Tuesday, March 11, 2008

We're Not Conquerors. We're Just Nerds. Nerds With Sandwiches.

Something has been bugging me for a couple weeks, ever since the Driscoll Incident. Dan Voelpel started it. Driscoll carried it on. Neither of them can really be blamed, though, because since then it just keeps going and going, popping up nigh everywhere. To quote Voelpel's Trib article:
Fired up by the inspiration, some in the crowd decided they needed to act to take back Frost Memorial Park, next to the North Park Plaza parking garage, from the ne’er-do-wells who hang out there.
Ever since then, the phrase "take back the park" has been bouncing around the feed like mad. Everyone's saying it, from participants to academic observers. And, quite frankly, it's just making us look like idiots. Any outside reader with a little bit of neighborhood activist experience is going to look at this and say "What? You can't drive off unwanteds by eating lunch in a park on a sunny Friday at noon." And they would be absolutely right. If we really were out to get "ne'er-do-wells" out of our neighborhoods, the lunch hour is not the time to do it. How much criminal activity or whatever was really going on that we somehow foiled? Probably none. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places, but I haven't seen a lot of crack dealers trying to cash in on the lunch rush.

I mentioned in an earlier entry the group of elderly women who set up a card table on a drug-ridden street corner and played bridge in the middle of the night. That's how you drive off criminals... go to a place where they are, when they are there, and plant yourself. The notion that the same thing will be achieved by what we did (and will continue to do) is ludicrous.

So what were we doing? When Patricia first brought it up at the Go Local event, her reasons were fairly clear: word on the street suggested that the city was looking at constructing a fence around the park to discourage criminal use. Unfortunately this has the side-effect of discouraging legitimate use as well. However, as it stood, the trade-off was an easy one to make because there simply weren't enough law-abiding park-goers. The goal, as I understood it from Patricia, and passed it on to the feed, was to demonstrate use, and thereby prevent the fencing off.

Unfortunately, once one article latched onto the "take back" notion, everything got twisted around. Driscoll took Voelpel's statement and, curious to see what "taking back the park" was like, went down there. I would have been curious too, if I hadn't organized it to begin with. The fact is, even if we had been there in force that day he would almost surely have been unimpressed. We aren't demonstrators. We aren't vigilantes. We're barely even activists at this point. We're a bunch of businesspeople and residents using a park the way it ought to be used: eating lunch, socializing, networking.

I fear that a lot of this is just shades of the "flash mob" debacle from last year... one person uses a phrase not recognizing that it doesn't fit the circumstances, a couple other people latch onto it because it's catchy. Those being described object at first, but eventually pick it up as a joke. Eventually it has entered common use and everyone has forgotten that it has very little to do with what was actually going on.

I'm all for taking back the park. Any of them. If anyone feels like meeting in the same park at 1 AM on a Saturday morning, I'll show up, guitar and all, and lead a frickin' sing-along. I won't do it by myself... stories of this working demonstrate that it is most successful with a group large enough that the aforementioned goons and dealers recognize that they won't be able to intimidate them. I don't care how afraid you are to walk around by yourself at night... nobody is going to attack a band of 10 bystanders just so they can sell a rock or two.

But I'm also all for what we're doing now. Because I think it is important. But it's also important to understand what's really going on. The fancier our label, the loftier we make our goals seem, the less impressive our effort becomes. We did a good job of using the park as a park. But if you pretend we were trying to reclaim it from villainy, we just look like a bunch of misguided incompetents.

And here's the kicker: it really is largely my fault. If I had thought of all this before everything got started, I probably would not have gone with:
We can keep the dialog going and start retaking our public space at the same time.
In my head I was thinking much more eagerly of the idea that one meeting wasn't enough, and that getting everyone together with whatever excuse would be good to keep up the dialog. Unfortunately I didn't think my phrasing through and now this "take back the park" catch phrase is rattling around the blogosphere, when it really shouldn't be. We either need to ramp down the rhetoric to match the action, or ramp up the action to match the rhetoric. I know which makes more sense to me. How about you?


Anonymous said...

I can see this grates on you the way the term "flash mob" bugged me.

I think you're seeing a big reaction from the media because this is a truly grass-roots idea that started with an off-the-cuff remark. Not everyone is used to the idea that people can quickly mobilize online into a good sized gathering with a purpose.

You can argue that the lunchtime "Take Back" event is silly, or a bit misguided, but the idea behind it is a good one. And if we can get 30 people to turn up at lunch time, maybe we can get 5 to turn up at a later date at midnight. It's even possible that this could turn into a city-wide "Take Back Your Park" event in the future.

I'm trying not to think of this event so literally. Who cares what it's called, as long as it brings people together and gets them thinking about ways to take ownership of their neighborhoods and community spaces?

izenmania said...

Well yes, that's exactly what I said... I think that this activity is a good one. It's doing a good thing, for good reasons. I don't think it's misguided or silly in the least. Hell, I was the one that got it rolling on the feed, and I knew full well what it was going to be.

I'm just thinking in terms of the people who are looking from the outside, seeing a rhetoric-heavy phrase like "Take back the park" and then looking at the action and not seeing the correlation. I say "Take back..." tongue-in-cheek, just as I can say flash-mob tongue-in-cheek, and all the participants will get it.

Just look at the whole thing with Driscoll. The fact that he didn't have all the information is one thing. But there wouldn't have been such a stink if he hadn't been a bit snarky, which grew largely out of his expectation for something big due to the "Take back" phrasing.

It's fundamentally a language issue: you and I can know exactly what we're talking about when we say this or that, but it's only effective in communicating our thoughts if people on the outside understand it to mean what we intend it to mean. And since clearly they are not, I think it's worth looking at the phrasing to understand why.

Anonymous said...


Erik B. said...

It's fundamentally a language issue: you and I can know exactly what we're talking about when we say this or that, but it's only effective in communicating our thoughts if people on the outside understand it to mean what we intend it to mean. And since clearly they are not, I think it's worth looking at the phrasing to understand why.

One thing to remember is that one cannot let naysayers define you. No matter what one does, there are going to be others that try to throw a wet rag on it.

The problem with calling it:

A gathering of cubical employees having lunch in the park

is that it is too boring and no one is going to attend.

That's why we named the go local event "Go Local or Die." A simple "buy local discussion session" would have been dead on arrival.

Its extremely difficult to get people to attend any event. There has to be alot of passion shown for it to work.

People have many other alternative activities that they could be doing like going to the mall, meeting friends or spending time with family.

Here's an example:

When I was in a feature in the Business Examiner on parking, Paul Schrag entitled it Aparkalypse Now.

Few are going to want to read something entitled "Tacoma Citizens Discuss Parking Issues."

Let me go further: if an idea does not create some controversy, it is likely too boring, too easy, and not worth doing.

Hang in there Joe.

izenmania said...

Erik -

Yes, I understand the reasons for excessive rhetoric. Hell, the title of this post is an example. It grabs attention. But the fact is... We got what, 30 people? And we didn't grab them with "Take back the park". We grabbed almost all of them with "Downtown Lunchtime Get-Togethers". And heck, I don't think Frost Park would have supported many more people.

I just think there's also a place for avoiding overstatement. And like I said (or at least implied) at the end of my post... I don't think that the solution is to ramp down the rhetoric. I think the solution is to ramp up the action. If we are going to use a phrase with that kind of force behind it, we ought to have the firm goals to back it up, which a lunchtime occupation does not achieve.

I think it's a good start. And I think that we can use the fact that the media types are eying the phrase "Take Back the Park", expecting us to do something bigger than we are is best used as inspiration to actually DO something bigger than we are.

NineInchNachos said...

if this is an issue we want to get ink on we've got to call it something snappy.

i vote for:
"Anarchists Shut Down Frost Park"

naw stick with "Take Back the Park"
if newspapers clinch on we've no choice but to embrace it. We "Take Back the Park" then "Return it as we Found it After Lunch" it's funny.

Droid116 said...

I certainly hope I didn't give the wrong impression. My tone was kept deliberately light on the matter and personally, I just thought it was kind of nice that everyone got together for lunch. I had wanted to join up for the next brown bag too.

Erik B. said...

I certainly hope I didn't give the wrong impression. My tone was kept deliberately light on the matter and personally, I just thought it was kind of nice that everyone got together for lunch. I had wanted to join up for the next brown bag too.

Hope to see you there Andrew.

We are going to try to pick it up a notch from last time.

Looking at getting murals on blank walls and cupcakes have been discussed but that's all I know.

Most of the people there are involved in several pretty involved projects themselves. But I am sure something will happen.

Let me also state that: Frost Park is a public park and everyone is invited.

izenmania said...


I actually greatly enjoyed your post, and I feel like you latched onto something that's impressed me a lot recently: our ability to organize with great speed a large number of people because of this wonderful tool that we have in the feed. I was just pointing it out as another example of the phrase spreading. Your comment here also illustrates my point: you know you were using it to be light in tone, and I could easily see it that way, but once it becomes pervasive enough it becomes difficult to tell who is and isn't taking it seriously.

@RR (and everybody, really):

I know that at this point there's no way to really fight it. Like I said in response to Erik... at this point I'd rather just use the rhetoric as an inspiration to action.

It is a function of my writing style that the ideas I communicate by the end of an entry don't really reflect how I came into it so much as the conclusion I've come to along the way. So I started out complaining about the overuse of the phrase and by the end realized that cutting down the rhetoric is pointless. But of course I didn't go back and edit, because... meh :)

Patricia Lecy-Davis said...

Thanks Ize for clarifying the park/lunch intentions. All this "Take back the park" s**t is getting old. I'm embarrassed that so many people have spent so much time on the subject. We really just wanted to activate a space so that it didn't get shut off. see you Friday!