For Policy not Poses

One Annapolis Now!

At a recent forum sponsored by the Annapolis Human Relations Committee, all the mayoral candidates seemed to agree that we should work harder to achieve one Annapolis, a town where Wardour and Clay Street feel they are working together as part of the same common civic enterprise. With Barack Obama in the White House, the time to get over our differences and celebrate our samenesses does seem ripe – if not now, when?

In March of 1997, I wrote a column about civic polarization, and I reproduce it here, with minor editing.

The City comprehensive planning committee has about seventy members, and I am one of them. At our meetings, we usually split up into four discussion groups, and the last time I went to one, my group spent most of its time talking about racial and ethnic polarization. There was surprisingly general agreement that we have moved farther from, not nearer to, the “dream of one America.” A moving column by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post of Monday, February 24th, titled “A Lesson in Excess,” made a similar point in the different context of educating children in Baltimore. When I went to high school in Baltimore, students were not allowed to bring cars. Now, according to Yardley, the private school student parking lots are full of cars — usually complete with cellular telephones — which cost more than the State’s average annual per capita income, while, in contrast, a full third of the city’s children are in poverty.

The city of Baltimore, says Yardley, “like so many others, is more divided than ever before between the fortunate and the deprived, between those with bright hopes beyond anything they have earned and those with no hope at all.” “It is no longer fashionable to worry about such matters. Never mind that we are rearing two classes of teenagers that have nothing in common except the potential for estrangement and conflict that their separate worlds entail. Just put the kid in the Cherokee, ship him off to Harvard, and pat yourself on the back.”

What, you may well wonder, can comprehensive planning have to do with that? Well, we wondered too. At least anecdotally, Annapolis is polarized in other ways, and they may have something to do with planning. Repeatedly we have seen citizens, at least some of whom are plainly sincere and well-intentioned, testify on opposite sides of economic development issues. With regard to the conference center proposed for the Menke site, from one perspective, it is viewed enthusiastically as a likely source of new jobs. Indeed, that argument was made even in support of extending all the bar closings to two a.m. — more work for waiters and bartenders. From our perspective, further damage to the quality of downtown life for the sake of a few extra bar and restaurant jobs seems disproportionate, but to the unemployed we may seem just selfish. Yet we wonder, is the job market here polarized too, between low-paying dead-end jobs and relatively high-paying ones, with very little in between? For intelligent City planning we need to know the answer and, if there is such a gap, economic planning must work on bridging it, with entry-level jobs to be sure, but entry level jobs with some potential for advancement to higher levels.

We often hear that there is a shortage of affordable housing in the City, yet also that the number of owner-occupied single family residences is declining. When I was a student at St. John’s in the Sixties, nearly all the faculty lived within walking distance of the campus, but hardly any can afford to do so now. Is there a housing gap between the well-off and the badly-off, with little in between and no hope of moving up from the latter without leaving the downtown and even the City? City planners need to know the answer to that, too, and target development to bridge the housing gap, if there is one.

In our meetings, our single-mindedness must be baffling to the professional staff and planning consultants who service us, and about all that has come of it is the “vision statement” element called “inclusive diversity.” No doubt that is a worthy vision, but without more knowledge and more focus, it will never be any more than a pose.

I ask you, have things changed in twelve years?

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