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Molly Vollman Makris is an associate professor and program coordinator in urban studies at the City University of New York. Mary Gatta is an associate professor of sociology and co-director of the Center on Ethnographies of Work at the City University of New York. They are members of the Scholars Strategy Network. This column was edited by the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.
President Joe Biden has promised to rescue the U.S. economy from the devastation of the coronavirus. On Feb. 5, following a weak jobs report, Biden said, “We can’t do too much here. We can do too little.”
And while Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is certainly a good starting point, it’s not enough for cities and towns that have been struggling for decades.
Beginning in 2016, we conducted research on the beachfront city of Asbury Park, New Jersey. With its privilege and struggle, Asbury is in many ways a microcosm of the national issues Biden hopes to tackle. What we learned from the experiences of local residents, business owners, and activists for our book, “Gentrification Down the Shore,” highlights the challenges we are facing and finds some ways to move forward.
When we spoke to longtime residents in Asbury Park, we observed a city on the precipice. Asbury had begun to gain national attention as a cool town with a foodie and Instagrammable scene. Yet we found inequality and anti-Black racism that goes back to the very founding of Asbury Park and still reverberates today.
We heard from longtime residents who shared the challenges they face with employment due to racism, a lack of transportation and other impediments like criminal records. We interviewed young people and mothers who expressed concerns about raising children in Asbury because of both over- and under-policing and a lack of opportunities for youth. And we met small-business owners concerned about staying in business as rents continued to rise.
And yet in Asbury, we also found a city committed to getting it right in the face of rapid seasonal gentrification.
Local workforce development programs, like the Kula Cafe and Salt School, were embedded in the city and worked to recruit, train and retain local labor. Small-business owners creatively helped out their employees. Activists worked to break down systemic inequalities. And progressive community leaders were deeply committed to their city.
However, Asbury, like so many cities, will need sustained support from the federal government to survive and thrive in a COVID-19 world. Biden’s American Rescue Plan must be coupled with long-term progressive planning beyond the pandemic.
That means a continued focus on economic security for working families, fully funded public education, universal health care and environmental and racial justice measures. Policymakers could take inspiration from the residents of Asbury on where to start.
Federal investment can help ensure small businesses like those in Asbury are valued, so they are not lost to chain stores. And politicians must support more progressive housing initiatives over incentives to big developers.
While Asbury Park is just one town, it’s a good reminder of the changes we still need to make and the possibilities that lie ahead to make the United States more equitable and just.