get rid of it "like drunken soldiers."  During the 80s, consumer credit increased by $5 billion, commercial real estate boomed (then busted with the S&L scandal), housing building continued its suburban cul-de-sac and gated community expansion, personal savings went from 8% to 0%, the national debt was tripled and most of the rise in income went to the top 2%. The good times were here again.

In Hawaii, I found the contrast with the Mainland palpable especially in my work with indigenous and local communities.  The Reagan revolution and its values were never accepted by Hawaiians even in the Republican Party.  Reagonomics, high government spending with less public oversight for economic growth focused on wealthier Americans and the military, worked for some--but not for Hawaiians.

3.  Fresno, California

in the 2000s, I became the Field Office Director of HUD for the Central Valley, California. Here the economy was being being driven by developers cutting huge tracts out of rich farmland (as they had done to LA and Santa Clara Counties before) to build housing less expensive for the immigrants from the Bay Area, Silicon Valley, and Southern California, but more expensive for the more impoverished residents of the Central Valley.  Of course this boom busted too and the region became one of the highest foreclosure areas in the nation.

But a coalition of urban planners, center city dwellers, church groups, progressive farmers, and even thoughtful builders began to experiment with "new urbanism" including center city diversity, transit corridor revitalization, and planned communities without fences and gates, denser, more diverse in income, ethnicity, and life style, with less impact on air, land, water. Developers fought back saying this was interfering with progress and the free market.  But recently in a hard fought confrontation before the City Council, a general plan was adopted with new urbanism principles and requirements. More important, the coalition shows promise of ongoing broad-based organization to hold city officials accountable.


In each of these stories, I found other principles of action than self-interest or the individual pursuit of wealth. The market, while important, is not the commonweal. The sense of community (polis) and the culture of spirituality appear in these stories as higher goals for humanity.

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