The question in the wake of the city inspection department's latest ritual public relations self-disembowelment is this: Were a series of terroristic, now-scuttled inspections in Southeast Raleigh some sort of "trial balloon," a test shot to gauge reaction to the latest affront to the people? Or, more likely, are the inspectors and their bosses merely arrogant boobs? A little background: Almost as I predicted in my column "The Knock at the Door" (indyweek.com/durham/2003-01-08/eichenberger.html), Raleigh and its inspections department planned, with no citizen involvement, to subject "blighted" (read "poor and black") neighborhoods to mass, compulsory inspections, intimidating the most vulnerable with documents and policies they might not understand, leaning on those in the least possession of the resources to address deficiencies in their dwellings. After catching hell for it no one will now take responsibility for the idea, and there are no minutes of any closed meetings at which it was discussed.
So, at a raucous city council meeting this month, the council and staff got dragged to the woodshed and administered as thorough and systematic a good ole country ass-whuppin' as I've seen by the inhabitants of the area--who let them know that they were on to the city's cruel, arrogant abuse of power. The city council quailed, issued a moratorium on the inspections, and delivered a well-deserved apology.
You won't see these sorts of blanket inspections in Cameron Park or Oakwood or Hayes Barton (read: well-heeled white people), which also contain older homes subject to the same sorts of geriatric conditions as any old house (especially when it comes to electrical and heating systems--the top two causes of domestic casualties). Folks with good memories might remember a blaze some years ago in Cameron Park where a large house went up in flames, killing the inhabitant; the proximate cause--a newspaper collection stacked to the ceiling.
I recently went on a tour of both sides of the line (Edenton Street), and to tell you the truth, the only difference I saw from the road was that the houses in Oakwood are larger--but with the same problems.
In fact, some city-owned rental houses in the "blighted zone" showed the same sorts of problems--peeling paint and such--that they will throw you out of your own house over. But they have an advantage that you and I don't have: sovereign immunity, which roughly translates to tough tits.
Look, no one is arguing it isn't in the city's interest to ensure the safety of its citizens. And it is legal as long as they, if one insists, produce a warrant--sure to endear you to the inspector, but still your legal right under Camara v. Municipal Court City And County, 387 (1967). I asked City Attorney Thomas McCormick to comment on Camara, but for now he has chosen silence.
So say you're in the zone, black, and face a city employee, who despite "Oh, of course the City of Raleigh would never discriminate," may or may not be a bigoted moron. Maybe you just don't cotton to strangers tellin' you what to do with your property and you get all bowed up. Now you have a couple of strikes against you, and they drop the hammer.
Suddenly you have 30 days (70 with the two 20-day extensions) to fix problems that have been literally centuries in the making, given Raleigh's historically abysmal treatment of her poor.
So, Grampa Grumpy's presented with orders to spend 20 grand on repairs or get out, board the property up and demo it in a year--at Gramps' expense. But wait, there's more! Grampa gets to shell out 325 bucks (cost of inspection) for the privilege of getting the bad news. (I wonder if there was a "moratorium" on that fee?) And it's not like the city gives the impression they are rendering assistance to assure safety via compliance. The notice says assistance is available but, y'know, somehow someone forgot to put the contact info on the form.
"The City of Raleigh prides itself on having a quality of life, [sic] second to no other jurisdiction," the letter opens, delivered on Thanksgiving eve, so the affected had all Thanksgiving Day to fret about it. Yessiree, there's some real concern for quality of life--not three years or six months to conduct repairs, but 30 days if the city had gone through with this cockamamie idea. If I were an inspector, I'd have made sure my insurance was up to date because some grumpy old bastard might well have a rusty old double-barrel tucked behind a door somewhere.
I've seen this scam before. It's just another twist on urban renewal, the shadow name for what used to be more accurately known as "negro removal," aka "gentrification." The city should be publicly castigated, and I'm a doin' it. J'accuse.
I know how folks live and have lived forever in what used to be called Southside, before Federal Housing Administration policies dictated the destruction of whole thriving neighborhoods back in the '60s. And I have been in some of Jesse and Dot Helms' disgusting rental hovels in the "blighted area." It would give a Hollywood set-dresser fits to try to create the decades of rot and filth in those appalling shacks. Funny how crummy housing was never a "problem" before. At least not until the land said shithole sits upon is suddenly worth money because of proximity to the shiny new downtown. Then, by golly, we have to help these people because, you know, we care. To which Mr. Eichenberger says, "Bullshit." Look, don't try and juke us. This is so transparent, a third-grader could figure out what it is--a land grab.
I don't think city employees go to work saying, "Oh boy, another day of screwing niggers." But the truth is that you can be a bigot and not realize it if that is all you know, living as we do within a deeply racist culture of the United States in general and the South in particular. As Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center force us to confront regularly, the Civil Rights Movement wasn't some magic wand that suddenly made us all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Remember, it wasn't until a mere 40 years ago, the Voting Rights Act, that black folks were assured even the right to vote (Russia beat us by a hundred years, for reference). These sorts of behaviors are so ingrained in us, so saturated in the very soil, that you have to climb out of your skin to see the United States--and Raleigh--for what it is.
And I don't think developers sitting like vultures in a tree waiting for the last real neighborhoods to be smacked-down are necessarily bigots (although they probably are); they just don't give a damn except for what matters to this nation: profit.
Look, guys, don't try to fool us. Threatening or actually kicking some poor old person out of their house because they can't afford to have their chimney repointed is not showing concern for "quality of life" (goopy PR bullshit if ever there was any). It is terrorism, as pointed out by a friend who got zapped--she being white, descended from slaveholders and raised in Eastern North Carolina, a place where bigotry is learned while sitting on parents' knees. I flat out asked her if she thought this was racism. She said yes with neither hesitation nor qualification. Sorry to rip your knickers off, Raleigh. The truth hurts.
But the other thing is the loss of texture. Trundling historic properties about like Monopoly pieces and placing them in an artificial construct like Mordecai Park is not preservation, y'all--it's taxidermy. Raleigh has already done such a superb Bronx stomp-job on its history that the only place with actual historic context is the poorest part of the city. It survived because nobody wanted it except for those who live there. No one wants to live in squalor. (And if some of you bigots are under some delusion that "blight" is some sort of black thing, I'd be thrilled to give you a tour of Cincinnati, Ohio's Over the Rhine neighborhood, where the 40 oz. crack-pipe culture thrives among the former "hillbillies" suckered out of Appalachia by the same con-job their black brothers and sisters in Chicago or New York went through.) These neighborhoods deserve to be restored, not crushed. When federal and city housing policies end up erasing whole neighborhoods, something very profound is lost--context, history, stories.
The most telling moment of the meeting was when Councilwoman Jessie Taliaferro thanked the residents for having the "courage" to show up. Wow, so now it takes "courage" to express sentiments about oppressive policies to elected officials. Considering what the residents were put through, Taliaferro's slip may well have shown the city's true colors in a way that she hadn't planned.