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Don't Think

"Don't think, young lady, that we have a secret room down in the basement of City Hall with a bunch of maps and charts and lights running on generators." The city planning director gave me a stern look of warning. It was my first week of work in City Hall, in my first job in city government, and it was my first meeting with the mayor's staff who would be my advisors for my project.

I definitely hadn't said anything to suggest that I thought there was a city hall conspiracy or a secret room in the basement. But I knew where his warning was coming from. Many of the community activists in the city very openly suspected the Mayor and his staff of conspiring to use buiding code enforcement, demolitions, and even arson, to drive Hispanic residents out of the city. I had heard this theory many times while I was an undergraduate at the nearby college and when I was living and working in the city. But I tended to disbelieve conspiracy theories, and went to work at city hall with an open mind.

I was very lucky to have this job. While it was just a short-term project -- four months to write a fair housing plan for the city -- it was a dream come true to be involved in such a highly visible project in city government. I had just graduated from college and had spent much of the past few years living, working and volunteering in the city. As a summer job I had worked on fair housing cases for an anti-discrimination agency, and that connection had led to my being recommended for this posistion.

The city was required to write a fair housing plan in order to qualify for state and federal grants. The mayor's staff had written this document twice, and had it rejected both times. When told to try again, the Mayor said that he didn't have staff to do it, and my name was suggested. During the week of final exams, before graduation, I was in my apartment, sleeping late, after several late nights of studying, when my phone rang. I was asked to meet with the Mayor about a project. I went to city hall, had a brief interview, and I was hired as a fair housing consultant to the Mayor and given a contract for the next four months.

Now I was starting my first week. I began analyzing census data and housing statistics and also started meeting with the advisory group that would guide my work.

Over the next few months, I would see and hear things that could make me wonder about the conspiracy theory. For example, one day, late in the day after others had gone home, a city official started ranting to me about how crowded and run-down the downtown neighborhoods were and how he'd like to see all the buildings torn down. He talked about crime in the neighborhoods and, his voice rising, declared "that's why I carry this!" and pulled a gun out of his pocket and waved it in front of me. (When I later told another city hall staffperson about the conversation and said that it made me uncomfortable, he just nodded sympathetically and said "Yeah, he really shouldn't do that.")

During the project I held a community meeting to get community input about housing issues. The meeting hall I used happened to be next to a building that was being torn down that day in order to make a parking lot. The air was full of dust from the demolition. During the meeting, community activists spoke loudly about the failure of the city to invest in the downtown neighborhoods. A community resident spoke despairingly about the conditions of her building, and said that she couldn't sleep at night because there were rats and cockroaches, and that the windows were loose and the wind and rain came in. When someone asked her where she lived, she looked nervous, and gave an address.

The next day, after reading about the meeting in the local newspaper, a city housing inspector (someone I liked and who was very community-oriented) asked me where the woman lived, so he could check it out. I looked in my notes and gave him the address. "Hmm, that doesn't seem right. Mr. Gonzalez is a very responsible landlord. But I'll go take a look," he said. A week later I was studying my notes and discovered something. I went to see the inspector. "When you went to #19 Hamilton Street you didn't see anything wrong, did you?" I asked. "No," he answered. "That's because she really lives at #15. When she signed the attendance sheet when she first arrived she wrote her address as #15. But when she was asked where she lived after she talked about the rats, she was nervous and said #19." That was because her building was owned by the community activist who was in the front row of the meeting hall denouncing city hall. "No surprise," the inspector told me. "That building has been a problem for years."

Throughout my assignment, community activists were critical of me for working with the Mayor. Both in person and in local newspaper stories, community activists referred to me as an enemy and implied that I was aligned with city hall in a conspiracy against minority residents. The person who had recommended me for the position had advised me not to get "attached" to city hall, but to just be factual and impartial in developing the fair housing document. But by the end of the four months, I found myself liking the conservative, sometimes outrageously outspoken Mayor more than I liked his liberal opposition.

The Mayor, while orienting me to the project, gave me his version of the history of the city. "Hispanics started moving to the city because they wanted bad housing," he told me. "Maybe you mean to say 'inexpensive' or 'affordable' housing?" I suggested. "Sure," he acquiesced. "That's what I meant to say."

As part of my orientation, on my first day of work, the Mayor sent me on a field trip. "Go across the street," he said, "to the vacant building across from City Hall. Go in, and there'll be a man named Eddie in the lobby. He'll take you on a tour of the building." And so I had a tour of an old tenement building, with dusty, empty apartments and with ancient bathrooms in the common hallways, with long-outdated toilets with pull chains. Eddie hoped that the city was ready for gentrification. "People nowadays want the bathrooms IN their apartments," he said regretfully. "But I think this building would be perfect for gentrification." He brought me to the roof of the building. "Look at that view," he said dreamily, as we looked out on the mills and canals. "None of those gentrified places have a view like this." The Mayor and his staff and friends had a shared dislike of the more wealthy college towns and cities in the area. They mostly grudgingly accepted me because I lived in the city and "wasn't like those other liberals."

Ultimately, things ended poorly. I finished the assignment, developing a 150-page document that provided a statistical portrait of the community and outlined investments that the city would make in the downtown neighborhoods, including new playgrounds, school improvements, support for building renovations and a pledge of collaboration with nonprofit organizations in the community. The plan called for a fair housing advisory group, and I hoped to remain involved in an unpaid role on the advisory group. Though as the assignment ended, I didn't feel welcomed or accepted in city hall. I had gently pushed the Mayor and his staff to agree to some of the components of the plan, and while they recognized that they had to do something to get a plan approved, they probably resented the pressure.

There was a state election that fall, and a new governor was elected. A few months later, the fair housing plan was rejected, without any clear explanation, by the person who had recommended me for the project. The rejection was probably based on political manuevering between the new governor's administration and the previous administration, and was probably not related to anything written in or omitted from the document. I don't think I could have done anything differently.

But in my worst career mistake ever, before the rejection, based on advice from the same person, I had worked with a political campaign that was supported by the liberal/progressive wing of the city, and that was opposed by city hall. But, still not accepted by the community activists because of my time in city hall, had ended the election season with no professional allies, liberal or conservative, city hall or elsewhere.

Around that time, I read an article that said that the state--often seen as as one-party Democratic state--actually functioned like a two-party state, with blue collar Democrats and white-collar Democrats. The blue-collar Democrats were more conservative, and valued loyalty to people. The white-collar Democrats were more liberal, and valued loyalty to issues. I felt a moment of revelation, perfectly recognizing my recent experiences in city hall and afterwards.

I regretted working on the campaign, knowing that while I didn't owe any loyalty to city hall, I didn't belong on the other side either. I eventually moved out of the city, unable to find full-time work. But, fortunately, I first spent several months immersed in non-political work; substitute teaching in local schools (while unsuccessfully looking for a full-time job), shopping in the neighborhood markets, getting to know neighbors better.

Having grown up with an idealism about government and community activism, I was naturally disappointed and disillusioned by my experience in city hall. This was definitely not the first time I had seen things that were disillusioning: I had already worked and volunteered in the city already for several years. But it was my first experience working directly in a city hall and the experience had a major influence on my philosophy and subsequent career choices. I have not backed off from public service, but I have stayed away from direct involvement in politics, focusing my career with an eye toward ways I can support people who are truly doing good work in their communities. I've been cognizant of the idea of loyalty to people and loyalty to issues, and tried not to let one form of loyalty make me forget the other.

A long time has passed since this experience. Politics continues to evolve, and now I find that I dislike the blue-state vs. red-state, progressive vs. fundamentalist, liberal vs. conservative divisions in the country now. My experience of the politic divide in a small city makes me always want to go beyond politics and affiliations better understand why people feel angry, see the hypocrisies cloaked as idealism, understand the cynicism, as well as to eventually find the good work and soul of a community.

April 2011