Carmen Porco may not be a household name to mainstream Madisonians.
But, to those who work in anti-poverty causes and struggle with the challenges of affordable housing here and throughout the country, he's long been a superstar who has blazed a trail that others can only hope to follow.
Dr. Charles "Chuck" Taylor, a longtime Madison educator who recently retired from Edgewood College, has been so enamored with Porco's work with low-income families that he's produced documentaries on his life and has now written a book about about Porco's story titled "Journey Toward Justice."
Taylor takes a look into Porco's Catholic upbringing in an impoverished steel mill town in West Virginia where, as a kid, he worked in his father's tavern, his youthful conversion to the American Baptist Church and the influences that caused him to join the ministry.
It's an intimate portrait of a man who decided not to be a typical minister with a church and congregation, but one who actually got his hands dirty working to help struggling people to find a more fulfilling life.
Taylor spends the first part of the book recounting how Porco was destined for a life of poverty himself and ends it with his successful and highly-commended work in Madison as executive director of Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin, work that has won national acclaim. In between are vignettes of the young minister's journey that eventually brought him to Madison, including a stint marching with Fr. James Groppi in Milwaukee for fair housing.
When the Baptists sent Porco to Madison in 1974, it was anything but a pleasant beginning. He had been asked to take over management of the troubled and struggling affordable housing units at Northport Drive and Packers Avenue. The tenants had gone on strike, refusing to pay rents, and crime was rampant.
Paul Soglin, then in his first incarnation as Madison mayor and unaware of his progressive credentials, labeled Porco the biggest "scum lord" in the city.
"Big mistake on my part," Soglin told me last week. "He turned out to be a savior and through the years we often turned to him for advice in working on poverty issues."
Taylor recounts how Porco won over Soglin and then convinced U.S. Sen. William Proxmire to get the federal department of Housing and Urban Development to release Section 8 money to help residents afford their rent both here in Madison and at two other Baptist properties he managed in Milwaukee.
He describes in detail Porco's philosophy that affordable housing needs much more than just providing an apartment. He created community learning centers and education programs, gave tenants jobs to run the complex and included them in the decision-making. He helped tenants with their personal problems — finding childcare, dealing with illnesses and other personal concerns in an effort to make tenants feel as part of family.
The turnaround at Northport and Packers, as Taylor relates, is a remarkable tribute to Porco's work.
Today, Carmen Porco is no longer known as Madison's "scum lord," but as a much-honored champion of low-income families who has made huge strides in that "journey toward justice."
Taylor's book, a well-written breezy read, is available on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble and Mystery to Me Bookstore, 1863 Monroe St., where Porco and the author will hold a book signing and discussion Tuesday night at 7.
Events are other scheduled at Forward Community Investment, 2045 Atwood Ave., on Oct. 2 from noon to 1:30 and Taylor will appear on Channel 3's Neil Heinen's "For the Record" show on Sunday, Sept. 29.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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