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Reinvention in the Rust Belt

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Reinvention in the Rust Belt The Reckoning

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Jose Rivera used to walk through the newly redeveloped blocks of central Allentown, Pennsylvania, feeling the weight of his college textbooks in his backpack, surrounded by soaring office towers and apartments with rooftop gardens where there had once been boarded-up storefronts.

He was a member of the Latin Kings who had spent more than half his life in and out of prison, until he was released last summer after a 13-year sentence for distribution and trafficking. In the months since he had traded his prison cell for a halfway house, Rivera had done a great deal of thinking about recovery, and its many forms. Hed signed up for college classes through the Second Chance Pell Grant program, an Obama-era initiative thats been expanded under President Donald Trump. “I remember thinking, What is it I am not doing? I keep coming to jail. I keep walking around the yard like cattle, ” he said. “I thought, Forget the yard. Ill pick up a book. ”

At 48, he knew he was an unlikely candidate for a fresh start but, like his adopted hometown, he was hoping to benefit from the wave of opportunity created by the strong economy and record low unemployment. While Rivera had no love lost for Trumps politics, he was studying business and he could see how the money that had transformed Allentown in recent years might also create opportunities for people and places that had all too often had been left behind. The city was hit hard by the death of American steel manufacturing decades ago and has struggled to reinvent itself. That started to change after a special state tax break was passed 11 years ago to attract real estate investment and redevelopment, and until the pandemic, office workers and new residents strolled the downtown core, where not all that long ago people had mostly ventured looking to score.

When the pandemic hit, Jose Rivera channeled his uncertainty into volunteering to help his neighbors by distributing diapers and food.

Where others might register redevelopment in terms of buildings, Rivera saw people. When he passed by the headquarters of the City Center Investment Corp., he thought of a man named J.B. Reilly, its president, who was behind so many of the cranes foresting Allentowns new skyline. Rivera met Reilly last summer during an unlikely parley between the developer and a group of men whose entrepreneurial skills Reilly hoped to redirect into aboveboard enterprises. Rivera had gone into the meeting skeptical but had come away with a sense of possibility — that maybe the story of redevelopment could include more people than it excluded. He also came away with two things he had not expected: a personal connection with Reilly and a laptop, which made it possible for him to stick with his business classes at a local community college.

Then the coronavirus pandemic brought everything to a standstill. Sequestered in his room in the earliest days of the outbreak, Rivera lived his life on the laptop Reilly had gifted him, attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings via Zoom, finishing his last quarter of college. He missed the path he had once walked through that new downtown, registering the way all that steel and glass abruptly transitioned, giving way to bodegas and nail salons, barbershops and two-story row houses, some carefully preserved, others with sheets for window dressings and weather-bubbled eviction tags on the doors.

“I have diabetes,” he said. “So Im high risk. I have to be very careful.”

That caution didnt last. Rivera grew restless, and started to feel trapped. “I dont like where my head goes when I start to feel trapped,” he said. After two weeks in isolation, he decided to risk returning to a community organization called Promise Neighborhoods of the Lehigh Valley to help volunteer. Before the virus, the group — which had its origins in an Obama-era anti-poverty initiative — had been focused on saving lives from violence, but it has recently pivoted to saving lives from Covid-19 and the economic ravages that came with it.

Rivera volunteered alongside members of gangs who had been his rivals, handing out diapers and formula to struggling families, his service a personal form of amends, as he put it, for the harm he had come to see his younger self had done to this neighborhood and the people who lived there.

Rivera and his colleagues packed the trunks of cars that pulled up to the curb outside Promise Neighborhoods headquarters with toiletries and bags of food and passed out flyers encouraging people to protect themselves and stay at home.

At the same time, other parts of Pennsylvania erupted in protest over continued lockdown orders. Allentown and the surrounding Lehigh Valley stayed shut down longer than western areas of the state, and by mid-May, when Trump paid a visit to a protective-gear factory in a neighboring suburb, all anyone was talking about was recovery and what form it should take — which was really another way of asking who would move forward and who would be burdened with lasting pain. As Rivera knew, even just one city like Allentown could hold many possible answers — but not all of them translated equally.

Then came the national outcry following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The mass demonstrations around the country denouncing racism and police brutality triggered clashes with police and curfews in some cities, but Allentown didnt see such escalations. Suddenly, all the thinking, all the work Rivera had been doing with Promise Neighborhoods over the past few months felt like preparation for exactly this moment.

The Allentown that Rivera had moved to from the Bronx almost 40 years ago, when he was still a kid, was reeling from the loss of manufacturing, which had once provided reliable union jobs across the Lehigh Valley. Bethlehem Steel, which had been one of the largest steel producers in the world — supplier of the steel that conjured the Manhattan skyline and built the Golden Gate Bridge, then fleets of battleships in World War II — began to show serious strain in the late 1970s as cheaper foreign steel flooded the market. Mack Trucks closed its Allentown plant in 1985. Bethlehem Steel finally shuttered its nearby production facilities a decade later.

A former Bethlehem Steel site has been transformed into an arts venue. Across the Lehigh Valley, cities have been looking for ways to reinvent their economies.

Yet, even as it struggled, Allentown also emerged as an appealing place for many families seeking better opportunities to relocate from New York and Philadelphia, only 90 minutes away. Black people and those of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent were drawn to Allentown by affordable rents and its smaller scale; young people whose parents worried about them getting into trouble in their old neighborhoods in the Bronx or Brooklyn were dispatched to Allentown to make a fresh start — Riveras story.

Allentown jobs are now more likely to be in services than in manufacturing

Source: Categories represent the sum of occupations relating to each industry, such as managerial, sales, office, construction and production. Source: US Census Bureau

“Allentown has been a city of hope for a lot of people,” says Hasshan Batts, the director of Promise Neighborhoods, who was also drawn to Allentown from New York, in his case from Brooklyn. “So many of us came here from somewhere else, starting in the 1980s, specifically to create a better life.”

Instead, they met new frustrations. The same qualities that made the city a hub for manufacturing — an easy drive to major metropolises and immediate access to the interstate — also made it a perfect hub for the drug trade, bringing increased gang activity and violence.

“My mom wanted me to get away from that,” said Rivera, who as a child had dreamed of becoming an architect, fascinated by lines and numbers. “Instead, I ended up finding it all down here.”

Today, almost two-thirds of Allentowns population identifies as people of color, according to the census, but few people of color are represented in the most prominent civic and government positions. A quarter of the citys residents live in poverty, and send their kids to a public school district where 89% of the families are considered low income and 100% of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, according to the Allentown school district.

In one of the citys oldest and poorest neighborhoods, a pair of basketball courts sit beneath power lines, surrounded by abandoned, derelict buildings.

There are, of course, many ways to measure a neighborhood, the qualities not often captured in statistics: the grandmas stoop-sitting; the shift workers putting keys to the doors of their brick row houses; the children, playing for hours on these courts, until their parents call them home.

Last summer, a surge of shootings staggered the city. In June, three men opened fire outside a nightclub on Hamilton Street, one of the main arterials through the heart of downtown, and shot 10 people. By the end of the summer, 20 more people had been shot.

For Batts and his organization, the question of how to end violence seemed best answered by those most directly affected by it. “We believe that its the people closest to the pain who most often possess the greatest insight into how to heal it,” Batts said. That meant enlisting the perspectives of both survivors and perpetrators of gun violence, and then giving them roles in actively stopping it. The goal was to find ways to address underlying forces that contribute to violence — job loss, fear of eviction, grief.

All too often, Batts felt, “crime prevention” was delegated to police, when the real work was about unfilled needs that could best be handled by the community itself, and he hoped to make his organization into a model. “If youve shot somebody or been shot, or you know a loved one who has shot somebody or been shot, you know firsthand the power and the pain that it creates,” Batts said.

Before he took over Promise Neighborhoods in 2017, Batts had earned his doctorate in health sciences with a focus on public epidemiology and had worked on a long-term federal grant to help identify ways to help people who were disproportionately high users of medical programs reduce their reliance on services while improving their health and well-being. Over the course of that project, he had come to believe that letting people tell their own stories, listening carefully to their narratives, was the best way to develop effective strategies for change. Batts was also formerly incarcerated, having served four years of a 10-year prison sentence on drug charges.

“It was my mom, who believed very much in the principles of restorative justice, who said, Allentown is the city you contributed to destroying; you need to stay there to help fix it,” Batts said. He now gives TED Talks on the principle of “Radical Welcome,” a philosophy that guides his work at Promise Neighborhoods. At its core, it means no one is considered throwaway, no one beyond the need for compassion, care, respect and inclusion — and that, particularly when it comes to marginalized communities, everyones experience should be considered equally in crafting ways to ensure a communitys health and well-being.

Promise Neighborhoods director Hasshan Batts is a public epidemiologist who believes that the “people closest to the pain” are the best suited to develop solutions.

His program does a lot of things, including literally picking people up off the street and connecting them with housing and jobs, and running intensive leadership development programs to help members of the community step into high-profile local positions — some of them formerly incarcerated, like Rivera— alongside top high school students and resettled refugees. As Covid took hold, Promise Neighborhoods quickly pivoted from its focus on ending violence to saving lives by blocking the virus.

“There is a history of mistrust that were trying to address,” Batts said.

As late as March, many of the black churches in Allentown had continued holding services. Batts knew of young people who had gone to Florida for spring break. For many, social distancing seemed like a luxury. “How do you socially distance when you have 12 family members living in a two-bedroom apartment? How can you be expected to do distance learning when you have no internet?” Batts asked.

Batts enlisted his volunteers to create a grassroots information campaign that would speak directly to people of color in their community. Representatives of rival gangs were working together — in a safe and socially distanced manner — to load cars with donations. They created videos about social distancing, attending to mental health during lockdown and handwashing.

QB, a Promise Neighborhoods volunteer, demonstrates handwashing techniques in a video posted to Facebook.

They also spread the word that they were available for house calls. People who could not get to the organizations headquarters could call them with requests for grocery delivery or diaper service. They paired young people with elders alone in lockdown and had them text every day.

And, with everyone staying at home, the virus brought a measure of peace. The work that Promise Neighborhoods had been doing since the shootings in 2019 seemed to solidify over the common effort of protecting the community from Covid.

“No way in hell I could have gotten them to work together last year, when we were in the middle of a gang war,” Pas Simpson, who runs the Zero Youth Violence program for Promise Neighborhoods, said in mid-May, as he watched Rivera and others load cars with essential goods. “The same time this year, theyre here, singing Kumbaya.”

One of Batts goals with Promise Neighborhoods was to reveal to its formerly incarcerated participants how the skills they had cultivated on the streets could translate beyond that context, helping them to see how those same attributes qualified them to be leaders, entrepreneurs, managers, counselors. The opportunity to receive such intensive mentorship is what drew Rivera to the organization not long after his release last August.

“One of the things I learned the hard way is that I need to ask for help if I dont know something,” he said. “I need to turn to people who are wiser than I am, and I need to absorb from them all I dont know.”

In February, Rivera had just begun what he hoped was his final term before he graduated in the spring with an associates degree in business management.

“He basically has a 4.0,” Batts said then.

“A 3.97,” Rivera corrected him, his voice tinged with anxiety.

He was trying very hard, he said, to keep up with the work: While he had taken classes in prison, they had not been allowed to use any technology. “Give me a pen and paper,” he said. “But with my online classes, I feel constantly behind.” He was taking an environmental studies class that he was genuinely fretting he might fail or that at least would seriously harm his final GPA.

At that time, he was trying very hard to keep his world small, he said, so he wouldnt get overwhelmed after so much time on the inside. It scared him too much to think beyond graduation. Instead, Rivera focused on the immediate: on homework, on his volunteer work at Promise Neighborhoods. He was also deeply involved in Allentowns recovery community.

“At my sentencing here in Allentown, the judge had asked if I wanted to say anything to my victims, and I said no, mine was a victimless crime. And that judge was not having it.”

As part of his sentence, the judge ordered Rivera to serve his post-prison supervision in drug treatment facilities, to sit alongside people whose addictions had been fed by the drugs he had sold. “And thats when it finally started to click for me, after all these years — that I was addicted to this life, that I had a drug-selling problem.”

He attended meetings every day and had recently been asked to lead a weekly NA meeting. There, he says what he was not capable of saying the first time the judge asked him, because he wasnt capable of seeing it then— that he knows his actions hurt other people and he is sorry.

“I attend meetings to remind myself of the damage I have done,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of drug dealers say we do what we do for our kids, but were driving the cars, wearing the clothes and going to the club — nothing we do is for them. When I sit on the other side, I can see how I hurt other peoples children, how I was taking food from their mouths, their parents ability to pay rent.”

Or, as he put it during a meeting in early March, “I needed to be back in the penitentiary.”

At a weekly Narcotics Anonymous meeting, Rivera reflects on what he has learned from his past mistakes.

Occasionally, he allowed himself small distractions, like a world-building game on his phone – “the only empire Im allowed to control anymore,” he deadpanned. He also considered himself a bit of a political junkie. When Joe Biden effectively clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, Rivera immediately gave his assessment: “You know, Biden really needs to pick a progressive for his running mate if hes going to be viable.”

Not far from where he sat talking, another Promise Neighborhoods regular named Shakeif McNear read from a book by Stephen M. R. Covey, “The Speed of Trust”:

Simply put, trust means confidence. The opposite of trust – distrust – is suspicion. When you trust people, you have confidence in them – in their integrity and their abilities. When you distrust people, you are suspicious of them – of their integrity, their agenda, their capabilities, or their track record. Its that simple.”

McNear — whos known as Keify — is 25 years younger than Rivera, but his story follows the same contours. A second-generation gang member, he had risen in rank to lieutenant while he was still in his teens. He had 60 people beneath him and was as adamant about not leaving the gang as he was about redirecting his energy toward making himself into a legitimate businessman or politician. His perspective had shifted in large part after a four-month stint in county jail after violating his probation on a disorderly conduct charge and the birth of a baby girl, his first child.

“My vision is for us to run as an organization, to use our numbers to help the community, and to leave would mean I wouldnt be able to have a say, to have that kind of influence,” he said.

Keify McNear was recruited to serve as a "credible messenger" for Promise Neighborhoods, someone who could act as a trusted figure to broker peace and calm.

His past jobs had always been in customer service, McNear said, and hed done very well — he had a natural charm that drew people to him. He had just days earlier intervened and stopped a fight from escalating into a possible shooting, all from his phone. “Its a lot of monitoring things via social media — thats where its all happening,” he said.

Batts had made a point of including McNear in meetings with other nonprofit leaders and politicians. “Keify has within him the kind of power that can either build or destroy,” Batts said. “And that is his decision right now, to build or to destroy. Its the same energy. If Keify moves, 60 people move behind him. When Keify goes in the right direction, it can be a beautiful thing.”

The day McNear was reading Covey, he was waiting to sit in on a meeting with the mayor, who was due at Promise Neighborhoods offices. But suddenly there was the sound of yelling, and McNear set his book aside.

“Im going to lay hands on someone!” a man shouted.

It turned out to be another one of the programs volunteers, known to everyone as QB. He had come to the offices, he would later say, because he could feel himself losing control and he knew the staff would talk him down from doing something he would regret.

McNear, a second-generation gang member, has focused on channeling his leadership skills into business and politics.

Pas Simpson runs the Zero Youth Violence Program for Promise Neighborhoods and recruits young men to use their influence to heal the community.

As he raged, Batts and Simpson simply listened. Gradually the source of QBs distress became clear: He had hoped to organize a youth basketball tournament — there are no free sports leagues for neighborhood youth in Allentown — but the gym hed called had told him it was booked, even though the dates he wanted appeared to be available online. He saw this as a terrible act of disrespect when all he wanted was to do something positive for the communitys youth. Beneath the raised voice and the threats, another story was unspooling, one about his own childhood, much of it spent in foster care, where he had been neglected and abused. There had been no one looking out for him. But now here he was, with a chance to protect these children, to show them a different way. Batts quietly suggested they take a walk around the block. When they came back, QB was measured and calm.

“QB can be –” McNear searched for the right words. “Quite passionate.”

Simpson and Batts would later say that this was a perfect example of why they tried to approach disrupting violence within a larger context.

“I can do this work because I know what its like to be rejected,” Batts said. “I know what its like to be kicked out, expelled, pushed out and into prison.”

Batts, the director of Promise Neighborhoods, explains his philosophy of “no throw-away people.”

Talk turned to the larger world of politics. Batts pointed out that formerly incarcerated people have the right to vote in Pennsylvania — and said that if a single Democratic presidential candidate made extending that right central to their platform, along with prison and police reform, there would be thousands of formerly incarcerated people, plus their families and friends, from Allentown alone who would help get out the vote.

Most of the men assembled professed very little trust in or engagement with any of the Democratic candidates. One young man, who was working as an intern for Batts, announced he would have voted for the first time if Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were the nominee. Simpson, who runs Promise Neighborhoods youth violence prevention program, confessed to voting for Trump.

“Why?!” shouted QB, who was now extremely agitated again, and had moved to step up on a chair like a soapbox to testify his disbelief. “Why would you ever do that? How could you do that? That man has hurt our community.”

Allentown presidential election results

Source: Lehigh County Office of Information Technology. The 2016 Democratic primary election took place in April 2016, when the race was still considered competitive. Allentown voted in the 2020 Democratic primary in June, after Biden was widely considered the presumptive nominee. 2016 Democratic primary results do not include votes for write-in candidates. 2020 Democratic primary results are unofficial.

Simpson was not at all apologetic. “I saw him as the Uber of candidates — a true disrupter,” he explained. “One vote only. Never again. But I truly felt he was the one who would finally expose all the ugly aspects of the system, the racism, all the things we never talk about. Once that was all out there, wed never be able to look away again. Wed have to address it all. And that was worth it for real change.”

The neighborhood had learned over the years not to expect much from the traditional political process. They were used to things being decided for them, without much real input, they said. The downtown was a case in point. When Rivera was released from prison, he emerged to a city he barely recognized.

At the time he had gone inside, Allentown still lagged conspicuously behind its neighboring sister cities in the Lehigh Valley, where revitalization efforts designed to bridge the old and new economies had been more obvious, etched into their downtowns in the form of elaborate developments, entertainment complexes, arts venues built from old Bethlehem Steel plants, casino complexes, new manufacturing “incubation” parks. In contrast, Allentowns central business district remained largely neglected and blighted, with empty storefronts and little reason for people to linger.

Unemployment is higher in Allentown than in the surrounding Lehigh Valley

Source: Historic annual unemployment rates via US Census Bureau, preliminary estimates for April 2020 unemployment via US Bureau of Labor Statistics

That started to change after the state designated 127 acres of Allentowns core as a “Neighborhood Improvement Zone” in 2009, giving developers special tax incentives to build inside it. Locals summarily shortened the name to “the NIZ” — rhyming with “the Wiz.” One of the first developers to invest heavily in the new redevelopment zone was J.B. Reilly. And he didnt go slowly or cautiously. He quickly launched multiple projects, including a 180-room hotel, multi-story office buildings, and apartments designed to lure empty nesters and millennials. He put in co-working spaces, an upscale food court filled with local vendors. He linked the existing city museum, arts college and symphony hall to create an arts district.

But it was hard for those who lived in the surrounding neighborhood not to harbor suspicions about whether the vision of recovery for Allentown promised by the NIZ was also meant to benefit their lives. Its a story told across the country, in city after city — that among those who stand to lose the most, it can feel like the launch of an urban redevelopment campaign is simply code for replacing a neighborhoods residents.

In Allentown, they watched as old buildings were demolished to make way for new apartments with rents they felt were beyond their incomes. People in the blocks closest to the boundaries of the redevelopment zone also began to feel the effects of an early wave of speculators, lured by proximity to the new development, buying up properties, pushing up rents.

Yes, there were jobs in the new restaurants that had begun to pop up downtown, but they were not places where most of the people from the nearby neighborhood could afford to eat.

A majority identify as Hispanic or Latino, but have lowest median income

Totals for African American and Asian residents include people of Hispanic/Latino ethnicity. Source: US Census Bureau

Then, following the shootings last summer, Reilly did something unexpected. He invited several of the gang members who worked with Promise Neighborhoods, including Rivera, to meet with him to help him see what he might be missing. Their first meeting was at Reillys downtown headquarters. Asked what it was like, Rivera said, “Its not buildings that impress me but peoples actions. I figured he would want me to talk to him straight, without pretense.”

So Rivera says he did not hold back, telling Reilly: “Everything youve built, we can destroy in an instant. If you want to stop the violence, we have answers. But you need to listen.” He said it not as a threat, but as a statement of fact. He went on: “You have to get these people to respect you. They dont know you. All they know is youre building buildings for you — and youre not building opportunities for them. Were good enough to make your food, clean your buildings and secure your properties, but were not good enough to work in the offices in these buildings? You need to give people jobs. Right here. Thats an opportunity lost.”

He didnt know it then, but Reilly made a mental note about Rivera, filed away the fact he was going back to school, that it was infinitely harder because he didnt have a computer of his own. Not long after, Rivera received a package. Inside — the laptop, which made it possible for him to keep up with his community college classes and which eventually would become his lifeline during the coronavirus shutdown.

After a series of shootings last summer, developer J.B. Reilly (third from left) agreed to take a walking tour with Promise Neighborhoods to understand how communities of color weren't benefiting equally from Allentowns revival. Courtesy of Shakeif McNear

It was Keify McNear who came up with the idea of giving Reilly a neighborhood tour. If the developer really wanted to understand what people needed and how he could help, he should walk with them, so that he might see at ground level the very personal cost of structural inequality, who was being left out of the conversation — and how much knowledge and energy and vitality they had to offer. Looking back, everyone agrees that felt like a turning point. Reilly came without an entourage, with no security, the guys noted. And he spent an afternoon being led by several gang members through their community. They took him to barbershops and into home day cares, had him speak to bodega owners and meet the abuelas who sit on their porches and know everything that happens on their blocks. At one point, Reilly paused. That, he said, pointing to a house, was the first property he ever bought, back when he was still in law school. That was the moment, everyone who participated would say later, when they felt that Reillys commitment to their neighborhood was real.

“I trusted him then,” McNear said. “It wasnt just talk.”

New apartment complexes appeal to millennials and empty nesters drawn to the amenities of the new downtown core.

After the walk, immediate and specific plans emerged, including letting McNear – with his professed interest in property development and politics — serve as the event promoter for a gallery opening at Reillys Renaissance Hotel in early March. The idea was to give him experience in event management and marketing, and to attract people who might not feel they were considered part of this new vision of Allentown. The hope was for it to become a regular event, a “date night,” like the live music that was featured every Friday night across the street at the boutique food hall or the regular symphony or art museum events organized for those who lived in the surrounding apartments.

Within a week the whole city would be shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic — the hotel and surrounding offices emptied, people sick, people unemployed. But that night felt full of possibility for McNear. And yet, as the start time of his first major event neared, wine and crustless sandwiches waiting, and only a handfRead More – Source

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