The proposal aimed at preventing specific groups from loitering downtown through the placement of physical barriers is not only underhanded, but it highlights a real need for collective discussion regarding the preconceptions of some prominent community members towards those compromising Cumberland’s lower socioeconomic classes.
Furthermore, it reflects the larger identity crisis that Cumberland faces as a whole, a crisis stemming from the slow death of manufacturing jobs and fueled by an unwillingness to think beyond the unjust yet popular model of redevelopment as gentrification at the expense of the poor.
We must ask what the underlying sentiments are that have led some to want to passively control the visibility of those considered to be less attractive citizens? (I mention passive control because certainly the idea of city authorities actively explaining to citizens deemed unattractive that their undesirability has cost them the right to enjoy a public space would be viewed by all as both absurd and illegal.)
To answer this question a good starting point is a review of the March 15 Times-News article outlining the Downtown Development Commission’s attempt to gain approval from the Historical Preservation Commission for the construction of fencing designed to deter the use of planters as seats (“Downtown irons out planter debate,” Page 1A).
In that article downtown manager Ed Mullaney argues that storeowners are experiencing financial losses resulting from the “perception” that Cumberland is as a place where one has to endure unpleasant interactions in order to spend money. In that same argument he claims that a poll of business owners would prove his point.
But, determining causation requires a much more rigorous methodology than simply asking storeowners to express their opinion regarding a community subset and then taking that opinion as fact.
Perhaps business is slow because some of the goods and services provided downtown are not vital locally or are simply unwanted even by visitors. Perhaps Cumberland’s destiny as a bustling tourist attraction is faltering due to a whole host of factors both known and unknown.
By witnessing community leaders cave to this desire to posit blame wantonly despite not knowing the causes concretely one can begin to see the ways in which prejudice sneaks into policy.
Prejudicial tendencies toward the poor are not without some justification. Poverty, or more aptly, the perception of poverty, often creates discomfort amongst people from better economic circumstances.
This discomfort is rooted in empathy, but it is also rooted in misunderstanding, in guilt, and in fear. As a result, a pointed disdain easily develops and the self-confrontation and awareness necessary to combat contempt remain dormant.
The challenge is to instead face learned prejudice and to rail against it through finding commonality, through meaningful engagement, through conversation, and through compassion.
Without question some business and government leaders are doing just that, providing youth with opportunities to learn bicycle maintenance, developing policy that allows food stamps to be used at farmers markets.
Programs like these are exactly what downtown leaders need to embrace, ideas that ensure economic growth does not inherently marginalize one class of people for the sake of another.
The HPC’s comments (and some members of the DDC’s willingness to respect those comments) citing diversity among downtown patrons as a sign of success further exemplifies existing awareness to the fact that catering to prejudice is a lousy excuse for community building.
This is encouraging and it should be commended. It gives strength to the idea that Cumberland is uniquely positioned to define itself in a wide variety of ways, some of which will hopefully give voice and empowerment to those who would otherwise be pushed aside.