It all fell into place at the grocery store tonight. Have you ever wondered why people who just aren’t very nice through much of the normal course of the day are so polite, patient, deferential and even friendly when they encounter you in the grocery store?

I think it’s because there is such anonymity when we’re driving or on the phone with a stranger.  In a grocery store, on the other hand, it’s too uncomfortable when you can’t help but look them in the eye and even run into them in aisle after aisle.  That closeness makes a difference.

So, maybe there’s a lesson in there for those of us with such strong opinions regarding the unfortunate controversy over the Allentown Neighborhood Improvement Zone.

Maybe the explanation lies in the fact that we have grown so apart over these past few decades.  To be sure, most of us in Allentown look different than our suburban neighbors.   We don’t have similar incomes (Allentown’s poverty is something like eight times higher than the rest of the county; a child is as much as 25 times more likely to be poor depending on which municipality is their place of birth).  Our cultures are different, we worship in different churches, and, like any urban residents, we are more likely to experience a crime.

And, so, y’all don’t come by much anymore.  You’re probably not employed in the city, unlikely to shop here, might not want to come to our restaurants or shows, maybe too scared.

Perhaps that’s why some of you don’t want to have anything to do with supporting the NIZ. 

Now, there’s probably not a municipality in the region that completely funded its own economic development or the infrastructure that made it possible.  Obviously, the Bethlehem Township supervisors who are working so hard to squash Allentown’s hopes didn’t take up a collection or hold a bake sale to pay for the Route 33 connection between Route 22 and I-78.  In fact, that short but very expensive highway instantly turned the township into an economic machine, dramatically increasing the value of land and, therefore, folks’ equity and wealth.  And I helped pay for it, you helped pay for it, we all paid for it.

So, I thought I might offer my neighbors a brief introduction of the good people who live here in the city.  Well, like you, we are proud of our families, we need jobs that pay the bills and maybe enable us to afford a little fun, we certainly want to have safe neighborhoods and nice homes, and we’d rather not need anybody’s help.

Without a doubt, the development that the NIZ was bringing us would have helped much of that happen.  Hopefully, then, maybe our neighbors would be gung-ho not to be burdened by the cost of loading up the county jail (located here), contributing to the food banks, or helping to pay for our big police department, but instead invest in our jobs, new business development and even help us grow our tax base.  That would pay for more of the services that might actually make you want to come back downtown, or even move back in.

We get it that you don’t want to fund this stuff with even a small part of your Earned Income Tax revenue.  Indeed, we offered to give it back, no offense intended on our part.  But now we are told that the money wasn’t the point.  Just the fact that the law says we can now has to change.  Some are insisting the size of the special district be reduced.  So, if we do that, will the line be moved yet again?

I hear many reasonable people say that you don’t even really object to a little money coming from the suburbs but that you have a problem with “the way it was done,” meaning the back-room politics.  For those of us who watch this “back-room politics” stuff benefitting folks with money and folks in power all the time can’t help but shake our heads when, for once, it actually was intended to benefit us.  Alas.

Friends, neighbors, please.  This has turned into the ugliest episode I have witnessed in the more than 30 years that I have been doing this work.

Can’t we move on?  Can’t you let us get up, brush ourselves off, and get back to the business of making Allentown the city it can be?