Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Provenances of Beauty

How do we see and understand the beauty hidden all around us--especially when both our definitions of beauty and the world itself are constantly shifting? The Foundry Theater's new performance piece, "Provenance of Beauty," takes audience members on a bus tour of the South Bronx to explore this question. During the 90-minute "tour," narrated by three voices (two recorded, one live), participants are treated to a personal, political, and often hidden history of that most downtrodden of New York City's five boroughs, the Bronx.

Did you know the Bronx was NOT named for a Dutch farmer, but rather for a Swede? Did you know that in Hunt's Point a prison barge; a water treatment plant; and a fertilizer manufacturer hold sway, shoulder to shoulder, over most of the waterfront? That in the late 1970s, the South Bronx burned at a rate of more than 10 city blocks per day for more than four years? That the "eminent" master planner Robert Moses constructed tens of thousands of low-income housing units in tall towers in the Bronx--consolidating and isolating those in poverty in ways that would forever mark this neighborhood; while simultaneously displacing more than 1500 families when building the Cross Bronx Expressway?

What the "Provenance of Beauty" shows most critically is the constant change that all of our communities undergo, and the tidal and often seemingly uncontrollable powers behind such changes. When a blighted waterfront is turned into park, are there losers as well as winners? When an abandoned piano factory is turned into high priced condos, how is a neighborhood and its population morphed? How does our particular aesthetic of what is "beautiful" or something we are able to see effect our community development and planning decisions? How do our aesthetics affect those living in poverty? And ultimately, what are the full ramifications from the process we know today as "gentification:" happening not only in the South Bronx but in many of our small, traditional, and rural communities as well? Who ultimately decides what is "beautiful"? Who wins, who loses?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Consolidated Education

This Columbus Day Weekend, I drove from my current home in Stonington (ME) to Stonington (CT) for my 30th high school reunion. I hadn’t attended previous reunions, and catching up with my peers caused me to reflect on my 40-year old education in a consolidated public school district—an experience that may be relevant to many Maine residents as we debate how to cast our ballots on the consolidation issue in the November 3 “people’s veto” referendum.

There are obvious and maybe not so obvious similarities, as well as differences, between the two towns—Stonington, CT is a lobster fishing town with a village population of only 1,032. Like Stonington, ME on Deer Isle, there are several unique and beautiful surrounding villages with populations loyal to the shoreline geography and quality of life: a large proportion of my classmates returned there to live after college. Yet my long ago education included subjects and opportunities our island students can still only dream about, in large part because Stonington, CT was already a consolidated town and school district.

Stonington, CT’s school and municipal districts include the villages of Old Mystic, Mystic, the Borough of Stonington, and Pawcatuck, on the Rhode Island state border. These villages consolidated services and school administrations long before my memory, yet each maintains, to this day, a completely unique character: Mystic is the location of the Mystic Seaport and its preserved legacies of whaling and boat-building; Stonington Borough home to the predominantly Portuguese-American fishing fleet; Pawcatuck the poorest of the three, built on textile and other light manufacturing.

Through sixth grade I attended a “seven room schoolhouse”—one classroom for each grade—in Old Mystic. There were 15 students in my class, and the teacher-student ratio in the district is about the same today. There were multiple neighborhood K-6 elementary schools in each of the villages. These neighborhood schools sent us on to one of two middle schools, grades 7-9, one in Pawcatuck at the eastern end of the district, and one in Mystic at the western end—arch rivals in all things, of course. From there we brought our rivalries under the same roof, at Stonington High School: a 45-minute bus ride, 20 minutes by car, from my house.

This consolidation had many happy results for my own education: the district was able to pay more competitive salaries than any of the individual villages could have, and thus was able to attract and retain talented teachers. I am in Maine today because several of my very best teachers were Mainers: teachers who had relocated from their beloved home state because they could make a better living, and work in stronger school districts, while maintaining the quality of life they had in Maine. They encouraged me to attend Bowdoin College, which inspired my own deep love for, and subsequent relocation to, the Maine coast. The consolidated district was also able to support an excellent and diverse music program; great science labs; foreign language classes, including Latin; a full range of A/P courses, and, in addition to sports, co-curricular activities such as a school newspaper, which encouraged our civic engagement as well as educating our bodies and spirits.

As a volunteer in our local schools, I see that our students don’t have many of the same opportunities I had 40 years ago. It makes me want to cry: with sadness at their missed learning opportunities; and outrage at the adult decisions that cause them. So what if I had to travel 20 miles to high school? Mystic and Pawcatuck lost none of their uniqueness by not having their own high schools; and students there received a top-rate education that better prepared us to succeed in college and in life by providing more quality opportunities than Stonington, Maine’s students have access to today. The larger tax base created by consolidation makes it possible for Stonington, CT to spend almost $1,000 more per student than we spend in Stonington, ME. With Maine’s much lower property values, we don’t necessarily want to increase spending per pupil: instead, consolidation will enable us to provide increased educational opportunities by sharing and reallocating existing resources.

Maine only recently passed legislation requiring the consolidation of school districts; yet Question 3 on the November 3 ballot asks us if we want to repeal this law. While the law isn’t perfect (what law is?), its concept is right on, designed to reduce our rural state’s top-heavy school management (does paying a school superintendent a six-figure salary to oversee a district which includes less than 700 students, as we do in Deer Isle-Stonington, Sedgwick, and Brooklin, make sense to anyone?) and to shift those resources to improving the quality of education for our students. Those districts which have focused efforts on using this legislation to share resources and improve educational quality are successfully creating additional opportunities for their students. It’s past time to give our Stonington, ME students the same opportunities I had in Stonington, CT 40 years ago. Vote “NO” on Question 3.