BUILD A BETTER BAY VIEW — A chat with Bill Sell
August 1, 2016
By Christopher Miller
I talked with him because of his long-standing commitment to civil rights equality, which includes his advocacy for transportation alternatives including robust public transportation and a bike lane on the Hoan Bridge.
The result is a distinct perspective on where we are, and how we might both respond to change and create spaces where neighbors can be heard.
Our conversation covered a great deal of territory, but three main concepts emerged.
Value of Complete Community
I define a community in general as the connections between individuals and groups. In the case of a neighborhood, it is the connections between people who share a space, whether as residents, businesses, patrons, visitors, or supporters.
Bill, who moved to Bay View in 1984, is convinced that community is undervalued by the mainstream of America’s political and economic system.
We frequently hear that folks who are unable to afford increasing housing costs or who cannot find work should just move somewhere else. Bill was quick to point out that a focus on money ignores the value of community if moving elsewhere eliminates friends and family support networks.
Rising rent and/or property taxes can do more than create budget pressures; they can rip a hole in a family and tear at the connections that make a community a living, breathing organism. What kind of system, he asks, tells people that their friends and family are something to be left behind in the face of rising prices?
A related but different challenge for a number of long-time Bay View residents is the affordability of remaining in place after retirement or as one ages. Bill noted that there is almost no provision made so that seniors are able to remain in the neighborhood throughout their entire lives and that attempts to produce senior or affordable housing are often met with resistance in Bay View.
While there is some public housing in Bay View, it is limited and waitlisted. Since so few of Bay View’s homes are accessible to the elderly, and the vast majority of housing is market rate, eventually many folks will “age out” of Bay View and must leave behind the friends, family and neighbors they’ve known for a lifetime if they seek or need heightened care or below-market rate housing.
A healthy community would at the very least offer ways for people of all ages to stay in place.
Accomplishing this goal would require major changes. First, the community would need to embrace housing (whether built or refurbished) that is specifically designed for and affordable to seniors. Secondly, the city and state might consider new property taxation policies to deal with the fact that, even in our present political environment, tax bills increase faster than social security benefits.
We Live in a Bubble
The Bay View community lives in a bubble of relative safety, stability, and desirability. Its long-term success and vibrancy depends on working to assist other neighborhoods and help them grow as well. Bill’s message on this front was very clear.
The very qualities that make Bay View desirable — safety, walkability, good housing stock, proximity to the lake, parks, transportation — are what generate the demand that leads to increased taxes, housing prices, and rent.
As long as other neighborhoods remain undervalued or underserved, the cost of living pressure on Bay View will continue to grow because the things it offers are, or are perceived to be, in short supply in Milwaukee. It could be said that what’s bad for other neighborhoods is also bad for Bay View. In other words, one way to help relieve price pressure on Bay View is to ensure that safety, stability, and city services are spread equitably across the city.
Demand will create market pressure and prices will rise, but the result will push out those with lower incomes as well as those who need housing options other than the available.
The solutions come through connections. That involves joining with people across the entire city to demand higher-quality public services such as police, schools, and parks rather than focusing exclusively on what happens in Bay View. Bill philosophically summarized this challenge, “Some people need help, so if we want to be good neighbors, we should help them.”
Three Sides To Every Story, Not Two
Bill and I talked about how the current structure of our public discourse was extraordinarily problematic. Focused on the polarizing “two sides” narrative and trapped in a journalistic model that presents “both sides” as if they are equivalent, our public debates simply do not reflect most people’s lived experiences. Instead this binary approach reflects and fosters increased divisions along ideological lines but also makes cooperation seem less possible than it actually is. He highlighted the importance of building bridges to your “opponents” that sometimes includes agreeing to decisions that may not maximize your group’s self-interest.
While he is convinced that the local, state, and national political culture has become more divisive and negative over the past 20 years, and may well get even worse, I sense Bill possesses a belief in the power of facts, rational argument, and personal connections to break out of the “two sides straightjacket” that characterizes so many of our conversations, particularly those hyper-polarized online slugfests on social media.
At the same time, he was very aware that people often make decisions based on their emotions. He noted that we must take the time to understand each other’s stories in order to work together. Understanding one another’s stories provides opportunities to find common ground.
The overarching message that I took from our conversation was that communities are ultimately composed of people and the connections between them. A community needs shared values to thrive, and a community made up of people who value each other will have distinctly different conversations than a community made up of individuals lined up on opposing sides of this or that issue. Whether you agree with Bill’s politics or his policy suggestions, I’d hope that we all agree that valuing each other is a baseline expectation of a healthy, vibrant community.
Some years have passed since 2003 when Bill Sell helped found BVNA but he remains an active member.
Disclaimer: Christopher Miller is the current president of Bay View Neighborhood Association.
Christopher Miller has lived in Bay View since 2010 and has been on the board of the Bay View Neighborhood Association, working to connect neighbors for a better Bay View, since 2013. Contact him at BuildABetterBV@bayviewcompass.com.
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