Monday, July 22, 2019

Reclaiming the Narrative: A Refection on Bill Pulte, Jack Dorsey and the City’s Demolition Plan

 By Sylvester Brown, Jr.
Jack Dorsey (left) and Bill Pulte / Photo courtesy of KMOX

I’ve been reading with great interest the news of a private/public partnership aimed at demolishing blighted properties in disadvantaged areas of North St. Louis. The initiative is led by two relatively young, very rich philanthropists, Bill Pulte, heir of Detroit’s Pulte Homes empire and Jack Dorsey, St. Louis native and CEO of both Twitter Inc. and Square Inc.  
My first instinct was to poo-poo this effort. I, too, question why “development” in black neighborhoods always seem to center around demolition while “rebuilding” and millions in subsidies and tax incentives are the catch phrases that accompany development in white neighborhoods. The cynic in me asks, how is the removal of vacant buildings and replacing them with vacant lots, progress?
Some social media comments validated my initial concerns. Local entrepreneur and coffee magnate, Jason Wilson, wrote: “No more non-profits! We need for-profit businesses that generate a tax base. Jack (Dorsey), I understand you want to help but that’s not it.”
Former city comptroller, Virvus Jones, provided a list of already rich entities that have received billions in tax dollars: 
“The for-profit business community also known in St. Louis and Detroit as the ‘crony corporate welfare class’ are not going to develop anything in North St. Louis or the metroplex,” Jones wrote. “Building, using taxpayer subsidy, is a development strategy for the Central Corridor and places (where) white people live. The development strategy for places black people live is demolish and gentrification.”
The first draft of this commentary echoed Wilson and Jones' thoughts. Why? Well, because they’re absolutely right. 
According to the 115-page report “Segregation in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide,” African Americans in the city and county have endured housing policies and development strategies that have trapped generations of some families in segregated and dis-invested neighborhoods for more than a century. The neighborhoods that have received the largest tax incentives within the past 18 years, have all been majority white neighborhoods that just so happens to have had black residents displaced and replaced with white residents.
So let’s be crystal clear, concentrated poverty in St. Louis is the direct result of decades of disinvestment in black neighborhoods and purposeful segregation. In fact, it’s what Molly Metzger, assistant Washington University professor and co-author of “Facing Segregation: Housing Policy Solutions for a Stronger Society,” defined as “re-segregation” in our modern times.
My initial rant was aimed at Dorsey and Pulte’s partners in this endeavor which include Mayor Lyda Krewson and 22nd Ward Aldermen, Jeffrey Boyd. Throughout her political career, Krewson, former Mayor Francis Slay’s hand-picked replacement, has been a willing accomplice in a decades-long policy of defacto segregation. Developed in the mid-1970s, this policy emphasized “benign neglect” in struggling black neighborhoods. 
Boyd is among the black elected officials who have impotently signed off on publicly financed developments outside their wards without demanding a little quid-pro-quo for their own constituents.
 It was this line of thinking that compelled me to scrap my first draft. Instead of criticizing and dismissing this effort maybe, just maybe, I can write something that might encourage dreamers to seize the moment or, as Jason Wilson, often writes, “Control the Narrative.”

Demolition in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood

Dorsey and Pulte shouldn’t be portrayed as “bad guys.” They are tried and true entrepreneurs whose success is based on out-of-the-box thinking. From what I’ve read, they seem to have a genuine desire to make a difference in St. Louis. 
Dorsey, our very own version of Bill Gates, said, “I’ve always looked for ways to give back to the city that gave so much to me.”
I also like the fact that this initiative isn’t Pulte’s first rodeo. He’s spent the past six years or so raising hundreds of thousands of dollars from the private sector to tackle Detroit’s vacancy problem.
The two have been very clear that they want community input and involvement. My hope is that these visionaries don’t solely rely on the same ole stale, vision-less leaders for direction. The challenge as I see it, is for black folk, those already doing the hard work of revitalizing poor neighborhoods, to grab the reigns of this endeavor and reclaim the narrative.

My hope is that these visionaries don’t solely rely on the same ole stale, vision-less leaders for direction.

I’m no politician, I’m no developer. I’m just a guy born-and-raised in St. Louis who has spent more than 30 years writing about our unique perils and possibilities. I’m the founder of a program that teaches young people how to grow food and make marketable products. I’m a frustrated dreamer who’s arrived at the conclusion that the only way to reverse the negative trends in black communities is to empower extraordinary, ordinary black people to create the change we all seek.
How do we do that? Well, it goes a bit further than simple demolition. In my view, it means a government-funded land-ownership program. Can Dorsey and Pulte work with the city to raise funds to not only buy vacant buildings and land but provide stipends to help people, particularly young people, own land, rehab buildings and start small businesses in North St. Louis?
Changing the narrative means challenging the status quo.  It means developing a plan with real numbers and demanding that some of those billions doled out to the rich be allocated to neighborhoods of need. It means enlisting individuals, organizations and nonprofits outside of Krewson’s comfort zone. It might mean recruiting Krewson and Boyd’s nemesis, Treasurer Tishaura Jones. I can think of no better person to show us how public resources can be used to empower the public. Hate on her if you must, but the treasurer’s office has helped thousands of young people open college savings accounts with parking revenue funds.
Unfortunately, we live in a region with a long history of ignoring black people…their neighborhoods, their schools, their struggles, their historical disadvantages and their potential to save themselves. We are defined by crime, not our creativity or resilience. Vision-less leaders offer little solutions beyond increasing the police force and employing the national guard.
In my new book, I state that we have everything we need to change the narrative. I’m convinced that if Dorsey and Pulte sat in a room with the likes of Friendly Temple Church, Better Family Life, Beloved Streets of America, Good Life Growing Inc., developer Kevin Bryant, Ald. John Muhammad, Virvus Jones, Cheryl Walker, Jason Wilson and, of course, the Sweet Potato Project, they’d walk away with a vibrant, self-sustaining vision that compliments their stated desires in North St. Louis.
Black folk can gripe and moan, focus on racial inequities, criticize and castigate all day long. Or, we can step up and boldly step forward with our own plan, our own vision. Maybe I’m just an old na├»ve dreamer but I sincerely believe we can indeed control our own narrative and our own destinies. 


Sylvester Brown, Jr. is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the founder of the Sweet Potato Project, an entrepreneurial program for urban youth and the author of the newly released book “When We Listen: Recognizing the Potential of Urban Youth.”