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A Westside Renaissance? - 04/27/11

Just after the 2009 city election, I concluded that a city government "which senses no duty to uphold the public trust" may be "the final form of civic community" in Deerfield Beach.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the Westside -- District 2.

In the 1920's, the African-American community in New York City underwent a cultural revolution of sorts. "Negro" arts, music, and theater thrived during this period. Harlem became a destination for people from all over the world. Most importantly to my discussion here, a new image of the African-American community was forged, different from the negative stereotypes of the post-Civil War era.

I submit, this is what the Westside district of Deerfield Beach needs on a smaller scale -- a Harlem Renaissance. District 2 residents need to reinvent their community, because their "final form of civic community" will take them nowhere.

Central to my thesis is that this level of change must come mostly from within the Westside community itself. It's "DIY," not from government largess or direction. It must also be realistic.

The Westside is in stasis and has been for some time. Redevelopment is not the answer. First, large-scale private investment is not likely in a working-class black neighborhood. This is why District 2 commissioners look to the city and the federal government for financial help with such things as housing and infrastructure.

Second, even if it were possible, it would not be the best option. Redevelopment means displacement of people who don't fit into the new scheme. Unless displacement was confined to criminals and drug dealers, current residents would hardly benefit by gentrification and being squeezed out of their own neighborhoods.

Also depending on how it's done, redevelopment can mean the destruction of the very neighborhoods it tries to preserve. How can this, then, be the answer?

The answer has to be in a different plan from finding new sources of grant money to be doled out to the select few or some grandiose tax district scheme like a CRA. What the Westside needs, for a beginning, is a whole new outlook on what could happen in their community, and a new political culture.

I'm not optimistic, frankly, that a Westside Renaissance is possible in this generation.

It would require an engaged community, a remade image of who they are, exceptional energy, and exceptional leadership. Unfortunately, these qualities do not seem to exist.

People vote for Obama, but not in city elections. They go to church, but not to city meetings. People, especially younger people who crave a better future, don't want to be there; they want to leave. As for leadership, whoever has the vision and the ability to inspire such fundamental change -- their "Renaissance Man" -- is yet to be found. The Roman Emperor Caligula appointed his horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate to make the point that a horse could do a better job than the human senators.

Yes, I'm suggesting that the Westside might do better with Incitatus on the city commission than with what they've had. District 2 voters have been handed a unique opportunity: To vote again in a city election and get it right this time, to fill the position left vacant by Sylvia Poitier. Is there a person out there up for the job of leading the Westside into a new era?

Just last month, only around 7 percent of the registered voters in the district reelected Poitier to the city commission by a 62 percent margin over three other candidates. Then, she was charged with five misdemeanor counts of falsifying official documents and forced to stand down from her post.

The March election is an example of the level of citizen engagement in the Westside community. Deeply entrenched power structures in the political realm do not die easily or quickly, especially when the public is apathetic.

Accordingly, the effort to mobilize citizens in District 2, if it is sincere and not a front for the old power establishment, and to stir up voter interest in the upcoming special election is commendable. But like all things political, observers and participants alike are entitled to a certain amount of skepticism, especially in view of history.

The decades-old political culture of District 2 will not change overnight with a couple of meetings. It's going to require a whole lot more.

So, the first question to be asked is whether the "Community Action Team," the core group of people in this "movement," wants real change, as they say, to reverse the apathy and the negative self-image of the black community which makes up the bulk of the voting population of District 2.

Is it for real, or is "CAT" on a stealth mission to preserve the political order which has ruled the Westside area for years, and of which suspended commissioner Sylvia Poitier has been the central figure for years?

Those who have been in power may see that the time for deposing them might be around the corner, given Poitier's arrest and suspension. Why not then adopt the language of change to conceal the real purpose to preserve the old power structure?

If "CAT" is a sincere movement for change, however, as advertised, this begs a second question. Where has this "movement" been all this time? Where was it in March when District 2 voters went to the polls -- or didn't go in most cases -- and reelected Poitier by such a wide margin when voters had clear options? 2011 could have been a turning point for District 2.

Where was the "movement" in 2009 when Poitier ran without opposition?

The political culture of a city or district is the still water that runs deep. Life moves quickly on the surface, the suspension of Poitier, for example, but other political dynamics (such as the desire for self-preservation) tend to move almost in reverse and resist fundamental change. It would be phenomenal, even in light of recent events, if more than ten percent of the nearly 10,000 registered voters cast ballots in the special election.

Some charge that the city is dragging its feet to call a special election to deprive District 2 of representation on the city commission. This is nonsense, without merit. The city commission did not appoint an interim commissioner because it can't. The city charter is clear: It is a matter for the electors of the district, not politicians or prosecutors, to decide who sits in Poitier's seat while she's absent.

This is where it begins -- or could begin. The state prosecutor has already done some of the work. He won't choose Ms. Poitier's successor. The city commission is not going to choose who represents District 2. District 2 voters must now take things into their own hands. They could elect a new face who is not part of the old order. This could be the start of a new era -- a Westside Renaissance.

Unfortunately, it probably is not to be this election because the political will, the energy, and the leadership aren't there yet -- and the resistance, too strong.

Conclusion: It will take at least another generation, I believe, before the "final form of civic community" in District 2 is prologue to a better future. But a "Westside Renaissance" still might be good idea to think about.



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