For this edition of 'A Capital Conversation ...' I'm honored to have had a chance to pick the brain of Jedidiah Gant, one of the founders of New Raleigh (@NewRaleigh). Jed is a major promoter of Raleigh and someone who has his finger on the pulse of the city. New Raleigh was born out of passion for Raleigh into an extremely influential blog/website/publication. Then, when the time needed to devote to it began to shift (understandably so) to the creators' "real" jobs and families, New Raleigh evolved into a social media presence. Despite the change, its influence in the City of Oaks has not waned at all. In fact, one could argue that, because of social media, New Raleigh is more of a player than ever before.
Raleigh Philosophical Society (RPS): What is your history as a Raleigh resident? Are you from here originally? What brought you and your family here?
Jedidiah Gant (JG): I was born in the small town of Lumberton, NC and went to college for Architecture at UNC Charlotte from 1998 until 2003. I then moved to London to work for a Dutch architecture firm, Erick van Egeraat Associated Architects, straight out of college and lived there for a few years. I left London and decided to move to an area near my family but in an urban setting. At the time, in 2005, the North Carolina Triangle’s architecture scene was the best in North Carolina and the Southeast. So, I applied for jobs in both Raleigh and Durham. I got two offers, one in each city, and decided to start working for Clearscapes in Downtown Raleigh in February 2005.
RPS: Where did the idea for New Raleigh come from?
JG: It's all David Millsaps. It was his vision. While I was at Clearscapes, I received a message from a friend who I knew from high school. The message said that a David was putting together a hyperlocal website and wanted someone to help with local design and architecture coverage. So, one July evening in 2007, I walked up the narrow staircase to Mitch’s Tavern on Hillsborough Street and met four other guys, three of whom I did not know (including David). Seven years later and the New Raleigh project is still going, just in a new form. Although the contributors list changed many times over the years, the original group of guys are still good friends of mine.
RPS: What were those early days of it like? It seemed to sync up nicely with some great momentum here in the city, and New Raleigh was a major part of it.
JG: David Millsaps, who had the idea for the site, had a vision that we all essentially contributed to over the years. He steered the ship and kept it afloat, but allowed us freedom with what we covered.
The idea was to cover new local ideas that were popping up in the Raleigh area. At the time, downtown was still a bit of a destination, rather than a 24-hour experience for most Raleigh residents. All of the early contributors to the site spent most of their time, day and night, in downtown. We were all young and so the site was as much of an experiment as it was a professional venture. Downtown was gaining a lot of energy at the time and by being in and around downtown all of the time, we could spot the trends and buzzing movements. Luckily, that growth held on and now Raleigh is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.
RPS: What are some of your most proud moments with New Raleigh?
JG: Oh man, this is a tough one. I think the fact that New Raleigh, as a brand, has sustained itself this long is the proudest. David Millsaps had an idea that was on the cutting edge of internet journalism at the time and we always tried to keep it on the edge. We hope we’ve made a progressive impact in the city over the years and helped make a difference. When people talk about the brand (past or present), that feels great and I feel proud of the product we haphazardly created. Starting local conversation was also part of the original goal and it feels great that NR gets referred to as the beginning of a lot of conversations, even today. We’ve had some big stories published over the years that had legs, but mainly being a catalyst for the conversation was a big deal for us.
But truly, our annual April Fools’ Day articles were always one of my favorite parts of running the site and oddly a very proud moment each year.
RPS: Why did you decide to take it to more of a social media-only presence?
JG: New Raleigh has always been an art project that continued to change shape. The brand had changed a lot over the years, with contributors moving to cities like Austin and Portland and others deciding to move on from the publication to concentrate on personal work. We’ve all had “real jobs” while working on New Raleigh. David and I ended up being the last of the original five guys remaining on the site and met many times about what to do with the brand. We discussed what it looked like in the future and how it could reflect not only our own interests but also how Raleigh was changing. We were both very into the technology aspect of the site and at the time and were also watching how similar sites were reshaping their presence online. At first, we decided to shut it all down, but then we slowly brought back the social media component and experimented with it. One year later, the social media arm of the brand is twice as large (relative to followers) as it was when when shut down the site last year.
RPS: What has the reaction been with it? You still seem to cover tons of stuff -- if not more.
JG: As mentioned earlier, we try to cover new and Raleigh (local), so we’ve never had one focus other than those two concepts. Therefore, that allows us to branch out into culture. Obviously, with the changing tide of the city comes different aspects of what is "new" in Raleigh. We’ve mostly covered downtown over the past seven years, because that’s where the bulk of the "new" energy has been happening. As well, it’s a national trend that downtowns have become centers of activity again. But, we have branched out into other areas that have had exciting things happening at times.
That said, the reactions have mostly been great over the years. People know our reputation at this point and know that we’ve always had a particular angle on Raleigh news. So, I think that our reputation as an independent and progressive group sharing news has gained us a lot of great reactions. But, with all of the new followers who don’t know that reputation, we get some negative statements about what we should and should not cover. Politics is a big problem for a lot of followers who don’t realize that we’ve covered politics from day one of the site.
Also, social media is quicker and essentially easier. This makes the hobby of New Raliegh much more sustainable, at the moment. Plus, social media can be more engaging. Too many news outlets just post links to their articles to get hits and don't interact or trust their audience. I like to think we've always listened to and engaged with our followers. I think this has helped the brand expand since becoming mostly social media based.
RPS: What are some of your favorite things that you have seen happen to Raleigh?
JG: Downtown. I came to Raleigh to live in a walkable downtown. At the time, it was walkable and bikeable, but there just weren’t many places to go. I barely use my car in the city and love that Raleigh’s downtown is small enough that you can get around on foot or bike to restaurants, bars, offices and hopefully in the near future grocery stores and other amenities.
Hopscotch. I think both Hopscotch and SPARKcon have been a huge cultural engine for this city over the past few years. Both have brought in creative talent and exposed not only many non-residents to our city, but many residents as well.
Young entrepreneurs. From the obvious, tech, to design to bands to restaurants to bars to guerilla projects, the city is full of young people making amazing things happening. I’m so impressed by everyone that I know that are taking risks to make our city better.
RPS: What are some predictions for things we'll see in the next few years?
JG: Density and diversity. At least I hope that’s what the next few years look like. From people to businesses to new types of projects, I hope the city embraces density and fills empty lots, rather than tearing down buildings. There is so much potential in the negative space of our grid that we could be a very dense city in the next 20 years. Also, looking to fill-in unused spaces with new types of businesses that either don’t exist in the area or are scarce. I think these two factors will help Raleigh get a long way in the coming few decades.
Design. I believe that the area has a very rich design history that it should embrace. It’s the reason I came here. It’s the reason a lot of people I know came here. If Raleigh embraces this, it could serve as a large part of its future identity, as much as technology and government. I think this will help it stand out from any other city in North Carolina and even the Southeast.
RPS: How did the Cooke Street Carnival come about?
JG: My wife and I had just moved into the Idlewild neighborhood in the Fall of 2008. One night, we were sitting around talking about the neighborhood and wondering if there was a fun way to get to know as many neighbors as possible. Having gone to Kirby Derby for a few years and also the Notting Hill Carnival in London, we came up with the idea of a party in the street. So, we contacted some neighbors and had a few meetings to see what the event would look like. Luckily, we all knew different people in the area and in the end, those people were many of the young entrepreneurs I spoke about earlier doing great things in Raleigh. So, we invited them to the event and over the past five years, it has become its own sustainable project that continues to highlight new and exciting aspects of our local community, a lot like New Raleigh, but in a more physical space.
RPS: What's the future hold for it?
JG: We are in the beginning of the planning phase of year 6, which will happen on October 18th, 2014. We hope to change things up this year to make the event more comfortable and incorporate new parts of our community, like Quality Grocery, and a few more blocks. We think this will make the event a bit more about our bigger community of Idlewild and less about the one street of Cooke. Many of the members of the planning committee live on Cooke, but many do not (including my family). So, we want the future of the event to reflect as much about Idlewild as that one street. So this year, we hope to focus a bit more on that. As for future years, I always say that “This Year is the Last” but everyone reminds me that I said that last year. So we’ll see.
RPS: What's your take on the whole Euclid Street Modern House debate?
JG: I have a lot of opinions on that debate, but that’s a longer conversation. I think the parody account @OakwoodModern on Twitter is doing a great job of summarizing the debate.
RPS: Your son, Oliver, was diagnosed with cancer at a very young age. How did the community come to his side?
JG: This is hard to explain in words without getting emotional. Every day, when I give my daughter a bottle in her room, I look up and see a large poster. On this poster is the lineup of over 20 bands (including Tift Merritt, The Avett Brothers, The Love Language and many more amazing local bands) that played a benefit concert for Oliver in March of 2012. The poster is signed by every band member. We have a lot of art in our house which may come and go, but that poster will hopefully survive a few generations.
That poster is the lasting evidence of an event that meant the world to our family. Not only did it give us a financial boost to help with Oliver’s medical bills, but it felt like the largest group hug a community can give a family. While on stage watching the Avett Brothers play an acoustic set at Kings, I zoned out for a minute and stopped listening to the music. I looked at all of the happy faces in the crowd and was amazed at how many people, bands included, that took time out of their lives to help our family.
We are eternally grateful to Grayson Currin, a very great friend who organized the event. I regularly send him messages to thank him and that will probably be one of the last messages I will send when I’m old. The event meant so much to us and it’s hard to really express how amazing it feels to see a community help a young and innocent child battling cancer.
As well, the local community has been a huge support in my campaign each year to raise funds for St. Baldrick’s, an organization that has folks shave their heads in solidarity with cancer patients, while raising money for pediatric cancer research. I shaved my head with Oliver after he lost his hair when he started treatment and I have shaved my hair every year since through St. Baldrick’s. This Saturday, April 12th, I will shave my head for the fourth straight year. If anyone would like to donate to the cause, feel free to at www.cutjedshair.com . Again, community is as much a part of this process as me shaving my head. Without the donations from the community, St. Baldrick’s would not be able to help fund the research and development to help children undergoing treatment for cancer.
RPS: How is Oliver doing these days?
JG: Oliver is wide open. He is full of energy and enjoying preschool. He will start kindergarten in the Fall. His last scan was clear and he has been clear for over two years now, which is quite an amazing feeling after over a year of constant treatment and surgeries. He does have some lingering issues related to both the treatment and the surgeries, but he’s handling those very well. Luckily, we live in a very progressive area that has state-of-the-art medical facilities. So, we have leaned on the professionals to guide us to helping Oliver prepare for school and any future obstacles he may face.
RPS: What do you and your family like to do in your free time?
JG: Now that it’s Spring, we will get outside as much as possible. On every sunny Saturday during Winter, we tried to take the kids out to an outdoor area to play or simply take a walk. Recently, we discovered the Prairie Ridge Eco-Station outdoor play area and trails near the NCMA. It’s a great use of outdoor space that we really love to take the kids. We also go out to Schenck Forest for hikes often. But, living so close to downtown allows us to walk to some great restaurants, dessert places and parks around here. The Cooke Street greenway is full of kids and adults many days, so we usually just pop outside and hang out with our neighbors. We are also lucky that the Person Street area is now booming, which gives us an even closer destination for free time fun.
When my wife and I have the rare free time together, we like to see live music, have dinner and drinks downtown or check out the latest movie at either The Rialto or Mission Valley, two of the theatres in the city that serve beer with your movie. We just went to see The Grand Budapest Hotel and had drinks and a few rounds of pool at Person Street Bar, both excellent uses of adult free time. I also have a stack of several months worth of the Sunday New York Times to catch up on during a free Spring afternoon.
About Jedidiah Gant
Jedidiah Gant is a designer with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture from UNC Charlotte and is almost done with his Master’s degree in New Media at NC State. He has been the Downtown Editor at New Raleigh since 2007 and is the founder of the Idlewild neighborhood event, Cooke Street Carnival, which will happen for the sixth time on October 18th, 2014. He has also served on the Raleigh Appearance Commission since 2010. Jedidiah lives with his two lively children, Oliver and Eleanor, and a lovely wife, Stacy and dog Niko in a house in the Downtown Raleigh area.