There is a growing national trend of communities becoming increasingly disconnected as neighbors.
Less in Common, a 2015 study by City Observatory, shows that on average, Americans are spending 33% less time with their neighbors than they were in the 1970s. This same study also shows dramatic declines in levels of trust between neighbors during that same time period. For most communities across the country this is occurring in parallel to a dramatic climb in income inequality and increases in demand for centralized, urban living. These cultural changes paint an unsettling portrait of what it means to be neighbors in our modern age and shows many of the root causes for the tension that is occupying downtowns and first-tier suburbs across the country.
Gentrification, the process of the socioeconomic and cultural change of a place through the introduction of wealthier users, is a topic that is on the minds of many communities, including ours. Some make arguments that gentrification is better than concentrated poverty (see City Observatory’s Lost in Place study) but it is clear that no matter what the data says about macro-gentrification, changes in community’s makeup on a neighborhood level cause the erosion of community culture, adding to the trauma and inequality that so many already experience.
It is important to understand that the changes that are taking place in the North End of Lexington, KY (which you will see in the data section) are not happening in a vacuum. They are the results of generations of sustained (and oftentimes intentionally caused) inequities that continue to manifest iterations of themselves. Many sections of this document discuss the impacts that discrimination and economic segregation have had on the culture and economy of Lexington’s North End. These issues led to the instability of this neighborhood over the past 40-50 years, and are what allows the accelerated economic, social, and cultural changes that are occurring today.
This issue is incredibly difficult to “solve” without complete sea changes across economic, political, and cultural structures. It is difficult to stop the market completely. We can, however, make an attempt to impact the transformation that the North End of Lexington is currently undergoing with the goal of building positive change for everyone in the community.
We began the process of creating the North Limestone Cultural Plan in late 2013 with an award from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Our Town program. As a brand-new Community Development Corporation focused on art and culture, we believed that creating a plan oriented around arts and cultural development in our community could help create a new narrative for the neighborhood. Almost three years later, we now see that was misguided and overly simplistic. So, we are releasing a Cultural Plan that is very different than what was originally intended.
We hope this plan and process sets the groundwork for community development practices that will guide the North Limestone CDC - and hopefully other organizations that work in the North End - moving forward.
The framework of this plan was developed over a long period of time as a response to the changes occurring in our neighborhood, and in reaction to specific events and issues that were happening in real time. What originally started as a single-source grant-based initiative snowballed into a melting pot for other one-off engagements, and because of that this plan will read very different than a more traditional plan.
Even at the onset of this process, we did not want the typical type of city planning document; we already have that - the 2009 Central Sector Small Area Plan. We also did not want the process to be a handful of town-hall meetings and then a copy-and-paste plan from some national consultants. Instead, we wanted a document that was rooted in community voices and was developed by practitioners.
Speaking of the Central Sector Small Area Plan (which covers both the North End and surrounding areas), this document should by no means be considered a replacement for it. It is more of an addendum to it, trying to incorporate more human elements of what defines place and documenting the experiences of our neighbors.
Over the past three years, we have spent a lot of time in community. We hosted community walks, inviting neighbors to use their senses to inform their vision for the future of arts, culture, and public space. We hosted a series of community dinners with neighborhood residents and business owners where we discussed food access, what it takes to start a business, and what the neighborhood needs to be successful and whole. We did one-on-one interviews with neighborhood business owners to get a better understanding of what it was like to own a business in the North End. We conducted on-the-street interviews with individuals walking around. We hosted mobile listening stations in the CDC’s airstream trailer. We engaged youth to hear their vision. We made every attempt to hear those that are not typically heard in community planning processes - though we understand that we can always try harder and do more.
We don’t know the exact number of neighbors we engaged in this process, but we do know that it was more than 300.
While this Cultural Plan identifies several key aspects of what the community needs, it does not take into account a lot of the most pressing issues, including the need for equitable access to affordable housing and accessible employment - perhaps our neighborhoods two largest needs. This is largely a result of the limited bandwidth of a small staff; but also we wanted to ensure that any visioning that went into the Cultural Plan had adequate community engagement and input behind it. It would be easy to shoot from the hip to say what we think is best for housing and other issues, but that would not be in keeping with the spirit of this document. So, while there are many gaps that need to be filled in, this is what we have, now - and this is what we have heard.
There are so many people to thank. This document simply would not have existed if it were not for the friends, neighbors, collaborators, agitators, and accomplices that live in this beautiful and rich community. So, thank you all, and we hope that you are pleased with the result. If not, I’m sure we’ll hear from you, and we’ll work to do better next time.
One of my favorite quotes comes from the book Equity, Growth, and Community, by Manuel Pastor, the Director of USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, and Chris Benner, Director of the Everett Program for Digital Tools for Social Innovation at USC. I am hopeful that it can frame this moment, both in our neighborhood, and in our country:
We must understand, as individuals and as organizations, that we have common goals and common goods that we can work together on. We must not let our privilege erode our ability to have empathy or admit when we are wrong. We must not insist that we alone have the answers. We must not make judgments about others without engaging with them. The truth is that no individual, no organization, and certainly no long-range plan can build community. Building community takes mutual trust, vulnerability, a willingness to listen. It takes time.
We hope that this plan can be a first step towards supporting and promoting a more united and cohesive community in a way that values everyone’s perspectives.
We hope that it helps build a better neighborhood for all that have lived here, do live here, and will live here.
- Richard Young