Because you can't take ownership without ownership

COLUMBIA, Mo 6/22/14 (Op Ed) --  In a recent conversation with First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick, her election opponent, Tyree Byndom, identified the roots of something I'm calling "Byndom's Conundrum":   How can people "take ownership," i.e. control, of something they do not own?   

"Blacks in the 1st Ward have one social space that they go, and that is Douglass Park," Byndom told Chadwick.   "It's important to allow people a space to socialize without being judged and targeted.  They are targeted enough already."  

He was responding to her proposal of a city-mandated alcohol ban in the park, but more importantly, stating a truth the white community has largely failed to recognize:   Douglass Park and much of the surrounding neighborhood has a distinct, ethnic character, like a Chinatown or Little Italy.   

But unlike those ethnic places, the ethnic group that lives, plays, learns, and works in the Douglass Park neighborhood has little ownership of it.   The black community does not own the park, but is "allowed" -- or not allowed, to use it.   The black community does not own nearby public housing or the vacant school district land across from the park.   Rentals have replaced too many owner-occupied homes.  

From City Hall to the housing authority, the Douglass Park neighborhood is mostly white-owned.  And yet, some in the white community persist in a ridiculous refrain:  This is YOUR neighborhood and YOU need to take control of it.   

"Indeed, if the black community loves its neighborhood park, all the more reason to rally around policies that make the place safer and more inviting," wrote Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters, in a Friday editorial praising Chadwick's booze ban.  

"Its" neighborhood park?  Hardly. 
How little control the black community has of the park was in evidence at the annual Douglass Park Neighborhood Association meeting, when city parks director Mike Griggs -- a white guy led by other white guys -- presented his department's plans to redesign Douglass Park's community-gathering interior.

Chadwick's booze ban and Griggs' redesign highlight the questions, Who controls the park's fate?   Who controls the neighborhood's destiny?   And how physically close are those in control to the park and the neighborhood?  

After two rounds of "Land Clearance" in the fifties and sixties, Columbia's black neighborhoods lost control of their  destiny to "urban renewal" and eminent domain.   Where black-owned businesses and homes once stood in and around the so-called "Sharp End," public housing and white-owned businesses arose. 

At one time, two black men owned a big chunk of what is now downtown Columbia:   Gilbert Akers, most of the block bounded by Third, Fourth, Walnut, and Broadway Streets; and John Lang, most of the next block east.  Hard-scrabble freed slaves settled these bottomlands around creeks and flood plains -- the land white folks didn't want until engineering marvels drove the creeks underground and drained the floodwaters.    

Records from the Land Clearance era show that City Hall and a Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority paid less than 50 cents on the dollar to black landowners forced to sell -- and white slumlords who sold nearby shantytowns at a profit.   The land was re-sold to white-owned businesses for a fraction of its value, and deeded to government agencies, most notably City Hall, the newly-formed housing authority, and Columbia Public Schools.  

After Land Clearance ended the Sharp End, prosperity plummeted in Columbia's black community.   Generations of renters on government assistance replaced generations of home and business owners, as three phenomena took hold:   

Non-profit assistance
, rooted in turn-of-the-20th-century white paternalism; subsidized rental housing; and the unrealistic expectation at the heart of Byndom's Conundrum:  that Columbia's black community take control of parks, streets, housing, and other features of a neighborhood it not only no longer owned, but literally had stolen from it. 

It makes sense that people living closest to problems can most easily resolve them.   Streetwalkers, drug dealers, and gang shootings -- problems at Douglass Park and elsewhere -- are less likely to persist in an engaged neighborhood.  

But too few people who control the Douglass Park neighborhood live in it, from non-profit directors to city leaders.  
Instead of distant officials who do not have to live next door to their decisions, neighborhood-based boards should run neighborhood parks like Douglass.   And the public housing land should be returned to the black community -- but that's a column for a different time.  

-- Mike Martin