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Money Flows Larimer's Way

Posted by C. Matthew Hawkins on July 2, 2014 at 5:55 PM

Two weeks ago we were discussing, on these pages of Homewood Nation, whether or not President Obama should have made a swing through Pittsburgh’s African American neighborhoods to wave at his most ardent and unapologetic supporters as he visited the Tech Shop in Bakery Square. At the time I said that I thought that the president made frequent trips to Southwestern Pennsylvania to strengthen support for Democrats in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio and that the White House probably believes that high-fiving African American neighborhoods would not be politically helpful for that objective.


Monday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced that it is awarding a $30 million grant to the Larimer neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s East End for eco-friendly housing development. This, of course, is an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood. Significantly, other neighborhoods that were awarded grants from this program were in Eastern Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Connecticut, meaning that three of the four neighborhoods that have been awarded these grants are in swing states.


This is not to take anything away from the hard work that the various professionals, government officials and agencies put into this highly competitive national grant, but given the president’s January 29th visit to the modernized U.S. Steel plant in Irvin, PA, his April 17th visit to Allegheny Community College in North Fayette to tout his $500 million initiative to promote efforts to link community college instruction with the training that employers say they want to see in their workforce, and his Mid-June visit to the Tech Shop in Baker’s Square to promote high-tech innovation through designing prototypes in do-it-yourself workshops – not to mention his decision to hold the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh in late September of 2009 – it is not unreasonable to assume that the president is using Southwestern Pennsylvania as a model for post-industrial economic recovery and what he wants the public to believe are the benefits of economic globalization.


Over the past five and a half years the Obama administration has been unwilling to even acknowledge the disproportionate impact of the sluggish economy on African American neighborhoods. He has been unwilling to acknowledge the need for programs specifically targeted at distressed African American neighborhoods, regardless of whether or not such programs could actually get funding from the current Congress. Still, a part of me wants to see, in Monday’s announcement, the emergence of a “hidden” Obama. A part of me wants to see Monday’s announcement as being an example of political substance over style. Too often political constituencies tend to be satisfied with the trappings of support and attention without the substance, which generally goes to those who are able to cut sizable checks to support political campaigns; it would be a refreshing change to see a national politician responding to distressed populations with more than mere symbolism.


A part of me drifted into a fantasy where Obama said, in effect, “What would you rather have, a president who drives through your neighborhood and waves at you during a nationally covered visit, or one who more modestly directs $30 million your way through the Department of Housing and Urban Development?”


Yes, a part of me wanted to believe this fantasy, but – as a practical matter – we still have to see the fine print in order to find out who is most likely to benefit from this HUD grant. Whatever benefit the residents are likely to get out of it, my bet is that the greatest beneficiaries will be developers, contractors and social service professionals who don’t even live in Larimer. This is not to say that the two different types of beneficiaries must be mutually exclusive; it is to point out, instead, that one set of beneficiaries, in the funding process, are certain while another set are less so. Assistance to a geographic area, after all, is not the same as assistance to the people who live there – especially in the challenges that prevent them from becoming stakeholders in the social, political, and economic mainstream, which are more complicated than the physical development of a part of their neighborhood.


When it comes to sure winners, there is no doubt that certain members of the professional class and their related agencies and organizations will receive funding and continued relevance through this grant. There can also be little doubt that this grant will further enhance the image of a city administration that has made the reduction of urban blight one of its signature objectives. Those will be the sure winners, and this is not, necessarily, a bad thing. What is much less clear, however, is how effective this initiative will be in helping Larimer’s current residents to move into the social, political and economic mainstream. The proposal identifies programs to help accomplish this, but the effectiveness of those programs remains to be seen.




FURTHER READING: "The Myth of Community Development" - Nicholas Lemann, New York Times, January 9, 1994.




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