:: Trickle Down…
Breaking Down the System of City Development
editorial by Meredith Younger
Welcome to “Crosswalk:
Trickle Down…”, a broad look at our city, the systems by which
it is manifested, and the impact its redevelopment has on its varied communities.
The following articles are meant to serve as a starting point for creating
dialogues between the private and public interests of those who call Providence
their home. It is our hope that a basic understanding of these many issues
will bring about innovative solutions to serve and preserve all communities,
and maintain the vibrant and diverse fabric of this city that brought us here
in the first place.
In “Shelter from the Bubble,” we discover that the very system designed to allocate money from the government to subsidize affordable housing both helps and hinders opportunities for low-income home ownership. NGOs and non-profits must fight for rights to a proportionally tiny pool of money, one that could be zapped up in a single large-scale development alone. And as the gulf widens between the rich and poor in this country, more and more of this money is being used to help subsidize the middle class, fostering further discrepancies between the “haves” and the “have nots.”
In what we could call a local ground zero for this debate, we need to look no further than Providence’s own Westside neighborhoods. Olneyville, the Armory, and the Valley districts—some of the poorest sections of this city—are dotted with several brand-new or proposed redevelopments. While the developers promise a future of expanded tax bases and “revitalized” neighborhoods, the inhabitants of these areas—many of whom speak English as a second language and have rented their homes there for decades—this “rising tide” has another name: gentrification. While many consider this economic displacement as part of a natural cycle, many others question the logic supporting this argument—namely, that the pursuit of capital is neither natural nor predictable, and that this man-made construct of power by wealth actually works against our innate tendencies toward organic community building.
This machine of economic growth has an insatiable appetite, demanding expansion at an exponential rate against fear of recession. But recession does not necessarily imply a shrinking of capital; it also means the rate of growth could be at the same pace as the previous term, or show a continued growth but accruing less overall wealth and/or resources than in the previous term. Thus, the capitalist machine must work faster and faster, and consume more and more, in order to be deemed a healthy system. As outlined in “In Support of a Slow Growth Approach,” we see how this economic structure impedes the voices of true participatory democracies and the people that comprise them.
While affordable housing usually takes center stage in redevelopment debates, a heavily industrial city such as Providence also has a strong history of being a small business incubator. As property values increase, many local businesses and industries are finding themselves displaced by economics as well. As the trend toward the loftification of former mill complexes continues its frenzied pace, Rhode Island is quickly losing jobs that have sustained the local economy for centuries—and it’s character in the process. The Partnership for Creative Industrial Space outlines the challenges small industry is facing in “Commercial Space in Providence.”
Current city policy enables developers to apply for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) as a way to offset development costs and provide monetary support for city infrastructure needs. TIFs are reserved for areas deemed “blighted”—where redevelopment would not likely occur unless these tax breaks were made available. While many herald TIFs as successful in providing sorely needed money to rebuild some of the most impoverished infrastructures, the definition of blight is broad, and sometimes even misused when making a case for TIF approval. It could even be argued that using tax dollars to help fund these private developments sets the stage for a dangerously speculative market while presenting us with the illusion of a thriving middle class.
So as you read on about the city, and the processes by which it is developed and redeveloped, I would like to leave you with this quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt:
find our population suffering from the old inequalities, little changed by
our past sporadic remedies. In spite of our effort and in spite of our talk,
we have not weeded out the over privileged and we have not effectively lifted
up the underprivileged... We have a clear mandate from the people, that Americans
must forswear the conception of the acquisition of wealth that, through excessive
profits, creates undue private power over private affairs and, to our misfortune,
over public affairs as well. In building toward this end we do not destroy
ambition, nor do we seek to divide our wealth into equal shares on stated
occasions. We continue to recognize the greater ability of some to earn more
than others. But we do assert that the ambition of the individual to obtain
for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living
throughout life is an ambition to be preferred to the appetite for great wealth
and great power.
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