Grass roots urban renewal
I did not win the big lottery prize this month. I have been able to fantasize, though, about the things I might do with that much money. Among the several dreams I would fund would be an effort towards grass roots urban renewal. Progress in this area would be good for the United States and its citizens, and its success would also help the Republican Party and its supporters.
The problem with grass roots movements is that they frequently wilt and dry up before they become established. Often such movements are linked to a single popular personality, and for that reason their success lasts only as long as the fame and good reputation of that person last. Our two major political parties focus most of their attention on the next election. They write party platforms that see far into the future (and, perhaps, are well-anchored in the past), but most of the energy and most of the money raised and used by political parties has short-term achievements in mind.
I would like to see a movement with long-term goals and plans. This movement should not be closely tied to the Republican Party, but its goals are more like Republican goals than like Democratic goals. This movement is based in capitalist economics. It trusts a free-market economy and distrusts government regulations. It seeks freedom for people rather than coercion. It gathers and unites people in a spirit of confident hope, community pride, and genuine love of the United States of America.
This movement would begin in a small way, in just one city. I would choose a location already evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans—perhaps the state of Wisconsin. The first meeting of the movement might meet in Milwaukee, and it would form a presence in several neighborhoods in Milwaukee before expanding to operations in Madison and Green Bay. Perhaps it would also have small chapters in Kenosha, Racine, Appleton, and Waukesha before it crossed out of Wisconsin, beginning to work in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Chicago, and Detroit. Eventually this grassroots group would be found across the country, but that stage would be many years away.
Initial spending would place a person or two in Milwaukee (or whichever city might be chosen) to become familiar with the urban neighborhoods of the city, the needs of those neighborhoods, and the strengths of those neighborhoods. Small neighborhood meetings could then be held, asking people about the needs of their neighborhoods, and inviting solutions for those needs. The organizational directors could also propose actions that might help meet those needs. Money could be raised through monthly and yearly membership fees, kept small to encourage greater participation. Money would be spent on communication of various kinds—web sites and emails, mass mailings, possibly involvement in community radio. The overall goal would be improving the quality of life in urban neighborhoods, but doing so in a way consistent with capitalism, with American tradition, and with respect for all citizens. Efforts would be made to overcome barriers of race and other divisions, to encourage people to work together for the common good. In the beginning, political involvement would be minimal; over time, political movements could be generated and candidates found for positions ranging from school board membership to state and federal offices.
The group would try to meet in locations already open to the community. This would include churches, libraries, local organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW, and possibly schools, city parks, and community centers. Careful financial records and reports would be maintained to ensure that no director or volunteer in the movement was misusing its resources. Donors would underwrite expenses of the organization from the beginning—living expenses for the initial workers, printing costs, rent for meeting places and office work—but over time the branches would seek to become self-supporting through membership fees and local donors.
Here are some of the issues this grass roots movement would address in urban areas:
- CRIME: Efforts would be made to support neighborhood watch groups, and cooperation between residents and police officers would be strongly encouraged. Residents would meet the police officers serving in their neighborhoods, share their concerns, and develop friendly connections with the police. Over time, neighborhood problems such as criminal street gangs could be reduced through the combined forces of neighbors and police.
- EDUCATION: Neighborhood schools and school grounds would be watched and maintained by the people living in the neighborhood. Parents unwilling to meet with teachers on school property would be given a chance to encounter them in less formal settings. Children would be encouraged to continue their education and to take it seriously. High schools and two-year colleges would develop and improve vocational training with the cooperation and support of local businesses, with apprenticeships made available where appropriate. Each neighborhood and community would develop a team of professional carpenters, electricians, plumbers, auto repair specialists, and other useful workers. Meanwhile, children with special talents in the arts—musicians, poets, dancers, and the like—would be encouraged to develop and use their talents. Those with aptitudes for more specialized jobs, such as attorneys and ministers and medical professionals, would also be encouraged, and scholarship opportunities would be found for such students.
- JOBS: While developing trades through the education system, the movement would also encourage local ownership of small businesses, would work with neighborhood watches and the police to protect these businesses, and would come to know and trust the owners and managers in neighborhood stores and shops. Small businesses in each community would try to hire workers from within that community whenever possible. Larger employers in the cities would also be linked to their nearest neighborhoods with opportunities for them to meet the people of the community and to interact with them in job fairs and other community events.
- HOUSING: Residents of substandard housing would report their complaints to the leaders of the movement and would be advised how to direct those complaints or would be given support of people able to address their problems. Abandoned buildings would be identified, assessed for the potential of purchase and renovation or the need for demolition. Groups of neighbors would help each other maintain and improve the property in the neighborhood. Where new housing is needed and would be beneficial, investors would be found who would build housing with the needs and desires of the community in mind.
- ENVIRONMENT: Residents of each neighborhood and community would help each other clear away litter and keep their homes and streets clean. Movement leaders would help residents call attention to large-scale polluters in the area and would direct complaints to appropriate authorities. Over time, residents could be educated in ways to improve the environment of their neighborhoods through microgardening and other appropriate opportunities. At the same time, residents would establish local control of parks and street boundaries. Movement organizers would work with city officials to maintain communication between those officials and residents, creating a cooperative relationship and avoiding city-funded improvements that fail to please the residents affected by those changes.
- PRESERVATION: Whenever possible and practical, historic properties would be preserved rather than demolished or remade. Movement organizers would work with local and state preservationist groups, facilitating communication with neighborhood residents and building a common interest between the two groups. Preservationists would help neighborhood residents obtain funding, expert advice, and even labor for the continuing management and use of historic properties. Some would continue to be private residences or businesses; others might become community property as museums, galleries, or meeting places.
All these things can be done. People familiar with American political history know that things like this have been done. Imagine them being done with support from people in the Republican Party. Imagine this sort of grass roots urban renewal taking place with the values of traditional Republicans at work in the movement. Imagine voter registration drives in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia sponsored and supported by Republicans. Imagine dedicated Republicans working in these cities to encourage voters, to run the polls, and to supervise counting the ballots in each election. Imagine black Republicans and Spanish-speaking Republicans and other urban Republicans taking their seats in the school boards, the city governments, and the county governments of our nation’s largest cities. We cannot turn that corner in two years or in four years. It might take ten or twenty years to make this change happen. But investment in a journey like this could provide a profound and meaningful benefit to our grandchildren as they take their place in the life of these United States of America. J.