Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Vacancy and Dilapidation: Part 1

Throughout the city of Philadelphia, as with many east coast cities, there is a large problem with vacant lots and dilapidated buildings.   One of my first times in Philadelphia was to do a walk through of a neighborhood just east of Center City called Point Breeze.   When you are walking the streets of Point Breeze, you can literally look down any road to the West and see a distinct line dividing the glamor of Center City’s high rises and condominiums from Point Breeze’s old row homes mingled with corner stores and vacant lots.   

The distinct lines of urban neighborhoods have always fascinated me, because there are two worlds bordering each other but few will pass between the two.  

A 2010 article in Philadelphia Weekly reports that there were about 40,000 vacant lots spread throughout the city (Kase, 2010).  There are many problems associated with vacant and abandon properties including declining property values in surrounding communities, loss of money to the city in unpaid taxes, neighborhood safety, illegal dumping, and overall neighborhood blight. 

What has caused all of these vacancies?  Some contributors have been the change from an industrial to more technologically driven society.   Once more mechanic methods of industry and practices such as outsourcing took over, bustling centers of business became haunts, reminding many of “what used to be.” Also, rising costs of home ownership, declining property values, and rising foreclosure rates have contributed to this problem.  As more people are unable to keep up with the rising costs of energy, taxes, insurance and repair, they are either forced out or abandon ship.  Of the 40,000, about 12,000 properties are reported as being public owned, mostly as the result of foreclosure, I’d assume (Kase, 2010).  Combine all these industrial and economic changes, and you are left with a literal mess in cities like Philadelphia.

Shot of vacant lot in Lucas' article
One woman reported to a Philly.com reporter that she has been living next to a condemned building for four years; the property has an overgrown back yard with a hole into the vacant home, which draws in drug users, children playing, and vermin like rats and roaches (Lucas, 2011).  Needless to say this is both a public health and safety hazard for community members, especially children.  Unfortunately, lots such as these contribute to a lack of city pride across Philadelphia, and Lucas’ article goes on to quote a resident that says neighbors and city agencies, “Just don’t care” (Lucas, 2011).   The interesting question is, “Do they not care, or have they given up hope?”   It is easy to understand why they feel hopeless, when they look around at land forgotten and abused. 

 Lucas, Phillip. "Marquis of Debris: They're Sick of These Dumps." Featured Articles from Philly.com. Philly.com, 18 Aug. 2011. Web. 30 Aug. 2011. <http://articles.philly.com/2011-08-18/news/29900900_1_trash-pit-neighbors-drug-addicts>.

Kase, Aaron. "The Ugly Truth About Philly's Vacant Lots | News and Opinion | Philadelphia Weekly." Philadelphia Weekly | Local News, Reviews, Multimedia, Music, Real Estate and More. Philadelphia Weekly, 16 Nov. 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2011. <http://www.philadelphiaweekly.com/news-and-opinion/The-Ugly-Truth-About-Phillys-Vacant-Lots.html>.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Lack of Foresight

While in my undergraduate program, I often studied issues related to urban poverty.  After three years of avid study, I felt my research always pointed to this as a top cause of poverty: single parenting and specifically teenage parenting.  While teenage pregnancy is an issues found in more than urban areas, statistics indicate that urban areas as the epicenter of this problem.  Take Pennsylvania, for example.  The city of Philadelphia has historically and still tops the state in pregnancy rates.   The rate is calculated by the amount of pregnancies over the number of females ages 15-19 times 1,000, so the rate does not mean the rate is high just because there are more teens in Philadelphia than other places in the state.

When I graduated, it was my desire to serve the single parent population, so I began working full-time at an organization that provided services including teen parenting workshops and special programs.  I had the opportunity to meet with several teen moms, during my time working for this organization.  I found that teen moms are taxed with a very heavy burden, often with little support.  For some, parents will kick them out of the house, leaving mom and baby homeless.  Also, there are a number of teen moms not support financially or emotionally by their “baby daddy,” but I will add that I seemed to see a lot of young men really trying to step up and be supportive.  For teen moms, dropping out of school is often the only option, because they must work to support their child or children.  All of this wraps up into a cyclic problem, as undereducated teen moms will continue to struggle financially in the future, because they lack the education to get stable and well-paying jobs.  I’m not even going to get into the problems for children of teen parents. 

All in all, teen parents are in dire need of quality services providing the support they need to thrive.  I had heard of the ELECT (Education Leading to Employment and Career Training) program when I worked in my first job, but I did not hear about the impact of their organization until I read a July article in the Inquirer.  ELECT is a statewide program, but given the concentration of teen pregnancy in Philadelphia, it has always been the focus.  Starting as primarily a service to provide teen parents with education and career support, it has evolved to provide medical, child care, transportation, and counseling referrals. 

According to the Inquirer Article titled Program for Pregnant Students has Unclear Future, “ELECT serves about 1,000 students, a dam against the joblessness and despair that routinely await unwed teenage dropouts… Nationally, only 40 percent of mothers who have children before age 18 go on to graduate. Many drop out in Philadelphia, too, though ELECT cites a high graduation rate. Last school year, among 403 students who met the criteria for graduation - completing course work and other requirements - 369 graduated. That's 91 percent.”  Despite the success of this program, it seems that the state budget has determined this program less worthy than other items, and the summer program and middle school aged afterschool programs have been cut. The state of the main in-school program will depend upon the allocation of funds from the Department of Education and Public Welfare Offices.

Considering the massive cuts in school budgets, I do not think the Department of Education will have a lot to spare, and looking at a breakdown of the 2011-2012 budget there are many cuts to Public Welfare spending.  In researching for follow-up information on the state of ELECT, I have not been able to locate any information, but I am afraid that this will be another casualty of economic war.  The shame really is, “The cost of teenage births to state taxpayers, in lost tax revenue, public health care, and children welfare runs $463 million a year” (Gammage, 2011).  A lack of foresight seems to be the biggest problem that our state government is unable to overcome. 

Source: Gammage, Jeff. "Program for Pregnant Students Has Unclear Future." Philly.Com. The Inquirer Digital, 19 July 2011. Web. 19 July 2011. <http://www.philly.com/philly/education/20110719_Program_for_pregnant_students_has_unclear_future_1.html>.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Peaceful Resistance and Community Organizing

Anna Hazare is a name that has been hyped through world news broadcasts for the last couple of months.  Said to be working from a Gandhian influence, Hazare has been using similar protest tactics (such as peaceful resistance) to ensure government action against corruption.  In terms of government action, Hazare’s movement to demand the institution of anti-corruption laws and now the creation of an anti-corruption agency.  He has even instituted fasts-to-the-death.  

When reading articles about Hazare, I was forced to question his comparison to Gandhi.  Were they using peaceful resistance in the same way?   I did not feel at peace about comparison of Hazare to Gandhi, especially his use of fasts-to-the-death.  Hazare’s first was instituted with a condition that he would not eat until the government passed an anti-corruption bill.  Primarily, Gandhi campaigned for India’s independence because of the injustices being committed against its citizens.  He fought against injustices such as “untouchability,” alcoholism, ignorance and poverty.  His fasts were motivated to fight these injustices and bring unity, never to demand independence from the government (http://www.telegraphindia.com/1110621/jsp/opinion/story_14136304.jsp).  Hazare’s specific demands upon the government through fasting does not reflect Gandhi in that it lends to violence, and some have argued is violent in and of itself.  

When I read about Hazare’s fast-to-the-death, I was first struck with the potential this had to initiate violent retaliation.  The public has indeed been energized by Hazare to stand up against government corruption, and he is now a national symbol.  The fact that he is such a valued symbol to the people of India, makes me questions his tactics.  What if he dies because the government does not meet his demands?  I imagine it would cause chaos. Unlike Gandhi, Hazare has a very tangible opponent on which the people can reflect their anger, which amplifies the potential for violence.    

All in all, my point is that protest and peaceful resistance must be used carefully, as it can easily be distorted into riot.  Consider the London Riots over an unprovoked police shooting.  While citizens were impassioned for the right reasons, (the injustice of this incident) the result was destructive rioting.  It seems the human psyche can easily cross the line to violence, when passion is evoked, so even if the intent is peaceful, the result can be violent. 

How does this relate to the urban context?  I have begun to think about peaceful resistance in the context of urban communities and its effectiveness in community organizing.   Can peaceful resistance be used to bring awareness to injustices in our current climate?  It was very effective in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, and a whole generation of African Americans were empowered to speak out against injustice and helped to change significant legislation.  Could this work today?  

As mentioned above, I think that it can be a very powerful tool, but it has to be used delicately.  In the wake of flash mobs, not only in Philadelphia but in cities like Chicago and Germantown (MD), teens have been motivated to demonstrate their frustrations.  While I am not sure the exact nature of their frustrations, I can imagine they might about: the educational system, police brutality, gun violence in their communities, parents having to work multiple jobs, blatant acts of racism, etc.   In the absence of guidance, these youth started a movement to action that quickly turned violent, but if mobilized by someone with a vision, things could be different.  

I believe that figures like Gandhi or groups of people like community development organizations can be necessary in guiding in peaceful resistance, but things can become dangerous when the focus is too concentrated upon the figure or group.  There has to be a point where that figure or group can step away.  This point must be when the community members are empowered to organize themselves.  Along with empowerment, there must be a sense of unity binding the community together.  Like Gandhi, I believe the point of resistance is point out a structural injustice and unify people towards finding a solution.     

I can picture protest and peaceful resistance being effective is many urban injustices.  Thinking back to the spring, students in the Philadelphia school district I think formulated a very successful act of peaceful resistance with walk-outs at Audenried and West Philadelphia High Schools (http://articles.philly.com/2011-02-16/news/28538690_1_33d-and-tasker-streets-audenried-high-school-students-renaissance-schools-initiative/2).  Student leaders mobilized students to come together at the School District building to show their resistance to the schools becoming Promise Academies.  While officials and some parents were upset by it, I think that it was great example of peaceful resistance and students dealing with their frustrations in the productive way. 

  • What do you think about peaceful resistance?   
  • Do you have examples of it being used in the urban context?

Monday, August 15, 2011

Urban Gentrification of the Mind by Teyne Crum

Teyne Crum is an alumnus of the MA in Urban Studies program. Currently, she is the CEO and Lead Consultant for Beyond the Exterior. You can learn more about her organization at www.beyondtheexterior.org. She also writes regular articles for http://www.maxexpomag.com, including this post:

Our youth today are so bombarded with entertainment; the media seems to plague their minds with false images and unrealistic views of reality. Today’s youth are more likely to pick up a remote control,exercise their brains with video games, and watch music videos or television for hours at a time. In short, they are more likely to engage in activities that do not warrant reading or studying. Why is it that our youth know more about Hip-Hop artists, fashion trends, how to write and speak in “Ebonics”, understand sexual terminologies, and engage in these activities but, they do not know how to read or write a constructive paragraph. The truth of the matter is many youth have what may be termed “gentrification of the mind”.

The pivotal questions that puzzle me often are: Why is it not a shock when a 14 year-old becomes pregnant or impregnates someone? Why is it the norm for teens to walk into a local convenient store to purchase cigars, blunts, cigarettes, and alcoholic beverages? Why is it the norm to see more and more teens walking around wearing the latest fashion: $100.00 or $200.00 pair of sneakers or boots, leather jackets that cost more than one’s monthly mortgage or rent? Yet, they can barely read or spell the name of these items they are flaunting. Is this not a sign of urban gentrification of the mind plaguing our youth and overtaking our communities?

According to the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, gentrification is defined as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary) This definition may be used to describe the mindset of today’s youth. The minds of our youth have been so overtaken by the materialistic ideals of the affluent that their spirit, hearts, and minds end up displaced. In effect, today’s youth exchange the image and trappings of wealth and the material world for their mental and spiritual development.

Nevertheless, why point out the ignorance of our youth without acknowledging the parents who are promoting these habits. Unfortunately, there are too many parents who are recipients of welfare and use these benefits to create an illusion of wealth. They would rather spend someone else’s tax money on color flat screen high definition TVs, surround sound, (fake) Gucci or Versace handbags, boots, and jewelry. It seems to be normal to spend money from the government on marijuana and alcohol instead of putting food on the table, keeping one’s lights on, or even investing the funds into their child’s education. This behavior is taught and modeled in many homes and no one seems to care. The curse of poverty, lack of education, and enslaved mentality has become a curse passed down from one generation to the next.

The mentality of our youth in this generation has been distorted time and time again. The Bible says, “My people are destroyed because of a lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6a). The devil has placed blinders over the eyes of our young people. Although this generation did not experience slavery in the physical sense in the way of that our ancestors experienced it, they still have an enslaved mentality. They are stuck in a culture that is destroying their very being, self-image, self-esteem, future, and hope for their future. Recall for a moment the Israelites who were freed from Egypt out the hands of Pharaoh, entered into the wilderness to get instructions from God, and eventually cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. The Israelites’ journey through the wilderness was supposed to last for 3 days and 3 nights, not 40 years. However, the journey lasted for 40 years because of their disobedience and because the Israelites still had an enslaved mentality. Do the Israelites sound like this generation? How long will this generation stay stuck in this Urban Gentrified Mindset? Pharaoh was slave master to the Israelites, and sadly the Urban Gentrified Culture is the slave master of this generation.

In order for our youth to be freed from this bondage and their eyes opened, they need to understand there is more to life then following a trend. The Bible says, “What will you gain, if you own the whole world but destroy yourself?” (Mark 8:36 Cont. English Ver.). Only if our young people believe in themselves and that they “can do all things through Christ which strengthen” us (Phil. 4:13), then perhaps they would strive to get more out of life.

The norm in this generation should be that a 14 year-old child graduates from high school with honors and then graduates from college by his or her 18thbirthday. The norm should be a child who is seeking to create a video game that educates and stimulates the minds of his or her peers instead of wasting their brain cells on violence and sexual explicit games. How about our young people striving to be the youngest politician, lawyer, doctor, or next engineer?

People, please hear my cry, and educate our young people. Young people, please stop being lazy and read, do research, know where the things you are wearing come from, its meanings, and know your history.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Check out my Guest Blog! Racism: Past Evil or Present Foe?

Read my Guest Blog on Kurt Willem's blog The Pangea!  Feedback is welcomed!


I am the type of person that often likes to begin “controversial” or “Taboo” conversations with those I am closest. In talking with one friend, we began to consider the strides of American society in terms of racism. I remember my friend commenting that despite great efforts of the civil rights movement and legislation changes, racism is still alive and well. While society is no longer able to label bathrooms and water fountains, if you simply take a close look, you can still that inequality has still used its massive hand to racial separate people. While I am very grateful for past efforts to ensure equality for all people, I believe that we still have a far ways to go, but unless we recognize this, things will only remain the same.

A couple of weeks ago, the Urban League came out with an article entitle Urban League report finds growing racial disparities. Through research of unemployment, mortgage application approval, wealth, and income, the Urban League synthesized startling figures supporting my claim that racism still exists. Throughout the economic downturn of the last two years, it seems that no one has been exempt from feeling an impact whether that has been involving housing, loans, or employment. I will not claim that only racial minorities has been negatively effective by the economic crisis, data does show that some have been disproportionately been impacted.

Where is one place that we can see racism at work? In examining most urban areas, it is evident that neighborhoods are still very segregated. This can be proven by simply talking to a native Philadelphian who will recognize that there is both a “black and Hispanic” section of North Philadelphia. I am sure people could share this same story of neighborhood segregation across the country, but is it the only place we see segregation? In response to a Washington Post story on the Urban League’s findings, one reader comments that racism, as referenced in the article, is the inevitable result of obsession with race. The reader asserts that by addressing these issues we are giving life to racism. Idealistically, race, a much debated concept among theorists, is a term used to create divisions among people groups by their physical appearance that we should disregard, but to ignore the statistics pointing to certain inequalities among these created divisions does not end racism. We are living in a world produced by past decisions of government, using different methods to define groups of people, not just race but also class, gender, ability, etc.

Here is a question: How is this reflected in American churches? There are many churches that are considered traditionally ___ churches; you fill in the blank. Many churches are divided by race. Martin Luther King Jr. commented once that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week. Is this an injustice? Are churches segregated? Are racially monolithic churches “right, ”or are multi-cultural churches “right”? I think this is a worthwhile conversation to have.

There are many schools of thought about multi-cultural churches, and one I think of is that Spenser Perkins and Chris Rice reflected in their book More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel. Through this book, Perkins and Rice seek to share how racial reconciliation can happen through: Admit, Submit and Commit. This is a great resource to explore the idea of racial reconciliation in the church context.
Perkins and Rice talk about the importance of people of various races finding a safe place to bring about reconciliation, which can happen in a multi-cultural church. As a Christian, I firmly believe in the importance of reconciliation, not only with God but with other people, which to me means across racial lines. Thus, I firmly believe in intentional multi-cultural churches (particularly in communities that are multicultural), which not only look multicultural, but have those of all races in leadership and the culture of all represented in the service. Why? I believe this is important in creating a safe place, harboring relationships where we can admit our own struggles and prejudices, submit to one another in love, and commit to deep relationships where reconciliation can happen. 

However, this should be a conversation, on-going, so I encourage this to become a dialogue.
Conversations on issues such as these are healthy within churches and among professing Christians. I deeply appreciate the program for which I work, the MA in Urban Studies, where students from a variety of backgrounds meet to talk about issues of justice including racial reconciliation. Through talking about these hard issues, solutions can be found, which inspires change, real change!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Flash mobs and a Culture of Senseless Violence

Flash Mobs  Why? I have been hearing about this teenage trend for over a year now, and I am still struggling to understand why.  Flash mobs have become a growing problem in cities throughout the US, especially in Philadelphia.  Once just a form of performance art, how have they become such a violent demonstration?   The first contemporary flash mob recorded was in 2003 when people organized a group to flash in a New York Macy’s.  In reading several articles and blog posts, the only common conclusion that it seems we have reached is that there is a link between technology and this phenomenon.  With primarily teenagers, flash mobs are organized through the internet and communicated by social media and texting.  Technology has become the vehicle for organizing these violent events.  

In pondering why, there are some thoughts that I have collected.  Being a teen in the 90s, I watched my generation be enamored by senseless danger and violence.  Between the evolution of slap stick comedy to programs like “Jack-A**” most of my peers would daily intake these movies and shows, desensitizing their minds to violence.   Media has only taken this trend and continued to evolve its violence and senselessness to be fed to a new generation, at even younger ages.   

Another trend that I think has contributed is internet viral videos through Youtube.  Young people today are given access to popularity not just in peer relationships but in the greater society on Youtube.  Fame is now available to anyone with the an amazing or outrageous home video. They can easily become a music sensation like Justin Beiber or become the most talked about video in the world, simply by positing to Youtube.   

My last thought was about advertising's recent increase in the use of flash mobs in commercials and movies.  A popular cell phone commercial shows a throw-back performance art flash mob organizing, and the movie Friends with Benefits includes a scene with a flash mob.  As the news and other media continue to highlight flash mobs, I wonder if it has moved youth to continue engaging them.  

Flash mobs make me angry, especially when I see the victim bruised and beaten for simply being in walking the streets.  I intrinsically abhor violence, especially in the general public, so I admit; I do not understand the draw it has for young people.  Maybe I never will, but I guess solutions are more important than understanding, at this point. 

 Philadelphia city officials have announced they intend to promote legislation and action to oppose the current youth culture promoting flash mobs as fun and without consequence.   I wonder if our generation can address this issue and create any positive change.  The greatest influence in a teen’s life is their peers, so I do believe that the greatest change agent has to be young people.   In searching the internet, I was fortunate to find one group of teens speaking on the national scale to oppose flash mobs.  The Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement is a group of teens coming together to create poetry, speaking out against the challenges they face and the things they want to see change.  Watch CNN's coverage of the Philadelphia Youth Poetry Movement at this link.  Spoken Word and art is powerful methods of creating change, and it was encouraging to see these young people use it for their good and the good of others.  The Arts inTransformation concentration in the Urban Studies program engages using art to address community problems and empower community members.  


  • Why do you think Flash Mobs are so popular with teenagers right now? 
  • Legislation being submitted to hold parents liable. Should they be?    
  • Flash mobs are part of a culture saying it is fun and without consequence to commit random acts of violence.  How can this be addressed?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The "What now?" of Relocation

John Perkins is a name that many involved in the Christian community development movement.  His of his great contributions includes the Three R’s of Community Development:  relocation, reconciliation and redistribution.  There has long been a divide in practice for urban ministry and service in regards to the question of relocation.   Some believe that ministry and service can be provided in a "commuter context" or when the service provider is from a community other than the one they serve.   On the other hand, those who adhere to Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association’s principles believe that relocation is vital to providing effective ministry and service.  

During a short-term mission trip, my ministry team provided a children’s bible camp in Brooklyn.  For years I interpreted my experience there in a negative way, but now, through the lens of relocation, I understand.   When my team, a group of white teens and young adults, tramped through a Brooklyn neighborhood towards the park where we would provide the camp, people in the street started to yell at us, “Go back home.”  Originally, I felt angry that this community did not want our help, but now I realize that this was a community wounded by many experiences of short term service projects, there to help for a little while and then to leave.  They were tired of being abandoned. 

I see what I will call “commuter services” in the same light as my experience; people coming to a community they don’t know, providing their services without fully committing to the community.  There are many flaws in this practice, starting with the idea that an outsider can determine the needs of a community without ever entering the community.   

Relocation is a scary word for anyone like me who is terrified of adapting to a new place.   I’ve lived in a variety of places throughout the last six years in rural, suburban and urban areas.  With every move, I have experienced the anxiety of “now what?”  “How do I truly become a part of the community?”  It was at these times that I was most grateful for my understanding of the field of Urban Studies and its use of Anthropology. 

Judith Lingenfelter wrote a helpful article entitle, Getting to Know your New City, which highlights many insights that have helped me with relocation and to really become “a part” of the community.  It is also helpful in properly introducing your new ministry or service to a community.   Starting with the time you enter the community, here are some things to keep in mind: maintain a Learner-centered focus, recognizing the community member as your teacher, and participant observation (Lingenfelter).  All of these tips are aspects of Anthropology’s ethnographic method.

When entering a community, assumptions are dangerous: assumptions about the people, community dynamics, and community problems.  When we engage communities within the context of our own assumptions, we are acting from a framework of ethnocentricity or seeing the world from just our own cultural context.  If you are serious about effectively serving your community, you need to remove this mindset.  According to the ethnographic method, you are an observer and learner in the community the only ideas you should develop are that established through observation and interactions.  Your neighbors are the experts of the community.

When my husband and I first moved into our current community, we took the role of silent observer.  We watched the neighbors interact, saw where the kids hung out in the community, saw who were people of authority in the community, and learned where community members would meet together.  This is participant observation: watching to identify the community routines and structure.  Lingenfelter considers identifying important meeting places in the community a vital first step.   After you identify meeting places, you can start to place yourself in situations to meet community members.  In my community, we soon found that the most important meeting place in the community was the street. 

 After living in the community for 3 months, the first snow storm came, and this is when my husband and I broke the silence.  We got to meet many of our neighbors in the street shoveling out our cars.  We moved into a new phase that I feel we are still meandering around, almost a year and half later: Interviewing or what I consider engaging the stories of the community. 

Our community is made of a strong native presence, as many neighbors are older and have been in the community their entire lives.  It did not take us long to figure out that these were key community members, so we engaged them about the community’s history, patterns, and changes.  Identifying a community’s key players is important to establish your legitimacy and identifying community needs.  Your position in the community will not be recognized without legitimacy, and your ministry or service will not been as necessary or authentic if certain important players are not supportive.  The support of these members give you legitimacy.  In turn, you will be introduced to other community members, which will ultimately help you create an accurate picture of community dynamics and needs.  Once you have accomplished these steps, you will be on your way to positive presence in the community.

What do you think about relocation? Are “commuter services” ever effective?  What are some additional tips you would give someone getting to know a new community?