Fixing Beautiful Trenton

Last Christmas, I wrote an article about how community spirit is a necessary and present ingredient for Trenton’s revitalization.

Community spirit as an economic engine

Beautiful Trenton is the best example of that spirit to date but there are problems.

A small group of citizens have taken it upon themselves to assemble a larger group of Trentonians (around 150) to discuss Trenton. All of the organizers and most of the 150 are people who’ve been civically engaged before but many were new. I always wonder what the other 82,850 residents are doing.

The Beautiful Trenton meeting was interesting not so much for the content but in the assemblage of both veterans of Trenton’s civic life and newcomers. I hope the newcomers stick with it. I really hope those newcomers find their way to

However, as wonderful as it was to meet new people, the Beautiful Trenton movement is fatally flawed and I sincerely hope the organizers will address the issues.

The current process includes:

1. Inaugural Community Café to identify and examine emerging themes and questions for a vision of the future of Trenton

2. Written Responses from invited participants exploring the questions and ideas generated from the Café.

3. A day of reflection, using a model of reflective discourse, in which invited participants will move beyond their authored pieces and engage each other in conversation.

4. A Culminating Community Café, held after the day of reflection, in which both the general public and invited participants will seek to identify actions Trenton residents can take to guarantee effective and responsive leadership in Trenton.

5. The results of the culminating Community Café will be used to produce a Candidate Questionnaire for all mayoral and city council candidates.

If it sounds “New Age”, that’s because it is.

As I see it, there are several important problems with this process.

The expected output is unsatisfying.

  • The output is a questionnaire, not too different from the countless questionnaires produced by various groups every election cycle
  • There’s a lot of time and effort being spent to produce an output short on the depth necessary to show the way forward and teeth sharp enough to make insure plan is followed.
  • There is no plan for building a lasting political force in Trenton
  • We don’t need talk, we need rocket scientist level thinking and in your face political force to change Trenton

Beautiful Trenton is undemocratic

  • Beautiful Trenton seeks to be part of the democratic process, however the group’s outputs will be interpreted at the whim of the organizers
  • The organizers will then be free to represent their interpretation as the will of the participants. Notice that the written pieces are written by “invited” / hand selected people
  • There is no democratic check and balance over the interpretation (i.e. no vote)
  • There’s nothing stopping the organizers from using this exercise as a power building platform
  • By the end of the process not a single vote will have been cast and no membership role will have been created

All is not lost however, the organizers just need to make some modifications to their process.

I suggest Beautiful Trenton become a “new” political party

  • A new political party could build its platform using a process similar to Beautiful Trenton’s current plan
  • Citizens would explicit identify themselves as members of the group
  • Meetings would be held with citizen volunteers to develop different aspects of the platform
  • Debates on platform planks would be held
  • Beautiful Trenton Members would vote on the resulting platform
  • They would also vote on the leadership of the group
  • Members would vote to support candidates who adopted the platform
  • The party would take an oversight role going forward (for instance budget and policy reviews)
  • The group doesn’t ever have to run a candidate just organize people to keep the ones we have in line

Community spirit is only useful when it turns into tangible results rather than meaningless talk. Voting is the difference between serious political action and a mob rally.

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11 Responses to “Fixing Beautiful Trenton”

  • I agree with many of your points on this one. I will support their efforts and contribute material where I can, but I am wary of some concerns.

    Their message could easily be used to brand anyone who opposes them or a favored candidate as “focusing on the negatives” and “bringing in too much negative energy.” As if identifying and attacking problems is a negative thing. Hopefully they will stay away from this as I would run for the hills if I see any sign of it.

    Trust is a big issue in this city and cannot be ignored.

    As it is I will give them the benefit of doubt.

    I also like your idea of creating a political party. I saw 150 people that night who were ready for some action as much as anything else.

  • [...] groups have already emerged with a stated goal of handling that task – see Dan Dodson’s Reinventing Trenton entry for more on that – but like he said, I think their system is set up for failure for many of the reasons he [...]

  • Dennis Kim-Prieto:

    I had always wondered why I didn’t put much stock, or much effort, into the Beautiful Trenton effort. I’m heartened, but not at all surprised, to see that you’ve articulated the reasons behind my indecision.

    In short, Beautiful Trenton seems to me to be much like “dancing about architecture,” when what we need is an actual building wherein we can dance, to extend the metaphor. They’re great ideas that are doomed to failure unless they can harness and channel them into a positive contribution.

    Ultimately, the quickest way to get what Trenton needs is to take an abandoned factory, or convert the Aleta building, into a destination entertainment center/hotel. Google the “Hotel Congress Tucson” to see a prime example of what I mean, and what we need. Of course, once we get that, it’ll still take time . . .

  • Annie Pott:

    Dan, I appreciate your thoughts on this. I do value the way you really think about things and manage to find time to articulate your thoughts and put them out here for all of us to hear. I think Beautiful Trenton is an altruistic group, and I agree that it could have more “bite” to it in order to really push things forward. I think that you (and people with similar mindsets) are crucial to the success of Trenton, and Beautiful Trenton. I hope you’ll stay involved and make your voice heard.
    I’ve forwarded the link to this page to some of the organizers in hopes that they will read your words and the comments of others as they move forward.

  • Hi:
    A very nice and informative site. Even though I don’t live within the confines of the city of Trenton, I have an abiding love for the Trenton I knew as a boy. You might be interested in telling your visitors they can take a bittersweet journey back to the Trenton of old with the MANY Trenton-related posts on my blog.
    Tom Glover
    Hamilton NJ

  • Dan,

    The famous Demosthenes said it best: “All speech is vain and empty if unaccompanied by action.”

    Methinks Trenton has had enough talk. It is time to act. But what is needed the most is that most elusive of elements: the leader with a vision to greatness for the city.

    In spite of its challenges, I miss Trenton. I miss the walks by the river, the changes in the weather, the oldness of the buildings and the historical places. Most of all I miss those of you I would meet and greet on the streets and in the eateries. A city is its citizens.

    Best of everything to all of you in 2010.


  • Trenton misses you too Laura.

  • Thanks for your insights… and for serving as a repository of economic development information and introspect.

  • Elise:

    Dan, one thing you are overlooking is that Beautiful Trenton establishes the same playing field or common ground for its participants–a key cornerstone of community building.

    Political parties interest me much less because they do not allow for the yeasty chaos that a grassroots effort tolerates and grows. All creative endeavors start with chaos and while leadership is needed there is also a need in Trenton for people to feel hope. Hope comes first and it is usually followed by caring.

    Traveling around Trenton I get the impression that it’s a city that lost its way because of a lack of caring. Yet one of the most effective ways to lead is to ‘model’ leadership–eg to show you care–and that can take many forms including showing up at a meeting and brainstorming. It may be New Age and it certainly may not be the manly thing to to but its subtlety can have a greater effect than you are seeing.

    I am only speaking from my own experience but sometimes by demonstrating that something is possible (a discussion, a way of organizing a neighborhood, asking questions, etc) you empower other people tremendously. They may not want to ‘follow’ you or do what you are doing but they have been motivated to take some sort of action.

  • Elise, not sure if you’re a Trenton resident.

    The emergency here is that Trenton is on the verge of going bankrupt. I’m sure its nice to sit around talking but we need the people in that room talking to get more aggressive with turning the city around.

    None, not one, of the people running for Mayor has a real plan to turn the city around. It’s important that the leaders in Trenton (which includes most of the 150 people who showed up for the Beautiful Trenton meeting) to lead us and our politicians out of this mess.

    We don’t have the luxury of waiting around for “positive thought” to fix Trenton.

  • Elise:

    Dan–I’ve read your blogs and read what’s in the paper. If Rome is burning where is the rest of the information? There are some major gaps missing here. I don’t think anyone can have a real plan to turn the city around until a new person is in city hall. We do not have the whole story as there has not been much transparency. Pushing for 100% transparency in financial matters would help, passing an ordinace to have the budget drafted and accepted by a certain date would help. There is a lot of re-development activity that you do not have on your web site that I hear about through the grapevine and its kept hush-hush for a reason. And re-development equals income and ratables. So before I go blazing off into the sunset on my horse looking for leadership with a plan, I want more information. A lot more information…and brainstorming with others, listening, asking questions is one way to begin.

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