Some people say that basic human needs are food, shelter, and water. Others—and rightly so—will add love, beauty, and meaningful livelihood. I will add another still: the ability to participate creatively and ethically in decisions that affect one’s life and the lives of one’s neighbors. Agency—the power to act based on conscience, desire, values, self- and other-directed interest is, I argue, a basic need, without which we are not fully human.
Simply electing officials to represent our interests is, alas, not even close to agency. To give over your voice to someone else who allegedly will speak for you and in your interests is not only a bad idea in terms of the outcome (he or she may be listening to far more powerful interests than yours or may—as is usually the case—have some private interests to look after), but primarily it is a bad idea because it leads to a society of people who no longer feel they have the right or the ability to make decisions for themselves, to weigh priorities and dangers, to consider alternatives and different possibilities than the few that are spoon fed to us from the “experts” who seem to be in control of our destiny. What if the people of Burlington had considered the care and maintenance of Memorial Auditorium as partly their responsibility, instead of assuming that the Mayor, Parks and Recreation, and the City Council would make sure that this historic building be preserved just like City Hall (built at the same time and at the same public request as Memorial was)?
Recently I heard that the Mayor is miffed because the people of Burlington, through their Neighborhood Planning Assemblies, decided together that discussing the future of Memorial Auditorium was a priority. We had the nerve to decide to hold a City-Wide Assembly to consider options for preservation, renovation, rental, sale, demolition (?). But the Mayor was miffed because Memorial Auditorium, now that his deal to sell it to UVM (along with the rest of the “Gateway Block” for a sports stadium) fell through, is not a priority for the City Council and CEDO right now. They have no resources, he says, to deal with it, not even any resources to answer telephone calls and emails from an N.P.A. Steering Committee member who was trying to arrange a walk-through of the building before the Assembly. But guess what, Mayor Weinberger, your resources are our resources, and we are telling you—for a change—that we want our resources directed to this question, before it is too late.
The people of Burlington, through the officially established platform of the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies and their umbrella group, the All-Wards N.P.A., have told the Mayor that a discussion of Memorial’s future IS a priority. But the Mayor is telling the residents of Burlington, some of whom might even have been part of the tiny fraction of residents who voted for him, “Don’t bother us, we’re busy doing things you didn’t ask us to do, so we have no time to do something that you have marked as a priority!”
But listen, Mayor Weinberger, we have a mandate—a much more democratic one than your speculator-fueled program to turn this City into an upscale traffic jam—a mandate to set community priorities for the use of our City’s resources and to hold assemblies on issues that we decide are important:
As Tony Redington, a Ward 2/3 NPA Steering Committee member reminds us, according to the1982 resolution on the role of Neighborhood Planning Assemblies, the NPAs are empowered to: “…help obtain citizen views of city needs; help provide citizens with the opportunity to participate in making recommendations with respect to governmental decisions including the allocation of revenues. …Assemblies shall also be encouraged to provide advice to the appropriate commission or this council with respect to community development, housing programs, this City’s Comprehensive Plan and its waterfront planning activities, and the city’s budget among other issues”.
Had the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies been bothering the Mayor—and previous mayors and city councilors—more, poor Memorial Auditorium would not be in the sorry shape it now is in, needing allegedly 8 million dollars of deferred maintenance which, apparently, the City did not have the time or interest in seeing to before now. If the people had not passively trusted in their representatives to take care of this beloved venue, it would not be in the shape it is in today—after years of deferred maintenance which serve as an excuse to tear this publicly-owned building down and sell off the valuable land to the highest bidder.
We have waited around long enough for the experts who run Burlington to do the right thing about Memorial Auditorium. They have clearly failed us, thus far. It is way past time for the residents of the city, through the time-honored platform of the NPAs, to take the lead in applying resources and due diligence to the preservation of this historic building as a community owned and operated space—our city’s largest public commons.
To do so would not only ensure that Memorial is much better taken care of than it has been over the last decades, but would also reanimate our agency as human beings who take creative and ethical responsibility for what is ours.