In the past year, the University’s plans of new residential colleges in Dixwell have seemed to be closer to fruition than ever before, and the Shartenberg development is moving full steam ahead — making clear that we have not seen the end of new development initiatives in our city.
More development can, undoubtedly, bring great new opportunities to economically depressed areas. But when we talk about development, we have to ask ourselves: Whom is this development going to benefit, and how? The way that we answer that question should determine how we respond to the drives by large employers and developers to rapidly expand into new neighborhoods and communities.
People often talk about gentrification — it’s a hot word in New York, where more and more posh neighborhoods have sprung up in unexpected places, raising real-estate prices and forcing longer-term, poorer residents out. Many cities across the country are also experiencing this phenomenon.
But the word has always seemed too much of a euphemism for what it amounts to. At a time when the gap between rich and poor nationwide has widened in the most extreme fashion imaginable, America’s cities are the clearest places where you can see both sides of that gap — and what it is doing to change the very character of those places.
One way to begin challenging this state of affairs is through responsible development waged through community benefits agreements like the one we saw at Yale-New Haven Hopsital. While the agreement between management and workers to allow workers a fair process to choose if they wanted to form a union fell apart because of the hospital’s lawbreaking, some other parts specifically designed to counter other negative effects of development have begun to be implemented. In New Haven, we have to work to make sure that future developments are also accompanied by community benefits agreements, to make them more just and equitable to those who already live where development is set to happen.
While it’s vital that we work at a local level to ensure responsible development, we’ve also got to build stronger and more economically stable communities so that development does not pose a life-or-death threat to them. What’s urgently needed is the creation of new, good jobs.
It’s important to understand the ways in which a lack of good jobs in our cities is linked to national failures. The opening of borders to so-called “free trade” has decimated the economies of American cities. You can see this in New Haven, where there are no longer the kinds of industrial jobs in factories which used to be the city’s economic mainstay. Those factories — like the Winchester gun factory, which according to the New Haven Independent once kept 15,000 workers employed in three shifts around the clock — were forced to close, resulting in a dearth of jobs that haven’t been replaced since, except by jobs with poverty wages at Wal-Mart and elsewhere.
I saw this the summer I spent in Columbus, Ohio, too, when I worked on the campaign of now-Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). I’ll never forget the stories I heard at a press conference we held at a former glass-tube factory that had shut down its operations over time. The factory had first demanded massive pay and benefit cuts from employees, weakening what their union had won for them, and then finally laid off its workers, forcing them to leave at gunpoint. All of it was done in the name of increased foreign competition and inability to afford the costs of a factory in the U.S.
I’ll never forget meeting those workers who’d lost everything: their jobs, their health care and their union. Many said that others they’d known were forced to move away from the city and state they’d spent their entire lives in. Of those who remained, a good number were now working for Wal-Mart, or were without work two years later.
Furthermore, the failures of their unions and the government to protect these workers from sudden job cuts, and of workers to find better paying jobs in the service sector, are also related to the decline in union density in the country as a result of a national climate that fails to uphold the rule of law in the workplace.
Until we start to address some of these problems at a national level — in part by electing candidates who understand the complex issues of jobs, trade and economic inequality, like John Edwards — we’re never going to get at the root of the problem we’re confronted with in negotiating new development.
We must demand that our employers take more responsibility for the community when they seek to develop — and ensure that they keep their promises on all fronts. But our attention must increasingly be focused on getting the federal government to do its job again.
Hugh Baran is a junior in Davenport College and a co-chair of the Ward 1 Democratic Committee.