Wooster Square will soon be home to two public ping pong tables after neighbors voted in a spirited election to spend part of their annual citizen-controlled allotment of the city budget on tabletop tennis.
Such was the result of the most recent Downtown-Wooster Square Community Management Team (DWSCMT) meeting, which was held on the second floor of City Hall.
The meeting featured a “ranked choice”-style election — not over personalities seeking public office, but rather over how a community should allot public money. Advocates for public bikes and a kiosk and a piano competed with the ping pong proponent for the public’s support.
Acting on her promise to prioritize diversity, inclusion, and broader neighborhood participation in the monthly management team meetings, new DWSCMT Chair Caroline Smith organized a pitch competition for students, artists, entrepreneurs, and other interested residents to suggest ideas for how the team should spend the remaining $3,000 of its annual Neighborhood Public Improvement Program (NPIP) funds.
For the past three years, the Livable City Initiative (LCI), the city’s anti-blight agency, has distributed $10,000 in NPIP money to each community management team, trusting the civically engaged citizens to dream up and bring to fruition modestly priced projects designed to improve quality of life.
This year, management teams across the city have spent their NPIP funds on everything from youth ambassadors to help clean up neighborhood streets to an underpass graffiti-mural project to buying poles for hanging banner advertisements above highly-trafficked thoroughfares.
In May, the Downtown-Wooster Square team voted to spend some of its NPIP funds on traffic safety measures in Wooster Square, including buying a mobile, radar speed sign for Olive Street.
That project is only projected to cost $7,000, leaving Smith and the DWSCMT Executive Board with a few thousand dollars left in the annual NPIP coffers.
Taking this process of “participatory budgeting” beyond the confines of the management team and towards the great diversity of people who live, work, and study in Downtown and Wooster Square, Smith and the e-board devised the pitch competition, by which people could submit proposals for how to spend the remaining $3,000.
They set up a Facebook event for the contest, tabled at the Wooster Square Farmers Market, and sent out targeted outreach to Youth Continuum, Unidad Latina en Acción, and some schools in the area, like Metropolitan Business Academy on Wooster Street.
“We were just excited to put on an event to find $3,000 ideas that would make a really big impact on the Downtown-Wooster Square neighborhoods,” Smith told the 40 people gathered at the CMT meeting, which took place Tuesday evening.
The DWSCMT leadership received 18 different proposals for how to spend the money, and then selected 5 finalists to present at the meeting. Each presenter would have three minutes to make a final pitch of their project to the entire group. Then voting-eligible team members (i.e. residents who had attended three of the last six DWSCMT meetings) would cast their vote for which project to fund.
“Something to keep in mind for voters about criteria for these ideas,” Smith advised the group. “Think about these questions: What is the impact of this idea? What is the timeline to implement this idea? Is the idea within a $3,000 budget? How feasible is this idea? How committed is the individual to seeing this idea through? And what partnerships are involved to strengthen the idea?”
Then the pitching began.
First up was Dr. Jennifer Shaw, a math teacher at Metropolitan Business Academy. Shaw teaches a course there called Statistics for Social Justice, in which she challenges her high school students to think about how math can help solve issues of social injustice.
When she learned about the pitch competition, she brought it to her students to discuss.
“The biggest issue they came up with was transportation,” Shaw told the group. “There’s very little parking in the area. There’s very, very little parking at the school, and no way to expand parking. And our students have a really hard time getting back and forth from jobs right after school, getting back home if they stay after for a club or tutoring, and also getting to college courses, because many of them take courses at Gateway and Yale.”
The solution: free bike share memberships for students. Shaw said that she had spoken with Bike New Haven, the organization that will be managing the city’s upcoming bike share program, which will allow for short-term bicycle rentals at stations located throughout the city.
With Bike New Haven’s help and with a steep student discount, Shaw said, the management team’s $3,000 investment could buy one-year bike share memberships for 200 Metropolitan Business Academy students. Since many of the planned bike share stations will be concentrated downtown, Metro students could easily pick up, drop off, and bike between the different stops already included in the program.
Up next were Jay Garnes and Ruby Gonzalez-Hernandex of the Crown Brown Artists Collective. Their pitch was for a “Community Kiosk”: a seven-foot-tall triangular structure where one side would act as a community bulletin board for posters and other announcements, one side would be a free community bookshelf, and one side would be a chalkboard and a space to store free art supplies.
They said that they would look to work with Make Haven, CT Core, Emerge, and the city’s parks department to realize the project. One possible location for it would be Russo Park.
The third pitch came from Anthony Allen, a local social entrepreneur from East Rock whose project idea was called “Performer Circles.”
“How many people have ever been amazed, wowed, enthralled by a street performance?” Allen asked the group, at which nearly everyone raised their hands.
He said that he had recently visited Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he found a lively downtown plaza filled with a rotating cast of singers, musicians, dancers, and different kinds of buskers and street artists.
“And I started thinking,” Allen said, “‘Why aren’t we doing this in New Haven?’”
Which led him to the idea of “performer circles”: specially demarcated public spaces where local artists could share their talents, get some public exposure, and even earn a little extra money. He said that he would like to work with Make Haven, the Arts Council, and any interested local artists to come up with visual designs for these “mobile stages” and then construct them so that they were weather-resistant and easily transportable.
“There’s a lot of research on the positive impact that busking and street performance has on communities,” Allen said. “And it has the added benefit of showcasing the tremendous artistic talent that we have in this community. It gives us a chance to bring them front and center and give them an opportunity to showcase their work and their passion in a more public forum.”
The final presenter was Lauren Brown, who had submitted two proposals that were selected as finalists by the management team.
With a mobile projector in tow, Brown dimmed the lights and presented her first idea: the Wooster Square Public Piano Project. Already in place in Russo Park for the past few weeks, the outdoor piano is available for anyone to play.
“This is all about coming by and finding something fun and unexpected,” she said about the project. “It’s a way to activate spaces and build communities.” (Click here for a previous story about Brown’s Wooster Piano project.)
Brown said that the piano is slated to be moved on Oct. 23 from its current location to New Light High School, where students in the school’s new music education initiative will paint a cherry blossom motif on it. She said that management team’s NPIP funds could be used to help ensure that the piano is back in Russo Park in May 2018 with an adequate piano cover, accompanying tuning hardware, and a neighborhood cover crew network.
Brown’s second idea was for to spend the remaining NPIP money on public ping pong tables.
“Ping pong is a fun activity for young and old,” she said. “It requires minimal equipment, has obvious health advantages, and can be an effective sculptural addition to a space.”
Showing pictures of public tables in Montreal and New York City, she said that these tables are popping up in cities throughout the world, and that they encourage casual, engaging, fun public interactions between neighbors.
Brown said that the recommended playing area on a regulation ping pong table was between 11 x 19 feet and 13 x 28 feet. She said that, based on a conversation with a local concrete contractor, a single table could cost around $1,400. She would advocate for working with Make Haven to create a stainless steel net, and for working with the public library to develop a ping pong paddle lending program.
The city does not currently have any public ping pong tables.
Brown cited Lenzi Park, Jocelyn Square, and Wooster Memorial Park as potential candidates for ping pong table locations, pending Parks Department approval. “Build it, and they will come,” she said with a smile at the end of her presentation.
“Brief Footnote About Process”
After the presentations, voting members filled out their ballots and submitted them to the DWSCMT executive board, which huddled in a corner of the room after the meeting had ended to tally the votes.
Keeping in line with the experimental, hyperlocal, democratic nature of the NPIP program itself, the DWSCMT asked its members to vote on the five projects according to a ranked choice or “instant runoff” election model.
Each voting member ranked the projects on their ballots from one to five, with one being the project he or she liked the most.
Instead of granting victory to the project that got the most one rankings, the executive board would tally all of the rankings for each of the five projects and see if one any had received a majority, rather than a plurality, of top votes.
If not, then the project with the least number of top votes would be eliminated from contention. All the ballots that had ranked that eliminated project the highest would then shift their vote to their second choice. This process would continue until one of the projects still in contention had won an outright majority. (Click here to for a previous story about New Haveners in favor of ranked choice voting.)
“A brief footnote about process,” DWSCMT secretary Aaron Goode said before any voting had begun. “As you see your ballot, some of you may be asking: ‘Why are they using ranked choice instead of multi-non-transferrable voting? I mean, what’s up with that?’ To which we would respond: ‘Thank you for asking. That’s a wonderful question.’ We’re using ranked choice because it produces more finely grained responses and ultimately gives a fairer result than straight plurality voting.”
“I share that information with you not because it’s my favorite subject,” he continued. “Although it is. But because we in the management team strive to be fully transparent about all aspects of our process and the rationale for that process.”
After the meeting, Goode told the Independent that ranked choice voting is currently used in local elections in Portland, Maine; Oakland and San Francisco, California; Cambridge, Mass.; and, as of last year, it has been approved to be used in all statewide elections in Maine.
After the votes had been cast and the results had been tallied, Brown’s public ping pong table project emerged victorious, edging out her Wooster Square public piano project by one vote. After the meeting, Parks director Becky Bombero told the Independent via email that Brown will be on the Parks Commission agenda for November to present. And, with the management team’s $3,000 in NPIP funds going her way, she will soon be able to start working towards making her pitch a reality.