Here’s a little slide show of my neighborhood for you to peep at if you’re so inclined. I’ll meet you at the end for an explanation…
My neighborhood, over on the West Side in Sioux City, has long felt neglected by the city government as well as by law enforcement. It’s not a bad neighborhood, per se, but there are problems that need dealt with. (Note, most of the woes in the photos above have been fixed, but new woes continually pop up.)
A few days ago I attended a seminar. There were three speakers, all talking about how they and their companies foster growth in the community.
The first lady, a representative of the Chamber of Commerce, spoke in glowing terms about how much money was being funneled into the area by new business and how bright the future looks (referring to an oil refinery that may be built right across the river in neighboring South Dakota). “Sioux City is growing,” she said, excitement in her voice. “We even have an Olive Garden now!”
The next speaker was from Midwest Energy, the local power company. He spoke about how they try to keep their costs down in order to get new business to come to the region. He seemed very pleased that his company was able to provide Google with enough low-cost power that they chose to build a new server farm (or something) in Council Bluffs, 90 miles south of here, right next to the new coal plant they opened. (It came up later that Sioux City didn’t get the bid for the Google plant because energy HERE costs too much.) Someone asked him about wind energy — specifically how they get the land to put their wind turbines on. “We lease the land from the farmers,” he said. This is a direct quote: “It’s a fifty-year lease, so some of the farmers are reluctant to let us build. We prefer to build coal plants; if the farmers don’t want to sell us the land for a coal plant we can just have the area condemned and given to us.”
The third speaker was a local banker. He spoke for forty-five minutes about how his bank is reluctant to give loans to start-up companies, and how you need to “develop a stable, long-term relationship” with your banker. He basically told us that his bank would NOT give a new company a loan unless the applicant had an equal amount of money in his or her personal bank account as collateral. “What good is it for us to repossess a factory full of, say, pipes?” he said. “If you can’t make your loan payment, we want cash money, not pipes.”
I wondered what these people were getting at. A lady who thinks Olive Garden is the wave of the future, a power company arrogant enough to say in public they steal land from farmers, and a banker who won’t give loans until you’re established. The tenor of the seminar was very upbeat, very positive. “Sioux City is moving forward! We’re growing!” People clapped a lot and nodded their heads. When asked how we’d rate the attitude of Sioux City on a scale from one to ten, most everyone said seven or eight. I hollered “Try a three, maybe.” The lady next to me whispered “look at them — they come from the rich part of town, no wonder they’re so happy about everything.”
It got me started thinking, again, about the plight and blight in my neighborhood. What were these people seeing that made them have such a positive attitude about the city? What was I seeing that was different?
I guess I was seeing homeless people. I’m so used to seeing trash, graffiti, homeless people and general grunginess in my neighborhood that I forget that some neighborhoods DON’T have that stuff. We have three gangs in my neighborhood, all vying for attention via spray paint and bullets. People have learned that the adage “work hard and you’ll get ahead” only pertains to other people. What happens in our neighborhood is that we work hard only to see our taxes go up while property taxes in the richer parts of town are cut. “We need those people to move here,” one official told me after the seminar. “We want that kind of people living here, so we have to give them a tax break or they’ll move somewhere else.” I asked him how “those people” would make a living if there were no workers in their fancy manufacturing plants. He didn’t have an answer.
Every day I hear things like, “I try to sell my paintings here in Sioux City, but no one here will buy them. I have to sell them to people on the coasts, but that means I lose half my profit in shipping costs. The funny part is that the people here buy similar artwork for twice the money I’m charging, but they have to have it painted by someone far away.” I know when I played in bands we could play in Sioux Falls or Omaha for $1,200 a night, or we could play locally for $300 a weekend. No one here would pay us. People talk about the expanding job market. Wonderful! Can I have one of those new high-paying jobs? I’ve got a degree and over 15 years experience in my field… What? The new high-paying jobs pay eight dollars an hour? Oh. The packing plants pay more than that. Heck, McDonald’s pays more than that.
Businesses in the neighborhood are leaving. There are abandoned and empty buildings all over the place. I saw the neighbor guy walking home with a McDonald’s bag in his hand. We chatted for a few minutes, and he mentioned he really wished he could get a good meal. “What’s that?” I asked. He waved the bag in the air. “This is crap,” he said, “but I don’t have a car — I can’t get to the grocery store. I can walk to McDonald’s.” He works at the local flea market. Being disabled, it’s the only job he can get.
In any case, these are complex, complicated issues that have no easy answers. But these issues do exist, and they’re not going away.
I think it surprised a few people at the seminar when I stood up and told them that their rosy scenario of Sioux City was all peaches and cream, “but there’s still a homeless guy sleeping in my alley, and we need to do something to help him.”
We need to dream big dreams and reach for the stars. We just need to remember to pause now and then to reach down and give the next guy a helping hand.