Redevelopment for the Rest of Us
When in Doubt, Bring People Together
Last week, a ragtag crew of artists, dancers, musicians, and food truckers (?), descended on Tallahassee’s Southside. They gathered at a small, abandoned gas station to celebrate the intersection of community and art (disclaimer: I’m a member of the investment group that owns the property). It was the sort of night you don’t soon forget, and it spurred me to reflect on a few things about what I view as the noble and necessary, but dammit-if-it-isn’t-a-moral-minefield, pursuit of urban redevelopment. So join me as I descend into the quagmire.
Cities are home to a variety of groups across which power is unevenly distributed. It’s well documented that this distribution is often spatial in nature. That is, variations in power can be tracked across geography according to indicators of privilege, public policy support, and capital flow. Example: Ethnic enclaves are alive and well in many major US cities. Example II: Political affiliations increasing align with variation in county-level urban/rural population densities. And so on and so forth.
Most interesting to me, and core to the work I both do and aspire to do, is operating in power vacuums — building in forgotten places and for forgotten people, where raw potential sits on street corners like an iron ore that’s ready to mine.
Troubling in this analogy (and indeed in my own case) is the implication of colonialism and extraction. How do neighborhood natives fare when the owners of capital and industry appropriate, whether by policy, force, or contract, an area’s natural resources? How can we ensure both an open market for risk-embracing creators and the upside inclusion of those that, surviving at the margins, undercapitalized and under-resourced, paved the way for redevelopment?
To be sure, neighborhood natives, artists, and local businesses everywhere have trouble capturing the value they create. These early-onset community builders are settlers and custodians — important roles neither of which the market has found a substantive way to reward, especially if they do not own the land beneath their feet or the roof over their head.
Setting aside this market failure and its policy prescriptions as a larger and decidedly hairier problem (one for a future post, be assured), I believe it vital that we find ways to empower and raise awareness for native culture. To achieve this, neighborhoods need a place to gather, celebrate, and engage in self-expression. They need a platform for amplifying their message.
As the sun fell and people danced across asphalt, it hit me not only that the event I found myself at was such a platform but that it created space for uncorking a culture pressurized by neglect.
Because when you give a microphone to someone who lacks a voice, what you hear is the truth. And when you give a microphone to someone that has always had a voice, what you hear is rehearsed.
The contrast between truth and rehearsal has never been starker because technology has decimated the centralized control of narrative, making expression more fragmented and less editorialized — at least until tech giants mature, consolidate, and take monopolization to new extremes (again, another post for another day).
I hesitate to call this form of distributed storytelling more authentic — without doubt we project the best versions of ourselves online and create aspirational facades — but certainly our narratives have grown more personal and more expressive. Waning is the power of moral arbiters to filter cultural norms for subversion. Thus, subculture has grown louder. I believe this thirst for a voice, driven by the ease of online expression and an increasing rejection of the contrived, has spilled into the urban environment, revealing the sterilization of urban spaces that muffle truth.
Thus, when we bring people together in a way that is more personal, when we diversify opportunities for subcultural-expression, when we invest in platforms that give a voice to neighborhood natives — that is when we begin to lay the groundwork for urban redevelopment that captures, creates, and more equitably distributes value.