Benign NeglectOpinion

Jaco: Tearing down the city and the country

ST. LOUIS – The old, admittedly sexist joke goes, “The definition of mixed feelings is watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your brand-new car.”

So when you see St. Louis-born billionaire Jack Dorsey, whose online platform gives free rein to racists and neo-Nazis, join with Detroit-born billionaire Bill Pulte, an admirer of President Donald Trump and heir to the Pulte home-building empire that pulled out of St. Louis last year because the profits in our stagnant market just weren’t big enough, smile warmly as their private foundation pays to tear down abandoned north side buildings, you definitely have mixed feelings.

On one hand, many of these buildings have been abandoned by white flight and absentee landlords for decades. Many are already collapsing, they’re a danger to neighborhoods and the children in them, and because they’re wrecks in high-crime ZIP codes, no private developers will touch them.

On the other hand, in a part of the city gutted and left for dead by disinvestment and municipal neglect, watching a pair of ultra-rich white guys go all Cheshire cat over creating new, empty, vacant lots in poor, African-American neighborhoods gives you a queasy feeling, especially when you realize they’re not replacing the buildings with anything. No new housing, no businesses, no nothing. Just vacant lots.

Various municipal plans over the decades have come up with all sorts of plans to re-vitalize the north side. And every one of them has involved tearing down the crumbling, abandoned monuments to urban failure. One iteration is the creation of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency campus between Cass and St. Louis avenues, where 98 square blocks of what once were homes and businesses have been flattened, awaiting construction of a federal spy agency campus that will be guarded by armed U.S. Air Force personnel and will require a top-secret clearance to get inside.

Other plans have called for everything from increased investment in the north side, to disinvestment by withholding municipal trash, police and fire services from entire neighborhoods so as to drive out (black) residents. But all of the plans, from benign to malign, involved tearing down buildings.

To many black residents, this smells like ethnic cleansing by a white monied power structure. While that may get to the dark heart of some redevelopment motives, it ignores the deadly nature of abandoned structures and the fact that no private developer with any sense would go within miles of bombed-out structures in neighborhoods overrun by poverty and gun violence.

Meanwhile, the region’s white majority is usually on board with the redevelopment-by-wrecking-ball train because they blame the north side’s wreckage on black dysfunction, crime, and unwillingness to maintain its own neighborhoods. Racist on several levels, that argument ignores the white flight and almost exclusively non-black absentee landlords responsible for the economic and infrastructure rubble in the first place.

The racial nature of disinvestment and redevelopment in urban America is something to keep in mind as Trump torches black and Hispanic lawmakers, and attacks their cities as pest-holes of crime and filth. His racist sputtering reflects what he thinks the majority of white America feels about the diverse urban areas that now house the majority of America’s population, its wealth and its innovation.

Suburban, exurban, and rural America has felt that way for decades, but their disdain became a major political force because Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, and because Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson in 2014. The election of Obama caused them to seethe with rage. The black uprisings that followed Ferguson caused them to welcome Trump with open arms.

The first vote cast for Donald Trump was cast by Officer Darren Wilson at noon on August 9, 2014, on Canfield Drive in Ferguson. Wilson actually cast several votes, all of them .40 caliber.

The uprisings that followed led to a lot of soul-searching around St. Louis. They led to investigations and reforms. And in much of white America, they led to the conclusion that the black population, especially in cities and contiguous suburbs, was dangerous and needed to be put down. If only there was a candidate who believed that. If only.

Trump’s blatant white nationalism and attacks on urban America seek to tear down any idea of a diverse America, and replace it with a white ethno-state that walls itself off from nonwhite immigrants while attacking and demonizing the nonwhites who already live inside it.

So while Trump tears down the entire idea of E Pluribus Unum, one of his fans and one of his enablers position themselves as philanthropists for tearing down buildings in the blackest part of one of America’s most distressed cities.

It seems, in the age of Trump, we’ve given up the idea of building anything. But we’re getting damn good at tearing things down.  

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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