Last week a 5 part documentary series on Newark, New Jersey called “Brick City” aired on the Sundance Channel. The series was an excellent look at a tough nosed city fighting to rehabilitate itself from decades of violence, blight, poverty, back-handed politics and everything else that troubles inner-city communities. The show is centered on Newark’s highly motivated, energetic and young Mayor, Corey Booker. The Mayor, along with his staff and countless number of residents struggle to find ways to empower residents, steer youth away from gangs and reduce violent crime.
In this never ending struggle of poverty and violent crime another life is lost on a Newark street and the Mayor has to be available for comment to assure residents of their day to day safety and to demand that justice will be sought against the perpetrators. Throughout the series, this scenarios is played out multiple times leaving residents feeling any more safe or confident that justice will be sought (despite a significant reduction in murders from the year before).
Today I read about an honor roll student in Chicago who was beaten to death while walking to school. Just haven seen “Brick City,” I couldn’t help but wonder what would Mayor Booker do if he were in the Chicago’s mayor’s position…make another speech? I’m sure in Mayor Booker’s speech he would talk about how communities need to come together to overcome their ills, that we all must work harder together to protect our future, the youth and that law enforcement will work harder and smarter to try to prevent crime. But I just don’t believe these speeches anymore. This is not meant to mock or chide Corey Booker or the position that he is in as Mayor but I do not believe that if we work harder, smarter or more united that we will bring forth change. There is nothing the Mayor can do without systematic change to how cities and its suburbs are taxed and governed as well as taking a regional outlook on how to concentrate resources and improve access to employment centers, education and health institutions for everyone within a metropolitan area. Without systematic change, another speech…is just bullshit.
One of my favorite shows is “The Wire,” a fictional but very real portrayal of the inner city life and politics of Baltimore, Maryland. Fictional scenes from “The Wire” could have been easily interchanged for the non-fictional documentary of “Brick City.” During one of the final scenes of the third season of “The Wire,” an aspiring councilman who has hopes of becoming mayor makes a very ambitious speech that if the city does not come together united that the city’s neighborhoods will be permanently succumbed to violence. And if the police could just work a little bit harder and smarter, they can win the war on drugs. The dramatic scene and the very ambitious and captivating speech ends with a loud roar and applause from the council chambers to which the creators of the show say in their commentary of the scene…bullshit.
Just as in fiction as in real life, the problems of the inner-city are not just behavioral but structural. It does not matter how well someone’s good intentions are or how well a structure is dressed up, if the structure is built on a loose foundation such as a hyper-concentration of poverty, poor education, poor access to jobs and healthcare…the structure will collapse almost every time.