Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Taking a break

Lincoln Avenue is taking a break for the holidays, but I'll be back in January with new shows and more blog entries.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear your ideas for future shows. What do you see as the most important or interesting issues in our community? Who has a perspective that isn't being heard? Send me your suggestions.

Until January, have a great holiday season and enjoy winter!

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Good Day's Work Deserves a Good Day's Pay

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Dr. Terry Easton. He visited YSU as part of this year’s Center for Working-Class Studies Lecture Series, speaking about his research on day laborers. Terry’s dissertation won the Working-Class Studies Association’s first annual Constance Coiner Award for the best dissertation.

His work raises interesting and troubling questions about the changing nature of work and the dynamics of race and class in American cities. Day laboring includes both jobs assigned by employment agencies that specialize in “work today, get paid today” labor, mostly in construction and landscaping, and the jobs workers get by standing on the right street corner and being picked up by a homeowner or contractor. In both cases, workers are at risk of workplace accidents, because the workers often have neither safety equipment nor safety training, and many don’t speak English. Worse, they run the risk of not getting paid at all, and when they do get paid, they usually receive just the minimum wage. Many of these workers are homeless and battling drug and alcohol addictions. Several organizations are conducting research and organizing to protect day laborers, among them the Day Labor Research Institute.

The problems facing day laborers have been exacerbated by immigration and the rapid growth of some cities, like Atlanta. While growth has increased the demand for day laborers, immigration has put black and latino workers in competition. The increasing visibility of day laborers also adds fuel to the anti-immigration debate. Yet, as Easton points out, even illegal immigrants are human beings, who deserve fair pay for their work. You may not like the fact that they’re here, but they are part of the economy. Paying them so little – and not paying them at all sometimes – helps keep the costs of construction down and contributes to economic growth.

All of this may feel distant from Youngstown. Easton focused his discussion on day laboring in Atlanta, after all. But when he spoke with Tod Porter’s economics class, Easton discovered that a number of YSU students either knew someone who had done this kind of work or had their own experience as day laborers. They could name several local agencies that manage day labor jobs, and they recognized the “standing on the street corner” version of day labor as something they had seen near big box hardware stores. Even as we tout the growth in professional jobs in the Mahoning Valley, we must remember that new construction and demand for landscapers create the conditions for low-wage, high-risk jobs.

Monday, November 12, 2007

A View from the City: Growth and Challenges

Come January, Youngstown’s city council will be dominated by new members, though some are not new to local politics. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I talk with Jamael “Tito” Brown, who was just elected to represent the 3rd Ward. Brown’s not new to local politics, though. He’s just completing a term on the Youngstown City Schools Board, and he’s worked on a variety of local projects, including 2010. In our interview, we’ll discuss local schools, issues facing the city, and regionalization.

The primary city council concerns Brown raises are housing, crime, and economic development. He expresses concern about people buying local houses online without understanding the local conditions that create these seeming “bargains,” as well as concern about the quality of life in Youngstown’s neighborhoods. Part of that is about controlling crime, but neither housing nor crime can be fully solved without economic development.

Economic development will shape everything else, but it will require us to deal with two issues that most people would prefer to ignore: class and race. We’re facing a class divide in current discussions of development, which focus on bringing high-tech jobs to the region. That’s a great idea, but it won’t necessarily help many who live in the city. The local economy will certainly benefit from growth in the technology sector, but we also need jobs that don’t require specialized skills or high levels of education. We need to think about Youngstown’s working class, not just its professional class. Brown’s ward reflects that: he represents everyone from those living in poverty to leaders in the new tech boom.

Another key issue in economic development is regionalization, and that presents challenges related to race. If we want to create more regional networks, of any kind, we will have to face up to the realities of segregation and racism. We live in one of the most segregated areas in the country, and that’s partially a result of the white flight in the 1950s and 60s. But the problem isn’t just segregation. It’s also about attitudes. A few years ago, at a meeting of local government officials from townships in Mahoning County, I heard several comments about how “those people” in the city can’t manage anything. Of course, racism isn’t just a city vs. suburbs problem. I live in the city, in a neighborhood that is more integrated than any place I’ve lived before (in terms of both class and race), and I hear more openly racist comments here than I ever have anywhere else. That creates divisions that make it harder for us to address the local problems that affect all of us. Ignoring those divisions doesn’t make them disappear, but, as Brown suggests in our conversation, we can make progress by keeping our eyes on the prize of economic growth for the whole region and all of its citizens.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Arts in the City: Community Development Means More than Just Business

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken with several local leaders who are working on community development, mostly with a focus on attracting new businesses to Youngstown. But community development is not just about business. A vibrant community must also have functional networks of active citizens, a sense of its own identity, and a lively cultural life. And here in the Mahoning Valley, we have a good start on all three, perhaps most especially on cultural life. The local arts community is incredibly varied and active. While that’s been true for the past century, these days we see a new generation of artists and arts organizers, bringing new energy and new projects to the Mahoning Valley. This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with one of the leaders of that new generation, Brooke Slanina. She’s Vice President of the Board for the Oakland Center for the Arts, but more important, she’s an energetic, creative spirit who understands both why the arts matter and how hard it will be to ensure the long-term vitality of our diverse arts community.

One of the challenges that Brooke and her colleagues face is, ironically, the successful arts history of the area. Because of that, we have several active local community theaters, but they also compete for money, audiences, volunteers, and attention. We saw dramatic evidence of the problem earlier this season when several different theaters put on versions of Beauty and the Beast. No doubt, all were good productions, but I’d bet that none got as large an audience as it might have if it were the only production of that show. There may be similar overlaps among visual arts venues. I think the music community does a better job of coordinating its activities, perhaps because of overlaps of personnel and management in both popular and classical music.

We need the arts to ensure a vibrant future for the Mahoning Valley, so we need artists and arts organizers to work together. In our interview, Brooke talks about several ideas that are just getting going. If those organizing efforts can take off, then those of us who are arts consumers (rather than creators) have much to look forward to. One starting place to learn more about the arts in Youngstown is the CityArts website.