Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Notes from the Rust Belt

In Urban Planning we call Akron,OH a "rustbelt" city. By that we mean that the once booming steel and rubber industries have left for Mexico or India, gas station after station is up for sale, the bright and the best have moved to either of the coasts, those who remain struggle to fill up their tanks, and largely work service sector jobs that barely pay the minimum wage.

I moved back to Akron, after nine years of living in New York in hopes of saving some money while I research PhD programs. In the last ten years or so, not much has changed in this city except gas prices and the housing market. Yet you see newer eating joints such as Panera Breads and Chipotle's everywhere. Some of my friends have killed themselves, some moved on, some made it big. What has changed is the University landscape. Millions of dollars have been pumped into the U of Akron, new buildings propped up, heck the president of UA was even interviewed by the New York Times recently, in hopes of getting industries and the federal government to invest in polymer research at the university.

I take the bus twice a day to get to school. I have now come to known some of the regulars on the bus. There is Seba, who came here from the "Crribbeans" in the 60's. "My dauther goes to Ohio state!" she proudly tells me. She has worked in a factory for thirty years and now has a unionized job. Then there is Lisa, the part time nurse. She walks a mile every morning and night to get to the bus to work for 5hrs/day at a struggling community clinic. "we see a lot of poor people who cannot pay for their health insurance". And then there is our morning driver and our night driver. "Vote for Metro-Scat on March 4th!" one of them told me the first time I got on to the bus.

I learnt that that the City of Akron had been cutting back on the Metro budget for the last several years. The drivers schedules have been disrupted, services connecting Akron with local cities had been disconnected. Issue 8 is a proposal for a 0.25 percentage-point sales tax increase that would raise about $18 million a year for Metro Regional Transit Authority. Passing the levy would increase total sales tax in Summit County to 6.5 percent. As a eco-labor friendly urban-planner who relies upon the Metro to get to school, I toook upon myself to spread the word about Issue 8. We called the Metro office got flyers and called our family and friends asking them to vote for Issue 8. A local group called "Citizen's for Poublic Transportation" organized on busy hours and weekends speaking to people on buses to vote for Issue 8. On March4 th Issue 8 won by 52% of votes. Now starts the fight of working with the City to get the money allocated.

For the few weeks till March4th Seba would dread the day when she would not be able to make it to work. Now we smile and feel empowered.

Why is public transportation the last thing on the City Planning departemtns agenda in many cities across the US?

As an Urban Planning student I have some answers. First, the way suburbanization occurs in rust-belt cities creates way for "urban-sprawl" meaninng large sub-developments along highway corridors, splashed with malls and cinema complexes. Making them the bedroom communites for larger cities (in this case Cleveland). Making planning for bus services difficult. Second, it is simply not a priority! the popular policy idea being "people on welfare takes busues, so why bother!"

To me this is symptomatic of the ways neo-liberal policy making has hit the rust-belt. The pay as you go mantra that is used by the IMF and World Bank in "lesser developed countries" has hit home. The notion that individuals can take care of themselves without any help from each other and government support is the crux of neo-liberal policy making along with the reign of monopoly capitalism. So let poor bus-riders pay if they want the bus, so let people and their employers pay for their health, just deregulate markets and let capital move freely across the globe and jobs will come, people will be happy!

And the result is flight of capital from once booming cities like Akron and Youngstown, and where do they fly to? They fly for cheap labor in countries like Colombia, Mexico and India. Companies pay bare to nothing to laborers overseas, disrupt unionizing efforts. Indeed the contours of the global labor scpae is being fundamentally altered by trade-deals and fast movement of capital across nations.

It is in this context local struggles like that of Metro service is important local victories, a start of re-altering policy spending and people's power. After all Akron is not that a dull city eh!

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