Photo from jokideo.com
Last weekend, the tempest in a teapot known as the Orth House reached a boiling point. Again. For those who have no context, "The Orth House" was a home built by famed local architect TP Healy. It was recently demolished in favor of higher density, although local preservationists, aided by TV show host Nicole Curtis, made a spirited effort to save it from the landfill. Curtis, by the way, is a resident of the ward in Minneapolis where the Orth House once sat.
During this campaign, Curtis has publicly called out the council member, Lisa Bender, for her role in the demolition. Now I don't know exactly how those two feel about each other, but I have heard that if they were in close proximity to one another, any object placed between them would immediately burst into flames. So yeah, things are not so good.
Into that fray, we add a self-described "amateur journalist" (My emphasis on amateur) who runs a blog known as either "Wedge Live" or "The Wedge Times Picayune." This blog fabricated a thread of Curtis's Facebook page members' comments, but only the really bad ones. The "worst of" list was done in such a way that to the untrained eye--mine and at least a few Minneapolis council members included--this appeared to be one long profanity-laced rant that escalated rather quickly.
And THAT, in turn, led to our esteemed mayor calling on Nicole Curtis to apologize to Council Member Bender and to the city of Minneapolis as a whole. Curtis issued a plea for civility while admitting it is virtually impossible to monitor 700,000 commenters. Then only after it was pointed out that this was not in fact one Facebook thread did the Wedge Live blog issue an update informing us that it was a compilation.
Which is where we stand today. I'm reminded of what my pragmatic brain sometimes wanders to when watching action-packed movies like "The Avengers." Iron Man and the Hulk are duking it out, knocking over buildings and throwing around cars, and you just KNOW there's a janitor somewhere yelling, "Maaaaan, who's going to clean this UP???"
Well, that's what this blog is for, to wade through the wreckage and make some sense of it all. We start with...
...The Wedge Live blog.
Which is not quite as awful as I expected it to be, certainly in comparison to the @wedgelive twitter feed. The Twitter account is dedicated at least recently to almost exclusively skewering Orth House advocates. The blog has some actually funny content, mixed with other historic and factual elements. But it's seen as a forum with its own agenda and not above dirty tactics.
And I can see why. It's not neutral at all, it's full of snark, and it derides pretty much anyone who disagrees with its viewpoints. Which makes it not unique at all on the internet. What does stand out to me, however, are some of the posts, I don't want to link to more than one, where specific Lowry Hills neighborhood board actions (and members) are dragged into the fray. By mocking those folks, the blogger is essentially making grassroots neighborhood participation more difficult.
As a board chair myself, I shudder to think of what would happen if just about every move I made, or that of my fellow board members, were picked apart in the blogosphere. I can confidently say it would make my job of getting people to board and committee meetings a hell of a lot harder.
In fact, I don't have to look too far to know what that's like. A few years ago, while I and other northsiders were working to take down Paul Koenig's rental empire, a smear blog called "The Jordan Hawkman" sprung up. It's defunct now, but the site targeted me, my friends, the Hawthorne and Jordan neighborhoods, and fellow board and staff members. The site did things like posting the neighborhood fax number, then stating that no one would answer the phone when dialed, and insinuated this meant staff weren't accessible to the community. By essentially stalking board members, the site did cause people to question whether neighborhood activism was worth the added stress.
So when the Mayor of Minneapolis links to this site, she should understand that for many folks in the Wedge area, it's like opening a still-raw wound.
That, however, is subjective. What cannot be disputed is that with the post that started this recent spat, it was originally presented in a disingenuous manner. It was only AFTER this was pointed out that the Wedge Live blog clarified that with an update. I believe such misdirection was intentional, and would have been left to stand if it had not been discovered.
The Wedge Live blog works just fine as a place where the hipper-than-thou crowd can pat themselves on the back for being so much cooler than those stodgy old preservationists. But our mayor and other leaders would do well to see the site for what it is; one person's attempt at implementing his vision for a community (at best), with a willingness to engage in bullying behavior that borders on slander (at its worst). If nothing else Hodges should realize that referencing this site in particular does not engender community goodwill.
Regardless of whether you're on Team Edward or Team Jacob here (do the Millenials still reference Twilight?), there are two facets of the Orth House drama that shouldn't be lost to the dustbin of history. Because the next time you're on the side that isn't prevailing, you wouldn't want these obstacles in your way.
Part II: When is an Appeal not an Appeal? When it's an Orth.
The Healy Project Blog puts it more succinctly than I can (emphasis in the original):
The Heritage Preservation Commission (HPC) in 2014 denied the application for the demolition of an Historic Resource. They also ordered a designation study. City planner John Smoley argued for approval of the demolition permit. Owner Michael Crow filed an appeal to demolish an Historic Resource.
At the appeal hearing chaired by CM Bender, both Michael Crow and John Smoley were allowed presentations in favor of demolition. The HPC’s position was reported but not presented; reporting is not a substitute for a persuasive presentation earnestly defending the HPC’s position. It seems appropriate that some provision be made in cases which staff’s professional opinion differs from the decision-making making body.
Something is amiss when the recommendations of both presentations are in agreement with one another. By nature and definition, an appeal is a scenario when there is one opinion that is not in agreement with another.To those who think this is something the preservationists should just let go, ponder this. The underlying principle of a fair, honest, and open debate was not upheld here. Would it be a fair trial if a defense lawyer approached the bench and said, "Your honor, my client proclaims his innocence, but between you and me, I agree with the prosecution"?
Or the next time we have to decide on something like a greenway, or landlord's rental license revocation, or the sale of city property, or property taxes, or any number of decisions before the city council, would't you want the ability to present your side of the issue?
The city has yet to respond to the Healy Project's concerns over transparency in this matter. To not address these concern undermines public trust.
Part III: The Blocked by Betsy Club
The final disconcerting piece of this puzzle is our esteemed mayor's behavior through the episode. "Blocked" in this context is used for alliterative purposes, since blocking someone on Facebook is a specific action that I don't think Hodges actually did.
What she did do, however, was post a highly-charged statement (using a questionable source) calling for a national celebrity to issue a citywide blanket apology, as well as a personal one, over one of the more contentious debates in her short tenure in office. She posted this on her mayoral site. If her intent were something other than political grandstanding, she could have just as easily sent it as a private message. At the time of publication, there are 327 comments, roughly ten times that of the highest count on other threads on that page.
A few comments used some Bad Words. There was quite a bit of disagreement, but most of that was both civil and substantive. Even the Bad Word People were at least participating and not directing profanities at others. At least six people, all of whom disagreed with the mayor and were posting extensive information about their positions, can no longer comment or participate in that dialogue. Why?
As to the mechanics of HOW, it would appear that since this is Hodges' personal page, one has to be "friends" with her in order to post content--a common Facebook setting and a reasonable one for a mayor of a metropolitan city. Reasonable, that is, until possibly the largest conversation to take place on such a forum results in people saying things the mayor isn't comfortable with. And then they pay the price for their lack of conformity, and are banished to the un-friend zone.
Non-public people do this all the time. But there's a different, almost draconian feeling when this happens from the mayor, and it happens in the midst of such a high-profile discussion. One would think she'd have thicker skin.
Again, why should this matter? The next time you're on the opposing side of an issue, do you want the mayor to foster a political discussion, knowing she has the ability to remove you from that discussion the instant you happen to contest her position? Shouldn't you be allowed to disagree with the mayor, and doesn't that dissent become even more important when done civilly and with substance?
The mayor and other city leaders should check the source more diligently before deciding that the sky is falling over a set of internet comments. Citywide, appeals processes should ensure that both sides can be vigorously presented and discussed, regardless of the topic. And public officials, especially our mayor, shouldn't penalize disagreement on social media topics they themselves started. These are some pretty basic tenets that we should all agree on.
ADDENDUM: A first draft stated that the mayor posted the comment on her personal page, but I have been informed that it was on her mayoral page. Which, if true, makes the exclusion of dissent even more problematic.