A Very Personal Perspective on Our Hometown

May 3, 2019


     For the past month, I have been attending the Listening Sessions that John Railey and Chanel Nestor of the Partnership for Prosperity have been moderating at various sites in Winston-Salem to ascertain whether the 56 recommendations on ways to combat poverty in our city developed by the Poverty Thought Force a few years ago are still valid and which should have priority.  I will be sharing with you in future posts my unofficial commentary on the progress the Partnership is making.  I should, in the interests of transparency, admit that I have been impressed with the sincerity, the civility, and the productivity of the Listening Sessions I have attended, especially in the face of such a challenge.  I hope that my commentary will help the Partnership for Prosperity as it attempts to help enlist the community in fighting poverty by raising public awareness of its impact on all us, and by advocating for policy reform on a local and state level.


Something David Brooks said in his New York Times column of July 30, 2018 has stayed with me.  He said, in part:


“Across the country, power is being most effectively wielded by civic councils – organically formed groups of local officials, business leaders, neighborhood organizations.  The members may have different racial, class, and partisan identities, but they have one shared identity – love of their community… (If you want to see it in action) you probably don’t have to travel far – Winston-Salem…”


This May, Carole and I will have lived in Winston-Salem for six years, long enough to have gained some familiarity with why Brooks would include Winston-Salem with five other cities that are “moving in the right direction.” During that time, I have heard the city called a “transformative city” many times, which implies, at least to me, that the city has left its past behind and is looking forward to the future, and has made substantial progress in making life better for all its citizens.  I eagerly embraced this accolade because I wanted to believe it.   After so many years in Washington, I wanted to spend my remaining years in a progressive city in the South, largely because it is warmer in the winter.   Winston-Salem is surely both.  Secondly, we wanted a city that has sufficient cultural attractions to keep us entertained.  Winston-Salem is absolutely that.  On the more ontological side, we wanted a city that had manageable traffic, a cost of living index we could live with and filled with people who uphold the Southern tradition of politeness and niceness.   We can testify to all of that, given the friends we have made who forgive my tendency to being sardonic, a family survival trait.  Winston-Salem is thankfully all that is conducive to the good life for us, or will be when Business 40 (or Salem Parkway) is finished this year or next, and we have a truly genuine French restaurant.


Because Carole and I didn’t have our heads in the sand for six years, we have also gained some knowledge of the problems facing the city and what is being done about them.   So I began to wonder if the term “transformative” really applied to the city.  Not being sure, I looked it up.  The tattered Webster’s dictionary that has sat on various flat surfaces in our homes for sixty years provided a bunch of definitions:


     “To change the form or outward appearance of…   to change the condition, nature, or function of, convert… to change the personality or character of…”


Useful, but not terribly specific.   I wanted something I could apply to Winston-Salem.  I found it easily enough on a website named, of all things, “transformativecities.org.”  Their definition is:


“…(transformative) cities broadly (are the) locations for place-based struggles for basic rights.  (The word) transformative recognizes that these struggles have succeeded in articulating an inclusive vision for a social majority to transform their city or defined environment.  These practices will have measurable results, since they have been implemented successfully, and they will be practices that can be replicated in other regions and places.  The evaluation criteria include equity and participation, capacity to inspire collective action, sustainability and efficiency, solidarity and public ethos, impact, transferability and replicability, accountability and transparency, fairness of labor conditions and the recognition of the domestic and care work.”  


    In short, everyone in a truly Transformative City has to walk on water, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and chew gum at the same time.


    Nonetheless, as aspirational as it may be, this definition is also useful because it offers a standard of measurement that assumes there are three things at work: 1.) a committed body of citizens concerned about the challenges facing their community and willing to try to do something about them, 2.) sufficiently effective mechanisms by which programs to address those challenges can be implemented, and 3.) a supportive environment.  Winston-Salem has all three, so the city is off on the right foot.  But it’s a long race uphill all the way.


In a 2008 article in ETHOS, “Transformative Investments: Remaking American Cities for a New Century,” circulated by the Brookings Institution, Winston-Salem isn’t mentioned by name but the description of what constitutes a “transformative city” seems to apply to Winston-Salem in many respects and sketches a strategy for dealing with the challenges it faces.   Specifically, there is one observation in this study that struck me as particularly relevant to Winston-Salem:


“The new urban practice can also be found in all aspects or ‘building blocks’ of cities: in the remaking of downtowns as living, mixed-used communities; in the creation of neighborhoods of choice that are attractive to households with a range of incomes; in the conversion of transportation corridors into destinations in their own right; in the reclaiming of parks and green space as valued places, and in the revitalization of waterfronts as regional destinations, new residential quarters and recreational hubs.”  (I mentally translated “waterfronts” into areas of a city that were put to new uses, such as the Innovation Quarter.)


Winston-Salem is dealing with these issues in many different ways, through government programs, Not-For-Profit organizations, places of worship, and individual initiatives.  These institutions are continually in a state of flux as they evaluate their effectiveness and make adjustments, but none would doubt their intentions or their determination and Winston-Salem is the beneficiary.  Still, it is unlikely that any would dispute the contention that the challenge is near to overwhelming.  


I heard the word “transformative” used in Winston-Salem primarily as a reference to the change in the economy from the “benevolent patronage” of industrial Titans to a more broadly based “community” economy, and the increasingly dominant role of bio-tech and other high-tech industries,  service industries, and health care in this “transformed” economy.  It is evident to all who visit downtown and the Innovation Quarter that something “transformative” is going on there.   Beyond that, applying the term “transformative” to the city gets more problematic.  By any measure, there is too much poverty, too much crime, too much educational disparity, and too much hunger in Winston-Salem for the city to qualify as “transformative” for the affected populations.   (At last check, Winston-Salem ranks higher than national and state averages in all categories and is among American cities in which social mobility is seriously lagging.)  How could a city so successful in so many ways, from the arts and sciences to health care, be so lagging in others?   This is a question that has been asked and some straightforward answers have emerged.   The transition from a traditional industrial economy to a service and information economy has left too many behind.


Alarmed by the income and other disparities, I checked other metropolitan areas in the nation.   Every one of them I checked (census figures of twenty cities roughly the same size as Winston-Salem) has the same problems Winston-Salem is dealing with, to greater or lesser degree.   From my perspective, the common question Winston-Salem shares with every other city in America is whether the problems are systemic or whether the efforts of the hundreds of concerned and committed citizens trying to change things can be successful to the point that the problems don’t grow any larger.


A “transitional city” may be a better descriptor of Winston-Salem than “transformative” even though the latter remains a goal and we are getting closer and closer to being designated as one of the most successful metropolitan areas in the nation.  But, because of the hundreds of institutions concentrating their resources and energy on solving the problems of poverty, the more hopeful way to describe Winston-Salem is an “aspirational city in transition.”


These collective efforts of a city “moving in the right direction” toward the alleviation of poverty are constantly being tested and any success will be achieved only because, as the Partnership for Prosperity’s concludes:


“Our future depends upon the realization that we must walk the path to prosperity together.  If we don’t tear down the barriers for those experiencing poverty today, we will all face them tomorrow.”


A closing quote from ETHOS seems spot on:


For the first time in decades, American cities have a chance to experience a measurable revival.  While broader macro forces have handed cities this change, city builders are also learning from past mistakes.  After investing billions of dollars into city revitalization efforts, the principles underpinning particularly successful and catalytic projects – transformative investments – are beginning to be clarified.  The most important lesson for cities, however,is to embrace “cityness,” (sic) to maximize what makes them physically and socially unique and distinctive.  Only in this way will American cities reach their true greatness.”


      David Brooks did not use the word “transformative” in his column.  From what we have learned thus far, we believe Winston-Salem’s grasp for greatness as a truly transformative city is within its reach.   As Railey and his colleague Chanel Nestor work through the 56 recommendations, in partnership with those already involved and those still in need, they will search for those “transformative investments.”  But it will be up to all of us to embrace them.


















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