Think Globally, Read Locally

Strong business reporting from around the nation

In early December, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran more than a dozen pieces over several days on one of the city’s poorer, more violent neighborhoods, Mount Pleasant. The paper chronicled the area’s decades-long decline, conveyed what it is like to live there now, and offered suggestions for the future.

The series gives us Mount Pleasant as residents experience it—and then goes beyond the conventional human-interest story to rigorously analyze the neighborhood’s predicament, looking at political, cultural, and economic factors that have made Mount Pleasant what it is.

This is a story about social function and dysfunction, about government policy, about race, about class. It is an urban redevelopment story. Really, it is the urban redevelopment story for many places across the United States, especially in the Rust Belt. The Plain Dealer makes this point in its introduction to the series:

…the story of Mount Pleasant is the story of Cleveland itself, of the one-time boomtown that twice in the past four years has been labeled the poorest big city in the nation. And Cleveland’s story is becoming that of the region around it.

Mount Pleasant is where economic abstractions debated on the business pages play themselves out. Take, for example, the credit crisis. The Plain Dealer has some astute comments on why it has hit Mount Pleasant homeowners so hard:

Today, parts of Mount Pleasant have some of the highest foreclosure rates in the country.

Ironically, what’s left of the neighborhood’s health—plentiful houses and enough residents who could qualify for subprime loans—might have worked against it.

‘Some of the neighborhoods in Cleveland either have less single-family housing or people who are even less affluent than Mount Pleasant,’ said Claudia Coulton, a poverty expert at Case Western Reserve University. ‘So they’re not as much targets.’

This is the kind of business story we need more of.

Next, we move from the Midwest to the Texas borderlands—specifically to the city of McAllen.

The issue is the 700 miles of fence the Department of Homeland Security plans to put up along the US-Mexico border, in accordance with a plan President Bush announced last year. The fence is set to cross private land despite protest by some of the landowners—and to divide communities.

An LA Times piece gives the overview:

[The DHS] has encountered the most resistance in Texas, where much of the land along the border is privately owned. Ranchers and farmers say that the fence would cut off their access to the Rio Grande, the only regional source of fresh water. Business groups say fencing will slow cross-border traffic that is crucial for local economies.

But the McAllen Monitor drills down and tells the more surprising story. A December 10 piece headlined “Business leaders say perception driving protest against fence,” starts out with a breezy tone, but offers an important point nonetheless:

Affectionately they’re called the McAllenistas, like a gang of border bandits fighting for their livelihood. They’re rebels, revolutionaries and rabble rousers.

And they’re more common than you think. They decry the government in daylight, dressed in pressed jackets and polyester skirts. They organize protests and letter-writing campaigns from their cushy corner offices.

But these “bandidos” aren’t left-wing activists, college students and illegal immigrant apologists. In every way, the area’s protest is led by the establishment—business owners.

We like the way this tweaks expectations: business leaders have become activists, even staging a protest against the fence during a local hearing on the issue held by Homeland Security. Why do business leaders oppose the fence? Here is the Monitor on that question:

‘The No.1 reason we are opposed to this is so that people realize the potential negative impact,’ said Steve Ahlenius, president and CEO of the McAllen Chamber of Commerce and unofficial spokesman for the Rio Grande Valley’s anti-fence crusade. ‘Obviously, Mexico makes up 35 percent of our retail business.’

This is why the local press is so important, because it has the ability and knowledge to drill down into local stories. Only an interviewee talking to a reporter who is also a fellow community member would say, “Obviously, Mexico makes up 35 percent of our retail business.” This point probably is obvious if you live in McAllen, but not to the rest of us.

As a final note on the topic, we can’t resist pointing out a related good read, even though it is not a business story per se: Kevin Sieff’s nicely detailed, extensive piece in The Brownsville Herald about the fence’s impact on a rural borderland community.

In Louisiana news, via California, we’d like to call attention to a recent report put out by the Oakland-based group CorpWatch on the post-Katrina reconstruction debacle. Specifically, the August 2007 report focuses on how certain corporations are profiting at the expense of taxpayers and, especially, residents of New Orleans.

“Casualties of Katrina: Gulf Coast Reconstruction Two Years After the Hurricane,” by Eliza Strickland and Azibuike Akaba, addresses housing issues, infrastructure, the environment, and business and labor. Its conclusions will not surprise anyone who has been following post-Katrina New Orleans in even the most casual way. We hear of promises unkept, checks unsent, infrastructure unbuilt.

The report, which follows a 2005 CorpWatch report titled “Big, Easy Money: Disaster Profiteering on the American Gulf Coast, relies heavily on material already published in the local press, although in some sections the authors have done noteworthy investigation of their own.

But even where it primarily just summarizes the news, the report is useful because it compiles and condenses stories that have been unfolding slowly, over years. The reason even these sections are worth reading is largely due to sustained, excellent reporting by the New Orleans Times-Picayune —the report’s most frequently cited source.

More on the Times-Picayune in subsequent posts.

But the CorpWatch report is a useful starting point for anyone seeking to explore further. Among its merits is its specificity.

For example, in a section on trailer parks for evacuees, we learn about conditions in “Renaissance Village,” run by the Keta Group for the Baton Rouge-based Shaw Group construction company. Conditions, needless to say, are far from ideal. The report then connects the trailer park problem with a set of Shaw roofing contracts, investigated by the US House of Representatives Government Reform Committee.

The committee issued a 2006 memorandum that

examined the so-called ‘Blue Roof’ contracts, where destroyed roofing was to be replaced with blue plastic tarpaulins. When the work was carried out at all, the committee found ‘consistently inflated charges and unsatisfactory supervision and oversight.’

p.s. The New York Times’s Adam Nossiter provides an update on one effect of the private and public sector failure: a diaspora of ex-New Orleaneans.

A subtext is that crime, fear for personal safety, is a big reason for leaving.

They now cast their votes in small Louisiana towns and in big cities of neighboring states. They have found new jobs and bought new houses. They have forsaken their favorite foods and cherished pastors. But they do not for a moment miss the crime, the chaos and the bad memories they left behind in New Orleans.

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Elinore Longobardi is a Fellow and staff writer of The Audit, the business-press section of Columbia Journalism Review.