Wednesday, January 8, 2014

St. Claude Main Street has volunteers from New Jersey building a "community park" on out-of-state Board Member's property

So the parklet is finally being built...by volunteers from New Jersey.

This parklet, over a year in the making, is funded through St. Claude Main Street's $275,000 ArtPlace grant that was supposed to have been used by September 2013. St. Claude Main Street has consistently excluded neighborhood residents from the planning process for this project, despite having used language such as "equitable, sustainable, and prosperous community development" to secure the grant and promote its funded projects.

The lot, on the riverside of St. Claude and Independence Street, is owned by Maurice Slaughter, a Virginia resident whose family has a good deal of property in the Bywater. Maurice is also on the Board of Advisors for St. Claude Main Street.

I am not the only person to find it highly suspect that Maurice's otherwise empty, high-grassed, trash-strewn, unlit lot is being developed as a park, with no cost to him. This is a man who evicted tenants on the same block because he wanted to sell the house they lived in, only to rent the house five months later to someone who sublets the entire thing on AirBnB. In short, Maurice Slaughter is not a man concerned about equitable community development. As such, I have serious reservations about supporting the intentions of any of his affiliates and their projects.

Over the past 14 months, I have found a persistent challenge in successfully communicating these concerns, among others, to St. Claude Main Street. The organization has hosted "night markets" on the lot without inviting or even alerting the block's residents, despite pitching these markets as "neighborhood events." [Now that the markets are subject to a city permit fee, they are on hold.]

The parklet's design firm, Tulane City Center, issued an inane neighborhood survey asking residents if we think "lighting" is an important safety feature for a park.

Any criticism of these lackadaisical efforts has been met with a defiant rejection, as in, "Arielle, why are you against parks?"

I am not against parks - I love parks! I just think this one is being planned carelessly, with potentially dangerous consequences for development in my neighborhood. Right now, about twenty Project Homecoming volunteers from The College of New Jersey are working hard in the cold to build it. I asked them what they know about the project; they all seem to have the perception that they're "helping" post-Katrina New Orleans.

Indeed, Project Homecoming's literature supports such an interpretation:

As a Project Homecoming volunteer, you will instantly become part of our community upon arrival. You will live and experience service together with the rest of your group, and even with others from around the country. You will work with our dedicated staff, meet the families who are thankful for you [sic] help, learn the neighborhood, and see your own hands transforming a home and community.

I do not fault these volunteers for their enthusiasm. Indeed, volunteers have contributed a monumental amount to post-Katrina New Orleans. But devoid of contextual analysis, their efforts play into the trend of privatization that threatens New Orleanians in all spheres: habitation, urban planning, education, social services, and more.

I think it is the height of cheekiness for St. Claude Main Street to use out-of-state volunteer labor to build this park. If the project has as much neighborhood buy-in as the organization claims, wouldn't residents clamor to be part of building our new park? Aren't there people - including those who hang out ("loiter," in Maurice's words) on the block - who need jobs? Where is the $275,000 ArtPlace money now?

I am interested to see how Maurice feels when the neighborhood residents whom he harasses move from the steps of his adjacent property - the forthcoming Bywater Art Gallery - to his sparkling new parklet. Because St. Claude Main Street has not distributed final blueprints, it remains to be seen how inviting or exclusive the space will be, and for whom.

Maurice himself has said in recent months he feels that St. Claude Main Street has been "naive" in planning and executing these parklets. Better efforts could be made to support our block and broader community, if only those with power would listen.

I urge those who are able to go to St. Claude Main Street promoter Candy Chang's "public meeting" tonight at 6 at the Civic Center (N. Rampart & Clouet) to discuss the planned "Philosopher's Library," which aims to be "a sanctuary for confused, anxious, and worn out people...[to learn] about leading an examined life." I can think of a few people who need do to some heavy work on self-awareness.

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