by Emily

Eastville Heritage House

On Saturday I had the good fortune and excellent timing to be part of the Eastville Community Historical Society’s (ECHS) charrette. Today I’d like to spread the word about what a neat experience this was for drawing the local community into finding direction for the future.

What is it?

A charrette is a short term, intensive planning effort that tries to draw perspectives and reach consensus among multiple stakeholders. It’s a term mainly used in architecture for quickly coming to an agreement on design projects. It was an architect involved with the restoration of the ECHS’s Heritage House who came up with the idea. The general principle is that process is more important than product – it may be messier to let people disagree than to bring in a professional consultant, but if you’re not trying to work with the people you are working for, you might as well not do anything at all.

Why hold one?

The historical society is at a crossroads for the future in the sense of starting to plan several major projects, but needing to understand how these projects could best serve its community. Even though it’s located in Sag Harbor, NY, a major tourist destination in the summer, the ECHS is a very community-oriented grassroots institution, founded in the 1980s by local residents who wanted to preserve a historic AME Zion church building, still run by many of its initial members. It still draws heavily for its membership and audience from local residents of the historic Eastville neighborhood and the surrounding African-American resort developments.

The ECHS leadership is considering remodeling the basement of its Heritage House, a 1920s Sears Roebuck home that it restored in the 1990s, in order to create a larger space for meetings or exhibits; planning for the documentation and restoration of the St David’s AME Zion cemetery, which it now owns; and imagining how best to improve its tour programs and use its outdoor space. These are all big projects that require community support to be feasible and worthwhile. The charrette was the strategy chosen to introduce and discuss them.

How does it work?

I would describe the process on Saturday as “directed democracy.” In the all-day program, to which local people, members of government, clergy, and press were invited, the first couple of hours involved planners and facilitators introducing the organization and the issues on the table.

1. First, after a summary of the charrette process and goals, everyone introduced themselves. We handed out information packets with pens, paper, maps, history, strategic plans, and membership info.

2. All who were able went on a walking tour covering the neighborhood’s historic core and some of the preservation and tour issues we would discuss throughout the day.

3. When the tour group returned, everyone split into groups, and each group would discuss one of the four main planning areas: the heritage house, its grounds, the cemetery, and the tour program. Each workshop had two facilitators, and drafted volunteers to take notes and draw ideas. The facilitators introduced the issues that needed to be discussed and presented relevant information, like potential plans for the building, or methods and costs of cemetery survey. Open discussion followed, with the facilitators mainly trying to encourage people to join in while keeping discussion on topic.

4. At this point, we stopped for lunch, which was as long as we could fit in order to encourage people getting to know each other and talking openly. (After lunch, they fit me in for 20 minutes to summarize the historical research I’ve done here this fall, and what I’m hoping to do in the future, which turned out to be a great opportunity for me to meet people I should talk to about neighborhood history in the future! This isn’t a key part of a charrette though.)

5. After lunch, we split back into groups to try to come up with ideas and solutions for the issues we’d discussed in the morning. Then we came back together into a large session for an hour, where someone from each group presented their results, and everyone could offer questions and thoughts.

6. We thanked everyone and they left! The next step will be compiling all of the material people wrote and creating a draft proposal for future plans, which the ECHS will try to present to the community and gain feedback.

How did it go?

I’m still feeling the afterglow, since it was great to bring people together (a little over 30 total, which turned out to be close to the ECHS’s capacity), so I would say it went wonderfully. While this number cannot be representative of the entire local community,  and future efforts will attempt to reach out further, there were people from several different stakeholding groups, and all were enthusiastic to be involved. We all heard new ideas that the leadership hadn’t thought of (precisely the point of this exercise), and gained support and excitement for some proposals that were on the table. Including, fortunately for me, one that would contribute to my research!

Not to mention…it was fun. I feel so fortunate that I got to be involved. So if you’re in an organization looking for ways to engage the public, and you are willing to spend months planning, then maybe consider a charrette.