All posts by Kristen Jeffers

Introducing The Black Urbanist Book Club — New Media for Designers and Builders



I love reading. Those of you who have known me in real life for years don’t doubt or dispute that. In fact, I’ve spent more money on books than clothing in the past few weeks. So I knew it would only be a matter of time until I introduced a virtual book club/bookshelf.  And to dust off the bookshelf, I present to you:


New Media for Designers and Builders Cover

Spiritual, then tactical. Those two words summarize the gist of the wonderful volume New Media for Designers and Builders by architect, fellow new urbanist, and green living advocate Steven A. Mouzon. For those who are familiar with Steve’s Original Green vision, he’s just taken this vision and worldview and applied that to how to use social media. While geared towards designers and builders of the traditional sort, this could apply to anyone who wants to promote ideas versus products.

In fact, Steve believes that we are past the age of the product (faster, cheaper, more efficient) and in the age of the idea. This age of the idea dictates that we are to be more patient, generous, and connected in our practice and communication. There’s no place better to practice those values than in social media. While there’s a case for faster, cheaper, and efficient in social media branding, often times these efforts that emphasize those aspects fall flat. In essence, they are just as bad as the traditional marketing practices they are replacing. When one focuses on doing things patiently, generously and with an eye towards actual connectivity, then social media goes from being a fad and a spam tactic, to being a catalyst for change.

You should pick up the book for more on the specifics of how to use social media in this more meaningful way, but do note that this book was made especially for you to download in iBookstore. However, having the PDF with an open internet connection will be sufficient to click on all the references, plus, interact with a special online comments and discussion section after each chapter. Also, the iBookstore release is forthcoming. A PDF purchase grants you a free iBookstore download, with lifetime free updates.

Many of you know that my primary skill set is social media. For a while, I struggled with bringing that skill within the placemaking realm I wanted to inhabit. Once I heard this vision from Steve, which he’s been working on for quite a while, I knew this is what I had to start doing to make this site and all my social media ventures, better. Also, I ironically am writing this review on a day when I have limited access to the internet and social media. I suggest that you download this book, turn off your wireless connection, grab a pen and paper to record your thoughts for the comment prompts and then make a note of areas where you can especially be better. Also, re-read and re-read. You’ll be seeing a lot of the changes he suggests come into this space and related spaces soon.

Click here to purchase.

Living in the Food Oasis of Greensboro

EDIT 9/14/ 2013: Due to your comments, I’ve gone ahead and rebuilt my chart, along with edited much of the commentary that I originally wrote about these stores. Thanks to everyone who tipped me off to errors and omissions, which helped me find more quirks and a more complete analysis of Greensboro’s food oasis.

I live in a food oasis. I may complain about lack of stores in walking distance, but I still live in abundance of food.

To ease my urbanist brain, I finally sat down and did the math on how to get to the grocery store from my current residence. There is no doubt that despite my prime downtown location, I can’t get there without vehicular assistance. Sure, I can be like my dad who used to walk 5-10 miles a day, but he did that out of necessity. There are bus routes, but the headways (time it takes for the bus to run its route and back) are horrible. It’s far better and more practical to drive to the store.

Now I’m not knocking out the walk completely. I’ve had my 20-minute walk-to-Harris-Teeter moments too. But those moments were tough. Imagine carrying two heavy bags of pasta cans for a mile. Imagine someone my size, 5’4”, 120 something in poundage, lugging two barely bagged plastic bags through parking lots and around roundabouts and over broken sidewalks.

Oh the horror of the privileged college girl, who’s rebeling from the dining hall and avoiding her new, but annoying and challenging friends. She chose to walk to the store. WALK! Carrying groceries. CARRYING GROCERIES!

I digress. Let’s get back to the present. Here are the raw numbers on time and distance to the grocery store, courtesy of Google Maps.

Store Distance(driving) Distance(Walking) Distance (via Bus with 30 minute headways) Distance via Bike
Deep Roots 1.2 miles (7 minutes) 1.2 miles (24 minutes) 21 minutes 1.2 miles(8 minutes)
Whole Foods 3.3 miles(11 minutes) 1 hour 7 minutes 28 minutes 4.1 miles(26 minutes)
Food Lion #1(Glenwood/Coliseum Blvd) 2.9 miles(10 minutes) 2.8 miles (55 minutes) 21 minutes 2.9 milesb(8 minutes)
Food Lion(Meadowview) #2 2.3 miles(7 minutes) 2.2 miles (44 minutes) 21 minutes 2.3 miles (8 minutes)
Food Lion #3(E. Market) 2.2 miles (6 minutes) 2.2 miles (44 minutes) 16 minutes 2.2 miles (12 minutes)
Food Lion #4(Golden Gate) 3.7 miles(11 minutes) 2.9 miles (57 minutes) 23 minutes 2.9 miles (17 minutes)
Food Lion #5(Alamance Church) 2.2 miles (7 minutes) 2.2 miles (43 mintues) 25 minutes 2.2 miles (12 minutes)
Aldi 4.91 miles (10 minutes) 4.1 miles (1 hour 22 minutes) 37 minutes 4.2 miles (25 minutes)
Harris Teeter West Friendly 3.6 Miles(12 minutes) 3.5 miles (1 hour 11 minutes) 32 minutes 4.3 miles (27 minutes)
Harris Teeter Lawndale 3.6 miles(12 minutes) 3.6 miles (1 hour 12 minutes) 35 minutes 4.9 miles (28 minutes)
Target Lawndale 3.6 MIles (12 minutes) 3.6 miles (1 hour 12 minutes) 35 minutes 4.9 miles (28 minutes)
Compare Foods 2.2 miles (7 minutes) 1.9 miles (39 minutes) 16 minutes 2.2 miles (12 minutes)
Bestway 2.9 miles (9 minutes) 2.5 miles (51 minutes) 26 minutes 2.6 miles (17 minutes)
Super G Mart 5.6 miles (15 minutes) 5.2 miles (1 hour 46 minutes) 36 minutes 5.6 miles (32 minutes)
Walmart 5.3 miles (15 minutes) 5.0 miles (1 hour 40 minutes) 54 minutes 5.1 miles (31 minutes)
Walmart Neighborhood Grocery 6.8 miles (12 minutes) 4.5 miles (1 hour 30 minutes) 30 minutes 4.5 miles (26 minutes)
Li MIng’s Global Market 6.8 miles (12 minutes) 4.5 miles (1 hour 31 minutes) 27 minutes 4.5 miles (27 minutes)
Greensboro Farmers Curb Market 1.5 miles (5 minutes) 1.5 miles(28 minutes) 16 minutes 1.5 miles (8 minutes)
Bessemer Curb Market 2.2 miles (7 minutes) 1.9 miles (38 minutes) 15 minutes 2.1 miles (11 minutes)

My original methodology? I chose stores that were in 15 driving minutes or less and were not Walmart (2 of the 4 Greensboro Walmarts hit right at 15 minutes of driving). Also, all these stores are on my radar either for proximity or my actual love of shopping there. Those stores would be the Target, the Whole Foods and the first two Food Lions on my list.

These stores are clean, have exactly what I want or have the advantage of having all that I want. I do also shop at the Harris Teeters, but my guilt for going there is even worse than my Walmart guilt. I’ll save that for another post or if you really want me to explain in the comments.

After doing the additional math and analysis, new ideas for my grocery procurement appeared. Most notably, the farmers market is only 5 minutes from my house via car, making it the closest option. Shame it’s only open on Wednesdays. If I could get used to riding a bike with a cargo bag or trailer and at a speed that didn’t mow me down (or with added bike lanes on major thoroughfares), then I have far more options for stores. There would be more of a time commitment, but biking is as much an adventure as it is a chance to experience the open air. Thirty minutes on a bike can go by pretty fast.  Walmart is not worth the trip, no matter the mode of transport. The bus headways are still terrible, but if push comes to shove, the options do exist. We still have moderately sized cities in North Carolina without bus service. I’m going to count that blessing of bus service here.

In addition, although not shown on the map, I found many stores in far-flung areas are actually very convenient on foot or bike to their surrounding residential areas. Bestway, a small community grocery, anchors its inner suburb area of Lindley Park. For my dad, the Glenwood Food Lion was only a 24 minute walk and 1.1 miles away from home. Likewise for other homes. We may get a bad rap for being car dependent, but if one is willing to brave sidewalks alongside or biking in the midst of busier roads, we don’t have as bad of a grade as I thought on full-service grocery or fresh food markets. If and when the Renaissance Co-op comes online, it will give that community a store in walking and biking distance, comparable with what is available in other parts of Greensboro. Also, I’ve heard from many others that the Food Lions I cited as dirty, along with Deep Roots, are not that bad. Even though I still can’t vouch for East Market in person, I can vouch for Alamance Church being a better store than it has been in the past.

This does not let the City of Greensboro off the hook for moving towards a more complete street plan for all of our major thoroughfares. If we had that, then many of these areas would become urbanist meccas overnight.

So what if I don’t want to leave downtown or even my apartment complex? Give me Peapod or give me Trader Joes. Peapod could set up a kiosk and storage space at my leasing office. Most everyone in my apartment complex is a choice buyer already. Paying premiums for rent and grocery would just be an additional expense.  I would be excited to not have to drive to the store for small items. I’d just have the five-minute walk to the leasing office. Lowes Foods, a local chain suburban in nature, already offers grocery delivery. They could be that service here if Peapod decides to never venture in this market.

And then there is Trader Joes. They should move to my end of downtown, maybe on the South Elm lot or in one of the still empty storefronts on Elm or Greene Street. Their demographic desires are fairly well-known to anyone who follows grocery news. They want the professor. Moderately wealthy but choosy.  Plenty of those types of people (choosy, if not academic) on my end of downtown. Similar to the Deep Roots in physical footprint, they could also draw people from the older, lower-income areas who may or may not be on public assistance. Plenty of these people already shop at the Aldi, which is another imprint of their company. Why not do the Trader Joes concept where there is at least a moderate amount of  their demographic and a smaller floorspace.

Maybe they are stuck on the fear of theft, which is real, but these grocery companies need a better strategy and profit margin. Far more people need to eat and are willing to pay than steal. Stop the excuses. Oh and while we’re at it, many of these stores have questionable records on employee compensation and benefits, unionization, quality of food as well as their lust for profits even though they essentially are providing a public service. Is there such a thing as a perfect grocery store? One that I can walk to? One that delivers if I can’t or won’t drive?

This concludes my food oasis grocery rant and analysis. Where do you stand? What’s your perfect grocery store? What can they do for us who can afford to go anywhere, to make sure we don’t just go anywhere?


Greensboro’s High Point Road and Lee Street, In Retrospect

City leaders want to change the names Lee Street and High Point Road, a major east-west connector route in the city which at one time was part of U.S. 29/70, to Gate City Boulevard. While many believe this will help spur economic development, I believe it will make no difference. Disinvestment or reinvestment is more than a name change. In 2010 I wrote the following two posts, published in their entirety below, to reflect on where the city and the road itself was. In the interim there have been some major changes, and this name change is another.  My apologizes for dead links and anything that was blatantly incorrect. This is me writing prior to grad school, as a young citizen in the crux of the Great Recession, frustrated at the loss of a neighborhood that was once a neighborhood of major promise. Or has it been lost?

Part One

Sunday morning this story was on the front page of the  Greensboro News & Record. It told me the details of something I already knew. My neighborhood is seriously on life support. Or not.  The area I’m referring to is the High Point Rd. corridor, a street I can easily walk to within 30 minutes and drive to in less than 5 minutes.

The article touches on some history of the road’s development; I’ll add my own context for you out-of-towners. Lee Street and High Point Rd are essentially the same road. (The changeover happens on the west end of the Greensboro Coliseum complex). Lee Street extends due east past UNCG, serves as the south border of Downtown Greensboro and extends east through mostly residential areas to US 29 and then peters out just past I-85 Business in Southern Guilford County. High Point Rd goes southwest from the Coliseum area, passing under I-40 just at the Four Seasons Town Centre/ Koury Convention Center complex and through a series of strip malls, some with nationally known big box stores, which end, at the city limit at Groometown Rd. The road continues through the Adams Farm and Sedgefield pseudo-suburan areas, through Jamestown, past my own high school and Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) and ends up as Lexington Ave in High Point proper. I’ve never driven it all the way through High Point, but I assume it goes on to Lexington, as it was once signed as US 29/70, a route that currently follows I-85 Business through High Point and goes on to follow and parallel I-85 through Charlotte.

According to the article, Four Seasons Town Centre has survived General Growth Properties bankruptcy with flying colors. Lots of small ethnic owned and themed businesses are mingled in with national chains Borders, World Market, Bed, Bath and Beyond, Anna’s Linens, Office Depot, Burlington Coat Factory, Aldi , Big Lots,Toys R Us,  TJ Maxx and a number of restaurant chains, including one of our two Krispy Kreme stores.

Not only do we still have still have chain stores, but we also regained an 18-screen movie theater and managed to maintain it despite a shooting there in January 2009. If it weren’t for strong NIMBYism in our neighborhood, Wal-Mart could be walking distance, as well as a number of other big box chains that instead have set up shop on the nearby Wendover Avenue corridor over the last nearly 20 years.

Yet it’s the shootings, lootings and other organized crime that the article highlights and poses a problem for many people. It’s also the number of shady businesses such as strip clubs, unkempt motels, sweepstakes parlors and other legal gambling enterprises that have stepped in where all grocery stores have stepped out.

I’ll note here that there is a Harris Teeter on High Point Rd still, but it’s in the Adams Farm Shopping center area, an area that considers itself its own town, despite being annexed into Greensboro for water, sewer and trash and attending Jamestown-area public schools. There’s also a Food Lion in Jamestown proper. A former Lowes Foods sits vacant as storage space for the chain at the corner of S. Holden Rd, across from the Borders and next to the TJ Maxx. One of my good friends worked at the replacement store in Jamestown and he told stories of co-workers who’d been mugged and high numbers of theft at the previous location. Our closest food options are three Food Lions, one on the southeast side of the coliseum on Coliseum Drive in the Glenwood neighborhood, one on S. Holden Rd, down the street from the Borders and one on Groometown Rd, down the street from Anna’s Linens. However, we used to have a Harris Teeter where the Big Lots is and a Kroger where Bed, Bath and Beyond is. Winn-Dixie, a completely defunct chain, was a mile south of the S. Holden Rd. Food Lion.

There are solutions to the dearth of vacant space, lack of food options and crime issues. Amongst the smaller businesses on High Point Rd. a community watch has sprung up. The city of Greensboro has an active redevelopmement plan which included all stakeholders, including nearby residents like myself. The focus is on creating livable streets and urban villages along the corridor.

However, what it boils down to is making sure with all of our well meaning, we do not push out the businesses and residents that create character. A portion of the current plan on the Lee Street side takes significant space away from the nearby historic Glenwood neighborhood. Glenwood is a multicultural working-class neighborhood just south of UNCG. It was one of Greensboro’s first suburbs to the south of downtown when it was built at the turn of the 20th century. However, it does not have a formal historic neighborhood designation. Many homes are ripe for tearing down for dorms and student apartments. The UNCG master plan would like to do just that, while adding an urban village element.

Yet, those of you who’ve read this blog before know I subscribe to the belief that it’s not just expensive stores and shiny new downtown areas that make a good neighborhood. As we continue to flesh out this plan  (the I-40 to Groomtown Rd. corridor plan has not been finalized yet), let’s strive to maintain all character. Let’s find a way to reconcile the current ethnic and working class character of many parts of the street, with the desire to have a walkable interface and plenty of room for the university, mall complex and other areas to grow. In my next post, I’ll be offering my wish list for the area.

Part Two

Fifteen years ago, I had a dream of living near High Point Rd. At the time, Wendover Ave. was still being built up and High Point Rd hadn’t degraded to the level it is at today. It kinda came true when My parents divorced and Mom and I moved into an apartment just off of Holden Rd. Those of you who read part 1 of this post and/or know Greensboro know just about where we are in relation to High Point Rd. I was so happy to be across the street from the grocery store, and near the mall and the brand new Borders. However, I was also freaked out by the new Koury Convention Center tower. I didn’t understand why the tower was built so far away from downtown. Even at nine, going on ten, I had some sense of neighborhoods and place and I felt like this building was not only scary, but a part of an urban future I didn’t want. Once again, these were my nine, almost ten-year old thoughts.

Fast forward to last night (Monday August 8th). I’m addressing the city council in support of a measure that would support a five year plan to create sustainable communities. Sustainable communities, as many of us know, are communities that merge traditional neighborhood values(eyes on the street, collaboration) with new and old urbanist principles of public transit access, walkability, mixed-uses of buildings, public third spaces and a variety of housing types. In short, the big downtown style building that used to scare and intrigue me is really now a vital part of the vision I have for my neigborhood.

So what do I want specifically?I know the corridor plan has some of these things included, but my ideal vision for my own neighborhood is centered around creating a true town-center atmosphere at Four Seasons Town Centre, which sits behind the Koury Convention Center.

Locals actually refer to the three-story enclosed shopping area as Four Seasons Mall or simply the mall, due to the fact that it’s the only enclosed mall left and it was just simply Four Seasons Mall when it opened in the mid-70’s. Also, there is the hotel complex, which has several restaurants, a nightclub, massive event space and numerous hotel rooms under one roof. PART also has its second Greensboro stop here ( the other stop is at the Depot downtown and near the airport at their hub). GTA goes almost straight to downtown from this point as well, which connects to remaining downtown areas.

I envision turning one of the parking lots, possibly the back one, into a deck and replacing the front parking area with some multi-family units, preferably a rowhouse community, with maybe one or two buildings of standard apartments. There would also be a sliding scale of rent values, based on submitting tax returns and payroll information to determine a fair rental value that is truly 1/3 of a person’s income. A person would commit to a minimum rent amount, but this would also keep too many units from being rented at levels that don’t reflect our true market value. In addition, I would like to see a grocery chain return to a strip out-parcel that sits on the southwest side of the property. It most recently housed Comp USA, but when I was a little kid, it was a Winn-Dixie store. (The store moved down Holden Rd, then shut down when the entire chain shut down in North Carolina a few years ago). It would also be nice to have some park space on the property too.

In addition to the retrofit of the Four Seasons area, I would like to see proper sidewalks and crosswalks all down High Point Rd. at key intersections, in-filling some underused parking lots with housing options similar to what is going on at Four Seasons Town Centre, the return of grocery to one of the three abandoned areas (an Aldi and a Bed Bath and Beyond replaced what was once a Harris Teeter and a Kroger) and a both a bus lane and a bike lane down both sides of the street extending to Jamestown. Also, I want the legitimate ethnic businesses(stores and restaurants that serve all ages, not the gambling parlors,strip clubs and other questionable establishments that have appeared), to have a hand and continue to operate on the street.

Although these initiatives will take time and money, thankfully, I live in a city that has come to recognize the economic values of redeveloping our city to be more sustainable and also more friendly to all people and not just cars, big name developers and people with disposable income who can move into New Urbanist style areas.

If you are familiar with the area, what are your suggestions for improvements? In addition, what can we do to make sure we don’t gentrify this area as we clean it up?


Why Homeless and Homeless-Ally Suppression Has to Stop if We Want Good Places

Prior to my father’s passing, he was in a state that I have come to term “functional homelessness.” He was often a fixture at the local soup kitchens and occasionally popped into the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), our local day center for those who are either homeless or in transition. He still had his home, intermittent work, and a working car.

A similar situation had befallen the young man who was also featured with me in the Sunday News & Record two weeks ago. Once gainfully employed and able to keep himself and his mother under a more stable roof, he’d been forced into a tent city after a stint of unemployment and losing his apartment. His mom eventually found more permanent shelter, but he continues to live in his tent, getting by on a temporary minimum wage job. People have reached out for help as a result of the publicity the article garnered and I hope that will mean that he’s free from living in a tent and intermittent employment.

But there’s no shame if he actually wants to live in a tent. There’s no shame if he wants to participate in an untraditional, but legal, economy such as bartering his skills and services. Why do we create these kinds of spaces and places of shame? Why do we not support simple economies, economies that allow for simple dwellings, bartering, and sharing food, tools, skills and other things in a marketplace as a major economic development strategy? Why must cities chase after luxury apartments, performing arts centers, multinational corporations and “young professionals” to feel successful? Why are we not concerned enough, at least in Greensboro, with the loss of a major health clinic, so much so that we’d pledge money to make sure it stays open, like the sudden pledging of money to ensure we have a major performing arts center and a brand new partially private park?

I do want to commend Greensboro for continuing to support initiatives around providing people with stable homes, jobs, and food such as the IRC, the Urban Ministry and Bicycling in Greensboro. Another shout out to the churches, including my home church, who support the homeless and those on the fringes of the traditional economy and middle and working class. Why can’t we be proud of those measures and make sure we support them  as an economic development strategy?

The Corner of Lee and Eugene Streets. A central point for homeless services and a congregation point for those in transition, outside of the IRC, here in Greensboro.

The Corner of Lee and Eugene Streets. A central point for homeless services and a congregation point for those in transition, outside of the IRC, here in Greensboro. Photo Credit: Kristen E. Jeffers

This is especially relevant after this weekend, where in my other hometown of Raleigh, the basic act of feeding the homeless out in the open became illegal. This is on top of Columbia, SC banning their homeless from their downtown and other cities enacting similar restrictions either downtown or in the city limits.

I don’t fault the minister in Raleigh for not wanting a criminal record of his own, since that’s problematic in itself. However, this man was forced to choose between feeding people and giving himself a record that could keep him from employment, therefore, putting himself in the same situation as many he was hoping to help. It makes those who have been arrested at the Moral Mondays even more courageous as many of them are risking respectability on one front to protest injustice on another front. There’s also the other issue of the high cost of obtaining a legal permit to serve food or hold an event in the park in Raleigh. If the park is for the public use, why such high user fees for an official assembly? What constitutes an “official assembly”? I understand helping pay for clean-up and security, but is there not a way to reduce the costs to use our open, completely public in this case, space?

Ultimately, the City of Raleigh has stepped up to apologize and work on a real solution to allow Moore Square to continue to be a place where those on the margins, whether by choice or by necessity, can come together and at least break bread. After all, we encourage those of greater means to eat in the parks during lunch and dinner hours, what’s so different about what this ministry and other ministries are doing for those of lesser means?

There are two major issues here that we need to address if we want to move forward in an inclusive manner. First, we need to continue to find ways to incorporate services and opportunities in centralized areas, namely our traditional main streets, downtowns, uptowns, CBD’s, lifestyle centers or whatever your city chooses to call these areas. Second, the criminalization of those who LOOK undesirable and of those who choose to help those who are “undesirable” has to stop.

The loss of public services like health clinics in centralized areas will push our most vulnerable further and further to the margins. The reason why areas of urban poverty were able to sustain some form of a civil society was due to their proximity to social services. When we shut down or push further out these services, then we create larger and more vast pockets of metro-area poverty. Areas that were built for people of decent to massive means to take care of themselves are now areas where the rent may be cheaper, but the other costs are far higher. If we re-centralize and continue to support centralization of all of our social services, much like we want our entertainment and luxury centralized, it brings up all the members of society, regardless of the level at which they choose to engage the greater economy.

The criminalization of people who LOOK threatening adds to the prison-industrial complex and lowers the morale of those who are on the margins of the city. The greater issue I’ve had with our youth curfew here in Greensboro has not been safety and positive activity of our youth, but of the idea that one bad apple spoils the whole lot. So you may have had one or two panhandlers that harass. What about the others that quietly beg or even better, are singing on the streets? So the singers can stay, as we have made provision for here in Greensboro with our new street busker program, but the person whose need we really can’t determine can’t? I’ve been victimized by people claiming to need help on the streets, but does that mean all people living on the streets are bad? I feel like my own black peers, from my teen years until now, don’t always respect or understand who I am, but does that mean I write them completely off, to the point where they could go to jail just because I THINK they are a threat? Absolutely not.

Cities really need to check their privilege and methods of advancing their cities, if they think criminalization of certain populations or the inhibition of servicing certain populations is going to aid in the continued economic growth or re-start economic growth in their cities.

I know we can all do better. Let’s keep doing better and keep making sure that just like I said in my last post, placemaking remains democratic and not a privilege. And even though there is evidence that homelessness has decreased, it doesn’t mean that it’s over or that a tent is less valuable than a house.

UPDATE 8/27 9:35 a.m.: Some community officials and advocates are speaking out against the closing of the Healthserve clinics here in Greensboro. H/T to the News and Record. Missed this before I went live this morning.

The Privilege of Urbanism, The Democracy of Placemaking


The one thing I can take from reading this article and reading my words back to myself on what it has been like living as a classical new urbanist over the past year. I cannot think of another way to illustrate how I feel vis-a-vis a young man, only two years younger than me, who’s trying to get his life back on his feet, facing challenges. It also brings me to a hard truth that my design-focused friends and followers will not want to hear.

Design, even new urbanist design, is out of reach or a major stretch for far too many people, including myself.

Prior to speaking with the reporter about the issues and frustrations I have with where I live, prior to the noise ordinance and curfew restrictions, I’d been thinking about a change in living situation.

However, I kept beating myself up with a major what-if: if I leave my apartment and go somewhere cheaper, then many of the theories I’ve put forth on this blog and in other forms would go unproven.

Isn’t that what a theory is though, an idea that hasn’t been proven? Is anything on this blog law?

No, it isn’t, and that’s actually a good thing.

One of the greatest new urbanist writers of our time is actually not quite an urbanist, in the sense that he doesn’t live in an apartment, near transit, by himself or with one or two other people. I would like to think his credibility on the subject is far superior to mine and the marketplace agrees (slowly but surely).

Yet, I still believed for the longest time, that the only way anyone would listen to my words and create a marketplace around them is if I lived the most extreme urbanism I knew how to live.

And it’s urbanism, but it’s not placemaking.

Placemaking does require an address, but it’s not necessarily an address in demand. Place can be made from old-line suburbia, where each neighbor can decide to grow a different vegetable and then teach the community how to clean and cook those vegetables, in order to eat healthier. The streets of that old-line suburbia could become woonerfs, places where cars automatically go slow and people take advantage of the sloping hills and winding curves and dead ends to get in workouts, that shed the pounds earned by sitting in cars commuting to ever further away jobs, or from sitting at home doing a job that no longer requires a specific location. They could carpool to stores. I think my reporter friend said it best in this article, “Even for a staunch new urbanist like myself, the logic is inescapable: If you want two or three bedrooms and you can afford a mortgage of about $100,000, you head for the suburbs.”

While I truly don’t want the center city to yield to the gilded class, I don’t want us to give up on making good places because we don’t live or can’t afford to do so. I also don’t want those of us with massive privilege to forget that it doesn’t take much for anyone to fall on hard times and not all dealing with hard times are lazy and uncommitted.

Whatever happens and whatever I decide to do in the coming months, my goal is to commit myself to a new theory, the democracy of placemaking. To create, to invent, to include, to incorporate, to adapt, to save and to grow. Let me not forget again, what it really means to be a placeist.

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Dream City, U.S.A.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about about my dream city. I’m not talking about what the populace sees as a dream city, but what I myself dream about:

  • Artists feel just as welcome as suit-and-tie types
  • People who want a house have a house, people who want an apartment, have an apartment. They don’t go broke getting either
  • They can all walk to the grocery store, a doctor’s office, the library and the elementary school. Transit or home delivery connects everything else
  • Something positive is going on 24-7. Even if it’s just the cafe being open all night, then serving breakfast at dawn
  • All kids get a good education, no matter how much their parents pay or their perceived ability level
  • People of faith are not marginalized, pigeonholed or encouraged to persecute others
  • Real solutions, such as community policing, youth programs and rehabilitation programs are utilized to deal with crime
  • People are paid at least a living wage and that wage increases in proportion to the greater economy
  • Politics isn’t a game for people to play, but people get involved in civic affairs for the good of the people

Not all of this is “urbanism” or “economic development” per se. I think it overlaps all these groups. You can have a Disney-like development where people walk, but if we allow street harassment of women, then we have failed at human rights.

Ultimately, my dream city has mastered providing people with basic rights, therefore, it does what’s best for the people. This is where our small markets, inclusive schools, variety of faith houses and economic opportunities come.

I am also aware that my dream city is probably Heaven. However, it does not mean that there are not places that can’t fulfill at least some of my desires in the interim. Also, this only touches on U.S. cities, but I am open to somewhere else in the world as well. Barring a few cultural and language barriers, human rights are just as important there too.

Ironically, as I was doing some research for this post, I came across this quiz:

The City That Best Fits You Is Philadelphia

  • 70% Philadelphia
  • 65% Chicago
  • 65% Boston
  • 65% Washington, DC
  • 65% San Francisco

The irony is not lost. Although the criteria is based in the reality of high-crime, educational needs, economic needs and my desires for four seasons :), it is the city of Brotherly Love. I also understand it’s had some problems lately. However, it, along with other troubled cities, are not beyond solutions. It may not be me who solves a certain problem, but there are plenty of others who are able to solve problems and I’m willing to work with them. It also sits in the middle of the Northeast corridor, the area of the U.S.A. most resistant to the current economic problems and changes, but its not the center of that universe. I can get to those centers, but I can have some privacy too. Crime and schools are failing, but once again, a consideration of human rights fixes those problems.

So what is your dream city? What happens there? I hope it starts with the consideration of basic human rights.

Thoughts on Bringing Our Youth Back Downtown

Between the Trayvon Martin verdict and the recent youth fights resulting in our downtown curfew for the remainder of the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do to make sure downtown is solidly diverse, without sacrificing safety.

I’ve had to think long and hard about what my response would be. I could rail and say that this city is forever racist, that the kids will never amount to anything, that there will never be any chain stores or any other negativity that has been thrown at downtown and even our city lately. However, it is just like I told Sarah Goodyear of Atlantic Cities in this article:

Kristen Jeffers, a Greensboro native who lives downtown, founded the blog The Black Urbanist. She says that anxiety about young black people who flock to the entertainment district masks deeper issues facing the city’s development.

While there’s been a lot of investment in high-end rental housing, and the city is talking about putting in a performing arts center, Jeffers says the area still lacks basic services like pharmacies and a full-scale supermarket.

“For a neighborhood to be a true neighborhood, and not just a vertical suburb, you need those services,” she says.

What the also downtown needs, she says, are amenities that attract more people of a variety of ages, like playgrounds for families and a first-run movie theater. And young people should be supported with more structured programming, rather than marginalized. “Our city needs to bring back a full-on youth program,” says Jeffers, the type of effort that includes job training as well as recreational opportunities.

What my solution look like?

Western Part of Downtown Greensboro

What you see in the left oval is an area that consists of a YMCA to the top right of the oval, a magnet performing arts high school flanking the left side of the oval and school administration building between the two surface lots. The right oval shows how close this area is to Elm Street, the new hotspot for everyone that’s become ground zero for the fights, and also new upscale stores and development. My office is also in that oval and my apartment is just southeast of it’s boundary, along with our central bus depot and Amtrak train station.

We are talking about roughly a square (rectangular) mile here. This area is also owned and managed by either the county school system or the Y. The Y already has programs for youth, even though they are fee-based. The school system has a mandate to educate the teenagers that go through their building. Adults already know this area as a place that is family-friendly. Teens know this area has places they can go and not be pushed out.

The only caveat is that this area is adjacent to the county jail. However, this also means law enforcement is quite close by and can deal with people who fight. Otherwise, one of the surface lots along with the brick school administration building can be upfitted into a family entertainment center, with lazer tag, bowling, a skate park and playground, go-karts, and a movie theater. The administrative functions could move to another building that the school system owns just north of the school building. The center could be closed during school hours except during the summer. A deck could be built next to the Y building to accommodate the increased traffic to both the Y and this entertainment center. It could also accommodate jail parking, which has been a need since it opened last year. The playground area would be a public, free facility, or the Y could open their existing playground area to the public. A private company could operate the entertainment center, and employ students of either the high school or nearby colleges. Students could even build the center, as this high school at one time housed one of the construction trades programs in the county.

In addition to beefing up the existing Greensboro Youth Council, these initiatives would go a long way in serving the growing and in many ways already existing youth population who want a place to go downtown, along with the adults.

This also does not excuse the current curfew, nor let other areas off the hook for being accepting of students and youth. As long as youth don’t fight each other, they have every right to play sports on the lawns and sit on the benches of Center City Park like everyone else. Yet, once that park closes, they could go to the Y or the entertainment center and spend the remainder of their evening in a place that is ready and willing to accept them.

Voting with Your Feet: The Cure for the Civic Inferiority Complex?

Many times we second guess who we are, what we do, and why we do it. This is known in the field of psychology as an inferiority complex. Collins English Dictionary defines it as “a disorder arising from the conflict between the desire to be noticed and the fear of being humiliated, characterized by aggressiveness or withdrawal into oneself.”

I took this concept one step further last year and applied it to the civic sphere. My enhanced definition of the civic inferiority complex is when one person or a major leadership or civic organization sees something in another city or place and feels immediately inadequate. They then overcompensate for that loss by building or starting whatever that place has, even if it’s not a good fit for them. A good example of this would be when cities build convention centers, entertainment districts, science parks, or some other major “economic eggs in one basket” initiative.

The other side of the traditional definition speaks of a withdrawal unto oneself. I think for municipalities, this can be positive if it includes a greater self-reflection, with all the diverse voices of a municipality gathering at the table and coming to consensus on what is next and what is best. Yet, if a municipality shuns outside constructive voices of change, or creates similar, but poor policy decisions, then it is just as destructive. For a person, it may mean that they feel powerless in their own hometown and begin accepting the status quo, because they believe they are not capable of doing anything better.

When I wrote my original presentation, it was very much of the time it was written and also contained a lot of my own personal frustration. It underscores just how much an inferiority complex is personal and public. In addition, I left out something that appears to be the “cure” for the civic inferiority complex: voting with your feet.

A concept recently revisited in a 2012 research paper by Professor Ilya Somin of the George Mason School of Law, voting by one’s feet is the concept of moving to a place where your political needs are met. Somin takes it even further and states that feet voting is more powerful than basic ballot-box voting. He cities several other political scholars in his reasoning that ballot-box voting is only guaranteed by an elite. That elite may or may not have the best interests of the populace in mind. This idea is even further enhanced and enabled by the loss of the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. However, this paper alerts us to prior laws, regulations, and procedures that allow forces other than the general populace to determine who runs for office, who votes, who is appointed to public office, and what the laws are.

As we have seen in recent years, the political climate in a particular place can vary greatly. With these changes, I have been compiled to revisit my options to become an American expat in America. However, I realize that may not be so practical right now. And for many living in poverty or tied to a job that prevents poverty, moving to a more favorable political climate is not possible. Therefore, they may be stuck with their personal and civic inferiority complexes.

So what can one do in the meantime? Maintain a spirit of self-analysis. If one has the means, then yes, move on to a place where you can be more fruitful. However, I urge that person to be mindful of those less fortunate and contribute as much as you can to bettering your new community and relaying resources back to your old one. Having lived somewhere besides my hometown before has helped me have a clearer and more diverse sense of how one can live. Travel also helps. Walking around DC and New York have helped me see how much different life is for those citizens, but also allowed me to think of ways to help Greensboro.

Above all, shun the appearance of civic inferiority. Vote with your feet, inside or outside your current community.

Voting Rights, Civic Duty, and Neighborhoods

Nearly one week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The part that was struck down, pre-clearance, required state legislatures in several states across the country, including my own in part, to submit any plans to re-district or reform the voting process to the Justice Department. The idea was to make sure any voter suppression or restriction efforts, such as literacy tests, were not reenacted. Also, districts were drawn to ensure minority, namely black voting turnout. The idea of pre-clearance is not dead. However, the formula is and it is up to Congress to make a new one.

So what does this have to do with neighborhoods? Lots. Follow me and you will see why.

For the record, I want to say that the idea of reducing the ability and ease of voting is wrong. I don’t understand why we have not figured out how to make it EASIER to vote for our political leaders. The online universe is littered with polls. Granted, some of those polls allow you to vote multiple times. Yet others don’t and somehow we can’t bring that technology to the polls that matter the most?

Yet, I feel lawmakers want voting restricted because it favors the populace and not them. However, these lawmakers forget a central tenet: they serve at the pleasure of the people. Or do they? As we have found out, there’s no true constitutional right for the common people to vote for their leaders. At any moment, state legislatures and other local governing bodies could decide to start appointing their leaders and disenfranchise the entire populace.

Another issue with the VRA and the current state of voting is that the rules were becoming a restriction for those it sought to help. It was as if it was not worth trying as a black individual running in a non-VRA district. Similar things happen on the local level in other districts and to other marginalized groups where states have drawn districts to ensure an extreme level of compliance with the VRA. Take a look at North Carolina’s map below. Thanks to a very off interpretation of the VRA, that “snake” district is the only thing that guarantees at least one solid, African-American U.S.House member in this state.

North Carolina Congressional District #12. The VRA in action.

Yet, I want to remind everyone that as a citizen of any place you live and a good community steward, voting is essential. See, this is what has to do with neighborhoods. I took a bit of heat for not including it in my list of things that make one a lazy urbanist. However, to me, being a lazy urbanist allows for a representative democracy, as such we have throughout our country at all levels of government. If one has a crop of good leaders, why vote? Some would also say that we are too large to caucus in many areas. However, we are not too large and shouldn’t be too lazy to vote, find people worthy of serving us in our own communities, and even become that person ourselves. True governing requires door-to-door campaigning and town hall meetings. If neighborhood residents can come together on a regular basis and vote on activities, then why not vote on the leaders and issues that matter to them?

However, it comes down to one thing and one thing only: how to be a good neighbor. There is a Christian scripture that commands us to love our neighbor. If you don’t like the use of scripture, then go to the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which has become a universal ethics code. Being a good neighbor requires that we sometimes lay down our personal differences and the personal mandate we have been given, for the good of others. It requires that we lay down our jealousies, envies, and feelings of being threatened and we allow others the right to exist and live. Sometimes we can’t blast our music loud. Yet, does that mean we can’t paint our house purple? What are we doing that we are allowing residential home values to be what they are such that segregation, competition for home bids, flipping, and other detriments to home values are happening? And back to the main issue at hand, why are we not voting, not allowing potential elected leaders in our homes, or realizing the type of country we are supposed to live in, which allows for liberty AND respect for our fellow people?

I can’t answer that question, but I can say that we have to be better citizens and in turn that creates stronger neighborhoods and communities.

The Common Man’s Legacy in a City

My dad will probably never be a statue or have buildings named after him, but he still managed to leave a legacy in Greensboro.

My dad will probably never be a statue or have buildings named after him, but he still managed to leave a legacy in Greensboro.

What does it take to leave a legacy in a city? Is it having your name on a building that you either built or gave a lot of money to make?

Is it knowing your entire block or neighborhood?

Is it leaving behind children and grandchildren who continue on with the family cause or business?

These are questions I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m not going to go into any more details about what brought me to these questions, because there’s a lot I cannot say about why and what happened. However, the root of it all starts here, as I detailed in my About section and in my 2010 Grist article “Does urbanism have to be black or white?”

It all started with a map on the floor. My dad and I would spend Saturday afternoons “driving” around with my toy NASCARs from my friendly neighborhood Hardees. As I got older, I became enamored of the small skyline of my hometown of Greensboro, N.C. So enamored that one day, while I was sick with the chicken pox, my dad went out and bought me a postcard with the skyline on it. It hangs in my room to this day.

When they widened the main road next to our house, I cried. I also was opposed to a hotel project near my current residence that threatened to upstage the downtown area. Mind you, I was only eight. I was an urbanist in the making, although I would have had no way of knowing there was a name for it.

Dad and I biked through our neighborhood on Saturday afternoons. Those bike rides took us through housing projects and 1940s era single-family homes until we made it to the main suburban artery. I loved my bike until I moved to a neighborhood where I was teased for just walking around. It’s taken me about 15 years to consider getting back on a bike. My dad still bikes; he’s always had a string of intermittently non-working cars, so he doesn’t think twice about it.

My dad doesn’t have any buildings named after him. I’ll probably have to sell his house. He struggled to walk down streets with no sidewalks. Then there was the bike. When he got tired of fighting our stroads with both of those, he put money into a car he could barely afford. Yet, he fixed up homes that weren’t built well in the first place. He mowed yards that others couldn’t maintain. He always had a song in his heart and brought music to any space. Finally, he made sure that I knew that people, all people, mattered. All these things are his legacy.

How can you leave a legacy in your city? DO YOU and do what your community needs. My dad did. It does not take money, a building with your name on it, or a stone edifice of your body to be someone who is never forgotten or to create an example.

In fact, if you create an example, that legacy lives on and it lives in the present.