Who’s Listening to Whom

I arrived at the “Listening to the City” event at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City on Saturday [July 20, 2002], armed with my notebook and my cynicism. I was anxious to see the reaction of the “public” to the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey plans of last week, but suspicious and weary about the Port Authority’s ability to listen. Historically, they’re not known as great listeners.

This was of course a unique situation. The Port Authority had to show a brave face and an empathetic ear, and prove to the world their “transparency” (today’s cliché of choice to describe openness, which interestingly was dropped from their vocabulary once those six plans were hatched).

When I arrived at the Javits, I was struck by the size of the event. “A town meeting for 4,000?” I thought. Only in New York.

There were about 500 tables in the room. Each table sat up to ten people, a facilitator, and an I-Mac laptop hooked to a central database. The participants were provided with handheld electronic keypads, which allowed them to express, in a game-show kind of way, their preferences. My initial thought: “This is asking technology to do something it can’t quite do yet.” The process of simultaneously gathering the opinions of 4,000 seemed destined to produce muted reactions. It was like a factory for prepackaged opinion.

“This is a set up,” I said to a fellow cynic. “If you frame the questions, you control the answers.” In the middle of the huge room was a platform stage. There were four big video monitors mounted overhead, pointed to the vast reaches of the room. The whole scene had a touch of Big Brother about it, but at the same time it was also thoroughly American.

I couldn’t succumb completely to cynicism. At this point, who doesn’t want to believe that something great is at least possible?

The event format was like a series of simultaneous jury deliberations. The Port Authority and the LMDC would present plans for the site. At the end of each presentation, the facilitator-led tables discussed the issues, formulated their responses, and then entered them into their I-Macs.

Throughout the day, Carolyn Luckensmeyer of America Speaks, the lead facilitator who acted as host and grand polltaker, would ask a series of questions that participants voted on electronically.

Initially this struck me as unwieldy, unscientific, and far too dependent on individual facilitators. And yet as the day wore on, something interesting began to happen. A clear unmistakable consensus formed. Even with the rigged nature of some of the questions (when asked about the “treatment of the memorial” in each plan, for instance, the possible positive responses outnumbered the negative ones 3 to 1), people gave all six plans failing grades.

The collective concerns—too much density, too much commercial development on the site, a rushed and overly politicized process, unreasonable “program” requirements from the Port Authority—made perfect and compelling sense. Coming from 4,000 people, simultaneously, it was a remarkably sophisticated critique of the plans.

Which means one of two things: either we’re entering an era where technology is making a town meeting attended by thousands as intimate as a New England village, or these plans were so bad that nothing could save them from condemnation.

Categories: Cities