This week, I opened my mailbox to find a familiar bulging envelope mailed from my parents’ law firm. I knew the letter was from my father. He has sent me occasional articles or family news through snail mail throughout my three years at college, knowing that I barely ever remember to check the mailbox. The hand written address on the envelope was more evidence of his sometimes stubborn commitment to the traditions of the old southern gentleman.
The article inside, however, is contrastingly modern. Torn from the Wall Street Journal Magazine, the piece describes Amanda Burden, director of New York’s city planning department. Working closely with Mayor Bloomberg, she has led the effort to rezone much of the city and to revitalize areas along the waterfront. She is known for her pickiness in even the smallest details of site plans, often driving developers to become frustrated with her suggestions about plant placement or rooftop cornices. At the same time, Burden is obviously also able to macro-manage, as one of her most important contributions has been to use inclusionary zoning to promote affordable housing projects in East Harlem, Brooklyn, South Bronx and High Line.
The most interesting part of the article, and the reason I know my dad recommended it to me, is about how Burden negotiated the male-dominated spheres of architecture and real estate development. Partly because she is a woman who seems too obsessed with the small things, and partly because she comes from a wealthy, elite background that cast her as somewhat of a socialite in her youth, Burden had trouble getting people to take her seriously. She developed the unusual tactic of using her reputation to her advantage saying, “I used everything in my power—my brain, my looks, my powers of persuasion.” Burden wields her “social prowess” as a weapon against her critics, ironically using her reputation as a social elite to promote an affordable housing agenda.
The article drew my attention towards the role of female leaders in this field of community development. Recently, many including Sheryl Sandberg, have argued that women bring valuable strengths to leadership positions including being detail oriented, more empathic, and more willing to work on conflicts through mediation. These traits seem particularly well suited for community development. Pair this with women’s higher likelihood of volunteering at the grassroots level of an organization, and there seems to be much potential. Burden certainly demonstrates a level of success; she is well respected by her peers and her plans are being studied around the globe, especially in Hong Kong and Singapore.
At the same time, the article insinuates that Burden must prove an extra layer of toughness for people to consider her a serious player. The almost full-page picture of the chic woman in the Chanel suit has her arms crossed assertively. The woman obviously gets what she wants, but she also has to fight for it from “difficult, demanding men”. Taking this as a message from dear old dad, still writing drawn out letters on an old legal pad, seems to represent a willingness to respect this new kind of female leader and the pressures she faces. Community development, it seems, has a future to look forward to, wrapped in an old fashioned envelope.
Guest Contributor: Candace Pearson