A Community Whodunit

The Long Stair: An Albany Mystery, by Kirby White. Fox Creek Press, 2005, 220 pp. $15 (paperback). The Long Stair is available for $15 (plus tax) from the Capital District Community Loan Fund at 518-436-8586 or Louise@cdclf.org.

There are those who say that A.S. Byatt’s fabulous novel of literary intrigue, Passion, got as much acclaim and notoriety in university classrooms as it did because (for once!) the English majors were the heroes. Community developers may feel the same way about The Long Stair. There’s a lot more dramatic potential in the field than grant applications and conferences in DC.

The book’s protagonist, Warren Crow, is a nonprofit consultant living in a struggling neighborhood in Albany, New York. The problems the neighborhood faces – crime, abandonment, racial tensions with the police department – will be familiar to anyone who has ever looked beneath the surface of a disinvested neighborhood. So will its stalwarts, defenders and moments of beauty.

Warren, too, will likely be familiar to many readers in the community development field. A white idealist who loves the city, befriends the neighborhood kids and occasionally escapes to go whitewater canoeing in the Adirondacks, he embodies values and struggles with conflicts that are common to people who come to this work from outside the neighborhoods they’re working in.

But The Long Stair is, first and last, a murder mystery, not a white paper. And as such, it’s a gripping read. When Jonah Lee, the charismatic leader of a scrappy little housing nonprofit, is murdered in his office, Warren is called in to help the group get its finances in shape and make a plan to keep its work going.

As he discovers some anomalies in the paperwork, Warren gets drawn into an unusual and mysterious project Jonah had been working on in Sheridan Hollow, a particularly distressed part of town that lies at the bottom of a steep ravine, at the top of which are gleaming state office buildings, museums and lobbying firms. Every weekday morning, state workers too low on the totem pole to have a spot in one of the garages up top park along this neighborhood’s streets, and after work they fearfully descend the dozen-story concrete stair, for which the book is named, to their cars and leave as quickly as they can.

Whatever Jonah was trying to pull off in this neighborhood appears to be what got him killed. Warren finds himself wanting not only to unravel what it was, but finish what he had started.

The Long Stair has many of the trademarks of a mystery novel: suspense, a slow unraveling of clues, a rebellious, yet somewhat reluctant hero, a whip-smart wise-cracking love interest and a couple of stupid “don’t go in that empty room!” moments to bring about our dramatic climax. We meet sleazy slumlords, thuggish bar owners, treacherous mall developers, upright real estate agents and people just trying to make it in a forgotten neighborhood. Particularly amusing for anyone familiar with state funding bureaucracies will be the clandestine meeting in a corner of the state office complex cafeteria as Warren and a friendly worker from the Division of Housing and Community Renewal discuss the politics behind “un-losing” a controversial grant proposal.

Warren finds himself increasingly drawn into the project, and the danger, as he realizes Jonah wasn’t just trying to aim high, but doing so in order to thwart another project. (Ironically, since White wrote The Long Stair in 2000, a version of said other project has actually been approved and begun in Sheridan Hollow. This was one of White’s motivations for finally publishing the book last year.)

As he spins his yarn, White mixes in explorations of the awkwardness around outsiders trying to do good in a poor neighborhood and debates over the merits of large-scale revitalization projects. He manages to accomplish this without degeneration into pedantry or causing serious hiccups in the flow of the story.

As one of the founders of several housing nonprofits and a loan fund in the neighborhoods in question, White is clearly the sort to pay close attention to his surroundings, and this comes out in the rich local detail. This spirit has been carried on by the current staff of the city’s housing nonprofits, who got together to publish The Long Stair: They named their press after Fox Creek, the buried stream that runs along the bottom of the steep slope leading into Sheridan Hollow. (They are also using the book as a fundraiser for the Albany Community Land Trust, and appear to be doing pretty well with it.)

The writing is smooth and very well edited, but this care to detail was somewhat marred by a printing problem in the spacing that makes some letters practically overlap while others are so distant as to look like a break between words. This doesn’t make it unreadable, but it is annoying.

If a few others follow in the footsteps of The Long Stair and Predatory Bender (see Shelterforce #134), perhaps community development fiction will become known as its own, distinguished, sub-genre.

New & Noted

Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs

Christopher Bonastia, Princeton University Press, 2006, 256 pages, $29.95 (hardcover). www.pupress.princeton.edu

Knocking on the Door analyzes the federal involvement in residential segregation from Reconstruction to the present. Providing a particularly detailed analysis of the period 1968 to 1973, the book examines how HUD attempted to forge elementary changes in segregated residential patterns by opening up the suburbs to groups historically excluded for racial or economic reasons. The author compares housing desegregation politics to civil rights enforcement in employment and education.

Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto
Alexander Polikoff, Northwestern University Press, 2006, 556 pages, $29.95 (hardcover). http://nupress.northwestern.edu

Gautreaux v. CHA and HUD, a case that would continue for many decades, took the author and his colleagues to the U.S. Supreme Court (to face then-solicitor general Robert Bork); establishing precedents for suits against the discriminatory policies of local housing authorities, often abetted by HUD; and setting the stage for a nationwide experiment aimed at ending the concentration – and racialization – of poverty through public housing. Waiting for Gautreaux, a memoir, moves through local and national civil rights history, legal details, political matters, and the personal costs and rewards of a commitment to fairness, equality and justice.

Where Are Poor People to Live? Transforming Public Housing Communities
Larry Bennett, Janet L. Smith, and Patricia A. Wright, editors, M.E. Sharpe, 2006, 344 pages, $79.95 (hardcover), $34.95 (paperback). www.mesharpe.com

A collection of essays that examine the public housing redevelopment process in Chicago with an eye to identifying opportunities for redeveloping projects and building new communities that will be truly hospitable for those most in need of assisted housing. Published as part of the Cities and Contemporary Society series.

Homelessness in Rural America: Policy and Practice
Paul A. Rollinson and John T. Pardeck, The Haworth Press, 2006, 160 pages, $34.95 (hardcover), $19.95 (paperback). www.HaworthPress.com

The authors examine research methodologies for studying the homeless, rural homeless policy and the lives of today’s rural homeless, and provide a thorough overview of the issues faced by this unique sector while outlining specific avenues for further research. The text provides data analysis, real-life findings and specific case examples to offer research-based approaches to improve the situation of the rural homeless, and uses a family health approach to address the issues affecting them.

Great Boards for Small Groups
Andy Robinson, Emerson & Church, 2006, 120 pages, $24.95 (paperback). contributionsmagazine.com

Using his 20 years of experience as a board member, a volunteer and a consultant, Robinson provides information and advice on how nonprofits can maximize the effectiveness of working with their boards of directors. His “fundraising menu,” helps board members generate a list of all the ways they can assist in fundraising. Robinson also hones in on specific problems, such as poorly attended meetings, spotty follow-through on commitments, inactive board members, narrow consensus, conflicts of interest, weak agendas and much more.

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