What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Local Development

So on Wednesday night I met for nearly two hours with Ed Lynch the city of Newburgh's Director of Planning and Development.  It was quite a good conversation.  He is a former Peace Corps volunteer that has done a decent amount of work in South America (which immediately put us on the right page).  He most recently spent 17 years in a similar position in New Rochelle and seems to have turned that city in a positive direction in terms of crime, quality of life, and economics - this includes a 40 story Trump tower there.  When I was growing up, New Rochelle did not have a good reputation, yet it seems to now.  So if blanketed results are the measure of "success", he seems to have been successful in "New Ro".  I am not sure of the specifics of how it was done, and who flourished and/or was marginalized in the process, but he has a record of change. 

While Ed did have some very interesting thoughts and ideas regarding my work in Africa, we spent most of the time on Newburgh.  Just to put a few things out there, the city had a 25% tax increase in 2010, and will have anywhere from a 61-74% tax increase this year.  The city had to borrow millions of dollars from New York State just to pay the salaries for its workers for the end of 2010.  Also (and I heard this elsewhere), there is also discussion of dissolving the City of Newburgh entirely.  Yes, just shutting the whole thing down.  It would then have to be absorbed into the Town of Newburgh - which doesn't seem to be very interested in taking over this disaster.  There has been previous mismanagement of state and federal money's due to lack of manpower and maybe even incompetence to the point that some of this money may have to be given back.  Ten's of thousands of dollars of money being wasted on national searches for individual positions, and then local behind the scenes hirings from the old-boy network.  Corruption or the implication of it, seems to be either a common perception or an assumed undercurrent in everything.  There is no supermarket, there is no pharmacy, public transport is minuscule, the streets are dilapidated, the underground economy is rampant, yesterday saw 31 gang members indicted - including three on separate murder charges, and there is no money to do anything about any of it, never mind hope.  Suffice it to say, "Newburgh" gets worse every day...  I can't even fathom how a city like this can provide virtually no services to its citizens.  It is amazing.  

Maybe we should set up a plywood factory? :(

So what next?  The city has brought in new blood to try to right the ship.  Ed is among many new faces.  He claims that 60-70% of the department heads are new and they are trying to change both the culture of the administration and a gross history of financial mismanagement.  They mostly seem to be coming from successful areas in the lower Hudson Valley.  Ed, seems to me to be a person that has a good head on his shoulders and some quality experience to lean on.  Word on the streets about him though is quite skeptical (but then again, pretty much all the words on the street in Newburgh are skeptical).  He has been in office for seven months and it is claimed by some that the stances he seems to be taking don't necessarily back up some of my initial perceptions of him.  But everyone has a point and an agenda, and Ed's position is one of trying to balance all of these.  There are inherently going to be people that don't agree with what is done.  He is part of an institution, a bureaucratic and deeply ingrained developmental institution that resonates throughout the entire US and world socio-economic system.  I for one, as most readers here know, am interested in alternative ideas and new ways of thinking.  

As with anything, I am not going to jump in and use other's interpretations to run with. Time on the ground and local interaction is the only true to way to come to independent conclusion.  There is always a million ways to do things, and within them there is never a "right" answer.  So Newburgh, I will continue to learn all I can about you, your people, and your culture...  It is going to be a fun ride. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011


So this week has been nonstop.  Not that I would have it any other way, but it has been a lesson in self-control that's for sure.  Since Saturday I have been going every day, meetings, meetings, and meetings.  The malaria fatigue has definitely been felt, and I've had to be very cognizant of both getting to sleep at night and finding moments of relaxation and meditation during the day.  But as I said before, poverty doesn't care if I don't feel well, so I've gotta move past it... control it as best as I can.  Trying... 

I have plenty to write about and will get into it tomorrow as best I can.  I do still have another meeting tomorrow afternoon though, and I did promise my grandparents I'd bring them some fresh baked homemade cookies - yeah, don't be jealous!!  They've earned it!! 

I was hoping to have all day today to catch up on the million pieces of information I've been given this week, but ended up with several meetings and had to give blood today.  So I will have to get to it tomorrow in between cookie making!!  But quickly, I've met with the head city planner in Newburgh, a local organization that can help set up the business/look for funding, and a community activist.  I've enjoyed a nice cup of tea across from one of the oldest historic sites recognized in the US, taken in the ambiance of the city, and learned and honed in on the deal here.  Real progress is being made... 

Oh, and one thing that can't wait... I am going to be on the organizing committee for Safe Harbors 5k run/walk in May... big fun!!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Good People

One of the biggest rewards that I get for actively following this pathway here is the people that I not only meet, but will hopefully get to work with.  Gone are the days of working with aristocratic British millionaires, former military types, expropriating raw material extractors, and bottom line obsessed sales managers all bent on the best price they could get for their mothers...  Today I met with the people from Safe Harbors.  What can I say... good people... good ideas... good initiative...  Just all in all a good experience. 

We didn't get too far into the details about things as there is just so much information both from my side and theirs, but we laid the ground work for meeting again.  perhaps tomorrow.  I sent an email with some questions and a few things thy might be able to advise me on.  And this is the beauty of the non-profit world.  The people aren't solely about what benefit their is specifically in it for themselves, they just want to help.  They see a guy like me coming along and they think of ways they can help me.  It's not about extracting the maximum from me for their benefit, but seeing if there is anyway that we can work together and help each other without anyone having to lose anything.  Cooperation... perhaps a lost art in today's society... perhaps not!!

One at a time!!

I learned a couple things right away yesterday.  Firstly...

...Newburgh is an absolute mess.  Secondly, there is not going to be any quick, jump in and set up programs and make it happen type solution.  It is going to take some time to understand how things are working/not working.  The politics seem to be a mess, the municipality seems to be flat broke, and the city has absolutely no hope on its streets.  The focus of this organization is going to have to be on Sierra Leone.  The office in Newburgh is really going to have to act as simply an inexpensive location for an office and fro me personally to live ($300 each?!)  With time though, programs will present themselves.  Just as I didn't step off the plane in Sierra Leone with a solution, Newburgh is going to have to allow for things to present themselves.

Back on the ground and walking...

So I've written this once, and thanks again to blogger, lost it all.  So we'll have to write it again, and with less time for it. 

I spent the day yesterday in Newburgh.  It was so nice to get back on foot, learning at the real pace of life...  I had a meeting set up in the afternoon and sandwiched some other informal discussion and touristing around it.  I started with the library where I was hoping to find some information or statistics on local situations, economics, crime, etc.  They really don't have anything of the sort, only a local history section, and in fact the city doesn't even have anything either.  I did however get sent to talk to the library's two people that work on outreach programs.  I had a very nice informal chat with them about the city and the goings on.  They recommended a few places worth looking into that I will get into later today or tomorrow as I have meetings over there both days.  I also met another gentlemen that works with Latinos Unidos and came to visit one of the Library workers that works with them.  They rent office space for under $300 dollars a month on broadway there in Newburgh.  They said the incorporation process was long, like five years for them.  I can't see how that is, but they are all volunteer so maybe it took a while longer. 

From there I went to my meeting with Community Voices Heard.  This meeting went quite well despite the standard overworked and no time having staff that you tend to find in non-profits.  I really liked what they are doing, trying to bring the community closer together in terms of political voice.  Some of the things that they want to do in terms of material outputs and opportunities are things that I had already been thinking about.  They could certainly be someone worth communicating and cooperating with regularly.  But I will be careful not to align myself with anyone, especially in the beginning.  From all discussion thus far it seems that sides have been taken and things are quite obstinate there.  On a positive note, I also did get to speak to two of the members of Community Voices that came in during the discussion, and while the meeting did leave many of my questions unasked, I got a little more back in terms of community input than I expected.  The meeting left a lot wanting, which is a good thing...

On the way to that meeting though I had a chance to wonder the streets a bit.  I tell you what...  Newburgh is a disaster.  I would not feel it to be a stretch at all to say that  every third building is boarded up and vacant where I was.  At Community Voices they said that the city owned something like 200 vacant properties - in a city of 4 square miles!  This doesn't even include derelict privately owned buildings.  It shows.  The streets are all but vacant (at least until it got dark), and there is this air of hopelessness that wafts through the air.  There is so much to be done.

I stopped and chatted with a cop for a few minutes as well, speaking of hopelessness.  Now, I would expect a cop to be cynical, but he said flat out: "not gonna happen, never."  He'd been working for 17 years in Newburgh, and sees no hope: "They don't want to make it better, they like the lifestyle."  "They want their handouts and they will use violence to get them".  Amazing, yet unsurprising.  Can anyone find me a cop in any city in the world that is optimistic?!  They are surrounded every day by the criminals of society, so they don't see the hope.  But everyone has it somewhere.  He did say though that, within a four block radius of where we were standing that there had been 8 murders in three years.  "Blood alley" he called it.  The street we were standing on was where they FBI made most of its arrests in the 76 person gang sting last year. 

So after those and some other words of warning, I headed on my way - wondering how in the world they would ever get people or business to locate in the city with a sales pitch like that!  This was a general theme of a lot that day.

There was however one certainly amusing moment for me on my way back to the car.  I walked by a group of youngish guys in front of a store.  I of course made my friendly eye contact and a nod.  One kid then came running over with a bootleg DVD, "The Mechanic" with my brother from another mother Jason Statham in the leading role.  I laughed, and said with a smile, yeah but do you accept EBT?  He looked at me with this puzzled look of incomprehension on his face.  Food Stamps... I said, breaking him away from his puzzlement.  A startled shiver came across his face, like, wait, but this doesn't make sense, this dude's white!!  lol!!  Yes my friend, we're all poor in one way or another these days...