Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Doctor Visit

Once upon a time, back in 1992 to be exact, an enterprising fellow by the name of James Crupi rolled into Richmond, Virginia to begin a series of interviews with the anointed business leaders of the day. Dr. Crupi was a hot shot business consultant who made a name for himself by consulting with the likes of the U.S. Government and other tired behemoth corporations, telling them what they needed to do to dust off their images and prepare for the new millennium ahead. So impressed were the members of the secret society of the Richmond business elite, they privately commissioned him to undertake a study of the Capital City so that they too might see the light.

Dr. Crupi went to work interviewing “a broad range” of Richmond’s business leaders to ask them how they felt about Richmond’s future. He then used those interviews to compile a report, issued in 1993, entitled “Back to the Future: Richmond at a Crossroads”. This report, with the snappy little title, infuriated many people, not the least of who were quite highly positioned in political leadership of the City. In fact, then Mayor, Roy West tried to have the City Council censure the report. It’s funny how people get so sensitive when “outsiders” come in and tell it like it is. You see, Dr. Crupi’s report happened to make the observation that Richmond was, in essence, going to hell in a hand basket, largely because the political “keys to the city” had been passed to a group of political officials that didn’t know squat about business and all the business leaders had either left town or run for cover. Well it certainly didn’t matter that anyone with more than a second grade education in Richmond already knew that. This dude with the fancy pedigree was issuing a public report and people were going to read it! It was kind of like the time that emperor bought the see through suit. Bad times ahead for old Richmond, that was for sure. The posturing, posing and collective outcry was heard from the wards to the burbs. Even the good old Times Disgrace got in on the rebuttals to Dr. Crupi’s opus. While he was an outsider and a Caucasian, it was a damn good thing for sure Dr. Crupi wasn’t a yankee. He may not have made it out of town alive.

The inflammatory report did see the light of day however; and the citizens, politicos, business leaders and media have had fifteen years to collectively chew on it. Fortunately, some of its parts were not spit out and we have come to be stronger for the repast. As a result of Crupi’s report (or despite it perhaps), Richmond now enjoys a stronger and more representative government, the City is undergoing a new business renaissance, the tax base is improving, and the core and river front areas are getting a badly needed face lift. All of these things point to a new Richmond ahead…. Right? Well, the answer may not be a resounding yes quite yet.

That old “secret society” of business elite has now become a little more involved these days, not to mention a little younger, and, lo and behold, they invited old Jim Crupi back to Richmond this year for round two. It seems that, just like some of their predecessors, they needed to buy a little clout to issue the same conclusions that John Q. Citizen can make for free (and does constantly). Anyway, Dr. Crupi has left another report on our doorstep entitled “Putting the Future Together”. I would urge everyone to read both reports, but particularly the latest one. I would link it to this blog were I not such an technological failure.

This time, it appears the dear Doctor has learned the importance of mixing some honey with his medicine to make it easier to swallow. He is careful to acknowledge that “Richmond has accomplished much” over the last fifteen years since his last check-up. While some may take exception to his implication that the City’s progress is somehow a result of his 1993 recommendations, few can argue that many of his “observations” have been successfully addressed. Perhaps we can forgive him his trespasses since he was nice enough to pat us on the back for building that nice new renamed airport and creating a strong mayor (indeed) form of government. He even applauds our progress on convincing people not to kill one another! Thank god for his recommendations in that area. We may have never figured that one out were it not for his benevolent intervention. Let me not digress, but get to the point of the matter; being, we’ve got a ways to go folks! As Crupi states, [despite progress] “something is missing. The pieces are not tied together”. Basically, he observes that we are not working together collectively or cohesively to construct a unified vision for a new Richmond. Well, I’ll be damned. Why didn’t anyone ever think of that one! Don’t get me wrong. The dude makes good sense and he makes points that need to be made. Here are some of what I believe to be his best ones:

· The Richmond Metro area has too much per capita motor vehicle traffic (vehicle miles up over 100% in the last 20 years. This is because of what? Urban sprawl! It can’t continue. People need to live closer to where they work. Unrestrained residential development in Richmond’s surrounding counties will kill our City and our economy.

· Richmond needs better mass transit. Period, end of story.

· Richmond needs better schools. It’s not that hard to agree on a solution folks. We know there’s a problem. Let’s address it in a non-partisan way! They aren’t colors, they are kids!

· We need to continue to build and refurbish our core downtown and riverfront (ya think!).

If pushed to come up with one major criticism of Crupi’s work, it would be his antiquated reliance on old paradigms to explain social phenomenon. He continues to draw from the well worn book of “race” and “culture” as a theoretical framework for which to explain and cure all our urban ills. It’s time to get a new book because we’ve read that one too many times. To either explain or address a city’s problems in the context of one group versus another is a recipe for failure. Further, it is offensive to all and beneficial to none when cultural, class or racial lines are drawn between any one group and a tangible goal (in this case building a viable city). Look at this quote from Crupi’s new report:

“Differences in communication styles also contribute to the problem. Opportunities are being lost because perceptions are getting in the way of getting things done. The black community tends to interpret problems in the context of their social consequences while whites tend to view problems in the context of their economic consequences. It’s like watching a discussion between an artist and an entrepreneur. The artist is emotionally expressive and worries about the richness lost by jumping to outcomes while the entrepreneur just wants to solve the problem and views emotional expression as counterproductive.”

I can’t really speak for others but I find this type of stereotypically based crap to be wrong on so many levels. To attempt to explain major issues in this type of sociologically simplistic way is not only lazy but offensive. I believe there to be no more “black” and “white” community. Sure, there are instances where references of this type are somewhat useful; however, this imaginary community of reference can no longer be a vehicle for explaining or addressing the economic or urban issues we are facing. As far as I’m concerned, anyone that seeks to prove their point by referencing people as a collective group, with singular traits and values might as well be selling snake oil. When we fall back on generalizations like this, we become contributing members of a pseudo discipline that has given rise to a kind of conceptual shorthand meant to explain the world in a way that one thinks it should be understood. We are much too multicultural as a population to fall victim to this “old speak” bullshit.

Finally, I believe Dr. Crupi has done a great service to the City of Richmond by blessing us with his learned observations and thought provoking tidbits. But, the time has come for us to strike out on our own. Hopefully, we will not have a need for the doctor to do another follow-up in fifteen years; however, should he feel the need to re-visit, I hope he will be pleased with the progress we have made.

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