100,000. On a Good Day

2015-06-26 19.10.29
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.
__________________
Greetings,

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.
Thank you.

2015-06-26 17.03.14

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Hwy 24

hwy24 poem collage

© Jill Ensley

Like the first robins of Spring,
Summer signified in the first yellow and white carnival tents,
Collecting and dispersing Chinese gunpowder and smoke, or
Fried fare and pantomimed nostalgia.
To celebrate our clutched victory, our headlong rush,
Down our own dark path

Rickety, transient Ferris wheels in rear-view mirrors,
Framed by pastel twilight, sherbert sunset.
In periphery, a cell phone pulses a rhythmic silent blue, indicating
Alerts and updates, thoughts and validations,
Answered in the fields of fireflies surround.

Endless coal trains, headed South, to the Gulf, off-loaded.
Past sleeping towns, on the outskirts.
Tracks and black dust weaving,
Subtly settling through the North, West, East.
United,
Our penchant for blowing ourselves up.
A bloom of chemistry, of rain, of campfire.

It’s been a week.

-J. Ensley

Exit Interview

By the time you read this, I’ll be gone.

You’ll have to pardon me, but I’ve always wanted to write that.  And in a small, but possibly over-dramatic gesture, this was supposed to be posted as I drove away.  But, you know, things happen, moving takes up more time and energy than you anticipate, and suddenly it’s almost two weeks later.  You’re in a different city, what is supposed to be your home, you can’t get the zip code or city name right on job applications, keep making weird disgusted faces at the local news (it’s gonna stay like that someday), and you don’t tell anyone because you’re hiding until you’re ready.  And then you just keep hiding because then you get depressed.

But what follows, seems to be the thing to do these days, write her a letter when you leave, a long, prosey, sad goodbye.  It’s because she’s special and deep down, not one of us is 100% positive we’re doing the right thing when, if, we leave.  It’s a little like leaving home (home-home, not adopted home) for the first time.  You know it needs to be done, but there’s still that breaking, no, with her it’s that stretching of the cord that binds you, testing its limits.  New Orleans will always feel like absolute home to me, but it’s time to face the truth.  It’s not mud and swamp water that courses through my veins, but sod and gently rolling hills (at least the politics haven’t changed, guffaw).  I’m a girl of the plains, not born of bayou pirogues but casting off in land-locked lakes.  True, my homeland doesn’t hold as much magic as South Louisiana does (for me), but maybe it’s time I make my own, as soon as this Black Cloud of Leaving passes.  Time to (eventually) find out if living off the land, the land of my birth, is hereditary.  Time to admit I need help, as hard as that might be.  I have a plan, a ten year plan, if I don’t get distracted and my body allows it.  (This morning, it’s running some plays I can’t quite defeat. And thanks for the football love, New Orleans.  I’mma Who Dat ’til I die.)

I will miss her.  God I will miss her.  Eight months before departing and I felt like crying when I thought of leaving, a few days before and it was unreal.  It didn’t hit me until I stood in an empty apartment, about to leave.  Broke down, had to sit in the moving truck until I was sure I wouldn’t run us off the road.  Driving away, a clear image of my soul, my spirit, my whateveryouwannacallit, clawing at 1-10 West, at 1-55 North, trying to get back.  Past the lake, resigned.  (Whatta you gonna do, spirit, swim back?)

So, I will miss her broken streets, her moss-laden oaks, her young earth coating of seashells and river silt, her egrets and pelicans, and wish I could wrap up City Park and take it with me.19_JillEnsley_City Park Magic Tree

2013-12-08 16.11.26citypark_newsunsetI will miss her High Cloud Season, Low Cloud Season.  Every Cloud Season.  Kansas may have big skies, but nowhere I have ever been can hold a candle to Gulf Coast clouds.  Nowhere.  Shut your damn fool mouth.

Fluffy towers that dwarf the sky itself.  If you’re not a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society of NOLA, I highly recommend it.

I will miss Swan River.  There is no other space like it.  Yoga (and so much more) in an old library, with the beautiful mural proudly displayed, and amazing, welcoming people all around.  How perfect is that space.

2014-04-06 09.23.57

I will miss these girls.  So much.  I can’t even say anymore because I will start crying on this keyboard.  And anyway, ladies, it’s not goodbye, just see ya later.johnnysketch1  There will be others I will miss, and I hope you know that, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye. Know that I was, and will be thinking of you, but these two ladies, these are mah girls.

nat&jen2

nat&jen1

So, goodbye Nigerian cab corner (Bienville & Royal).  Goodbye Poo(h) Corner (Carrollton & Iberville).  Goodbye Flagstaff Walk (Jeff Davis walkway between Toulouse & Bienville).  Goodbye to nearly constant music in the streets, any street.  A lone trumpet, from somewhere nearby, a lone sousaphone player, marching up down broken sunset seashell & silted concrete.  Goodbye N. Pierce, where I began my tenure, met lifelong friends, and then came back full circle to depart, but never really leave.

and p.s. thanks for bestowing me this weird cat.  maybe I’ll see ya for Carnival next year.

—————————— Which brings us to today….

My brain can’t wrap my heart around it.

Suddenly, gone.  Suddenly, quiet (my god it’s quiet). No neighbors on their porches, no streetcars, no brass bands practicing in the street.  It does hurt.  I’ve never missed a city like you miss a person.  The first full day in my new apartment, listening to ‘OZ and I couldn’t stop crying, and laughing.  I haven’t been able to listen to it since.  What have I done?  What I needed to do, but painful all the same.  Like I told the good, good friend (thank you, Kim!!!) that came down to help me leave, “it’s like ripping a Band-Aid off, OF YOUR HEART”.  Always one for the false joke, the hysterical histrionics.  It’s going to take some time, happened so fast.  And there’s a large chunk of my heart that will forever and ever be covered in Spanish moss and iron lace. There’s so much more I wanted to say, but it’s so much that I can’t quite wrap my arms around it. Maybe it will come in time, maybe this is fine the way it is.

(Two pairs of socks, three blankets, and I cannot get warm.  The cat is none too pleased.)

So, if you’ve made it this far, and you’re in the NE Kansas neck of the woods, come to our small pop-up-ish holiday art sale this Saturday and Sunday (Nov 13 and 14) at 1146 Connecticut (in the renovated church) in Lawrence, KS.  There will be hot cider and pumpkin bread and awt.

 [all images copyright Jill Ensley, thank you very much. and if you want to see the photographic progression, check here. I’m hoping to update it soon.]