Why the Beacon, Long Beach’s Latest Affordable Housing Complex, Is an Essential Part of the Housing Conversation • Long Beach Post

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Rendering courtesy of City of Long Beach.

It is one of the more progressive affordable housing projects in Long Beach: beautiful in design, centrally located near transit and the Downtown while also neighboring the Senior Arts Colony, and catering to veterans and senior citizens, the $80.4M Beacon project will officially break ground tomorrow, August 16. (Though construction began back in June.)

The two-building project, the seven-story Beacon Place and the five-story Beacon Pointe, is set to bring 160 units online. It will take over the empty lot just east of the other affordable housing project, the Senior Arts Colony. The Colony is the standard by which other affordable housing projects should compare themselves: it was smart in design, engages residents from around the area, and looks at how to mix affluence with the less affluent.

Ultimately, we have to face an uncomfortable honesty: wealthy folk and even middle-class folk frown on the poor, have a distaste for affordable housing being near them, and exacerbate unhealthy perceptions of the poor by falsely aligning them with negative attributes—attributes, mind you, that span the economic spectrum but fall disproportionately onto the poor.

Empathy–through someone else’s story, however that story is conveyed–is not only what art is, but is a general driver in the solving of problems. Repeat: empathy can drive solutions to complex problems. And that is because sometimes the hardest part of creativity is not finding the solution, but the problem–which in turn, creates innovation.

This isn’t necessarily due to some innate spite for the poor but, rather, the disconnection between the haves and the have-nots; when you don’t talk to or deal with or face those who aren’t like you, you depend on what is fed to you about those people through other sources: social media, news, side comments from friends at brunch…

The only real way to alter this perspective is by forcing folks to hear each other’s stories, to know one another—that is why it is so important to examine what type of housing is being put where.

If you’ll indulge me, I want to talk about a speech that neuroscientist Dr. Jonah Lehrer* had given several years ago at the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) annual conference entitled “This is Your Brain on Theatre.” And yes, this is very much connected to how projects like the Beacon can assist with understanding each other.

The basic thrust of Lehrer’s speech was that theatre and the arts as a whole remain essential—even in the age of Instagram and online videos. Pointing out that children who can delay their gratification also garner higher test scores was attributed, at least for Lehrer, to the ability of the child to focus their attention and intention more precisely—something that is utterly important since, with the bombardment of information coming at us thanks to the Digital Age, it is far more important to be able to parse information that it is to remember it all.

Art, in this particular sense, builds the muscle of focus—especially odd, complex, or difficult art. Take theatre, for example: the layers of plot, theme, language force the viewer to use various parts of cognitive ability to process the information at hand. In a single swift moment, we are moved through multiple levels of comprehension. When applied to all forms of art, this means we move between local comprehension–who is this artist? what did he/she/they use to make this piece?–and global understanding–what is the piece trying to convey? what are the underlying values of such a piece?–that ultimately helps us empathize, to understand the endeavors and struggles of others.

The unplanned nature of the urban ballet is like an instant message to a stranger: we need the spontaneous sidewalk encounters—and that’s precisely what projects like these do when they are not, like the vast majority of other affordable projects in Long Beach, removed from the more affluent, hip, comfortable neighborhoods.

To those who question the function of compassion, I defiantly encourage you to look at empathy’s scope outside of charity. Empathy—through someone else’s story, however that story is conveyed—is not only what art is, but is a general driver in the solving of problems.

Repeat: empathy can drive solutions to complex problems. And that is because sometimes the hardest part of creativity is not finding the solution, but the problem–which in turn, creates innovation.

Lehrer made an interesting observation: Why does the city of San Francisco have the most patents generated than any other city in the United States?  According to his logic, San Francisco found a way to mitigate its isolation. Cities that invite direct mingling of diverse persons in parks or on sidewalks create what he called intimate inefficiencies–and these random encounters yield more innovations.

In other words, mutual incomprehension leads to innovative solutions. When people from different backgrounds are forced to mingle, interact, and explain themselves, greater empathy is achieved while innovation is spurred.

The unplanned nature of the urban ballet is like an instant message to a stranger: we need the spontaneous sidewalk encounters—and that’s precisely what projects like these do when they are not, like the vast majority of other affordable projects in Long Beach, removed from the more affluent, hip, comfortable neighborhoods. The act of explaining what you think to someone from a different background causes creativity. A diverse team is more successful because we are forced to explain ourselves, and by doing so, reach a deeper understanding.

Long Beach has access to the key points Lehrer describes in an innovative metropolis like San Francisco: we are a diverse team, with active ethnic and cultural communities.

So I ask a very difficult, albeit essential question: how can we increase these “intimate inefficiencies” while maintaining the aura that makes Long Beach so distinctly our own? Well, we can start creating more projects like this. We can start forcing ourselves to learn the stories of others rather than leaning on assumptions, spouting misinformation in comment threads, and demonizing people we don’t know.

*Yes, I know of Mr. Lehrer’s many faults when it came to stepping outside of science and academia and into the world of publishing, often plagiarizing himself and citing sources that don’t exist. However, within the framework of his peer-backed research, his points on human engagement stand for me. 

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