Moving the Big Rocks

When it comes to publicity very few people can match Donald Trump.
But Mr. Trump met his match last week with the immense amount of coverage given to Pope Francis on his maiden voyage to America.
The Donald and the Pope talk about many of the same issues, immigration, income inequality and climate change, but with all due respect to our Palm Beach neighbor, I prefer listening to Pope Francis’ message—and I’m not even Catholic.
While he was visiting the U.S., Pope Francis skipped out on Congress to eat lunch at a homeless shelter, visited a Philadelphia jail and in one of his most stirring public addresses, reminded mass-goers to stop averting their eyes.

“In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath ‘the rapid pace of change,’ so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no ‘right’ to be there, no right to be part of the city,” he said at a mass held Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York. “They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, and the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.”
Pope Francis knows that our shared future depends on building cities where all people have the opportunity to thrive. But how do you do that?
There are ideas galore from across the country on strategies that work. There are best practices relating to housing, crime, neighborhood revitalization, economic development and education.
But I would argue that the first step is always a decision on whether you want to do these things.
Many cities say they want to tackle their problems, but often it’s only words. But the cities that act are the ones to watch and the communities to emulate.
The problems we face today are vast, serious and seemingly endless and intractable. Most Americans would agree that Washington is broken and that their state governments, while usually more functional than Washington (a very low bar indeed) are also vast and distant from most people’s day to day lives.
The answers therefore must come from the cities, smaller communities that can marshal resources and people and actually solve or at least improve problems if they choose to do so.
The operative word though is choose…cities must commit.
I’m a fan of citizen-driven planning. When done well and with the right motives and people in the room, there is no more powerful tool that communities have than to create a blueprint by engaging as many stakeholders as possible.
I’ve seen this strategy change cities, including Delray Beach and I have seen cities fail to advance because they don’t engage their stakeholders.
So who are the stakeholders?
They include residents, property owners, non-profit organizations, educators, social service providers, law enforcement, business owners etc., anybody who has a “stake” in a city’s past, present and future. These are stakeholders, not special interests.
But often cities fail in their visioning and planning if they try and cut corners by either convening for the wrong reasons (to check a box), restricting input, rushing the process or the common mistake of dictating from the top.
Community engagement takes longer and can be messy. But engaging the public has magical advantages including buy-in and better ideas.
But once you commit, you had better deliver.
When I look at my city of Delray Beach and my neighbor Boca Raton, I see two really different but complementary communities with vast resources and amenities. But I also see challenges and opportunities.
There is great wealth and great poverty in our communities. There are safe neighborhoods and dangerous ones. There are kids who thrive and children who struggle with poverty, violence and dysfunctional home lives.
Cities are fascinating places because they have obligations to the past, present and future and they have responsibilities to all people—including the invisible and the struggling, the people mentioned by the Pope.
We can honor the past by preserving our historic neighborhoods and buildings, but also by recognizing the hard work that went into long term visions for our cities. We can serve the present by adapting those visions for today’s needs and by ensuring that current residents, from all walks of life have a place in our planning and in our communities. And we can create a better future by remembering that we are stewards. Therefore, it’s not all about our needs, wishes and conveniences; we also have a responsibility to our children and grandchildren as well.
Back in the day, we called some of these issues “the Big Rocks”. And we were determined to move them, even if ever so slightly forward. In Delray, the big rocks were education, crime, neighborhoods, race relations, building a vibrant and sustainable downtown, supporting culture, preserving the beach and creating jobs beyond food and beverage. In Boca, which had good schools, strong businesses, culture and neighborhoods I saw the big rocks as mobility, creating a downtown core and building on some remarkable foundations; medicine, education and technology.
Washington may or may not be fixable—but our cities are pockets of opportunity for us to work on big challenges and be beacons for others to emulate. You just have to choose to move the big rocks.

A Village is a Port in a Storm

There was a homicide in Delray Beach a few weekends ago.
A 26-year-old man was shot and killed outside a community market on our Main Street, in our downtown. His name was Jamar Gabbage.
The shooting happened not far from our “gateway” feature, in the 1100 block of West Atlantic Avenue; the entrance to our downtown.
Last week we learned that three people died after overdosing on heroin within 24 hours in Delray.
The same day this story led the local news I saw a young man on a bike heading toward A1A screaming at passersby. I wondered whether he was ill or under the influence of “flakka”, the new scourge that is laying waste to young minds. This week came more news of someone allegedly under the influence and violent requiring several police officers and a K-9 to subdue.
But when I stop by to visit friends at a local restaurant the talk isn’t about murders or what to do about substance abuse. The talk is about “A frame” valet signs and whether a part on the beach pavilion is rusting.
When I browse social media I read about change and how sad it is to see a chain store downtown. Valid concerns, but definitely first world problems, I think to myself.
Then I read about an unattended death at a local rehab and see a slew of insensitive comments.
And I feel sad.
These are people we are talking about.
Someone’s dad. Someone’s child. Someone’s friend.
I see a lot of lost people in our city. I see them outside the local Walgreens and watch them slowly cross a parking lot in front of my office on Lindell Boulevard.
Some are homeless and worn, like weathered driftwood. Others seem cooked with vacant thousand yard stares as they make their way across streets only to disappear in crevices.
We have it all here.
Mansions on the water.
Craft cocktails.
Fancy cars.
Valet parking.
Big Boats. Expensive private schools. 100 foot Christmas trees.
We also have murders.
Drive by shootings.
Kids whose parents beat them. People suffering from cancer and dementia. Heroin. Homelessness and drug deals done in alleyways.
It’s there for all to see in the village. If we care to look.
When I drive through town I have memories everywhere. That’s what happens when you’re anchored in a place for a long period of time as I have been in Delray—happily.
I remember being able to seeking solace in people whenever the going got rough.
On South Swinton there was Father Stokes. Chip, he would insist you call him.
He became Bishop of New Jersey.
But before he left he was a confidant; a trusted partner.
He cared about the poor people who lived just west of his church. When you talked with him you could see his passion about education, social justice and racism. Before he got his post in New Jersey he was up for another big job in the church.
A team of senior church leaders came to Delray to discuss his work in our city. I was asked about Chip’s work in the community and when I began to answer I noticed that I was choked up describing the care and leadership he provided. I realized that if he left, he would leave a gaping hole. He didn’t get that job but a few years later he got an even bigger one.
And you know what? We miss Chip Stokes’ leadership, courage and ability to focus on what was most important.
On Lake Ida Road, there was Nancy Hurd who spent decades loving the poorest children in our village at the Achievement Center. Nancy was always a port in a storm. On the darkest days, the days when I couldn’t sleep because I saw images of a 15 year old boy in a casket I knew I could visit Nancy and she would hold my hand and together we would visit pre-schoolers with their smiles, hugs and hopes. By the time you left, you had hope in the future. It wasn’t that reality changed, but in that corner of the world you could see goodness and love.
On North Swinton, at Old School Square there was Joe Gillie and Frances Bourque who were always excited about the arts and about serving children by exposing them to culture. Their passion was infectious. You wanted to sign on to their mission immediately and we did.
Years later I would sit on an interview panel and listen to 17-year-old Stephanie Brown talk about her love of photography stoked by a class she took at Old School Square. She would become one of our first set of Dare 2 Be Great Scholars. A year or two later she was named one of the top young photographers in Savannah where she excelled at the Savannah College of Art and Design. But for that class…it might not have happened.
Near Pompey Park, lived the Pompey’s, lovely people, educators, community builders whose love of this city made you fall in love too. Their history was painful; fighting for the right to go to the beach, better schools and parks and for local children denied opportunity.
On the southwest side, you could sit with Mrs. Wesley. Libby to some…and she would sing to you or read you a poem that left you a puddle. Libby was beauty personified. She believed in Delray. She believed in young people. She believed in roots. She inspired everyone.
At City Hall, you could pop in and feel the energy of achievement and pride. In the clerk’s office were Barbara Garito and Chevelle Nubin and lots of happy faces, Sue and Jim and others. There was DQ and Lula and a busy planning department with smart people like Ron Hoggard and Jeff Costello who could figure out any problem you threw at them. And we did. We threw a lot their way.
And there was tough Paul Dorling, who could be disarmed with a joke.
Perry held court at Boston’s and Bill at the Chamber. Lori could be found at the market and Nancy was always planning a festival.
Solace; everywhere you looked.
Pame, Jen, Evelyn, Skip, Bob, Susan, Kerry, Rachel and Tom Fleming in the Grove. Mrs Gholston and Miss B.
A village.
There were murders and drugs. Always. There was crime and blight galore. Businesses went bust. People said rude things.
But we were a village.
Always a village.
I’m not sure if those same havens exist these days. I hope they do and I suspect they do. Many of the players mentioned above have moved on in life which is what happens, but I’m sure they were replaced by others who are caring as well.
My wish is that current and future leadership seek advice and solace. You can’t do these jobs on social media, as great as Facebook is. It’s only a village if we talk to each other. And listen—with empathy.

Show Me A Hero

We just finished watching the HBO mini-series “Show Me A Hero.”
It was incredible.
Great acting, great writing and a subject that is as relevant today as it was when the series took place 30 years ago.
For those who missed it, “Show Me A Hero” is based on a famous housing case in Yonkers, N.Y. in the 1980s. A judge ruled that Yonkers needed to allow an additional 200 units of public housing throughout the city in an effort to stop the concentration of poverty and integrate a highly segregated city.
The City of Yonkers fought and fought and fought the decree, creating controversy, racial tension, financial and human hardship. The units were eventually built and were considered a success. The widespread fears of “there goes the neighborhood” were unrealized but the debate took a toll on residents on all sides of the issue.
The series is also the story of Nick Wasicsko, the 28-year-old mayor of Yonkers who first got elected by supporting residents who fought the expansion of public housing and then over time changed his position.
What’s intriguing about Mayor Wasicsko is that he changed over time and by degrees—a very human evolution.
At first, he agreed to the expansion of housing because the city kept losing in the legal arena and it was bleeding the city financially and spiritually. As an attorney, Wasiscko knew the fight was futile and as a pragmatist he wanted to stop the bleeding. But over time, he became a believer and genuinely wanted to help people escape the crushing poverty, crime and violence of the projects. He was named a finalist for a JFK Profile in Courage Award as a result.
Along the way, he lost his seat as mayor. He later won a council seat and then lost a political battle with the new mayor who redrew his district forcing him into a losing battle against his former best friend for a seat. Wasiscko committed suicide at the age of 34.
The final part of the quote “Show Me A Hero” is “and I will write you a tragedy”. That phrase was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and sadly, that is often true.
What made me “Show Me a Hero” so intriguing was that it’s heroes were not perfect people, but real human beings struggling with public sentiment, old prejudices, anger and doubt.
We’ve been through a long year in terms of race relations in this country. Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island—we’ve all seen the headlines and watched the news.
We are not immune.
When I watched “Show Me A Hero” I thought of my own experience in public office as I watched a young elected official get consumed by the anger, fear and sadness in his community over housing and race.
I saw some of those emotions as well.
One of the enduring lessons of “Show Me A Hero” was that the world didn’t end when those 200 affordable townhomes were built in white neighborhoods. In fact, some opponents of the affordable homes had a change of heart when they actually got to know their new neighbors as people looking to live in a neighborhood that was safe for their children.
“Show Me A Hero” depicts a city that nearly blew apart as a result of hatred, fear and anger.
It’s a cautionary tale with an enduring lesson: leadership has a responsibility to heal.