TheEminentDomain.org is a news, information and networking resource for New Yorkers working to influence the shape of their neighborhoods and make sure that development is an asset to their communities, not a force for displacement and destruction. The site aggregates local real estate development news, offers original reporting and analysis, discussion forums, and a calendar of community meetings and public hearings about Harlem (Manhattan), Coney Island (Brooklyn), and Kingsbridge Armory (the Bronx).
2007 grantee Alyssa Katz talks about the benefits of empowering the voice of the people. The interview took place on April 5, 2008, at the New Voices 2007 Grantee Meeting at the Hilton Garden Inn in Washington, D.C.
Eminent Domain Poised to Resume Publication
Although it took longer than staff would have liked, Alyssa Katz reports that The Eminent Domain is poised to resume publication in a much more robust form in September of 2009, and to fulfill its promise as an information resource, a space for discussion and community building and a journalism training ground.
Beginning this fall, The Pratt Institute Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment will be sponsoring nine student fellows to work at the Pratt Center and engage in planning projects in neighborhoods throughout New York City. “We’re going to bring them into The Eminent Domain as regular contributors and coordinators of contributions from others, including colleagues and members from community organizations they are working with,” said Katz.
But Katz notes this new direction comes after a difficult period. Last year The Eminent Domain made the “difficult” decision to discontinue its collaboration with NYU’s Department of Journalism. Originally, this partnership supplied the intern support that made the site possible, so without this reporting support, the site suspended publication temporarily in October of 2008. At this point in time, following the urging of the Pratt Center’s then-director Brad Lander, Katz tried to reconfigure the project as part of One City/One Future, a citywide collaboration between dozens of labor, community, civic, and other organizations concerned about development in New York City and the policies that govern it.
Katz contacted the project’s other two partners, NYC Jobs With Justice and the National Employment Law Project about using The Eminent Domain to inform and engage a wide audience about news developments at the neighborhood and citywide level. But they were reluctant to integrate The Eminent Domain with One City/One Future. NY Jobs With Justice, the group responsible for the project’s media development, had “strong concerns” about time commitments and the ability to influence key audiences. But Katz believes this stance grew out of an “old media” model in which the object is to create media events for major news organizations to cover. “Generating one’s own media was not understood to have value, especially within a political network in which public statements must generally be approved by consensus among a large number of players,” said Katz.
“We will be promoting the Eminent Domain aggressively on the new Pratt Center website and expect it to be a significant driver of traffic there.”
With its new focus, however, Katz believes that The Eminent Domain will be an integral part of the fellowship experience for those at the Pratt Center. It will give Pratt graduate planning students an opportunity to develop skills in reporting, writing and information sharing, and especially in translating “the often impenetrable technical language of city planning into accessible terminology and stories.”
Each class of fellows will work with the Pratt Center for a full year. Katz will work with the fellows individually and as a group to develop a focus with each contributor. As she does with her journalism students at NYU, Katz will ask each student to stay abreast of important developments in their field of focus and to connect neighborhood issues and specific technical challenges to timely issues of larger significance.
Even in its dormant state, said Katz, The Eminent Domain has continued to serve as a valuable resource for those interested in learning about and from community organizing and development in New York City. About 2,500 unique visitors used the site to find information that’s “hard to find elsewhere.” And as The Eminent Domain moves forward, it will be part of a reinvigorated web presence for the Pratt Center, which will launch at the end of June 2009. It will enable the organization to provide consistently updated information and analysis on city planning and development issues. “We will be promoting The Eminent Domain aggressively on the new Pratt Center website and expect it to be a significant driver of traffic there,” said Katz.
The Eminent Domain will focus on the larger landscape of development in New York City, regardless of whether the Pratt Center is working on a project, though in many cases students will have the opportunity to produce content that grows out of the projects that they are working on in the field.
Katz said The Eminent Domain looks forward to sharing lessons with other neighborhood-focused organizations working to build news reporting into their efforts to strength communities.
Power to the People
The Eminent Domain is emerging as a safe place for residents of New York City communities to speak out about the challenges of coping with neighborhood change. In recent months, the site has had some success getting citizens to post stories, giving a sense of urgency and authenticity to its coverage of the ins and outs of development. A poignant post by Danyelle puts a human face on gentrification:
“I love Brooklyn. This is my home. This is where I’ve lived my entire life. ... Brooklyn is dying a slow and terrible death, where she is silenced by the tearing down of her walls and the demeaning voices of developers and gentrifiers are engulfing her and the rest of us. It kills me to know how money has overpowered the integrity of my borough ... and what’s good just seems to be falling to the wayside.”
FUREE’s 5th Annual Convention.
In another post, a public housing resident shared his views about a new condo project displacing his local supermarket. Another offered coverage of the FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality) convention. And Reverend Billy (of the street theater stop-shopping gospel choir) attracted attention when the focus of the most recent Mermaid Parade was a protest of gentrification in Coney Island.
Early in the year, the Pratt Center for Community Development, which administers The Eminent Domain project, held a training session for members of FUREE, sparking interest in contributing content to the site. The workshop covered the fundamentals of community journalism, including discussions of who the audience is and what your responsibility is to them. Alyssa Katz, the project coordinator, says she hopes to produce similar sessions for community groups in other neighborhoods around emerging development issues.
As The Eminent Domain continues to find its place and its voice, it is developing a niche and a following. “The journalism on our site will lead the way for other journalism to follow,” says Katz, “by putting civic issues on the agenda - such as the growing movement for better mass transit in the city’s outer reaches - that are of deep concern to many city residents but not adequately reflected in commercial media.”
Information is Power at The Eminent Domain
Launched at the end of 2007, TheEminentDomain.org is populated with more than a dozen posts of original reporting and analysis on development in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx. Plus:
The site aggregates local news coverage under the banner “This Week in Accountable Development.”
A regularly updated calendar promotes events related to city planning, design and community organizing.
The “PLANguage” page translates obscure jargon into plain language while unpacking an alphabet soup of acronyms (with links) for departments, agencies, laws and policies related to urban planning.
Neighborhood FAQs that include a timeline of what’s happened so far, what’s going on now, a who’s who among the parties engaged in a development project, how-to get involved, and answers to pointed questions like “I don’t live in the area, so why should I care?”
Editor Alyssa Katz says they launched Dec. 10, 2007, the same week the New York City Council held contentious hearings about Columbia University’s plans for the future of West Harlem. Columbia reportedly agreed to create a $76 million community benefit fund as part of the University’s expansion over 17 square blocks of Manhattan.
“Our coverage occupied a unique space, stressing the importance of community involvement in the process but appropriately skeptical of both the deal and the manner in which it was reached. That kind of informed analysis is essential to meaningful public participation in the planning process and not available elsewhere.”
Katz says she and her New York University intern are deliberately posting at a moderate pace in order to make TheEminentDomain.org a more open and welcoming space to community contributors who might be turned off if the site seemed little more than a personal blog.
To elicit and solicit postings from the people, the Pratt Center is offering several trainings for residents and members of Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition and FUREE, the community group in downtown Brooklyn.
“Our session is also going to include a workshop on ‘What Is News?’ to sharpen members’ story judgment,” says Katz. “The story judgment here has to be excellent, since the coverage has to be meaningful ... to other New Yorkers interested in how citizens can engage with planning for development.”
Katz says she’s beginning to look at opportunities to gain participation from city-wide organizations working on development issues, groups that embrace the center’s commitment to information-sharing as a vehicle for promoting democratic local engagement.
Outreach to promote the site is picking up. TheEminentDomain.org plans to pursue ad swaps with other websites covering New York City issues, such as streetsblog.org and gothamgazette.org. “We also expect our original reporting to be picked up by blogs covering city neighborhoods and development, Google Alerts on our issues, and news aggregators such as PlanNYC,” says Katz.
The Eminent Domain: Building Power and a Livable New York
Based on feedback from community members, partners and journalists, the Pratt Center has decided to change the name of its project from Building Blocks to The Eminent Domain: Building Power and a Livable New York. According to Editor Alyssa Katz, “The name carries special relevance for New Yorkers involved in community planning, who’ve become concerned about the growing use and abuse of government powers to condemn property.” In web lingo, Eminent Domain also means “a prominent and influential website,” which this site aims to become.
TheEminentDomain.org is currently being designed. Site producers are using WordPress along with some customized features, including a glossary of urban planning terms, a directory of key government players, links to websites of interest and brief guides to each of the 3 communities of coverage.
The Pratt Center has also decided to change geographic focus, to add downtown Brooklyn and drop Coney Island, while continuing with its commitment to covering Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx and Columbia University expansion in Harlem and Manhattan.
“We made this decision for several reasons,” says Katz. “A reliable and widely cited Brooklyn information and discussion site has been covering Coney Island quite successfully. ... The dailies have been doing a decent job as well. Development in Coney Island is reaching an impasse between the owner of much of the property and the city, so there will be relatively few events and issues to cover.”
Pratt Center has forged a partnership with Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE), a membership organization based in downtown Brooklyn and surrounding neighborhoods (including two major housing projects) that advocates for local residents in the development process. FUREE had been thinking about creating its own online forum for community discussion, a website where participants in a teen writing project could post their stories. Now, its members will contribute to TheEminentDomain. “FUREE and the Pratt Center are especially excited about creating a space on the web where elite decision-makers and neighborhood residents will be part of the same conversation,” says Katz.
Although its role in the zoning process over Columbia University expansion has ended, Pratt partner Community Board 9 will still wield influence in public discussion and leaders will use TheEminentDomain website to get information out about its activities.
Katz says Pratt Center is hoping to partner with the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University (NYU) School of Law, which publishes PlanNYC, an online portal for the latest research, media stories and public documents related to housing and development throughout NYC. Katz proposed to add an RSS feed of PlanNYC headlines to TheEminentDomain home page. But the Furman Center expressed reservations that the RSS feed might imply an endorsement of the work of particular community groups or the views posted by citizen bloggers.
“The concern generated a useful discussion of the editorial process, and our plans to edit and fact check all contributions,” says Katz. “We’ve agreed to discuss the proposition further once we have a full template for the site completed.”
In fall 2007, Pratt Center hired an NYU journalism student intern to aggregate content and compile resources, including a public events calendar, news articles and blog links. TheEminentDomain.org is scheduled for a soft launch on November 30 and a full launch in late winter 2008. Once up and running, the intern will contribute original reporting of meetings and hearings, and will help fact check submissions by community partners and others.
New Voices is an initiative of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. J-LabTM is an incubator for innovative, participatory news experiments and is a center of American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. New Voices is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.