Changing The Neighborhood
By James M. Vines
I cannot believe it, another business is closing down. How can a person hope for the neighborhood to thrive if everybody leaves. I told them to hang on, that things would get better. I grew up in this section of town. No matter what happens, I am not giving up.
That is what I said 5 years ago, that was my battle cry. Since then I have taken some real gut punches, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. I graduated from high school and took a job in my neighborhood. I wanted to live in the same community I grew up in. I knew opportunities were limited, but I never saw my mom or dad shy away from hard work. So between working and community college, I didn’t think I had too much time for anything else, until the place I had a job closed down. At first I was frustrated, but then I became angry. I thought there was nothing I could do, but I soon found out different. It was in my freshman political science class , my professor talked about community organizing and taking action. I listened intently and read everything I could about how politics works. I began to talk to my local city council representative. Her name was Council woman Tanner. She was about 50, she had been on the council for 3 terms already. The first time I came to her, she was all smiles and polite conversation. That all changed though the first time I attended a council meeting. I began to ask questions, you know about the closing of the business where I worked. I wanted to know why it had to close and what the council was doing about it. I soon found out that I was in the artic when it came to the council. They smiled but did little in the way of answering my questions. I knew that if things were going to change, then I wasn’t going to be able to depend on them. I needed to get involved and start making changes. First however, I needed a new job.
I looked for a new job for a month, but there was no one hiring in my community, I then stumbled on something down at our local church, there I saw a flyer up, MAKE YOUR OWN FUTURE! It was a program for young people, it taught you how to develop a business plan and implement it. I wasn’t working, so I called the number. It wasn’t long until I had a new occupation, I was in the cleaning business. I started a laundry and cleaning service for people who didn’t have time to do it for themselves. I was picking up their clothes and taking them to the laundry. I would wash them dry them and fold them for a price. I was also offering to clean houses. I know some people say that kind of work is beneath them, but I knew that I had to get some money coming in.
So after I got my service up and running, I turned my efforts back to the local community. I went down to city hall and got information from the local planning commission. I wanted to see what was going on with the neighborhood. I had to dig through a pile of bureaucratic legal ease, but I finally found information I could use. It turns out that the so called friend of the people, Ms. Tanner had been not so friendly to my neighborhood. Money that was supposed to go to our section of town had been diverted by her to another area that she represented, an area where to quote the planning commission, “there was more growth potential“. Well as you can imagine, this made my blood boil. How could she do this? I went home and spoke to my parents, they told me that I shouldn’t be surprised, that is how politicians are. I felt like you know, that gut punch I talked about. So I went to my room and sat down to think about things. I fell asleep with it on my mind. When I woke up the next morning, I knew I had another idea. Things were going to change, I just had to get the ball rolling.
After the eye opening information I got from the city, I began on a new quest. I started going around to all of the remaining businesses and talking to the owners. I asked everybody I could get to talk to me if they knew about the dirty dealings. Most had no idea of what was going. I also found out that there was no representation in the community as far as anybody being a member of a chamber of commerce. So I decided to take a new step, I went back to my school library and got everything I could find on the legal way to set up a merchant association. It took me a month, between part time school and my new business , but I was finally able to get all of the remaining small businesses to agree to form the association. With me there were 30 members. I decided to let some of the older business owners take senior positions, but I was elected secretary of the neighborhood merchants association. We agreed to meet once a month to discuss community issues and make plans of action concerning the neighborhood development. While all of this was going on, I found myself in sort of a personal dilemma. You know the small business that I started, well it took off. I now had more customers than I could service, so I had decisions of my own to make. Luckily for me, one of the older business owners was willing to give me advice on what I should do next. I decided that the store I used to work at would be a great place to hang out my shingle, so I got my savings together and rented the building. Before I knew it, I was up and running with two employees to help me. While all of this was good, it still didn’t address the pressing issues facing the neighborhood, people were still leaving. That had to come to an end or there would be no community left.
After much research and debate among the members of the merchants association, I brought some information to the other business owners attention. I presented some facts that we were unaware. The money that had previously been allocated for improvements in our neighborhood had come from a federal grant program. In basic terms, it was dedicated funds and could not be reapportioned to anything else. I found out that the paperwork that was filed showed the money was being spent in the council woman’s district, but exactly where it was went was ambiguous. The merchants association decided to write a formal letter of inquiry to the city council, as expected the letter was met with the frigidity of a block of ice. There were even some repercussions as a code inspector began coming by nit picking about some of the businesses. I knew that this was harassment, but didn’t know what could be done. That was until one of the people in the merchants associations said she had a niece that might be able to help. She asked me if I would meet with her. I said I would be glad for any help I could get. The next thing I know, I am sitting in a sandwich shop waiting to meet a woman I did not know. I wasn’t sure what she would bring to the table, but I was about to be surprised.
Her name was Karen, she was slender, with long hair and I lost my wits when she came in. She came up to me and said hello. I hesitated to respond. I though what was wrong with me. I got hello out, she said her aunt had told her about my problem and that she thought it would make a great human interest piece for her paper. She was a reporter, suddenly my brain kicked back into gear. I was lost in the fact that she was a pretty young woman, but now I was back on track. She smiled kind of sheepishly but I stopped fumbling and said, yeah, have a got a story for you. So we sat for an hour, on the record, I went through all of the things that were going on. She seemed to soak it up like a sponge. I gave her copies of my research, of the letter from the merchants association and the response from the council or lack there of. She finished questions and I bought her a coffee, she said that she would be in touch with me once she went to the council to get their side of the story. That is when I lost it, in my head I thought their side of the story, what had she been hearing for the past hour? She saw the look on my face and sat back down. I asked her what gives? She explained that for her to be able to write the story, that she had to have both sides. She said that it wouldn’t be fair to write one side without giving the other party the chance to respond first. So I nodded in agreement. I then thanked her for her time and went on my way. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, but I knew that something more needed to be done.
Well as expected, the story did come out about a month later. The city council and the mayors office back peddled and evaded as best as they could. The code inspections stopped and suddenly city work crews found the time to come in and make some superficial repairs on streets and lights, but nothing as substantial as might been needed to help revitalize the community. I went back to city hall and got a cost estimate of the work that had been done. It turns out that what had been spent was only 15 percent of the money that had been allocated originally. I had it up to my eyeballs. I didn’t understand what else I could do, then it hit me in the face like a ton of bricks. I saw a billboard on the edge of the street where I now was running a successful business. The mayor had put up a campaign ad. I went back to my business office and called city hall. I spoke with the board of elections and ask if my council woman’s seat was up this election. They told me that she was up for re-election. I made my decision then and there. I knew the only way that I was ever going to save the neighborhood and bring about true change was to unseat the council woman and take her place. I got all of the information emailed to me from the city board of elections and I was more than eligible to run. All I needed to do is be 18, a resident of the district and not have a criminal record. I met all of those qualifications. I was now 21 years old a part time college student and business owner and community leader. I knew that if I wanted to get change in my community, that I would have to be that change!