Tuesday, May 14, 2013

You’re invited to an input session, but don’t you dare have any input

On Saturday I was invited to an "informational input session" sponsored by St. Claude Main Street (SCMS) and its design partner, Tulane City Center (TCC). The event was to address the "pocket park" and "parklet" they're planning to install in my neighborhood.
"If you're interested in contributing..."

At the time, I was on the sidewalk talking to my neighbor and her friend when an SCMS representative came up to us and asked if we had received flyers about the info session. I had not, so she gave me the flyer and two other documents about the projects (pictured).

Discussion quickly turned to other neighborhood concerns, and my neighbor’s friend started telling us about a major pothole in the middle of her street.

“I think I’m about to fall in it one of these days,” she said.

But rather than listening and taking the opportunity to consider this resident’s “informational input,” or offer referral services to one of SCMS' many "neighborhood partners," the SCMS representative excused herself quietly and walked away from the conversation.

For all your neighborhood mini-transit hub needs

[Not to be nitpicky but if it is true, as it states on their website, that “it is a goal of St. Claude Main Street to improve the ground-level conditions on the St. Claude corridor,” I would imagine that pothole awareness falls under the purview of this mission!]

Afterwards, my neighbor wondered aloud why they weren’t building a park in the other empty lot on our block, the one which abuts N. Rampart, a quieter, less-trafficked street than St. Claude. “Yeah,” I agreed with her. “If people want to bring their kids and dogs to a park, they probably want a safer location than right off St. Claude.”

But of course, the lot in question on Independence and St. Claude is owned by Maurice Slaughter, an SCMS Board member. I do not know if SCMS considered other lots for the “pocket park” plan, but the use of this lot in particular begs a number of as-yet unanswered questions about the implications of creating a “public” park on privately owned land.

For example, who will be responsible for its maintenance? Will there be rules for its use, including limited hours of access? What happens to the park if the owner wants to sell the land?

According to a 2012 Tulane City Center brochure entitled “Vacant Land – Site Strategies for New Orleans”:

The implementation of a pocket park has the potential for strong community use, greater civic pride, improvements in real estate value, and increased quality of life. However, the potential downside of pocket parks are nearly the opposite of the upside if they are not cared for or are used for illicit activities. For this reason, establishing pocket parks should be approached with much consideration to the desire and capacity of a neighborhood to support such a site as well as the committment [sic] of a community organization to maintain a permanent neighborhood amenity. 

As I’ve written before, I don’t think the “desire” of my neighborhood to host a pocket park has been adequately established. The “Community Survey” distributed by SCMS and TCC even says explicitly that the questionnaire is a “great tool for beginning to understand what residents in neighborhoods along St. Claude Avenue are concerned with and excited about in their community.” Why, after so much time, partnering, and planning, and with the promise of “final designs complete by July 2013,” are these institutions only beginning to understand what we want?

Why also does the survey ask such leading and obvious questions as “How important [is lighting]…to a safe and useful public space?” The answer options from which a survey participant may choose are “Very Important,” “Somewhat Important,” “No Impact,” and “Not Important.” What is the difference here between “No Impact” and “Not Important?” Who would say that lighting is not important to a safe and useful public space?
Why do we need an area info map if we already live here?

Additionally, the survey asks what the respondent would choose as the “best use of public space” for the Independence Street pocket park. The options given are “Garden space,” “Play space,” “Open park space,” “Sitting areas,” and a tiny area to answer the question, “What else?”

The lot is empty – its only use in the past three years has been for an SCMS night market - which seems to indicate that it already exists, albeit unofficially, as “open park space” in the neighborhood. Actually I’m mistaken - the lot is empty except for a large wooden sign advertising a Slaughter family real estate company, potentially (intentionally?) leading passersby to conclude that the lot itself is for sale.

I’m also concerned about the “improvements in real estate value” piece, given that the lot in question is privately owned (and apparently for sale) by an SCMS Board member. He also owns a number of properties in the area, including a planned gallery across the street from the lot, two houses on the same block of Independence Street, and another on St. Claude between Independence and Pauline. This is a man who has a lot of financial interest in the neighborhood, despite the fact that he lives in Virginia.

If the park is installed on his lot, the real estate values of that lot and his other properties on the block will increase. This may provide more incentive for him to sell the pocket park land, leaving its future status uncertain.

SCMS’s director, Michael T. Martin, has repeatedly stated that his group works with many different neighborhood associations to ascertain and respond to neighborhood concerns. But so far all SCMS has undertaken are severely deficient and token efforts at neighborhood outreach and input solicitation. This suggests that a concerned resident must become a dues-paying member of a neighborhood association in order to be validated as a stakeholder in these projects.

Neighborhood associations are not synechdochically representative of the larger neighborhood: its residents, workers, renters, library patrons, parents of students, and so on. Voices of certain stakeholders like developers and landowners are heard much louder than others. This is why someone like Maurice Slaughter, who doesn’t even live in Louisiana, is afforded so much sway in groups like SCMS and the Bywater Neighborhood Association, in which he used to be a Board member.

I fail to see what is the purpose of participating in “visioning” the parklet process when public input has been reduced to ranking the importance of “Seating” and “Fences” on a limited survey that leaves a tiny space for “Additional Comments.”

Moreover, both of these park plans are marketed as "mini-transit hubs" for the neighborhood, but there is not actually a bus stop on Independence Street. It seems silly to have bike parking and benches a full block away from a bus stop, when the actual stop (on Congress Street) is a high-curbed, nearly impassable sidewalk chewed up by tree roots. I wonder if SCMS plans to have the bus stop moved from nearby Congress or Pauline Streets, or it doesn't intend for bus riders to use the park space at all.

Furthermore, some information on the handouts was conflicting, especially the commitment level to the proposed “parklet” at St. Claude and Desire. On one flyer, the parklet is referred to as “potentially” under construction in the near future, and on another, it says the parklet “will be located at a busy bus stop and adjacent to the bike lane that runs along St. Claude,” and it “will provide seating,” etc. When I reached out to him about this, Michael T. Martin said that the landowner’s approval was still pending for that space. I said that it seemed SCMS was going to do what it pleased regardless of any outside constructively critical input it received. In response, he told me I could “feel free to include [my] input on what should be in the park on that sheet of paper.” 

It's insulting to someone who actually lives here.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Crime at the farmers market

I was walking to the Sankofa farmers market on St. Claude this morning and had almost arrived when I saw a police officer forcibly pushing a young black man against the wall of the school where the market takes place. I watched as the officer handcuffed the man and then led him over to the police car parked on adjacent Pauline Street.

The cop pulled a number of items, including a fistful of cash, from the man’s pocket, all of which he put on the top of the car’s trunk. Pushing him into a seated position, he then instructed the man to get in the car.
Steve Earle gets his 5-a-day at a recent farmers market

Though I was about 10 feet away from the whole interaction, I did not hear the officer inform the man why he was being detained, if he was being arrested, or what his rights were if he were in fact under arrest. The officer repeatedly asked the man where “the drugs” were, to which the man kept replying that he didn’t have any.

After the man was inside the police car with the door closed, the cop asked me if I had seen the man running from him earlier. “No,” I told him. “I only saw you pushing him against the wall.”

“Well, he has drugs. You don’t see the drugs anywhere?”

“No, sorry,” I said.

A few more cops pulled up soon after, and some of them started looking around the lawn where the farmers market was set up. They told the vendors, including student workers, that they were looking for “a baggie of weed,” and that we should try to prevent children from finding it.

The whole thing was like an outtake from COPS: Amateur Hour. The police didn’t appear to be following a particular procedure for apprehending the man, confiscating and securing his belongings, and searching for the contraband he allegedly had dumped on the ground. Third-grade aspiring archeologists could have done a better job mapping out quadrants on the lawn and methodically looking for the “baggie,” no offense to third-graders intended.

I’m not sure what happened to the man or the contents of his pockets (especially the cash that was left lying on top of the cop car), or if the involved cops know that the recommended punishment for possessing a small amount of marijuana in the City of New Orleans is a summons, not an arrest

I’m pretty sure that whatever benefit to public safety was served by taking this alleged criminal off the streets, was overwhelmed by the negative effect on the student workers at the farmers market who watched yet another incidence of police misconduct against a black man. They were witnesses to the crime of a racist status quo.

And while I can’t exactly condone drug trafficking on school grounds, I also can’t get down with wack cop behavior. Acts of police aggression do not make us safer. They do not reduce crime and they do not build community. They reinforce structures of violent authority, and that’s just not for sale at the farmers market.