City Amenities and the Prices Paid for Them

ACORN Citizen Wealth Financial Justice

Pagosa Springs   In Durango, Colorado, we felt like we had struck gold, having hauled out bikes across Texas and New Mexico.  We stumbled, almost literally, onto a bike trail that had seemingly been recently completed along the pretty little Animas River that runs through the town.  We, meaning my son and I, knew it was a more recent addition because of the change of paving materials from modern concrete to asphalt, as we came to another nice bridge across the river.  Coming back, we crossed a park and to our amazement a young buck in the felt simply stood and stared at us as we passed within feet on our return.  The next day we found the town center of Pagosa Springs similarly gussied up with another nice bike trail linking the center of town and the hots springs along the San Juan River with several other parks.  The downtown area was bumping with literally hundreds of people, young and old, tubing through this stretch of small rapids along the river.

What wonderful urban amenities!  I vividly remember time spent over the years in both towns, especially Durango, when it was little more than another dusty western town serving ranch and mining and perhaps visitors headed for Mesa Verde National Park.  Who lives in these towns now?  A windshield survey might lead to the wrong conclusions, so I’ll be careful not to spit too hard where we had just luxuriated.

Sadly, I couldn’t help thinking that these improvements in downtown and riverfront development, perhaps for businesses and tourists, and nominally for residents of these areas, was really paid for by Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds.  CDBG funds, as everyone should know, but many forget, especially mayors and city councils, are designed to improve the lives of the lower income residents in a community.  Although I know this fact, as well as I know my own name, I was reminded of this while finishing Walter Johnson’s The Broken Heart of American:  St. Louis and the Violent History of America, while we were off the grid.  Johnson quotes an ACORN report in St. Louis about the abuse of CDBG funds in pimping on lower income census tracks in order to do a version of urban development while displacing the poor and, worse, making them pay for it.  Johnson follows the money to the fancy campus of Express Scripts and their $50 million data center construction which didn’t change their property tax evaluation thanks to tax increment financing (TIF) and CDBG, thereby short changing the local school districts and making the poor pay their bills both directly and indirectly.

Johnson is of course writing about St. Louis and the violent, racist, and exploitative tentacles that spring from its position at the confluence of great rivers and great greed.  Nonetheless, his short primer on urban development and financing is valuable.  There’s a history of CDBG abuse and misuse that is waiting to be written, and needs to be done soon, before more pay the price.