Finding a Framework for Equitable Community Development

 

Part one of the three-part series on the North Limestone Neighborhood Cultural Plan

By: Heather Hyden, Director of Community and Cultural Initiatives

It may seem ironic, naive and/or arrogant for an organization that is barely four years old and has received warranted criticism to recommend a framework for equitable community development.

Yes, we have not been on the right side of this. We have been wrong...very wrong. We have not listened the way everyone deserves to be listened to. We have implemented bad ideas. We have gotten the wrong grants and didn’t know where to start. We have rightfully lost trust. We have mirrored oppressive structures.  But, it isn’t all bad. In a short amount of time and with a very small staff, there is work North Limestone neighbors are proud of. However, we understand how your distrust was earned.

But, things are shifting. We are changing. This community deserves the best.

And, thank goodness for the incredible advocates in this neighborhood who have called us out at every turn. Thank goodness for the collective power of this community to share wisdom,  stories and stand up for what is right. Many of you never had a choice in that decision because of the histories of oppression you have had to endure every day. What else were you going to do but push for a better way every day?

We hear you! You are not alone. There is so much healing to be done that sometimes it seems impossible where to start. Maybe where we  start is by admitting we have been wrong and share our lessons learned.

What we propose below is based on our evolution in asking new questions, listening deeply and being ‘schooled’ by neighbors, PolicyLink, community development professionals and ourselves.  Our hope is that it can be a model for development not just in our neighborhood, but across the city.

So, here are principles for community development with some of my own annotations to hopefully provide clarity. This is a public blog and an open invitation for discussion.  

PLEASE KNOW, WE ARE HERE WITH OPEN HEARTS AND EARS.

IF ANY OF THIS SEEMS OUT OF PLACE, PLEASE CALL IT OUT.

Community Development in Lexington’s North End should be:

Accomplished without Assumptions - Information, data, facts, and direct conversation should underpin all decisions related to community development work in the North End. All information should be validated, people should be talked with directly, and all information should be seen within the context of the community.

Note: To me, this is about two things.  First, is about how we listen to each other.  Second is about accountability. Listening requires better questions. We can’t assume your story and/or your needs. Also, we can’t assume that we heard you correctly. Accountability means we are engaged in a two way conversation. That means we are not taking notes, analyzing from our own knowledge and experience and then developing recommendations. The community tells us if we got the data right.

Equitable - Decisions made regarding community development in the North End need to be informed by those that have been historically left out of the conversation, and that might require different techniques and tactics to provide spaces in which all feel comfortable. True community development is messy - many people will disagree, and it is up to those doing the work to balance what the majority wants with what is actually needed.

  • It begins by joining together, believing in the potency of inclusion, and building from a common bond.

  • It embraces complexity as cause for collaboration, accepting that our fates are inextricable.

  • It recognizes local leaders as national leaders, nurturing the wisdom and creativity within every community as essential to solving the nation’s problems.(Note: This is one that I personally LOVE because there is nothing more infuriating than consultants from other places writing report after report about what our neighborhood needs when we have powerful wisdom and talent RIGHT HERE )

  • It demands honesty and forthrightness, calling out racism and oppression, both overt and systemic. (PLEASE! And call us out!)

  • It strives for the power to realize our goals while summoning the grace to sustain them. (Recognizing our capacity and being humble)

  • It requires that we understand the past, without being trapped in it; embrace the present, without being constrained by it; and look to the future, guided by the hopes and courage of those who have fought before and beside us. (Moving forward TOGETHER!)

Self-Determinant - The community itself should set the course for community development in the North End, and should be provided with opportunities to make it happen themselves. It should recognize that individuals in the community have the true expertise, and it should provide them with the tools to self-actuate their own wants and needs whenever possible.

Note: You are creative, resourceful and whole. You are the expert in your own story. Let us know what you need to be more successful.  Top-down development DOES NOT WORK.

Built on Existing Assets - Community Development in the North End should be built on what is already there, not on bringing in new things. This is not to say that all exterior influences should be barred and the neighborhood should become insular,  but more emphasis should be put on finding the hidden assets of the community and providing opportunities for those to grow.

Note: See equity above. This work is my jam! It is not just about listing assets, or counting volunteers as social capital. This is about finding the unique value system(s) of our neighbors, recognizing it as collective power and then using that power to push for change.

Creative - Creativity and culture are a big part of life in the North End, and that needs to be imbued throughout all sectors of community development in the neighborhood. These aspects bring a humanity to community development that can otherwise be missing, and are essential for good practice.

Note: We have to think outside the box (cliche, but often times this so-called ‘box’ can be very white and very male). This means embracing our diversity, which brings creative problem-solving from all over the world.  We have diverse cultural understandings of what an economy is, what advocacy looks like and expectations of how we care for each other. Lets creatively push ourselves to embrace difference (and step back so we can hear others’ ideas) and see problems and ideas from diverse cultural perspectives.

It Is What It Is

I guess this is my place to work out ruminations that have been knocking around in my brain, bothering me because I know there is something there that I need to understand better, something not quite in focus, something I need to dig deeper into, need to be more self-critical and self-aware about in order to arrive at some sort of clarity, epiphany, breakthrough. Currently, that grain of sand stuck in my craw is an interaction I had with a brilliant and vibrant young woman a few days ago. I had been talking with someone on the street, and she saw my colleague as she drove by and swung into the parking lot and walked up, bouncing and smiling as her partner struggled to keep up. She was bursting with excitement about an event she was pulling together, and what great opportunities it was going to present for the young people she works with in our community. I was just standing there observing their conversation, loving her energy and positivity, and when my colleague turned the discussion to me and to NoLi CDC, and said how excited and proud he was of the work we were doing on York Street, all of that energy and positivity drained out of her immediately, like a switch had been flipped, and she looked at me with blank eyes, then looked down, shrugged, and said,

It is what it is.

And that was it. She was ready to move on. But, being the needling twit that I am, when there was a break in the flow of conversation that followed, I brought it back to York Street, and asked her why she was so defeatist about our work. And she told me that it was because we represented a train of gentrification and displacement and change that was not going to be stopped, not going to be averted, and that, basically, we were destined to ruin the neighborhood as she knew it and there was no way around it. It was preordained, as it were, by some capitalistic deity, and, in her eyes, we were the crusaders.

Now, does it matter that she is black? Yes. Does it matter that I'm white. Absolutely. And I can't change that. But what I struggle to understand is what part of what we are doing makes our work feel unapproachable to some groups, and very inviting and comfortable to others? Do I design in a "white" way? Is our organization and mission somehow subliminally connecting only with certain races or education levels? Is it branding, or our logo, or how we speak? Is the structure of home-ownership one that drives certain communities, ethnicities, and socio-economic strata away, to perceive us as the enemy or not working for them or their best interests? I know this is all complex, to be sure, but when I broke it down to her, broke down our goals to create options, affordability, flexibility, and a many sizes fits all approach, she seemed to get it, to be able to hear in my words. We are trying to make things as inexpensive as absolutely possible, and at the same time create something great, something inspired, to demonstrate that beauty can be the right and the property of anyone, not just those in positions of power or privilege or with the money we think beauty requires.

When I get reactions like that, it always reinforces one central feeling in me - that I need to try harder. That what I've been doing is not enough. Because if this vibrant young woman sees us as an enemy instead of an ally, and if a baby-boomer black woman living on York Street, whom I met last week, thinks that "those houses" are for the young white people and not for her, I need to know how to break that down and present it differently so she knows that they are every bit as much for her as for anyone else.

Because they are - for everyone.

I asked this woman how much she paid in rent, and she said $650/month, not including utilities. I told her she could own one of those houses for $550/month - the numbers don't lie. And if she were to tell me that's what she wanted, I'd do everything in my power to give her the chance to make that happen. 

But it's about trust, and, with all of the racial tension surrounding these elections, police shootings, and polarized immigration discussion, trust is a tough place to get to these days. So I understand. Believe me, I understand. But that's not going to stop us from trying, trying to make everyone, regardless of skin color, age, income or education level, know that what we are doing is an option for them, and we are trying to do right by this community in the face of change, and that the only thing left to decide is if it is right for them.

I hope we can get there.

It is what it is - I hope that instead of this being an admission of defeat or statement of resignation to inevitable negative change, I am working to flip that phrase into an assertion of pride, of individual and collective agency, of active participation, that it is what it is not because it simply followed the formulaic path to the inevitable destruction of place in the name of making a dollar, but because we listened, we connected, we helped, and didn't cut corners or allow ourselves to be complicit in the age-old cycle of privilege and extraction, but rather we were there to help others be heard, be seen, to control their own destiny. And ultimately, I think if we do all of this, we will make something that everyone has the chance and feels empowered to take ownership in.

It is what it is, because of what we made it.

[KMN]

Rising Tide

Aphorisms are dangerous things. We hear certain phrases so often that their sheer repetition has the power to lull us to sleep in the very face of their brutal truth and subtext. This repetition seemingly lessens the impact of such truisms, so I find it important to critique those phrases that we so often and offhandedly bandy about as conversational currency, a placeholder for real thought and original meaning. This sort of dilution of meaning is anathema to the underlying truth. What am I talking about? Let me give you an example that has been rattling around in my head and on my tongue for a few weeks now: I hear people all the time say, "A rising tide lifts all boats." We have John F. Kennedy to thank for popularizing the phrase, and ever since it has been a defense for capitalistic forces and the impact they have on the general economy and its participants. And so, ever after, we all take the phrase to mean that something like rising property values are a good thing, on the whole, as that upward trend presumably precipitated by investment and improvement raises all surrounding properties, regardless of their condition or previous value or history. And, every time I hear this, all I can think is:

Yeah, if you have a boat.

If you have a boat, you don't care about the tide - you simply ride it, at whatever level it seeks. 

But, if you are out here treading water, it doesn't matter how deep the water is, how high the tide is. If you are out here treading water or toeing for the bottom or swimming for dry land, you are just trying to get to something you can hold onto, for now, for this breath and the next, trying to find something buoyant on that tide of time and toil that can sustain you. Dreaming of a boat seems futile, and does nothing for the here and now.

So, if you accept the premise that the rising tide only benefits those with boats, and if you also accept that the tide, like market forces, are pulled by some unseen force with its own gravity and inertia not to be fought or resisted in any substantive way, then my only question is:

How can we get more people in boats? How do we get everyone in a boat?

Those that are clinging to whatever scrap of wood or styrofoam cooler or inner tube, or even an overturned boat - how can we get them even the smallest vessel, or get their vessel righted, plug the leaks, give them an oar, and thus give them the ability to ride that tide, to raise their head and take stock of the view, to survey the horizon - to think about more than just keeping their head above water.

A rising tide should lift all souls - that is our goal.

[KMN]

Community | Unity

It seemed in many discussions I had while at the PlaceLab Ethical Redevelopment Salon last month, and in the tone of what I was hearing while there, that there was an implicit group of people who were "on our side" and another group who was not. In my very provincial way of thinking about this, at least, this seems to be a very reductivist and overly simplistic binary paradigm. And it seems that if we are brutally honest with ourselves about being truly and fully committed to hearing community and reaching some modicum of consensus of support for our work, we have to hear everyone, especially those who might disagree with us, and it might take some work, and might require us to swallow our pride and hear things we don't want to hear. We have to hear the nay-sayers, the critics, but more than that (because often those critics and nay-sayers and pot-shoters are external to the affected community) we have to hear, and work to seek out and hear the slumlords, the gentrifiers, the absentee land-owners, the opportunistic developers, as much as we seek out those who we may subconsciously identify as the "true" community - longtime residents (both owners and renters), longtime business owners (both owners and renters), and all of the other people and groups whose outlooks harmonize with our values, goals, or ways of thinking. For each slumlord, each gentrifier, each absentee land-owner has a story, and it is very rarely rooted in pure evil or intentional harm or neglect. It is rarely as simple as that. And to hear that story, to hear those stories, I think, holds the greatest opportunity, perhaps because of the greatest potential for a shift - to educate someone, or at least try to show them your logic, what makes you and your work tick, and see if anything resonates with them. Please don't misunderstand me, I in no way intend to diminish the importance or value of those who are most committed to the betterment of the neighborhood, nor do I want to eschew their work or place in a place. I am only saying that, with some diligence and humility, it may be possible to turn a perceived or actual foe into an ally. It may come down to how you could help them solve a problem they are facing. And in so doing, you might just be able to sneak in your values, your agenda for good, your vision for equity, for opportunity for all, like a sheep in wolf's clothing. This is true of many groups, including government agencies, law enforcement, politicians, and so on. So, I wanted to offer this up, as it has been rattling around in my mind since I drove south down Stony Island Avenue and out into the Midwest darkness. Obviously all communities are different, and that is both the most beautiful and the perpetually perplexing thing about community. Every one is different.

Just Enough

A phrase has been knocking around in my head for a few weeks now, like a fragment of melody I can't quite place, though it turns over endlessly in my psyche, somehow trying to show me something I just can't quite seem to see from where I'm at. That phrase is this: Just Enough. It showed up, like a long-forgotten song fading back into my life triggered by some unseen forces, over the past couple weeks, as I've been fortunate enough to be a part of a PlaceLab salon series, held in Chicago, considering ethical redevelopment, and a Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange trying to spur interaction between placemakers across the state. And this phrase kept coming back to me, like a whisper of wisdom, for me to decipher. Asking me why we can't seem to be able to restrain ourselves from wanting more and more, why we instinctually glut ourselves on as much as we can get, of whatever it is that we desire and pursue, be it money or land or speed or food or whatever. But in my case, it kept coming back to money. What is Just Enough? How much is enough money to make on, say, a house, a development? If you can make more, there is not a soul out there, even those on the radical left, that have so forsaken their material lives as to be able to fault you for making as much money as you could, to sustain your own life. So how can we even determine how much is enough? Is it having enough to get by? As Talib Kweli said, "We're survivalists turned into consumers." Get by. The other day, as I strode down Limestone stooping to pick up a discarded energy drink can, it hit me that "Just Enough" is the title of a book a good friend of mine gave me when just before we moved here for me to join NoLi CDC. And, interestingly, "Just Enough" has a subtitle: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. Great, so it's not even a how-to rooted in this messy complex paradoxical American life. But I guess that's to be expected. Self-restraint is not something Americans are known for, or come to naturally. To us equilibrium just means we are not trying hard enough to tilt the scales in our favor. But, when we are talking about housing, the more we profit, the more we charge, the more it tilts those scales distinctly away from those who need it most, those who can benefit most from owning a home, owning a piece of land, and thereby building equity, pulling themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps. Historically, this is primarily how people have built wealth, and to make this as accessible to working class people and minorities as it always has been to upper class and white people is what we are working at. So I meditate on this concept of Just Enough as I smile inwardly when a developer berates me for taking a minimal (or no) developer's fee, or when I tell a realtor we are selling these houses for less than they are costing to build, or when I tell a builder it is not just about dollars per square foot or economy of scale. True, the money has to come from somewhere, and it has to break even to work and be sustainable, but it seems we are the only ones, at least in these few square blocks, that are actively working against the urge to maximize our return, instead working to maximize the value we pass on to homeowners. It is why we exist, as a non-profit. To do things that no one else is doing, either because they can't or because they are unwilling or because they just don't know how. It seems we have forgotten that "sustainable" means that some act can be continued, perpetuated, and that at its core it implies equilibrium, as opposed to unchecked growth. If you think of a nature model, this unchecked growth is akin to an invasive species, like kudzu taking over hillsides, like honeysuckle sending out runners and sending up shoots to drown out all other flora. We are working to be sustainable, to do just enough, to grow in balance with our surroundings, our neighbors, our place, to be a model of an equitable way of growing. As Azby Brown says, we need to learn how to find meaning and satisfaction in a life in which we take just enough, and no more.

[KMN]

Hidden in Plain Sight

There are things you see, and you just know you have to know more. 

I saw a woman a few days ago pushing a Save-A-Lot shopping cart full of 1 gallon jugs of drinking water. She either loves purified water, or (more likely) the water at her house is not fit to drink, or doesn't work at all. I figured I'd ask which it was. I introduced myself, and asked about her cart full of water. She told me her name is Phyllis, and that her water had been undrinkable for months, smelling of rotten eggs. She went on to say that the plumbing pipes in her kitchen in the house she rents on 7th Street have been messed up for at least that long, and that her landlord has had the audacity to tell her to fix it herself if it is that bad and unacceptable. She said she has reported it to Code Enforcement, has complained to her landlord repeatedly, has been told it would be fixed, but here she is, lugging water back from the store so she has something at all, not to mention something safe and sanitary, to drink.

It scares me to think about how many stories like this exist in this neighborhood, hiding in plain sight, stories untold by the facades they put to the street, how many people have sewer systems that back up, or don't work at all; how many people have inoperable plumbing, or gas leaks; how many people have unsafe wiring, or no heat, or mold, or any of the myriad of issues we've heard anecdotes about but have never laid our own eyes on. And many of these stories I've heard first-hand, from people who have put up with sub-standard living conditions for so many reasons: no one listens, they don't know who to tell, they can't afford better, they can make due. It's this last one that is the most terrifying - that people can convince themselves that they don't deserve something as basic and fundamental as clean running water. And so, every time I meet someone like this, like Phyllis, it reminds me how much work there is to be done, how hard it is to make people feel they have the power to speak up for themselves, how hard it is to educate people about their rights and the resources that exist to fight such deplorable conditions, but more than anything else, just how jaded people are about the system, how powerless they feel. 

There are so many stories like these, hiding in plain sight. The best I can do is ask, try to help, and hope that that word and hope can spread. 

Creating to Remember [Post-Script]

We only know what we know, when we know it. And as we learn, it seems to me that what is important is to acknowledge the mistakes we've made in the past, the errors and assumptions we now know were incorrect. Hindsight is 20/20. Foresight is like wearing blinders.

After we had the dedication ceremony in May, and I posted about it here, I was contacted and thus learned that a whole side of Michael Mead's family was unaware of the ceremony, and are very hurt that they were not informed, not included, not allowed to be a part of this event they above all others should have been at, had a right to be at, and really, was for. This plagues me to no end to know that I hurt people I have never met, and certainly did not want to hurt - quite the opposite, in fact.

So take this as an open apology to the Wiktorek and Ferrick families (and all the others I still don't know about) - I am deeply sorry you were not included in this, and I will do everything I can to make it as right as it can be, from what has been.

And, maybe showing my naiveness and foolish optimism, let this serve as an open invitation to have another ceremony, another celebration, for why should there be just one? Why not show it off again, inhabit the realization of an idea once more, bring together another beautiful group of people who want to revel in the beauty of a complete and ambitious thought, and lean on each other in the deep pain of a loss undulled by time. I understand if you, Wiktoreks and Ferricks, don't want to, if it seems forced or contrived, or in any other way seems too little too late. But, to me, it is worth pushing for, worth doing, worth trying to make up for errors of the past, however unintended. All we can do is put ourselves out there and be genuine and hope that others are in a place to receive it. So that is what I aim to do here, now.

All we know is what we know, when we know it. And I know that what we have done so far is not enough.

The Long Way Around

Okay, so this is probably something I shouldn't put on here, but we've committed to transparency, so here goes.

Someone kicked in the front doors of 3 of our houses on York Street, ones that are under construction. And they didn't really get anything of value - there isn't anything, not yet at least - no copper, no fixtures, just studs and windows and a floor and a roof. But they did ruin all 3 doors, and make a lot of repair work, and, more importantly, remind me that, just because we are working hard to do good things in the neighborhood, that doesn't mean that that work will instantly be effective, or that that even commands a modicum of respect or sanctity.

Those red clay footprints on each of the white doors reminds me of that each time I walk past, like taking me down a peg, putting me in my helpless place to a certain extent. And a small little vengeful part of me wants them locked up, the person who stooped to this deed. And I understand they have been - locked up, that is. But the majority of me knows that there were reasons for doing it, namely addiction, a reason that I can't even fathom the power of, to make people bury their lives in a deep deep hole in the service of pursuing that next high, however fleeting. I know that locking them up will do no lasting good - jail is damaging in a permanent way, to the psyche and the future after jail. Treatment and recovery is a long and hard road even when you have support, and, as I'm learning by increments, to have a criminal record is to have innumerable hurdles and barriers laid across the path of living your life ever after. It's much harder to get a job. Much harder to get an apartment. And not having an address means you can't get a drivers license. It's hard to get healthcare. You can't even vote. And on and on. And jail is expensive - tens of thousands of dollars per year - to lock someone away, to squander a life in punishment. 

And so when I think about that someone with the red-clay muddied shoe that kicked open those doors in the middle of a dark night, it makes me more sad than anything, to think about the despair in that decision, and I hope that help is something we can offer. It is easy to think about it in terms of us and them, good and bad, welcome and unwelcome, in and out, but the reality is that we are all not nearly as far away from that despair as we might like to tell ourselves. And to fortify our homes and our hearts against this idea of "them" is to draw a line in the sand if only to console our souls to an absolute we may not want to question. 

So the question that keeps coming up in my mind, as that footprint stares me in my mind's eye, is this: How can we help? And all I can come up with, as I'm not a social worker, drug counselor, police officer, or anything actually useful to the situation, is this: We can just keep trying. Try to set an example of hope in the face of that despair, hope in the form of opportunity, of options, of access and awareness. Opportunity in having a way to support yourself in this community - start a business, work from home, work for someone who is starting a business here. Options in housing, in transportation, in employment, in community involvement. Access to the information that is out there if you know where to look - we can show you. Awareness that your voice matters, that your opinion matters, that yours is as important as any other voice.

I did not intend for this to be preachy - that's the last thing that the person that left that footprint needs - to be preached at, in any way shape or form.  I did just want to meditate on that image in my head, that disembodied footprint that symbolizes both a breach of trust and property as well as a ruddy call for us to redouble our efforts, and be grateful for both the reminder and all of the good people around us who also want to help. To err is human. To forgive, well, it's just right.

[KMN]

Creating to Remember

Last Friday, we had a dedication ceremony to the memory and vision of Michael Mead, who was instrumental in the design that won our LuigART 2014 Design Competition. How could we not make them the winner? Their entry was an incredibly detailed 1/4" model of their design, accompanied by a CNC-cut box containing all of the drawings and renderings. It all went together - was a complete thought. And they said they'd build it. Remarkable.

Michael was a remarkable person, by all accounts, and although I only met him once, in a meeting after they had won the competition, I've learned much about both who he was and the mark he left on the people around him. He served five years of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps as a CH53 helicopter crew chief and served two tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, earning the presidential air medal for 149 combat support missions. After his service, Michael also excelled academically graduating Summa Cum Laude with an undergraduate degree in Architecture from SUNY Buffalo, followed with his Master's degree in Architecture from University of Kentucky. Upon graduation Mead started work with Architect Matthew Brooks, and began shaping the next generation of students as an Associate Professor of Architecture at the University of Kentucky.

Michael's grandparents drove from Rochester NY to attend, and his dad George and George's wife Kelly both spoke, beautifully, powerfully, from the heart. Colleagues spoke, of Michael's continual effort, meticulousness, drive, intelligence, and kindness. We stood in a circle inside 142 York, with all of its CNC-cut bones cradling us in wood-tone beauty and rhythm, and we communed in memory and reverence, as Matthew Brooks' dog Chuy paced around the loop, comforting and consoling all who stooped to pet him. I was so grateful, standing there, for many things. Grateful to have crossed paths with him. Grateful to be able to realize his design. Grateful for everyone who came to share in this moment. Grateful for all of the connections that Michael created, and continues to make. Grateful that design and the resulting building can overcome death.

Death - Michael took his own life a few weeks after I met him, in September 2014. I didn't know him other than that meeting, but I still remember standing on the sunny sidewalk outside what is now Broomwagon on E. Loudon, with the specter of his loss throwing my life's compass all off. And I can only imagine how shocked those were who knew him so much better than I did. 

So, as much as these two houses, comprised of thousands of puzzle pieces cut out of sheets of OSB on a CNC machine, as much as these houses represent the edifice of building's ability to transcend death, to carry on after the loss of the maker, as much as all of this encourages me and renews my faith in the power of what we do, it more so reminds me that we need to check in with those around us, we need to ask, we need to intrude into each other's minds and hearts, so that they cannot hide that which may be crippling and crushing them. None of us can do it alone, and some of us don't know how to reach out, to ask for help, so we have to meet them more than half way. 

[KMN]

(portions of this taken from Alex Huber's press release that accompanied the Dedication - credit to Kindling PR)

Open Book: Housing [Part 2]

As you can probably tell, I have a bias toward design, and the value that design has, not just monetary value, but cultural value, social value, value as only buildings can have, to shape and house and facilitate both our dreams and daily drudgery. It is not enough to simply build buildings. We need to inspire, or at least do our damnedest to, because to say something, say it in wood and metal and glass and plastic and brick, that is the whole goal, as far as I am concerned - to leave a place better than you found it, to leave a person's life better than you found it. "Did you fix more than you broke today?" my dad would ask me - that always stuck with me, as something salient, something prescient of who I would be. And by extension, if you do this each day, if you can answer "Yes" to this question, you will end up fixing more than you break in your time, however long or short. But it is not done in one fell swoop. It is done almost imperceptibly, by the minute and hour and day and week and year.

Is what we are building the answer? No. Is it a step toward an answer? We hope so. There are so many challenges with doing what we are trying to do - not just keep costs down, but squeeze every last drop of inspiration out of every dollar, and figure out how to do it better next time, and reach a wider audience, and design for people up-front, and help them secure financing, and so much more. And try to be transparent and open with everyone while we are doing it, and try to answer questions before they are asked. Are we going to build a whole neighborhood of shipping containers? Probably not. I hope we don't do the same thing more than once, because there are so many ideas that we want to test out, to show off to those who may not have been exposed to those ideas before - making connections is to preemptively or retroactively fix (depending on your perspective). Is it wrong to test these ideas out on the working class? I don't think so. Look at the glory of the stuff that has been built for people in Hale County Alabama by the Rural Studio. This place, this program, has been lighting a fire under my ass as an inspiration since the first time I heard an interview with the late Rural Studio founder Samuel Mockbee in 2001, heard him declare “Architecture is a social art. And as a social art, it is our social responsibility to make sure that we are delivering architecture that meets not only functional and creature comforts, but also spiritual comfort.” How can we bring this beauty and delight and raw energy and vision and imagination from the country into the city, to our city, and make it an elevation of what is already here, in brick and stone and wood and metal? Is that just experimenting on those who can't afford otherwise? I don't think so, because this, our small contribution to this discourse, comes presented to the community as only one of many options, alongside Habitat for Humanity, Lexington Housing Authority, the Urban League, as well as a bevy of for-profit developers in the neighborhood, with as many motives as LLCs, of varying levels of ambition, resources, and ability. So we are all working roughly at the same work. And we are all learning.

I grew up in a place that was very distinct, and I took great pride in that. I found myself gravitating to places throughout my life that I can take pride in, and found that people will take pride in place if that place can reciprocate, if people can be proud of where they live. I have learned a lot about place in my life. About the value of a front door. I learned that from Christopher Alexander and his Pattern Language. I learned from Pruitt-Igoe about what happens when you don't give people a front door. I learned the power of people taking ownership. I learned from the 2008 real estate crisis why having unique and distinct properties was valuable - because if every house looks the same and is the same and the only way you can tell on from the next is by the numbers next to the front door, then if the value of that one house type drops, they all drop. I learned that bigger is not better. I learned this from a lot of places. I learned this from Belgium, where people live in tiny houses in 13 communes that make up Brussels, with narrow stairways and tiny rooms, but they live in their downtown, in their city squares, in their parks, in the streets, on their mass-transit.

And I learned a lot about this place, about the history and the patchwork of buildings and roads that make up North Limestone, and how that road played such a major role in the history and development of the North End of Lexington. So what can we learn from both the national and worldwide precedents and best practices, and also make decisions informed by the regional character and local essence of this place? How do you balance what is cutting-edge nationally with what is appropriate locally? As far as I can tell, you just have to keep learning, and keep asking questions, even if they are hard. So here's one I have to ask myself:

Am I a gentrifier? Probably, by most definitions. I'm not from here, I am college-educated, I am white, I am male. But I cannot control those things. I can control the work that we do, and that, day by day, is how I'm trying to fix and not break, to try to be a part of the solution. I love this neighborhood both for what it is and what more it can be, and I am so glad to be a part of it, here and now.

 

 

Open Book: Housing [Part 1]

How can an organization be an open book? How can an organization simultaneously do and explain what they are doing? One of our primary goals is to be transparent, which is hard, not because we have anything that is really all that privileged or sensitive, but because who wants to read every minute detail of any thing that we do, much less all of the things that we do?  But to be transparent is to make yourself and all that you do available and accessible for everyone else to learn from. And accessible is a core tenet of our mission. So: to lay it all out there, and let each individual decide how deep they want to delve into one or another aspect of what we do - that is our open book. I'll open the book on our housing work - Richard will write on other topics, but as far as housing is concerned, here goes. As my dad would say, "Take 1."

We are building housing to be many things: affordable, owner-occupied, flexible, inspiring, energy-efficient, innovative. How are we doing that? And why? First, the how:

HOW

We wrote a grant proposal and received funding in 2013 from ArtPlace America for $425,000 to build "Makers Spaces" in the North Limestone neighborhood, because we saw a need in Lexington for artist housing. Simple enough. With that money, we bought 17 properties on York Street and 1 on Eddie Street, bought from 4 property owners. Most of them were condemned and/or vacant (or should have been condemned, due to decades of disinvestment). We inherited a few tenants, and have maintained almost all of those tenants to this day. That funding also went toward masterplanning, neighborhood analysis, and a design competition. It also was the seed money that formed North Limestone CDC and got all of our formal incorporation in place. After all of that, the remainder of the money went toward gutting all of the vacant houses in preparation for remodeling, as well as to fully remodel 1 house (138 York).

Sadly, through the process of gutting the houses, we discovered that they were either too rotted out or termite eaten, too structurally unsound, or were not originally built sturdily enough to in good conscience renovate them and sell them. That was simply not an ethical path, in my mind. We also discovered that, to remodel one of these shotgun houses "correctly" would prove cost prohibitive as well. Our initial plan was proving to be unsustainable, and infeasible. We needed a new plan.

So we went back to the drawing board. We revised our original plan (to build "Artist Houses") to be open to any and all. We started having conversations with neighbors about transitioning long-term renters to home-owners.  We also created the new Planned Unit Development (PUD-2) zone, with the intent of creating an innovative and flexible zone of 171 properties that would allow a wide range of uses. In effect, returning to the "pre-zoning era" approach of people working from their home at small-scale trades - we even found a ledger in 128 York that proves that a JW Miller did radio repair out of his home in the 1940s, which only substantiated our position on the importance of small-scale entrepreneurialism. That rezoning process took more than a year. We will outline that process in greater detail in a future post, not only because we want people to know the challenges and expenses associated with that, but also to empower people to be able to learn from what we did and how we did it.

We replatted a number of properties, taking 10 properties (128-146 York) and turning them into 8 wider lots.

We applied to LFUCG's Affordable Housing Trust (AHT) in March 2015, and in June received approval to proceed with our proposal to build 6 houses on York (130, 132, 136, 140, 142, 146 York). We had crunched the numbers over and over again with numerous contractors, and the lowest we could get the raw construction costs for a new 700 square foot shotgun house was about $75,000. The problem we kept bumping up against was that plywood and concrete and toilets don't get cheaper for affordable housing. So, this put the all-in development cost at $105,000 per house.

The issue with this number was two-fold: This is significantly higher than the cost of similar sized new-build houses in the immediate area (a Habitat-for-Humanity house on Eddie St. recently sold for $80,000) and it is too expensive for many individuals who live in the neighborhood. Though these are two different issues, we took a single approach to address them - trying to get a gap subsidy to knock a chunk of the costs off the sale price. A key to our AHT proposal was asking LFUCG for a $27,000 grant to bridge that gap between the total development cost and the anticipated appraisal value / sale price. This was the only way we could make it work.

So we pulled together a $100,000 Program-Related Investment (PRI - basically a line of credit) from the Knight Foundation, $100,000 line of credit from Peoples Exchange Bank, and coupled with the $322,000 grant / loan ($163,000 grant / $159,000 construction loan) from LFUCG and the original ArtPlace-funded land purchase, we had enough to build 6 houses, which we will sell once complete.

We are taking nearly no developer fee: $3,000 per house, which works out to 2.9% as opposed to the 15% maximum outlined in the LFUCG Affordable Trust Fund Guidelines. This saved the project over $90,000. We are able to do this because our operations are largely supported by grants and donations, so we did not have to roll this expense into project.

We are aiming to sell these houses for between $70,000 and $80,000. This is more or less in line with comparative properties developed by other non-profit developers in the immediate area. A new-build Habitat for Humanity house located directly behind these houses on Eddie St. was recently on the market for $80,000. The Fair Cash Value of a Faith Community Housing House a couple doors down on York St. is $100,000. Another Habitat House on Maple Ave. recently sold for $81,000. We even had appraised 138 York recently, and, as an ostensibly new 700 square foot 1 bed 1 bath house on York Street, it appraised for $70,000. 

We are presently under construction on these 6 houses, projected to be completed in June 2016 for sale. The houses will be deed restricted for 15 years to only be sold to persons earning at or below 80 AMI for Fayette County KY. LFUCG's standard is 5 years - we requested that it be lengthened to 15 years. We felt this was important to not only ensure longer-term affordability, but also to ensure that the first buyer didn't profit from the LFUCG grant. To that end, we also are working to ensure that the houses are required to be owner-occupied, to prevent purchase of these properties as investment properties, and by extension prevent absentee landlords from profiting from that LFUCG grant.

As an implementation of the PUD-2 zoning, the first 6 new houses are being constructed as Live/Work Units under the Kentucky Commercial Building Code. This is important, because it will allow for a large range of uses permitted in the zoning without requiring the owner to make extensive modifications to the unit. It is the first embodiment of the PUD-2. However, it will not include, for example, a commercial kitchen hood and fire suppression system for production cooking - for intensive and specific uses like that, additional measures will have to be taken to ensure that use-specific requirements are met. But, the basics are there for the majority of the commercial uses, to allow people to live and work in the same place, to bring up to 5 employees into the space, to bring customers and clients into the space, and to claim more than 25% of your home as your "home office" on your taxes (which is the current provision in a residence).

So that is the how. Now for the why:

WHY

This project is not intended to be everything to everyone. It is intended to be a discrete product that meets a specific need and gap in the community, which is well-built, affordable, owner-occupied housing. The owner-occupancy rate in the neighborhood is below 40%, whereas the conventional wisdom is that a "healthy" percentage is 50%-60%. And of those 40% of existing home owners, in talking to people in the neighborhood, many of these owners came into this by inheritance, not purchase, so mobility was limited by a lack of experience with the home buying process. In terms of building stock, we felt that there were limited options for people who want to own their own home - they could either spend $25,000 on a house that might fall on them or cause asthma from mold, or cost $500/month in heating bills in the winter. Or, they could spend $180,000 on a "flipped" house that may be of more aesthetic value, but could still be of dubious quality. And there didn't seem to be anything in between.

We realize that home ownership is not for everyone. this project is not intended to be a one-size-fits-all. It is intended to be just one choice in a range of options. Home ownership should be a viable, affordable option. And with the limited and diametrically opposed options listed above, it seemed that that gap needed to be filled in order for home ownership to be more of a possibility for more people that live in this community. 

We realize that owning a home comes with responsibilities and a need for certain resources. We are working to identify the responsibilities so that the people who buy these houses know what they are signing up for. Debt is a big part of that. But, from our perspective, you can either pay the bank interest directly, or you can pay your landlord's interest, as well as his profit, in the form of your rent. Either way it's your money, so you might as well build some equity with it. Home ownership is just cutting out the middle man, and growing the home owner's equity. And in terms of the resources required, we have a number of financing partners, from non-profit organizations like Community Ventures, to more traditional mortgage partners who are prepared to help address down payment, bad or no credit, and other challenges.

So that's it, in a nutshell. We will delve into a number of topics in future posts: equitable and affordable housing issues, challenges, and methods; the PUD-2 process; the importance and value of design in affordable housing; neighborhood history and contextual design; the true costs of building; and much more. But for now, this is our start. Our start at showing our hand in this effort to be a model of what to do, what not to do, how to do it, what works, and what doesn't work, so that the knowledge gained in our little corner of the world is not relegated to just here and now, but can be a model and a precedent for others who want to learn from and improve on all of this.

[KMN]

New Ways of Being the Same

As the New Year is a time to give us pause, to reflect, in the short days and long dim rays, to look back and forward both, to measure and evaluate our place in between the past and the future, it seems to me that this forum is a fine and appropriate place for us to work toward one of our utmost goals - to be transparent. To tell anyone and everyone who is or isn't interested what we are doing, and why, and how, and ask for input and criticism and support and inspiration.

I read an article about 3CDC's work just north of us in Cincinnati a few nights ago as I watched my Packers struggle through another game. It is interesting how things come to you in their right time and place, to strike chords and pluck strings you didn't know you had, to teach you about the modulation of your soul's key and beat. Among all of the differing perspectives, it was startling how little 3CDC seemed to care, or even be interested in engaging with the public they were acting upon and affecting, if not serving.

They were, and are, acting, in many ways both in perception and in practice, as some sort of benevolent, well-funded developer of a place they had very little true foothold in, very little grassroots support from. And while I know they function and operate with many more 0s after their name than we do, it seemed to validate our search for transparency as essential - a bellwether of some lesson not to miss, not to let drop.

It is vain to talk of the interest of the community, without understanding what is the interest of the individual. - Jeremy Bentham

I received this quote on a slip of paper at a conference a few months ago, and I carried it around with me, in my pocket, in my mind, chewing on it, extending it, applying it, testing it to see where it fit in my mind, in our ethos. And I think that the logical extension I've come to is that the community that Bentham is talking about is the collection of all of those individuals, with their differing viewpoints, agendas, dreams, hopes, and fears. And so, we will tell our stories, both as individuals and as an organization, so that we can be known as part of the community, so that we can be worthy to receive your stories.

So what are we doing?

That thing that I'm most focused on right now is building - to take over a year of preparation, rezoning, lining up financing, planning, designing, partnering, property replatting, demolition, tenant relocation, contract negotiations, and now, finally, turn all of that into purposeful and calculated action in the form of earthwork and masonry and utilities, preceding framing and roofing and siding and trimming and all of that fun stuff - the physical trappings, the materialization and embodiment of this one goal: to build, to build community, to replenish this community's building stock with affordable, well-built, inspiring, flexible spaces for living, working, growing, making, being - being who you most want to be.

It has been a struggle - we often refer to this process as the most sadistic kind of Russian nesting dolls, testing our pluck and gumption with each layer revealing that next challenge, some blowing up in your face as you check off that last task. But this is not to ask for sympathy or adulation, but to put it all out there. It has been hard, but it has been some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done. And, ever the optimist, I'm wagering that both the process and the end product will be something that even the critics can't wag their fingers too much about, for all that it is now, finally, come into being.

[KMN]

Privilege, Equity, & New Ways of Working

Kris and I spend a lot of time talking about how ineffectively we talk about ourselves as an organization. I suppose that I am particularly condemnable, considering I have never even posted to our blog. I know that there are opinions (both deserved and undeserved) about our work and our intentions; and we do not do enough to confront this. Some of this is because, as a staff of 2, we are doing so many different things, it is difficult to really focus and get deep into the communications of our work. Some of it is because we do not know how to properly convey our intent. And a small bit of it, at least for me, is because diving into these challenges can be nerve-wracking and it is very easy to miscommunicate. But, as an organization that is growing in many ways, we need to take these challenges head on.

A close colleague has often expressed the following to me: “How things are rooted is how they grow.” So… how are we rooted? And more importantly, how do we want our work to be rooted moving forward?

I explored this idea in a letter to our Board of Directors for our annual Board Retreat a few weeks ago, which created a lively and challenging conversation in our meeting. You can read the letter below. It is then followed by an update after our Board Retreat about our direction going forward.


Privilege, Equity, & New Ways of Working:
A Letter to the North Limestone Community Development Corporation Board of Directors

A short time ago, thanks to the Blue Grass Community Foundation, I had the opportunity and privilege to attend PolicyLink’s 2015 Equity Summit along with some of the most wonderful people I know in Lexington. The Summit brought around 3,000 city officials, community leaders, activists, and economic thinkers to Los Angeles to discuss and explore the concepts of Equity.

The Summit, and the resulting conversations that we had amongst our Lexington cohort (and others) forced me to reflect on our work as an organization, and evaluate it through the lens of Equity. And what I realized is that we have a long way to go. We need to be open about that and acknowledge it in order to be able to make steps toward that goal.

Some of the equity issues with our work can be chalked up to how we talk and think about our work; not necessarily what we are doing, but how it is presented and how it is received. But not all of them.

To set this up, I think that NoLi CDC needs to restructure how we talk about our existing work and how we evaluate and guide our work moving forward. We need to be clear and transparent with our intentions. I will propose that we restructure our work into three overlapping sectors: Housing, Design & Construction; Economic Opportunity; and Community Initiatives.

Each of these are easily understood aspects of comprehensive community development, and I believe it makes sense for us to clarify our intent by delineating things in a straightforward way. I want to make sure we are clear that this is not starting over, but rather a next step in evolving our communications and intentions.

 

Privilege & Equity

As an organization, we are not doing enough. Yes, we have enough programs and projects. That's not what I am talking about. We are doing much for our community, but we are not doing enough with our community. We are certainly working on it, but we need to come to terms with the fact that the status quo is simply not good enough.

Our organization, and some of us, the decision-makers behind it, are in places of privilege.  This privilege is a result of the history of our country, and the continued resonance of race- and class-motivated oppression. That privilege, combined with the good fortune we have found with funders, puts us in a place of power over the people we serve. This position comes with a responsibility to our constituency - the neighborhood we live and work and play and worship in. I believe that we are in a place where we can either perpetuate issues that have dominated and divided communities for decades, or we can interrupt those issues, and try to forge a new way moving forward - one that is rooted in Equity.

The choices we make everyday have ripple effects into the community that are beyond our control. We need to be honest about that. The socioeconomic and racial backgrounds many of us come from give these ripples an unspoken meaning that many of us cannot begin to comprehend or understand because of our positions. This, more than anything else I can imagine, has the potential to undermine our work and make us unsuccessful, even if it looks like success to us on the surface. We need to make sure that we are thinking beyond our personal opinions and viewpoints when we make decisions that impact others.

So, let’s talk about Equity.

We need to make sure that the decisions we are making are equitable, and in the best interests of the community we seek to serve. To start to learn how to do this, I can think of no better resource than the Equity Manifesto, released at PolicyLink’s Equity Summit.

 
 

Please absorb this. Take a minute and read it again. 

 

Our current mission statement is as follows:

“We are a non-profit organization working on the livability of the North Limestone Corridor.”

But a community can only be truly livable when it is equitable.

We, as an organization, and as individuals, need to ensure that equity is one of the main lenses through which we view and evaluate our work. It needs to permeate every program, every board decision, every email, every conversation, every Facebook post. This needs to be part and parcel of NoLi CDC’s mission and goals. And our communication about this needs to be direct, intentional, and clear.

Now, I know this is a lot of talk - and talk is great, but what we need is action. While I believe we are making progress on this (honestly, I do), I think it is essential that we seize on this time of growth in our organization to redouble our efforts on cultural, social, and racial equity.

 

New Ways of Working

At our November 8th Board Retreat, I will propose a restructuring of our work, and a complete overhaul of how we talk about and think of our organization.

This is not coming from nowhere. This is coming from a place of interaction, listening, and growing. It is coming from us listening to our peers, to our funders, to our partners, and to our neighbors. We need to do something, and this is where I propose we start. Please understand that without us adopting these measures, and placing equity at the core of our work, it will get increasingly difficult for us to accomplish our work, and eventually, we will be working against ourselves.

The following are my recommendations:

  • We change our mission statement to incorporate equity, and take it to our closest partners and neighbors for feedback and any recommended alterations.

  • We announce a restructuring of our work through the publishing of this letter through our blog.

  • We formally acknowledge, as an organization, the “Equity Manifesto” provided by PolicyLink, copied above.

  • We form an equity committee that reflects on major decisions. It could potentially be and evolution of the Communications Committee. It has a voting representative on our board, and on our executive committee, that looks at everything through the lens of equity.

  • All CDC staff and board undergo Equity training led by a representative of the Equity committee, or a consultant.  

 

Restructuring of our work - Statements of Intent:

 

Housing, Design, & Construction - Statement of Intent

Our Housing, Design, and Construction work seeks to create spaces that the entire community feels comfortable in; create affordable places that allow self-sufficiency and economic mobility for all residents; and to assist the community in designing the future of its physical spaces. It acknowledges that true community growth comes when those who live in a place shape a place, and that affordable, quality housing is a human right.

Economic Opportunity - Statement of Intent

Our Economic Opportunity work seeks to facilitate economic mobility for our all of our neighbors through a variety of low-barrier platforms and programs. It acknowledges that true community growth only occurs when every member of that community has access to platforms of economic mobility regardless of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, or income level.

Cultural & Community Initiatives - Statement of Intent

Our Cultural and Community Initiatives seeks to highlight the culture and history - past and present - of our community; to advocate for the needs of our community through facilitation and leadership; and to work with community, not for community. It acknowledges that true community growth only occurs when we are cognizant of history - both positive and negative - and the impact it has on the present; when we place the perspectives of all community members on an equal plane; and when the leaders for the community are the community itself.

This is not radical. This is equity - or, at least a first attempt at it.

The presenters at the Equity Summit discussing these issues were not young progressives (well, many were), but they were also Mayors and Congresspeople, Professors and Non-Profit leaders, and even the Presidents of Foundations (including Rip Rapson, the President & CEO of Kresge Foundation who recently approved the collaborative grant with the Blue Grass Community Foundation for $675,000).

Many of these people have their eyes on us. Funders, Government, other non-profits - most important of all, our neighbors. So let us seize this opportunity to become an example of how an organization can grow and help others grow by placing equity at the center of our mission. Let us reinvent ourselves in the image of what a community should be. Let us understand that our goal should not be to do - but to enable others to do.

Let us commit to building an equitable community.


The letter was well received! I’m happy to say that our Board of Directors took me up on many of my recommendations:

  • We have formed an Equity Committee as a special project of our Communications Committee. The chair of the Equity Committee is Shayla Johnson, who is the Assistant Director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council. Shayla has been a voting member of our board for the past year and a half, and was recently appointed Secretary of our Board, and has a position on the Executive Committee. So check that box off!  We will be filling out our Equity Committee over the next month or so.

  • This Equity Committee will make recommendations about our programs and projects, as well as help us reframe our mission statement around Equity. Check off that one.

  • I am posting this blog post - in which, we are committing to our Statements of Intent for our three program areas. So check that box off as well.

  • We definitely acknowledged the Equity Manifesto. Come to our office, and you can even grab a copy of it to take with you! Check.

  • The Equity Committee will also be making recommendations to our Board for Equity training over the next few months. Half-check that one.

While this is the head-space that Kris and I have been in for the past year or so, the most important thing is that it is now institutionalized in our organization (or in the process of becoming so). If we get hit by a bus tomorrow, the next folks to take our place will have to consider Equity as part of their work.

This is a starting place, but it is a good place to start from. Over the next few weeks, I will make a few more posts regarding updates that came out of our board retreat, as well as some more about our work and equity. We also have some very big announcements coming down the pike, so stay tuned.

[ry]

Give and Take (an Open Letter to the Watchdogs)

I know that not many people read this, and I know that this is not the best way to be heard, but it is a way to be heard, and if it helps me work out some ideas and hone them, that's good enough for me, and you all (or you few) can be party to that...

And what do I, what do we, want to be heard about? For the moment, and probably for the foreseeable future, it is this inflammatory and polarizing issue of Gentrification, that people that I presume to be seated in front of computers lob around at will. There was, just a few days ago, an article posted asking "Who's Gentrifying Northeast Lexington?" And it was a fair and researched analysis and critique of a number of major property owners / developers working (and some residing) in the neighborhood.  My major complaint (for obvious reasons) is that it did fail to differentiate between Griffin VanMeter's other for-profit ventures and NoLi CDC, a non-profit whom he is admittedly the President of the Board. However, NoLi CDC is working, as a core part of its mission, to stem, avert, and address issues of gentrification. That much, I think, would be fair and honest reporting.

By wanting to make this distinction, I am by no means condemning Griffin's other ventures, because he does so much for the neighborhood that does not line his pockets, and in most cases appears to have the opposite effect, to the benefit of the neighborhood. It does initially seem a bit deceitful to see all of those LLCs that appear to be shell corporations for one person, but if you get to know the situation, you realize that each of those LLCs has different circumstances and partners and time periods. I'm sure if you asked him about why it is that way, he'd lay it all out for you, and you'd see that deceit is the furthest thing from his intent - he's very approachable. But I digress. 

My next point is this: if you are culling information from PVA, and mapping it out, and determining from metrics that this or that is happening, that in and of itself is valuable information and cannot be faulted. Fact is fact, but where it gets fuzzy and grey and ambiguous is what we glean from those facts. In my mind, what is not at all helpful or productive is to make alarmist statements without proposing alternatives. This article would seem to suggest that the status quo is just fine, and in fact preferrable to any sort of investment and change, which I think many in the neighborhood would not agree with, even if they have lived and worked there for decades. I feel I can say that because I've asked many of them. So, my plea would be to not make broad statements like "Gentrification isn’t a solution to longstanding problems in northeast Lexington; it’s a way of taking advantage of them" without proposing another path, or many other paths even, to getting the neighborhood to a healthy balance and state.

There seems to be a misconception about the role gentrification plays in any investment or redevelopment. Gentrification is not an approach. It is a result. And often, it is a result of insensitive and lazy and money-grubbing planning and design and construction. Because what we are talking about here is building, right? It's all about building - what is getting built, how much does it cost to build, how much does it in turn cost to rent to afford that construction cost. So if someone wants to build something, the litmus test for that is if there are people that will pay for it, either in rent or purchase. It's the American way, right? But, even developers such as Rock Daniels have openly stated that there are solutions to keep this Capitalism-driven process in check, such as having a Developer Fee. (He did also say that if there is a Developer Fee, there should by right be a Landlord Fee). These fees could feed into mechanisms like the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund, to help offset the cost of housing to maintain affordability. Seems simple enough. 

Which brings me to my invitation: to anyone who wants to come see first-hand what is happening, this is an open-door invitation to come talk to us at NoLi CDC, to walk through the neighborhood, to meet people who live here, to hear their thoughts, and if you leave that experience unmoved or unchanged, there is little more that I or anyone else can do to alter that. But the goal is solutions. The goal is to come up with solutions to strike that balance, that equitable way to build on the community that already exists here, and make others feel welcome to come be a part of it. It is going to take both groups to be successful.

I have written previously in this blog about how change costs money, and it is just a matter of how much and for who - the big challenge in this whole debate is what is the right balance between improvement/investment and preserving community/character/context and the cost to access the neighborhood and its components. And to that point, the only way we are going to make any progress in this discussion is if everyone who comes to the discussion starts from a position that they might just have something to learn, rather than taking an "I'm right, you're wrong" approach. Frankenstein wasn't that bad a guy, he just didn't look like the villagers - the mob just didn't take the time to find this out before they mobilized against him. If we just talk to those that agree with us, who are like us, who think like us, it is very easy to find ourselves in this place of "I'm right, you're wrong," and there is no way to move beyond that. So let's try to hear the other side, all of the other sides, and see if we can concede something to the cause of progress, if we can give something to the greater good.

 

Somewhere in the middle...

There has been a lot of discussion in our neighborhood lately about gentrification. And there are lots of people standing up yelling about how they want to keep the neighborhoods as they are, to not displace people. And there are others who are somewhat coyly saying they are making the neighborhoods better as they buy up cheap property, put in some money, and get out a lot more. There is nothing about the capitalist system that will fault people for making as much money as they can. There is nothing about community that will fault people for wanting to stay in the place they call home. So where are we, in all of this polarized tension? We are out there on that highwire, balancing, between the two poles on the line drawn taut with opposition on each end, trying to navigate that grey area defined by something called choice. We are trying to give people options. Give them the possibility of and/or instead of one path. For choice gives people agency - puts them in control of their destiny. They can sell their house and make enough money to send their kids to college. They can stay in their house and fix it up and grow their equity. They can rent their whole life in the neighborhood they call home. They can buy their first house and not have to worry about huge repair bills and energy costs. They can drive, walk, bike, or take the bus. They can sit on the front porch or back. Choice is what defines us - controlling our destiny elevates us as a society above reactionary creatures of fate, and this is what our neighborhood deserves - choice. So here we are, out here in the middle, hoping that those crying from the poles will join us - concede something, give up some ground, and join us in the middle, so we can all work on this together.

[KMN]

Every day

I've had a few encounters recently that have given me pause, pause to reflect, pause to consider, and quite frankly have jarred me in one way or another.  So here goes:

I was driving down York Street picking up tools last weekend, and saw a woman I know walking toward me in her work garb.  I stopped and asked her if she wanted a ride, to which she immediately responded, "Yes!"  She climbed in, and I asked where to - she said over on New Circle, west past Russell Cave. So off we went. And as we drove, I asked her how she would typically get to work - she said by bus.  I asked how long it would have taken her - she said nearly an hour and a half on the weekends (only just over an hour during the week, due to higher frequency of buses).  So I clocked it, just for comparison's sake - it took 7 minutes to drive there. I'm not sure what part of that incensed me - that someone could spend that much time to go such a short distance, or that this was the only option, save for biking or walking (both of which are pretty treacherous between here and there), or that that is the exact reason why only a certain population rides the bus - those who do not have any other option.  In my friend's case, when I asked why she doesn't drive, she said she had had a seizure decades ago while behind the wheel, and had lost her license as a result. But regardless of what about it struck a chord with me, I felt that these stories need to be heard, and changes need to be made, so that a working-class person doesn't have to spend 3 hours a day on a bus to get to a job that pays minimum wage.

The other encounter was very different in nature - there is new crowd of folks on York Street, people who loiter and generally appear to be up to no good - trying to get into houses, casing houses and cars, dealing and doing drugs.  And I knew it, and this was in the back of my mind as I rolled down York again after dropping my friend off.  So when I saw the profile of a woman in bright blue satin shorts in the back yard of one of our properties, I had already jumped to conclusions, then mentally berated myself for being alarmist and convinced myself it'd just be someone with nowhere else to pee again. Much to my surprise, it was two young scraggly men and a woman sitting on the back stoop, needles in hand, one holding a lighter under a spoon.  I addressed the one I knew the name of, saying, "Kenny Wayne, I asked you before not to be on our property." They basically asked which houses we did not own, to suss out a new shoot-up spot, and when I told them we basically owned the next few in each direction, Kenny Wayne said "Brian, c'mon, let's go to the railroad tracks" and they scooped up their stuff and lit out down Donley. I have not had that kind of direct exposure to heroin before - my previous exposure was basically limited to watching Pulp Fiction in high school. And so, while I knew what it was, I wasn't sure what to do about it. I called and reported it to the police, but I seriously doubt anyone was caught, and even if they were, the last thing we need is more people in jail. And the more I find out, the more I find out it is everywhere. I just talked to a woman last week whose son is back in jail because he violated his parole by doing heroin. It must be a vicious drug, to trade so much for seemingly so little.

As I drove on, after all of that, I waved to an older woman sitting on her front porch who,  clearly having witnessed the whole thing, simply yelled out "It's every day like that around here." 

[KMN]

 

Destroy to Make

I do not like throwing things away.  Don't get me wrong - there is something cathartic about decluttering, about purging the extraneous flotsam that lives naturally accumulate over months and years.  But to determine that a thing may no longer exist, to intervene in the natural state of stasis, to dictate that a thing will meet its ultimate demise at your determination and will - that is an act, a decision not taken lightly.  And so I save twist-ties and plastic bags, I have cans of random screws and nails out of the suspicion that, surely, if I discard something today, I will most certainly need it tomorrow. Waste not, want not. And so, founded in this compulsion, we sweated and toiled to salvage whatever we could from these shotgun houses on York, all in a row, we hauling thousands of brick, pulling any and all wood that was not necessary to keep the building from falling on us, salvaging flooring for us and others, pulling electrical panels and doors and windows and doorknobs - anything that could have another life, another reincarnation of use, to save it from that most lavish of privileges - the landfill.  

But today, it was the proverbial end of the line for 3 shotgun houses, and tomorrow it will be 3 more. And it was remarkable how easily they each collapsed when nudged by the yellow excavator that grappled and clawed at the slunken heap of splintered wood - these structures that stood in defiance of every structural engineer that told me they should not be standing, so easily toppled once acted upon. It seemed almost disrespectful, as I stood there and watched, but it was also exhilarating. And yet it was the only option, the only path was to clear the way for a new batch of houses, well-built, energy-efficient, and beyond their predecessors' benchmark, they will strive to be inspiring of the individual(s) that will live here, to take on and themselves be inspired by the forms of their predecessors, to remember those who built these homes a century ago, and what they built out of so little.

History is not easily discarded, in my mind - it is something like sacred, like time gathered up and collected like currency. It has an inertia all its own, to be, a will to persist and remain, and this must be considered, if not honored, and to obliterate that history requires that it be done with good and valid reasons. So I did my homework. I asked everyone I could find, in all trades and pursuits and fields of expertise, what the tipping point was for renovating versus tearing down when it came to structures like these. And, based on what I heard, we were beyond that point with these shotguns.  So, the discarding of that history, well, that is on me, and I know we will do all we can to do it justice.

The past is just the aggregation of all of the presents collapsed and doled out to the distant horizon, and there is nothing saying that there was anything remarkable about these places, other than that they were, that they existed, and provided shelter and fostered family and home for so many.  And it probably wasn't all positive, either.  But it was. And so we do our best to honor that, as we tear down to build up, as we reiterate a row of shotgun houses to be what we feel this place needs, here, now.

[KMN]

Lead and Follow

When you advocate for anyone other than yourself, and you have to step outside your own mind and psyche and those realities that you are intimately in touch with,  how do you know that you are properly and accurately advocating for that group, for its myriad thoughts and wishes?  What is the mechanism for tapping into those other minds and psyches?  How do you ask them what they want?  And do they even know what they want, or is it limited or bounded by the range of realities that they have, individually and collectively, yet known, as opposed to the plethora of possibilities that may lie beyond action that has yet to be seen, or may not even be a figment of imaginations one and all.  And how do you ask people how to improve this or that without implying or making them feel like what they have right now, their status quo, is not good enough, needs improvement in order to be acceptable, or in any other way putting it (and by extension them) down in any of the million ways that is possible?    

Is it enough to know the questions you don't know the answers to?

Everyone knows different things.  Some people know fixing cars.  Some people know how to read people.  Some people know astrophysics.  We know something about community development, and are continually trying to educate ourselves in this broad and bottomless body of knowledge, but we only know what we know, and often don't even know what we don't know.  So, as we advocate for this place, for these people, many of whom don't even know who we are, we often wonder if we are the horse or the water or the person holding the reins in the old aphorism "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink."  I think where we are is that we are creating and developing and executing a number of initiatives - the Northside Cultural Plan, the Northside Common Market, the LuigART Makers Spaces affordable live/work program, the Night Market - that are iterative processes of asking, doing, asking again, doing again, and so on, so that we stay on target.  

It is the only way to keep in touch, truly, with any other than your own thoughts and feelings. It is the only way to keep in touch with those we are impacting - to just keep asking and doing, continually.  It is time-consuming, and it is an uphill challenge, to locate, identify, contact, explain, listen, document, act, for each program, each initiative, each element of work that is attempting to contribute to moving this neighborhood forward.  It is not the easiest path - in fact, it is probably the hardest, if you were to work out the time-to-return ratio, but it is how it needs to be done.  The easiest path is often the wrong one, if my experiences have taught me anything.  And the hardest paths are often the most rewarding.  So we continue on, to question, to be self-critical, to learn, and to do as much as we can based on what we are hearing.

[KMN]

Memory

Memory is on my mind. We carry them around with us always, but things have memory too - of place, of use, of purpose, of meaning. So what is it, that thing we call memory? A collection of sensory impulses and associations? A brick does not remember, but it does make us remember, and if we did not know it, it tells us something of that which we do not know. And those things associated with memory - the associations that hang off of or are packed tight within each fragment of a sight, smell, taste, or sound -  are what make place that thing itself, make that intangible memory, and so, in this tactile place, finite but evolving, we aim in a way to be building with memory, with those elements that make up memory, and not in spite of it, to not erase it, but reembody it and add to it our own pieces of the picture. These things, these boards and bricks, charred by fire and eroded by rain, deep with tight old-growth grain and dense with orange and red and purple clay dug from some nearby hillside, stamped at their sources varied but near, these things have their own memory, and to do them justice is to work to retain them, among all of the other that is too far gone, to sweat and toil over some silly chunks of clay and planks of pine, that seems to us worth it, to retain those elements as pieces of place. Memories, these memories, then, will not just to be put into a landfill to be excavated in some far off future, if at all, and wondered over, orphaned from their origin, but will remain with this place, the carriers and bearers of that memory, not to glorify it, but simply be visible links to this place in those times now gone, not lost at the hands of reckless disregard, but retained at the hands of respectful effort on their behalf. They are just things, in a strictly pragmatic sense, but they are also symbols, and so it is worth the effort to pull out what all we can. To salvage memory from these bits is to not wipe them away, to connect us who touch and see them now with who packed and fired and laid them,  sawed and hauled and nailed them, and then who touched them, a warm crackling coal fireplace in the dead of winter, who walked upon them day after day.  In whatever small way, to know that past - to salvage memories.

[KMN]

Good People

Good People - Good People just out there in the world, in North Lexington, in NoLi, just doing their thing, varied as it may be, trying to do the best they can at it - I have met so many Good People, with so many stories, so willing to share them, some so heartbreaking, offered up without any pretense or preamble, stories of hardship, addiction, persecution, discrimination, or just stories of wisdom: an elderly man sitting on a bench downtown telling me how important it is to take care of yourself, of your own body, to make that self-respect an example to your kids. He yells out "I recommend olive oil" after we have parted ways.  Or a jovial little middle-aged woman telling me how she walks and walks, walks all day, picking up trash as she goes, and how she bruised her arm dumpster-diving (perhaps while a bit intoxicated), and how she was so afraid people would think it was her husband who bruised her, rather than the lid of the dumpster coming down on her arm.  Or a young couple excited to get their son back from the state's care now that they have cleaned up their lives and gotten sober and stayed that way for over a year.  Or a middle-aged man whose whole family came up all on one short street, his mother and her 11 sisters, and how the street had changed over time, good and bad and back and forth again, and how he was the only one still there, riding his bike, manuscript under arm, a retired electrician turned essayist, standing with me recalling he and his friend playing chess on the front porch of a burned-out house we are watching mercifully be torn down. Or the 30-something man who wants to move out of his mother's house, to provide a place of his own for his daughter, but sees the challenges in being an ex-con, then stops and corrects himself - "previously incarcerated" is the appropriate phrase, he tells me. And so, here stands this or that Good Person before me, a smile on their face, telling me their story, a snippet from the middle of their personal story of struggle and searching. And they are perhaps a bit skeptical (and rightfully so) at the prospect of what I am telling them we want to try to help them with - to own a house. Yes, own their very own house. A new, well-built, energy efficient house. But, as if that wasn't enough, I tell them we also want to do so much more than that: we want to design it in a way that suits them (at no additional charge to them); we want to build it for them, to make it respond to their life and circumstances, to how they live, what business or craft or art they want at their core to pursue, to make their work.  There are so many Good People out here in this place, walking and biking and driving and riding from here to there each day, paths traced regularly or sporadically through time and space. And I keep meeting more and more of them each day - not perfect people (for who among us are?) but Good in that they want better, want to move on to that next level, that next chapter, to move beyond the tribulations of the right now into a future that might be better. Good People. 

[KMN]