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#AudioThursday: Chilling in the Urbanism Speakeasy

Thursdays at The Black Urbanist are now audio days, where either I share great audio on placemaking topics, or I podcast. In lieu of me podcasting this week, I wanted to share my visit to Andy Boenau’s Urbanism Speakeasy, one of the fun podcasts in our neck of the woods. I talked about why I started The Black Urbanist, as well as several of the theories I’ve presented over the years on the blog. Head here to take a listen.

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Previously, I’ve written about why words matter. Especially when we talk about what’s a town and what’s a suburb. Once again, people are people and places are places. So how should we talk about places?

First of all, if you have a city, with either two large cities, that are economic powers surrounded by several small towns with less economic power, then you have a metropolitan area. If you have a larger town with economic power, with smaller towns around it, you have a micropolitan area, the Census Bureau’s new word for smaller areas of concentrated economic power. A farm is still a farm.

I know, sounds technical right? And maybe a bit harsh. After all, one of my good urbanist friends reminded me that economically, some larger metros are justifiably suburbs. Yet, we’ve never really been good at this labeling the places we live anyway. Are all our streets streets? Or are they really roads, highways, boulevards, avenues,courts, ways, alleys, etc. Oh and some of those alleys aren’t really alleys. And when do you know when a road is a street? What if the road turns into a freeway after that traffic signal up ahead. Or is it a stoplight.

Anyway, thanks to our nuances in language by region, we don’t all use the same names for the places we live. And that’s ok. As long as you don’t make the racial euphemism mistake, you are ok by me. However, it’s worth checking out the thoughts of Ben Ross, the author of the new book Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. This excerpt published on Greater Greater Washington has a lot to say on the many euphemisms we use in urban planning and other more casual conversations about place.:

In Briarcliff, New York, a spurned builder once wrote, the aim of zoning is to guarantee “that each newcomer must be wealthier than those who came before, but must be of a character to preserve the illusion that their poorer neighbors are as wealthy as they.” 

Such frank talk about land use is rare indeed. If you don’t want something built, an honest statement of objections invites defeat in court. If you do, plain speaking is unlikely to convince the zoning board, and it risks offending any neighbors who might be open to a compromise. 

Each party has an illusion to maintain, so words become tools of purposeful confusion. One side directs its linguistic creativity into salesmanship. Rowhouses turn into townhomes; garden apartments grow parked cars in the gardens; dead ends are translated into French as cul-de-sacs. The other, hiding its aims from the world at large and often from itself, has a weakness for phrases whose meaning slips away when carefully examined.

I couldn’t have written a better paragraph. Check out the rest of that excerpt here for more euphemism fails.

Another great wordsmith of place is my friend and colleague Steve Mouzon. When asked to not write so technically about the urban to rural transect and its effect on how people chose to walk, he went back and crossed out the technical language and added new, more concise and friendly language. Need I mention that this article is about a concept he calls Walk Appeal,  one of his many catchy phrases that help us all learn about how to live in and create better places.

I end with one more reminder for all of us to be literary when it comes to describing people and places. Add as many adverbs and adjectives as you need. Say what you really mean, even if it is slightly mean. It’s better than empty euphemisms, with meanings that come back to haunt you later.

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Whose Suburbs Are We Talking About Again?

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One of my pet peeves in reading through the various press on metropolitan areas is when the notion of suburb (and on occasion urban)  is mislabeled. This happens one of two ways, when an incorporated town, and sometimes city is labeled a suburb and when suburb is used as a euphemism for white American.

I can give people who mislabel the first way a pass. Suburbs are just classified differently in the NYC and DC areas. Montgomery County is a county of neighborhoods. Arlington is really a county. But I’m sorry,  Alexandria, the city, actually predates the District of Columbia by 42 years. Yes, it became part of the district for a period of time, but not without a fight and not without later leaving the district. Meanwhile, down in North Carolina, our friend Cary is forever being mislabeled. Yes, it’s a city of many subdivisions. However, it has never been part of Raleigh and is the seventh largest city in North Carolina. Speaking of cities in North Carolina, there are several that have been labeled as neighborhoods and are actually fairly large towns.  Take one glance of Wikipedia’s Census-fortified list of North Carolina municipalities and you may notice a few names you thought were just holes in the wall that became classy Charlotte and Raleigh suburbs overnight. You may also notice that there are two cities you may have not heard of, but encompass a 1.1 million person metro area of its own (Points to self and map of the Triad region).

But enough of this kind of snark. Let me get to the real shade. Urban is not a race of people. Suburb is not a race of people. Rural is not a race of people. Say it as many times as you need to. Then, if you write articles like this that either by accident or lack of inclusiveness, imply that only one race of person moves to and from the suburbs, don’t be surprised if they get interpreted as attempts to be nice about labeling races, instead of true analyses of migration patterns.

Whew. That was a nice run-on sentence wasn’t it? Do come back tomorrow and learn how we can better label the metro areas we live in. In the meantime, if you want to learn what we are doing here in the many metro areas of North Carolina, click on the pretty shiny ad below.

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Cruising Down a Curved Road

Tail of the Dragon near Deals Gap, NC./ Wikipedia

For the holiday, I went to my grandmother’s house in rural Alamance County for dinner and family time. I’ve written about making the drive before, but this time I want to focus on the areas of curved roads that I encounter on the route. I’ve driven on mountainous curved roads that make you slow down and clutch your wheel. Yet, these curves, once one is skilled, can be taken at multiple speeds.

When I was younger, and still played video games, I loved playing games like Gran Turismo which featured road races. Many times I’d fall off the cliffs on the curved roads, but once I mastered them, they became my favorite parts of the game (that and the rally races, since they always allowed me to drive in the dirt).

Like many things, curved roads serve as a metaphor for life. The road is a defined path, but in those areas, they aren’t straight lines and they aren’t always on a level plain. That’s the purpose of the curves, to navigate hills and mountains and streams that get in the way of a straight path. It reminds me of how in my life, after seeing the challenges and facing the minor panic, I in turn navigate well through curves and come out one the stronger.

One would note, in many urban plans, curves are evil. We marvel at things like Lombard Street in San Francisco, but no one is rushing out to re-create curves or build hills to add to the urban landscape. In the Transect code, hills and valleys are in the T1-T2 place, natural wonders, but not places where people live who have a choice. But some people do make those choices to live there. Others don’t. Regardless, there are lessons for all in the curving of a road.

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Flickr/Vianney (Sam) Carriere

Flickr/Vianney (Sam) Carriere

This week’s #throwbackthursday post piggybacks on recent statements by the RZA, a member of the Wu-Tang Clan. In an interview with the website Shadow and Act, he stated that gentrification is just the natural order of things. He also mentioned that people have to learn how to utilize it. The context of this interview was to discuss his role in the upcoming movie Brick Mansions, about a walled off housing project in a slightly dystopian Detroit. Between that and other prominent remarks from celebrities on gentrification lately. I saw fit to have us revisit my thoughts on who should own the corner store from September of 2012. Also, check this out this article by friend of the blog Alexandra Moffett-Bateau, where  she studied women in a public housing development who exercised political power not against the government itself, but a corner store that was overcharging for basic food and refusing to take food stamps. With that, I hope everyone has a great holiday weekend! See you on Monday.

Recently, a friend on Facebook asked this somewhat quintessential question: Why don’t black folks own businesses in their own neighborhoods? One commenter to this status mentioned that it may be because we (as in black folks) have forgotten to help our own as we have achieved higher and higher financial goals and wealth.

I myself personally believe (and I mentioned this in a comment myself) that black folks went through a period where some of the business types in predominantly black neighborhoods were unwanted and unneeded in their eyes. I’ve even had someone who remembers urban renewal in Greensboro tell me that they willingly tore down the neighborhood businesses in hopes of something better.

However, in many cases, that something better never came. I am also cautious of some modern “revitalizations”, especially when the lots have been sitting empty for several years with no vision and no purpose.

Meanwhile, I applaud those who took up the banner of preserving the history, the commerce, and the tradition of ethnic enclaves, of all cultures. I even applaud those of other cultures who have come in and filled up the vacant spaces, either with businesses and services more geared to their cultures. I especially love if they maintained the original businesses quality and culture, and improved the original operations.

When community and culture and affordability are respected, then I don’t think it matters who owns the corner store.

We underrated, we educated
The corner was our time when times stood still
And gators and snakes gangs and yellow and pink
And colored blue profiles glorifying that…

The corner was our magic, our music, our politics
Fires raised as tribal dancers and
war cries that broke out on different corners
Power to the people, black power, black is beautiful…

The corner was our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge
Our Taj Mahal, our monument,
Our testimonial to freedom, to peace and to love
Down on the corner... Common featuring The Last Poets, The Corner, 2005

Yet, when businesses on these proverbial corners completely forget their legacy and their obligation for service, then they fail. If a shop owner follows its teenage customers instead of offering jobs, then they have failed. If women are looked upon as strange invasive creatures and vice-versa for males, then they have failed. Yes, we need safe space to be ourselves as men and women, but at the end of the day, there still comes a time for mutual respect. Elders should shop for free. What about GLBTQ folks and their needs? It’s this vision of the corner store or business as a service that owners need to undertake.

Ultimately, I think that this obligation is what makes it hard for people to maintain such businesses over a long haul. These businesses are more than stores, barbers or beauty salons. They are sounding boards, mini town squares and city halls. If you are not ready to be a de facto mayor or community leader, then you best take your business elsewhere. I believe this is why these businesses fall onto those who either want this charge or those who have no other choice but to run this type of business. I think some black leaders (and I’m sure there are others of other ethnic enclaves who feel the same way) who wanted to run a business that would not become every inch of their lives.

So does it matter who owns the corner store? Absolutely. Yet, it’s not a question of what the owners look like on the outside, it’s a question of what they believe on the inside about their community and their business.

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Serving with Pleasure

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So I didn’t make it to the city council meeting last night. Yet, we are one of many cities that sees fit to web stream our meetings, so that people who can’t be at the chamber for some reason (and for those who can’t fit in the chamber) can watch what’s being said and voted on. We also have robust opportunities for public comment, either during a general period, called speakers from the floor, or on select agenda items. Citizens can also call the city and get a real person during business hours to take care of needs, and the city just launched See-Click-Fix (called here Fix-It Greensboro), the popular app to report maintenance and infrastructure issues. We have a bright user-friendly website and elected officials that are social media savvy. We also have a number of boards and commissions that citizens can apply and be appointed, and aid the city staff and our city council with making decisions on city issues. And with that, is my big announcement, that I’ve been appointed to the Greensboro Transit Authority Board by my councilman. I’m excited to have a role shaping our area transit system, as well as continuing to advocate for regional transit through the Bike/Ped Advisory Committee, the Transit Alliance of the Piedmont and the BikeShare Task Force. I’m also the newest member of the Interactive Resource Center board, which is our local homeless day shelter.

I of course see this newsletter/blog and all of my ventures, whether purely volunteer or for purposes of making a livelihood as providing a service. I think we fail as a citizenry if we don’t make our voices heard and help people out when they need help and we have the right tools and skills.  We have to be mindful that our service and business pursuits don’t become self-serving or harmful to the greater community. We also have to be mindful that there’s always something to be spoken about and someone who needs our help. It doesn’t have to be an official office or board either. Sometimes it’s just whipping out that phone and reporting that broken poll or reading to the first graders or taking your parents to the doctor.

This is community. And if you want to know what’s going on in the greater North Carolina community…

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Getting Back to Walking

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Not only is balcony time returning to my routine, but so is daily walking. I took great effort to find an apartment close enough to my job to incorporate at least 5 days a week of walking. I was very fortunate that when that job ended, my new one was also in walking distance. However, I fell victim to two things, doing work or looking for work at home and then, despite other times when I would gladly walk in the cold and sometimes the rain and enjoying snow-covered grounds, I opted for my car. Plus, there was a fear that there weren’t enough eyes on the street near my new job, especially during the winter months of a 5:30 sunset and times when working on proposals meant a 6:30 end of day.

Yet now it is spring. My mind, belly and the sunset have told me it’s time to get back to walking and back to walking I did yesterday. It was not without issues, one being minor (lack of walk appeal) and the other being pollen and things that feed on pollen whizzing through the air. Yet, I was good and tired last night, slept well and my head felt clear after the 30 minute roundtrip to and from work and a 10 minute one, with a 20 minute detour to talk to an old colleague I had at lunchtime. I’m looking forward to my further walks this week on the days I’m working, as well as incorporating other reasons to walk. And of course, finishing Walkable City when I’m resting my feet!

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Front Porch Sittin’ Time

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I think it is safe to say, that at least in North Carolina, spring has arrived in earnest. It will shock me, but not by much, if we have one more hard freeze before May arrives. Yet, cold was nowhere  this weekend, on the patio at Nattys where I had lunch with a few fellow media professionals on Saturday, or my balcony (pictured above) where I chipped away at Andrew Ross’s The Celebration Chronicles: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Property Values in Disney’s New Town. More grittier than Celebration USA, I’ve enjoyed getting another angle of what it was like at the beginning of one of the first, most scrutinized, popular new urbanist developments. (H/T to Placemakers Scott Doyon for the recommendation)What better to read about while sitting on a porch-like structure than a community built around the powers of front porches. Unfortunately, at the time of the writing, the porches were painful reminders of the Florida heat and vermin. I had a wasp or hornet come inside with me Saturday night. It spun around until it finally died in the middle of the night.

Yet, that was just a minor pain in the ability to watch the sunset on my balcony and see what neighbors drove what, as well as a few new ones I hadn’t seen, since I’d not had “balcony time” since way before last winter. I noticed plenty of your photos on all the social sites of patios, balconies, porches and even a couple of hammocks and blankets on the ground. Whatever we did this weekend, it was clearly an ode to the front porches of our lives and the springs that make them awesome.

I’m also drawn, as many who are advocates of the return of the front porch are, to a quote from another book, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451:

“No front porches. My uncle says there used to be front porches. And people sat there sometimes at night, talking when they wanted to talk, rocking, and not talking when they didn’t want to talk. Sometimes they just sat there and thought about things, turned things over. My uncle says the architects got rid of the front porches because they didn’t look well. But my uncle says that was merely rationalizing it; the real reason, hidden underneath, might be they didn’t want people sitting like that, doing nothing, rocking, talking; that was the wrong KIND of social life. People talked too much. And they had time to think. So they ran off with the porches.”

I’ve lately been more conscious of the fact that we are in the “future”. Yet, as a neo-traditionalist, a Southerner, a person who likes socialization, who will attend at least 5 cookouts this summer, sit on that Natty’s patio (and the one at the Mellow Mushroom) at least 3-5 more times and probably grab a blanket at the NewBridge Bank park a couple more times, I believe that it will be a longer time, if never, before we will see the conditions described above. Yes, privacy and surveillance has become an issue, but the rebirth of downtown, sidewalk and patio bar/grill economies I believe will eventually trump all concerns of people congregating.

Do you have a front porch or a front porch-like space? Urbanists swear on its power, but does it have that magic for all my non-planner/non-builder types?

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The Unbrand of a Citizen

Wikimedia Commons

What is it about branding cities that appeals to people so much? Is it not unlike the push to identify oneself? If you are highly in tune with your image and what that image is, then you are constantly doing things to make it better.

And that quest to make things better, on an individual level, might mean that one needs to move, change jobs, dump a partner, start a business and a host of other things that are only indirectly affected by the greater brand of a business or municipality. People who are super rich can afford to have homes in multiple locales. They have an affinity and sometimes a corporate presence in multiple locales. Poor people are just trying to make ends meet and if given the opportunity, will go wherever they need to go to make that life happen. If anything, the city brand is aimed at people in the middle, those who are aspiring and holding on to what is left of the traditional American Dream.

But even some of those folks are immune to city loyalty. And it’s not a failure of any city to not keep or satisfy any of these folks. I used to hate Tiebout’s “Vote with Your Feet” model. I though he was a cop-out to making sure all towns provide all people what they need at all times. I still believe that the gold standard of any area that wants to be incorporated, is to provide all that is needed. Yet, for a means of self-preservation and I mean that on a mental health and Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs level, I believe people should move on if they find that a metro area or an apartment or a job or even family members, aren’t providing them with the basic needs. Especially if the bottom part of the triangle (food, shelter, etc.) aren’t there. No city brand can combat the unfufillment of Mazlow’s hierarchy.

So even though I agree with the spirit of changing the mantra of Greensboro to one that doesn’t mention what’s not here and I’m excited to hear that Raleigh’s solidifying their brand, there will always be detractors, and some will be valid.

But please cities, stop blaming yourselves when you can’t brand an individual citizen.

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#Throwback Thursday: Urban Design Must Have Heart and Soul

Today,  I want to begin celebrating the spirit of Throwback Thursday (#tbt) and bring to you a post from our archives. Each week here on The Black Urbanist, I’m going to bring back one of my favorite essays, for comparison and for your entertainment. This week’s essay is from July 11, 2011. This post was not only published here on The Black Urbanist, but also at Sustainable Cities Collective, where I am a featured contributor. At the time I was lamenting the loss of Vintage 301, the neighborhood haunt that would later become Dames Chicken and Waffles. I also laugh, because the last line in the post has come true in a big way (with waffles AND wings). Also, it’s one of the most popular restaurants in Greensboro and its Durham iteration sometimes has lines going out the door. Check out my thoughts from three years ago and be sure to share them. After the break, step into why Urban Design Must Have Heart and Soul.

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We must be careful that the Southside neighborhood and others like it, fall back into the darkness at the expense of other vibrant neighborhoods, such as our traditional downtown (Image Credit: Unknown Flickr user via CityBoi at Skyscraper City Forums)

Recently the national-award winning, Duany Plater-Zybek designed community of Southside in Greensboro lost a key tenant, Vintage 301. Outside of Manny’s Universal Café, this was the only restaurant in the neighborhood and only consistent draw of people outside of the small neighborhood inside. While there are a few hair salons and other small businesses left, the neighborhood has gradually gone from mixed use back to urban-esque suburbia.

I say this to deal with the idea that is at the core of much of new urbanism:

If you build it they will come + a cleaner urban form= success despite our economic and social failures

Yet, at the end of the day, many of us have no disposable income. We can’t sell our houses or afford to buy new ones. Some of us can’t even afford to rent homes, rent or buy cars or even eat. We want to start businesses, but you need money to do that too. Some existing business and homes are getting choked by the increased tax values. Cities are not working carefully with small businesses to deal with tax liabilities (yet continually give breaks to big ones who can more than afford to pay).

So what does one do in a situation like this? What does this mean for urbanism (and suburbanism and ruralism)? I’m not sure of all the answers, but it starts in one place, working together.

When we lose money and get poor, we often retract into the worse of ourselves. We hoard, we covet, we criticize. The fear of losing our identity swells far and above our own minds and makes us create false stories about our friends, family, colleagues and leaders. With this negativity, we find it hard to go on in our present state and we spend time over-analyzing how others seem to be getting along.

I think this negativity is at the root of where we stand as a country right now. However, I recently learned that no matter what, it’s better to be grateful for what does exist. Even though I can’t rent a house, I am able to live with my mom and help her with things at our house. The bus still runs from 5 AM to 11PM here in Greensboro and 24 hours in some places. I could ride a bike. And at the basic level, I’m breathing, seeing, walking and talking and writing this post.

To bring this tangent back to a close, we have to look past the built environment for a minute and work on restoring the souls of our fellow community members. We have to have hard conversations and ask hard questions. We have to make hard demands. Yet, I don’t know of a person who has some means, yet is complaining about lost of livelihood, that doesn’t have something they can share. Maybe it’s a shoulder to cry on, an extra shirt, an extra plate or a ride to work.

Still, we will not be able to fill our communities and embrace a density until we desire to live in harmony again. A harmony that looks past differences in matters of the heart and makes sure people can have the freedom to wake up and live comfortably.

Just like I called on DC residents on Twitter to do, it’s not about race-baiting, it’s not about keeping improvements off the streets, it’s about getting our city economics back on track, and remembering all legal business is good business. Even if it’s just an upscale wing joint that moves into the old Vintage 301 space.

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