Monday, November 30, 2009

Refuge or Prison?

In a recent posting, the Growler explored the notion of Parker-Gray as a walled city, a political and economic construct that seems utterly irrelevant with the death of Jim Crow and the arrival of the new millenium.

Undoubtedly there are political leaders in Alexandria who feel that they are protecting the old community by pursuing policies that encourage and nurture separatism, regardless of how peculiar or outmoded that notion might be.

But are these officials really looking after the best interests of those they seek to shield?

The Growler would argue that in fact these same leaders have recreated the lost world of segregation and are in effect protecting a second-class kingdom in which the residents they claim to protect are actually the losers.

Take education, for example. Today Jefferson-Houston Elementary School is fundamentally a segregated school, in which the poorest minority children in Alexandria are confined with the implicit or tacit approval of City leaders.

If education is the single most effective ladder to climb out of the depths of poverty, are these children's best interests being served by keeping them isolated in a chronically underperforming environment? The school is nothing less than a reincarnation of the old Parker-Gray Elementary School of the 1930s. Is that something to be proud of as 2010 approaches?

Then there's the issue of public housing and crime. This past summer the Growler used the Alexandria Police Department's own statistics to demonstrate beyond a doubt that crime in the 16th census tract (Parker-Gray) and its sub-tracts increases the closer one moves toward Andrew Adkins, James Bland or Samuel Madden Uptown. As of July, nearly 40% of the homicides in Alexandria in the last few years were committed in our small community,

While many neighbors of the projects have bewailed the impact of crime, it's sometimes forgotten that residents of the projects also feel besieged. In fact, they often feel its impact more directly and are more likely to be its victims.

As the Growler has pointed out before, ARHA Chairman Melvin Miller stated in a public board meeting a few years ago that many individuals on the waiting list for public housing prefer to drop back on the list and wait longer rather than go into Bland or Adkins due to the level of crime. ARHA board members also told the Growler on the Mayor's walk a few years ago that residents were equally concerned about drug dealers from the District and elsewhere flocking around their homes and making life difficult. We also know that Bland residents concerned about crime tried (without success) to make their worries known to City officials at the Braddock Road Metro planning charrettes.

Who would think that this situation represents ideal living conditions in Parker-Gray?

Finally, there is the issue of quality of housing. Some City leaders are so intent on "preserving the community" and advocating the retention of crumbling buildings here for another few decades that they forget that public housing residents in our area live in units without amenities such as central air conditioning, dryers, dishwashers, and garbage disposals. At HOPE VI meetings nearly two years ago, Bland residents also talked about a mold problem there which was affecting their health and that of their children.

We also know that residents of ARHA properties have complained bitterly about deferred maintenance and how they wait not days but months or even years for repairs. So substandard is the maintenance that religious groups have had to step in recently to force ARHA to become more responsive when such issues are reported. Is it not telling that the initiative is not coming from elected or appointed City officials who purport to protect this neighborhood and its inhabitants, but from faith-based organizations not based in this area?

In the last analysis, it's clear that those who have used their political muscle to sanctify the notion of a separate realm called Parker-Gray have done little or nothing to improve education, eradicate crime or improve living conditions for those who live within its walls.

The remaining question is what motivation lies behind these leaders' drive to wall off Parker-Gray. Is it to create a separate but equal Utopia or to confine and control?

Is it at bottom a power issue?