PLANNING COMMISSION TAKES A PASS ON “OZ,” SCHOOL BOARD TAKES A PASS ON DESEGREGATION

13 09 2008

“It looks like Oz, just springing up out of the fields like that,” commented Planning Commissioner Victor Tyler, as Maytown Center supporters groaned.  One of them called out, “It’s European,”, but this is Nashville, American-only, we don’t speak no stinking European in this town, buddy, if there’s skyscrapers, there’s sprawl and that’s how it’s gonna be because this is America, by Gawd.

It was not a good day for the Maytown crowd, as commissioner after commissioner gave faint praise to the proposal–they appreciated all the conservation safeguards and the walkability of the proposed community, calling it visionary, architecturally stunning, ahead of its time–and then noting that there are far too many unanswered questions.

If it’s everything Tony Giarratana says it will be, isn’t it a lot of traffic for one bridge?  Do we really want to extend Nashville’s infrastructure in this very expensive way when there is no guarantee of payback and we’re having a hard time making ends meet already?  Is it really only going to attract tenants from out-of-county, and what’s it going to do to downtown? This is the last big rural area this close to our urban core–are we sure this is the right use for it?   Is this really “smart growth”?  There have been no independent analyses of the traffic patterns, economic impact, or fiscal realities of this proposal.  What if corporate campuses turn out to be just as illusory a financial driver as strip malls turned out to be?  Do we want to attract big business, or have good quality of life for ourselves?

Doubt carried the day.  The Nashville Planning Commission is not a bunch of tree-huggers. It’s peopled by engineers, real estate dealers, and business executives, the kind of folks who you would expect have never seen a development they didn’t like, but they weren’t buying Maytown Center.  They passed the Area Plan for Bell’s Bend-Scottsboro, and gave the “special use area” an indefinite deferment, meaning that Tony Giarratana is free to bring it back up any time he thinks he’s got better answers for their questions.  I’m sure he’ll give it a shot, but it looks to me like so many of those questions point to basic structural problems with the project that there is no way it’s ever going to get built.

And what will Jack May do with his twenty-three million dollar pied-a-terre there on Bell’s Bend?  According to the Tennessean, he uses his property in Mexico to grow organic agave, the basic ingredient for tequila.  Much of the tip of Bell’s Bend is prime bottomland.  It would grow great rye.   Maybe we’ll soon see “Mays Brothers organic. authentic Tennessee sippin’ whiskey.”  Who knows?

Well, one of the premises of Maytown Center was that it would attract more wealthy white folks to Nashville–yeah, I know, they didn’t say it that way, but we all know who it was pitched to, don’t we?  In another front in the class war, the wealthy white folks have won at least a temporary victory, as the Nashville School Board voted to return to neighborhood schools–i.e., to resegregate the city’s school system.  The School Board tried to justify it on the grounds of promoting parental involvement in kids’ education and saving money by not busing kids all over the place, but there seems to be a great deal of evidence that their real concern was that exposure to lower-class black kids was chasing white families out of Nashville and deterring new ones from moving in.

The sad truth is, that’s probably true.  Nashville schools lost nearly 20% of their white students just in the first year of desegregation, in 1971, and the city of Brentwood was built on the premise of white flight–hey, let’s just call it racism–because it was just over the Williamson County line and exempt from Nashville’s court-ordered desegregation, but still close enough to Nashville to be an easy commute.  Just think of it:  Cool Springs is there because of racism.  Isn’t that sweet?  But I digress…Nashville schools, which were nearly half white ten years ago, are now approaching the one-third mark.  Without black, inner-city students to fill it out, Hillwood High, the city’s most upscale high school, would be about half empty.  Rich white folks just ain’t havin’ babies like they used to, I guess….good riddance, a lot of people would say.

But here’s the thing:  studies have shown that what helps black kids out step out of the poverty-crime cycle, more than any kind of expensive facilities at de-facto segregated schools, is going to school with, and thus forming relationships with, kids who are not stuck in the poverty-crime cycle.  Conversely, exposure to lower-class kids is very good for middle-class kids, because it expands their horizons in a way that no teacher-produced classroom experience ever could, even if a lot of white parents don’t see it that way.

Let me tell you a story from my own past.  I went to high school in the mid-1960’s; the civil rights movement was hot, but it was something that was mostly happening somewhere else, at least in the early sixties.  I never thought twice about the fact that I was going to a 100% white, upper-middle-class school, where I was actually one of the more exotic people, being Jewish and the only child of a divorced mother who was, by middle-class standards,  just scraping by.  This was back in the days when hardly anybody got a divorce, y’know?  So anyway, I was walking down by the Miami River in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, one chilly winter afternoon.  The Miami River was the divide between white Dayton and black Dayton, and sure enough I met a couple of black kids about my age.  Their coats were ragged and dirty, and one of them had something wrong with one of his eyes that turned the whole eyeball a kind of cloudy white.  They were picking up dead fish from the edge of the river, and they told me they were going to take them to a market they knew of and sell them.  I did not stick around long enough to find out which market!

In retrospect, I think they were putting me on, but at the time I took them seriously, and it put me through changes.  I had literally never encountered anybody like them before.  For me it was like the incident in the life of Gautama Buddha when, after having been protected all his life, he first encountered old age, sickness, and death.  Within a few years I would be working for civil rights organizations, reading Karl Marx, and moving in a trajectory that would take me as clear of mainstream America as I could get–and that was just one five-minute encounter.  Well, OK, I was a pink diaper baby, too….

But I think that’s just what white parents are afraid of, just what the school board is, after all, only responding to–that their kids will be exposed to something that calls into question the comforts they have been raised to take for granted.  This is a difficult, painful, and personal subject.   It’s why conservatives say you can’t pass legislation that makes people change their minds–if you put a lot of people (mainly conservatives, actually!) into situations where their worldview may be challenged, they will respond to their discomfort by attempting to withdraw any way they can–in this case, through private schools and moves to de-facto segregated enclaves like Williamson County.

It is unfortunate that Nashville’s school board, in confronting this conundrum, which admittedly is a bigger problem than they have the power to solve, chose to cave in to racist, classist impulses and throw lower-class black students overboard.  Their actions were probably illegal on a couple of counts:  mainly, of course, racial discrimination but also violations of the state’s open meetings law.   It is astounding that at no time did the school board seek a legal opinion about what amounts to resegregating Nashville’s schools; there will almost certainly be a lawsuit, currently threatened by the NAACP, and meanwhile, to the extent that our faltering economy allows, wealthier whites will continue to leave Nashville’s foundering school system for the still-viable, greener pastures of Williamson and other surrounding counties, where the economic realities of home prices, rents, and lack of public transportation effectively keep out all those scary low-life types.  They will have gotten themselves nicer deck chairs, but they’re still on the Titanic.

music: Michael Franti and Spearhead, “Poor Wayfaring Stranger”  (w/Joan Osborne)








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