Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Being Poor Doesn't Make You a Bad Person

The latest furor in Waterbury is over the proposed move by the city Health Department to Bank Street. The merchants on Bank Street are happy about the move, but the heads of Main Street Waterbury, the Chamber of Commerce, and Webster Bank are horrified by the proposal. As it has been explained to me, having a street-level clinic for poor people on Bank Street will prevent any new retail from moving in. Having poor people right next door to Circa is, I've been told, a terrible thing.

I've tried to look at this situation impartially. I understand that there is a plan to bring upscale businesses to Bank Street. I know that business owners prefer to avoid ghettos (but Bank Street, even with a clinic, is very extremely removed from being a ghetto!). Business owners also prefer streets without empty storefronts, and I think the boarded up and vacant windows will continue to be far more noticeable than a clinic.

I think the farmer's market on the Green this past summer is an excellent example of how the Health Department clinic on Bank Street won't be a bad thing. The farmer's market was frequented by upscale office workers and by people using food stamps. And they all got along fine. The wealthier folks showed no sign of being scared off by the poor people.

The argument against the clinic claims that this will prevent new businesses from moving in. But there haven't been any new businesses moving in, and there are no new businesses on the horizon.

Another facet of the argument is that there is a plan for smart growth. This is the only argument that makes sense to me. It makes sense to have medical services grouped together near the hospital. It makes sense for Bank Street to have more arts-related organizations and businesses. But the people who are fighting the clinic move could be using that same energy and resources to do more to promote the smart growth. Why, for example, doesn't Main Street move into one of the vacant storefronts?

Bank Street would be a perfect location for an artists' co-op gallery or association. There are dozens of artists in Waterbury, and dozens more in surrounding towns, who would participate. It's something that's fairly simple to get started--the only tricky part is getting funding for rent and utilities (ideally, there would also be funding for a director, but these sorts of organizations can run successfully as co-ops). Artists would be able to show and sell their work from the storefront, and make additional money offering art classes in the same location. Some of the artists might even want to rent upper floors as gallery spaces.

Artists are often among the first groups to revitalize urban areas, so why isn't anything being done to lure them to our downtown?

I recently visited Hot Springs, Arkansas, the 4th largest art town in the country. Hot Springs, like Waterbury, saw its major industry go belly up in the 1970s. The outskirts of the town are all hideous strip malls, but the town center is beautiful. There is a centrally located visitor's center, just a small building with an information desk, maps, brochures & menus, and public restrooms. The shops are a mixture, with a large number of galleries (including an artists' co-op), a few restaurants, some dollar stores, a "gentlemen's" club (featuring strip karaoke!), antique stores and book stores. Some of the businesses are very upscale. Most are not. But the key element is that there are no vacant store fronts.

There are too many people with power who want to gentrify Waterbury. I once overheard a lunchtime conversation in which was discussed a plan to tear down buildings at the intersection of North Main and East/West Farms. The plan is to claim that the road needs to be widened, but the true goal, as I overheard, is to get rid of the undesirable "element" that live and shop in that location. I've been there numerous times. Bertie's West Indian restaurant is there. More important, a poor community is there. The women I overheard want to destroy the community because it is poor. Wouldn't it be better to help build up the community so that it can thrive?

There is a discrimination problem in Waterbury, but it has nothing to do with race or religion. It is entirely about poverty. The signal being put out over the Health Department clinic makes it clear that if you are poor, certain people want you to stay out of sight.


Wayne's Mom said...

First of all, congratulations for your forward-thinking about planned growth. Secondly, thank you for your observations about Hot Springs, Ark., our home town for the last five years.

Obviously, there are no easy answers to the types of issues you discuss, but folks like you often become catalysts for think-tanks like our Focus Garland County: Vision 2010."

Despite our shortcomings, geographer Warren Bland named Hot Springs, Ark. the No. 1 place in America to retire.

I gotta admit, Hot Springs is a pretty cool place to live, even for those of us who aren't yet retired.

To see short documentary-style video clips about Hot Springs, check out SpaVlogger.

Rebecca McCormick,
Travel Journalist, Hot Springs Village Voice

SilkSatin a.k.a Wicker Woman said...

First of all, let me applaud your lucidity and concern.
I've been living in Waterbury for the past 9 years and learned to love it, pretty much the way you do.
I see so much potential in this now belly up community.
But I also see the divide you are talking about and like you I believe that is exactly what is keeping Waterbury from thriving and reaching its full potential.
I've seen projects to revitalize downtown come and go, (what ever happened to the High Tech Zone project?)
The wealthy and city authorities insisting in hiding the dirt under a glamorous carpet, instead of dealing with it and help the community back on its feet, we will keep looking at empty store fronts in a reasonably clean downtown, surrounded by ghettos no one wants to look at.
I am also an artist and I loved the artist co op idea.
Maybe a few more of us can get together and get things moving?