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Home Towns USA, An Urban Noir Tour
July 10, 2002: In the upper Northeast region of the United States, every city not New York City or Boston tends to be thought of as second tier. This mind set is only reflective of the regional pull of the Big Two, not of the actual importance of second tier cities to their regions. Such cities range in population from less than 100 thousand to almost half a million. Second tier cities are America's hometowns: they are the urban centers in which generations of immigrants began new lives and they are the seed from which surrounding suburbs sprang. Many suburbanites still feel connected to these hub cities; even if they no longer find them livable.

Though some second tier cities have become latte towns or, if in proximity to New York City or Boston, bedroom communities, the majority continue to reel from the impact of the great industrial pull out, the racial violence of the second half of the twentieth century and the drug trade. Some second tier towns are seats of state or county government, or are regional medical centers. Many have grand (if neglected) architecture and rich historical pasts, which attract a certain amount of tourism. Or colleges bring a party hearty scene. And ghettos and slums are flourishing.

As real estate boomed in New York City and Boston, their slums became too valuable to waste on the poor. But in many second tier cities, property values remained in a slump. These towns became the dumping ground for the Big Two's underclass - shipped out by assorted social services to politically connected landlords desperately seeking subsidies. Particularly the ones supplied by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Along with guaranteed rent (frequently exceeding market value) landlords who renovate their buildings to house the poor receive grants and advantageous loans to cover costs. Arrangements made even more profitable via inflating and skimming. The contracting process is commonly riddled with fraud. The property owner does the plumbing under another name. His wife becomes contractor for a day. Bills for building materials say one thing, reality says another. Renovation work is shoddy-- as in, cardboard cob jobs and rat's nest wiring. Local building inspectors, being highly political public servants, are not inclined to look closely. Group homes, for those who need a structured environment, typically receive poor oversight. Though residents are supposed to be screened, drug thugs with long, violent criminal records end up housed with the vulnerable: teenage mothers with small children, the mentally ill, the handicapped and the indigent elderly. The fact that second tier cities have few jobs and limited public transportation is disregarded.

Drug trade has seized hold of second tier cities. There's always been traffic. Local corruptoids took their cut and it was wink wink not a problem. But with big city displacement came big city drug business. The Crips, the Bloods and their variations now share turf with local organized crime. With less product available, drugs command higher prices. Due to their heartland geographical positions, second tier cities have become distribution centers for broader suburban and rural areas. Local law enforcement is often overwhelmed, caught napping in complacent prior arrangements. And the political class in second tier towns, along with large parts of the business community, are hooked on a related drug: urban development dollars. Hard wired into HUD and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Plus any other state initiatives, bonding arrangements, grants, loans and tax deals they can score in the name of lifting blighted cities. As one decade of greed bled into another, less and less revitalization money reached the poor. Most of it lifted politicians representing urban areas, mayors and their cronies, public contractors and vendors, consultants, developers, banks, realtors, slumlords, organized crime and at the end of the food chain, the gentrifying middle class. To the point where a good part of the economy which floats second tier cities now rests on the presence, but not the alleviation of, poverty and substance abuse. Many such cities and their political representatives, are the targets of federal corruption investigations.

Last Summer, in North Jersey, Democratic Hudson County Executive, Robert Janizewski unexpectedly resigned, then dropped out of sight. Hudson County is Jersey's most populous and urban county. Among its cities are Jersey City, Hoboken, Bayonne and West Bergen. "Bobby J." was head of Hudson County's Democratic Committee. He was also a Democratic National Committee member and a one time New Jersey campaign manager for Bill Clinton. After Janizewski disappeared, it was revealed he'd been wearing a wire for months. Pressed into doing so by the FBI, after supposedly being videotaped accepting a bribe from a Hudson County vendor-- a psychiatrist whose company serviced jails and a psychiatric hospital.

The feds aimed Robert Janisewski at Hudson County's mega developers, who, with his help and that of other local pols with national clout, have been raking in HUD and Department of Transportation bucks for years. Plus enjoying assorted tax breaks and low interest loans. Massive amounts of public charity has been used to develop some of the most valuable real estate in the United States-- the Jersey side of the Hudson River. Directly across from lower Manhattan. Commonly called "The Gold Coast". Behind the Gold Coast, life in Hudson County went on as usual: drug crime, slums, crummy schools and eye popping property taxes. Low income communities got redevelopment crumbs-- strip malls born to decay and ticky tacky "affordable" town houses with perpetually flooded basements. And the corruption indictments kept on coming.

In the past two years, six New Jersey sitting or former mayors have been indicted. In crime ridden, blighted Camden in South Jersey, the last mayor, Democrat Milton Milan, looted the city's treasury, laundered drug profits for organized crime, traded municipal contracts for cash and burglarized his own office in order to collect insurance on the office equipment. Milan went to prison last Spring; convicted of 14 corruption counts. When serving as mayor, Milan and members of his administration had been regular recipients of campaign contributions from Gunite Inc., a New Jersey public contractor specializing in sprayable concrete.

Gunite Inc., made campaign contributions to politicians all across Jersey. Gunite was totally bi-partisan: if it moved and held office, they contributed. In return, Gunite allegedly got to service sewers and bridges in any number of hard pressed municipalities. Gunite Inc. received a generous, low interest New Jersey Urban Enterprise Zone loan and a 30 year tax abatement on their corporate office in Union County. But after buying the mayor of battered Paterson one too many trips to Europe, Gunite's top executives were snared by the feds, wired for sound and told to keep mingling with Jersey's political class. A recent casualty of Gunite-gate was Essex County Republican Executive James Treffinger, who, after the FBI raided his office and carried out the usual boxes of files, withdrew from his primary run in New Jersey's Senate race. The Feds are reaching out to touch yet more Jersey pols, informing them their voices have been captured on tape. State Senator Ray Lesniak, once Al Gore's finance chairman in Jersey, is amongst those rumored to have received the news. Most memorable Gunite quote: "Bribery is the cost of doing business in Jersey".

Though 8 out of 10 New Jersey residents say their state has corruption problems, they need not think they have the lock on sleaze. Consider Republican Phil Giordano, ex-Mayor of Waterbury, Connecticut. Up and coming Mayor Phil was his party's choice to run against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's most recent Senate race. Last Summer, in the process of an everyday corruption probe, the FBI stumbled across Mayor Phil allegedly arranging to buy two African American girls, aged 10 and 11, for sexual purposes. The seller was a crack addicted prostitute-- one child was her daughter, the other her niece. Mayor Phil, when a practicing attorney, had defended the woman on prostitution charges. At one time, the paternity of the woman's son had been in doubt: Mayor Phil was among the candidates. Further stories about Giordano, crack houses and hookers surfaced. "Four minutes for $40" is how one crackitute described her alleged brush with greatness. More run of the mill was Giordano's relationship with Worth Construction president Joe Pontoriero, a major campaign contributor. Back in the late 90's, Mayor Phil wanted Worth hired as Waterbury's downtown revitalization manager. When it didn't happen, Phil hit the ceiling. But Phil did get Worth awarded the contract to upgrade the city's sewage plant. Pontoriero's alleged mob ties had gotten Worth banned from doing business with the New York City School system, and Worth, with development interests on New Jersey's Gold Coast, was also under investigation by that state's attorney general. Something Mayor Phil failed to mention to Waterbury's board of aldermen.

In Bridgeport, Connecticut's largest city, Worth Construction obtained more waste plums: a $91 million dollar waste water treatment contract, plus a joint deal to reopen dormant Seaview landfill, located right on Bridgeport's freshly revitalized waterfront. The landfill (read "dump") received the debris of buildings demolished in Mayor Joseph Ganim's anti blight campaign. A gubernatorial hopeful, Democrat Mayor Ganim contributed to Republican Mayor Phil Giordano's Senate bid. As did Ganim's close associate, real estate developer and fundraiser  Paul Pinto. Pinto had professional ties to Worth Construction. Worth in turn, contributed to Ganim and Pinto. Pinto recently pled guilty to federal racketeering charges and Mayor Ganim is facing 24 corruption counts. Also indicted were a vice president at Salomon Smith Barney and a project manager in Connecticut's Department of Economic and Community Development. In 1999, Mayor Ganim was awarded top honors in the City Livability Awards Program sponsored by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The award program is supported by the country's top waste management company. The title carries the business benefits of a good restaurant review. Maybe it's time to stop calling it "waste". For urban pols, there's gold in them thar sewers!

In the neighboring state of Rhode Island (which has been called "the closest thing this country has to a city-state" and "the mob capital of New England") Providence Mayor "Buddy" Cianci, former Republican turned independent, announced in late June that he would not seek re-election. A lengthy, federal investigation ("Operation Plunderdome") resulted in convictions within the Cianci administration and a guilty verdict on one RICO conspiracy count for the mayor himself. The original roster of charges numbered 14 and involved racketeering, extortion, and bribery. The prosecution claimed that Providence was a city for sale and in order to take part in its much heralded "Renaissance", contractors, businesses and jobseekers had to ante up. Also, that when crossed, Cianci used his office as bludgeon. For instance, when an exclusive club didn't offer Cianci membership, their building variances suddenly went south.

In Providence, folk's property taxes do have a history of rising in relation to the bad things they say about "Buddy". And over the years, the Cianci administration has been riddled with fraud and extortion convictions. Underlings have bit the dust regularly, but Cianci has been skillful at putting a human layer between himself and trouble. But in 1984, "Buddy" had to take a five year break from being mayor-for-life after he pled no contest to attacking his wife's boyfriend with a fireplace log and a burning cigarette. Apres exile, Cianci's constituents welcomed him back to their bosom and their "Buddy" repaid them with federally juiced generosity. Including $300 million worth of transportation improvements. Cianci was also popular on the U.S. Mayor's circuit. When the Plunderdome indictments were announced, mayors from around the country stepped forward to defend and praise the little Caesar. Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland was particularly supportive saying "These kinds of indictments are part of being a mayor".

In the "Plunderdome" case city tax officials testified to being Cianci's bagmen and collecting payoffs. Other testimony described Cianci as a money addict: "He needs the green." In the course of a shakedown, a Cianci cohort explained the game thusly "There are no free lunches...that's the way it works". This particular bagman/official wound up testifying against Cianci: no doubt the "lunch" statement made the jury discount his entire testimony, which explains Cianci's lone conviction. As any Providence jury knows, for "Buddy", free lunches are soup du jour. According to a document released by the U.S. Attorney's office, way back in his law school days, a female acquaintance threatened to report him for a violent incident. Cianci told her "he knew every trick in the book, she would never get a lawyer, and he, Cianci, would get away with it". And speaking of lunch, Mayor Cianci has successfully marketed a homemade pasta sauce, a move aped by Democrat Mayor Michael Albano of Springfield, in nearby Massachusetts.

Mike Albano admires buddy "Buddy" and figured "if Cianci can do it so can I". Thus was born "Mayor Mike's Pasta Sauce". And just like Providence, Springfield is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation. The focus is misuse of economic development funds. Strange things happen to HUD Community Development Block Grants in Springfield. The Genovese crime family has long made Springfield one of its homes. Members of the family have been consistent campaign contributors of Mayor Mike's. Department heads in Springfield's housing, and economic and community development offices have also contributed generously. Business improvement loans in Springfield have ended up in the hands of convicted felons and have sometimes gone unpaid. But revitalizing Springfield is pricey. One of Mayor Mike's felonious supporters presented construction bills to city hall for federal reimbursement. Cost of two boxes of screws: $160. During the reign of Mayor Mike, Springfield has enjoyed a public funded downtown renaissance of bars bars bars, but population continues to shrink. Springfield is one of the 16 Massachusetts cities that house Boston's deported poor. Springfield is also a major conduit for drugs into Vermont. The Green Mountain State, where substance abuse once mainly meant weed and gallon jugs, now has a burgeoning heroin and crack scene.

Drugs also enter Vermont from the tri-city capital region of upstate New York. Albany, Schenectady and Troy have been absorbing New York City's underclass and have seen an influx of drug gangs. Low income neighborhoods have become the kind of places where people can't sit on their stoops on hot nights for fear of catching a bullet. The cities serve as a drug distribution center for the upper Northeast. The region is also home base for the main players in an outstanding example of public contractor fraud-- one which has been called the largest case of fraud in U.S. environmental history. It has resulted in a multi federal and state law enforcement agency prosecution within the upstate New York asbestos abatement industry. Assorted asbestos abatement companies, many of them linked, conspired to "rip & skip". Which means, rip out the cancer dust-- skip the abatement. Asbestos laden material was either left in buildings, or dumped illegally. Sometimes on the premises. The buildings were in various struggling upstate, second tier cities and included a number of notable public funded "revitalization" projects, as well as public housing projects, public schools within entire school districts, nursing homes, hotels, hospitals, New York state government offices, churches, colleges, prisons, factories, restaurants, theaters, a police training academy, an arsenal, and last but not least, the beautiful and historic New York State Capital building in Albany. Private homes were also impacted. At times, the fraud worked the other way. Properties would be "salted" with asbestos and owners would be billed for the non-removal of nothing.

Legally, asbestos abatement must be verified by completely independent testing laboratories. One of the busiest "independent" labs in upstate New York was allegedly secretly owned by AAR Contractor Inc., an equally busy abatement company. AAR president, Alex Salvagno, served as treasurer for the Environmental Business Association of New York State (EBA/NYS), an industry group with offices just down the street from the state capital in Albany. Its member companies include Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Niagara Mohawk Power Corporation, the Ford Motor Company and the Battery Park City Authority in lower Manhattan. According to the EBA/NYS mission statement the group "coordinates effective partnerships among environmental businesses and with government". According to the feds, AAR Contractor Inc., has been involved in a conspiracy in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act for at least 10 years. Along with fraudulent abatement practices, AAR allegedly engaged in money laundering, obstruction of justice, mail fraud, wire fraud and bid rigging. Over the years, AAR gained one major public contract after the other. If the bid rigging allegation is true, imagine who and how many must have got rigged.

Alex Salvagno has been indicted, as has Raul Salvagno in the Florida AAR office. Several AAR associates have already pled guilty. AAR did more than just abate asbestos-- lead based paint was another specialty. And a permutation of AAR Contractor, AAR Environmental Services, held a contract at the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Let's hope there wasn't any ripping and skipping of whatever they were supposed to abate at Indian Point. Alex Salvagno's alleged business partner at the "independent" lab once bragged about opening an office in Hoboken, New Jersey. The bar studded revitalized jewel of Hudson County's Gold Coast. Which brings us full circle.

This in no way covers every federal investigation or ethical swamp in the northeast. Nor is the area uniquely benighted: other regions have similar problems. New York City and Boston have plenty of corruption issues. But second tier cities have an "only game in town" mentality which cements corruption in place. And though corruption is a perpetual fact of political life, levels vary from age to age, as do forms. Urban revitalization has become the scam of the day for an entrenched class of cross party, cross state, political and business grifters. The players are not just two bit mayors of tiny towns and their chamber of commerce chums -- but major movers and shakers with national connections and ambitions. Economic development funds pass back and forth between them: the money barely touches ground. If, at the end of it all, real improvement in blighted cities resulted, the frauds and cronyism would be more acceptable. But revitalization dollars are almost exclusively used to buy political power and to prop up and inflate the investments of the politically connected. With less and less social quid pro quo. Even the middleclass has gotten into the act, jockeying for neighborhood gentrification dollars, while tolerating political corruption, deterioration of the wider urban landscape and the formation of an entrenched underclass. Middle class co-optation has been particularly detrimental to cities, since urban reform often springs from a socially conscious middle class.

In some second tier cities the underclass is mainly minority. In others, whites make up its ranks. Many are products of a bye gone blue collar world. Today's model for advancement from poverty-- delayed childbearing, 20 years in school and service economy careers-- will never work for, or appeal to, everyone. But second tier cities are not the cities of mid 20th Century America. There are few industrial jobs to make it financially possible for the young and uneducated to form families and rise. Societal support for those choices has weakened. Civic institutions no longer provide a dependable alternative to chaotic home lives. The drug trade booms and offers excitement and money. Across society, consumerism has moved to the forefront of values, aggravating envy and greed. As on Wall Street and Main Street so on Dope Street. The problems of the underclass don't stem completely from economics, nor from outside themselves. But that doesn't justify fraud committed in their name. If the underclass didn't exist the corrupt would have to invent them-- the poor and the anti-social have become a cash crop. Their mass relocations are welcome, since their presence means more public money. And the underclass is a dependent political constituency-- the kind corrupt and despotic pols like best.

Though liberal pieties and/or conservative bromides drip from their lips, the current crop of political grifters have no genuine commitment to any ideology. Most are Baby Boomers, a generation making a name for itself in white collar crime. Whether they once advocated "ripping off the system" as a revolutionary act, or thought business entrepreneurs were beyond good and evil, makes little difference. They came of age in a social milieu that rationalized moral failing and admired a successful con job. Where materialism was the only accepted common standard. They're thoroughly modern sleazeballs, skilled at cutting corners and trimming sails. Dancing on the edge of legalisms. Though they invoke and exploit local loyalty, love of place has little meaning either. They speak of "my state" or "my city" then turn around and rob it blind. Or despoil its history. Or make it a sleazy laughing stock. Or let children in "their" streets dodge bullets. They have the egos and often the appetites of would be Caligulas and if this were a different country, dissident heads would decorate their McMansions. Though they trade corrupt connections like sailors pass around hot numbers, even their conspiratorial relationships are loyalty deficient. An indiscretion gets caught on tape and beans spill into FBI laps. The threat of going to jail seems to do it. Probably because they know their buddy, the mob connected public contractor from Hell, did the plumbing.

New Urbanism is a buzz phrase used to describe an ideological belief in the revitalization of cities. Particularly second tier cities. New Urbanists have a laundry list of things they believe would restore urban vitality. Many involve public initiatives (as in spending and legislation) for things such as increased urban home ownership, public transportation, greater green space allotment, etc. Some of these ideas have merit. But being a Noir Urbanist (as in Film Noir, those dark movies of the soul) I believe true revitalization of America's second tier cities will require dealing with their systemic corruption. Tweaking public spending policies will only cause corruptoids to devise yet more clever twists, or empower a different bunch of grifters. Something far grander, yet paradoxically much smaller, is needed to make home towns come back. Something which would work within society as a whole, yet also move intimately within individuals. Something which would renew the sense of public responsibility and a common civic ideal. In other words-- moral rebirth. Revitalization to the max. Laugh cynic laugh, but stranger things have happened. Historically, America has shown an ability to reform itself.
Hopefully, we haven't lost it...

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

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Copyright (c) 2004 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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