- Written by Mike Martin
COLUMBIA, 3/2/12¬† (Op Ed) --¬†This is a story about a man hitting¬†the¬†half-century mark¬†who has taken serious stock of his life over the past few years, right down to a big stack of hospital bills.¬† Nearly every¬†day they used to come.¬†¬† The $20,000 ones almost made me faint.¬†¬† ¬†
"I was hoping to set up a time to talk with you since this has become a big issue for you and you have been able to catalyze the formation of the CIVIC group," Columbia Daily Tribune business reporter Jacob Barker emailed me, about a story he's doing on City Hall's Blight Decree/tax break package, and a¬†new¬†group -- Citizens Involved and Invested in Columbia, or CiViC -- opposing it.¬†¬†
"Thanks for the note," I emailed back.¬†¬†"I'm not the right person to talk to about this, as¬†credit for forming, catalyzing, and even naming CiViC rightly belongs to¬†others.¬† The concept has a history that dates back a couple of years..." and I referred him to the¬†right folks.
Within seconds,¬†it¬†appeared:¬†¬† "A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its recipients.¬† This is a permanent error. The following address(es) failed:¬† ¬†
¬† 550 ip address access denied.¬†¬† mail.columbiatribune.com."
The Trib¬†had been¬†banning my email address,¬†something I could¬†work around by using a different one.¬†¬†Now¬†my IP address --¬†my¬†virtual identity¬†-- was locked out.¬†¬†We don't get along, in case you haven't noticed.¬†¬† They routinely print stories¬†the¬†Heart Beat¬†broke, then dismiss me as "just a blogger" or "persistent conspiracy theorist" or whatever belittling¬†phrase is making the rounds of the news room.¬†¬† I¬†can't imagine disrespect reaching any higher level, and it's far from limited to just me.
I forwarded the interview request to CiViC, and¬†took¬†it¬†as¬†the sign¬†it was.¬†
Anyone who reads the Heart Beat knows that most things in¬†Columbia¬†are big issues to me, maybe even bigger now, given the past two years.¬† My wife comes from a long line of Mizzou grads -- mother, a physician; father, a lawyer; four brothers, from engineers to bankers.¬† She brought me here from my hometown West Coast, where, if I made it to the ballot box, I thought I was civically engaged.
Like the CiViC name says, I got involved here because I got invested here.¬†¬† I've spent a decade rehabbing rental houses in Columbia's central city, the now-blighted First Ward.¬† For weeks on end during warm months, I come home covered in everything from saw dust to drywall, and manage the properties on my own.¬†¬† I started the North Central Columbia listserv¬†in 2005 to help neighbors¬†engage.¬† Together,¬†those neighbors have¬†fought everything from crime and slumlords to stormwater floods.¬† ¬†Their neighborhood has improved remarkably, an entirely different place than it was in 2002.
I was¬†appointed to the¬†City of Columbia Historic Preservation Commission, a couple of Mayoral¬†committees, and¬†even chaired the City's Finance Commission.¬†¬†¬†I've run for School Board, addressed groups about Black History, hosted local radio shows, and with my family, found many friends.¬†
Like our friends, we feel threatened¬†beyond¬†comprehension by City Hall's Blight Decree and every Pandora's Box it opens.¬† The very¬†word "blight" stands for everything Columbia is not.¬†¬† It disregards history; turns a blind eye to¬†pain; casts aside labor, love, and¬†sacrifice; ignores community¬†vision; blots out the American dream.¬†
It is, as Missouri property rights expert Bruce Hillis told 80 people¬†last week, "evil" plain and simple.
We are heartsick about this¬†terrible lie, and realize that even if blight is defeated in Columbia for the fourth time in 60 years,¬† Resolution R20-12 marks a watershed moment for us.
Our friend sold his lovingly-restored historic North Central¬†Columbia home after years of battling City Hall, which -- as so many people have astutely noted -- contributes more to blight through infrastructure neglect than any other force in town.¬† My family and I are faced with a similarly difficult choice.
If we hang in, do¬†we risk condemnation?¬†¬†¬† Or a slow death called "pre-condemnation blight" that gradually drains our property of all its value?¬†¬†¬†Do we hang on¬†until a great irony of history -- that white families face the fate black families faced 50 years ago -- befalls us?¬†
Do we give up and get out?¬†¬† Do we stay and fight?¬†¬† How much fight do we really have left?
Despite the reappearance of this giant historical mistake, we're optimistic that Columbia will endure.¬†¬†Her people¬†saved Alison's life, and helped me discover America:¬† that¬†exhilarating cacophony many listen to, but¬†few ever¬†really hear.
I won't get¬†any REDI awards, and I'm not on any shortlists for Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year.¬† But for all my cacophony¬†-- otherwise known as civic duty -- I have that handmade silken necktie¬†displaying that quintessential American bird, which -- being a turkey -- has a¬†double meaning a writer can appreciate.¬†
It arrived as 18 months of chemotherapy and radiation and endless heart-stopping hospital exams were finally ending.¬† It said Thanksgiving, in brilliant¬†autumn hues.¬†¬†Maybe I was already light-headed with all the good news, but I almost fainted when I read who it was from.
"Please accept this¬†in the spirit in which it was given," the handwritten note said.¬† "Bill Watkins, (Former) Columbia City Manager."
-- Mike Martin