Federal Help

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(HOST) The events in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast have rocked the nation and overwhelmed Americans no matter where they live. Commentator Philip Baruth has been thinking about the hurricane’s punch and trying his best to place it in the context of his own city.

(BARUTH) The word Superdome used to stand for something else entirely: that uniquely American mixture of money, media and athletics that the structure was built to house. Now, of course, Superdome also stands for despair and structural poverty. And,
as Americans, we deal so much more naturally with that first set
of meanings than with the second; as a people, we’re easily exhausted by any attention to our flaws.

But the events in Louisiana have touched off a rare spate of self-examination. In the years leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the Bush administration sought to sharply reduce the role of FEMA in preparing for and responding to natural disasters. In hindsight this seems like an obvious error, but previous to the hurricane the approach to FEMA fit in very nicely with the administration’s approach to a wide range of federal programs. Their logic is now standard-brand conservatism: by doing too much, the federal government has unintentionally crippled states and individuals; by doing less, the government can not only save billions but produce more efficient results.

There’s an obvious paradox here, and it’s the same paradox that powers supply-side economics — we can cut government and yet still deliver everything you expect from government, and more. But among true-believing Washington conservatives such paradoxes don’t matter much. It’s fair to say that most of the people now running the federal government were chosen precisely because they don’t believe it’s capable of doing much good in the world.

One word, Superdome, now calls all those blithe assumptions
into question.

And, while we’re at it, so does North Street, the spine of Burling- ton’s Old North End. If you haven’t driven down it recently, some- thing fairly amazing has happened in the last five years: the power lines and telephone wires have been transferred underground, and the ugly poles supporting them have been cleared away. The hanging street lights and the large cables have been replaced with less obtrusive signal poles. These signal poles are painted glossy black, to match the antique-style street lights that have replaced the older silver boom-lights. Maple trees now dot the streets. Most of the street-side homes and businesses have been repainted, refaced.

What happened? In 1994 the federal department of Housing and Urban Development designated the Old North End an Enterprise Zone, with corresponding grants and tax cuts. Over four million dollars was earmarked for that project during Bill Clinton’s second term. And I should point out that Enterprise Zone grants were not Bill Clinton’s idea. He borrowed it from Jack Kemp, a conservative Republican who also happened to believe in the federal govern- ment’s ability to alleviate the suffering of the poverty-stricken.

The City of Burlington owes thanks, then, to Jack Kemp, a Republican, to Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and to Peter Clavelle, a Progressive. Always an exciting place to be, North Street is now an attractive place to be, where you can see the sky suddenly. Thanks to these three for believing that government can be part of the solution, and for acting on those beliefs.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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