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Board Spotlight: Erin Barnes Chats with Board Chair Jess Zimbabwe

  

February 8, 2024 | Board Spotlight: Erin Barnes Chats with Board Chair Jess Zimbabwe |

  
In October 2023, Jess Zimbabwe was appointed Chair of the Main Street America Board of Directors. Jess is the Executive Director of Environmental Works Community Design Center in Seattle. She is a licensed architect, certified city planner, LEED-Accredited Professional, and a member of the urban planning faculties at Georgetown University and the University of Washington. We are so excited to work with her in the coming months and years.

Main Street America is deeply grateful to Darryl Young, who served as our board chair from 2021 through 2023. Darryl provided stability and confidence during our leadership transition and helped welcome our new President and CEO, Erin Barnes. His support and leadership were crucial during this time of change.

Last month, Erin sat down with Jess to help the network get to know her better. They talked about her passion for Main Streets, her career, and the power of restorative justice.

Tell us a little bit about the first commercial corridor that shaped your imagination of America’s Main Streets.

I grew up in a split household. Most of the time, I lived with my mother and for several years we lived in Flint, Michigan. Flint is a wonderful place, but in the decades we lived there, the global labor maneuvers of the auto companies lead to immense disinvestment. Meanwhile, my father lived and published the weekly newspaper in Plymouth, in exurban Detroit, so I spent most of the weekends of my childhood there. Plymouth was a stereotypical small town—with a fall festival and an ice sculpture festival in the wintertime. So, as a child, I was observing these two very different senses of community: an idyllic farming community outside of Ann Arbor, and a city with an economic downturn unrelated to the decisions of local leaders. That led me to explore the connections between people and place, so I was interested in architecture and urban planning early on. Only later did I realize how observing those early patterns of investment shaped my career path.

Can you tell us a little bit about your career and the specific things you bring into focus in your work?

I was an anthropology minor in undergrad, and it formed a lot of the ways I approach a problem or an issue and establish what’s important. As a species, we assign value to each other based on the places we live and work and learn and shop and worship and play. It’s a way that we distribute power. Well, it strikes me that most people are worth more than most of the places we’re building. Why is that? I’ve been trying answer that question, which involves disrupting traditional power structures of capitalism, ableism, sexism, and racism, through my work. How do we make a built environment that is more than just a handmaiden of those forces? All of our professions have a role in promoting that kind of restorative justice in the built environment.

Can you share an example of restorative justice in your work?

One of the earliest successes in my career was a fellowship I participated in with enterprise community partners through the Rose Fellowship. I worked with (the now unfortunately defunct organization) Urban Ecology and the EastSide Arts Alliance to build a community cultural center in Oakland, California. My role was to lend expertise to the good people doing the work on the ground and, ultimately, to build the EastSide Cultural Center. They had been operating in various borrowed spaces and whenever they had to move, the work suffered because of the space. As owners in their own space, they can accomplish their mission more effectively. (By the way, if you want to see their beautiful work in progress and you are anywhere near Oakland on May 18, 2024, you should go to their annual Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival. It’s incredible.)

You were voted in as chair of the Board the day before our Coordinators’ Meeting in Denver last year. Can you share some of your impressions from this event?

I love those kinds of gatherings. Our Coordinators are a fount of knowledge about their places, and everyone in their community depends on them. So, where do the people who everyone depends on go to find camaraderie, inspiration, support? It’s so powerful to bring critical leaders together to learn from each other, to be inspired by each other. 

What inspires you most about Main Street America?

The holistic approach that Main Street America takes with regards to place. Investment and place vitality are really important. A lot of organizations do one thing—transportation, preservation, jobs—but place is built into all of those things. I really appreciate that Main Street America cares about all of those things and how they’re related to each other.

What is most exciting to you right now?

The housing work  is really exciting because we haven’t traditionally thought about Main Streets as a locus of housing. We’ve been under developing housing as a country for 50-60 years to even just accommodate our own natural growth patterns. The idea that we can add more housing and do it so that it reinforces our downtowns and neighborhood centers is exciting. Adding housing adds clients, customers, and event attendees for Main Streets. Housing is the key for commercial corridors to succeed, in addition to meeting that basic human need for shelter.

Main Streets aren’t just great for economic vitality. Can you also talk about how Main Streets function as critical civic spaces?

Of course, great question. Civic spaces are the places where we are all together and in public. I did my academic research on this—my master’s thesis was about parliament buildings and how governments attempt to imbue political ideals through the architecture of the parliament buildings. But importantly, after the ribbon cutting, parliaments are real places in the lives of capital cities. People work there, visit as tourists or advocates, protest there, or just pass by in their daily lives. Any design that is for the public, in the public, will take on a life of its own. In many cases, around the world, that has led to fascinating alternate lives of parliament buildings, but we can see that in the design of Main Streets, too. How many Main Streets can you think of that were built before cars? Before zoning laws? Before the end of Jim Crow? Before online shopping? All of those re-shaped the physical character of Main Street. Places change over time, and if we respect the bones of these places, they are the backbone that allows us to re-shape a place to be vessel for the community we want to create. In most neighborhoods and towns, Main Streets are the places we are together. They are so important in our lives. When Martha Reeves sang “Dancin’ In the Street” everyone knew what she meant: it’s where you go for celebrations, funeral processions, the parade when your sports team wins, the protest, the holiday festival. And we learned even more about the importance of streets as social infrastructure and active living spaces during the pandemic. We are better the more we are together in place.

What’s a quirky relationship you have to Main Streets?

My family laughs at me when we travel and says, “of course you found the perfect place to go in a place we have never been before.” I can look at a map and think, “why is the street like this, this peculiar intersection of two street grids?” and see that there is a barbeque and a bookstore, and I know—that is the place to be.  

Do you live in a thriving commercial district today?

We live just ten minutes from West Seattle Junction. It’s perfect. It has everything you need in one place—restaurants, gift shops, a bookstore, services, and the Seattle trinity of coffee, beer, and a record store.

Please join us in welcoming Jess Zimbabwe to her new position as Chair of the Main Street America Board of Directors!


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