I’m struck by the over-the-top rhetoric that is accompanying the protests over the closing of the Ida Benderson Senior Citizen Center, a drop-in program run by the city’s Parks & Recreation for many years. The Center is scheduled to be closed by the city on October 1st–its $120,000 annual rent and the extra expenses for a staff director just the latest casualty of the city’s budget problems.
The flyer above is typical. The peace and justice folks in this town lack a basic vocabulary of social change that is rooted in the self-interest of the oppressed and that recognizes that all issues are not morally black and white. The graphic on the flyer is, of course, the clenched fist of revolution and resistance. A march to support the Center (which is a good action) is billed as “a March to resist gentrification at the expense of poor and elderly people.” We are supposedly fighting for a “right to the city, a right to dignity and a right to community.” What has the Mayor proposed? The center will move from its current location and merge with a Salvation Army center. The Center will keep the Ida Benderson name. The new location will be closer to the new bus hub scheduled to open in a few months. The city will eliminate a staff position in Parks and Recreation and pay half the current rent for two years to the Salvation Army. Hardly seems that oppressive.
The closure of the Center, because of its longevity and the fact that it honored the 60 year career of a selfless activist for the elderly, has caused a stir in the community. The Mayor has attempted to come up with a workable compromise, but with her trademark obstinate ham-handedness, refused to work with the senior citizens before announcing any change. As a result, the rumors as to intent swirl around town. But the city isn’t engaged in stealth development for rich folks. The city isn’t seeking to clear seniors and poor people out of downtown. The city is looking to defund as many programs that it can due to the financial bind it faces: increasing personnel, health and pension costs at the same time the city faces a decrease in both tax collections and state revenue sharing.
What is the difference between the city trying to get out of the senior citizen drop-in center business and its decision to aggressively cut firefighter positions and trucks at fire stations? The city has deferred maintenance of most city streets this summer, leaving streets unpaved and even potholes unpatched, after last winter’s storm damage.
The only person on the left to analyze this situation correctly has been the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins. He’s currently running for the 4th District Common Council seat and the Center is located within this district. Howie has consistently criticized the current administration for fanning fears of a city financial default (and resulting takeover of the city’s finances by a state control board) but not doing anything other than advocating strict austerity. Hawkins argues that the city needs to proactively fight for increased revenues, both on a state level by campaigning for the retention of the millionaire’s tax surcharge and on a local level by implementing something like a commuter tax.
We cannot cut our way out of this situation. But we cannot demagogue our way out either.