2016-05-20 / Front Page

City seeks sensitivity training

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Constructed 113 years ago for what was originally known as the Maine State Reform School, "Cottage Number Four" is one of five historic buildings in South Portland's Brick Hill neighborhood now containing apartments offered at below market rates to low-income families. The neighborhood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places referred to as a “ghetto” by a planning board member. (Courtesy photo) Constructed 113 years ago for what was originally known as the Maine State Reform School, "Cottage Number Four" is one of five historic buildings in South Portland's Brick Hill neighborhood now containing apartments offered at below market rates to low-income families. The neighborhood is listed in the National Register of Historic Places referred to as a “ghetto” by a planning board member. (Courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Following an off-the-cuff remark in which one city official referred to a west end neighborhood as a “ghetto,” the South Portland City Council has scheduled a June 27 workshop seminar on diversity training to cover structural racism.

The incident stems from an April 11 planning board meeting, at which board Chairman William Laidley said of a Brickhill development proposal submitted by Richard Berman.

“I think it’s a great project for the time and the space. It makes it seem like less of a ghetto,” Laidley said.

Townhouse style apartments built in 2005 stand at the entrance to Brick Hill, a mixed use neighborhood in South Portland's West End. (Courtesy photo)Townhouse style apartments built in 2005 stand at the entrance to Brick Hill, a mixed use neighborhood in South Portland's West End. (Courtesy photo)

City Councilor Brad Fox took umbrage to the comment, faulting Laidley for expressing a micro-aggressive view that, he said, was fraught with “racial undertones.”

“I am very disturbed by the planning board chairman’s description of my Brick Hill west end neighborhood as a ‘ghetto,’ and that somehow adding Richard Berman’s new market rate housing project will make it less so,” Fox wrote in a May 2 email to his peers, requesting the diversity workshop, a topic he’d broached before.

“The west end of South Portland is a diverse and thriving community of hard working, tax paying residents like those in the rest of South Portland,” Fox wrote. “We don’t have gangs and our kids play outside in the safety of a community that cares about them and watches over them. We have beautiful parks and trails and recreational facilities. It was outrageous of the chairman to characterize our community as a ‘ghetto’ with all of the negative connotations, including the racial undertones that that word connotes. I believe that our city council priority issue of diversity, and my workshop request for diversity training, is now more urgent than ever.”

Fox wasn’t the only one to blanch at the “ghetto” line. Another Brick Hill resident, Adrian Dowling, who serves on several city committees, including the affordable housing committee and its arts and historic preservation committee, responded with an open letter to the planning board.

Noting the dictionary definition of “ghetto” as “a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group,” Dowling further walked planners though his Webster’s Collegiate Abbreviated with definitions of slum: “a run-down, squalid part of a city;” and squalid: “foul and repulsive, as from lack of care of cleanliness; neglected and filthy; wretched; miserable; degraded; sordid.”

“With those definitions in mind, you can perhaps imagine my surprise and dismay to hear my neighborhood, Brick Hill, described as a ghetto during a recent televised planning board meeting. Nothing could be further from the truth,” Dowling wrote.

“Brick Hill is an attractive, clean, safe, diverse, well-maintained neighborhood. We have one of the prettiest parks in the city, surrounded by some of the most strikingly attractive historic buildings in the area. We have a trail system, a boat launch into Long Creek, a mix of homes and professional offices, and friendly residents who look out for one another,” Dowling went on, asking, “Does any of that sound like a ghetto to you?

Dowling then all but dared the planning board to schedule a site walk of the Brick Hill neighborhood – “Perhaps this summer to coincide with our annual neighborhood cook-out,” he said – in order to observe the area first hand.

“Bring your appetites, and open minds,” Dowling added.

At the May 10 planning board meeting, Planning Director Tex Haeuser mistakenly read Dowling’s recent letter to the-editor, circulated to several local newspapers including the Sentry, rather than his open letter to the board.

Still, Laidley was quick to reply, keeping it short and to the point.

“That was an inappropriate comment and I apologize,” he said.

No planning board member weighed in, although audience fixture Russ Lunt, of Brigham Street, stood to defend Laidley.

“There’s no need of redacting like that,” Lunt said. “That was a comment that – you didn’t mean anything like that. But some people are sensitive. It’s one of those foolish things.”

One planning board member, Isaac Misiuk – chairman of the affordable housing committee on which Dowling is a member – later said he, too, was not offended. He interpreted Laidley’s meaning differently than Fox or Dowling.

“Would I have chosen that word? No. I would feel offended too if that word had been used in the context of discussing my neighborhood,” Misiuk said in a May 12 interview. “But the way I took it, it seemed fairly benign. The way I perceived what he was saying, I felt what he meant was that he was more afraid the area might become a ghetto, not that it already is.”

Still, the diversity training will go on.

“I got a recommendation of some people who do those trainings for the Portland public schools and they’re supposed to be excellent,” Fox said. “And they contacted me. So, they’re prepared to talk to the staff.”

There were initially two other topics on the June 27 agenda, but councilors agreed the diversity seminar should be given a spotlight of its own.

“I think the diversity issue should be given a fair amount of time,” said Councilor Linda Cohen.

Fox first broached the race issue in March, with his unsuccessful nomination of Deqa Dhalac to fill the District 5 seat on South Portland’s Civil Service Commission. Fox championed Dhalac, a female black Muslim, in the name of diversity. However, while the council praised Dhalac’s experience, a human service councilor for the city of Portland, it voted 5-2 to reappoint Phillip LaRou to the seat.

Since taking office in 2014, Fox has repeatedly pointed out that the city fire department has no people of color on its roster, while the police department can boast only a single Asian among its ranks. City boards and committees are also “a sea of white faces,” he has said, often referring to the Brick Hill and Redbank sections of South Portland, with their high minority and immigrant populations, as second-class neighborhoods on the city’s priority list.

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