I always had a sneaking suspicion that my definitions of success (shaped heavily by a 1st century Jewish carpenter’s son) and the definitions of success portrayed between the pages of Forbes magazine diverged. This month I was concerned when an article about our community being designated as an Opportunity Zone was published by Forbes which started out by naming the very street that I live on (curiously – “Success Street”). Below is the letter I sent to Forbes Magazine after reading their take on that visit. I suppose there is some possibility that you might read the letter as being more angry than I intended. I’ve grown accustomed to a gap between perception and reality in our community (perception almost always being more negative than reality) and I’ve found a good sense of humor is the best tool I have to mind that gap. I’m not sure they’ll do anything with the letter at Forbes, so I humbly submit it here for your consideration.
August 27, 2018
Dear Forbes Magazine:
It must have seemed a cute enough way to start your recent article on Opportunity Zones featuring Senator Tim Scott and billionaire Sean Parker. “Success Street, in North Charleston, South Carolina, might be the most misnamed place in America.” It created quite a contrast to a Billionaire and US Senator taking photos along that corridor. Indeed, the line was cute enough to quickly became a lighthearted joke among my colleagues and neighbors. You see, we all have chosen to make our homes and livelihoods along “the most misnamed place in America.”
My wife and I moved onto Success Street in 2002 and for 17 years we’ve worked with a movement of local community citizens called Metanoia (www.pushingforward.org). We are a community development organization that seeks to create opportunities for youth and improve housing and economic development conditions in our community. Our community has recently been designated as an Opportunity Zone by our governor.
We are cautiously hopeful about the new Opportunity Zone Legislation, but the tone and tenor of your first sentence struck me as precisely indicative of the threats the new policy may pose. Before we go there however, I would like to return us to “the most misnamed (street) in America.”
At one end of this street lives Penelope (Penny) Middleton. She is an engineer with a successful career at the Naval Facilities Command Center in North Charleston. She probably earns enough to move away from “the most misnamed place in America,” but she doesn’t see the world in a way that would warrant her doing so. In fact, Penny is staying and she became a critical voice in helping a series of community groups achieve a $4 million mitigation agreement from a local rail authority building a facility at the end of the street.
Just down from Ms. Middleton is Omatic Software a fast-growing software company located in a former Masonic Lodge. Even before Opportunity Zone incentives were in place, their founder, Jeff Montgomery, saw potential along Success Street rather than just liabilities. Omatic was named in Inc Magazine’s list of 5000 Fastest Growing Companies for multiple years running.
My family lives in the next block. Next door to us is a family whose breadwinner is the urban forrester for the City of North Charleston. He works hard and plays by the rules and is striving with his spouse to raise great children. Across the street sits two homes renovated by our organization to maintain affordable housing in our community which is being threatened by gentrification. Metanoia has actually renovated five homes along “the most misnamed (street) in America.” When we renovated one home directly across the street from the Old Chicora Elementary School (where Senator Scott and Mr. Parker took pictures), the attorney brought out the original deed to the place. “Shall not be rented, sold, or disposed of to persons of African dissent” the deed read. Streets don’t get to be “the most misnamed place in America” without a history and a legacy that make them that way.
In a neighboring home lives Fred Hudson. He’s a local musician who teaches music classes to children in the neighborhood through a foundation called Jake’s Music. He understands the remarkable relationship of music to brain science. It is something Fred will be quick to tell you about if you give him an opening. He is not getting rich off the work he does but I’d call him a success. He loves what he does, and he makes a difference in the lives of young people.
Across the street from Fred’s home sits the Old Chicora Elementary that “real estate investors (can) rehab into a tech incubator” according to your article. Not so fast. We at Metanoia already have site control of the school. We saw the old building as more than an eyesore, and we are piecing together a deal to renovate the school. It will house office space for non-profit organizations offering new opportunities in the community. It will also offer artists who are being priced out of the white-hot Charleston real estate market an affordable set of studios to continue their work. Finally, it will include an early childhood education center for children 0-4 years old. We have hired architects and started raising money for this project. Thankfully Senator Scott was a voice during tax reform to preserve the New Market and Historic Tax Credits that will help make the project possible. The Senator has been briefed on this project during his first tour of our Opportunity Zone community. Maybe he didn’t have time to communicate that plan to you or it was just easier to listen to a billionaire’s ideas than the concrete reality of what is actually happening there.
Speaking of what is happening there, when pictures were being taken at the Old Chicora, you were within eyesight of the Fresh Future Farm. The brainchild of Germaine Jenkins, a brilliant gardener who is passionate about her community. She started the farm a few years back because there is no grocery store in our neighborhood. She and her team have transformed half of the old playground of the Elementary School into an urban farm and grocery store because the major grocers have not been willing to locate a full-service grocery store anywhere near “the most misnamed place in America.”
Across the street from the Fresh Future farm lives Duncan Cheney. Duncan left his home in Kansas when Katrina hit New Orleans to go volunteer. He stayed in New Orleans and got an Urban Planning Degree and became a General Contractor, building affordable housing for people in the Big Easy. A little over a year ago he became one of my colleagues at Metanoia. He is currently overseeing the construction of 8 new units of affordable housing units in our community and serving as the project manager for the adaptive reuse of the Old Chicora Elementary School. He is sharp and carries a wisdom beyond his age. He could be climbing a well-paid ladder in a large construction business, but he and his fiancé have chosen to live along “the most misnamed place in America” and try to make a difference.
The last stop on our tour of Success Street is the NEW Chicora Elementary School. It is there because a group of neighbors came together about eight years ago to advocate for its construction. One of our leading voices was a mother who was a former addict and bi-polar. When we started a petition drive, we caught her on the upswing and she went out and collected 800 signatures to get that new school built. She is the kind of person that lives in a place that can easily be called “the most misnamed place in America.” She will never be featured on one of Forbes lists, and yet she is powerful. The new school would not be there without her help.
After chuckling at the characterization of your opening line, I read with interest your Opportunity Zone article. Senator Scott’s office had called us to let us know he would be taking a photo by the old school. We did not know that Mr. Parker would be there, but he was welcome on Success Street. And really, can we honestly say that Forbes would be willing to show up even if Senator Scott had all of the everyday heroes of Success Street show up for the picture?
Having talked personally with Senator Scott about Opportunity Zones, I believe he understands what your article makes clear; that they could be a great benefit to people living along streets like mine or they could create a perverse incentive for sweeping aside those people in the name of tax-break enhanced profits. If they do the former, we on Success Street will be the first to sing the praises of Opportunity Zones. If they do the latter, we on Success Street will be effective barometers of that unfortunate truth as well.
What I was struck by in reading your article was how easy it was to present a Senator and billionaire as the heroes in this story and be dismissive of the community where they happened to be appearing for their photo-op. The underlying assumption is that Opportunity Zones will be a success because of those featured. Yet, if all of the Opportunity Zones now named in this nation have to wait on one of 100 US Senators or 540 billionaires (thanks for the fact Forbes) in the United States to show up with solutions; we are in deep trouble.
That is not to say Senators and Billionaires cannot play a role. They will necessarily play a role if Opportunity Zones are to be a success. But their concern and investment must be done in cooperation with the reality of hard working citizens that are playing by the rules and struggling to get by not in spite of these residents. The reason why I can snicker at the first sentence of your article is because, having lived along Success Street for the past 17 years; your summation of our worth is outlandish on its face. I could name other residents of Success Street that I know are working hard and providing for their families every day. They will not be featured in any of Forbes’ lists, but they are the real heroes of my street. Thank goodness they do not view their lives as the failure that your article’s first line would make them out to be.
I submit that much of what is happening on Success Street (a bit of trash an un-mowed grass not withstanding) is precisely what has made our country great from the start; people willing to sacrifice a little for the common good, watch out for their neighbors and define “success” more broadly than how pristinely their lawns are manicured. Indeed, if we only see success in big homes and well mowed grass we are automatically writing off the capacity of many Americans who have authentic capability to strengthen their own communities.
I shared the first line of your story with a friend who retorted with the old Vince Lombardi quote that “the only place where Success comes before work is in the dictionary.” If Opportunity Zones are going to be a success, they will invest in people’s willingness to work and their investments will arrive in communities at a scale that attends to their human impact. Opportunity Zones will not work for the residents of the zones themselves if wealthy investors are the only ones making decisions about what might happen within the Zones. The Zones may then make profits for some, but they will shove aside many.
Despite the fact that we apparently do not fit your definition of Success, we hope you enjoyed your visit to our neighborhood. Consider yourself to have a standing invitation to return any time and go deeper into the reality of Success Street. You might well find, upon further investigation, that our street is one of the most aptly named streets in our republic. A republic that remains, in spite of it all, a democracy.
Thank you for your consideration.
Rev. Bill Stanfield
Resident of “the most misnamed street in America” (aka Success St).
North Charleston, SC