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Hear the People

It was a cold day in March when I made the two-block walk to the neighborhood community center in the park. The path was lit with blueish, late-winter light and the air was crisp. It felt invigorating to be outside even though I was all bundled up. At the entrance to the park I ran into another neighbor who was also heading to the community meeting. As we headed there together we exchanged pleasantries; we were polite, but our conversation remained in the shallow waters of neighborly chit chat.

This was my first community meeting. I wasn’t particularly passionate about the cause, but I was curious, and that was enough. The city was proposing replacing a street with a two-mile bike path and greenway, right through the neighborhood. It sounded nice at first: a little patch of green land for recreational use and a way to connect more bike paths. The proposed route did not impact my street, but it was close, and I wanted to learn more.

I had seen the professional lawn signs in support of the proposed greenway. I had also seen the handmade signs opposed to it. The situation had been described as a David and Goliath issue—the little guy versus the big guy. The neighbors versus the city.

The community center was packed. Standing room only. My participation was that of an observer, not an activist, so I blended myself in at the back of the room. I didn’t utter a word, but so much was said. I thought I had understood the situation on the floor: the city wanted to create a greenway through an historically-neglected Black neighborhood to connect two major bike thoroughfares. The project would eliminate a street in order to build a “no parking, no driving, grill out, bike, walk, jog, and hang out” park greenway.

Traditionally, I fully support green efforts that prioritize alternatives to carbon-emission travel while also increasing folks’ ability to be outside and connect with nature. I also know that these initiatives are rarely afforded to overburdened communities—until they are overhauling the neighborhood to make room for new neighbors.

While the concept is one I like, greenways are typically built into the structure of new developments. A city doesn’t usually add them to already established streets and communities.

During this community meeting I learned that, in this situation, my neighbors were facing losing their parking. This would require them to use their detached garages with poor alley lighting, which would create unsafe environments for many. Delivery trucks would not be able to do door drop-offs. Without street access, elders would not be able to reach mobility buses. On top of that, many homes here still don’t have garages after the 2011 tornado, so they would be left without parking completely.

As I listened to the people that day, I saw the issue from different points of view. What once seemed like a simple issue suddenly felt much more complex.

I watched neighbors come to tears. They felt that this development was being forced on them without their approval. I listened to the shaky voices of my elderly neighbors in wheelchairs; their fixed incomes prevented them from moving, yet they feared that their homes would soon be inaccessible. Some folks worried that loitering might become a frequent occurrence. Still others supported the greenway and the city’s effort to create access to healthier living for a community that had often been left behind. Some parents were excited to have a park right outside their homes for their kids to play. Others didn't want to listen to kids’ loud music all the time, because now they would have a place to hang out.

Everyone just wanted to be heard.

The meeting went on and on. I saw the same people talking again, and then a third time. They started repeating themselves. The facilitator of the meeting had lost control. It was largely a loud, angry debate with no winners and no decisions.

It ended with the facilitator firmly saying, “We took down all the comments and will share them with the planning team.” And that’s when I truly understood what this meeting was all about.

They had done their due diligence by hosting a community meeting to “hear the people” and they would continue on with their original plans. We were dismissed.

As we all packed up and solemnly paraded out of the room that night, the disappointment hung in the air like a heavy, dark cloud. All anyone wanted was to be heard and to have their perspectives validated. To be taken into consideration. I left with the feeling of being very small. I think we all felt small.

The city’s final decision wouldn’t come until months later, but I was proud that the people in this neighborhood showed up and spoke. Even if they left feeling like their fears and pain had been exposed, at least they made themselves vulnerable in the name of their neighbors and their neighborhood.

In the end, in a situation like this, I suppose that’s the best any of us can do. Speak up. And if we ever find ourselves on the other side of the issue, if we are ever Goliath, then we must remember to hear the people. Hear the people and really listen.

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