May 815, 1997
The Irrelevance Zone
By Brian Howard
Photo by Julia Lehman.
Deborah Wilson Williams, at-large candidate for the Empowerment Zone Community Trust Board.
Keeping in mind that you can barely get people out to vote for a presidential election, the modest turnout for last Saturday's Philadelphia Empowerment Zone Community Trust Board elections cannot be frowned upon entirely.
The elections second in the zone's three-year history were affected early on by rains. But skepticism about the viability of real change may have had a bigger impact on the vote, which lasted from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 13 sites in the threedivisions of Philadelphia's Empowerment Zone (PEZ).
The Philadelphia Zone, made up of three distinct neighborhoods in the West Philadelphia, North Central Philadelphia and American Street areas, was created by a 1994 proposal and application to HUD to bring $100 million into the region $79million to Philadelphia and $21 million to Camden to lure business and revitalize areas of the cities in need.
The money is slated to go toward the achievement of 105 mayorally approved benchmarks, or general goals, for the neighborhoods which include establishing lending institutions to initiating community awareness and education programs. There is nostipulation as to how the benchmarks are to be reached. The important proviso in the process, one that separates Philadelphia's zone from others nationwide, is that the communities must have majority say in how the benchmarks are attained and wherethe money is spent.
And the community trust boards are the main vehicles for this community involvement. Comprised of an at-large board and issue committees addressing topics like public safety, housing, infrastructure and education, the membership breaks down to 33percent elected by the community, 33 percent chosen by the elected committees and 33 percent mayoral appointees.
At stake in these second elections, marking the end of the first board cycle, is what many consider to be the future of the zone's success. According to Pedro Rodriguez, associate editor of En Foque Comunal, a community newspaper in theAmerican Street area, "There hasn't been as much enthusiasm this time around. The first time around it was new and exciting, just finishing doing the planning process. Now people are still waiting to see."
According to PEZ Executive Director Carlos Acosta, the percentage of eligible voters was a little lower than 10 percent, which marks a slight decrease from the turnout two years ago. But totals tripled in West Philly while they halved in the othertwo zones. "We know that we have to do a much better job," said Acosta. "West Philadelphia did a fabulous job and we need to learn from that experience."
For their part, the Empowerment Zone's five-person group of election outreach workers kept voter interest steady in a time when the initial excitement about the zone has wavered.
But despite the lackluster turnout, pollwatchers were enthusiastic. At the Urban Education Center at 4601 Market St., one of three polling centers in West Philly, volunteer poll watchers Karalloviea Sharpe and John Mosley, and PEZ staffer DeborahNapper remained upbeat despite a total of 11 voters as of 11:30 a.m., a count which would jump to around 60 by the end of the day.
"Turnout's been like the weather," remarked Sharpe, a resident of the zone. "We're supposed to get thunderstorms... maybe they'll come and shake things up."
Mosley, founder of the Walnut Hill Wise Youth Access Program, and Napper both of whom live just outside the zone were concerned nonetheless as, according to Mosley, "We will be influenced by whatever the Empowerment Zone produces."
"Voting is an issue for the city as a whole," said Napper of the turnout. "People need to be more concerned about voting because voting is empowerment."
The scene was more heated at the Sister Clara Muhammad school at 4700 Wyalusing Ave. With approximately 100 voters by 11:30 a.m., PEZ election outreach worker Janis P. Moore was enthusiastic that West Philly's total of 190 voters in the firstelection would be easily surpassed. She explained the disparity between polling venues was due to their locations: the Market Street location is near the Mill Creek high rises which houses mostly renters; the Wyalusing Avenue location is situated inthe middle of a larger number of homeowners.
At Wyalusing, Charles Wingfield of Mill Creek and incumbent Francis Minnis of Cathedral Park candidates vying for the West Philly Housing and Infrastructure Issue Committee chair (a chair which Minnis successfully defended) engaged in heateddiscussion of their views of the Empowerment Zone's direction.
"There is a generation gap and that's one of the things that's happening with new board," said Moore. "People from the old school and younger people are clashing on ideologies. The younger group is more aggressive and wants things doneright now and the older group is more into the system and wants to take things at a different pace. It's just like fighting with your mother and father in order to be a man."
But others in the communities feel there are bigger issues which need to be addressed.
According to Rodriguez, action is what is vital from this point.
"I think it is important to push toward implementation of projects that have been approved [by the mayor] and to fulfill that commitment to the communities... Low turnout is serious cause for concern because it indicates that those projectsconcerning community education and involvement need to be sped up."
Sister Carol Keck, director of the Norris Square Neighborhood Project, an urban environmental education center at 2141 N. Howard St., is the newly re-elected chair of the American Street Community Safety subcommittee. She concurs with Rodriguez, butadds, "There was no model for this. Philadelphia is known for its real grassroots participation. The government had to be set up and all the internal governance issues took a while. In the last couple of meetings, most of the time has beendevoted to explaining projects and deciding whether to go forward or to bring back more information."
According to State Rep. Ben Ramos, things are poised to finally start happening.
"The process turned bureaucratic," he said. "People got a little edgy, somewhat desperate. People want to see those things happening pronto. I'm encouraged for the future, but this has to happen now to really send a strong message thatit is working. Unlike Camden that has been criticized for doing nothing. Mechanisms are in place, it's just making the projects happen."
Which comes back to the issue of implementation.
The first priority, according to Rodriguez, is to "increase turnout. If you had already implemented educational projects, general political education, the type of project to promote civic involvement. If you had that in place. You have to createvehicles to get people involved."
American Street:At-Large representatives: Antonia Cintron, Miguel Leon, Antoinette Patrick, Lucy Ramos, Jose Lugo, Altagracia Oppenheimer, Eugenia Burgos, Patricia DeCarlo, Mary Baker and Shamira Nance. Issue Committee chairs:Elvin Padilla, Economic Development; Luis Cruz, Housing; Rosemary Cubas, Political Empowerment; William Gonzalez, Infrastructure; Jacqueline Hall, Education and Training; Sister Carol Keck, Community Safety.
West Philadelphia:At-Large representatives: Darren Brown, Deborah Wilson Williams, Afeefa Murray, Margaret Peterkin, Patricia Brown, Van Stone Downing, Denise Evans Davis and Ella Francis. Issue Committee chairs: Jettie Newkirk,Governance; Francis Minnis, Housing and Infrastructure; Alia Abdur-Rahied, Economic Development; Nashid Ali, Health and Human Development; Francis Walker, Education; and Geraldine Poaches, Crime and Public Safety.
North Philadelphia: At-Large representatives: Zainab Abdul-Haqq, Bill Adams, Claudette Bennett, Mendell Elliot, Reverend William Flemming, Jim Lester, William Mackey and Cora Ware. Issue Committee chairs: Curtis Brown, Arts andCulture; Barbara Carroll, Crime and Public Safety; Christine Boyd, Education and Job Safety; and Cora Laws, Health and Human Services.