Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nashville's Tent City: After the Flood

After natural disaster destroyed Nashville's tent city, and once the city shut down an attempt to relocate it, the people were left with no where to go.  In response Nashville's Homeless Commission is taking 90 days to form a plan for an official, sanctioned tent city that will be proposed to the city.  The commission includes a wide range of members that represent the interests of the public, private, religious and non-profit sectors.

However, the commission still lacked a fundamental point of view - someone who actually lived in tent city.  To solve this problem an election was held between three previous residents.  The winner would then have a seat in the commission, having a role in deciding the future for tent city.

I arrived in Nashville a day before the election.  I called Doug Sanders to meet for an interview that we had arranged.  Sanders is a minister at a local church and has become heavily involved with tent city.  The interview provided a look at the situation from a religious perspective, which has played a strong role in tent cities across the country.

Sanders informed me that there would be a film crew arriving shortly to also do an interview.  They were filming a documentary for Oprah on the tent city.  My first thoughts were - great, another chance for misrepresentation in order to create a story that would catch the attention of as many viewers as possible.  I knew Oprah had previously done a piece on Sacramento's tent city which did just that, so I was obviously skeptical.

The film crew known as Stick Figure Productions showed up and I was able to stick around for their interview.  They asked Sanders questions about the three candidates in the upcoming election and whom he thought the favorite was to win, strikingly similar to what would be asked of an American Idol judge.

The next day I showed up outside the public library where the election was to be held.  There were already a number of homeless people starting to gather.  Stick Figure Productions showed up again as more people gathered.  After talking to a few of the homeless I found out the reason a lot of them were there was because of word that there would be free food.

Although Oprah was not there, she was kind enough to pay for food carts to be brought in that gave away hot dogs and snow cones to the homeless that showed up.  What may have appeared to be a good deed seemed more to me like a scheme to create an interesting story.  The scene in the documentary would not be very impressive if only a few people showed up to vote.

The film crew seemed to continue to dictate the event.  People were placed in certain areas to debate and others were told to circle around so the cameras could catch the excitement.

At one point, while taking pictures, I was asked to move by a member of the film crew because I was in the line of where they were trying to shoot.  They did not want me to be in the scene even though I was part of the event they were trying to document.  I told them that I have the right to shoot wherever I want only to receive a nasty look.

Who won the election you might ask.  My response - Who cares?  Why should there be an election in the first place?  Why shouldn't all three candidates get a say in the future of their living space.  Why not more?  Roughly half of MISSION (a non-profit who is working with Ann Arbor's tent cit) is composed of homeless or previously homeless individuals.  

One of the most important principles of urban planning is to include the people you are planning for in the process.  Selecting only one person simply isn't good enough.

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