Columnists > Voices

Summerhill revisited

Political power fails and market forces come to rule

Issue: "Public-school reform," July 26, 2003

ATLANTA-From the impoverished Summerhill neighborhood the gold dome of the Georgia state capitol located about a mile away is readily visible-and the struggle for political power that the dome represents continues to get in the way of community economic revitalization.

State political power was in evidence this spring as the Georgia legislature refused to close down the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, now a haven for officials who- as the Atlanta Journal and Constitution put it-keep busy "creating boondoggles" such as FanPlex, an arcade/miniature golf course/fast food joint located at 768 Hank Aaron Drive near the stadium where the Atlanta Braves play. FanPlex came into being last year as well-connected officials decided they could justify their salaries by saying they were giving poor children recreational opportunities.

The newspaper commented that "taxpayers would have been better off if the $2.5 million" spent on FanPlex "had been tossed into a bonfire. At least taxpayers could have kept warm for an hour. Instead they're going to get burned for years." The 75 videogames on the afternoon in May when I visited were being used by a total of four children. The miniature golf course was deserted. The Taco Bell a block away had a line at its counter and its tables filled but the FanPlex staffer on duty had time for contemplation and no need to wipe down his unused outside tables.

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National political power has also been disconnected from street-level reality. I spent time in Summerhill a dozen years ago and wrote then about how federal urban renewal helped to destroy Summerhill's Georgia Ave. business district. Neighborhood life became even worse after President Lyndon Johnson said that his Model Cities program would make Summerhill a place of "spacious beauty and lively promise."

Federal officials boasted that "the most modern federal-state-city planning, housing, training, and social welfare techniques" would "transform the slum core into a modern area." Tens of millions of governmental dollars flowed into the pockets of middle-class officials, contractors, and social workers. Over 10,000 residents-one-third of Summerhill's population-left as welfare dependency and crime increased, and those who could afford to move out did so.

Community political power has also created messes. Bob Lupton, the pioneering president of FCS Urban Ministries, helped Summerhill's Community Development Corporation harvest cash and commitment from foundations and corporations, but the project "absolutely crashed on the rocks" as immediate political and financial gratification came to outweigh the long-range vision. After his Christian group handed over land, houses, and money to the Summerhill CDC, Mr. Lupton said, "we ended up with no capacity to deliver on our commitments. We were rightly motivated but very unwise."

Mr. Lupton noted that the Summerhill experience pushed his organization to develop a new rule: "Don't subordinate to community politics your ability to fulfill commitments.... In subsequent neighborhoods, we've established a true partnership. When we make an agreement, we have the legal capacity to fulfill it. We'll be the land assemblage entity, we'll buy the land, we'll hold the land in accordance with the agreed-upon plan, it won't be reliant on subsequent political intrigue. The partnership has clearly defined roles."

One FCS goal was to build good housing affordable to the nonaffluent, so that revitalization of the neighborhood would not drive out poor residents. Some of that revitalizing occurred, but major changes are now coming because market forces have taken command. On some blocks homes priced at $269,000 boast "new construction with downtown skyline views." On other blocks older homes have been rehabbed, but as crime remains a problem Summerhill still has many broken-down houses displaying huge bags of dog chow on sagging porches, and others that go beyond subtlety to tether large dogs on long chains.

The building boom is likely to continue. On a May afternoon 20 men (almost all Hispanic) were working hard constructing Heritage Pointe, advertised as "A Quaint Community of 42 townhouses" priced at $160,000 and up. They ignored an enticing ad poster that proclaimed, "Relax. Get a massage," and instead sweated while moving dirt and laying bricks.

At this point Summerhill's future depends on market forces, and the hope that as better-paid residents move in they will generate a demand for goods and services that poorer residents will supply. If political officials don't mess things up via taxation and regulation, some Summerhill residents will have new opportunities to move up without moving out. Markets can be brutal; as Wilhelm Roepke wrote in A Humane Economy, capitalism works best with a Christian sensibility.

But overall, the Summerhill lesson is that entrepreneurs whose financial success depends on serving others are public servants much more often than politicians who play with other peoples' money.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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