Civic Inferiority Complex

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.


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, Support this project on Patreon for as little as one dollar a month.

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.

Make Your City

Kristen on Swing


This weekend marks five adult years of residence in my hometown of Greensboro, NC. To say that I moved back here kicking and screaming is an understatement. To say that staying here is what I imagined myself doing at this point in time is also inaccurate.

However, the one thing we all have to learn in our youth is that where we live is what we make of it. We also learn that the big cities can’t shield us from the changes of life. In fact, according to Salon and the Pacific Standard, if you move to one, you may never move again. Not good for a person who loves to travel like myself.

I recently fell upon Justin Alvarez’s account of studying abroad and staying at college in New York to avoid family in Chicago. I used to have similar feelings. Even though I did undergrad just 90 miles away and masters degree while at home, I did all I could at times to not be engaged or active with various family members.  I’m not sure Alvarez learned fully the impact of missing family things, even with the revelation that his grandfather held on to life just for him.  Thankfully, I was around for my father’s passing, but missed some times with my grandfather and some aunts that passed. My mom is retiring, and I’m thankful that I’m only 10 minutes away and that I’m finally taking up sewing, one of her beloved hobbies. Check out my first garment below(it’s the skirt).

Me in my skirt that I made

The point of the above is first and foremost, that family does matter. If they are halfway decent people, then make an effort to be a part of their lives. I don’t know what I would do without my mom, my aunts and uncles, and my sibling-cousins. The family village is alive and well here in Greensboro and I cherish being close enough to take advantage of that.

Moving on to the feeling of ambition and the wanderlust that moving to bigger cities creates and feeds, Goodbye to All That , both the original essay and the new compilation of essays,  all speak to the need to move on from New York and how it’s not the holy grail.  As I begin my 28th year, much like Didon herself when she left New York, I am seeing the merits of a life well lived in a small city. This line is the real kicker:

Of course it might have been some other city, had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.

And since I am talking about myself, then, I’m talking about my choice, both active and inactive, to remain in my hometown, the small city, the car-dependent, the less diverse, but still full of fun and surprises and family. I had remind myself of words I wrote in the early days of this space, to check my civic inferiority complex. To appreciate the beauty of all places.

The other link also mentions the need to care for everyone in all cities. For some of us, the best way we can do that is to stay in our hometowns and contribute to the civic environment. To not go into debt to prove something, but to save money and be something.

To make YOUR city and no one else’s. So let’s just call it home.




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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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.