Culture Eats Strategy for Lunch

Compassionate communities produce a whole lot of this.

Compassionate communities produce a whole lot of this.

Last Saturday, we attended a wonderful event honoring Old School Square’s Joe Gillie on his retirement after 25 years of service to Delray.

It was a fun evening, full of love, joy and warmth. The kind of night that makes you realize The Beatles were right when they sang: “And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make.”

Joe loved Old School Square and he loved Delray Beach. And in return, that love was returned by a group of people who also devoted a great many years of their lives to creating community—this community.

The “feel” of the evening was nothing short of magic. Everywhere you turned, you saw a local icon.

There was Lynda Hunter, the legendary children’s librarian who taught generations of Delray kids to love books and stories. There was Tom Lynch, one of Delray’s truly great mayors chatting with Tom McMurrian of Ocean Properties, a company that has helped put Delray on the map with its investments. I got to chat with Evelyn Dobson who has quietly changed lives for a decade at our Community Land Trust.

We saw Old School Square Chair Bill Branning, who has been a leader on our CRA and whose company built our library, the Milagro Center and the entertainment pavilion enjoyed by thousands every weekend.

The event attracted former CRA Chair Howard Ellingsworth, a local CPA who has given countless hours to preserving Delray’s history while also growing the community. Bob Currie was there too. He has been practicing architecture in Delray for 45 years and has left a stamp on downtown, Pineapple Grove, Old School Square, the library and more.

It was great to see our former Assistant City Manager Bob Barcinski, happily retired but still pitching in with this weekend’s Sister Cities Golf Tournament.

And of course, Frances Bourque who started it all, with a vision for Old School Square that brilliantly encapsulated the city’s past, present and future.

It was also heartening to see new faces as well. Connor Lynch, Tom’s son, who runs a large business in Delray, but finds time to serve on a slew of community boards while helping young entrepreneurs; Ryan Boylston who is so busy it’s exhausting to watch and Terra Spero, who was just recognized for her entrepreneurial talents by the Delray Chamber.

There was a magical feeling in the room as these people and many, many more gathered to thank Joe. And I realized– once again–how important gratitude and thankfulness is in places that seek to be communities.

It’s not easy following someone like Joe, who has a larger than life aura.

But this transition to new leadership seems to be a model for how to do it well. Rob Steele, the new CEO, is a smart, sensitive and seasoned executive who has welcomed Joe’s input and insight while taking the reins. Along with Artistic Director Matthew Farmer and COO Karen Richards, it seems that the organization will make a smooth transition; embracing the past while introducing new ideas.

After the event—not wanting to let go of that old Delray feeling—a bunch of us went to Da Da for a late night dinner. While walking to the restaurant with a friend, we talked about that intangible feeling that has made Delray Beach so special.

To be honest, that feeling is in peril. And in my mind, that’s worth a conversation and a lot of introspection.

Culture in communities is everything. In this case, we’re not talking about art, music and festivals, although those things are important too. We are talking about what it feels like to live here. Is this a supportive community? Do we respect each other? Are we inclusive of people and ideas? Do we put the community’s interests above egos and personal agendas? Are we nice to each other?

When Joe and Frances and many of the others mentioned above got started in Delray, we were a vastly different place; a start-up so to speak.

Start-ups are nimble, fun, exhausting, exciting and inspiring. Some crash and burn and others soar. Delray soared, probably beyond most of our imaginations.

So while walking on Swinton Avenue my friend asked whether it was possible to still maintain that warmth and excitement in a city that has grown larger and arguably more sophisticated.

It’s a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time now. And I lean toward yes—I believe it’s possible. In many ways, I think it’s imperative.

See the size of buildings never got me wound up—whether they are 48 feet or 54 feet—few can tell even if they are experts.

But the intangible feeling of community is what we should be focused on. And we’re not. We are not.

We’re too quick to condemn. Too quick to write off; too quick to label and too quick to pile on when we disagree.

A community that works is grateful, loving, supportive, respectful and takes pride in the past, present and future; especially if your past, present and future is as rich as Delray’s.

There’s a nagging feeling that we’re not in sync these days. That we have sprung loose from those very important moorings. So every week, we experience symptoms of that condition: we blame the (insert name of agency here)  for—take your pick: being too successful, not being successful enough, having too much money, spending too much, spending too little, being out of touch etc. etc.

We criticize our (insert an institution here)  for not being all it can be and forget to give credit for what it is; we critique festivals, criticize city staff, wring our hands about traffic and accomplish little.

That doesn’t mean accountability isn’t important or that our library, CRA or any other entity, group or project is perfect and can’t be better. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about growth and development or traffic. But the conversation has to transcend our own personal drive times and has to consider our financial future and the opportunities we are creating for future generations.

The people in the room last weekend thanking Joe Gillie for 25 years of leadership are pacesetters, civic entrepreneurs. They built a heck of a start-up. If cities were start-ups, we’d be Facebook, Apple or Google, a billion dollar plus unicorn.

Yes I’m proud of what’s been built. Is it perfect? Not on your life. Is it done? No way.

Is Delray Beach everybody’s cup of tea? Nope. Some people prefer Myspace to Facebook. But not many.

So to those saying the town has been ruined; I disagree. It’s been saved and it’s terrific. Not perfect and chock full of challenges– but still pretty terrific. Sorry, but we have nothing to apologize for and a lot to be proud of. To those who are concerned by change, I agree—to a point. I also know that change is inevitable. You can fight it, manage it, shape it, stamp you feet or hold your breath–but it’s going to happen.

But let’s talk about change intelligently.

“The opposite to bad development is good development, not no development,” said the architect Padriac  Steinschneider. He was right. Let’s talk about design and placemaking; that somehow gets lost and it’s important.

But not most important. Most important is how we interact.

We have a lot of work to do.

We can start with culture. Let’s build a place where it’s safe to disagree and safe to innovate.