Dinner + Polka Dots = Community Change

On Saturday, May 12, I had the extreme pleasure to host twenty-two Prince George’s County business owners, policymakers, and social influencers for dinner and conversation at the Polk Dot Park, a pop-up parklet in Southern Hyattsville. The dinner was a part of Prince George’s County’s Social Innovation Fund’s Seat at the Table series, which seeks to create circles of relationships while using our collective genius to generate ideas and pathways that strengthen our communities economically and improving quality of life for all in the County. Check out the video below to learn more.

All sorts of issues come out in these conversations, like shifting the narrative around majority-minority communities and building a more equitable civic participation process in the County. During this evening, our conversation centered around the factors that make attractive, vibrant communities and creative solutions to spur neighborhood revitalization. We explored some of the decisions and personal trade-offs that must be made when building equitable communities; challenged why the land development process, in all communities, limits the voices of some community members; discussed potential solutions to address the County’s need for more affordable housing; and started confronting the County’s historical legacy in police brutality.

I hosted my first Seat at The Table dinner in August 2017 at the historic Ridgely Rosenwald School in Capitol Heights, which has significant ties to my family. For the more recent dinner, however, I wanted to expose participants to one of the County’s more urban places– the Route 1 Corridor, and the work that the arts community is doing to catalyze revitalization along the state road.

With that, here are my major takeaways from the day:

    1. Tactical Urbanism is the bridge that connects the present with the future and people with places.


      Tactical Urbanism is the process of conducting low-cost, temporary changes to the built environment. This could take the form of pop-shops, parklets, pop-up gardening, outdoor movie nights, or any other activity that is intentionally designed to radically change the behavior and mindsets of people interacting with the space. It is a gateway to show what a community can transform into with more long-term investment, sweat equity, and changes to the physical landscape.

      In 2017, the SoHy Collective, partnered with Urban Investment Partners and Green Owl Design, to launch the #FightTheBlight #MadeinHyattsville campaign, an ongoing example of tactical urbanism in Southern Hyattsville. The Polka Dot Park, serves as one of the main focal points for the Fight The Blight The main goal of the #FightTheBlight campaign was to increase pedestrian traffic between two of the area’s major destination points (the Franklin’s Brewery/shops along Gallatin Street and Busboys and Poets/ shops along 45th Street). By refreshing vacant buildings, empty parking lots, and blank facades with murals, pop-up parks, and new life, the SoHy Collective managed to reinvigorate the space overnight. Today, the one-tenth of a mile outdoor art gallery is a destination of its own (just search #polkadotpark on Instagram). A post-campaign pedestrian count has not been conducted, but I will admit that I walked the block nearly ten times since January 2018.

    2. Prince George’s County needs more locally-owned Watering Holes in walkable distances for social and entrepreneurial energy to thrive.

      Mostly everyone in attendance agreed and wants to have more opportunities for authentic conversations with different people. Because of the County’s size, land-use pattern, and the fact that most residents commute more than 1.5 hours each day, it is challenging to create consistent spaces for people to connect. The local watering hole isn’t just a bar, but it’s a social space where people with different perspectives can come together to have conversations and exchange ideas solely for the purpose of exchanging ideas. These spaces allow for organic discussions and because it is nearby, neighbors can return to push the concept forward the next day. With the recent opening of two co-working spaces (Dream Village and CAMPSpace) we’re starting to see more opportunity, but purely social spaces, in close, walkable proximity to residential neighborhoods are also needed.

    3. Educating residents about local land use and development process is integral to building equitable communities.


      Are you aware that local zoning ordinances or land-use plans help guide development in your community for the next twenty years? Or that it even impacts when schools are constructed, how close you live to a firehouse or how quickly a police officer can reach your local coffee shop? Or did you know that you can probably search what development is happening in your neighborhood? For many residents, the answer to all of these questions is probably a no. If county government wants residents to be invested in transforming their neighborhoods, then local government agencies must provide residents with the tools to understand how local government works, including the local land-use process. Educating people about land-use regulations; the impacts of those regulations; who has the ability to influence the process; and how to navigate that process is critically important as land, land rights, and the protection of those rights, serve as the foundation for the systemic inequalities that we see in this country. Too often, many in our community are unaware of these laws, let alone how to navigate process or advocate for their own community’s interest.

    4. There are four farm-wineries in Prince George’s County.

      Seriously, there are four farm-wineries in Prince George’s County and there is an entire wine-trail dedicated to them. But really, Prince George’s County has great eats. The meal was sourced from only county-based businesses. Dinner was provided by A Place to Walk To, a Beltsville food truck. Desserts were from Sugar Vault and DC Sweet Potato Cake, both located in Hyattsville. Drinks were from the County’s first farm-winery Romano’s Winery, located in Brandywine and Franklin’s Brewery in Hyattsville.

    5. Changing the County’s narrative means adding your story to the anthology.

      Photo Credit: Iftin Thompson

      Sharing our experiences in Prince George’s County, both good and bad, is what will help us transform our own perspective with the place that we call home. Frankly, this process is the initial investment in developing a different future for tomorrow. But, in order for this to happen, we need to be present to build and sustain a more equitable framework. Whether its story-mapping Sites of Conscience; using digital media to reframe the County’s narrative; advocating for legislation that increases economic resilience and decreases homelessness, or launching a new farmers’ market that’s bringing local food to a community that hasn’t seen a grocery store in decades, we need to be present to make it happen. Here’s my challenge and it’s a pretty simple request. Hit the streets, explore your neighborhood, and share its beauty with others in the world. I’ve created a photography list to guide you through your neighborhood adventure. Have fun, learn, and share your findings. Download the Prince George’s County Civic Tour Guide here.

A Seat at The Table is sponsored by the Prince George’s County Social Innovation Fund. To learn more about the Prince George’s County Social Innovation Fund, visit innovateprincegeorges.com. Special appreciation to Urban Investment PartnersGreen Owl Design, and the SoHy Collective donating the Polka Dot Park for community good.

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