This meeting - technically hosted by the Bywater Neighborhood Association but suspiciously set in the Civic Center's building - was used to promote Candy Chang's latest vanity project, something called the Philosopher's Library.
Candy, along with her partner, James Reeves, is seeking a 501(c)3 tax-exempt status to operate this library, with a backyard cafe currently under construction.
It seemed to me and a good number of other attendees that Candy, James, and their two co-presenters were playing a funny game. On the one hand, they were claiming that they couldn't pay the bills the way the building is currently zoned. On the other hand, they were using personal (and inarguably tragic) anecdotes to promote the necessity of a "sanctuary" for the neighborhood in anxious times.
Attendees asked questions like "What are you actually trying to do here?"; "Why do you really need the zoning changed on this building?"; and "Whom does a 'Philosopher's Library' serve, and whom does it exclude?"
The presenters were consistently given the chance to pull back and say, "Yes, we just want to put a cafe in here and that's why we need to rezone." Instead, attendees were fed a lot of language about the Philosopher's Library being a "community space," and the Civic Center building being "open to the neighborhood."
Many of my neighbors and I agree that the building has not been very welcoming or accessible in the past few years it's operated as the Civic Center.
One neighbor who runs a business on the same block recounted that she has had to re-introduce herself to Candy and James each of the five times she's interacted with them. When she asked to use the Civic Center's wifi one afternoon when her own cut out, she was given a very tepid "Well, I guess" response. Welcoming indeed.
To look around the community, one gets a new idea of what sort of sanctuary might be possible.
For example, the decades-old Iron Rail bookshop and information collective is being priced out of its current space and could use a new home.
When asked if they'd consider collaborating with the Iron Rail, the Philosopher's Library presenters claimed they'd never heard of it before.
Now, if someone's telling me they're in deep with "the community," and that the neighborhood would benefit from a sanctuary/library of their own design, yet they haven't done any research on existing sanctuaries, libraries, or grassroots community organizations in their own neighborhood, then that makes me suspicious of said someone's motives.
Sorry (not sorry) Candy and James - I don't buy that you're "just designers" trying to make rent. You obviously have a lot of business savvy. You obviously understand how to follow established protocol as far as zoning adjustments and procuring tax-exempt status is concerned. You also obviously have a lot of work to do to prove yourself to the community you say you're working for and on behalf of.
I also didn't appreciate the representatives from the Bywater Neighborhood Association - which has approval power over zoning change proposals - who dismissed these criticisms as "negative comments," and actually apologized to the presenters for what I considered to be valid neighborhood input.
James Ho, one of the presenters, told me after the meeting that he thought it was unwise of Candy and James R. to open up their building to the community because "people would come in and steal things." I tried to explain that if you have community buy-in, everyone would value the space and its contents. If people are stealing, it's because they don't feel like the space is for them, or worth any sort of personal investment.
To his credit, James Ho did ask for more information about the Iron Rail. Another attendee and I advised him to reach out to the collective, and see if a collaboration might be possible.
But aha! Yesterday's message from PhilosophersLibrary.org:
The Philosopher’s Library was an idea that began in the Mojave Desert: a small library of philosophy in an abandoned gas station for passing travelers to stop, read, and reflect on their lives. We got excited and imagined opening a fully-functioning philosophy library in New Orleans. This evolved into challenges we did not anticipate and we’ve decided to put the idea on hold.We thank everybody in our neighborhood for their support, critiques, and interest in this idea. We are not seeking non-profit status or pursuing a zoning change at this time. Perhaps this idea will return to the desert.
We thank everybody in our neighborhood for their support, critiques, and interest in this idea. We are not seeking non-profit status or pursuing a zoning change at this time. Perhaps this idea will return to the desert.It's too bad that supporting current community efforts put such a bad taste in the designers' mouths. Maybe they will reconsider their approach for the next project.