Historic Northwest Rising: A Lesson in Inclusive Community Activism
While West Palm Beach’s Northwest Historic District is unique to its region, its story has been heard over and over in the South: A historically black neighborhood that once thrived has been systematically neglected for decades, and now struggles to keep its identity in the face of revitalization. The district was created in the 1890s when the African American community of The Styx moved west out of Palm Beach. It later served as the city’s first segregated black community during the mid-1900s, and remains a majority black neighborhood today. It sits along the railroad tracks, bordered on two sides by a large parking garage and a cement plant. This, combined with decades of disinvestment and neighborhood fracturing left behind a majority low-income, high crime area whose stigma haunts it to this day.
The neighborhood is anchored by an iconic historic jazz club, The Sunset Lounge. Built in 1923, the club was part of a string of nightclubs designated as safe and welcoming for African American performers during the era of segregation. Artists who came through the circuit included Sam Cooke, Etta James, James Brown, and Ray Charles, among many others. Unlike many other venues on the circuit, The Sunset Lounge is still operating today as a local bar and music venue, though the building is in need of renovations and repair. The lounge, along with the neighborhood as a whole, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In recent years, the City of West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency has been working in the Northwest neighborhood and acquired The Sunset Lounge and the parcels immediately surrounding it. The CRA has plans to leverage the cultural significance of the site and the community around it to improve the quality of life in the neighborhood and bring back the vibrancy that once existed. Above all, the CRA wants to include the community in the planning process and avoid displacing the population that currently resides there. As part of this plan, Better Block and 8 80 Cities were brought in under a Knight Foundation grant to find out what the community needed and wanted from the historic site and to bring those ideas to life.
Engaging the Community
Led by 8 80 Cities, our team conducted a number of trips to survey the current and past
Overwhelmingly, the community focused on the youth. They wanted a place for kids to go and safely play after school, resources for job training, homework groups, and family-friendly activities like sports equipment, outdoor movies, cookouts, and playgrounds. So, we set to work making a concept for the public space that included outdoor seating, increased lighting for safety, greenery and beautification, kids play areas, and a visible connection between the Sunset Lounge and the community outside its doors.
We teamed up with another local event, Heart and Soul Festival, and took over half of the event space with green walkways, light posts, benches, and signage highlighting the historical significance of the neighborhood. We also added a parklet, interactive street murals, and a crosswalk between the club and the park, and painted a basketball court on the other half of the street. An iconic tree sat in the middle of the lot, which we outfitted with string lights, lanterns, a tire swing, and a hammock. From the minute we put up the tire swing, there was a line of children from the neighborhood waiting to use it. A partnership with Kaboom resulted in an Imagination Playground being installed at the site, which was also popular with the young ones in the community.
The Importance of Activism Over Marketing
The idea, like all Better Block projects, was that the community would help build these components, lending a sense of ownership and empowerment to take on future initiatives after we left. However, we struggled to recruit volunteers from the community and ended up building many of the components ourselves or with the local team. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this happened, but we learned some lessons along the way. Volunteer recruitment always works best when performed by a local within the community, but, this time, we treated the task as if it were marketing. While we did have a high percentage of local residents come to the event itself, we didn’t have the same showing at the workshops leading up to it. Our recruitment plan didn’t place enough importance on the face-to-face connections that are necessary to bolster civic engagement and get people invested in the process. What we needed, we concluded, was an activist or an involved neighborhood leader who can lead by example and knock on some doors. Flyers and social media posts can only go so far.
Luckily, the community surveying and engagement process helped us identify who these people are, so, for future projects, we know whom to reach out to. Another encouraging phenomenon was that, while not many residents signed up for workshops, once they saw our team working out in the park, they were eager to come out and help. Parents and kids ran over after school and picked up paintbrushes, helped make streamers, and asked how they could get involved. Seeing this eagerness and enthusiasm proves that the resources and energy exist in the neighborhood, we just need to be better about tapping into it in the future.
The Day Of
The initial feedback from the community was overwhelmingly positive. Kids were asking how long the elements could stay, and offering to act as neighborhood watchmen so the basketball hoops didn’t get stolen (they did, unfortunately, along with most of the other elements.) Residents and business owners were encouraged by the fact that we came back and did what we said we were going to do, helping to restore some trust in the planning process and in the CRA’s initiatives moving forward. We also heard that simply visualizing the space as a park helped shift people’s view of the space as an unsafe, late night hangout for bar-goers to a community gathering place. Now, plans that call for a park in front of a nightclub don’t seem so outlandish after seeing the kids and families in the neighborhoods embrace it.
The CRA is now hoping to put together a committee of local residents who have indicated that they’d like to stay involved in the project, and consulting them on any future plans for the area. There are also plans to make certain elements permanent, like the tire swing and hammock, which the kids couldn’t get enough of. The Kaboom playset is being donated to a local youth organization for use in its after school programs, and the elements that did not get stolen from the park are being stored at The Sunset for future activations throughout the year. Currently, 8 80 Cities is tallying the surveys and putting together all of the public feedback from the project into a report. We’ll be back with more once we receive those results.