Power of Place: Community Pride & Prejudice

How does public space impact people’s day to day lives? In this episode, we speak with Majora Carter, a MacArthur Genius Grant winner and an American urban revitalization strategist based in the South Bronx, New York, where she grew up. We explore topics ranging from community pride, increasing equity in one’s neighborhood, and discuss the impact of public space on individuals and families. Majora has used her experiences to engage the community to try to make her neighborhood more equitable and sustainable. We speak to Majora at the Boogie Down Grind Cafe, which she co-owns and runs with a local family.

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Experience This Podcast is created and produced by Action! by Design. Action! by Design is a citizen-centered design company that helps people build better products, launch impactful campaigns, and elevate their brand.

The show is hosted by Joshua Croke and produced by Mariel Cariker.

Behind the Scenes Photos

The Boogie Down Grind Cafe

The Boogie Down Grind Cafe

The Boogie Down Grind Cafe

The Boogie Down Grind Cafe

Majora Carter speaking with Joshua Croke

Majora Carter speaking with Joshua Croke

Boom Boxes under the bar at the Boogie Down Grind

Boom Boxes under the bar at the Boogie Down Grind

The Dancers Every Night sign referenced at the end of the episode

The Dancers Every Night sign referenced at the end of the episode

Majora Carter speaking to producer Mariel Cariker

Majora Carter speaking to producer Mariel Cariker

Episode Transcript

MAJORA CARTER: When I think of community it’s the activity. It literally is. it’s an action that you participate in. When you build it carefully in a space, that’s when you start to see the benefits of it.

JOSHUA CROKE: When we say the word "community", many of us start thinking about different groups we're a part of, and the things we feel connected to. We're all part of different communities that intersect with others in the world. Now, when we look at places as community; our cities, neighborhoods, and the streets we live on; what factors contribute to giving a sense of belonging to residents in those spaces so one really feels they are a part of the community? And who in those communities, or outside of them, hold power to influence those factors? On today's episode we're looking into public space and asking questions about resident-powered community development.

This is Experience This Podcast, I’m Joshua Croke.

MAJORA CARTER: So when you first walk in you enter through the red door, and then if you look to your left, there’s a little 8x10 photo of what this actual spot used to look like back circa 1981.

JOSHUA CROKE: When we walk into the Boogie Down Grind Cafe in the South Bronx on a Saturday morning, Majora Carter is helping to open the shop. We wanted to meet Majora in her space, so you may hear the sounds of a bustling coffee shop in the background of our conversation with her.

MAJORA CARTER: And this was like the middle of the Bronx is Burning era, and the building itself was totally abandoned, it was burned out, and there was actually a hole on the side of the wall here.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora was born and raised in the South Bronx.

MAJORA CARTER: On the bar itself, they’re also covered in images of the graffitied subway cars that were really popular during — or that came of age — *door opens* hello there — in the 80s and the New York City subway cars, they were literally just graffitied up.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora is a co-owner of the cafe, one of many activities in her expansive career journey. Majora started her career as an environmental justice advocate, and now works as a real-estate developer, running her own B-Corp called The Majora Carter Group. Majora has committed her life to the South Bronx community and works alongside residents to help develop their community to benefit the people who live there first.

MAJORA CARTER: First looking at, you know, what are the natural assets of a community? Natural meaning, one, the people that are in them. Which is always like the primary asset that you have. And then there’s the physical things that are in it. Can they be emphasized and supported to be better even than they already are?

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora’s mission in the South Bronx has invigorated and inspired people all over the world. Her TedTalk, called “Greening the Ghetto,” was one of the first videos posted on TED’s website when it launched in 2006. Her talk has over two million views. We asked Majora, what does public space mean to you? What defines good public space?

MAJORA CARTER: It’s those third spaces that are neither work, nor home. The kind of things that you basically don’t have the kind of intimate control over what you do in your own home. Like you can decide what color the walls are, you can decide what you have in the place that makes you feel comfortable. But in the public sphere, that’s where the kind of places where I think it demands of good public space, you know, there’s an expectation that it brings out the best in people. So that they can afford to be generous and gracious and feel as though they can be productive in our society. And that’s what good public space does.

JOSHUA CROKE: When advocating for inclusion and equity in how people develop spaces, Majora refers to areas often overlooked by people who hold power and status in society as "low status" communities.

MAJORA CARTER: Which, you know, in America would be the inner cities, or reservations, or even poor white manufacturing towns. Those are the low status parts of our country. Those are the places where there’s less an emphasis on how those places are designed, and how people are supposed to feel in them, because there’s an expectation that if you are born and raised in one of those communities, and if you’re one of the bright ones, you’re going to leave anyway.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora works to challenge the way non-profits generally view helping these kinds of communities. She says she wants to work to diminish the non-profit industrial complex, which is defined as a system of relationships between the state, local or federal governments, the owning class, foundations like non-profits, and social justice organizations, that result in the surveillance, derailment, and everyday management of political movements. Essentially, It’s the idea that some believe the state uses non-profits to control social movements.

MAJORA CARTER: I’ve noticed that within the non-profit industrial complex there’s almost, you know, this almost repulsion against actually supporting people in those communities to actually prosper. It’s more like, we just need to figure out ways to protect and preserve poor people, the quality of their life as poor people, and not expect for them to thrive. And that’s why you’ll see more emphasis on: “We just have to build more affordable housing. And we need more programs.”

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora says we have to believe people in low status communities can truly prosper, not temporarily, but permanently. Majora’s believes non-profits are looking at “the problem itself rather than the symptom.”

MAJORA CARTER: I find that economically disempowered people, and the ones that are expected to stay that way, they’re the ones that are really easy to push around and it’s really easy for them not to actually evolve. Because there’s always some program there to meet them right where they are and sort of massage them into staying there and feeling okay in their poverty.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora says these non-profits that want to help communities should be focusing on the people who live there, and how they might help the community with longer-term solutions.

MAJORA CARTER: Are those same kind of foundations going, you know what we’re going to do, we’re going to give micro-grants to people, specifically to start doing small businesses. Are many folks doing that? No. They’re making it really difficult to actually do that. And I find that those very specific things, like getting access to capital, even if it’s for a small kind of microloans, doing things like that are the kind of things that would actually mean something real to me. Versus just saying things like, “Oh, we’re going to help you figure out a way to get into subsidized housing.” Which I’m not saying is not important, but you can have both, we can do different things.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora asks her South Bronx community, and communities all over the world, how might we support residents in finding a sense of pride in their public space?

MAJORA CARTER: We had to think about what can we do in order to get people to think about our own community as a place that was worth staying in.

JOSHUA CROKE: So Majora talked to the people in her community. She asked what they wanted to see. She hosted surveys and focus groups to ask people questions like, “What’s important to you?” and “What are your hopes, dreams and aspirations for your community?” She said the number of people who actually took the time to sit and speak to them surprised her - hundreds and hundreds of people.

MAJORA CARTER: People want to feel pride in place. Like they want to feel like they can walk outside their door and feel like there’s something special there. Which is why people would leave the neighborhood, to go to places that made them feel good about themselves.

JOSHUA CROKE: By asking residents what they wanted to see in their community, Majora was able to take steps to make those changes.

MAJORA CARTER: So our goal was, first we started working on transforming the waterfront into what’s now, you know, a nationally known waterfront destination: The Hunts Point Riverside Park. We’ve also been working more specifically on workforce development to support the people that  are here by doing the kind of economic developments that we know people leave the community in order to experience. Like the coffee shop you’re sitting in right now. This is basically the kind of thing when we did the research and asked people, you know, why they would stay or want to leave the community, it mostly came down to lifestyle infrastructure.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora says she opened the Boogie Down Grind to provide a welcoming third space in the neighborhood, but many people would just walk on by without stopping.

MAJORA CARTER: They just never saw. ‘Cause people were so used to nothing being here that they would just go from here to the subway and not even — it was like they had blinders on. It was really kind of crazy.

MAJORA CARTER: Most of the people in the albums represented on the wall are actually from The Bronx. Most of them, not all of them, but most of them.

JOSHUA CROKE: One of the walls of the Boogie Down Grind is covered with hip hop album art and flyers of various DJ battles and concerts that happened in that neighborhood. The wall was curated by a couple local hip hop legends who know the musical history of the area very well. Majora and her husband pasted the images on the wall themselves.

MAJORA CARTER: But then we also took some license and put in people that we wanted to see ourselves. Like Queen Latifah, who was legendary for young women listening to hip hop to have this like powerful woman who presented herself as a queen. You know, just like spitting rhymes the same way that the guys could, and doing it really well, we had to place her sort of front and center and there she is.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora wants people to advocate and stand up for themselves and their communities, before other people swoop in to capitalize on these spaces.

MAJORA CARTER: People in our own communities need to see more value in our own community. And that’s why we really, I’ve noticed that, you know, gentrification doesn’t start when doggy day cares start moving into a neighborhood, and you start seeing white people in formally people of color neighborhoods. It starts happening when we believe that there’s no real value in our own communities, then it makes it easier for predatory speculators to come in and other policies to be made to make it easier for other folks to benefit from our own communities rather than us.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora opened the cafe in partnership with a local family. She says when people in the community learned that local private citizens had an economic stake in a local business, it opened their eyes to new possibilities.

MAJORA CARTER: It set people like going like, “Is that possible?” And it was like, “Yes! It is possible.” Like, you know, we decide to build something and built a structure so that they could invest into it. And that was like really kind of bizarre to people. And I feel like it really made their wheels turn in ways that nobody had even given them an opportunity to even think was possible. And that was super exciting.

JOSHUA CROKE: Now, the Boogie Down Grind sells locally roasted coffee and buys pastries from local bakeries. They offer a space for community events and allow local artists to sell their work in the shop. When we went, there was a wall of jewelry for sale created by a local jeweler.

MAJORA CARTER: We can kind of build those community conversations, just informal, sometimes formal, you know, we’re going to be doing things like art exhibitions and, you know, workshops here. There are so many talented people here that just want the space to do that kind of stuff, and we just say, “Yeah, come and do it.”

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora uses the term “self-gentrification,” which she defines as, “development by us and for us.” She’s received some backlash for using this term. Critics once put stickers all over the Bronx subway stations calling her a ‘sell-out.’ Majora responded by hosting a community event called the ‘self-gentrification salon,’ where people could discuss building their space to benefit current residents, instead of displacing them. Majora says she wants to encourage the people in her neighborhood to see the value in their property that buyers or developers from outside the community may see when they offer to buy these people’s homes.

MAJORA CARTER: Many of us are so fearful of it that we immediately hear the word ‘developer’ and go, “Oh, that’s like the devil. That’s the man who’s coming to steal everything we have.” And it’s just like, no, it should be something that we should take on as a path for our own community’s development. Development in the way that we think it should be developed.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora played a huge role in the redevelopment of the Hunts Point Riverside Park. The space used to be an actual dump full of garbage. But now, it’s been cleaned up and turned into a waterfront green space. Majora says four years after the park was built, someone went into the park and tagged it with graffiti. The park was covered. Majora was out of town on business and couldn’t step in to help. So, the community stepped in. They called the parks department to clean up the greenspace, because they loved it and were upset to see it damaged.

MAJORA CARTER: Other than the news report that I saw, showing that it was really horrible, that at one point it was bad, and then all these people being interviewed and going, “Who came into our community doing this to us?” It was just like, “To our park!” And that’s when I knew, this is just not my park, thank god. Folks have taken it as theirs. Like, “How could you do this to my park?” It was so personal.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora says she’s not specifically trying to provide solutions for massive overarching problems like income inequality across the US, but she wants to use her experiences in the South Bronx to help current residents get what they want out of their community.

MAJORA CARTER: What we can do is actually put forth a vision for the type of real estate development that actually creates more opportunities in low status communities that acknowledges, you know, some of the historical inequalities that have happened in places like this, but actually use real world strategies to use real estate development as the kind of tool that can make these communities much more economically diverse and thriving.

JOSHUA CROKE: Majora encourages people to vote with their dollars by supporting locally-owned businesses in their communities. She says she wants folks to participate and to be involved, hands-on, in their community development in years to come.

MAJORA CARTER: Are you patronizing places within your own community that are locally owned? Are you being supported by your own community? Those are really important things that we can work on.

JOSHUA CROKE: Experience This Podcast is created and produced by Action! by Design. We’re a citizen-centered design studio that helps companies and organizations create memorable experiences for programs, places, and products. The show is hosted by me, Joshua Croke, founder of Action! By Design. Our producer is Mariel Cariker. Additional mixing by Giuliano D’Orazio. Music for this episode was created by Rob Flax. Special thanks to James Chase and the Boogie Down Grind Cafe. You can find us on social media at x-p this pod. And to see behind the scenes photos of the Boogie Down Grind Cafe, and to learn more about our organization, visit our website at actionbydesign.co. If you liked this episode, please consider leaving a review and telling your friends. It really helps the show. See you next week.

MAJORA CARTER: Sp the sign was taken from a strip club, but the image on the sign it says “Dancers Every Night,” the dancer herself kind of looks like she’s kind of tired. [laughs] so there’s nothing like particularly sexual at all about it. She’s just like, “Ugh, I’m done.” But anyway, it cracks me up.