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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.