Wednesday, May 15, 2024

From the Magazine: The New Media

You never know what you’ll discover on Delray Raw, Delray Beach Community Forum and Best of Delray Beach. Each of these Facebook groups offers an eclectic bulletin board of community recommendations, reviews, images and concerns both monumental and picayune.

Recommendations for a stylist or a bathroom remodel or a vetted endocrinologist exist in the endless scroll, tucked among photographs of sunrises over the beach, promotional posts from restaurants and nonprofits, and news stories about the Brightline station, the housing crisis and that most polarizing of topics, the Old School Square debacle. Citizens use these platforms to express their opinions, hopefully without bile; the Delray Beach Police Department uses them to post about missing children. Want to discover the best waters for paddleboarding? You can find them, or if you can’t, simply post about it, and you’ll have your answer within the hour.

These are just three of a dozen or so Facebook Communities that exist in Delray Beach, but they’re the ones with the widest influence. Gregg Weiss, an investment banker, and Kellee Ray, a massage therapist, hashed out the idea for Delray Raw (24,000 members), the grandaddy of the local forums, around 2010. Weiss splintered off from Raw in 2014 to form his own group, Delray Beach Community Forum (23,000 members). Real estate agent Stephen Dickstein launched Best of Delray Beach (just under 10,000 members) a year ago as a corollary to a smartphone app of the same name that specializes in a curated guide to restaurants, entertainment and services in the city.

Similar in their objectives to 21st century town squares—if differing on some of the subject matter and ground rules—the forums have become vital information sources, replacing community newspapers, Craigslist and in some cases city commission meetings. In this spirited conversation, Weiss, Ray and Dickstein sat with Delray magazine to discuss the inspirations for their forums, their appeal and longevity, Delray’s needs and much more.

Bustling downtown Delray; photo courtesy of Delray DDA

On why their groups are important:

WEISS: I think that in the age we’re in, communication is so critical to quality of life in small towns like Delray Beach. In the old days we would get news through traditional media, and it was passive. In other words, you were reading what was. It still serves a great purpose, but … the reason we founded Delray Raw originally was to create a space where people could talk in real time about real issues that were happening in Delray.

DICKSTEIN: We provide a safe space. Anyone can say anything and not feel they’re going to be criticized unfairly. We don’t let people say, “don’t go to this restaurant.” That’s unfair. What we do say is, “I ate at that restaurant, and the veal Parmigiana was really dry, the portions were small, the service stunk.” But you can’t tell other people what to think, because 10 people might have a fantastic experience at that same restaurant. Let them tell their experiences.

On the shifting media landscape:

WEISS: When you go to the community section of the Palm Beach Post or Sun Sentinel, there are one or two articles, if you’re lucky, about Delray. They let go of the beat reporters. Ten years ago, you’d find six or seven articles; you knew what was going on in the community.

DICKSTEIN: In the ‘50s there were only a couple of TV stations, and there were only a couple magazines. Everybody had a subscription to Life magazine. What happened was—and this is the way all technology goes—is that it leads to smaller and smaller affinity groups. Delray Beach now is an affinity group. It’s a group of like-minded people that have a shared interest. What you’re trying to do with these groups is give people a way to connect with like-minded people.

On the inspiration for Delray Raw:

RAY: At the time my children were a lot younger, and whenever I went to Veterans Park to play with my kids, half of the playground was boarded off, had caution tape, and was literally burnt. This is directly across the street from The Seagate hotel, where we’re trying to bring all these people … yet the community itself was being neglected.

WEISS: I stopped taking my kids there, because of all the hypodermic needles.

RAY: We could put up a million-dollar Gateway, and we don’t have a playground for children? It was trying to get people together and get on the same page and say, ‘hey, what’s going on in this city?’ Let’s create a community so we know what’s going on. With that, the playground eventually did get changed. At First Avenue, there was no traffic light. There was an accident pretty much daily. They put in stop signs, and then they ended up putting up a light. It was trying to make the community better for the people that lived here.

Gregg Weiss

On the meaning of Delray Raw:

RAY: I wanted something catchy. “Raw” means Raising Awareness Weal. It basically means a group of people coming together for a common good. … I wanted people to be real. Be raw, tell it like it is, but be respectful.

On how Delray Raw became a breeding ground for meanness:

WEISS: My goal when starting it was to just let people speak their minds, without a whole lot of quality control. Obviously we had certain rules—no profanity, no nudity—but we pretty much wanted a forum where it could be left alone. In 2013, three years after we launched Delray Raw, it got real ugly. That’s when Delray started undergoing a real shift in how politics was viewed and dealt with on a commission level. You had a big divide and split that caused a lot of contention. It got out of control, and I was a little unprepared for it, because I had been used to people, for the most part, playing nice in the sandbox.

IPIC was a big area of contention, and the Arts Garage building [which a law firm had been working to acquire circa 2012—Ed.]. People weren’t behaving nice about it. They were superimposing pictures of commissioners doing bad things. It got a really ugly feel, and I didn’t like it. It only got worse.

DICKSTEIN: In our world, one or two trolls, people that just are troublemakers, can go in there and … change the course of conversation with one comment.

WEISS: I had a big decision to make: I could sit here and try to rein everything in from what the members of Delray Raw were used to from that three-year period it was in existence, or I could go off and create what I really wanted, which was more of a community forum.

On the differences between Delray Raw and Delray Beach Community Forum:

WEISS: I took it back a notch. I dialed it down. I said, you can talk local politics. You can talk about any subject as long as it’s related to Delray. But I put very tight controls. Businesses can only post once per week. Charities can post as often as they want, because I really wanted it to be a forum where the nonprofits in the city could communicate with potential donors and supporters. I added things like no bullying, no harassing. You can’t message individuals without permission. We put a zero tolerance policy on that, to the point where they’re instantly blocked.

We are able to control the temperature. They can still talk about Delray politics and planning and zoning, and proposed buildings, elections. Everybody is allowed to speak their voice, as long as they do it with a little bit of civility and class and grace.

On the toxicity of Delray politics:

WEISS: People got very polarized with saving the “village by the sea.” The mood has shifted to little pockets of silos. There’s this small but very vocal group that wants to go back to where we were 25 years ago, but you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube. But if you’ve noticed, the people that talk the loudest aren’t exactly making plans to leave Delray.

DICKSTEIN: They’re buying second homes in North Carolina.

Stephen Dickstein

On the impact of their groups:

WEISS: During the pandemic … we were the only Delray Beach group out there, consistently, putting out information as we were getting it from the county and from the city. We monitored everything very closely, and—good, bad or indifferent—we put data out there to help people. We told them where they could get their vaccines, we kept databases of who had vaccines and boosters in stock. This was when people couldn’t even find anywhere to get an antibody test. So we were able to mobilize it and help a lot of people.

Another example: This is happening as we speak because of the rental crisis in Delray. Every day now, we’re getting people with properties and people looking for properties to rent that are affordable, because so many people are getting displaced.

DICKSTEIN: With us … we revel in the fact that a CRA-backed restaurant that’s brand-new, that when we write glowing reviews on our site, they get a line out the door in two days. [This happened with] Conch Craving. And with Gremla Bakery. We’re not trying to be influencers necessarily, other than in the food business. We love to celebrate new places.

On how their forums change lives:

DICKSTEIN: There’s an older lady at the Wednesday Night Drum Circle at Old School Square. She must be 85. And she dances. Her son is one of the percussionists. And she’s delightful. She’s dancing on air amongst all these kids and hippies. And I just focused on her in a video on our page. I got a call, through the group, from a senior care center that asked me if I could connect them to the drum circle so they could do that for their people. Those are the little things that I most appreciate. We believe we touch people’s lives all the time.

RAY: My daughter was living in Key West, and took a sailboat with friends to Provincetown, Mass., for the summer to work there. They got about halfway there, and the motor broke. You’ve got a boat with five kids, ages 18 to 22, leaving Key West to work in Cape Cod on a little sailboat, and we were able to put it out [on Raw]. They were able to get $1,500. They were able to get the boat fixed in North Carolina.

Another family had lost their housing, and we helped get them new furniture, get in a new situation, hooked them up with community services. There’s a lot of generosity.

On how their forums have fueled movements:

WEISS: There is no doubt that we helped with the Old School Square situation to bring awareness out there. When we started promoting the Change.org petition … we ended up getting 11,000 signatures from people in support of the organization. We weren’t taking a position in Delray Beach Community Forum, even though I’m a board member [of OSS]. All we wanted to do for that petition was to get the sides together to talk. Forget about the litigation. Forget about animosity. Forget about personalities. And that’s what brought a lot of people together.

On the civic leaders who follow the groups:

WEISS: Commissioner Ryan Boylston has been really good at responding to people. He’s the best of the commissioners at utilizing social media to reach out to citizens and those who live, work and play in Delray. Juli [Casale] uses our site, but very sparingly, and usually when there’s a disagreement. Once in a great while, the mayor will weigh in. But … Ryan has got it. He realized that he can have more direct communication via social media than he could in almost any other forum.

DICKSTEIN: You’re missing a lot if you’re a public servant and you didn’t engage with these groups. Because there is so much information about the community that they can gather and poll from. This is a closer connection than they’re going to get with 90 percent of the people they’re dealing with.

Kellee Ray

On handling personal attacks from group members:

DICKSTEIN: I have a really thin skin. I can be really snarky. If someone says something nasty, my first instinct is to be snarky back to them. But I usually call Gregg or Mike Mayo [the former Sun Sentinel food critic, who contributes copious food content to Best of Delray Beach—Ed.], and they talk me off the ledge. Usually you can find a way, if you remove your ego—which you have to do many times in a position as an administrator or monitor—to come back with something that actually advances the conversation in a positive or constructive way. But you have to suck it up.

RAY: I’m not as sensitive. I do have a bit of a thicker skin. … The thing is to remain impartial, and understand that they don’t know me. I don’t know where they’re coming from, what issues they have going on, and I just look at it wide open and impersonally.

WEISS: Of the three of us, I have the thickest skin. Nothing permeates me. I view the admin role as half HR manager, half middle school teacher. You’ve got to recognize the fact you’re going to have good actors, bad actors … you’re going to have people that want to get under your skin intentionally, and they’re going to find every way to do it. I’ve been called everything under the sun in Instant Messenger. I’ve had threats levied against me. It doesn’t bother me. The only time it would ever cross the line is if there was a threat to my family.

What Delray needs more of:

WEISS: More citizens getting involved on the community level. It’s easy to sit and complain and make observations behind the keyboard, but to go out there and impact change, you need to make more effort. That is what built Delray.

DICKSTEIN: I’m a newcomer, so it’s hard for me to have a wise opinion about where things are going. To me, this is a fantasyland. It’s an absolute perfect playground. But if there’s anything that would benefit in the long run, it’s a real effort at historic preservation. I would like to see more of that—really engaging the past—especially here, where you have an ethnic community that is the base of the city, that provides a lot of the backbone of where we are and why it looks the way it does.

What Delray needs less of:

RAY: It needs less corporate. I miss the mom-and-pops. Downtown has become one big strip mall, and I know a lot of Delray residents are disappointed in that. There could be more zoning to help protect families and the integrity of the community. The city has to issue all these permits; be mindful of how many permits you offer. How many houses can you tear down from a beautiful historic neighborhood and make it into a concrete square block?

On the “secret sauce” that made Delray what it is:

RAY: Back in the day, when the Avenue wasn’t what it is now … it was very Old Town America. It was very much a family community, with that small-town feel, where you knew your neighbors. Across the country, we’ve lost that small-town feeling, that Mayberry feel, and that’s how Delray was to me when I first got there.

On where to get good Chinese food in Delray:

DICKSTEIN: That’s worth a drive. You have to go Silver Pond, in Coral Springs.

RAY: I don’t think there is any. It’s really hard to find good Chinese food anywhere. … Grand China on Southern Boulevard. I drive all the way to West Palm.

WEISS: That question has become the running joke in Delray Beach. It’s a South Florida thing from all the New Yorkers; it is what it is.

This article is from the November/December 2022 issue of Delray magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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