Urban legends

A national conference of young thinkers mixed, mingled and jump-started urban renewal projects here in Reno.

Sandy Isham of the Reno Community Assistance Center, has praised the Vanguard group’s work. Participants brought in new plants for the RCAC’s rooftop garden.

Sandy Isham of the Reno Community Assistance Center, has praised the Vanguard group’s work. Participants brought in new plants for the RCAC’s rooftop garden.

Photo/Kris Vagner

For more information, visit nextcity.org.

Sandy Isham greets a confused-looking homeless mother as if she were a friend, manages two or three conversations at once in the hallway of the family shelter without seeming the least bit harried, and pushes the elevator button. She reaches the roof, where she can see storm clouds passing by. She’s pretty sure it’s going to rain, but still she gives the maintenance person a ring on her cell phone to announce that the new pepper and string bean seedlings in the rooftop garden look thirsty, and the irrigation hoses don’t seem to be helping.

With long, gray-blond hair and a youthful smile, Isham is warm, welcoming, and ready to deal with any number of large and small details that come up over the course of a day at the Reno Community Assistance Center on Record Street, where she works. She helps residents address basic needs such as food and shelter, and offers extra comforts or learning opportunities whenever possible to help make life there feel more normal. One of those extras is the rooftop garden.

“We’re in a food desert,” Isham said, referring to the East Fourth Street-adjacent neighborhood. “The downtown restaurants are great, but there’s no fresh food down here for people in poverty, just liquor stores that sell cookies and chips. If you’re in poverty, that’s very difficult. You don’t have access to fresh produce.”

The garden was built in 2010 by United Way volunteers, and while it’s not large enough to meet the needs of all 27 families currently at the shelter, it has come in handy as a teaching tool. Last year, a chef from the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe taught residents about crock-pot cooking using veggies grown on the roof. This year, the cilantro plants are healthy, the peppers are growing, and Isham is considering a salsa-making night.

Early in May, when the garden was in need of maintenance, a city planner named Gunnar Hand was looking for a project. “He mobilized his folks,” Isham said. “They approached Home Depot, got all the plants donated.” A couple of days later, the garden’s 11 sturdy boxes were full of strawberries, chives, chard and several other herb and vegetable starts.

“It happened super fast,” Isham said. “My hat is off to them. Gunnar doesn’t even live here.”

Vanguardians of the galaxy

Hand lives in Kansas City, Missouri, and the folks he mobilized to plant the garden were among 55 urban leaders who convened May 5-8 in Reno for the Vanguard conference. Put on by Next City, a nonprofit that publishes media and holds events to advance its mission of social, economic and environmental change, the conference aimed to gather “the best and brightest young urban leaders,” including people from government, urban planning, business and art. This is the sixth Vanguard conference, and the first in the West.

“Next City puts out a request for proposals each year,” explained Sara Schuenemann, the organization’s events and development manager, from her office in Philadelphia. “Reno came back with the best presentation.”

Doug Erwin from the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada enticed Next City to hold the conference here. He cited Tesla, Start-up Row, and recent downtown revitalization as reasons Reno would make a good host location.

The 55 “Vanguards,” as the participants are called, gathered at Whitney Peak Hotel. Among them were six Renoites: Paul Baker Prindle, gallery director at the University Of Nevada, Reno; Reno City Councilmember Oscar Delgado; Brianna Bullentini, owner of Rawbry, a juice bar slated to open soon downtown; Andy Durling, partner at civil engineering firm Wood Rodgers; and Reno Bike Project executive director Noah Silverman.

The Vanguards toured a few areas where they’d be expected to propose improvements: East Fourth Street; City Plaza, across from City Hall; and “The Lids,” as Next City had nicknamed the covered ReTRAC trenches downtown.

Thursday evening, May 7, they gathered at Cargo Concert Hall to compete in a “Big Idea Challenge.” They’d been divided into groups weeks earlier and asked to present some “tactical interventions”—projects large or small that would improve Reno, had worked elsewhere, and could be implemented for $10,000.

The Vanguards’ creative juices were stirred easily. “My group has already had two conference calls,” Baker Prindle had announced two weeks before the event began.

The Big Ideas ranged from simple to ambitious. Delgado’s group Googled “Reno Arch.” The search results showed a lot of selfies, so they decided to propose easy-to-make “selfie stations” around town. Delgado thought, “Why don’t we get some stencils and some paint, and paint those throughout ’The Lids?’” The idea was that people could take selfies and post them on social media to encourage tourism and lend the city a fun, friendly reputation.

Bullentini, a Renoite who studied sustainable architecture in New York, said her group came up with a plan to recast City Plaza as something of a localized Grand Central Station. “I really liked the idea of being a centralized transportation hub in downtown Reno,” she said. “We need it bad. Bus stations, pedicabs, a place to linger and to meet.” She also imagined a downtown grocery store there.

“Clearly none of this would be done for $10,000,” she admitted, “but we wanted to get the word out that having [City Plaza be] this open space is getting us nowhere.” She mentioned that her team had also come up with a mini-version of the plan, to simply paint lines on the road for taxis and pedicabs to line up to, and to start with a farmers market to gain traction for the idea of a transport and retail hub.

That kind of thinking outside the challenge’s initial parameters sat just fine with the other Vanguards. The conference had an age requirement: under 40. While at least one person balked at the idea of an old folks/young folks division, the Vanguards’ collaborative working methods, unbound creativity and scalable projects had a definite Millennial flavor.

Delgado noted he’s sat on a lot of boards comprised of people over 40. He said, “With a lot of boards, it’s like, ’Here’s my idea; get it done.’ With Vanguards, there’s more community input.” He believes the process of gathering ideas, while lengthy, often leads to “vested buy-in,” which he said he values.

One team, which had no Renoites, proposed augmenting efforts for a connecting corridor along Fourth Street between Sparks and Reno. Part of the idea was to have decorative flames shooting from no-longer-used telephone poles.

This idea—not-entirely refined, not 100 percent confirmed as being feasible, and not under-budget—also went over fine. That one won the contest. Details are yet to be hashed out on how, when and if it’s going to be implemented.

One of the most important ideas behind the Big Idea Challenge was to start conversations and get people from different disciplines talking about solutions to urban problems. While Hand’s rooftop garden planting was conceived and completed within a few days, many projects that’ll likely result from the conference, officially or unofficially, have just begun.

Several Vanguards have reported that they’re excited to keep in touch with new contacts all over North America. Bullentini said, “We all stayed connected on every level that you can.” She’s now coordinating with an architect in New Jersey and a designer in New Orleans.

As for the selfie station, Oscar Delgado’s already taken it up with the City Council, and he’s optimistic it may well happen.