“This is democracy.”
And then, with a big smile on his face, he repeated, “This is democracy.”
Such was the response of one long-time Harrisburg resident last night to my casual question: “So, what do you think?”
In the question, I was actually referring to what the meeting was about—the two competing designs for converting much of N. 2nd Street to two-way traffic. I wanted to know what he thought of the proposals. However, this Uptown resident, with a sweep of his hand, meant something else.
He was amazed at the size of the crowd—and he was beaming.
I estimated that 200 people packed into the former library on the second floor of HACC Midtown 2, but I heard others guessing anywhere from 150 to 300. In any case, it was a substantial showing, the largest gathering that I can recall for any city meeting—and people remarked on it repeatedly throughout the evening.
Over the past decade, Harrisburg has been through a lot, arguably more than most cities, yet this is what brought out the masses—a street redesign. Since last night, I’ve wondered why.
There are multiple reasons, I’m sure.
You could say that this is a big change that affects a lot of people—and you’d be right. And you could say it’s controversial, and the loud, mid-presentation interruption by one resident angry over the expected loss of a few dozen parking spaces emphasized that point.
However, in the end, the far majority of attendees seemed not only supportive of the change but profoundly so. As I interviewed residents, numerous people said something to the effect of, “I prefer this design, but really I’m happy with either one.”
They attended the meeting because, yes, they wanted information, and they wanted to share comments and offer suggestions. But they also wanted to engage as a community as this transformation takes place.
People lingered well after the presentation, digesting the maps, pointing out their houses, discussing what it will mean to have a neighborhood street, not an asphalt wasteland/raceway outside their front doors. In this way, the evening served as a civic engagement opportunity, and the project, many people hoped, would make their city more livable, more attractive and more whole, restoring Harrisburg as place to be, not just to speed through.
Sure, this may have been a self-selecting group, but it was a large self-selecting group, made up of people invested in their city and who wanted to share their feelings, their hopes and even their excitement with their neighbors.
After the meeting, Mayor Eric Papenfuse said to me, “You had a lot of positive energy in that room.”
Harrisburg, as I’ve written often before, can be a divisive place, often unnecessarily so, in my opinion. But, on this night, the mayor had it right.