Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Beautiful Cover-up: Black Fridays and Dreamland

“Needless to say the Wade-Ins are not depicted on the Floodwall, which excludes unflattering events in the city’s history as strictly as the whites once excluded blacks from Dreamland.”

I have already made the point in a previous posting on River Vices (click here) that one of the unspoken purposes of the beautiful Floodwall Murals is to cover up the blots on the image of the city of Portsmouth, especially the blot of racism, including the infamous “Black Friday” of January 21, 1830, which took place in the middle of the winter, when “all the colored people in Portsmouth were forcibly deported from the town,” as Nelson W. Evans wrote in The History of Scioto County (1903). Evans called the expulsion of blacks from Portsmouth a “relic of barbarism” (p. 612), but very few people in Portsmouth now know about Black Friday, including my colleague and friend Professor John Lorentz, the distinguished historian who grew up in Portsmouth, went on to earn a Ph.D. from Princeton, and whose documentary about the Floodwall Murals, Beyond These Walls, has just been released. 

Since Black Friday happened almost two hundred years ago, in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that such a blot might have faded from Portsmouth’s collective memory, but it is surprising that another racist blot, which occurred in the second half of the twentieth century, in 1964, within living memory of many seniors in the city, is unknown to most young people. Within another generation or two that blot may be as forgotten as Black Friday. I refer to racial discrimination at the pool Dreamland. Incorporated in 1929 as a private for-profit swim club, Dreamland was a kind of dream land, but only for white kids. It included three acres of surrounding landscaped grounds, but it was surrounded by a sturdy chain link fence to keep out undesirables, which included African-Americans. If Dreamland had allowed blacks in to swim, many whites would have chosen not to be members, which would have been bad for business. Not just swimming in the same pool but drinking from the same water fountain was something racist whites found repugnant. 

But there was something even worse for business than blacks in the pool which was the stock market in the red. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, Dreamland fell on hard times, and the owner offered to sell the pool to the city for much less than what it had cost to build. But strong opposition arose against the city acquiring the pool. The Portsmouth Daily Times in its typical cover-up fashion did not say much about the opposition, but it probably had something to do with the fear of racist whites that blacks could not legally be excluded from a publicly owned pool. So Dreamland remained in private hands and the discrimination continued until the 1960s.

The discrimination at Dreamland led to the so-called “Wade-Ins” that some of Portsmouth’s black citizens took part in during the summer of 1964, when sit-ins and other peaceful demonstrations were taking place throughout the country. One of the nostalgic Floodwall Murals, in the form of photograph album, includes a snapshot of Dreamland (shown above). That mural may bring back fond memories for older white folks but not for older black folks, who can remember when they were excluded from the pool because of the color of their skin. Needless to say the Wade-Ins are not depicted on the Floodwall, which excludes unflattering events in the city’s history as strictly as the whites once excluded blacks from Dreamland. That the Dreamland discrimination is not even hinted at in Beyond These Walls is ironic because Professor Lorentz and his son Nathan, the creators of the documentary, have a close personal, family connection to Dreamland. 

What precipitated the Wade-Ins, as Blaine S. Bierley pointed out in “Swimming Pool Integration in Portsmouth” in his book Charles Street Tales was the Civil Rights Act of July, 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. (Bierley’s self-published book is in the Local History Room at the Portsmouth Public Library.) A graduate of Portsmouth High School (class of 1955), Bierley grew up in Portsmouth on Charles Street in the 1940s and 1950s, and fondly remembers swimming at the Terrace Club, as Dreamland was then called. He also remembers fondly two Portsmouth high school teachers who worked as lifeguards and directors at the pool. To white boys like Bierley, those lifeguards were like “bronze gods,” and one of them was Charles Lorentz, the father of John Lorentz. While no one who knew Charles Lorentz would ever have accused him of racism, he was nevertheless one of those otherwise decent whites of his generation who tolerated the policy of racial exclusion until demonstrating blacks pressured the Terrace Club with Wade-Ins to end its discrimination, which the club did the following summer of 1965, when it changed its name back to Dreamland. 

Today whites and blacks swim in the McKinley Pool on Findlay Street. The pool is named after a 14-year-old black boy Eugene McKinley who had drowned in June 1961 in the sand and gravel pit west of the Scioto River flood levee at 12th and Chillicothe Street, one of the few places black kids had to swim, since Dreamland was off bounds for them. But even if someone had written such a ballad it is unlikely his untimely death would have been depicted on the Floodwall mural because of his death’s racial overtones. 

Portsmouth’s Rick Ferrell has written a wonderful ballad “Dreamland Pool,” about the unforgettable experience it was for a white boy like himself swimming and socializing at the Dreamland pool. It is available on a YouTube video. (Click here.) If only someone had written a “Ballad for Eugene,” about a black boy drowning in a Portsmouth sand pit. The day of Eugene’s drowning was a Friday, another Black Friday, and Black Fridays are excluded from the Floodwall murals.

Posters in Portsmouth announcing runaway slaves,
 bore this familiar figure according to Evans

Kevin W. Johnson: The Crooked Conductor

The crooked conductor on the Twentieth Century Ltd. 
As the January 2014 transition deadline approaches for the change in city government (click here), I want to call your attention to an article that appeared in the Yale Law Journal in 2006 on the subject of the mayoral versus the city manager form of government (click   here to read the article). Written by “Richard C. Schragger, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, the article seeks to answer the question posed by its title: “Can Strong Mayors Empower Weak Cities?” By “strong mayors” Schragger refers not to Schwarzenmayors but to males and females who have strong executive powers by reason of the city charter and/or the state law in the area where they hold office. By “weak cities” Schragger means, well,  cities like Portsmouth, which are the stepchild of  the states in which they are located. In the four levels of government—federal, state, county,  and local—cities are at the bottom of the political food chain,  and generally have to subsist on scraps thrown to them from the federal, state, and county levels above them.  The top to bottom structure is dominated from the top by the federal government, which shares power with the states, as is provided for in the U.S. Constitution, but state constitutions usually do not follow suit, providing little recognition and power to city governments. “This arrangement,” Schragger writes, “in which cities are formally subservient to states, has significant consequences for local political actors.” The particular local actor who suffers most in this arrangement is the mayor, because she is the chief executive government in city government, but  she has relatively little authority to carry out her responsibilities.
Because their powers are limited, too many mayors have historically resorted to underhanded methods to make up for their lack of clout. Corruption became synonymous with city government in the late 1800s, with mayors and council members (or aldermen) competing with each other for graft. Early in the 1900s (that is to say, the twentieth century), in the decade and a half known as the Progressive Era, reformers, especially in urban cities, cracked down on corruption and helped promote the change to the city manager form of government. Many mid-size and smaller cities followed the example of the larger cities. The aim of the reform movement was to take politics out of city government by replacing mayors with professional (appointed-as-opposed-to-elected) city managers, who had the educational qualifications and training to run a city after the fashion of a business. Or at least that was the hope. 
                           Century of the City Manager
The twentieth century can be said to be the century of the city manager, but well before the century was over a number of cities grew dissatisfied with that form of government and began switching back to the mayoral form of government. Portsmouth was one of those cities, switching back in 1988. The twenty-first century is shaping up to be the century of the strong mayoral form of city government, according to Schragger. At least that’s the way things are trending, possibly because chronically depressed cities like Portsmouth cannot afford to have city managers as chief executive officers. City managers have no political power—they’re not supposed to have political power—but  cities cannot get by with politically impotent chief executive officers. Former Portsmouth city manager Barry Feldman, whose whole city manager career was marked by controversy, offered advice for aspiring city managers in the doctoral dissertation he later wrote at the University of Connecticut: be as political as you can get away with,  because without political influence a city manager is a cross between a punching bag and a doormat, even if he she has more education and a higher salary than city council, whom the city managers have to answer to. I’ve been told by a former city council member that Feldman serves as Kevin W. Johnson’s guru when it comes to questions of governance. Heaven help Portsmouth if  that’s true, because somebody should write a dissertation on Feldman’s career, which illustrates the futility of the city manager form of government. Johnson gives every sign of being as underhanded and dishonest as Feldman, which qualifies him to be Portsmouth’s next city manager. 
                                Progress, Portsmouth Style 
            Switching back to city manager is the most important (and deleterious) thing that has happened in city government in  Portsmouth in the last thirty years, but with Johnson’s connivance the measure was put on an off-year ballot without many voters knowing what was happening. Something that important deserved more time for consideration, and a vote in a general election, which was apparently what supporters of the switch back did not want. In homosexual hating Appalachia, Johnson, whose career took him from West Virginia, to San Francisco, to Portsmouth,  would queer any project he was identified with, so they knew better than to allow more time for consideration and discussion. That Johnson  is also underhanded, as he has frequently  shown himself to be, as on the so-called “building committee,” makes him a favorite target for the homophobes on Topix, who denounce him as not only queer but corrupt. From a drug-dealing pimp to this. That’s progress, Portsmouth style.
Frank Gerlach, who may be the  only person in Portsmouth’s history to serve as both city manager and mayor, strongly advised against switching back.  But what does he know, a successful lawyer and seasoned leader? Granted that the terrible trio of Greg Bauer, Jim Kalb, and David Malone are the best argument against the mayoral system that anyone might possibly make, but removing the mayor, except as a ceremonial figure, from the city government, will be worse because at least the office of the mayor serves a check and a balance to the city council and leaves open the possibility that somebody who is not a pawn may occupy the office. But without the  checks and balances the mayoral form of government potentially allows, we will have Kevin W. Johnson as the crooked conductor on the train the apt name for which is the Twentieth Century Limited, which will take  Portsmouth back to the previous, or possibly even to the nineteenth century. “All Aboard!”  Will Portsmouth never live down the curse of Barry Feldman? All aboard! Will it ever it stop being a weak city? All aboard! Will it ever have a mayor again, a strong mayor, who will not be railroaded out of office by the usual suspects for whom most of the failures occupying public office are nothing but puppets. All aboard! The painful irony is that this form of business-like governance will be run by chronic losers whose own business ventures, like the Emporium (that historic landmark!) have ended in failure, if not bankruptcy.

Portsmouth's railroad terminal building was razed to make way for the county jail.
(Click here)

Friday, November 01, 2013

Financial Black Mold

      “We have all been wondering what the heck to do with this building.” KWJ

At a meeting of the City Building Committee (20 Nov 2006),  Portsmouth Police Chief Charles Horner told committee chairman Mike Mearan that when Dr. Singer  signed  the Adelphia building over to city it was infested with black mold. In speaking to Mearan, Horner might as well have been speaking  to a stone(d) wall.  In chairing the  City Building Committee,  Mearan was in a flagrant conflict of interest because he was Dr. Singer’s shyster lawyer. (To read “Mearan's Conflict of Interest,” click here.) As an absentee landlord living in Los Angeles,  Dr. Singer  had long neglected keeping up the Adelphia building, or so  a longtime Adelphia employee told me. The city never should have accepted Singer’s “gift,”  which came not only with strings but  with toxic mold spores attached, or so Horner claimed. Horner also claimed mold in the Municipal Building had made him ill. Naturally, he didn’t want the police department relocated to another moldy old building, especially if it was black mold. “Depending on the length of exposure and volume of spores inhaled or ingested,” the entry on black mold in Wikipedia states, “symptoms [of toxic black mold] can manifest as chronic fatigue or headaches, fever, irritation to the eyes, mucous membranes of the mouth, nose and throat, sneezing, rashes, and chronic coughing. In severe cases of exposure or cases exacerbated by allergic reaction, symptoms can be extreme including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding in the lungs, and nose.”

At that same City Building Committee meeting (20 Nov 2006), another committee member said that if the Adelphia Street building had black mold, “that building’s no good anymore,” adding that it “had to go.” The committee member who said it had to go was current duplicitous First Ward council member Kevin W. Johnson.  Contrast Johnson’s negative statement above about the Adelphia building back in 2006 with the positive one he made at a recent city council meeting (9 Nov 13) where the council voted to authorize legislation to fund the rehabilitation of that controversial building. “We have all been wondering what the heck to do with that building,” Johnson is quoted by Frank Lewis in the online  Portsmouth Daily Times (10 Oct 13). Speaking at that council meeting to the City Waterworks Director Sam Sutherland, Johnson said, “This solves the need you have had for a long time since you lost your property (pipeyard) to King’s Daughters.” Sutherland is one of three incompetent city employees Jane Murray fired not long after she took office. (To read more about those firings, click here.)    King’s Daughters is the Ashland based hospital that had  been portrayed as an outsider corporation that took local  jobs and property away in the process of opening a Portsmouth branch clinic. That is what Johnson implies when he says Sutherland “lost” his property to King’s Daughters.

There is $700,000 in the Capital Improvements budget (CIP) that Sutherland wants used to rehabilitate the Adelphia building. It was Mayor Jane Murray who opposed the city illegally using CIP money to provide salary increases for city employees,  but I think she would have opposed putting one nickel of CIP funds to rehabilitate the Adelphia building. The final cost for its  ill-conceived rehabilitation will be closer to a million dollars before it is done,  and that may not be all the city will pay if Waterworks employees eventually claim they developed health problems as a result of working in the rehabilitated building.

Kevin W. Johnson said he had wondered what the heck to do about Adelphia building. I’m wondering what the heck we’re going to do about Kevin W. Johnson.  Since he arrived in Portsmouth. Johnson has never  failed to suck-up to the politicians, developers, lawyers, and bankers  who control the city economically and politically. He is yet another Portsmouth failure  who  turned  to politics when his own mismanaged business failed. Johnson, of all people, is chair of the city council’s Economic Development Committee.  His idea for the city’s economic development is to go upscale  and spend money the city  doesn’t have. Why he even wants to upscale the city seal! Look at how he mishandled the city manager search. The public was not told the candidate the search committee had selected had trouble with the law until after the candidate was offered the job at a salary of $105,000 plus generous benefits and a nice severance package should he not work out, which (count on it) he will not work out. If Johnson is allowed to mishandle  the finances of the city the way he mishandled the finances of his upscale antique shop, the state is going to have to take over Portsmouth’s finances.

Whether or not there is black mold in the Adelphia building,  there is financial black mold in Portsmouth city government, and Johnson is the one who is spreading it, like the plague. If the other members of council continue to go along with the  crazy proposal to spend  nearly a million dollars rehabilitating a worthless building that its owner unloaded on the city, Portsmouth citizens should unite as they did against rehabilitating  the Marting building, a leaking, moldy, asbestos death trap that should have been torn down a decade ago.

Upscale City Seal