Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Prospect of Being Overrun

A few months ago a friend told our Rotary Club that 17% of all of the new apartments then under construction in North Carolina were within two miles of Duke University here in Durham.

It brought to mind a comment a professor made to that same group twenty-five years earlier.

I had just been hired during my former career to jump start Durham’s community marketing agency and after his speech, Dr. Clay Hamner, a professor at the Fuqua School of Business who also co-developed Brightleaf Square was asked what we were going to do with all of the hotels under construction.

“We should blow up half of them,” he quipped in a chacteristic growl.

Hotel developers back then, without a local destination marketing organization generating data to inform feasibility studies, were prone to use and reuse the same studies of forecasted supply and demand, even if horribly outdated.

Risky, but you would be surprised how often projects, even today, come out of the ground without factoring changes in supply, perhaps even some of these residential complexes.

Sitting in the audience that day, I knew we were already correcting that condition by providing Durham-specific market research but I also knew that we would fill many of those new guest rooms by retrieving Durham visitors who through misinformation at the time were being misdirected to stay in other communities.

The same thing will happen with all of the new apartments opening in Durham, many of which are downtown in developments inspired by Clay and his partner Terry Sanford Jr. when they set the adaptive reuse standard here more than three decades ago.

In other words, many people who will rent those apartments probably meant to be in Durham all along but were dissuaded by Realtors elsewhere or by water-cooler folk tales that it wasn’t cool enough (or safe enough.)

The same is true of all of the new hotels opening downtown.  Hotels don’t generate demand, they harvest it.

Think about it.  People don’t wake up in the morning thinking they want to go and stay in a hotel.  They stay in a hotel because it is in the destination and near the things they want to visit.

But many of the visitors who will stay downtown have probably been coming here for related reasons, but for lack of options had been overnighting elsewhere in Durham or even further away because a certain level of lodging was full here.

But relocating these visitors and renters is only the beginning of the process of “onboarding” them.  The fact that they were susceptible to misinformation in the first place, means they will take a good while before fully embracing Durham values.

After she read a recent post of mine entitled Mitigating Halloween and Our Obsession with Risk, a neighbor asked me if Durham is in danger of being overrun.

On our listserv, a group of longer established neighbors had unsuccessfully tried to reason with some newer arrivals set on blocking off streets.

To no avail, these neighbors were trying to “onboard” the newer arrivals to intrinsic Durham values such as being open and welcoming.

Self-righteousness prevailed.

The challenge any community marketing agency has, such as the three I led during my now-concluded career, is not just to draw anyone and everyone to visit and live here (more than 80% of newcomers secretly shop a community first as a visitor) but to help prospects make the decision that is right for them, even if it isn’t the community you represent.

That’s not only good business because it leads to higher customer satisfaction, but it also protects a community’s sense of place from being overrun by people who won’t like it here or aren’t apt to appreciate and adopt the core traits and values that distinguish it.

It is also why it never makes sense to lead promotional efforts off with mainstream facilities and events which, by nature, are not distinctive or authentically representative of a particular place, even to the people drawn to them, because they are identical to those in hundreds of other places.

It is also the reason any community’s best cultural investment is in a local history museum.  Researchers have found that these places uniquely give children, students, visitors and newcomers, including relocating executives a place to get in touch with a community’s story, a sense of its soul, and its “there” there.

This is the best investment in community attachment and sense of place any community can make.  As a side benefit, history museums also draw participation from the same proportion of visitors to a community as facilities for performing arts or sports events do.

If and when Durham finally builds a museum fully capable of showcasing Durham’s history, it will uniquely interpret that one of the organic values Durhamites have is being drawn to people who are diverse rather than to tribes who are just like they are.

It is the latter that has led to bigotry in many places over the years as well as the wholesale homogenization of many communities.

Certainly not everyone drawn to Durham or even born here is in synch with Durham.  I’ve even known several elected to high office over the years as well as counterparts in other areas of economic development who weren’t.

This isn’t just because political campaigns often focus on what’s wrong with a community or because some people in these roles view themselves as the “cavalry,” but because they just don’t value or even sense Durham’s intrinsic distinctiveness.

It was easy for me.

It was part of my job to tease out and leverage what makes places distinctive so I became a quick study on which communities would be a good fit for me.

We’re living in a time of downtown revitalizations across the nation and nowhere is that more evident than in Durham.  But experts fear that in the process most are in danger of simply becoming playgrounds for the well-to-do erasing the socio-economic diversity that gave them appeal in the first place.

There may be a fine line, as I am quoted as saying, between organic and funky and merely seedy, but there is an even finer line between being authentic and merely a shell of a real place.

The former attributes in each case are hallmarks of sustainable sense of place.

As I read the new book entitled The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community by Marc J. Dunkelman, a quote by famed jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis kept crossing my mind.

In an interview here on NPR’s The State of Things, when asked why he and his family chose to move to Durham, Marsalis responded eloquently with one of the values and traits that has made Durham distinctive since its founding.

"Durham is everything I ever wanted in a City. It's fair…You can find everything… people who are wealthy, people who are not wealthy, blue collar workers, white collar workers, farmers.

They are all hanging out together. You go in the grocery store and you see people talking. It's not like the farmers on one corner and the lawyers are in one corner. In Durham, you don't have those stringent class lines."

In his book, Dunkelman identifies this trait as crucial to a sense of community and the ability to coordinate, not with cliques or inner circles, but across class and racial distinctions with those with whom we may not always agree.

In one part of his book, there is a brief history of how communities evolved in America, the anchor of what early observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville saw as key to our exceptional nature.

Dunkelman’s book weaves together numerous other studies and books over the years and he reminded me of one I read in the early 1980s by Dr. Claude S. Fischer entitled To Dwell among Friends: Personal Networks in Town and City.

It was about the time I first read Wallace Stegner’s essay coining the term The Sense of Place and among the earliest influences I had in getting my head around how communities evolve organically and how even landscape and other traits help shape them and make them distinct from those even close by.

One was scientific, the other lyrical and combined they led me to my first grasp of community attachment and what made some communities worth loving and visiting and others not so much.

Today, sociological researchers such as Dr. Jeni Cross at Colorado State University focus on unwrapping sense of place and its relationship to attachment.

Cross breaks our relationship to a particular place down into biographical (historical and familial,) spiritual (emotional and intangible,) ideological (moral and ethical,) narrative (mythical,) commoditized (image of desirable physical traits) and dependent (when someone has no choice.)

She finds a cohesive sense of rootedness and attachment with ideological, spiritual and biographical.  The tragedy of becoming cool is that many drawn last in by that attribute alone will also be first out, leaving sense of place diminished. 

In the words of Wendell Berry, another of my influences, most will be boomers vs. stickers.

If Durham’s sense of place is sooner or later overrun, it won’t be solely the fault of poor public policy or gentrification gone amuck or blocking off streets by helicopter parents but because, as Dunkelman explains, the social architecture of communities is in transformation.

Preserving what makes Durham Durham is not just the job of politicians or agencies, even ones such as DCVB which is charged as a guardian.

It certainly won’t be about “thinking big” or “monumental” or “institutional,” all of which in the words of Jane Jacobs “have the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery” and deaden places.

It will also not be just about preservation or change but rather how a community blends both.

It will all come down to how badly grass roots individuals and groups want to keep coordinating across differences to find Durham solutions to Durham problems, just as those founders did and generations have done for decades.

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