York Stater of the Month, December 2005

For our first award of York Stater of the month, we presented a challenge to our readership. Following a discussion on gentrification and the troubling problem of urban renewal, we asked our readers to ponder the following question:
I would like to hear how can our communities revitalize themselves without betraying their heritage? How can we have vital towns, villages and cities without evicting the residents of those places? Does anyone have any ideas? Does anyone know of any examples of communities who have succeeded in a rebirth without selling out?… the person who presents the most informative example of progress without gentrification, or the most creative plan for carrying this out (as judged by the obviously biased judges Jesse and Natalie) by the end of December will be given the purely symbolic honor of: York Stater of the Month.
We received a half dozen responses to this post on the blog and several more in person. In the end, we decided that the most thought-provoking post had been made by Jon Senchyne. Jon wrote:
…"bettering" and "beautifying" communities functions according to concepts of what is good, bad, and ugly… Natalie is right to point out that coffee shops, art museums, and full apartment complexes are good things. In fact, I would say that they are beautiful and better things than their opposite. Just as we have to be careful not to displace people who have lived in communities their entire lives... we also must not do that at the expense of fundamentally questioning the exploitative economic structures that have led to poverty, disallusion, urban blight, etc. We ought not want to preserve what is ugly (poverty) just so we don't feel bad about disrupting traditional ways of being (because those ways of being are exploitative and destructive)… So the question is not, "how do we preserve this way of being for these people against capitalistic "beautification," but rather it is, "how do we transform economic structures in such a way to make real beauty possible?"

In a second comment, Jon continued with a more concrete solution, though noting that the struggle for beauty cannot be separated from the struggle for social justice:
[Instead of investing, once again, in megacorporations with no true ties to our communities] I think it would be wiser to take all that money and invest it into the people who have been here, have a link here, and are unlikely to leave. If you give a low interest 10 year loan to a small business run by locals, you are doing a couple of things that are better than giving 5 million dollars of tax break to a Loews or Eckherd. 1. You are guaranteeing that this entity will be in place for at least 10 years in the community. 2. You are granting the money to a person who is unlikely to pack up and leave on you (if for no other reason than that they do not have the kind of mobility that capital does). 3. You are going to end up with a business that has character, one that will contribute to the fabric of a sector of the city in a way that no Gap or Old Navy can (no matter how "quirky" they try to make their corporate identity by - yes, Starbucks, you may have a "local info" board, but I know that same damn board is up in the Starbucks in Kansas City, nice try at indiosyncrisy, but you can't buy local like you can't buy love. City planners know that what makes a place come to life is the kind of vitality that no chain store can bring. 4. If you have locally owned businesses, you are increasing the chance (a lot) that money will stay in town a little longer. The more you can get money to circulate before leaving town, the healthier the economy. Say you spend ten dollars at WalMart. That ten bucks is taken and shipped to Corporate, one half a cent is sent back to an employee in your area. If you spend that ten dollars at a local hardware store, the owner who lives above it or down the street is more likely to take that ten bucks and spend it in town (either on construction for improvements of his shop, coffee and eggs at the diner, or on an employee that MUST live in the area (as opposed to Wal Mart that pays (albeit very little) employees all over the world. Why finance a cashier in Kansas City when Syracuse is of greater concern to you?
Besides this insightful analysis of the problem of achieving revitalization and beautification without gentrification, Jon has been a firm proponent of our communities in other ways. Most notably, he is the editor of the Living Forge literary journal, the first of its kind dedicated solely to the literature of the Rust Belt. Jon’s journal, now in its second edition, has featured the works of poets, including Charles Bukowski, photographers, writers and researchers. To quote the inaugural edition’s introduction:

“Imagine a nation where almost ninety percent of the published material comes from one major metropolis- New York City. Envision a mass distributed literature with a multitude of different publisher imprints, in reality different ‘labels’ for five major firms, large corporations tied to book superstores.

What kind of art would be in those books, magazines, and films? What types of voices could get lost, or shall we say, ignored? It might be the voices of the Rust Belt, a place where artists live in depressed socioeconomic regaions and have marginalized access in sharing their artisitic media outside of the local neighborhood… Have faith with us and see the next Charles Bukowski or a Maya Angelou punching in at the factory In Pittsburgh. Times too tough they say, to get their work published… We come from a rich tradition that we have been told not to be proud of. It is time to celeb rate our tradition, its positive and negative attributes, and armed with that knowledge, rebuild our communities, reinvest in our futures and become active participates in a sustainable renaissance. It is time to put aside the closed factories and steel mills and being a Living Forge.”

We could not agree more, Jon, and we salute you as our first York Stater of the Month. To say farewell, I will use, like the editors of Living Forge, the Polish word for Solidarity,


Posted by Jesse

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