Saturday, March 2, 2013

Lenten Challenge, Days 14-17, aka What is St. Claude Main Street up to this time?

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On Thursday I made a trip home from work during the afternoon to pick up my forgotten lunch. [Go through the trouble of making it ahead of time only to leave it on the counter - frustrating!] I was chatting with my neighbor in the street when I saw two representatives from St. Claude Main Street (SCMS) walking down the block. They were distributing the flyers pictured, and I flagged one of the people down - it turned out to be the SCMS manager, Michael T. Martin - to find out what they were about.

Michael explained that he was flyering to announce conducting research that will inform the creation of a "mini-park" on the lot across the street from my house. This lot has served as the site of a SCMS-sponsored pop-up night market once before, and Loyal Readers will remember that the market, despite its merits, was experienced by me and many of my neighbors as an imposition on the space. It billed itself as a community event yet was hosted without the involvement of the very people who live on the block.

After the market took place, I told St. Claude Main Street's representatives that their efforts at neighborhood communication fell short and had a lot of us feeling left out of decisions being made on our behalf.

That they're flyering our houses now is a new and good thing, but the fact remains that since the first night market, they have done nothing meaningful to connect with us as a block or community. Michael told me he'd been working closely with the Bywater Neighborhood Association (BNA), but it would be supremely naive to assume that most people in the area are affiliated with or have any sort of relationship with the BNA. In fact, the BNA does a lot of things that go against people's interests in the neighborhood, especially with regard to zoning changes for popular or helpful causes.

Moreover, St. Claude Main Street conducted research on Friday (the next day!!) between 10am and 3pm. Sorry, I have to work at those times. I can't stop by and say hello. Should I have rearranged my schedule? Also, where was I supposed to go? There was no location listed on the flyer for the research event. If the success of the project depends on my participation, why is it hard for me to participate? And isn't it SCMS' responsibility to check in with me, not the other way around? I didn't feel like this was a real invitation, considering the short notice and lack of pertinent details.

I wonder what will happen if I email (or mail a letter to?) Alita Edgar. The last time I submitted my comments to Michael T. Martin, I got a blisteringly defensive reply and then an apology note in my mailbox days later. Frankly I did not feel like my input was received very well.

My neighbor who registered her dissatisfaction with the last night market, calling it a "retail event" that disturbed her rest on a worknight, is upset with this newest initiative. "These people are...relentless," she wrote me. And she didn't mean relentless in their efforts to improve the block. She meant they persist in doing what they want.

I believe it is incredibly important and valid to continue interrogating the intentions of groups like St. Claude Main Street. The burden is on them to prove their legitimacy to the neighborhood. They should not only research what the community wants but actually do what we want. They were fortunate enough to receive $275,000 to help our neighborhood; theoretically this should mean that they are accountable to the people their projects impact. And as one of those people, let me just say that we do not want to be included in "visioning" anything unless our input is seriously considered.

We need accessible and effective communication with the people making decisions on our behalf, and we need regular, thorough, and honest updates on the consequences of these decisions.

For your research, Michael and Alita, here are some of my present concerns:

  • You're planning a mini-park across the street from my house. Did you ask anyone on the block if that's one of our needs or desires? It seems that you're just informing us that that's what's going to happen there. Moreover, the lot in question is not public space; it is in fact owned by one of your Board members, Maurice Slaughter. That in and of itself indicates that public input is not required for the project. So why act like it is? Furthermore, are permits required for this project, and if so, what is the relevant public input process?
  • The language of the flyer is exclusionary in several ways. It presumes knowledge of your organization's mission, its programs, and its objectives. For example, who are your grant recipients and what activities do they promote? What is Second Saturday? What is Tulane City Center and what does it mean to be "partners" with this project? Nobody would be able to divine answers to these questions based solely on the limited outreach you've done with us. Instructing us to email you or mail you a letter is a pretty big stretch of the principles of community engagement.
  • Your push for "revitalization" ignores the reality that there is already a great deal of vibrancy in the St. Claude area. Instead it presumes an absence of neighborhood street life. Therefore by its own interpretation, SCMS is needed to produce street life and an appropriate kind of vibrancy in the form of night markets and Second Saturday events. But when I go jogging in the daytime or evening, plenty of people are on their porches, stoops, or impromptu sidewalk patios. Lots of people congregate outside of bars and corner stores. This all happens without SCMS intervention. Similarly, musicians, sculptors, and others make art in the neighborhood all the time, yet the "Bywater Art Garden" backed by presumed SCMS ally Pres Kabacoff is essentially closed to the public, although public funds supported its creation. In this way, you are creating a hierarchy of communal activities in the neighborhood by making certain forms of street life "official" while devaluing others.

Please don't jump to the lazy conclusion that I am a "Not in my backyard" kind of neighbor. I am not against parks or art markets. I am not against spaces that have "wide community benefit." In fact, I am for all of these things. I am also for improved street lighting, affordable nearby grocery stores, and riverfront access, which hopefully are objectives of your organization.

However I am not for some bullshit. So please, St. Claude Main Street, et al: Do not dismissively tell us we need to be revitalized when our community already has a lot of vitality. Do not be coercive or disingenuous in your tactics to engage with and listen to us. If you are actually my neighbor, you will hear and care about what I say. You need to build the trust, and honestly, you've got a long way to go.

10 comments:

  1. I don't really see the issue here Arielle.

    There may be specific issues with their implementation of their projects - I can see how neighbors would be justifiably annoyed by trash left on the ground in our neighborhood for instance - but the broader point you seem to be making about community engagement should be considered in context. Community engagement, while an end unto itself, isn't a necessary, or even desirable, component of every project. Frankly, if everyone in the neighborhood received a ballot and was asked whether they'd prefer a park or a new fast food restaurant, I'd be worried about the park's chances. Nothing against people in the neighborhood - it's just much easier to imagine using something you are familiar with than something that exists only in the minds of a few people who've spent dozens of hours envisioning it.

    New Orleans, like all major cities, is going to have to transition into a denser, more walkable city as supplies of fossil fuels decrease and prices rise. That means transitioning from houses with backyards and services within driving distance to multi-family residences with parks, retail outlets, and workplaces within walking/biking distance. It seems likely to me that the broadly democratic-decision making processes you seem to support have thus far hampered, not advanced, this transition. Most people don't support the inconveniences that change entails - see also: opposition to changing the Bywater's zoning from light to "medium-density," as well as public outcry against specific high density developments of Elysian Fields and Holy Cross). However, people also dislike the inconveniences that poor planning entails, after the fact (see the currently horrific CBD traffic and past failures to plan for adequate nearby residential space at the same time as massive office buildings were being erected). SCMS is an organization which seems to recognize the dichotomy between what the neighborhood will need in the future if it is to be a vibrant, walkable area and what people in the neighborhood want right now. From my perspective, they seem to operating in good faith to see if there are places where those divergent values overlap.

    As far as the specific project, my understanding is that they effectively own an empty lot that they want to make into a park, and they want it to be a park that people will actually use, so they are asking people what type of park they would use. Having limited hours for discussion during the middle of a weekday might be the best way to attract the type of people who might use the park the most, given that not a lot of people around here seem to hang out in parks after dark for obvious reasons.

    Also, these projects aren't being funded by the community - funding is from a foundation whose mission is "creative placemaking." They don't owe us anything. Just like a new local business owner or homeowner renovating their house, they are free to creatively pursue what they want, within reason, and help the community grow by their individual effort and investment. I'm pretty grateful that there is someone out there trying to use their money to make the neighborhood into a more interesting, walkable place, and I'm even more grateful when I find a flyer in my door asking me what I would like them to do with their money.

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  2. No, see they are not using "their money to make the neighborhood into a more interesting, walkable place," they obtained grant money with the promise of getting input from the members of the neighborhood as to how this money could and should be used. Very, very different that a homeowner or business owner using their own money!

    Also, considering that they seem to have disabled the ability for people to initiate communication on their Facebook page, it's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt that they are "operating in good faith." A neighborhood organization without transparency and open lines of communication seems suspect to me.

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  3. Arielle, I don't want to hijack your blog post by only commenting on comments, but seriously: I want to know whether Taylor Jackson has ANY IDEA how elitist he sounds. Any idea? Any at all?

    "Community engagement, while an end unto itself, isn't a necessary, or even desirable, component of every project. Frankly, if everyone in the neighborhood received a ballot and was asked whether they'd prefer a park or a new fast food restaurant, I'd be worried about the park's chances. Nothing against people in the neighborhood - it's just much easier to imagine using something you are familiar with than something that exists only in the minds of a few people who've spent dozens of hours envisioning it."

    That might be the most shocking thing I've ever read. Really, in the context of (the)Bywater that reads as "young earnest white hipsters who work oh-so-hard-thinking up new ideas automatically trumps poor black people who don't want the same thing because what they want is fried chicken, and they couldn't possibly understand what those smartypants artist-types are thinking." Sorry, I know that's harsh, but that's exactly how that sounds. To say that community input isn't necessary because you have some assumption about what that input will be and you don't like it? That's bananas. It's elitist and bananas.

    And lawsy, no: St Claude Main Street most certainly is not "free to creatively pursue what they want, within reason, and help the community grow by their individual effort" because they're not operating under individual effort, they're a grant-based non-profit purporting to work for the community at large. So what, because the funding didn't come from the community then the community has no say?

    Oh, wait. Sorry. SOME of the community has a say. Right. The "few people who've spent dozens of hours envisioning." What. Ever.

    Save all your talk about cities needing to become denser/fossil fuels/vibrancy/blahblahblah for another day. That's not at all the issue here. The issue here is St Claude Main Street, communication, community involvement as promised, and grant money disbursement. One thing that's for sure is that St Claude Main Street's "good faith" is debatable. Their lack of transparency does not inspire good faith. Not one bit.

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  4. sadly your neighborhood will always be a mess - so don't worry about it

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  5. MortenAndersenHallOfFameMarch 5, 2013 at 6:26 PM

    SCMS is a temporary organization at best. Before long their funds will dry up and they will be non-existent. These ideas are fleeting at best. The forces that will shape the future of that corridor will have little to nothing to do with so-called "neighborhood groups," with their usual brand of representing some 1-2% of residents at best--small clubs of the lonely and angry. People will find the money to open things, rents will continue to increase and property owners will continue to be legacy owners who reside largely in Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard--the dominant force of ownership in neighborhoods previously inhabited by pre-white flight New Orleanians like the Bywater and the Marigny, regardless of what some fantasy wanna-be elitists would have you believe. This is how it will happen, although some of the larger projects will be harangued out of conception when FMIA and BNA rattle their swords with enough vigor--and some property will remain dilapidated (anything going on next to Michalopoulos? Nope, empty and rat infested) as a result. Those instances should be fought against in the best interest of occupancy over abandonment. Gentrification? The Bywater is already unrecognizable to those of us from here. There will not be a grocery store any time soon. FMIA blew it multiple times and now the grocery hub is going to be Mid-City, too bad so sad--that day will likely never come for the Bywater/Marigny, you can thank Gretchen Bomboy and her cult of obstructionist followers at FMIA for that. Whole Foods is banking on the fact that you've got cars and bikes, and they're right. Job well done. Please take the time to thank FMIA for best representing the interests of the area by driving potential grocers away. They deserve to hear from every one of you.

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    Replies
    1. Morton, see my question/reply below.

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  6. http://www.newgeography.com/content/003526-gentrification-and-its-discontents-notes-new-orleans

    You might think you occupy some sort of moral high ground here, but you're a gentrifier, too.

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  7. Well said, Arielle! I am in support of your concerns and actions.

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  8. I'm curious to know more about Morten's comments about the FMIA- which grocery hubs did the FMIA blow it on specifically? How is the FMIA a cult of obstructionist powers? I don't think I've seen or heard word-one of these sorts of concerns at the FMIA board or general meetings in the past few years I've been working as an active member of the FMIA. Please do write the FMIA directly with your specific concerns, that may be more constructive that writing personal mean slams on comments here. I'll even meet with you in person if you prefer to discuss your concerns, we can find a way to bring them to the organization's attention.

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  9. "Please do write the ____________ directly with your specific concerns" is my least favorite sentence in the entirety of the English language. Like... it is the responsibility of members of the individual public to personally hold "community organizations" that get vast sums of money for the "public interest" responsible, one at a time, in a single file line, via email? If they can read, write, and have access to email and the time to follow every single brand-new CDC that springs up per neighborhood?

    Somehow urban planning and $275,000 development grants to groups of 5-12 alleged stakeholders in a non-transparent process is fine, but criticism without notice! NOT ALLOWED

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