commentary (2006-47)

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Can’t say we didn’t see it coming

Empowering Pity

by Matt Edens

I was sad to read the other day about the sorry state of the city’s Empowerment Zone initiative: questions over how the money is being spent, confusion over who is in charge and assorted accusations and recriminations involving issues of race. I was sad, but not really surprised.

You see, I have something of a history with the Empowerment Zone, having served on the board of the Partnership for Neighborhood Improvement, the non-profit given the Herculean, cat-herding task of administering the supposedly $100 million federal grant (more on that later) during the early years of the E.Z. era. I don’t know much about whatever state the E.Z. administration is currently in, but some things certainly haven’t changed, namely those questions over how the money is being spent, confusion over who is in charge and assorted accusations and recriminations involving issues of race.

We should have seen it coming, way back in 1998 when it was announced that Knoxville would receive $100 million in federal funds for the “empowerment,” whatever that meant, of 16 sprawling square miles of Knoxville’s inner city. The celebrations were barely over, however, before the Feds cut the supposed $100 million to a little more than $25 million, just to keep things interesting.  Needless to say, the sense that they were fighting for a piece of a shrinking pie had a predictable impact as neighborhood groups and non-profits jockeyed for position. 

Most of the infighting turned out to be for naught. More than a million dollars were spent to set up and staff things called “Zone Advisory Councils”—seven sort of super-sized neighborhood groups that were supposed to have input on where and how the money was spent. But, “empowerment” talk aside, during my tenure the real power in the E.Z. resided in the seven “resource” members of the board, representatives of the city, local banks and charitable foundations. And most of the folks I know who got involved in the ZAC process eventually dropped out due to frustration, a sense that what they were doing was just busy work (also one reason I eventually resigned from my board position). Many of them, like me, may be wondering whether the hours they invested were worth it.

“You can’t build a city on pity,” wrote former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist in his book The Wealth of Cities, Revitalizing the Center of American Life . Published the same year Knoxville applied for the federal grant, the book and the E.Z. program are not unrelated. Both, in a sense, grew from the same roots: the 1992 Los Angeles riots. In the book’s opening, Norquist recalls how, as South Central L.A. still smoldered, the U.S. Conference of Mayors called a special session to strategize, as Norquist puts it, “how to capitalize best on the riot and convince the federal government to pay attention to the urban agenda.” Norquist, now president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, was appalled: “Imagine the C.E.O. of a private corporation who told stockholders ‘We’re dangerous to be near,’ or ‘We’re broke, and if you don’t give us money we’ll burn.’ What would the stockholders do? They’d sell their stock—fast.”

Not that his fellow mayors heeded the warning. Instead, their lobbying led directly to the first round of $100 million E.Z. grants to 10 cities, including Los Angeles. Knoxville was one of 15 cities selected for a second round in 1999. By then, however, the program was in trouble, its 10-city debut dogged by, surprise: questions over how the money is being spent, confusion over who is in charge and assorted accusations and recriminations involving issues of race. As a result, the second-round grants were soon reduced to a fraction of first.

“Pity soon sours into contempt,” Norquist rightly observed. It also leads down the path towards paternalism, which contempt quickly corrupts into patronage. Twenty-five million is a lot of money, but in hindsight, I wonder whether Knoxville would have been better off without it. Because if you ask me, “empowerment” starts when, rather than branding it as someplace separate and unequal, Knoxville begins thinking of its inner city as an integral, important part of the city as a whole.

© 2006 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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