If there is any one surefire takeaway that springs to mind from my lengthy period of civic engagement — the grassroots era, those “localism” years, and 15 years spent trying to find just one Floyd County Democrat who could grasp complete streets, and was prepared to act on this unprecedented knowledge — it is the inability of self-styled “progressive” townies down the block to read their homework about the ways “progress” might occur in a small city, and to accept any semblance of constructive criticism when they persist in ignoring regressive local measures.
Back in 2004 I turned to the local scene when it finally became clear to me that hours on end spent endlessly pontificating about national politics is time wasted. It’s a numbers game, and you don’t have the numbers. Rather, my evolving theory was to get involved here, and to help assemble local coalitions to get things done, right here where we live.
You might as well try pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.
In fact there are a dozen local coalitions, each with its own specific gospel truth (historic preservation, buy local, the so-called “Main Street” organization, etc.), each possessing a figurehead, and each quite positive that it, and it alone, is in possession of the truth.
Historic preservation is a great example of this. Preservationists view themselves as floating above the fray as ironclad guarantors of timeless wisdom, and at times they plainly are in the right, and yet they, too, seek to wield disproportionate power, pretending to be aloof while all the while obsequiously suckling the teats of any power base (read: city hall) that might assist them in ranging beyond their mandate.
Unfortunately, too often the preservationists are clueless as to how real people live.
A few weeks ago in Louisville, a well-known local architect began trying to herd the city’s preservationists (who generally are older white males) to save Liberty Hall, a building downtown that Mayor Greg Fischer, in one of has patented capitulatory neoliberal tics, already had foredoomed six or more years ago by gifting it, along with land and money, to a far-off corporation.
Fisher’s deal with the utterly predictable Omni Hotel people allowed them to develop the property to their heart’s content, and when the time came to demolish the remaining old structure, well, fuck it, just remove the building from the historic register and the city will pay to bulldoze it.
Fischer is a blithering idiot, but we already knew that.
So, with the Omni ready to cash in and have Louisville bulldoze Liberty Hall, the city’s preservationists began beating the drum, only to find that Jecorey Arthur, newly elected councilman for the district in question, had no intention whatever of helping them.
Arthur, an activist who is both young and Black, responded to the ensuing manufactured outrage with a series of perfectly sensible social media posts, in essence asking rhetorically why the old white guys were so interested in saving an old building, one already thrown overboard by the mayor, that in its prime had functioned as a repository for white privilege.
Furthermore, queried Arthur, why weren’t the preservationists angered by numerous other factors oppressing the Black community in the district, ranging from an affordable housing shortage to food deserts, and including institutionalized racism? If Liberty Hall were “saved,” wouldn’t it become just another organic free-range smoothie bar?
The preservationists spluttered and roared. However, one thing they did NOT do was listen to what Arthur was saying. Two different languages were being spoken.
Personally, I tend to favor architectural preservation. I’m an adaptive reuse kind of guy. But Arthur’s principled response impressed me deeply, even if the councilman’s words would bounce ineffectually off the folks living in my Nawbanian neighborhood who are happy to protest injustice so long as they aren’t required to sacrifice anything.
They’re very good at commending lip service on the part of the local (not so democratic) Democratic Party, and that’s where it ends.
Take the Black Lives Matters moment in 2020. A protest march was planned in New Albany, and city government moved faster than anyone can recall to effectively co-opt it by “partnering” with BLM organizers. Self-styled progressives were delighted; now the activity had been neutered to such an extent that they could safely pay fealty, again without spending a farthing of their own political capital.
Had someone sought to follow up on this anodyne “protest” with an independent event, City Hall’s response would have been in accordance with previous policies: clearing homeless encampments, acting to depopulate public housing, and maintaining the time-honored glass ceiling that keeps minorities and women from attaining leadership positions in municipal government.
As for those of us who delight in explicating these hypocrisies, which after all qualifies as the sort of constructive criticism necessary to maintain genuine democracy, we’re subject to current best practices of being ostracized. Democratic Party elites in Nawbany remain “democratic” in name only, and in fact, self-styled progressives are always in the minority, seemingly determined to keep themselves there while the mayor and his clique are re-elected (and reappointed) with the votes of the city’s Dixiecrats; they’re dying off, but still sufficiently numerous to carry elections while progressives fall for the Disneyland facade of wasted pay-to-play public works programs.
The powers that be in a town like New Albany enjoy playing in the dirt, and yet they keep their hands oh so squeaky clean.