NORWALK, Conn. — Natalie Pryce has been collecting thoughts from Norwalkers, about the City’s “built form,” government relations, economics, aesthetics and social environment.
One example: “Norwalk is losing that family feel/look with condo’s being built on every other corner.” Another: “Waterfront access is extremely limited – besides beach areas. Not aware of any recreational trails in Norwalk.” And, “The lack of data shared with the public has led to excessive spending and decisions by decision makers that are not pro-Norwalk.”
Pryce, who was born and raised here but lives in Bridgeport, is leading the outreach for Led By Us & Associates (LBU), in a year-long effort to create an Norwalk Equity and Justice for All Commission, under the moniker “Norwalk Speaks!” Pryce had eight people to mine opinions from Thursday at the Norwalk Public Library, where she explained that discussion categories like “built form” and “community knowledge” are purposely selected.
“I want to empower you with this language, and now you know the definitions under it,” she said. “And I hope that as you’re walking your city, you have a different lens in how you see things and a different way of thinking about a development project.”
Led By Us was hired by the City in March, in a $150,000 contract partially paid for by a $50,000 grant from the Fairfield County Community Foundation. The community outreach thus far is reminiscent of a city-wide master plan session: citizens gather around tables, write their thoughts on gigantic sheets of paper, and then the facilitator – Pryce – reviews their answers and offers a bit of feedback, to make sure she understands their intent.
The eight participants Thursday was an improvement from previous sessions, said Angelique Robinson, who was on her third go-round. This one was “the most interesting… I felt like the conversation started to get a little deeper” because there were more people.
Robinson said she used to live in Norwalk, plans to move back and is deeply involved with Norwalk’s youth. She’s attending out of concern for the kids and race relations but is also very interested in history. She promised to try to get more people to attend because “It’s so important to just hear what everybody has to say.”
“I would love to see a full room,” Pryce said. “But I’m never going to discount two people or three people that come take the time out of their day, to dedicate to this, we’re going to have a great conversation, and we’re going to make sure it moves forward.”
One thought written on brown paper, for consideration: “As it stands, most Americans don’t make a living wage. There are some cities that are making great strides towards it in the U.S. I would love to see Norwalk join the efforts in shrinking wage gap.”
That came from William Hampton, who said he’s spent all of his 41 years in Norwalk. He’d like “easier access to education” he told Pryce, linking that thought to the G.I. Bill after World War II, and the minimum wage should be $22.50 today “just to be able to live.”
Some states are offering universal basic income to certain populations, Pryce replied.
Diane Lauricella, one of two veterans in civic engagement present for the meeting, volunteered that Win Baum is attempting to start a trade school at 25 Van Zant St.
Mike McGuire, the other veteran, had written the comment about “excessive spending” by the government. Another comment referred to the many challenges of Norwalk property tax assessments. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years in this specific area, and the city of Norwalk is known for being abusive to taxpayers … they just bleed you,” he said.
While McGuire said, “This particular government has been in power for about seven years. We go and talk to them on regular basis. They just ignore us,” another person wrote, “I think Norwalk has a very good structure in place as far as access to government. I think more sit-down discussions with town & government are needed. We can’t force people to participate but a grassroots effort to market where people gather could help.”
Mike Sleet, a 5-year resident, said he and his partner had tried to get involved with new apartment building proposals but the process and laws were “very difficult to understand,” and, “as a citizen, you can send an email and that’s about it.”
The development is “making it more and more impossible to know your neighbor which was kind of like a fixture of things growing up,” Hampton said. Even the stores are different, as businesspeople who have “been servicing your family for you know before you were born” are “now being kind of priced out of the city.”
Pryce replied, “Let me tell you the power of numbers is something real. I think people are just tired. … We need to all kind of need to step up and say what part are we going to take on. It can’t just be us in our silos anymore, we’ve got to kind of figure out how we’re going to work together. We’re hoping that with this Commission that we can build something like that. So let’s start.”
The equity commission will be codified, with legal standing, so it can “do something,” she said. “We just don’t want to create a club where you come in, you just talk about how nice equity would be, right?”
The conversation showed priorities, “a lot of talk around affordable housing… the structure of the streets, culture, diversity, all of that has equity in it, and it’s access, right?” she said. “That’s the water, access to that waterfront, right, access to a home, we should all have access to be able to have a decent living, right, that should just be bottom line that we have access to.”
Open forums will continue through July and everyone should go to NorwalkSpeaks.com and sign up for the app, she said, inviting them to continue contributing their thoughts, given “you have a different lens in how you see things and a different way of thinking.”
She said, “I strongly, strongly advise that civic engagement is what gets us to equity. Because civic engagement allows us to have access to resources, to know what’s happening in our community.”
Gabriel Pasculli, who has lived here “for a year and change” but been cooped up by the pandemic, thought the session “really exciting.” He’d learned about it through the library, he said.
Sleet called it “enlightening” and said he’d learned “different ways to think about things like gentrification.”
“I thought it was awesome. I thought it was much needed,” Hampton said. “I mean, she has yet to move past the meeting phase. So it just seems like you know, now they have the drive to set the foundation but you know, take it to the right people and you know, keep the residents in the loop.”
Pryce said she held a youth session the previous day. “I always believe the youth is the future. But I do not believe it’s ‘the future,’” she said. “I believe we’re all a part of that future. And we all have to do our parts, we’re linked in this huge chain.”