CNY Speaks Back

Flipping the script–CNY Speaks writes the post and I comment. Thanks to Greg Munno from the Post-Standard and CNY Speaks

I love this post, even though it contains a fair amount of criticism of a project that I am truly passionate about.

The reason I love it is that it eloquently articulates exactly what CNYSpeaks needs to do in order to be successful. It also gives me a chance to clear up a few things about the project. I’ll take a few of Phil’s comments point by point.

1) Mobilize into a group with a sense of common cause.

This is exactly what we hope we can accomplish with CNYSpeaks. We’re in the initial stages of starting a conversation about downtown Syracuse, a process that also entails trying to capture and distill other conversations about downtown that have been taking place for some time. If we can get enough people to join in this conversation, I believe people will start to coalesce around the best ideas and start pushing for their implementation.

It is true that we picked the first the topic ourselves. We selected downtown because we thought it would interest people from many walks of life and from many parts of Central New York. We do believe that everyone has a stake in downtown. We also thought, with a mayoral election looming in 2009, that the timing was right to have this conversation.

It’s our goal to have future discussions spring from the citizenry in a more organic way, and one of the first posts on the CNYSpeaks blog invites people to weigh in on what those future topics should be. The whole “cool downtown” thing was really just a quick and easy (and, unfortunately, flip) way to talk about the project. It is not just about being hip or retaining young people. It’s about a livable downtown; a downtown that works for commuters; a downtown that feels safe for families; a downtown we can all be proud of.

2) Develop a coherent and practical list of changes they want to see.
Once again, this is exactly where we are headed, we hope. I personally think there already some amazing comments on the blog, although you do have to wade through some negativity to find them.

Remember, we’re just getting started. The ideas are going to keep coming, both online and in the forums we’ll have in the fall. I think we will be able to formulate a coherent list of changes that a substantial portion of the Central New York community will endorse.

3) Target the folks with power to make the changes, negotiating if possible, protesting if necessary.

We have a new county executive already on record as saying the health of downtown is important to her, and already on record as saying she’ll pay attention to CNYSpeaks. And next year, we’ll have a group of mayoral and council candidates that would be foolish not to embrace recommendations for downtown that spring directly from the citizenry.

It is certainly true that the paper and the University are powerful interests in the community, there is no reason to deny that.

But let’s look at what that means for this project.

First of all, when it comes to SU, the involvement stems from the passion Grant Reeher and Tina Nabatchi, as individual Maxwell professors, have for deliberative democracy. My understanding is that higher ups at Maxwell and SU have blessed their involvement, but this is not a case of an 800-pound gorilla throwing its weight around. Rather, it is a case of two smart people saying, “Hey Greg, if you’re going to do this project, it might help if you had a clue about what you were doing, and we may be able to help.”

As for the paper/ — we’re not as powerful as we used to be, and this project, in part, is a recognition of that. It used to be that you could not really consider yourself involved in the community and not read the paper. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. One of things we want to do is once again become a tool of the people who are passionate about this community.

One power the paper still does have is the power to amplify voices. In the past, those voices were often the voices of people already in power — the “experts,” the “decision makers.”

CNYSpeaks is a departure from this. The voices we want to emphasize now are the voices of the citizens of this community. It’s through this amplification that CNYSpeaks can give people and organizations more power than they would on their own. And I am now taking my direction as a journalist from CNYSpeaks participants instead of from the editors here. People talk about the need to move the Common Center, so I write about where that project is at. People debate the safety of downtown, so I crunch some numbers. Through CNYSpeaks, average citizens have become my assigning editor.

This is a good time to mention that many organizations in our community, including SUN, give citizens a way to organize, to connect and to engage issues of importance. CNYSpeaks does not seek to usurp or replace or co-opt these efforts. Rather, we want CNYSpeaks to be a place where citizens not involved with other groups can have a voice, and we want it to be a tool that existing groups like SUN can use to help amplify their own messages. Consider CNYSpeaks in general, and me in particular, as a tool you can use to get your message out.

Finally, Phil, you are so right that real change happens off-line. The blog is just a way to get the conversation started and to keep people informed about the project. The real work will be done at the forums, and after. The dates for the initial forums in early October are on the blog, and we’ll make a big push to get the word out come September.

Thanks so much for the chance to respond. I encourage any of the readers of this blog to contact me with questions about CNYSpeaks.

Greg Munno /cny-speaks


5 thoughts on “CNY Speaks Back

  1. Greg:

    First, thanks for engaging in this discussion.

    Now, Some thoughts:

    1) OK, I’ve got to read your site’s posts more fully–I had missed the part about the upcoming forums. Those are certainly off-line. I will be interested to see how they are going to be moderated, the agenda set and the proposals generated. (Not to mention the responsibilities assigned!)

    2) The downtown piece still bugs me since all the development that’s going on in this town is going on downtown or on the University Hill. Perhaps the discussion could be improved by discussing how adjacent districts could benefit from the city’s priority development (near-west side next to Armory; east side next to the U., northside next to Destiny.)

    3) CNY Speaks seems to mirror the city’s infatuation with commercial development downtown, its investment of public tax dollars in private development that doesn’t seem to need public largesse. What about the neighborhoods that are being systematically starved of public funds due to cutbacks at the local, state and federal level? Every dollar counts out here in the forgotten hinterlands, not so much for yet another hotel or market-rate loft apartment complex downtown.

    4) Giving prime exposure to groups such as MDA and their youth auxiliary 40 Below, seems to mock the idea that CNY Speaks is a grassroots attempt to coalesce “ordinary folks” opinions. Is there anything less grassroots than 40 Below’s attempt to promote Syracuse by creating “brand awareness?”

    5) I hate to open this Pandora’s Box, but somebody has to go first: CNY Speaks should confront the trolls on its site and open up a discussion of one of the most significant hurdles to development in the city–the barely concealed racism and class hubris that results in the hatred and vitriol hurled at city residents. Race is the unspoken subtext in discussions about issues such as crime and the school district. Poverty is the root of many of our fellow citizen’s problems. We need to be as honest about our challenges as we are about our opportunities.


  2. Oops, I forgot to comment on the point in your post that I most wanted to highlight:
    “We also thought, with a mayoral election looming in 2009, that the timing was right to have this conversation.”

    Ever since this city stole Carrier away from some town in New Jersey, we have always talked about economic development. The last election centered on Destiny.

    We need to focus on topics other than economic development in the 2009 mayoral race. Why can’t the 2009 race be about investment in public infrastructure, reducing property taxes, solving the vacant house crisis, opening the public schools as community centers in violence prone neighborhoods–the list goes on and on.

    The developers have had their turn. Let’s talk about homeowners and tenants, school kids and public services.


  3. I pretty much agree with you on all points.

    In order for the forums to be successful, they’ll have to be well moderated and organized. Tina Nabatchi, one of my partners, has an in with the Program for the Analysis and Resolution of Conflict, and we’ll be working with them to design something that I hope will both encourage everyone to participate, and will help focus us on goals and outcomes.

    Downtown already attracts a lot of attention and investment, yet it is the neighborhoods in the city (and the suburbs) where most people live and invest themselves.

    So why focus on downtown? For one, the very fact that investment is taking place downtown helps make this discussion more than just an academic exercise — people should have a say in how that investment shapes our downtown. Secondly, I worried that a focus on any other geographical area would simply fail to interest people from outside of that area. And third, this is just the first topic that we hope to tackle, and moving out from the center makes sense.

    I think you are right that one of our unexamined biases is that we need more development downtown. Thanks for pointing that out. However, I disagree that we have made any sort of judgment that public tax dollars should be used to support this development — I’m skeptical of that personally, and I haven’t heard too much of a call for that kind of investment in the conversation so far. In fact, I think CNYSpeaks can demonstrate that ample demand exists for private enterprise to make certain investments without the help of government.

    The folks at 40 Below are using the skills they have to do what they can to better the community and themselves — I don’t fault them for that, at all. Also, I haven’t made a special effort to highlight 40 Below’s efforts. They simply clued into how to take advantage of me and CNYSpeaks earlier than some others — and I can’t fault them for that either.

    But I do agree that other perspective and skills need to be brought to the table. Can SUN help me with this? I would love that.

    The MDA itself has always presented a bit of a conundrum for me. On the one hand, it is a powerful entity that I think should be examined more rigorously than it has been in the past. On the other, it is an extremely helpful organization in terms of being willing to share information with folks like me, and there is no question they can play a positive role downtown. I’ll continue to use them as a source of information, while trying to hold on to my skepticism.

    It is important to note that, initially, CNYSpeaks is trying to present itself as something people in power can use to make better decisions. We’re just getting started. We don’t have the clout yet to organize actions in the way that a group like SUN can. And it would be premature to take an aggressive stance anyway. If we can get citizens to talk, and get the decision makers to listen, maybe we can all move forward together.


  4. Chris L

    I definitely agree with your point about race, phil. Lots of bloggers on CNY Speaks rant about crime and teenage hooligans downtown, and about driving through the city to get there, when all bloggers who actually go downtown on a regular basis tell them their fears are almost wholly unfounded. What is at issue is their fear and distaste for the poor and mostly black neighborhoods around downtown and the people that live there


  5. “What is at issue is their fear and distaste for the poor and mostly black neighborhoods around downtown and the people that live there.”

    Right on Chris.

    I think a lot of the people on the forums and blogs are what I call “button pushers,” who simply say the most un-PC thing they can think of in the hopes of upsetting as many people as possible.

    But there is also clearly a disturbing, racist, classist view that really does exist in CNY, not just among a few desperate-for-attention posters.

    Obviously, Phil is right — we should be acknowledging and confronting this.

    But how, exactly? What’s the best way for dealing with this element? Any thoughts?


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