A recent NPR segment featuring the tech startup Neighborland referred to post-Katrina New Orleans as a “blank slate.” It was not the first time the phrase has been used to describe the city, but as New Orleans experiences its first boom since the late seventies, many residents are expressing exasperation and concern that an increase of new residents bearing different ideas and expectations of urban living might change the social, cultural and physical landscape of the city. For residents of the downtown Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, the transformation is happening fast.
Interest in New Orleans is booming. The New York Times regularly features articles concerning the city and its neighborhoods, and recently Forbes magazine called it “America’s Fastest Growing City.” Cities, not just New Orleans, are a hot topic, and arts centered planning is all the rage. NPR and The Atlantic Monthly both have current series on cities and urban planning, the Atlantic christening the national movement “The Rebuild Era.” This trend is partially due to urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who in the last decade has created a substantial business in revitalized urban boosterism based on the idea of building a “creative economy” designed to attract “the creative class.” These creatives, posits Florida, drive real estate and economic development, and many American cities are clamoring for expert assessments on how to lure and retain them. One of the biggest drivers is technological start-ups, and thanks to industry seeders such as Launchpad and the Idea Village, New Orleans has begun to become a nesting area for new tech industries.
Neighborland, launched in 2011 by the design firm Civic Center, is one of New Orleans’ darlings of the new tech industries. In various press outlets, Neighborland has sold itself as a voice of the people, the next wave in civic technology that hopes to connect residents with both governmental and commercial planning processes. Although quick to point out that the “blank slate” comment came from NPR and does not reflect their operating philosophy, their website is oriented around a fill- in- the-blank motif, designed for residents to enter in desires from the pre-formed statement “I want” such and such “in my neighborhood.” The idea is that Neighborland will cull residential data preferences from its webpage and mold that data into concrete civic-minded results. Like its founder Civic Center, which recently opened a headquarters in the Bywater on Clouet and Rampart Streets, Neighborland aspires to have the tools and resources to actualize residents’ wishes in the real world.
The startup received a tremendous boost in April and May of this year when five major venture capital firms— including Lerer Ventures and Twitter founder Biz Stone’s Obvious Corporation— chipped in. Lerer Ventures is a seed- stage venture capital fund focused on “entrepreneurs with product vision, consumer insight, focused execution, and unwavering ambition.” But venture capital firms expect returns on their investments, and some tech observers have wondered how Neighborland will manage to turn a profit. New Orleans Community Manager Alan Joseph Williams has insisted that Neighborland is not selling information about people. The company describes itself as citizen-led urban renewal. However, Dan Parham, a Neighborland founder based in San Francisco, said in an interview he hopes the company will be able to “sell marketing insights about neighborhoods as our community grows.” Is this a new trend in civics? Who is the community? And what is the product?
In October of last year, Neighborland sourced input on an indoor rock climbing gym for the local firm Corporate Realty. Pleased with the efforts, Corporate Realty gave them a boost on the webpage of another Neighborland investor, Tech Crunch, a buzz creator for technology start-ups: “Congrats to the Neighborland team on closing this round. I know that this site will have an important impact on commercial real estate development, and I look forward to seeing what y’all do next.”
A visit to the Neighborland website shows the most prolific users are the founders, Dan Parham and Candy Chang, along with her partner at Civic Center, James Reeves, and Community Manager Alan Joseph Williams. Neighborland is registered in Delaware, where there are no corporate taxes for businesses who do not operate within the state. Its owners, Chang and brothers Dan and Tee Parham, list their business address in Boulder, Colorado. Tee Parham lives in Boulder, Dan Parham in San Francisco, and Chang purports to live in the Bywater neighborhood. In an article on Boulder start-ups and his own experiences, Tee Parham recommends that a good partnership must have a “hacker and a hustler,”—speaking as a co-founder of Neighborland, a reader might infer that Parham is the “hacker” and Chang is the “hustler.”
Neighborland claims “Our job is to empower residents and connect them with the resources they need to make their ideas happen.” While attempting to insinuate themselves into positions of expertise to benefit “the community,” a glance at the page and its “wants” illustrates there are skills, resources, and knowledge that the Neighborland operators do not possess.
Around June, when many thoughts turned to staying cool, at least seven requests on the New Orleans Neighborland page were made for public swimming pools. One poster linked to a New York Times article on public pools, suggesting it would be a great idea for New Orleans. On June 7, a user stated he wanted the St. Roch pool to be open year- round. Always involved in his company, Dan Parham asked which park he was talking about. The poster responded “St. Roch/Sampson. Is there any other park in St. Roch?”
Sadly, the San Francisco resident was unable to answer. Four days later, on another pool post, this one for the Bywater, instead of directing site visitors to the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission’s Aquatic Program and the city’s open public pools, Parham offered this: “You have to give it to Country Club for showing that there’s a business model that can be built around a nice pool and bar.” Rather than providing practical information, he congratulated a local business for recognizing a market and capitalizing on it. This is not civic minded, it is commercially minded.
The Neighborland page is also redundant. It gives the impression of higher usage than it actually receives. How many different ways can a Neighborland user request or endorse Chinese food options? If you are one of the founders, as many as you can:
“I want a Chinese restaurant in the Bywater”
“I want a Chinese restaurant on St. Claude”
“I want a Chinese restaurant in the Marigny”
On Novemeber 19th, a variant of this “want” hit the wires: “I want dim sum in the Bywater.” Eight people supported the idea, and ten days later a new separate post “I want dim sum in the Bywater” was endorsed by six people. Five of them were the same backers of the original post. The posts repeat and feed off one another. If one supports an idea, it gets listed in the scroll as its own post and then repeats on the original. This produces the impression that a lot more people are utilizing the tool and increases the webpage’s ubiquity in search results. Locally, Neighborland is perhaps most well known for gathering last minute support for the long worked upon St. Claude Street Car extension project. On average, visitors to the site for that cause clicked “me too” to show their support for the plan, maybe suggested one or two whimsical wants of their own, and then never returned to the page again.
Back in San Francisco, Dan Parham was recently boosting an idea on Twitter posted by a San Francisco Neighborland user calling for the reuse of an old bridge. A pre-existing re-use plan from 2009 had been criticized because the bridge was not retrofitted to meet current safety standards. When someone questioned him about those concerns, Parham said he didn’t know, but that maybe a temporary use could be found. Temporary uses, or in planning parlance, “tactical urbanism,” is another way to create buzz for your city. A spectacle might seduce the “creatives” into your tax base. Whether good or even practical, as long as ideas are being tweeted, they are adding the impression of urban vitality, or as Parham discussed at a recent conference, “pre-vitality.”
Neighborland’s founding business, Civic Center, is a design and marketing firm. They support “civic engagement through stories, services, products, and public installations,” and are locally helmed by James Reeves and Candy Chang. Chang is known for her Marigny installation, “Before I Die,” a public art piece propelled by the idea of “creative place making.” Stemming from Richard Florida’s creative class ideas, creative place making has been touted as a kind of branding tool to transform areas into art destinations. Chang has done quite well capitalizing on this trend, touring and selling “Before I Die” toolkits and merchandise in cities around the world. Likewise, her “I wish This Was” project, for which she encouraged people to apply stickers on structures around select locations in New Orleans proclaiming their wants, took participant- driven perspective one step further, by attempting to influence urban design and planning.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs was bothered by this sort of thinking. She wrote “The pseudoscience of city planning and its companion, the art of city design, have not yet broken with the specious comfort of wishes, familiar superstitions, oversimplifications, and symbols, and have not yet embarked upon the adventure of probing the real world.” Perhaps looking to expand on that idea, Neighborland was born as the online interactive replica of the stickers, a more immediate template for civic product. Clothed in a gushy progressive ethos of democratic participation, Neighborland can easily be perceived as a non-profit— in fact, a recent Atlantic Cities article mistakenly described them as such. (It was later corrected.)
So what does it matter that a for-profit firm wants to have a go at a new tech venture? How does it affect New Orleans neighborhoods on the ground? That there is interest and investment in New Orleans should not be derided, but it is fair to ask who is determining the city’s new needs, who has a say, and whose voice gets heard?
The newly reformed St. Claude Main Street Association has recently partnered with Civic Center, to receive a grant from the privately and publicy funded national arts and place making concern ArtPlace. The grant announcement states its intention is “To encourage commercial and cultural revitalization along a pivotal corridor in New Orleans. St. Claude Main Street, Inc.’s Arts District & Parkette Program will unify and support the corridor’s creative endeavors and promote its activities through innovative marketing, visual identity and community engagement programs developed in partnership with internationally-renowned artist and designer Candy Chang.”
Parkettes are an idea born out of the need for green space in dense urban areas, such as those that lack a broad, grassy neutral ground, like the one that runs down the middle of St. Claude Avenue. The concept of parkettes is that they encourage walkability, and the enhancement of public spaces. If you are a believer in creative class theory, they may also help brand your street or area as an art destination. At the meeting, St. Claude Main Street board members pointed to the proliferation of parkettes in San Francisco as a model example. However it is not clear if the Board is familiar with the criteria San Francisco has established for determining the feasibility of parkette placement:
Sizeable area of under-utilized roadway
Lack of public space in the surrounding neighborhood
Pre-existing community support for public space at the location
Are parkettes sensible for a designated state highway such as St. Claude Avenue? Regarding pre-existing community support, one local architectural historian commented “It’s interesting that Candy Chang has produced multiple venues for people to voice their wants and needs for their neighborhoods and yet chooses to ignore what she herself has manufactured. Neighborland and the ‘“I Wish This Was’” installations have been described as tools to be used ‘“so the future of our communities better reflects our desires today.’” But is there any desire for parkettes in our neighborhood? A search of Neighborland came up with zero matches for parkettes. If the website is the supposed voice of the neighborhood, then haven’t we already spoken?”
Other critics have questioned the true public value of parkettes. They are intended to be maintained by municipal park services, in partnership with departments of streets and public works, but as already overstretched budgets shrink further, cities have tended to hand them over to private businesses, such as restaurants and cafes that desire outdoor seating. This in turn eliminates the “public” space and creates new commercial space. It is a temporary public good that serves as an entrée to expanded commercial development—which reflects the results of many of Civic Center’s ventures.
Commercial development, of course, in itself is not bad, nor is improvement of streetscapes. But is it community-minded to drum up support for a public project that may in turn diminish public space? The City of San Francisco estimates parkette construction costs range from $12,000–20,000 per park. Neighborland’s Alan Joseph Williams, who is also a St. Claude Main Street Board member, said that with the ArtPlace grant the group hopes to build around four to six parkettes.And because a large portion of the grant money had been pre-allocated, participants at the artist’s meeting who had been invited to give their input tried to comprehend what would be left over for “the community?” St. Claude Main Street manager Michael Martin, when asked why St. Claude Main Street partnered with Civic Center, answered it was because someone at Civic Center knew the people at ArtPlace. That would be Chang, who has an established relationship with ArtPlace Director Carol Coletta. Coletta is the former president of CEO’s for Cities, a global urban think tank, and a major supporter of Florida’s creative economy theories. She is largely responsible for incorporating arts centric place making into the new city movement. She recently tweeted, “Artists are leading the way in real estate, not developers.”
The Project For Public Spaces set the standards for what place making is, and for what it is not. They note that place making is not a one size fits all endeavor, it does not follow a top-down structure, and it is not design driven. ArtPlace supports the construction of parkettes in cities big and small. Does St. Claude Avenue need four to six parkettes just because other cities have them? If place making is not design driven, why is designer Chang written into the grant? If participation is not top down, why has St. Claude Main Street and Civic Center decided to foist upon the New Orleans landscape the same ideas being promoted everywhere else? A recent article on Huffington Post, “Creative Place Making Has An Outcomes Problem” by Ian David Moss, offers some worthwhile criticism of ArtPlace and the place making movement. Mainly, for all the hullabaloo, there is no real way to measure whether this new approach creates tangible results.
Jane Jacob’s commentaries infused the practice of urban planning with an important awareness of the prime vitality of cities: public human activity. Today, planners, designers, and architects have chosen piecemeal aspects of Jacobs’ work that potentially embrace those ideals. But Jacobs was against “design cults,” which she lamented overlooked the obvious in city building—specifically, the people.
As St. Claude Main Street, Civic Center, and Neighborland embark on their pre-formed plans for the Marigny, Bywater, St. Roch and St. Claude neighborhoods, it might be a sound idea to get to know their neighbors before telling the people what they want.