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You work as a City Planner for the City of Spartanburg. Could you describe your day-to-day and how it’s been affected by COVID-19?
Sure thing! For me personally, I’ve been working from home since I’m high-risk, which has been an interesting experience. Some of my colleagues are still at the office (although it was closed to the public for a month or so), and generally our operations have continued smoothly. We still have projects coming in for review (my work deals a lot with real estate development), public hearings (via Zoom, which coincidentally have actually gone far more smoothly than they do in person), meetings, preparation for long term planning activities, etc. On weekdays I wake up and get coffee started (sometimes I ninja over to the Coffee Bar and scuttle back to Pinckney Court), hop onto my laptop and check my emails—IT has outfitted me with VPN so I’m able to do all the same work I can from my office, minus face to face meetings except for rare occasions where meeting on-site has been necessary. While day-to-day functions of the department continue unimpeded, the long-term planning strategies like the Highland Master Plan and Comprehensive Plan have had to get creative since in-person public input has been put on hold for now. That’s the biggest bummer for me, because long-range planning is my favorite aspect of the work. All in all, my days aren’t really that much different than they were before. Perhaps slightly less stressful with reduced human interaction, but that much more existentially anxious?
Honestly, the days pass by much more quickly now with less breaks in concentration, but it’s jarring trying to “forward the buffs” whilst obsessively reading reports on the virus and looking up projections. The idea that we may be looking at the next two years filled with difficulty is hard to wrap one’s mind around, but it’s necessary. That said, I’m definitely blessed to have a flexible role and to work for an organization that encourages employees to take precautions for themselves and their families – not everyone has the set-up to be able to ride this pandemic out like Bubble-girl, and my family and I are counting our lucky stars.
You’re also a talented sketch artist. Have recent events inspired or deprived your creative practice?
Aww, shucks! I would say they’ve inspired me, if anything, by pushing me to consider what my art means to me outside of any wider worldly context (i.e. does it look good, do people like it). For me this means doing the internal work of art—what themes do I want to capture in my body of work? Long term, what does that body form? What story am I trying to tell? Do I even have one worth telling? Do I even need one? I haven’t quite found the answers to these, and I’m always looking for inspiration. I get bored trying to do a series, and frustrated if my work doesn’t come out exactly the way I want it to, and I can’t say Coronavirus has helped. If anyone has any ideas I’m open to them, haha! The trouble for me is, I draw inspiration for artwork almost exclusively from the people in my life. Less people around means less source material to draw on, pun…intended.
Downtown Spartanburg has seen exponential growth in the past couple of years. How do you see expansion efforts being affected by the pandemic?
This one is tough. So far I haven’t seen any slowdown in planned or proposed projects, but we’re only at the beginning of an economic contraction, so I’m hesitant to offer any commentary on what may or may not come through/fall through in the coming months and years. The reason for the long timeline is because development processes start a long time before you ever see construction begin—projects you see coming out of the ground today are the result of several years of work and a decade of economic growth. Still, our region is growing and I’m hopeful that we can wade through these times and pick up where we left off sooner rather than later. If anything, I think we’re well equipped to come out stronger than most regions because we aren’t as dense (slowed rates of infection) as other areas that have been hit hard, like NYC and New Orleans. I can imagine we’ll see a slowdown in retail, with a rebound on the other end of coronavirus—when the majority of the populace can shop and eat freely again. Everything is speculative right now, because we are only teetering towards opening back up, with subsequent shutdowns likely until herd immunity is achieved.
On a positive note, we’re still a long way away from where we were in 2008 – all of the progress since then has given us a Downtown we all love, and that quality won’t be eroded by hard times. The theory behind a hoppin’ downtown is creating a sense of place—the heartbeat and life of a community that draws people in. There’s a lot of ways to do that, and economic development is one aspect. As long as people see Downtown as a place to go; to see people, to be seen, to conduct business, and to engage in public life, we’ll make it. Cities never go out of style—we form them naturally in accordance with our social natures as human beings!
Sustainable planning, which heavily considers the intersections of environment, economy, and equity, is a top priority for you. Did South Carolina’s Home or Work Order change the way you view those intersections?
Certainly not. More than ever we need to be pushing towards a paradigm shift that prioritizes the 3 in 1, and not 1 over 2. Troubled times (have black and brown people EVER lived in peaceful times?) just pull back the coverings on the inequities in our systems. We know because data tells us that if you are a person of color you’re less likely to make a livable wage, be in good health or receive decent healthcare, or have health insurance to receive health care. We know that if you are in poverty, you are more likely to live in a polluted and violent environment. We know that opportunities for economic advancement are not as available to people of color, that in times of difficulty we are the last to benefit and the first to lose. Should we reopen too quickly, we are sure to see the negative impacts in all three. You have EPA regulations being rescinded at the federal level, the economy taking a gut-punch, and the historically disenfranchised getting the short end of both sticks, as usual. Now, more than ever, as we consider who we want to be (Spartanburg) in the next 20 or 30 years, we need to keep the Three E’s in mind, lest we fail our population of color again, do further damage to a rapidly diminishing natural environment (reflected in our health and stability), and hamstring economic opportunity for a generation. While we have time to think about the things that matter, let’s plan for a better future and make the decisions that will assure longevity for future generations. I don’t want to be at the end of my career harping about the same old things. I’d like to be somewhere in 2060 someday, remarking on these times as a turning point for the better, and not as a missed opportunity.
As a city official, what advice would you personally give the residents of Spartanburg?
I really can’t stress this enough—wear a mask, limit your exposure to people outside of your household as much as you can within your control. Buy local—order your food from locally owned restaurants, have it delivered by locally-owned delivery services, buy your clothes from local shops. If you can spare the charity, tip big, and donate to rainy day Cash App/Venmo funds. Be smart about how you move through the world, use hand sanitizer, make sure you read the instructions on sanitizing materials (because sometimes you have to leave the disinfectant on for a while to kill all the germs, not just spray and wipe). Get tested as often as you can (keep an eye out for free testing opportunities, such as at the Blood Connection). There’s no magic strategy to get out of this quickly—all we can do is try to be patient, encourage our representatives to make decisions in the best interest of the health of the community, and look out for ourselves and each other. Honestly, these all apply in a non-pandemic situation as well, but it’s especially important to be savvy, supportive, and nice to each other now, when everyone is stressed out about getting sick/losing their livelihoods. Also, access any kind of support services that you can get ahold of.
As a beloved community member, known for frequenting downtown’s small businesses, where are you most excited to patron once it’s safe for you to do so?
It’s gotta be the coffee bar and bookstore, although both are semi-open right now. As I mentioned previously, the people in my life inspire me, and I miss all of my friends who I stop to chat with who both work there and work from there. The Masonic Temple building is a great “sampler” of Spartanburg, and it seems like you can always find one of your friends in there, or otherwise run into someone to have a productive conversation with. My dog really loves it in there too, because everyone gives him pats!
Natalia Rosario is a local 27-year-old Latina-hybrid out of Miami Beach, FL/Woodruff, SC. She serves as the Senior Planner for the City of Spartanburg where her work ranges from guiding and reviewing developments based on City Ordinances and the Comprehensive Plan, to long range planning, equity outlook, and other minutiae like sign permits, map-making, and data analysis. She holds a Master of City and Regional Planning from Clemson University, as well as a B.A. in Political Science & Sociology from USC Upstate. Her personal interests include social justice, data science, portraiture & illustration, analyzing popular media, and hanging out with her american bulldog, Mr. Karl. Natalia also serves on the South Carolina Community Loan Fund Commercial Loan Committee, is an active member of the Downtown Chapter of the Spartanburg NAACP, and was recently appointed to the Artist's Guild of Spartanburg Board.