Good for Business, Bad for Kids?

The Washington Post, Sept. 30: Mayor Anthony Williams gleefully announces that Washington has won the competition to be the new home of the Montreal Expos. According to the Post, Williams has flown in the face of prevailing baseball economics by offering to publicly subsidize stadium construction at a time when most cities are getting out of the business. For this, he promised to raise $440 million, making it the most generous offers in recent history.

The city government hopes the stadium will be the anchor of an economic revitalization for the largely African-American, low-income section of the city where it will be built – a feat that has yet to materialize in few American cities that have gone this route.

What does this have to do with youth development? A lot.

Every public dollar that goes toward the stadium project will be a dollar that does not go toward school facilities or low-income housing construction or better public transportation – all services desperately needed by low-income neighborhoods in the nation’s capital.

Low-income young people and families lose every time politicians and business developers get away with the argument that what’s good for business is good for the neighborhood. Here’s a case in point:

The Washington Post, Sept. 5: Parents in Columbia Heights, a traditionally working-class African-American and Latino neighborhood in Washington, are concerned that the development of a luxury condominium complex where a Boys & Girls Club stands will remove yet another valued community service. On the surface, this seems like one more in a long line of gentrification stories. The facts, however, are more subtle, and in some ways more revealing of the complex issues facing low-income and working-class families and the programs that serve them.

The land under development is actually owned by the Boys & Girls Club. The club has been quietly negotiating with the developer to sell the land to generate much needed cash to maintain programs in an era of shrinking resources.

Another fact: The club doesn’t intend to leave the neighborhood. In addition to receiving cash, it is negotiating for a “new and improved” club with a separate entrance to be built on the ground floor of the new complex.

But the community is concerned. It sees the club’s move as a sellout because it will speed up the process of gentrification. “They don’t want the kids around there now,” the president of the club’s parents’ association told the Post. She cited the frequency with which neighborhood youth who use the facility are stopped and questioned by the police, because newer, affluent neighbors are concerned about loitering.

Another concern: The club may be rebuilt, but it won’t be built for or used by the same group of children and youth. Whether because of increased fees, changes in leadership or signals that neighborhood youth are not wanted, parents foresee an ironic result: Their children will grow up in a neighborhood where they have more facilities but less access to them.

I am writing this column the afternoon before the first presidential debate. In front of me sits a stack of articles about the efficacy of youth-vote efforts. Hip-hop organizers like Russell Simmons are optimistic. But pundits like Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, suggest that even if these efforts increase youth registration, they do little to increase the youth vote.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 60 percent of eligible adults voted in the 2000 election. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, only 36 percent voted.

There are signs, however, that young people will turn out to vote when they connect with the candidate. Recall the 40 percent increase in turnout among 18- to 40-year-old voters in the Detroit mayoral race, which gave us Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. But there aren’t many Kilpatricks.

The challenge lies in getting more candidates to speak to young people and their issues. Efforts such as the Campaign for Youth, which advocates youth access to jobs and job training, education and child care, among other things, have had some success in connecting with the presidential candidates. But we need to better track and support efforts closer to home that help young people and their families to organize.

Only then can they confront those who choose stadiums and condos over schools and communities.

Karen Pittman is executive director of the Forum for Youth Investment.  An expanded version of this column and links to related readings are available at www.forumforyouthinvestment.org.


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