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Let’s Imagine

I want you to indulge in a little what-if imagining with me. Let’s imagine that when the city of Albany decided it wanted to do something to revitalize the Park South neighborhood, its first step was not a Request for Qualifications to find a planning consultant and economist to study the area, but a neighborhoodwide visioning process.

Outreach would have been hard work. Along with fliering every house, local residents would have been recruited to go door-to-door talking with people, and directors of local institutions like the Boys and Girls Club on Delaware Avenue could have spread the idea through word-of-mouth. Imagine that the event had child care provided, food, and possibly even a modest stipend for participants who stuck the whole thing out, much like is done with focus groups.

Imagine that the meeting was facilitated by a skilled third party (i.e., not the city), who had expertise in helping citizens articulate proactive visions for their communities. Let’s say a complete report of stakeholders’ feelings about the assets, problems, visions, and potential solutions of the neighborhood was compiled, and that formed the basis of the RFQ that was then sent out. Imagine a similar type of meeting was held to review the resulting plan, with the promise that nothing in it was predetermined.

Obviously I don’t know what would have been said in those meetings. It is likely that the economists’ assessment that a big catalyst project is needed would be the same, as would be the planning consultants’ desire to capitalize on the neighborhood’s urban design. But having been to several of the meetings that have been held, I can imagine community members turning out to inventory vacant buildings and lots and making their own recommendations about where projects would be located. I can imagine a vision that explicitly called for the preservation of historic homes (or businesses) in the neighborhood, and committed various stakeholders to seek funding sources to make that possible. The vision may have expanded on the existing pocket park to create a cultural center in the middle of the neighborhood, combined with the stepped-up community policing and code enforcement that has been promised.

Who knows what would have come out of it? I certainly don’t. I wanted to play let’s pretend not to pick on the actual plan for Park South, which is a complex proposal whose results will depend largely on how it is carried out. I wanted to do it because of the bewilderment and honest frustration of the city about the resistance its plan is meeting and the bewilderment and honest frustration of many residents who feel that no matter what they say, the plan seems roughly unchanged. And yet, it’s possible that something not all that different on the surface could have won community buy-in if all the stakeholders felt like they were involved from the start and had real influence over the ground rules, terminology and priorities.

Getting community participation and buy-in is hard work. That’s why there is a profession—community organizer—dedicated to it. Turnout by itself is not a simple thing. Turnout that is diverse by race and class is even harder. But neither of them are unplumbed mysteries. One-on-one recruitment, attention to timing, child care. . . . All these things have been known to make a difference. And then the holy grail of buy-in involves something really hard: letting go of some of the control.

An organizer I heard speak once told a parable about a woman who wanted to get to know her neighbors, and so she threw a dinner party. Very few people came, and when she expressed this frustration to those who did, they pointed out that she had not consulted people about the time or place, that the fancy cuisine was unfamiliar to most of her neighbors and, besides, most of them had kids whom they couldn’t bring along to an affair like this. Block party with a barbeque would’ve worked better. It would achieve her stated goal, but wouldn’t be under her control, and would be fundamentally different from what she had envisioned in many other ways.

I’m paraphrasing liberally, but the story has stuck with me through many years and surfaced over and over as I have heard groups from church social-action committees to the Citizens Police Review Board bemoan the absence of participation in their endeavors. Now, complete relinquishing of control is in some ways impossible and undesirable—if you give up control completely you can’t work toward any particular goal. To strain the boundaries of our parable a little, there will always be someone on the block who doesn’t want to meet the neighbors, or thinks it should only happen by everyone joining her cult.

But the more important lesson to remember is that when people feel empowered, they often come up with some really good ideas, and if they feel listened to, will likely back those ideas up with some powerful commitment. Fifty heads are often better than five, no matter how highly paid those five are, or how helpful they may be in translating the ideas into workable plans.

Especially when it comes to neighborhood planning, it should be remembered that some of the most successful revitalizations of the region—downtown Saratoga Springs and Troy—as well as turnarounds as famous as Dudley Street in Boston, were both bottom-up and piecemeal, supported by town government and bigger investors only once they got going.

This isn’t to say that the city shouldn’t be involved in trying to bring people together around the common goal of revitalizing Park South. But its money may have been better spent on experts in harvesting ideas and inspiration from those who know the neighborhood best than on consultants whose idea of flexibility is to vary the number of beds in a student-housing complex.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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