The Challenge of Change

Some handle the challenge of change with great generosity of spirit. I am reminded of Webster, myfriend and neighbor.

Webster lived in an old Victorian house, painted pale yellow, the smell of linseed oil on the front porch, plumbing from the turn of the century, with a very shy person by the name of Mae who took care of him. When we met he was in his early 80s and he remained feisty and fully engaged in life until his death at 98. Webster's big adventure occurred when he was a young engineer working for the Telephone Company during the construction of the Panama Canal. To say the least, his life experience had quite a reach back -- two world wars, the Great Depression, and everything in between. He loved to fuss but somehow remained open to newness, to young people. He simply loved the energy and action of change.

I was part of a church investment committee in those years and we would meet occasionally for supper at Webster's— the living room piled high with church records going back 60 years, and the same bottle of B& B with the cork floating in it on the dining room table. We were apparently the only customers. Mae would call to Webster who would come clattering down the stairs with two canes flying like a skier on stilts. Those were wonderful evenings, more about Webster than about the church's modest investments.

Listening to Webster every time we sold something he thought we shouldn't, or bought some stock he was convinced would go down the rat hole, and at the same time hearing about the good old days that he was glad were past, whether the new people who were moving into the neighborhood amounted to a hill of beans, and who was this person and that, and ‘Have you met the lovely new family from Guatemala who just joined the church?’ and ‘Why did the President do something so stupid, at least FDR (who he never agreed with) was smart?’ and ‘Isn't life fascinating?’ it was history, current events and social commentary at its best. He was something else. I still marvel at how Webster, after almost a century of living, was fresh and receptive, and able not only to accommodate change but also to enjoy it.. His generosity of spirit was rare.

Change often comes at us in ways that makes us afraid, afraid of places and people who are unfamiliar; who do not look or act like us. One of the participants in those long ago evenings at Webster's house was Fred, a prominent lawyer with a big downtown law firm who made a ton of money in the bankruptcy business. Fred came to the rescue of a controversial project, and at the time he seemed an unlikely savior. The project was a halfway house for what in the 80s were being described as "alienated youth," and we had purchased a property in a prime residential neighborhood. The idea had been conceived in a high school classroom and was student led and run at a time when that was unusual and to some, highly suspect. After several public hearings, endless community meetings, local press having a hay day, with the city split between those who supported and those who opposed, a license was granted to open the facility. A well-credentialed Executive Director "house couple" was hired, the first cohort of kids were selected and about to move in, when the neighbors slapped a lawsuit on both the city and the project claiming there was violation of zoning regulations. I will never forget that first meeting in Fred's office when the kids, one other board member and I, hats in hand, asked for help. Fred knew that if he was "in for a nickel he was in for a dollar" but offered to help without hesitation. I think he was somewhat bemused by the situation, but also troubled that a good idea from a group of smart, passionate and caring young people was being slapped down. So in walked Fred, cool as a cucumber, who rolled up his sleeves, and for three years, with a team of litigators, conducted a first rate legal defense all the way up to the state supreme court, where he won! The cost had to be staggering, and it was all done as a pro-bono gift.

If Webster was an example of someone with an unusually generous spirit, Fred was someone who was generous with the whole nine yards —spirit, time and money. He was also rare.

About the same time there was an even bigger not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) event in town that did not have such a successful conclusion. The plan was to build 500 units of low and moderate-income housing. The organizers had selected ten sites, most of them in the poorer parts of the city. All of the sites required zoning variances of one kind or another. This noble effort was led by a city resident who was a successful senior marketing executive from a large company. The case for more housing seemed self-evident. There was very little low-cost housing in the city, and prices were continuing to increase beyond the means of many citizens, especially the elderly who were on fixed incomes, teachers and other municipal workers. Armed with beautiful charts and graphics that illustrated why this was the "right idea" and "good" for the whole city, we began a campaign to persuade the Mayor, the City Council, and the community. None of us who were promoting this effort lived in the neighborhoods directly effected, and none of us were income eligible for the proposed housing. We were simply citizens who cared about this issue and had rolled up our sleeves to do something about it.

The big plan was announced in the local newspaper and a series of hearings and community meetings were held. I acted as moderator for some of these meetings. One I remember in particular was held in the auditorium of my children’s Junior High School, the room packed with several hundred people. Any illusion about an orderly facilitation fell apart from the very beginning; the objections were loud and vociferous. They ranged from direct abutters to the sites who didn't want the traffic and density, to those who were angry that the poorer parts of the community were getting most of the units, to those who felt that some of the sites were marginal at best for the planned use. Some had done their homework and argued that the laws around the financing for low-income housing precluded a community from restricting it only to residents of the city. Thus, there was no guarantee that the city's police, teachers, and elderly would ultimately live in these units. Simmering just below the surface and clear from many of the comments made was fear that the project would attract a bunch of outsiders, poor people, read "black," into the community. Lastly, there was anger that the whole scheme had been planned from the top down, having been cooked up by a bunch of do-gooders and self-appointed elites acting for the benefit of the unenlightened. I was frustrated and angry for not being able to hold the meeting together. It was also clear that we had been naïve, missed the mark, and not anticipated how people would react, and had not done our homework. I will never forget when at the end of the meeting; two men I did not know came up to me and said, "We know all about you, where you live, and what you do. Just wanted to let you know that." This was one of my first, but not the last experience when I realized that in fact 'no good deed goes unpunished.'

This story is no different than many such efforts. NIMBY is real, racism is real, and it makes no difference whether you are a for-profit or non-profit real estate developer doing what you perceive to be the Lord's work, such objections are the norm. At the same time, what went wrong had as much to do with bad selling, with hubris, and patronizing behavior on our part. We broke the first rule of good community organizing, and every such effort is fundamentally just that — involve as participants in the process those who are most affected. We didn't do that, or do it well enough, and it was enough to kill the deal except for one project of 50 units that managed to survive and bebuilt. It was a shame. Since that time real estate prices have risen even more dramatically and the city's opportunity to build much more affordable housing has past.

These two experiences, the halfway house and the low-income housing effort, occurred in the early 70s. They helped form my own "certain slant" and the conviction that new ideas, to prevail, need to successfully bridge the old.