Is innovation anti culture? How do we cast a spell that protects a city from the unexpected? Who has value in my city? How does identity and equity, and authenticity and capitalism, intersect when place is both an input and output in our very existence? We make places, and places make us. A simple equation might look something like person+place = prospects in life. Or people/place = poverty/prosperity.
Word math isn’t my thing. But these are the questions I wanted answered. These are issues I wanted us to deliberate over when the International Downtown Association chose to see what happens when 28 strangers involved in placemaking gather in New York and stop being polite, and start getting real.
Gunshots are a little too real. But a t-shirt I bought in NOLA in 2007 spoke to the idea that place is in us as literally as we occupy any place and stands as an answer to the word math when being shot at in Brooklyn changes the equation. It was printed simply, “504: Soul is Waterproof”. So I wore it to the my IDA Emerging Leadership Fellowship session the day after we all got shot at in Brooklyn. It could have easily been translated for my 27 colleagues and our 2 facilitators as “#IDAELF17: Spirit is Bulletproof”.
In our classroom session we’d learned that some of us are analyzers, directors, counselors, or persuaders. We were curious if one leadership style was consistent with being a better improvement district leader. In Brooklyn we learned the trait we all share is what we all hope we can build in our places: resiliency.
As an analyzer, I knew Kenyatta wasn’t shot when I hurdled over him laying on the sidewalk and kept running. I knew it would be tragic if two kids from New Orleans got shot in Brooklyn after growing up in New Orleans during a time when our city killed black people daily (through police, poverty, or prison). I knew in that moment that it would be doubly tragic if we both got shot, so I was all for being Tre, not Ricky. One of us had to live! IDA couldn’t afford to lose half of it’s emerging African American leadership in just one afternoon!
By the 4th shot I knew it could have been terrorism or a mental health breakdown, two of the other issues our cities inevitably face that we struggle to deal with as practitioners who shoulder the responsibility for our places; the public square has to be inviting, active, and accessible, but it also must be protected and families need to feel safe. But inevitably the public realm is vulnerable.
3 hours and 3 rounds (beers not bullets) later, I learned that I needed to be our groups designated hugger even though my reaction was clinched teeth and anger because some dickhead in Brooklyn reminded me why I’ve embraced the safety of Uptown Dallas, in spite of the magnetism of Uptown New Orleans; of why I describe Dallas as different in a good way and what I really mean is it doesn’t touch my soul but it also doesn’t break my heart. Other people were just as angry, and some were just shook up, scared, or dealing with an entirely different set of emotions for reasons I needed to learn. I’d been desensitized; they made me feel it again.
Leadership in our field (like others) is male dominated, but our fears as fathers and sons and not being there for our families is rarely what gets discussed in any boys club. I’d flown in from Texas and gave out a hug to dude also from Texas, over BBQ, in Brooklyn. Our colleague from London, flew to New York, and presented us with a leadership challenge around dealing with the response to terrorism in her district, only to be faced with a different sort of urban terror. She got a hug too. I got hugged 29 times, though it looked like I gave out 29 hugs.
Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge I was struck by the fact that the bridge itself is as magical as the water that flows beneath it; one was created by placemakers, and one was created by The Big Place Maker up in the sky. I was amused by the fact that in a city of a 8.5 million people, two of us could run into old friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. While some might call it random, I would call it meaningful. In my years of researching coincidences, 99% of all coincidences occur in a place. And 100% of places are a response to something we don’t control in nature. A city exist at the mouth of the Mississippi, another City exist along the Atlantic Ocean, and a seemingly random place exist because it’s where people needed to rest midway between the two. When you run into an old girlfriend in Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, that’s not chance, that’s high level planning! It’s no different than when developers look at the census and maps and try to determine where to put a new sports arena and mixed use developments near public transit in Brooklyn. Which will inevitably lead to other coincidences. Like 30 strangers from all over the world getting shot at and becoming a family outside of the Barclay’s Center; a new tribe being born.
I have 29 new brothers and sisters to dodge phone calls from, text randomly when I need a laugh, and call because I know they’ll be there for me even if I hurdled them that time they might have needed me. That’s the difference between family and cohort! You can’t choose your family! Ya’ll are stuck with me when I’m better and when I’m worse. I have 29 new friends who won’t be offended by my jokes, who will drink champagne in a dive bar with me, or won’t be uncomfortable if I call myself the Black Rick for half a day. I have 29 experts and consultants on retainer who will help me answer the questions on how to encourage affordable housing, engage in tough conversations about what monuments belong in the public realm (a hint: not the racist ones), how to navigate board challenges, or chain up these cool new wobble chairs I bought because they looked cool in Times Square. I have 29 people I can do my best to support and offer my perspective and encouragement to as we all create magic out of mishap. I was happy to share a space for a moment with other leaders who love the work we do. I’ve grown, I’ve played, I’ve lived, I’ve worked; I’ve been place made.
#IDAELF17: Spirit is Bulletproof