Advocacy, 5Pointz, and dealing with kneejerk criticism

I had a few pieces in Curbed NY this week, which explains in part my silence here. The first, which required some sifting through microfilm, was a history of New York rental ads, showing a cyclical pattern in their verbosity.

The second compared the 5Pointz whitewashing with the near-destruction of Castle Clinton at the hand of Robert Moses. I pitched it as a cool historical parallel: a person in power rushing to eradicate something before it could be protected by law. The editors liked the angle and ran with it.

I had charged head-on into a sensitive topic, so I was unsurprised that the piece attracted a lot of comments. What did surprise me is that almost every commenter called for my head: it’s a false comparison, that’s ridiculous, yada yada yada.

Artist at work at 5Pointz, May 2013.

Artist at work at 5Pointz, May 2013.

I thought I did a great job being cautious. I didn’t claim 5Pointz should be made a monument; I didn’t even chime in as to whether the graffiti were art. Nor did I make an assertion that 5Pointz and Castle Clinton were equally valuable.

Was my thesis fundamentally flawed? Or did I just tap a raw nerve among people who have no better place to vent?

A few years ago I would have been heartbroken by the response, regardless of the answer. Why are these people mad at me? I must be worthless. I should just give up. But I spent a lot of time studying Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and their fellow Stoics. The result: I now see my own actions the gauge of my value. Certainly not the irrational, off-topic reactions of others.

Becoming more vocal in my advocacy for livable streets was a huge test – and strengthening – of that mindset. As an advocate, you can’t focus on outcome; you’d quickly fold under the negativity of people who are scared of change, and under the frustration of rarely getting positive results. You look instead at process. Could I have done better? What should I do differently next time?

This is why I actively seek feedback. Judging your own approach is like editing your own writing: you’re so used to it that you’re probably going to miss a few mistakes. Maybe the facts in my piece were unassailable, but I failed to package the argument properly. It’s hard, however, to get good constructive criticism when emotions are high.

I did feel a bit of vindication when a judge said just a few hours later that the Wolkoffs might have to pay a lot of money as reparations for their deed, because the graffiti might have been eligible for protection. And in the comments to that summary on Curbed, those same haters are saying the same things.

I’m starting to think I was right all along. But had I let others dictate my emotions, I would never have entertained that possibility.

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