Sunday, January 12, 2014

Candy Chang's latest contribution to the Bywater: A community library without community input

On Wednesday night I was able to catch the end of a public meeting to discuss rezoning of the Civic Center building in the Bywater.

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.

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.