Over the last several months architects Lyndon Manuel and Leah Nichols have organized the Urban Symposium at the StoreFrontLab  to discuss  urban development “as it relates to the city’s current socio-economic environment,” according to website’s description of the series.   The events are interactive and participatory – party hats and trivia bingo are involved.

The third discussion/fête will take place tonight at 7 p.m. at the StoreFrontLab’s 337 Shotwell space to consider the question,  “What Do you Want to Preserve or Change in San Francisco?”

We sent Nichols five questions to help set the stage for the event,  and asked her to keep the answers short so you can continue the discussion with her tonight.

ML:Your first symposium used words and Photo Booth to see whether people identified with their neighborhoods.  Did they?

Nichols: As I remember, participants did not give distinct YES or NO answers to the question of whether they identify with their neighborhood. Most grappled instead with the challenge of pinning down a solid neighborhood identity at a time when almost all corners of the city have undergone changes in varying degrees and speeds. The often hyper-dramatized identity crisis of the city of San Francisco however was reflected in participants who realized what they had initially sought after in their neighborhoods may already have disappeared or changed, and if still intact, will inevitably transform in the near future.

ML: The response of people wanting community struck home with me as we are very much trying to encourage community at Mission Local and more than anything that means participating and being knowledgeable about the community.  

Do you have a sense of what that means and how media could play a bigger role.

Nichols: On one hand, “community” takes place when many people live near each other and share resources. A familiar group of people often forms by default over time in urban environments simply because of physical closeness and necessity (ex. recognizing your neighbor at the corner store). Despite the latest sharing economy trend popularized by AirBnb and ZipCar and so on, the sharing and its resulting inherent social value, feels like a thing of the past. Communal neighborhood services (ex. laundromats) are not part of the current new construction (ex. lip balm boutiques) aimed at a tech-driven upper class demographic.  This demographic is simultaneously less likely to use a communal service like a laundromat because they can afford their own washer and dryer, and more likely to avoid the grocery store and instead test out a food delivery app.

Without the basic element of function, “community” takes on the form of an awkward, superficially beloved act, commonly known as “community building. ” An originally organic social creation born out of necessity to do laundry or buy groceries  is now “built” through intentional participation and knowledge. And because participation levels and knowledge banks grow most naturally with time and comfort, it is understandable that a lack of community results from huge gaps in understanding and sensitivity within a mix of long-time residents and newcomers. That said, the experience of a great neighborhood event (ex. the ongoing Mission Arts Performance Project, MAPP) that invites you to cram into a stranger’s living room for a rotating dance circle makes one completely forget the gaps.

I am excited to see if various new media can spin participation, or community activism, in more appealing and less intimidating ways. I am optimistically waiting to witness first-hand the success of apps, such as NextDoor, attempting “community building” through an online social network. To my knowledge, NextDoor and similar apps propose an additional tool that may make face-to-face time among neighbors easier, without replacing it entirely. Also, the San Francisco LocalWiki is pretty amazing. As an accessible, editable platform, it invites anyone curious enough to invest in 1. contributing personal knowledge about all things local, from coffee shops to elected officials, and/or 2. researching and presenting local history to share an institutional memory with others. (Note from ML: See other local festivals here in our Mission Guide.)

ML:  What surprised you from the first two symposiums?

Nichols: It surprised me that participants were not more angry. This was most unexpected since the entire idea for the event was born out of a sense that a great majority of San Francisco residents were pissed off over, most broadly over gentrification and all of its ripple effects. I expected the symposiums to bring about more heated and emotional debates regarding what the future of San Francisco should be, similar to those witnessed in news headlines and blog rants, and at community meetings. Someone suggested to me that maybe the party-like atmosphere of the symposium events was both to thank and blame for the lack of live tension. Or, the calm tone of the group could speak to the audience demographic, say, if none of the participants had been directly exposed to or affected by discriminatory and unjust consequences as a result of accelerated gentrification (ex. a no-fault eviction).

I recall one of few heated conversations to come out of the symposiums took place between a young man trying to convince a young woman that everyone needs to practice more civic engagement and fight for the changes they want to see. The woman’s repeated rebuttal was that, realistically, people with a typical 40-hour work week lack both the time and energy on evenings and weekends to throw into civic engagement. Both were correct, and therein highlights the uncomfortable juicy bits and gray areas the symposiums seek to explore.

ML:Your second symposium asked how long people had been in the neighborhood and whether they wanted to preserve it or change with people suggesting changes such as more humane and affordable housing, or the neighborhood atmosphere that currently exists in Dogpatch.   The responses were interesting because one seeks something that can only happen through more government push and the other seemed like turning back the clock, which is difficult to do.

How did you read the responses and as an urban planner what do you take away from the answers?

Nichols: My goal is for everyone to walk away from an event thinking of themselves as an activist (holding a spirit for action) for something, in some way. I view most of these action-oriented responses as more or less similar efforts motivated by a sense of pride and ownership over your city or neighborhood. While ranging in type and level of involvement, from advocating for affordable housing (ex. attending a Planning Commission meeting) to advocating for a neighborhood atmosphere (ex. hosting a neighborhood block party), the commonality is that they represent a desire and initiative to make something better.

ML:  Tonight’s panel will be delving more into the question of what people want preserved.Any sense of what you will be doing with those responses and the others you have received?

Nichols: The definite hope is to keep this type of event, the symposium format, going in some form or another in the city. I believe current discussions and debates about the city need to carve out this face-to-face, candid style of listening and learning and questioning as a way of claiming San Francisco as a place genuinely made from many, and for many.