Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mistaking run of the mill "nimbyism" for racism

The Post's online RootDC section has a piece that ran in the paper a few days ago, "Squabble over U Street restaurant offers close-up on city’s constant change," about how resident opposition to the noise from outdoor seating at The Islander, a many decades old Caribbean restaurant in the U Street corridor is racially-driven. From the article:

Such a battle unfolded last week on U Street at the Thurgood Marshall Community Center, where social justice is literally written all over the walls. Adorned with images of black and African leaders dating back centuries, it seemed the perfect place for a popular black-owned restaurant to defend itself against claims of being a disruption to community peace and order.

For years, residents of the surrounding area have levied complaints against The Islander, a Caribbean restaurant that has called U street home for since 1997- and been in DC for more than 40 years. The restaurant’s neighbors claimed that patrons have been a constant source of undue noise, be it from the patio, or from equipment on the roof, and argued at a Tuesday night hearing that the restaurant should not have its liquor license renewed.

Immediately, the meeting was contentious. In a somewhat surreal scene, the supporters of the restaurant, who were largely black, hovered over the mainly white committee who sat at a long board room table. But, the racial divide was just one part of a battle for fairness that plays out every day in Washington.

While I didn't attend any of the hearings, I don't believe at the heart that this kind of opposition is racially motivated.  And I even hate to call it nimbyism per se.

And even calling something racially motivated is tough, as I remember traditional African-American audiences in Shaw mounting opposition to Ethiopian establishments locating in "their neighborhood" (see this 2005 blog entry "One reason why I think the Gentrification word is over- and mis-used").

Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette. After the bars close at 2 a.m. crowds of people block the sidewalks and overflow into East Carson Street on the South Side.

Resident opposition to "noisy night time establishments" transcends race, and it only gets accentuated by owner-occupied housing--as opposed to rental units--and infill housing, which brings new residents to areas and the new residents may not be "simpatico" with mixed use.

The real issue has to do with mixed use living-commercial settings.  Which is what I think of as "designing conflict in."

Even committed urbanists like Roberta Gratz (author of The Living City and Cities: Back from the Edge) don't necessarily want a bar located on the ground floor of their condominium building (see "Next to Central Park, Anger Over a Planned Bar" from the New York Times).

I can think of many examples of running into this across the city in various settings, from H Street (class C establishments generally) to Brookland (Yes! Grocery, noisy CUA students, drinking CUA students, Kitty Mulligans--now closed, etc.) to Stanton Park (new residents in new rowhouses complaining about ambulances using the street in front of their houses, as the street also serves the Capitol Hill Hospital long term care facility) to Downtown (places open at night) to Georgetown.(GU students, people leaving bars at closing time), etc.

These weren't racial issues although in some instances some of the establishments were African-American and people worked to raise that--wrongly in my opinion--as an issue.

It's even an issue in my greater neighborhood (Takoma) right now, where some residents are concerned that the Busboys & Poets restaurant is seeking permission to be open very late, rather than more "neighborhood-y" type hours.  Most everyone wants new establishments, but figuring out how to mediate between neighborhood and commercial interests is tough.

Photo by Renee Rosensteel, Pittsburgh City Paper. East Carson Street on a Saturday night.

And this will only get "worse" as the prevalence of mixed use districts increases.  (It's also an issue when schools and churches and other civic and community uses are integrated into commercial settings.  See this 2007 blog entry.)

I wrote about this in 2009 in this piece, "Daypart and age-group planning in mixed use (commercial) districts," which was in part a response to a Post article about residents in the U Street commercial-residential mixed use neighborhood complaining about noise.

Typically there is self-selection, and people who are ok with noise and nightlife seek out those settings for living.  But people get old and they don't want to move or their households change and they want to sleep.

I am happy for Busboys & Poets to be open late.  I live 3/4 of a mile away.  People who live right there likely will feel differently.  And hang out some time in May or June in Georgetown between 3 and 4 am, after the bars close, and you will understand why residents complain that it can be incredibly loud and problematic.

My point has always been, "if you're going to live next to a commercial district, you have to put limits on your expectations of how those places will operate."

In Brookland e.g., I was incredulous with this guy who lived in a commercially zoned residence (so he coule park his work trucks there with no problem) immediately abutting the space that became Yes! Grocery, which had been a low impact "adult day care" facility.  He complained about how the use was changing and there would be more traffic and activity there.  I asked him why he chose to live next to a commercial district  and he didn't have a good answer.

Also see "No Room for Improvement: Too many hurdles doom South Side service district--To change communities is a complex beast" from the Pittsburgh City Paper and "Pittsburgh police control late-night crowds on South Side" from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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At 2:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

old people- and it does not matter what race they are- do not like change much

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I don't think anybody is really a big fan of change. Then there is the issue of "the other." In this case, people who drink...

At 12:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Went to an ANC meeting last evening on a totally unrelated project and the local MPD lieutenant mentioned the City's work with the Golden Triangle BID on this issue. Was quite surprised to hear that Thurs-Sunday there are crowds of anywhere from 10-20,000 out on the streets--on each of those nights--in the BID area when the bars/restaurants close simultaneously.


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