|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
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
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
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
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
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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