For the last week and a half, a sparkly tent has transformed Duarte Square at Canal Street and 6th Avenue, in the neighborhood of Hudson Square, into a grand soapbox for New Yorkers’ visions and concerns. The structure — three connected steel frames wrapped in heavy, clear plastic designed by event production agency Production Glue — is home to Talking Transition, an initiative “pioneering the first open [mayoral] transition in New York City.” Such a bold pronouncement begs the question of who, in fact, is funding and running the program. Talking Transition hosts panels and discussions around a wide swath of issue areas coordinated by community groups and encourages people to rate the state of municipal services and quality of governance on an army of iPads. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Ford Foundation, and Open Society Foundations, along with seven other local and national foundations, are bankrolling the event. They have contracted with HR&A Advisors, a real estate and economic development consulting group often involved in the most high profile redevelopment plans across the City (in addition to other U.S. and international projects), to turn an ideal of an “open” transition into reality.
The significant investment and high production value is evident. Beyond the high concentration of iPads and the tent itself, Broadway-quality lighting equipment casts a blue glow throughout the space. Video cameras capture panels and wandering individuals from every angle. An amalgamation of well-lit milk crates encourage passerby to “TALK HERE.” And, in one corner, a small courtyard tastefully landscaped with potted trees, rough wooden benches, and a compulsory piece of contemporary art provides another space to lounge.
Yesterday evening, the main Town Hall tent featured a panel of youth activists and teachers moderated by Soledad O’Brien brought together by the Dignity in Schools Campaign, all advocating for an alternative approach to school discipline and safety strategies. A central concern of the group is the school-to-prison pipeline. Make the Road New York member Cheyanne Smith attributed the persistence of this disturbing trend to a disconnect between school safety agents — NYPD officers stationed in schools — and school administrators and teachers. When conflict arises in classrooms and school hallways, police officers often intervene in ways that lead to escalation and suspension, pushing students away from support structures when they need them most. Instead, the group advocates a restorative justice approach, allowing for conflict resolution through the mediation of other students and adults.
Seeing these youth voices projected from the stage proved very powerful. While the venue should not lend more credibility to their ideas than deserved based on their content, the expansive space and production value of the event gave weight to their voices that a community center might not. With their peers and adults alike packing the audience, the drawing power of the concept of Talking Transition may spread this message further, provide opportunities for collaboration and movement building, and empower others to speak up.
Whether the medium of Talking Transition actually leads to the translation of this message into policy is an open question. As the cliché goes, talk is cheap. And it might well be meaningless unless the right people are listening. That said, some very powerful people might be: Carl Weisbrod, one of the co-chairs of mayor-elect de Blasio’s transition team, is a partner at HR&A and previously worked on the Talking Transition project before being tapped for the official transition effort.
So perhaps the outcomes from the initiative will make their way to the Mayor’s office. Yet, one could also conclude that the initiative is largely a way to create a public (in multiple senses of the word) spectacle to signal open government in advance of having to deliver on it. There is no blueprint provided by Talking Transition as to how these voices projected into the public sphere will be collected into something deliverable to the new administration, how the thousands of clipped visions written on nametags and pasted to plywood around the tent — “Get the Jets a real quarterback,” exhorted one — could go beyond an aesthetic of participation to internalization of citizens’ perspectives in City Hall.
The energy and excitement in the tent on Tuesday was palpable; groups huddled, listening intently to impassioned speeches. Overall, the platform that the tent in Duarte Square provides for activists, academics, and ordinary citizens to connect and project overshadows understandable skepticism that Talking Transition might actually inform policymaking in the de Blasio administration. The initiative is perhaps better understood as a space for organizing a stronger civil society by bolstering already-established groups. The real work to be done is maintaining pressure on those officials to act in response to these voices. That will require sustained engagement, not a two-week talk back. While the stated intention of the project may be largely lip service, the structure — physical and programmatic — that Talking Transition provides is a testament to the fruitful dialogue that can occur when communities have access to functional spaces for gathering and articulating visions for the future.
All photographs by the author.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.