This interview is part of our "Social Citizen Sightings" series, in which we highlight how people are using their creativity, idealism, and digital fluency to support their causes ever day. If you see a Social Citizen, we would love to hear about what they're doing too. Just fill out this quick form with their name, affiliation and 150 words or less on what makes them a Social Citizen.
Name: David Garber
If you had to describe yourself in one tweet, what would it be? City. Street. Walk. Eat. Comfort. Cool. It’s kind of turned into a personal slogan.
Favorite city (outside DC): There are too many size and geography categories to choose from, but stateside I have to say New York City. It’s a shadowy, dirty city – but I love it for its small grocery stores with sidewalk fruit stands, its burst-of-color parks, and its total transit integration and accessibility. Across the globe, Shanghai is pretty spectacular – but I worry that China’s way-loose historic preservation standards will crush a lot of what makes its great cities so physically and historically diverse.
After growing up in the suburbs of DC and watching the city’s progress from the outside, I wanted in. It’s a city that’s still very much in its rebirth phase: revitalizing commercial corridors, plethora of new housing, and a very eager 20 and 30-something crowd that grew up in the minivan generation and wants something a little more interesting. Blogs, Crocks, and strollers have been popping up in places that nobody gave a second glance towards 10 years ago.
Problem was, that energy wasn’t crossing the Anacostia River. As someone with a finger to the urban development changewinds, I saw potential in a quaint little neighborhood with a bad reputation – Anacostia – and wanted to do something both to promote its positives and to ignite conversations across the city about a part of the city that never got a lot of good press. I started the blog in July of 2007 and bought a crack house –that soon became my not-crack house – the next month. Without that personal financial investment, I doubt the blog would still be around today.
What is the most under-appreciated aspect of Anacostia, and communities like it?
I don’t shy from the fact that I am kind of biased when it comes to all things Anacostia – but I also try to acknowledge its faults – in passing or parentheses, at least. But I am completely serious when I say that Anacostia is the most friendly and neighborly neighborhood I have ever called home. I attribute a lot of that to the fact that there is a total front porch and street culture here that’s the complete opposite of many higher income, higher amenity-base places.
While middle-class suburban society has been trained to see people hanging out on the sidewalk as a bad thing – or pickup football or kids on bikes in the middle of the street as phenomena to be avoided, this shared spaces culture is the reason I know everyone on my block and along the routes in and out of my neighborhood.
Now that the people on the stoops and the street corners are the ones picking up my mail for me when I’m out of town and knocking on my screen door to borrow my can opener, my own perspective has radically changed.
How have you used your blog, twitter account, and other social media to mobilize the neighborhood to address needs?
A lot of what I put on my blog and on twitter (@DG_rad
, which is not just about Anacostia) is observational: an effort mostly to show a different face for Anacostia than is usually seen in more traditional media. There’s a sort of undercurrent neighborhood blog scene in DC through which the public has been given a whole new set of windows to places they never knew, or cared, much about. New neighborhood blog, new window.
The power of social media is in its ability to easily link to other information, its fast and easy-to-digest appeal, and its “I’m just like you” relatability to the Google Reading masses. I’ve used my blog and twitter feed to mobilize the neighborhood and city in a few specific ways recently. For example, when a developer threatened to demolish a great old building
on one of our main streets, I teamed up with the city’s preservation nonprofit to present a case for why it mattered for the community, and included links in my posts to ready-made emails to local government officials to support our cause. The effort led to a still-in-progress expansion of our historic district and gave voice to many people in the neighborhood who needed a more functional and personal medium.
The blog was also my publicity springboard while organizing a large tree-planting event
in my immediate neighborhood, and I used twitter to advertise how many volunteer spots were still available and to deliver tree-care tips. It all sounds kind of trivial, but even when one person comes to the neighborhood for the first time as a result of something they read online, that’s one more person who might go home and report on how Anacostia is different than they always thought.
Usually, however, my advocacy is less pronounced and more along the lines of advertising new shows at the local art gallery
, showing off the progress of our first coffee shop, and posting renderings of development projects that are sure to affect the hood. There’s a power in the everyday that I try to promote – not everything that happens here is going to be monumental, but the details are all important in their own unique ways.
Blogs are great because they’re screaming out for a response – twitter is a success because it’s an interaction. I hope that my blog, however commonplace, is a site where readers give my neighborhood, its buildings, and its people a second glance – a normal-seeming inspiration toward a renewed appreciation for the way that physical places, design and land-use can translate into feelings and goodwill passions.
What advice do you have for others who want to invest in their communities?
Really put yourself out there: meet your neighbors, go to the local planning meetings, participate in community events, and if you can, make sure the place you live is really welcoming. Aesthetics and happiness go hand in hand, so advocate for nicer sidewalks, more trees, or a community garden. Seek out unique and local retail in funky old buildings and spend your money there rather than at the strip center next to the highway. A lot of “communities” in America look and function exactly the same because nobody spoke up. Neighborhoods become special when people demand something different than the status quo.
There are a hundred noble ways to be involved, but you don’t need to start a nonprofit to improve a community. Be yourself, use your talents, and good things will grow.
What's next for you and Anacostia?
I’m here for now but don’t have a grand plan for further down the road. After being in the community for a couple years now, I know all the regulars in the local advocacy scene and can rattle off more information on what’s planned and promised around here than most would care to hear. I know that I want to continue being a cog in the revitalization of my city – and that could mean running for public office or continuing at a more grass-roots level of neighborhood support.
Anacostia is on its way up. A lot of positive change has been promised, and a significant amount is already underway. We’re a strong community but one that still needs a lot of work – so for Anacostia to truly succeed it will need more advocates and more people taking a chance here. It will need more retail, quality affordable housing, and a revived public infrastructure. I’m just excited to be part of the conversation.