Baltimore

How Do You Define Your City? And Does Your City Define Itself In the Same Way?

When I go home to Greensboro, this is what’s around the corner. My little edge city. (Image from a YouTube screenshot).

My whole writing existence, at least at this blog and a little bit at my one just before that, has been making sense and defining the cities I’ve lived in, against how they, and they meaning governmental and development and social/media entities, defined the cities I’ve lived in.

Yet, I wanted to sit down and be explicit about how I define cities and how I counteract those definitions and how I want both myself and the places I live to define cities going forward.

My Childhood Vision of A City

My very first definition of a city, which I developed from around age three until age seven or eight included these things:

  1. Tall buildings
  2. Buses and trains
  3. Bicycles
  4. Grocery stores
  5. Playgrounds
  6. Malls
  7. Jams and Jellies
  8. Maps
  9. Lincoln Logs
  10. My school
  11. Trees
  12. The baseball field around the corner
  13. A big airport with big planes
  14. Sandboxes
  15. The mail lady
  16. Street festivals
  17. Muppets in tire swings

In addition to these 17 things that I could think of off the top of my head from the perspective of my six-year-old self, there were two other formative moments of defining city life for me as a child.

First, from the time I was an infant, until my parents bought a second car around 1992, mornings riding in the backseat of my family’s 1976 Kermit-the-Frog green Buick Regal, fastened tightly into my dirt-brown metal with strategic-cloth coverings car seat, the circa-1949 neighborhood of matchbox houses which slowly turned into a warehouse district with small skyscrapers in the horizon, then more 1940s matchbox residences, with a few sprawling 1960s ranches up on small hills, then this great expanse of farm land, with the sun sitting just right and golden on the eastern edge of the land, then turning back into warehouses, with a random set of garden apartments and a school bus lot to boot.

This would all then go in reverse after we dropped off my dad at his work and my mom and I came home for a day full of PBS, playing in the yard and maybe going to Harris Teeter, where I would often get my mom, after talking with her friend behind the deli counter for about 30–45 minutes, to buy me the golden fried potato wedge delights we called “taters”.

This clearly captivated me. This was the first of what I would define as city. What else helped was that both sets of grandparents lived out and away somewhat from those warehouses and skyscrapers. One set more so than the other (and the one closest to the city lived near the airport, which was its own unique fascination).

What spoiled this idea of city for me, for the first time, was actually two things.

One, the destruction of trees and the creation of a stroad that eventually became a freeway that would forever define how I got from downtown to whichever house I called home at the time. The road wasn’t so bothersome as much as the loss of trees and a corner store that my dad used to take me to, that was the color of lemons on the outside and yet had no gas pumps (ok, maybe it had those old school ones, that nobody saw fit to build those lighted shelters over top).

And two, the construction of the tower you see at the top of the post when I was eight, a white triangular travesty in the midst of what is a mall parking lot on what I considered the outskirts of town. It is 32 stories tall. The tallest buildings in Greensboro, the also relatively new Jefferson-PIlot and First Union towers (and yes, they will always bear those names for those of you who know them as something else entirely) were only 28. They were also clustered together in the place that was called and I came to call downtown. It still freaks me out, as someone who’s more of a fan of gothic and art deco skyscrapers and also someone who loved and still loves going to the adjacent mall. (Even though it’s missing several pieces now, but I’m adjusting. It at least has an H&M and a working movie theater now).

If the point wasn’t driven home enough for you, look harder at the photo leading this post, which shows the convention center, the mall and just to the right of the taller tower, the mound of buildings is our actual downtown in Greensboro.

As I got older, the city began to mean something different in other ways. It was a place I imagined would grow up and live, that looked a lot like the one on Sesame Street, yes, Muppets included. Writers like me lived there and there would be trains and buses and bikes and sidewalks to get me around. Houses with brownstone faces or colorful bricks and turrets at their corners, some with front porches. A nice corner store would have lots of fresh fruit pouring out it, and the smells from the prepared foods counter in the back would tantalize me. It would be next to a bookstore with plenty of books to buy or rent. Yes, the best of Borders with library privileges. (R.I.P. Borders).

And there would be people, lots of friendly and unique people ready to have friendships with me and help me see the world. Make the world a better place.

But This Is Not How Others Define Cities

First of all, while we can all agree that masses of population create urbanization, we can’t all agree about how those masses should be governed, housed, fed, transported, educated, entertained, and loved. Especially not loved.

When I started to do the research on this post, I did have the understanding of my hometown (Greensboro) as a municipal corporation, which in North Carolina, is chartered by the state and allowed to tax people. In addition, the county my hometown sits in (Guilford) is also its own taxing jurisdiction. There’s also a state sales tax and counties and cities are allowed to add to those taxing jurisdictions by votes.

Other things that the county does — all court-related things. We have separate police forces and a separate sheriff’s office, but eventually, you go to the Guilford County Courthouse for all things related to records, marriages, crimes and the like. The registrar of deeds keeps your housing deeds and your birth certificates. I just had them mail me a new birth certificate.

Yet, as I began to research, I also looked up and found the deeds for both of the homes my parents have owned over the years. The one that they brought me home from in the hospital, the one where I determined the definitions above of what a city means to me, was once part of a plot of farmland, that was owned by one man and then turned over into a subdivision. The other, which is what I come home to when I come to Greensboro to visit my mom and everyone else (and what I referenced in this post and the beginning of my book) was part of what is called a township, which is another layer of municipal chartering from the state, that isn’t often used today. Other states put more weight on their townships, ours rarely shows up outside of deeds and other county business.

 
[Greensboro] Location in Guilford County and the state of North Carolina By Rcsprinter123 — Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34937437

But anyway, even with this little bit of research, my idea of what a city is and what and how it’s defined by the place I lived in was already in conflict.

You may remember and note that I’ve lived in Raleigh, Durham, Kansas City, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. I’ve visited more cities. All of these cities listed have quirks. Especially the ones outside of North Carolina. Then again, those are probably quirks to you if you’re used to other cities working in a specific way.

So in my research on definitions, I moved on to the U.S. Census Bureau. Surely they have a more defined version of what a city is. Actually, they do. And guess what? Because it’s based on population, 80% of Americans actually live in cities.

It only takes 2,500 people to be an urban cluster according to the U.S. Census Bureau, under the definitions they used for the 2010 Census. Once your population hits 50,000 people, you get to be known as an urbanized area.

See this in action for the D.C. area, which has densities in many “suburban” areas far and above the minimum 2500 people it takes to be considered an urban cluster.

And this Wikipedia entry on municipalities details how urbanized areas outside of the United States classify themselves both on population and also by legal bounds and services in so many diverse ways.

Oh and the U.S. Census itself also takes into account that Alaska and Puerto Rico have different designations for cities and that counties are parishes in Louisana.

I’m willing to bet that many of those urban clusters and urbanized areas are sprawling developments, that may or may not have new urbanist or even just old urbanist principles applied to them.

This brings up the fact that the new urbanist charter has a definition for cities. Because of the supremacy clause in the U.S. Constitution and amendments 9 and 10 of the Bill of Rights, all states get to determine what’s a city and what isn’t for the purposes of taxation and such. Yet, the Census goes by population and doesn’t take into account lack of sidewalks or architecture.

Why This Matters

New urbanists already get pegged as being elitist when we talk about how buildings should look in our ideal city.

However, there are some things that I do feel like all urban clusters, even those who use the excuse of being “in the county” or “we’re a suburb” should be providing.

I feel like when populations start to cluster and then marketplaces and service centers (i.e. town/city halls, parks), start to be developed, residential areas, schools, and shopping areas should be human-scaled. Meaning, it shouldn’t take using a vehicle, including a bicycle, for a fully able-bodied person to get to basic needs. And if does take a bicycle, there’s safe infrastructure for that person to get where they need to go on that bicycle or a bus, train or a ridesharing vehicle to come pick people up.

Additionally, we should examine things that are marketed to us as being urban this or rural that. Maybe the place you live only has 2,500 people there. But all of those 2,500 people are densely packed and you have all your basic services. What makes you a very small city, versus a big town, versus a singular neighborhood next to a rural or natural expanse?

The Urban to Rural Transect is probably my favorite way of defining cities versus towns versus rural areas that incorporates architecture and land use and resources. However, it still doesn’t capture the effects of practices like redlining, which come from both laws and lack of laws prohibiting a particular behavior. Or just the looks you get sometimes in places where you look very different from most of the other people who happen to be there.

So here we are. I’ve given you my ideal city as a child. And it’s safe to say it’s the same as an adult. Only, I don’t have to have the Muppets or even grape jelly, but I do need the friendly people, willing to give me the benefit of a doubt if I’m standing on a street corner waiting for a bus and the human-scale that makes it easy to have a positive life, and the healthy relationship with the rural and natural areas that make that densely-populated life possible.

I’m Kristen. Seven years ago, I started blogging to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com. Support me on Patreon. A version of this post is also on Medium.

Letting Go Of Being a Hometown Heroine And Embrancing My Role as an American Expat in America.

Kristen looking out the window of a different Metro Blue Line train, the one in Minneapolis.

I never thought I would ever live or work outside of Greensboro again. I’ve always felt like if I wasn’t there that the city wouldn’t figure out how to fix itself. That if my work didn’t have a connection to home or if it wasn’t respected at home, then it was completely worthless. That if I didn’t keep up with or seem really concerned about events going on at home, then I’d advanced too far and I’d become too big for my britches.

However, we all know that I’ve left home and I’ve been successful away from home, despite many setbacks and issues. You listen to me talk to you roughly each week in countries all over the globe. I live in one of the most international metro regions in the country and I’ve managed to carve out my own version of survival in that region.

Plus, just having thoughts in a black body is still revolutionary in some circles, especially in this re-hashed climate of high white supremacy/patriarchy we are facing in the States. And on a local level, in some jurisdictions, the pressure to assimilate to a certain idea of what blackness or what fill-in-the-blankness is that isn’t whiteness or cis maleness is.

What I also wanted to address is the need to let go of a lot of these ideas. For the last two and a quarter years, I’ve been trying to live in two places at once. I’ve been trying to be home and yet not be home. I’ve also felt like not just an expat, but an exile.

For those two and a quarter years and honestly many more, I’ve fought feeling like a hometown heroine (or hero) versus an American Expat in America.

I’ve fought through what it means to have civic pride, inferiority, nativism and absolutism. While having civic pride is awesome, possessing either civic inferiority or civic nativity or absolutism is not good.

Additionally, I’ve battled the idea that when we say we want new people, but increasingly we as cities only want a certain type of new person. The elusive young professional. The old retiree. Someone that looks like us and that can remember this obscure power outage that resulted in having to kill ten rats in 48 hours by you, but your friends and neighbors can recite the same story.

Or we fight all new people coming in. Whether it’s failing to fund new airports and train stations, or the extreme of banning certain people from entering the country or just making people “pay their dues” and say the “right things”, we fail to realize that closed systems eventually die out. Yes, with the right spark, they can continue on in infinity doing the same things, but it’s old energy. Or new energy gets sucked in, never to come back out again.

No part of me wants to be a closed system. In fact, a closed system chokes me to death.

This year’s election has shown me that if people step up, there are metro areas that will vote for them to win. If people know where to sign up to run, if they are willing to canvass neighborhoods, hit wallets for small donations and take the heat from those who may not like their style of politics despite sharing a letter next to their name when it comes to party designation, people can do it.

I know I’m encouraged to get my name in the ring. However, it will be a few years from now and it will be where I’m currently living, which may or may not be Baltimore, but it won’t be Greensboro.

For it to be Greensboro, a lot has to change. We need to stop believing that gentrification, of downtown, of Revolution Mill, of other neighborhoods yet to be “discovered” or brought back to life will save us. We need more black, brown and Asian faces in our nonprofit sector and definitely more Latinx and Asian faces in political positions.

Yes, for the next four years our council will be majority women and will be without white men. However, how will we vote on things like corporate incentives, police oversight and transit?

Plus, I need to feel like that I’m ok as a single or single-without-child couple in the city. Although my mom has been great about not asking me for grandchildren, and encouraging me to find a partner who is a good friend first, others directly or casually ask me about this and yes, it hurts. Also, I was the student/girl who didn’t act out or try new things or go outside the box. It’s weird that some of my more “adventurous” classmates, are settled down and more conservative and sometimes more judgmental than I was even in my worse days of being the “Golden Child”.

I need everything surrounding my dad and how he’s no longer here and the house is no longer there to not hurt. I want to mark his grave, but I also want to be doing well. A lot of this travel and moving is for survival. So I don’t end up following in his footsteps.

Lastly, I need artists to be 100% supported. I need Black lives to matter, no matter how uncomfortable that process in making them all matter is. I need us to support fully all kinds of small business ventures.

And finally, I need us to not bully or belittle each other for choosing to be in service. I need us to realize that the truth is negative sometimes. Life is negative sometimes. But as long as we are still living, there’s that wonderful magnetism that comes when the positive and negative dance together and we let them dance together.

Nine years ago, I moved home from Raleigh because I believed I could come home and make a difference and start my lifelong dream of being mayor of the city.

However, that’s been thwarted because I don’t believe that in my current state of being, notwithstanding the moves, I don’t think I could win. I’m too radical. I care too much about people. I think we should spend money on other things besides corporations and development schemes.

Additionally, I don’t think the kind of partner that would love me for all of me, leadership and all, exists there and would support me. Maybe you have been sitting back afraid of getting your foot in the door. Maybe you don’t live downtown and I’ve been expecting you to be there all these years, yet you check all the other boxes and understand why my life’s work is important to me. Right now, I feel like you live somewhere else (Hopefully somewhere in D.C or Baltimore or in between ;)).

One last word. I am proud of the fact that I decided to see what’s outside of my hometown. I still love it, even when it doesn’t love me back. I left Kansas City far too soon and it was just starting to crank up and be great and I miss it. However, I don’t see where I would fit in out there either and I need an airport that works better for the nature of my work now. D.C. is just not where people go when they want to start new things and “bootstrap”. Baltimore is making sure I’m sleeping and eating, but I might need to move on from there too at some point.

I WILL ALWAYS CARE ABOUT ALL THOSE PLACES.

Raleigh and Durham too. It’s weird that my campus gets a Target, but the side of Baltimore I’m on can’t keep one. I digress.

So here we are. I’m a proud American Expat in America, lover of all things connected and thriving metro areas and eager to find a space to both plant a few roots, along with being able to fly around and see how other places are doing things.

It will only make these stories better and this space grow.

I’m Kristen. Seven years ago, I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com. Support this project on Patreon for as little as one dollar a month.

Baltimore is Every City I’ve Ever Lived, Combined in Weird and Wondrous Ways

So here we are, the first true Baltimore-centric post. It took me two months because as I said in my 2017 birthday post, I was scared. This is a city where people get hurt and get hurt often. Especially by people who claim they want to do the right thing. The last thing I needed was for my post to come along and stir up another hornet’s nest. I’m trying as much as possible to fly under the radar.

However, I do have thoughts and thus far, I can say the city’s giving me exactly what I need. Plus, it truly feels like every city that I’ve lived in decided to put all their DNA in a test tube and let it gestate. The irony in this is that Baltimore was born before all the other cities I’ve lived in. However, I can see where it stagnated and where it’s got room to be reborn.  So let’s talk about these common things.

Harris Teeter=Every City I Lived in In North Carolina

And it’s legit. There is a whole row of House-Autry flour mixes. House-Autry flour mixes are one of the nine pillars of modern North Carolina cuisine and it’s awesome that this most obscure of the nine is right here where I can get my hands on it in a short drive to the grocery store. Oh and there’s not just one, but two Harris Teeters. However, like Harris Teeter pretty much everywhere these days, the demographics of the neighborhoods around them tend to be the whitest and the wealthiest of town. Still, I got a car, I got money, I got a belly. Y’all gon see me! And help me make myself at home. (For those of you curious to what the nine pillars of modern North Carolina cuisine are, I got you in a future post).

Power Plant Live!= Power and Light in Kansas City

I’ve been told it’s by the same developer and it shows. Bars that attract the average citizen. Average meaning more likely to be obnoxious by the end of the night. They do have some good concerts there though, I hated missing St. Paul and the Broken Bones and people rave about when Tech 9ine does a hometown show at Power and Light. Also, one of the best parties I attended in Kansas City, was the streetcar progressive party which ended at one of the event spaces in Power and Light. There’s a nice co-working space at Power Plant Live!, as well as a newish Mediterranean/Middle Eastern spot that’s great for folks who when they aren’t consuming the cuisine of their home state, are trying to avoid over-proccessed foods.

The MTA Metro Subway=The WMATA Metrorail Blue Line

I say the Blue Line and the part of the line from Capitol South to Largo Town Center because it does cover similar demographic areas. Also, while the MTA Metro Subway is rumored to go nowhere, it does go to a few places, if you just happen to need to go to Hopkins Hospital, the Maryland State Office Buildings, the Upton Market, the replacement shopping thing at Owings Mills and the two other shopping malls that sit off from it. Oh or the homes, the dense row homes, that happen to sit back off the parking lots. Similar things are happening on the WMATA Metrorail Blue Line. Government buildings. A hospital (or a major medical office). A new shopping center that has some issues, along with a nearby public educational institution. Public food markets. A sports stadium, although arguably one has more activity around it than the other. And yes, I’m including racial dynamics in this as well. Who lives around these stations as the stations move from downtown to the suburbs also mirror each other. (Spoiler, they get blacker as you go out, although Baltimore City’s population is still predominately black, so that skews things a bit too).

The Light Rail= The D.C. and the K.C. Streetcars

The Light Rail works when it works. That’s why it gets to be lumped in with Kansas City’s system, that’s continuing to meet and exceed expectations. When it doesn’t work, it reminds me of D.C.’s poor little H Street line. It’s like the Little Engine That Could. It thinks it can and it does, but it has a lot of work to do to get there. Baltimore’s light rail will take you to the airport, the convention center, Orioles Park at Camden Yards, M&T Stadium, the Symphony Hall,  and a some lovely bars, public markets, food halls and neighborhoods on a north/south axis that’s perpendicular to my current neighborhood. However, I can’t trust when it comes, because the systems on there are in need of renewing. I hear they are tied up in red tape. That’s unfortunate. Yes, if you haven’t heard, I’ve added a car back to my urban travel mix.

The Rowhouse Blocks and the Turrets=D.C.

I mentioned in a prior newsletter that the house where the Underwoods on House of Cards live/lived (mild spoiler there), is actually a house in Baltimore passing for D.C. Much like the rib place he always goes too and a number of other exterior and some interior shots. If all you know of Baltimore on TV is The Wire, then you’re missing out. One day, we might get a show up here that actually shows all the parts of the city, for better or worse. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to actually being able to afford a turret one day.

The Sprawl=Kansas City

You don’t have a bisecting state line, but you do see the results of building out road corridors and parkways in the years prior to World War II. You see the homes start to get newer and newer, in addition to areas of empty lots and some urban renewal that breaks the patterns, along with the newer downtown towers and the convention center. I think that my time in D.C. drove it home that I’m just going to have to adjust to at least a 15 minute drive to a Target. Well, at least Amazon delivers door-to-door here.

The Love of a Singular Food Object So Much it Defines Your City=Kansas City

Sweet Barbecue & Burnt Ends> Crabs. Crab cakes however are in contention. I’m allergic to crabs alone so I’m a little bit biased. Again, and I attribute this to knowing one cuisine solely for 28 years, North Carolina is so much more than one thing. Again, I will be discussing this claim in a future post.

The Hospitality= North Carolina

Maryland is a southern state. And the friends and colleagues I have here do mimic the ones I have back at home. Plus, I’m here thanks to their hospitality and their nudging. And I do feel ties to being at home. I will say though that there were a handful of folks in Kansas City that did their part. Plus, I’m in less need of a safety net these days, but I have it. So there goes. Argue among yourselves as who’s the nicest.

30% of the License Plates=North Carolina

I asked someone how this could be. Then I was told that a lot of Baltimore undergraduate (and graduate!) students come from North Carolina. I have yet to meet an adult friend who also grew up in North Carolina and is just here, but I have met a few of the former. It’s nice to be able to drive around, squinch your vision and think you’re back in either Charlotte (because stadiums and light rail) or Raleigh (skyline and colleges). We do not have the row house situation in North Carolina, clearly I gave that to D.C. above, but we do have a lot of vehicles that seem to belong to maybe parents that live in North Carolina.

And so that’s it. I’ve got more serious thoughts on Baltimore coming over the next few months, but for now, these are my initial, fun, observations of the city I’m making home for now. Oh and Royal Farms chicken is great, it’s just not equal to Bojangles in the same way and therefore, doesn’t warrant it’s own section of this post.

Listen to the audio version of this post:

I’m Kristen. For seven years I’ve used this space and a few others to make sense of the world around me. Learn more about me and read more of my archives. Subscribe to my newsletter (which comes out mostly weekly) and stay up to date with me. Or, come be one of those Twitter folks who make me think a little harder about what I do. Or I can talk to you, with my co-host and friend and fellow urbanist Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman, roughly every week as well about the next wave of urbanism.

Image of a line of row houses and cars parked on the street on a sunny day in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill neighborhood. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Smallbones – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18756953