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Paint the Town Green

The surest strategy to make this desperately poor city less so is to promote green industries

Next week in Dayton, Ohio, a diverse assemblage of current and former mayors, county leaders, scholars, and think-tank wonks will confer on what the heck to do about Rust Belt cities that keep shrinking even as the rest of America keeps growing.

Meanwhile, the world’s leading climate scientists, and lots of politicians, are in Copenhagen to talk about the newest report from a Canadian icebreaker up in the Arctic, where there isn’t as much ice as there used to be, and where an ice-free shipping channel may be arriving before 2020 rather than sometime in the next century. In Copenhagen, they worry that economic growth produces deadly quantities of greenhouse gases that are wrecking the planet on a fast pace. In Dayton, we’ll talk about what economic decline has done, is doing, and will continue to do here in the sub-sub-Arctic.

Strangely, these two conversations—about sustainable economics and, um, sustainable economics—are really about the problem of how to keep people who are already poor from suffering more. The folks who are in the crosshairs of abrupt climate degradation are the world’s poorest, the coast-dwellers and islanders in Asia and the desert-dwellers in Africa and here.

But the folks in America who have been suffering from urban decline were the first victims of globalization—namely, the last-hired, first-fired urban blacks of the Rust Belt, who are the economic victims of the processes that made workers redundant or unemployable once they became too rich for mobile global capital’s taste.

Today, most of the greenhouse gases that scientists (even those who write dumb emails) say threaten the planet come from America and Europe—two places with hundreds of millions of consumers, among whom are some millions of people stranded in dire, multi-generational poverty. Tomorrow, the scientists say, most of the additional greenhouse gases will come from fossil-fuel-burning power plants, factory furnaces, and car engines in rapidly developing China, India, and elsewhere in the industrializing world, right near where the poorest of the poor live.

So there would seem a global mutual self-interest: Everybody who runs a rich nation, or a poor coastal or desert nation, or a rapidly industrializing nation, should drop their greenhouse-gas-emitting ways and get serious about clean energy, because clean energy is about sustainable economies, and sustainable economies are the way to mitigate poverty.

Artificially cheap energy allows globalization to shift manufacturing jobs overseas. Artificially cheap energy from fossil fuels has already made the formerly industrialized workforce of Rust Belt cities dependent while producing the greenhouse gases that are melting the arctic ice. Replacing the energy could stem the destructive tides of both poverty and climate degradation. That’s how the dots connect.

The poverty-energy linkage

In the United States, that means that policies for both green energy and sustainable economics should be focused on the nation’s pockets of intractable poverty—like, say, old Rust Belt cities where there are millions of desperately poor people who were displaced when the old industries migrated to the developing world. Putting people to work retrofitting old houses to make those houses more energy-efficient; putting those people to work repairing ancient sewer lines that need retrofitting to handle the massive increases in precipitation that climate change will be sending to the Rust Belt soon; putting those people to work to make and then to bend the metal that will become the blades of wind-turbines—all that would seem a reasonable cluster of public policies that could address long-term poverty and the green issues, too.

The problem of poverty is a drag on everybody in the shrinking cities of the Rust Belt. As UB’s Henry Louis Taylor , Jr. and others have been discussing recently on a social-networking Web site, the problem of poverty is especially acute among blacks in Buffalo.

This is where the conversation gets tough. Black poverty has been around for a long time in the Rust Belt. The intrinsic strengths of black economic life, as described by St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton in their 1945 classic Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, were overwhelmed by the intractable weaknesses that underlay the great 20th-century surge in American industrialization. Once the great decline in Northern industry set in after the Nixon administration opened the door to globalization, the poverty cycle accelerated. As a young community activist, Barack Obama went to Chicago, to the very streets that Drake and Cayton studied and described, in his youthful effort to help formerly working folks cope with the sudden shuttering of the dirty old manufacturing plants that had been the magnet for black migration out of rural Mississippi Delta poverty.

It’s been a quarter-century since capital won that battle in the class war, by hiring a new proletariat overseas. What was left behind? We live in the old battlefield, here in the broken cities of the North. Today within the 40.5 square miles of Buffalo, black male disengagement from the workforce is around 50 percent, which is typical of every shrinking Rust Belt city. (By disengagement I mean unemployment, incarceration, disability, the whole gamut of alienation.) Using those same criteria, white male disengagement within the city’s boundaries is more than 30 percent, which means that poverty here is pretty generic, albeit worse among blacks. Black homeownership rates are low inside the city, lower than white, but they are both far lower than suburban homeownership rates. Census data say that about two-thirds of the households live in the suburbs here, but Erie County real property data show that when you measure the value of the housing stock, more than three-quarters of the taxable value is outside city limits.

So the poverty that resides within city boundaries here, and throughout the Rust Belt, is written into the landscape. It’s written into the politics, too—which may be why the white-suburban-dominated county government got zero effective pushback from Democrats when its leadership decided to rip up the city-county-Olmsted Conservancy parks management deal and turf the parks back to the city government. The go-it-alone mentality in politics is so deeply rooted in Buffalo, in Gary, Indiana, in Detroit, Michigan, and in Cleveland, Ohio, that all suburban politicians have to do to justify their actions is to utter the name of the city, and thereby say “black,” “poor,” and “I’m here to protect you from them.”

Which is, of course, nonsense. The declining regions in America are the places where the city-suburb, black-white, us-them divide is the ugliest. Rust Belt metros, according to a 2006 study of population trends by Wharton School economists, will mose population between now and 2030 while the rest of America grows by 30 to 50 million people.

A couple of new studies hint that now would be the opportune time to get radical to address this decline. In fact, there’s no time like the present to green up.

Cheap and good cities?

Lurking in some of the more goofy studies that get published are some actual gems of insight that might help out. The irrepressibly pro-globalization apologists at Forbes, for example, just did a survey that cobbled together a bunch of data suggesting that, of the 100 biggest American metros, the rusty old towns of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany, Youngstown, Toledo, and Pittsburgh are in the top 30 “best bang for the buck” cities that are good bets for economic stability.

That’s no thanks to the cookie-cutter economic development approach that happens in these places—an approach that does nothing about energy or globalization. The reality of the bankruptcy of those approaches is revealed in another study, by the Brookings Institution, which shows that deindustrialized Rust Belt cities saw worsening concentrations of poverty over the past decade, especially among black households. Forbes thinks that Rochester is doing okay; Brookings points out that concentrated poverty grew faster and worse there than anywhere else. Former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson can tell you in sad detail about how a manufacturing plant’s closing, when the jobs went off to China, sent a once-stable working-class neighborhood from the sustainable list to the critical list within just a couple of years.

But a couple of McGill University environmental economists last week counted up the costs, and told the industrialized and industrializing world alike to get cracking. In a paper they just published in the unimpeachable journal Nature, they say that now, ASAP, it’s time to put up windmills and whatever other non-greenhouse-gas-emitting machines we have on hand. Those are, it seems to me, anti-globalization devices that can make local economies sustainable. The McGill folks go on to say that if the world is to keep economic growth going at even a modest pace, we’d also better get cracking on the research and development to come up with new green energy technology, or else we’ll miss the mark of containing global warming. Further, these Montrealers say that government-funded scientists and engineers, not investor-owned oil companies or power-producers, are the only people who can design our way out of the climate change mess.

Their first point is to get to work today with existing technologies. Insulation, for example—specifically, insulation for existing houses. That’s why every nickel of public money that goes to the PUSH “green zone” operation on the West Side of Buffalo is money well spent on the twin goals of environmental sustainability and mitigating poverty.

Who is doing that work for PUSH? Are they Ph.Ds and highly skilled technicians? Are they globalized workers in faraway Asia? No. They are formerly unemployed or marginally employed people right here in the deindustrialized Rust Belt, the very people whose disengagement from the workforce put them into the Census statistics that UB’s Taylor and others cite.

The Obama administration is spot-on to provide funds for this. So is Congress. So is state government. So is city government. (The allegedly anti-dependency administration of Erie County Executive Chris Collins just vetoed funds for this effort, of course. Democrats in the Erie County Legislature overrode Collins’ veto, but Collins threatens to withhold the money that the lawmakers have directed him to spend.) Meanwhile, though, the wrong-headed, anti-green, pro-sprawl public subsidy of economic “development” persists in programs like the façade improvements of commercial strips, in the shovels-full of inducement dollars for suburban office-park construction, and in the federal highway money that keeps poor urban non-workers poor and spatially isolated from jobs.

If the Rust Belt is going to get green and by doing so mitigate its poverty, then Copenhagen must connect to Dayton, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Pittsburgh, Youngstown and the other rust spots.

Bruce Fisher a former deputy executive for Eroe County and currently visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.

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