Monday, September 28, 2009

Inflicting the media's memetic mythology on neighborhoods

In its latest installment of the longest-running media formula pitting neighborhoods against Nashville's political and economic elite, the City Paper (CP) accuses neighborhood leaders of relying on community plans as holy writ somehow inflexible to winds of change. I must say, I've been writing for 5 years across these economic sea changes, and I've yet to see the CP deviate from a prescribed formula of information culled from interviews with developers and courthouse insiders and of conclusions drawn about neighborhoods and constituents based on those interviews. And yet, ordinary people are accused of wearing the blinders.

If reporters are going to accuse those of us in the trenches of relying on holy writ, might we accuse them of relying on a holy see? The courthouse elite is a magisterial group to which the local mainstream media genuflects, and the City Paper has been the most zealous at bowing to the influence of power and money. (Don't expect that to change with former Council Member Chris Ferrell as the paper's captain; the melding of government and media at SouthComm is breathtaking beyond words).

CP reporter Kyle Swensen expresses his own uncritical assumptions about neighborhoods. Take his line about leaders being savvy in playing the planning game. What Swensen fails to acknowledge is that they've had to become astute because unlike developers, they are not lawyered-up and lobbied-out. In the absence of economic capital they have social capital and networks that act as mobile academy, early-warning system, and back-up generator. But because they don't have the finances to buy their way into the council committee rooms of the courthouse or into lunches with the Mayor's players they have been stigmatized by the media incongruously as less-than-legitimate rabble and latte-sipping idealists.

The latest City Paper offering perpetuates that double standard: leaders have savvy to work the planning system, but inexplicably they lack the savvy to understand economic hardship or the recession we're in. And Swensen insinuates that neighborhood leaders are short-sighted protectionists who cannot see beyond their own backyards to citywide issues. That's some selective savvy consistent with past stigma.

In reality, if reporter had bothered to actually interview various neighborhood leaders he would have found that many are fully aware of the shifting economic realities and the need to be flexible. Second, he would have realized as I have in the past 5 years that neighborhood leaders do reach out to others to work on citywide and regionwide issues like proper zoning for LED billboards and conservation of green space in Bells Bend.

Third, he would have discovered that neighborhood leaders are pragmatic. What has not changed in these changing times is the propensity of many developers to eschew any plans, to skirt any requirements in order to maximize financial benefits, or to lobby political leaders to ease their pain. For all of his generalizing about neighborhood leaders Swensen failed to point out that the basic goal of development is to wring as much economic value at the least expense from real estate. Community values and character often do not figure into that quantitative equation. The development goal did not change during the housing bubble and it hasn't changed since the bubble burst.

In that passage of time neighborhoods have had to use whatever means was at their disposal to keep growth from overrunning quality of life. Neighborhood plans were simply tools for doing that. Those plans were promoted enthusiastically by planners in some cases, like in Salemtown, even before a neighborhood association existed. The subarea plan involving Salemtown was adopted in 2002. Salemtown did not have a neighborhood association until 2005. Courthouse leaders brought Salemtown residents together to formulate the subarea plan, which recommended a "full-range of residential housing types."

Does being flexible in today's changing climate mean that the Salemtown association should reject the notion of a community with a "full-range" of options in favor of say a community devoted exclusively to apartments? That would be impractical, but if not that, exactly what would the developers and their media apologists have us do to meet their ideal of "flexibility"? Swensen goes question begging by not articulating how we might be flexible. And what guarantees do we have that once we achieve the lofty heights of flexibility that they still won't run roughshod over our community character in the name of making a few more bucks than if they didn't?

Finally, Swensen's statement about the Planning Department's endorsement of a Green Hills development might mislead us to believe that Metro Planners always deserve the same benefit of the doubt a reporter grants. However, planners are not perfect, they may be biased in favor of development, and their passion for new urbanism's higher density may cause them to ignore practical questions, like:
  • Where to put actual urban families?
  • How to design amenities for a generationally diverse community?
  • Might we incorporate good public education as a catalyst?
In 2007 the Planning Department recommended to the Planning Commission that a high-density plan be approved in Salemtown in the name of new urbanism without regard to questions like building for balance and diversity. Planners were shortsighted in siding with developers, and after public hearing the Commissioners sided with Salemtown Neighbors against planners. They recommended rezoning for greater balance and diversity to Metro Council against the request of the sponsoring council member. Would Swensen call the Planning Commissioners inflexible for recommending a full-range of housing options in a diverse neighborhood?

In the end, what looks on first glance to be the City Paper's balanced treatment of common people who make uncommon efforts to protect their communities is--once critically considered--just another courthouse-circulated myth. It contains half-truths that could have been unpacked with some professional legwork outside of Downtown political circles. The Swensen story does not break any new ground or bring any new understanding to the plural motivations of neighborhood associations, and it is not entirely distinct from any past CP hit piece on community-based organizing. Consume it with a grain of salt and write the editors to ask for more balance and facts.

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