By Mike Martin, for the Columbia Business Times
When a coalition of citizens last year announced a move to oust First Ward councilwoman Almeta Crayton, the community greeted them with a puzzled sigh. First Ward politics and priorities are pretty removed from the daily lives of most Columbians. Few people outside the ward seemed to grasp the level of discontent, among both black and white constituents.
Now that Crayton’s council seat -- due for election in April -- has attracted a free-for-all after years of uncontested campaigns, Columbia is taking notice.
It doesn’t hurt that contenders include a former mayoral candidate who probably knows more about the First Ward than anyone else -- John Clark -- or True-False Film Festival founder and Ragtag Cinema co-founder Paul Sturtz, whose Midas touch and grassroots panache make him an odds-on favorite to succeed Crayton this year.
Beyond an interesting campaign, however, the fight for the soul of the First Ward is a long-running commentary -- not only on Crayton, but also on us.
Writing of two languages, two constituencies, and a bridge, Columbia Daily Tribune publisher Hank Waters made the divided landscape of First Ward politics crystal clear in a February 18, 2001 editorial entitled Almeta’s lament.
Providing “a communications bridge between her constituents and the city’s mostly white power structure,” Crayton speaks “both languages,” the Tribune publisher wrote. Nonetheless, then as now the divide proved difficult to cross.
“When she raised her voice in frustration about unmet problems in her ward, everyone listened, but hardly anyone one knew how to respond,” Waters wrote.
Crayton “pointedly criticized her city council colleagues for not responding to crime and drug abuse problems with more money for police services and counseling.” Then Third Ward Council member Donna Crockett said that “if Almeta is ‘out there screaming by herself’ during next year’s budget process, she won’t get very far.”
Conceding that Almeta was “mostly by herself,” Waters concluded that “she does not yet seem to give valid stimulus for spending more city money.”
But in much of the First Ward, where racial segregation once ruled and where because of it, many streets lack sidewalks, drainage, lighting, safety, and other basics the rest of us take for granted, the stimulus seems glaringly obvious.
The problem may instead be lack of commitment, made more pressing seven years later by skyrocketing crime; increasing demand for affordable housing; and an ever louder cry against the ill-effects of suburban sprawl.
To most bankers and investors, a solid financial stake screams commitment. But by that standard, Columbia isn’t committed to many First Ward neighborhoods, where Federally-funded block grants substitute for local tax dollars.
In December 2005, Ms. Crayton asked for and received a city manager's report on infrastructure spending in the central city.
Of $4,927,030.00 in long overdue street, sidewalk, parks, water, sewer, and housing projects between 2001 and 2005, the City of Columbia contributed less than two percent (2%) from its own coffers.
Greater than 98% came from Federal HOME and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG).
Adding insult to inequity: tax bills to low-income First Ward residents paid for whatever the block grants didn’t cover.
"These data suggest a substantial and effective effort to improve living conditions and quality of life in the area," said the report, entitled City Projects and Programs in First Ward/Central City.
But whose effort? Columbia's -- or the Federal Government's? Changing the answer to that important question would go a long way toward bridging the great divide between the First Ward and the rest of the city.
The cry for affordable housing is another obvious stimulus to improve an area -- the central city -- where virtually every home and apartment is ultra-affordable. But city government’s inefficient use of block grants is one indication that we aren’t stimulated enough to take serious action.
Block grants should supplement -- not replace -- local tax dollars, accelerating neighborhood revitalization rather than financing routine public works.
“Basic street projects aren't the best use of CDBG funding,” agreed Columbia Community Development Commission member and Ridgeway Neighborhood Association president Patricia Kelley on a community listserv. "Burying power lines or planting shade trees over the street would make a big difference to central city and other low-income neighborhoods.”
But City Hall just doesn’t get it.
"Without CDBG programs, there simply are no funds to improve the streets in those neighborhoods," affordable housing executive Mike Crist told the Tribune in February 2005. "There is no money to put in storm drains. Those neighborhoods will just deteriorate."
The thought of central city neighborhoods left to deteriorate brings us back to Almeta’s lament. Nine years and running, it’s now become the battle cry of her disaffected constituents.
They’re right to be frustrated and right to demand better in this large and wonderful part of Columbia, where an otherwise wealthy and progressive community’s most troubling story plays out year after year, op-ed after op-ed, grant after grant, election after election -- and lament after lament.