I had not planned on writing this. I was supposed to update about a mural project I assisted on in Hutchinson. But I just came home from (foolishly) trying to get to the library, in the heart of tiny Downtown Lawrence. What should take five minutes, took twenty. And I get that it’s small potatoes compared with other cities, with other “sprawling metropolises” (metropoli?), but sprawling metropolis is not Lawrence. God forbid the people that actually live here have to go to the community pool or library on a hot, Summer Sunday. And then it struck me, in that moment, I could, for one brief instant, see the OTHER SIDE behind this whole East 9th Street corridor. If I, someone who is adamantly against this expansion, could be so annoyed and frustrated and wish EVERYTHING didn’t have to be run through a five block stretch (or a fifteen block radius at best), then everyone else could too. So maybe this, this too-big-for-your-britches Free State Festival and this bike race and everything else that has been shoved under the LAC umbrella, is all just part of the plan. Maybe if they frustrate and annoy the parents, the West Siders, the middle-agers, the low-middle incomers, who have no solid feeling one way or the other, so much that we just say YES, YES. OK. Anywhere but just here. Run it through another area and relieve some of the pressure. Fine.
Except it’s not fine. Lawrence is a town of 100,000 people, on a good day. And gone are the days of Summer reversion when the students leave town. So I pull out the New Orleans card again, I pull out the Kansas City card with it. These are bigger places, with longer histories of events and more room to do it. Someone, is thinking, wishing, hoping beyond their means. I know who it is, and maybe you do too. I also know who’s set to make money off these dreams, and I hope you do too. And I hope you’re thinking about it.
On the way back from my eventually successful trip to pick up a book, I had flashbacks of Mardi Gras. How we would mock people who got trapped behind a parade, or didn’t avoid Uptown or St. Charles on certain days/times (ha! they’ll learn). And sure, people have to live there too. It’s a common issue for any city hosting a big event. But, Mardi Gras isn’t being forced upon them, not really (the Super Bowl, is another story). It’s part of a long history and they’ve got crowd control and parading down to a science. And, in New Orleans, as small as it actually is, you can escape it, if you wanted to. There are options.
But perhaps the more appropriate card to pull out of the deck, is Austin. Because Someone wants this to be SXSW, or rather, NXNE. Except Austin is a town of 900,000+ people which leads me to believe someone is jumping the gun just a little bit, or padding their resume for the next gig. How confident are we that these place-makers, these noble “arts” saviors, are here to stay? Today, the topic of new residents vs. old guard came up in conversation. It’s something, since leaving New Orleans, I’ve thought about in passing, but hadn’t seen much evidence of, the notion of native vs. non-native outside that setting. Diaphanous and loaded meanings aside for now, the Outsider Mentality comes up a lot in New Orleans. I get it, to a point. It’s protection and fear of exploitation after a history of just that. In the case of New Orleans, we’re talking hundreds of years, but Lawrence, KS, is a different animal. Or is it? There is a culture and a history to be protected here as well, even if you’re not a part of it, or aren’t really aware of it, it’s there, and there will be lines drawn in the sand as this continues. I, personally, have not been called into question, not to my face. Yes, I am a renter, so I’m sure my opinion carries little weight, and I’m also a “native” Kansan, so maybe a little more is added on. But I’m not FROM Lawrence. At what point does that become an issue. In my view, for this place, all opinions matter, but that comes with the caveat that one must consider the dog in the race, and the ticket-holder’s willingness to listen to dissent, to give it more than lip service in retort, to understand that socio-economic status and “how you got here, how long will you stay”, the friends you keep, all factor into this, for everyone, not just Someone.
And because this is a small town (own it, Lawrence), there is a good-to-definite chance you are being talked about, could be labeled, could be, yes, blacklisted. At that point, livelihoods become threatened, people stop speaking up. Some people don’t have to worry about this, and that is the difference. Some people don’t have to worry that stating how they feel could affect their job search, or their current job, or future endeavors. Some people. What would it be like if we could have a real, honest, open conversation, a dialogue in a neutral space where we could all speak out about these changes without fear of repercussion? Is it even possible? Can the small potatoes and big tubers get together and hash(brown) it out? Or would we leave there, scared for our future, or adding names to that dark list?
I don’t know. I just know this is something we should all be talking and thinking about, not just East Siders, not just artists and homeowners, not just new residents and old guard. Consider those who stand to gain, those who stand to lose, the timing, the long-term sustainability, the current sustainability. Consider the process. Consider your neighbors, your friends, your kids, your grandkids. Consider quality, quantity. Organic growth vs. big development. Consider the angles.
With that, below is the letter I sent at the last minute before the work plan acceptance meeting. It was written in haste, so isn’t perfect. It was also written using that sweet, free internet at our wonderful library, right in the heart of our crucial Downtown.
I realize this is coming in at the last hour, and may not even be read, but I cannot attend tonight’s meeting to make my voice heard.
I am a former Lawrence resident who, until last November, has been living in New Orleans, LA for the past 6 and a half years. I relocated back to Lawrence, to be closer to family (who are all in Topeka). And I chose Lawrence, as I always do, because it is a more open-minded and progressive city, one with a decent understanding of the importance of art, music, and culture.
Maybe that’s why I am so dismayed to see the fabric of Lawrence neighborhoods so quickly ripped and up for sale. I live in East Lawrence, XXXXXXXXXXX to be exact, and already see the changes. I am a struggling artist and chose East Lawrence not just for an affordable place to live, but for the people that live there. Coming from New Orleans, I feel I see a future that maybe not many others have seen, a city that prides itself on culture, music, and art, where schemes cached as “economic development” have discolored and gentrified entire sections of once vibrant communities. It is heartbreaking to see it beginning on a smaller scale here. You cannot refurbish and plop down a handful of trendy warehouses and call it a “district”. You cannot run land grabs through thriving communities and call it improvements (for their own good, right?). From what I can see, it didn’t need to be improved. No one is denying that basic infrastructure and street repair is needed, but attaching basic needs and services to forced cultural “improvements” (and grant money) is like trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. Lawrence is not yet big enough to sustain this path. The endless festivals, the tourist economy, works for New Orleans because they’ve been doing it for decades. It’s not perfect by a long shot, but it generally works there because it fits. But shoving pre-approved (NON-LOCAL) art (and soon, entertainment) right through the heart of a community just smacks of a development scheme and poor planning. True art and culture havens are born organically, not forced upon the people with a fistful of dollars and bad design. Too often, these plans are only abandoned in a few years because they cannot be sustained and the flock has moved on.
I urge you, slow it down, or shut it down. Be open, transparent, and let’s work together on a plan that works for EVERYONE, not just a few.