KC's black mayor vs. KC's black problems
The Kansas City Star
Kansas City’s second black mayor has been spending much time and money tackling intractable problems that have plagued the predominantly black East Side for decades.
Sly James has pursued an innovative approach to reduce sky-high violent crime, a positive program to boost absurdly low reading rates for elementary grade students and an aggressive plan to tear down vacant houses.
But James — who has been in office only two years — acknowledges he has not had enough success yet in turning back that cycle of despair.
On Tuesday an angry young black man profanely interrupted James’ State of the City speech at the Gem Theater on the East Side to make that point.
This view is not unique.
It’s the same one the city’s first black mayor — Emanuel Cleaver — heard when he was in office two decades ago.
James agreed after his speech that the protester’s complaints should be heard, while he disagreed with the methods.
Beyond that, Tuesday’s incident gave voice to the feeling in parts of the black community that James is more interested in serving the powerful white interests who are pushing Northland development as well as the streetcar line, new housing and a costly hotel downtown.
James also works against the backdrop of past City Council decisions.
The city went overboard in handing out development incentives in the predominantly white Northland. Excessive public assistance went to the Cordish Co. for the Power & Light District, including for construction of private buildings there. The predominately white police and fire departments were awarded special pay raises.
My conclusion: James’ critics make some decent points — but only to a degree.
Yes, too many East Side neighborhoods look like abandoned war zones, with vacant houses and office buildings. Crime is too prevalent. Jobs are extremely difficult to get. The schools aren’t preparing young people well enough for the future.
It’s also true that James has used some of his time as mayor to work on economic development that benefits downtown and developers outside the East Side.
In these ways, James is just like Cleaver and the other mayors who have served in the past quarter century.
Which brings up this truism: Being mayor of Kansas City means being mayor of all.
James has stressed this point, correctly contending that the city will be far more successful if we all work together.
The words sound good. They also lead to the most essential point to make today: James’ deeds — to a large extent — back up that statement.
The sales tax increase he persuaded voters to pass in 2012 is creating millions of dollars to pave roads on the East Side as well as throughout the city. The money will help better maintain parks and staff community centers on the East Side and around the city. And the funds will get rid of 1,000 vacant buildings, most on the East Side.
In his Tuesday speech after the protest, James highlighted East Side progress, which includes new housing, grocery stores and a reuse of Bancroft Elementary School.
Keep this in mind: James has his own frustrations.
More black parents need to know where their kids are after midnight because the city doesn’t have enough money to babysit them. He’s frustrated that more of his critics don’t join efforts to improve the city.
Finally, just like the rest of us, James is disturbed that the troubles plaguing Kansas City — east of Troost but also elsewhere — still exist.
As a black mayor, James is expected by many to pay special attention to lifting up the city’s poorer parts. If the programs he backs reduce violent crime and improve schools, those could be two of his greatest legacies as mayor of all of Kansas City.
To reach Yael T. Abouhalkah, call 816-234-4887 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. He blogs at voices.kansascity.com and appears on “Ruckus” at 7:30 tonight on KCPT. Twitter @YaelTAbouhalkah