Monday, November 02, 2015


NOLA.com's Robert McClendon speaks to a wide variety of neighborhood and community activists about the steady loss of momentum from what we all suppose to be a post-K high point of "civic engagement" activity.
Inequality. Exclusion. Low expectations. "It was a wake-up call that there were a lot of longstanding problems that people had just gotten used to," said Bart Everson, who, along with his wife, was one of the first to return to the neighborhood.

Everson and his neighbors started to meet to talk about how they could change things, how they could make their neighborhood and the city more inclusive. Out of those meetings, and a blog manifesto that Everson cranked out in the early post-storm days, came the neighborhood's master plan.

Mid-City wasn't alone. In Broadmoor and other neighborhoods, residents started reimagining every aspect of city life, from what their streets looked like to the way City Hall operated.

"There was this fever that you just wanted to catch," said Timolynn Sams Sumter, head of the Neighborhood Partnership Network, an organization that sprang up after the storm to empower residents in city planning. "It was an energy that anyone who wasn't part of it was just missing out."

Keith Twitchell, another resident at the center of the post-storm ferment, says that spirit of civic engagement is slipping away.
At first glance, this might seem inevitable as things "get back to normal" or at least circumstances of the "new normal" begin to calcify.  But a lot of it is also deliberate.  And you can see this in Mitch Landrieu's choices after he became Mayor in 2010.  Mitch's "One City One Voice" mantra, itself being an Orwellian cudgel against the inclusion of diverse perspectives, the message to organizers was, stand down. The grown ups are in charge now.
Almost uniformly, residents in the planning sessions said they wanted more input into the city's decision-making, especially when it comes to development, Twitchell said. The tool that was supposed to help make that happen, a Neighborhood Participation Program, was inserted into the city's Master Plan.

The City Council and voters united around the plan, which they said would serve as the guiding document for nearly all future public policy in the city. The Neighborhood Participation Program, which Twitchell considers to be the cornerstone of the document, never came together in the way that many imagined it, though. The system Mayor Mitch Landrieu created in its place is "not even a half measure" and only serves to disillusion well-meaning residents who attempt to engage in the democratic process, he said.
To be fair, the NPP wasn't going to fix everything on its own, despite Twitchell's enthusiasm. Like any institution of its sort, it would likely have come to be dominated by the same social and business insiders who naturally tend to wield too much influence over neighborhood associations anyway.

The new thing that was happening in the post-K period was new people started showing up at those meetings. People who hadn't felt like there was any vector for their input started to participate in existing groups or create new ones. This is what Rising Tide was all about, for example.  We wanted to encourage everyone to contribute regardless of whatever perceived social or professional barriers might have excluded them previously.  Because that's what democracy is. The impetus for public policy action should come from below.  That can only happen legitimately when everyone expects that their participation matters.

The Neighborhood Participation Program could have been a venue for this.  Or it could have been dragged down by the same entropy we see in other areas of civic engagement.  The key isn't in the mechanism itself so much as in clearly conveying to the public that their input is valued.

Mitch Landrieu's message, though, has mostly been, The Grown Ups Are In Charge Now.

Residents have expressed frustration with both prongs of the city's system.
Amy Stelly, a community activist who lives in Treme, said the Engagement Office staff has good intentions, but it doesn't seem to have any authority to respond to community concerns or access information, she said.

For a year or more, Stelly has been on a quest for information and accountability related to the city's aquatics programs, particularly at the Treme Community Center, which opened to much fanfare in 2014 but was immediately dogged by problems with its indoor pool. As she attempted to work through the city's engagement process, she said, the staff seemed helpful but ultimately powerless.

"I think they are more responsible for disseminating the mayor's message to the people rather than the people's message to the mayor," Stelly said.
And, again, you can just chalk this up to natural entropy or public apathy if you want. But it's funny the way it all works out for some people. 
Jennifer Farwell, a Mid-City resident who has been actively following the development of the former Home Depot shopping center on North Carrollton, said the city's process cedes the responsibility to engage residents to developers, whose interests are often at odds with those of the community. As a result, the process is ripe for manipulation, she said

Developers rig the process in any number of ways, Farwell and others said. They set meetings at inconvenient hours or in odd places. They pack input sessions with nonresidents and draft reports that take the emphasis away from critical voices, Farwell said.

"It should be called the 'neighborhood notification process,' because nobody is required to incorporate advice of the community," she said.
And so 10 years after Katrina supposedly redefined the way we do "civic engagement" in New Orleans we're arrived back at a place where the only significant players are super wealthy developers and the somewhat wealthy homeowners who sometimes clash with them.    The city is comprised of a much wider and diverse sphere of souls and interests.  But we don't find the energy to include them anymore.  

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