Who cares? Not my hometown paper.

Recently a friend of mine—someone on the local school district's committee looking at how to spend the windfall the district has coming when their current bond is paid off—made some impassioned comments at a meeting. In referring to the school district's (yet to be made public) plan to close another neighborhood school and build a new facility on the edge of town (yes, we have learned nothing), he made a reference to Brainerd as a ghetto.

I wasn't there and didn't hear the comment, but I've talked to him before on this topic. He's a very intelligent man. Like me, he knows that the condition of Brainerd's neighborhoods are not akin to the Jewish ghettos of Warsaw in World War II. That being said, we both also understand that "ghetto" is not a place but a policy. It is an approach that concentrates poverty into areas that are actively neglected through public policy decisions.

In closing many neighborhood schools over the years, the local school district has walked away from neighborhoods that are already struggling, making the situation in those places much worse. There are many reasons to object to the school district's plan -- if it is released in its current form -- and I will be active in opposing it. One of those reasons, certainly, is the impact it will have on the district's poorest neighborhood.

Sadly, upon hearing the ghetto comment, the local paper opted not to examine the deeper question of the impacts of our policy decisions but instead chose to do some cheap grandstanding focusing on the word itself. Their opinion piece -- Brainerd a ghetto? Get real. --  beat up a straw man to the detriment of us all. Here's the part that really made me embarrassed:

One wonders if Ronnei has ever visited Brainerd's neighborhoods and talked with its residents. If he had, he would realize that each neighborhood is unique, with many beautiful features and, for the most part, well-maintained homes and businesses. Brainerd is an older city, and understanding its history as a railroad town and a mill town helps show how these neighborhoods came into being.

Does Brainerd have issues? Of course it does. Show us a city that doesn't. But using generalized statements to put the city in a negative light is not only false but disrespectful to Brainerd residents.

I responded with my own opinion piece, which they opted not to run. In their defense, it exceeded their word limit and I was unwilling to pare it down. Here it is in its entirety.

Nothing to see here. Just keep driving past.

Nothing to see here. Just keep driving past.

I’m ashamed of the cheap editorializing from my hometown newspaper in their recent column, Brainerd a ghetto? Get real.

Read some history. The term “ghetto” does not describe a place. It describes a policy.

Does the Dispatch really think that Harrison Elementary would ever be closed if South Brainerd were the area’s richest neighborhood instead of its poorest?

For decades, the Brainerd School District, with the support of the Dispatch, has neglected schools in the city’s poorest neighborhoods before ultimately disinvesting in them entirely.

Lincoln Elementary. Franklin Junior High. Washington Middle School. Whittier Elementary. Now purportedly Harrison Elementary. All neighborhood schools that decision-makers had an endless list of excuses for walking away from, leaving the people who invested in these neighborhoods – decent families who were counting on the school as the anchor of their neighborhood – to make other arrangements.

And it’s not just the school district who has had a policy of neglect towards Brainerd’s poorest neighborhoods. The Dispatch has been on the wrong side of countless projects that taxed Brainerd’s residents while simultaneously lowering their property values and undermining the city’s business community.

Some recent examples:

  • College Drive, a $9 million shortcut to Walmart that separates the college from the adjacent neighborhood with a deer fence.
  • The South 6th reconstruction, where the Dispatch insists there be enough lanes for drivers to travel through at unnecessarily high speeds but is apparently comfortable with people on foot being diverted multiple blocks just to cross safely.
  • Now, the airport utility expansion, where Brainerd residents are on the hook for millions in debt payments for a problem that could have been solved for a few hundred thousand dollars, a fix the Dispatch dismissively called “stop-gap” but, with what is now being spent, could have been repeated multiple times over the next 500 years. It’s called maintenance.

I encourage the Dispatch Editorial Board to go and view 13th Street where so many South Brainerd residents, in pursuit of food and employment, walk to Northeast each day that they’ve worn a path in the ditch. Crow Wing County just finished spending millions on this street but couldn’t be bothered to ease the burden of those residents with even a little gravel (see photo). Why? Because nobody cares. That’s what it means to have a ghetto policy.

If the Dispatch editorial board is fond of statistics, here are two that matter: The median household income in Brainerd is 35% lower than the county average. The median home value in Brainerd is 36% lower than the county average. If the school district, so eager to spend the revenue from expiring bonds before taxpayers grow used to having less debt, decides to close another neighborhood school, it will only make those disparities worse.

The Dispatch Editorial Board should stop comforting the comfortable and start asking some hard questions.

In my discussions with the local paper on this, they called into question the validity of my assertion of people walking for food and employment. You say these people are the poorest in our community having to walk for food/medicine because they have no cars, but how do we know that? I'm a huge supporter of local media -- my wife is a reporter, after all -- and I respect the fact that they are not going to have the resources to follow up every angle that may be relevant on a story, but come on.....

Why go out of your way to attack someone who is asking the questions you should be asking? Why give comfort to those who are so comfortable with neglecting our struggling neighborhoods?

They ask: How do I know that? Because I've been there and talked to them. And listened. Is it really too much to think a newspaper might do the same? 

To be continued...

(Top photo by Steven Kevil)

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