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Neighborland’s design structure has changed quite a few times since this blog’s first survey of their business ( yet they remain keen on tweeking their product. One attempt to self-validate Neighborland’s brand representation as a community actor is an update feature now posted on past “wants” that show demonstrable progress.

Feeding off the buzz of efforts already in motion, on May 22, 2011 New Orleans Neighborland’s Alan Williams suggested the “want” of a renovated Circle Food Store.

A few weeks before, in early April 2011, The Louisiana Weekly reported on Mayor Landrieu’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative, and interviewed the owner of Circle Food Store, a hopeful Dwanye Boudreaux, who looked to the new program for his store’s renovation.

In July 2011, The Len’s reported that Boudreaux had spent years “petitioning the city” for assistance.

But in Decemeber 2012 and February 2013 Neighborland prefaced two updates on their Circle Foods renovation page with the suggestion that Neighborland co-owner Dan Parham and New Orleans Community Manager Alan Williams (both living in San Francisco) had somehow “Made it Happen.”

Williams’ December progress report was a link to a Times-Picayune story on Circle Foods finally securing the necessary funds to begin its long anticipated renovation.

And in February 2013, Parham’s progress report for Neighborland users was a link to Mayor Landrieu’s press release heralding Circle Food’s groundbreaking.

But what did Parham and Williams make happen? Posting links to news articles?

Neither of the two Neighborland representatives had any recognizable role in the Fresh Food Retailer Initiative.

In fact, the article Williams shared recounts the story of who did make Circle Food Store’s renovation happen:

“After more than seven years of frustration, false hope and dead ends, Dwayne Boudreaux this week finally lined up all the money he says he’ll need to rehabilitate and reopen the Circle Food Store in the 7th Ward. The financing includes federal new market tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits, funds from the state Office of Community Development, $1 million from the city’s Fresh Food Retailer Initiative and $100,000 from the city’s Economic Development Fund, for a total of $8 million.

It’s nice that Neighborland shares media content about the work of others, but their chosen format is confusing and overtly suggests their own company’s efforts are somehow responsible for the progress they report.

Will potential Neighborland users in other cities searching for demonstrable (if barely scrutinized) proof of the company’s effectiveness be reassured by Neighborland’s self-congratulatory claims of making things happen? Is this a business model? Stamping one’s brand on other groups’ projects?

In July 2012 Dan Parham “shared” another “resource,” a link announcing the St. Roch Market’s groundbreaking. Is Neighborland insinuating their efforts of recruiting 26 ‘neighbors’ to the cause was the impetus for the City of New Orleans to respond? An orange banner swaths the upper right hand corner of Parham’s post: “Made it Happen”

What, exactly, did Neighborland make happen?

Beats me.

(Note to new readers: Neighborland was partially spawned by Civic Center’s co-owner, Candy Chang)


In the past few months I have been contacted by people outside of New Orleans trying to figure out Neighborland and its business model as it begins to pop-up in their own cities. After reading Neighborland Is Not a Neighbor, respondents are confused as to why the original piece was retracted. I share that confusion, but the following post will hopefully address questions received from afar.

Other observers have asked Neighborland to reply to the criticisms made on Neighborland Is Not a Neighbor, however Neighborland contends that due to The Lens’ retraction the opinion is entirely without merit and should be ignored. Almost a free pass. Yet a recent article in the University of California’s Berkeley Planning Journal by Aaron Shapiro, “The Tactics That Be” highlights the challenges that remain for Tactical Urbanism practitioners, whether non-profit (as in the case of St. Claude Main Street) or private companies such as Neighborland as they approach the business of community engagement.

The first reason given by The Lens for the retraction was the assertion of Candy Chang’s role within the grant partnership. Additionally, Chang denied said partnership and insisted she/Civic Center were only “hired” by the local organization, despite both SCMS and Artplace’s reported emphasis on the importance of Chang’s partnership for the project. I address that here:

The second reason for the retraction was the suggestion that a “large portion” of the funding for the “Parkette Program” was devoted to parkettes. The below is an excerpt from St. Claude Main Street’s manager Michael T. Martin’s email correspondence with City Planning regarding  “a sizeable grant to build mini-parks, or, parkettes” and informs the participants that the meeting will be held “at Civic Center, our partners studio space”

It has also been pointed out that at the time of the retraction, The Lens’ webpage design was done by Chang’s company Civic Center.

In May 2013, St. Claude Main Street announced they will not be building any parkettes on St. Claude Avenue after all, and instead would build one pocket park on land owned by one of its board members, a resident of Virginia. The property boasts two realty company signs. The purported impact of the “temporary” is a key component of Tactical Urbanism, perhaps especially when a parcel slated for a community park is concurrently for sale (see update below).

So there you have it.

June 8 2012:

“I am the Manager at St. Claude Main Street and we have received a sizable grant to build mini-parks, or parkettes, along St. Claude Avenue….”

“…The building of these parks is reliant on re-allocating space (parking spaces, private property, and/or sidewalk space) into public park space in front of key businesses on the corridor. San Francisco and New York City both have programs that execute these types of developments and with this grant, New Orleans (and St. Claude Avenue specifically) has the opportunity to be a national leader in infill park design.”

June 25 2012:

“Just wanted to remind you about our meeting this Friday, June 29th at 1:30 PM. I’ve booked space for us at Civic Center, our partners studio space in the Bywater.”

Full report of the public records request:

Update: The property where the park will be built is no longer for sale. While there is a new realty sign on the property, it is for a third property down the block connected to the SCMS board member and not the vacant lot scheduled for the pocket park construction in the coming months.

This is an opinion on how Neighborland, a for-profit business that wants to improve community, may instead be helping investors and developers at the community’s expense.

New Orleans’ Corporate Realty has been an enthusiastic supporter of Neighborland from the get-go, and it is becoming easier to see why. Over the past year, Neighborland has produced crowd-sourced feedback for a number of Corporate Realty projects. Most recently, Neighborland has been an effective tool for two Corporate Realty agents, Ben Jacobson and Casey Burka, working independently as investors/developers of two concerns named Federated Historic Holdings and Wiltz Development LLC.

The Wiltz Gym, located at 3041 N. Rampart Street between Montegut and Clouet Streets, was sold by the Orleans Parish School Board to John Hazard in 2010, for $230,000

A 2006 NPR interview with Renee Montagne relates Mr. Hazard’s investment philosophy less than six months after the Federal Flood:

Mr. HAZARD:…Sunday evening, boarded up the house, decided to stay in New Orleans, left by boat, was in Houston — a friend of mine who’s an investment banker, within 24 hours, he had $100 million raised and committed to buy property in New Orleans. The city was still flooded! We saw the opportunity and, you know, we said it’s never going to happen again in our lifetime.

MONTAGNE: So, it doesn’t sound like you even think of this as any risk. It sounds like you think of it as pure opportunity–where you’re buying.

Mr. HAZARD: Opportunity–there’s a time in the affairs of men when taken at the flood will bring you fame and fortune–you know, William Shakespeare. And if the opportunity’s there, take it and it’ll hopefully bring you fortune.

In the two years since Hazard’s purchase, the Wiltz Gym is marked by increased physical deterioration and a considerable uptick in market value.

Investors Jacobson and Burka are currently considering purchasing the property, but want the zoning changed before they will commit. The Wiltz Gym is zoned RD-3, which does allow for some commercial and other uses such as a day care or senior center. Federated Historic Holdings (FHH) is asking for B1-A, which opens wide the doors, according to concerned residents, to any number of commercial uses on the block. Residents expressed support for converting the property into a residential development, but were told by Jacobson that he couldn’t “get the numbers to work.” Apparently it would take too much time for FHH to get the kind of financing that could make a residential project feasible. That made residents even more anxious about the intents of the investors, as Jacobson and Burka could offer no long-term commitment.

The investment group went to the Bywater Neighborhood Association (BNA) and asked for a zone change recommendation, but the BNA was hesitant, according to resident Jen Buuck, because although Jacobson and company, hailing from uptown, are “local” FHH has no concrete plans for the property after the proposed zone change (which may add to its re-sale value). A special zoning committee of the BNA agreed to consider the investor’s request at a public meeting. Residents felt little regard was given to their concerns, and according to one observer, were at times treated by some members of the zoning committee with barely-masked contempt. The committee then voted to support the investor’s request for the zone change recommendation and residents came away feeling thwarted.

In the meantime, Jacobson teamed up with Neighborland who co-hosted an informal meet-and-greet at the Wiltz Gym so residents could offer suggestions to FHH. The event was advertised on Neighborland, GNO Real Estate News, and Facebook, and FHH notified residents within a block of the property. Here is Jacobson’s comment on Neighborland:

“We were able to have long conversation about what neighbors wanted to see at the Wiltz, and also what they did not want to see. I think this was a great step for the project; we walked away with some great ideas, and I think other folks walked away with a better feeling that our goal is to build something that will benefit the community.”

But some neighbors at the meet-and-greet felt the developers had little interest in their opinions. A big Neighborland “I want…(blank)…at the Wiltz Gym”  sign hung on the property where attendees could write comments. Jen Buuck noticed after the event that some of the ideas and suggestions neighbors had written on the sign were not reflected on Neighborland’s webpage. She walked a few doors down from the Wiltz Gym to the Civic Center/Neighborland office and asked to see the sign. Buuck was told it had been stolen by a disgruntled neighbor.

Jacobson and Burka recently redeveloped Friar Tucks on Freret Street into the restaurant Origami, and stated in an Uptown Messenger interview last year, “It’s a street we’ve been following for a while,” Jacobson said. “It’s a place we see a lot of potential in, and we want to be a part of reinventing Freret Street.”

Like Freret Street, St. Claude Avenue is -also in the process of “reinvention,”  and the Wiltz Gym event was an opportunity for St. Claude Main Street to advocate for development along the corridor. Michael T. Martin, SCMS’s manager attended. In a September 2011 opinion piece for The Lens Martin noted the  “overabundance of vacant and blighted buildings along St. Claude Avenue that could be rehabilitated to house much-needed providers of goods and services.”

With St. Claude Avenue in mind, resident Carin Baas asked, “Why change the zoning on a residential street when there are plenty of properties for sale a block away already commercially zoned?” It is unknown if Martin asked the developers the same question.

For its part, FHH seems befuddled why residents are worried by the investor’s vague plans. After all, the redevelopment is supposedly for the neighborhood’s benefit. Patrick Fox, a leading commercial real estate professional is the author of  Nimby Wars, a how-to for developers to diminish genuine residential concern and reconstitute it as narrow-minded thinking. The book offers many employable methods on “overcoming community opposition.”

Are local developers familiar with such methods? In an email response to Ms. Buuck and other residents, Jacobson commented,

“We think it is a little unfair to say that the neighbors did not realize that this property had been used commercially over the entire course of its history.”

Following Jacobson’s claim that the neighbors were being “unfair,” Buuck researched the history of the site:

“Historically, the property has not been in commercial use with the exception of a listing in 1897 as butcher shop and a rifle club.  Of course, this was before the fire and rebuilding of the structure in 1916 that is still there today.  Also the lots were separated at that time.  3037 was a residence, 3039 was a butcher shop, and 3043 was the rifle club building. The building has been zoned residential with conditional uses 6 and 8 of section 4.6.5 of the municipal code for the two commercial purposes listed above and also was a community building for educational and recreational use since 1912 serving as a gymnasium for athletic events and community swimming facility.  Under 4.6.5 conditional use 2 it has also been in use as a philanthropic or educational site for the Boys and Girls Club and was used by the New Orleans School Board.”

So it’s true, the site of the Wiltz Gym was commercial, two buildings prior to the one currently for sale, back in the 19th century (Interestingly, a rifle range is still a permitted use under the current RD-3 classification). The investment group’s reinterpretation of historic use prompted Ms. Buuck to create a petition opposing FHH’s request. Days later, at the Neighborland event, attendees could also sign a petition, one to support FHH and the zone change. According to Ms. Buuck, the resident’s petition had three times the number of signers than the one submitted to the neighborhood association board at a final meeting with the investors. The residents were not notified that FHH’s zone change request was on the agenda.

At that meeting, the BNA voted in favor of the investors, despite the fact that there is still no concrete plan for the property once it is purchased.

One neighbor commented “Those guys were fighting an uphill battle until Neighborland was mentioned. Immediately after that the sham shindig was held and they magically got the support of the “neighbors” with Neighborland’s assistance.”

On the Neighborland website, Candy Chang, co-founder, Alan Joseph Williams, Community Manager, and Rob Chappell, a one-time resident now Neighborland employee based in San Francisco, are 3 of a group of “4 neighbors (who) want to know the latest on the historic Wiltz Gym in the Bywater.” The fourth neighbor lives in Bayou St. John.

The Neighborland page did not illustrate whether or not “the community” supported the investor’s request. It heralded any and all development ideas for the property. More whimsy, nothing concrete. Anyone can post on Neighborland from whatever city they call home. Many posters do not live in New Orleans, let alone the area that will be affected by the potential zone change. Did the BNA click on every icon to ascertain whether a post came from a New Orleans resident? Who knows?

Two weeks ago, for the “latest” on Wiltz Gym, Jacobson commented:

“Your input on Neighborland regarding the Wiltz Gym resulted in the Bywater Neighborhood Association reconsidering its previous position, and voted in favor of supporting the change from RD-3 to B1-A. Thanks to everyone who gave us their feedback.”

Is this more display of Neighborland working hard for “the community”? Did Neighborland, a for-profit business, produce favorable outcomes for an investment group over the objections and efforts of neighbors?  If so, what it might say about the Bywater Neighborhood Association is for another post. But regarding influence, keep in mind it was not FHH’s change of plans, nor a petition that convinced the right minds, but the image of community support and participation exhibited on Neighborland. Neighborland’s well-designed package potentially offers more influence than real civic input. And for clients such as Federated Historic Holdings, Wiltz Gym LLC, and Corporate Realty, that could prove to be an invaluable service.


On November 27, in response to another critic commenting upon the Neighborland product, Alan Joseph Williams tweeted what has become the company’s self-legitimizing retort “We’re trying to help any org make civic conversations more accessible whether private prop, nonprof, govt, neighborhood assoc etc”

The day before on Twitter, Neighborland co-founder Dan Parham framed the success of the Wiltz Gym campaign to Google’s director of product management Hunter Walk.

“here’s a recent re-zoning win from a local entrepreneur in Nola”

So which is it Neighborland? Civic conversations or wins for entrepreneurs? It sure ain’t both.

The opinion piece that appeared in The Lens, “Does anybody really want “parkettes” along the St. Claude corridor?” was retracted on August 10, 2012 due to the assertion that Candy Chang was “driving a process to create parkettes.”

That she may be responsible for the “parkettes” element of an ArtPlace grant to St. Claude Main Street, referred to by ArtPlace as the “Arts District & Parkette Program” was incorrect. The opinion piece should have asserted that the companies Ms. Chang co-founded, Neighborland and Civic Center, are just two parts of a much larger urban planning movement perhaps soon to hit the streets of New Orleans.

My mistake was overlooking the bigger picture, the major tool of the “city” craze sweeping the nation: Tactical Urbanism.

The current vanguard of “creative placemaking” and born out of the Congress for New Urbanism, Tactical Urbanism is the product (stress on product) of the “Next Generation of New Urbanists.” A publication was released this summer on Tactical Urbanism, by Mike Lydon, lead author and spokesperson for the movement. Not just parklets, but many similarly themed “tactics” are “popping up” in many American cities. Parklets, seed bombs, tents, and social media for the “civic economy” are all a part of this well designed package. Highlights can be viewed here:

What is Tactical Urbanism?

Also called “temporary urbanism,” “pop-up urbanism” or “spontaneous interventions” its theory and practice is best described in the words of Lydon, its main author:

“Tactical Urbanism  incorporates a deliberate, phased approach to instigating change; local solutions for local planning challenges; short-term commitment and realistic expectations; low-risks, with a possibly a high reward; and the development of social capital between citizens and the building of organizational capacity between public-private institutions, non-profits, and their constituents. In short, Tactical Urbanism is a movement to reclaim our city spaces with short-term actions that are intended to lead to long-term change. Tactical Urbanism projects are typically carried at small, local scales: vacant lots, street corners, parking lots, etc.”

Lydon formerly worked for the New Urbanist design firm Duany Plater-Zyberk, and is a co-author of the Smart Growth Manual, along with Andres Duany and Jeff Speck. Some New Orleanians might recall Duany’s “silver bullet” presentation on the planning failures of urban revitalization in the past; New Orleans hit every mark, from downtown elevated highways to aquariums, and along those lines he had valid points. Residents may also recall him serving with the Urban Land Institute as a charette leader for the Unified New Orleans Plan.

In the days following Hurricane Katrina, Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz relayed this assessment of Duany’s New Urbanist vision:

“Into this fraught and sinister situation now blunders the circus-like spectacle of the Congress of New Urbanism (CNU): the architectural cult founded by Miami designers Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk…”

“Twenty years ago, when Duany was first barnstorming the nation’s architectural schools and preservation societies, the New Urbanism seemed to offer an attractive model for building socially diverse and environmentally sustainable communities based on a systematization of older ‘city beautiful’ principles such as pedestrian scale, traditional street grids, an abundance of open space, and a mixture of land uses, income groups, and building forms…”

“In practice, however, this diversity has never been achieved. Duany and Plater-Zyberk’s Seaside—the Florida suburb so brilliantly caricatured in the 1998 film “The Truman Show”—was an early warning that kitsch would usually triumph over democracy in New Urbanist designs.”

Enter the new New Urbanism. Lydon, “a steering committee member of the Next Generation of New Urbanists,” is the principal at The Streets Plan collaborative, and they provide an attractive model too.

In Lydon’s manifesto, Tactical Urbanism, “tactics” are highlighted that best contribute to urban “vibrancy.”  The list includes “pavements to parks” programs, “chair bombing” and temporary tent camping as instruments to revitalize civic life. Think what you will of these “tactics”; not all are poor ideas. Mention of them here is to give evidence of what’s trending in cities today.

A “tactic” at the forefront is Park(ing) Day, created by Rebar, a San Francisco based design firm. Rebar is the group that can rightly be called the parklet or parkette pioneers. Park(ing) day is an event in which typically a metered parking spot is transformed into a small park to give attention to public space. These spaces are known variously as pocket parks, parklets, and now in New Orleans proposed as parkettes. They are featured in Lydon’s presentation linked above. So is Neighborland.

In conversation with Neighborland’s Alan Joseph Williams, he reassured me that the “parkettes” proposal for St. Claude Avenue was a solid and well considered plan. He even offered some details about Candy’s past experience creating a parklet in Vancouver. As it turns out, she notes on her website that the project was “inspired by Rebar.”

In April, 2011, Ms. Chang attended an Alaskan design forum where Rebar also participated:

This past February, the other company Ms. Chang co-founded, Civic Center, collaborated with Rebar here in New Orleans for the Evacuteer’s “Evacuspots” design competition:

And next month, Rebar is guest-curating a new Civic Center “intervention” in Hong Kong:

The assertion that the idea for parkettes came from Ms. Chang and walked over to St. Claude Main Street via Mr. Williams, her employee, while he was on St. Claude Main Street’s board, stems from conversations I had with Mr. Williams. The retraction maintains that idea was in error. Here is a snippet from Ms. Chang’s comment on The Lens:

“To be clear: Parkettes are not my idea or initiative, let alone a “pet project” of mine. They are an initiative of St. Claude Main Street, the organization that received the grant from ArtPlace.”

The real error may have been connecting Ms. Chang or her related companies to parkettes alone, rather than the larger Tactical Urbanism (TU) movement. As the local face of Neighborland and Civic Center, it seems reasonable that the burden of responsibility has fallen at her feet. To be sure, New Urbanism in New Orleans did not begin with Ms. Chang, but TU is chockfull of her projects; she is continuously featured at sponsored events.

How many Before I Die walls are there? Capetown, Taiwan, Auckland, Toronto, the list keeps growing. There are many, many more.

This autumn, the 13th International Architecture Exhibitionla Biennale di Venezia hosted “Spontaneous Interventions,” a showcase of the major players in TU. A sampling of projects connected to TU author Lydon includes Rebar, Neighborland and Civic Center. They are natural allies in their fields, and working together is understandable to a point. But there are a lot of competing brands of “tactics” out there, and the ones on Lydon’s team are winning.

How is Neighborland involved?

In the Tactical Urbanism publication, Neighborland is a featured component, allied to help build the “civic economy.”

This past September, Neighborland presented at a Memphis TU salon hosted by Lydon. Incidentally, Rebar was there as well:

Neighborland co-founder Dan Parham has joined the movement with gusto. His bio states he is “a designer and product strategist,” and that he was formerly a “Director of User Experience at Yahoo, working for the Marketplaces and Advertising Platform teams.”

But Parham has seemingly expanded his field beyond marketing, and this summer gave a talk on TU at  home in San Francisco:

In response to criticism or queries, Neighborland tends to reply that their “product” continues to “evolve.” Is the Tactical Urbanism business the newest model? Recently, an announcement appeared for a “Community Manager” position at Neighborland’s San Francisco office, the same position helmed in New Orleans by Alan Joseph Williams. The link is provided below, but here are some choice elements of the job description (emphasis mine):

Our community management team creates and cultivates meaningful relationships with our members and partners, both on social media channels and through tactical urban events on the ground. We are looking for people passionate about the cultural and economic development of their cities. Here are a few of the roles our Community Managers play:

Listener. You develop strong ties with our neighbors, helping them to understand how to best use the tool. You guide conversations on our platform and other media channels on a daily basis.

Creator. You create valuable content for our local Handbook, and manage our brand on other social media channels like Twitter. You measure and report the performance of your effort.

Neighbor. You are a respected resource for neighbors to better understand their cities, and how to get things done. You will identify existing resources, community groups, and leaders that neighbors should be aware of.

Catalyst. You conceptualize, plan, and execute local public art and tactical urbanist events to build awareness of the platform, and help build our community in the real world.

Coordinator. You choose the right stakeholders and decision makers to participate on the platform, and you manage these relationships. You also manage local press interest in the platform.

A Neighborland “listener” guides conversations. The community manager executes “tactical urbanist events to build awareness of the platform,” ie: Neighborland. To build their community. Should we now expect parkettes and art “bombs” or other methods of creative placemaking to help us better know the Neighborland brand? Like its mother company Civic Center, is Neighborland now in the public art business too? Or just a catalyst for projects they deem worthy of promotion?

On August 3, 2012, in an interview with ArtPlace, St. Claude Main Street Manager Michael T. Martin noted:

“In terms of parkette design, we plan to employ tactical urbanism processes…”


“physical manifestations of vibrancy are also crucial to supporting the corridor’s rebirth. Our parkettes aim to do just that…”

To recap, “Does anybody really want “parkettes” along the St. Claude corridor?” was retracted August 10, 2012 because it suggested a relationship between Ms. Chang and parkettes.

As it turns out, Neighborland and Civic Center, the companies Ms. Chang co-founded, are deeply connected to the Tactical Urbanism movement, of which parkettes are only one “tactic” out of many “spontaneous interventions” perhaps soon coming our way.

I apologize for the error.

Christine P. Horn

Here is a partial list of my references. I will post more soon.

Links to References:

Placemaking and Creative Economy Background Information:

Neighborland Press


Louisiana new tech industries:


Stickers and chalkboards:…-making-real-what-happens-on-the-internet

Civic Center

Old Bay Bridge:

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.