SURVIVAL OF HOPE Recently I had a heated discussion with a friend over the future of America and whether Americans are too stupid to ever improve. His arguments mirror the prevailing thought of these times, which is that America is in decline and can never recapture the glory of its past.
For conservatives and liberals alike, the 1950s were the Golden Years. The economy was booming as were our manufacturing industries and labor unions. Dwight Eisenhower was president, and home life was simple. Mom stayed home. There were two cars in the garage and everyone was happy. The politics of decline tell us that we can never return to those days.
The very fiber of my being refuses to believe that fatalistic viewpoint. Man, especially Americans, can adapt, can change and can meet any challenge. I believe this.
My friend’s rebuttal was that Pensacola has generational poverty at staggering numbers, leaders who will argue against minority inclusion on local government contracts but will not hesitate to give contracts to their buddies, and people who will argue against the $40 million bond issue for a maritime park and yet see their city spend nearly that much on city pensions in three years.
Like Don Quixote fighting windmills, I refused to give up. His final solution was to leave Pensacola and move to some far away island like Fiji. Mine was to stay and fight.
On Saturday, Oct. 23, I attended the final sessions of the Innovators Summit hosted by The Daily Beast in New Orleans. Three hundred world class influencers were brought together to discuss how to reboot America. The speakers included Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Joseph Stiglitz, Spike Lee, Connie Rice and James Carville.
As inspiring and stimulating as those speakers and the participants were, what really grabbed me were two side trips I took Saturday afternoon. The first trip was to the Lower Ninth Ward where Brad Pitt is leading a major neighborhood rebuilding project called Make It Right.
In that neighborhood, 4,000 homes were lost when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. Make It Right has committed to building 150 homes for the families that lived there before the storm. To date, 50 homes have been built and 30 more are under construction. Imagine our Rebuild Northwest Florida, but on steroids.
From there we took a cab ride to Broadmoor, a national historic district just north of the Garden District. It mirrors Pensacola with great wealth and pockets of deep poverty. After Hurricane Katrina, residents were dispersed from Houston to Memphis. The city leaders had decided not to rebuild the neighborhood and to convert it to a green space instead. Its school was slated for demolition.
The residents fought back. Hundreds attended neighborhood meetings. Their mantra was “Broadmoor Lives.” They persuaded the city to help rebuild the neighborhood. They developed strategic partners and converted their school to a charter school that now has 600 students in grades K-5. Two blocks from the school, a new public library is being built with funding help from the Carnegie Foundation. Across the street, an abandoned building is being converted into a performing arts center.
In the course of three hours I saw that man can still adapt, grow and meet seemingly impossible challenges. It is possible to not only reboot America, but also cities like New Orleans and Pensacola.
I emailed my friend immediately when I got home. My message was concise.