The One Key Reason Those Scary Housing Discrimination Maps Are Still True

The night before I wrote this post, I got a present. The present was that the National Geographic website dropped some of the HELOC  residential security maps, commonly known in the profession as the redlining maps,  into an article, highlighting the amazing work done by the Mapping Inequality Project.

If you haven’t already, go to that site and play with their maps. I was able to grab Kansas City.

Kansas City's 1930-1940s Real Estate Maps

And Greensboro.

Greensboro Real Estate Maps from the 1930s and 1940s

They left out Durham on this version of their maps, but here it is 

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 5.13.53 PM

And my current place of residence, which I happened to snap a shot of here, when I was at another event where another group of folks pulled together a wonderful exhibition of why this happened and where.


This is why I talk about “redlining” when I talk about the creation of the hood.

The “hood”. The “barrio”, the “Whitetopia”, the “ghetto”…

…are real and they are real on maps and sadly, we are nowhere near getting away from these barriers. Yes, even in areas that are gentrifying and moving from red to yellow and blue.

The one key reason that those maps haven’t changed that much.

Education, namely education of our children.

But you say, we have so many choices and there are so many educational providers and I really just want my kids to get their best shot. Oh and my neighborhood didn’t exist back then. And we have black and brown neighbors and they are so nice. We let their kids play in our sunroom and on our wooden swing set.

Your kids, but what about all kids. What about that abandoned school down the block. The one they said was “low-performing” and had “low-enrollment”? And can we mention the mere fact that you have a sunroom and one of those wooden swing sets from Home Depot puts you in a different class level than quite a few Americans? Where did the remaining 5 kids go? You would hate to have a rotting building sitting in your neighborhood waiting for development, so why let that other neighborhood have one too. Or not turn it into the condo building that the “hipster” neighborhood did.

Ok, it’s “Kristen’s Personal Story Time”.

Today, I’m going to tell you about how I came out alright, despite starting my schooling in what were legally the “inner-city” schools when I started kindergarten in 1991.

My first caveat is that in North Carolina, we actually go to public schools under one county district, but many different zones. When I started school, I was still in the Greensboro City Schools District. My parents worked in the Guilford County Schools District and there was a High Point City Schools District. That all changed in 1993 when all the schools merged into one county district under the Guilford County Schools banner.

Yes, people fought. But fast forward 23 years and the Guilford County Schools district has an 86% graduation rate and we now have a program to ensure college gets funded for all kids. Oh and some schools, the ones we consider our high performing ones, graduate 100% of their students. And they pull students, by their personal choice and test scores, from across the entire county. And some of those schools are housed with students deemed troubled by their home schools. Others are your typical extremely “gifted” student holes. Others, the directionals, one which I’ll talk about going to in a bit, are what have become the “suburban” districts through migration, both of locals and of transplants used to a more segregated and suburbanized school environment.

However, that’s at the high school level. What about the elementary level?  When I went to kindergarten, my school was up the street and around the corner. I could have walked and sometimes we did but my mom was waiting for me most days in the car rider line. I wanted to ride the school bus, but we lived to close to the school.

However, my mom, who had taken a break from her own classroom teaching of middle schoolers and was raising and pre-schooling me at home while my dad continued to go work for the school system as an electrical maintenance man and wire homes and do other residential and small commercial electrical contracting jobs on the side, didn’t like my school.

I know I was getting teased a bit and I was also easily distracted, to the point I had to start going to school earlier, so I could adjust to my surroundings. My mom also tells me my classmates bothered me a whole lot more than I remembered. Plus, my teachers wanted me in “gifted” classes and my mom wanted me to be in a regular classroom, where everyone had a fair shot at learning the same things and I wouldn’t feel like I was so “gifted” I couldn’t learn anything any more and that I was too perfect to learn.

Rather than ship me out to the suburbs, which in reality, were just the 1990s subdivisions being built on old farmland around the existing farm towns and their respective “county” schools, I got moved to the school zone right next door. School became a 15 minute walk instead of a five-minute walk, but my mom was right there with me in the car rider line. Mom also made cookie bags for my classmates at Christmas, became friends with my teachers and was on the PTA, with a handful of other working class parents, some of color, some with English as a second language, all upwardly mobile in their own way.

In fact, many of those parents moved on, much like my mom and I did, but we moved on for a different reason and we now live in a similar, but further out neighborhood. Ok, she lives there, but that house in the neighborhood I went to my final elementary school in, is still there. Had we lived there and not the apartment we lived in when I was in the fourth and fifth grades, I could have walked to school, because the school is behind the houses on the next block. Or I could have stayed in our old house with dad and stayed in my same school. Gone to middle and high school not too far away.

However, for middle and high school, I got a special exception to join my mom in the county “suburban” school zone where she was teaching middle school. My own mortification and fear of failing in front of my classmates, many who my mom taught their seventh grade year, and in front of my mom’s teaching colleagues, kept me in line. At the time I attended my high school, it shared one of its buildings with my middle school and I went to my high school classes upstairs and came back to my mom’s classroom in the evenings to wait to go home. On 9/11/2001, I ran to my mom in the covered walkway between the high school and the shared building after school relieved that she and I was still alive. There was not a cloud in the sky that day…and as you see, I’ve digressed greatly.

However, a few things to wrap up my personal story. I had involved parents, who didn’t let their financial means keep them from trying to be engaged parents. But, both parents weren’t working and my mom had an education degree and still commanded even her PTA meetings much like she did her various classrooms over the years. There was funding for the special program at my second elementary school. By the time I got to my third elementary school, my mom was working again due to my parents’ divorce and my dad was servicing the schools in my zone of the district. People knew my parents and they knew me and they knew our struggles and they wanted to see me succeed.

However, there are other classmates of mine, especially at the second elementary school whose parents weren’t as involved, yet they still managed to find a way to success. I attribute it to the values set by the administrators and teachers at that school, to love us all equally. Plus, that neighborhood is one of the unique neighborhoods in Greensboro, in that it houses so many people of all races, income levels and education levels, it has resources and it has a people committed to political unity. If we want to put it in DC terms, I was in Takoma Park. And if that neighborhood (which will remain nameless, because things have changed a bit and I want this to be a universal story) and Takoma Park could do it, there are others that can too.

However, we need neighborhood schools, run by a central district over a reasonable geographic area, and we need diverse neighborhoods. Also, the other caveat, in the map above, some of our Takoma-style neighborhood was blue and some of it was green and yellow. It was never hazardous. Why Takoma was hazardous baffles me, but so do a lot of the maps.

I’d like to think that my parents beat the odds. I’d like to think my neighborhood was special. But it isn’t.

NPR recently reminded us of that when it talked about how much our school choice is dependent on the old redlining maps and is solidified by the loss of schools or the lack of investment or completely homogeneous by both race and class and language skill schools. And many of you have heard the This American Life episode series about the Chicago schools.

Many of you, who otherwise support walkable communities, transit improvements, diverse types of housing and other things seen as urbanist, get stuck when it comes to the schools. Even those of us of color get stuck, much like in this well known New York Times article.

I do think we can start chipping away at the education paradox of urbanism. But we have to start somewhere. Otherwise, those maps will forever be rainbow-colored and not in a good way.

I’m Kristen. Six years ago, I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website,

On the Second Presidential Debate of 2016 and Knowing Your Truth About Where You Live

I wanted to discuss a comment about cities that came up in the debate/ town hall last night. Note, this is not a post endorsing one or the other, although I’ll say that I’m with her. But the issue brought up is one that trips up a lot of people when it comes to talking about metropolitan policy and how black folks have been allowed to move about and take part in the environments that have been built and paved and provided for us.

First of all, the debate’s mention of urban policy and where black folks tend to live assumes a concentric city model, which looks like those diagrams of the earth where you cut it open and you have a ball in the center and rings around until you get to the crust, which is where we actually live.

This is the Burgess Concentric City Model. He applied it to Chicago first. However, maybe it should have been a rainbow instead…

The actual model goes into even more detail about human pathways, but I’m going to simplify it to three rings: the core, the suburban rings and the crust which is rural farm and natural areas. The core in this globe is the inner city. You have a business district, a city hall, maybe a county hall, the largest school, possibly the high school, a college or university and then you have either old money wealthy whites (or others of color who were able to maintain wealth since the city was first built). You also have the regional sports stadiums and other institutions marketed and intended for the entire region to use. If you have a major public transit system, all the routes lead to this area. When people come to visit your town, this is what they think of and this is where the things geared to them are located. Also, the name of this  inner core city, is often the name the entire region uses to define itself, when defining itself to people from the outside.

However, after World War II, when we had the second wave of suburban development, the department stores started to leave, along with others that catered directly to white folks, who were moving into the suburban areas. A few years later, black folks were allowed to  move out and onward, so essentially, all the people left in the “inner city” were the poor people of color, LGBTQA+ people and others deemed less American and undesirable.

This is where the bulk of the logic of that particular candidate comes from. Also, that candidate has participated in the development of cities for many years and from what I’ve been able to observe, subscribes to a inner core, then suburban rings that just have houses and a few services, and are restricted to certain types of people, then rural crust where all the farms and the things that sustain us (or the corporations that make all of our food, textiles and the like) are. This is probably the idea they have when they want to make the country great again. Basically make us all perfect round balls of metro areas. (Among other things…)

However, this was never quite the case anywhere. Why?

  1. Some cities are built along a riverfront. This automatically rules out having a round ring of neighborhoods in many cities. This is what you see in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis. The irony is that the model I just mentioned in its original form was applied to Chicago. Maybe it should have been a rainbow instead of a full circle.
  2. Some cities grew in pairs or clusters. So there are multiple metro cores and farmland that became suburban rings and then all grew together to become one mega region. New York is really this, but with water separating the various cores and rings. Also, I grew up in the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina. Not to be confused with the Research Triangle Region of North Carolina where I went to undergrad. Both started as triangles and are now adjacent amorphous blobs. Trying to make this a circle will only make your head hurt and you sound stupid.
  3. Economics and family structures have always determined where people choose to live. People need to be close to the things that help them survive, like jobs and food. Wealthier  people get to have more of what they like nearby. Some wealthy people wanted farmland, others wanted cultural institutions. Those others, who are at the mercy of working a job, go wherever the job is. And then those who have chosen to raise children often build and move where they feel their family will get the most of the values they want to institute into their children.
  4. Black families and sometimes Latinx and Asian families, basically anyone who was not considered white when it comes to schooling, real estate and access to public spaces and services, has always had to reckon with where slavery, then Jim (and Juan) Crow, then redlining, then urban renewal and now, mass incarceration and the aftermath of being incarcerated,  affordability or upward mobility allow them to go. For myself, my upward mobility and personal preferences dictate that I want to be near the cultural centers and also in areas where retail is clustered, which is becoming the inner cities again. But I’m a business owner just starting out, so I am on a budget. I’m also car-free, partly because of economics. Other friends, of all races and nationalities, are having children and want them to have their own safe yards, that they can manage and not have to worry about police or even neighbors shooting at their children. Because so many inner core areas closed schools or don’t provide similar public options, smaller towns in the metro regions, that are often written off as suburbs, are a more attractive option. Oh, and Target. It all really boils down to who’s good enough for Target. And who Walmart hasn’t left yet.

So what’s really going on and what should I make of this?

What I invite folks to do in the light of this particular comment and the work here, is to research the history of how your specific metro area was built, governed and developed since its inception. Each metro area, while it shares a few common elements, applies those elements differently. We need to know how our metros are made, because it’s going to take a ground-up effort to make things better. Also, you’ll sleep better knowing that living in the suburbs or inner city or on a farm or even in a shack (tiny house!) may not be a bad or shameful thing.

How Do You Start that Research?

  1. Wikipedia. Seriously, the entries on your metro area will help you find basic information and also help you find primary sources and places to go to learn why your city has its shape and how people have made it have that shape over the years.
  2. Historians and librarians in your metro area, as well as urban planners and others working in community design and governance— Basically anyone working to make sure everyone who lives in an area is accounted for and is part of the story of your city. They will help you make sure what you read is right and give you even more books to read and places to go to find information. They will also be able to point you to other people like…
  3. Long-time community residents, suggested by the professionals above. This is where you get the real stories and the more nuanced stories of why people do what they do. Or, even better, you can talk to your older family members. Record those chats, as they are history. I love what the new podcast Historically Black is doing around black oral histories. StoryCorps, and even shows like This American Life and Stuff Your Mom Never Told You are also doing a great job of uncovering local and social histories as well. (I’m going to shamelessly plug my podcast with Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman here, Third Wave Urbanism as well, where we also talk about how metro areas are really made and average people).

Above all, let those of us who are professionals stress about where people actually live. No matter where you live and what your story is, you have value. Developers and builders and city leaders, remember that the next time you decide what needs to be built or torn down in your city.

Also, please make a wise decision about voting on November 8, 2016  and during other times when elections are called in your city. Especially when other elections are called in your metro area. These folks have the direct keys to your success as a city.

I’m Kristen! Six 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,

We May Be Gentrified, But Our Culture Doesn’t Have to Die.

Gentrification by Flickr user Abbey Hambright

We are at peak gentrification. What’s next?

Namely, what’s next for cultures and communities of color who are left in the wake of the racism and greed that drives many gentrification conversations in our cities. How do we overcome the drama of losing our homes and stores and schools and jobs and bus stops and our friends to better pastures. Are there better pastures? Do we have life after so much of it seems to be taken away?

If we lived in an equal society, one where we truly celebrated and embraced differences, instead of using them as tools of inequity, gentrification wouldn’t be bad. For one thing, it might not even exist. Why would we need to value one piece of land over another? Why would land have the kinds of value it does? Why not band together and share what we have?

I won’t dig that deep into history, but we know that some folks see land as communal and others see it as something to be had at any cost, even if it means destroying the psychological and the physical beauty and benefits it bestows. Generally land possession has been in the hands of the most powerful or seized from those who did not see power the same way as the conquerors. Our human species has always been in the business of trying to overtake, overwhelm or intimidate others into either being property (slavery) or having property (land, objects, ideas, cultures).

So again, what do we do? Especially if we put it like this, even if we were all living in the same kind of tent, somebody would find a way to discriminate or be greedy or even steal and murder to get more.

We just stop.

Stop and be grateful for what we already have. Be grateful for neighbors of all kinds. Be grateful for the ability to learn and grow naturally, but not at the expense of others. Stop feeling like we are losing ground or losing whatever we had. The only thing that will forever be truly ours is our soul.

Ok, but you say, that’s all nice and flowery, but what can I do RIGHT NOW, to stop all the injustice. How do I close down the prisons? How do we lower costs, without causing crazy amounts of poverty? How do we get kids interested in learning? How do I make enough to eat tonight?

It’s still internal. There are a lot of formerly impoverished  and underprivileged folks out here who the minute they win the lottery or get a helping hand or strike gold, literally or figuratively, start acting like their oppressors. Instead of getting ahead to give back, the goal was to get ahead and become the oppressor.

Plus, we all should enjoy the beauty this world offers us. We should all be focusing on becoming our best selves. We should not be out here trying to eat others in the pursuit of doing it.

And so this gets us back to gentrification. Why do we need to pay such high rents or why do we have to throw money away at that ONE PERFECT HOUSE when all we really need is a place with running water, a clean bed, free of pests, free of noise or full of noise, a roof, and in my case, an in unit washer/dryer or cheap drop off laundry near by.

But as you may have noticed in that sentence, we do have diversity in what we value and what we think is important. Hence why we love having a marketplace that allows us choice. But we do have to respect the choices of others. The choice to dig down in their souls and play their drums and instruments. To eat food of which we don’t like the smell. To have purple hair. Or to not have purple hair.

And to push people who do have the keys to the homes and the charters for the schools and means to put in the bus stops, to stop feeding our worst natures and make it easier to come back together as a people. No, we’ve never been 100% together, but now would be a good time to start trying.

Before I end this, let me remind you–if you’re a developer, politico, or someone else who is in a position of power or influence, this doesn’t excuse your behavior when it comes to creating the environment that’s allowed for gentrification (and for all other social ills before that. Read this post. This is not your excuse to continue to gentrify.

And if you’re like me and you long for the day you can enjoy all the shiny things without guilt, and finally pay off all those bills or buy a house or whatever your personal gentrification killer is, this is for you. We gon be alright.

I usually embed the links to my favorite reference articles, but I wanted to leave them here so you could go to them directly. They all address various aspects of gentrification, including the fact that this is now a world-wide phenomenon. I also included links to areas where people of color are making class-based decisions and inventing new things, despite the barriers.



I’m Kristen. I’ve written here (and a few other places) about cities and places and how we can make them better for almost 6 years. You can learn more about me here. And you can follow me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Oh, and don’t miss any episodes of my podcast with Katrina Johnston-Zimmerman Third Wave Urbanism.

To Create a Perfect City

All it took in many cities for development in the old days was one man who bought up bunches of land and started building houses on it, which he turned around and put up for sale.

One man. Probably white and already wealthy. 

Several plots of farmland. Land which used to be fields and served that purpose, is now a whole neighborhood. In the early years, these neighborhoods were connected throughout with sidewalks, with access to streetcars, with plots designated for community retail, such as a market. Many of these older style neighborhoods were still bedroom communities, but they were connected. In the case of J.C. Nichols here in KC and others, there was emphasis placed on who could and couldn’t purchase those homes, which unfortunately was codified in the federal mortgage-making code. Oh and the official history of his Country Club Plaza flat out states that he was just one man that changed the city

So to say that other developers and even you milling around and buying (and being sold) properties can’t change the city (or, at least a chunk of it) with your money, ideas and landownings is crazy. It really comes down to money and respect of who holds said money. Eventually, you can change your city with ideas and small investments. Eventually.

This still keeps me up at night, because unfortunately, I feel the only way to enact wholesale change on cities overnight, is to purchase wide swaths of empty land or existing properties and create my own fiefdom. Let’s chat about that fiefdom shall we?

Let’s first assume that I’m in KC and I bought up a chunk of abandoned or less-loved area East of Troost, but still in KCMO.

Restricitve covenants are illegal these days, but often rent and asking prices are such that certain people are excluded. I’d put up a for-sale sign on the residential properties and tell people the amenities and then invite them to propose a price for it. I would take millions from some and I’d hand out some for free. I’d do it lottery style, so the goal would be to get a diverse amount of people, but let Providence handle who was picked and wasn’t picked. No credit checks. Some people would get jobs handling transportation, doing landscaping, teaching at the educational campus or working at the marketplace and they would get homes that I’ll set aside for workers and families. The lottery will be for folks who don’t live in the neighborhood. 

For the transportation, Transportation to and from my fiefdom would be free and would include all types, appropriate to the context.  I’d give the money to get the Linwood streetcar built, and restore older ones. Troost and Prospect would get streetcars too. Remaining bus lines and the streetcars would have every-15-minutes bus service. There would be free car-share vehicles for trips to stores and other neighborhoods (fiefdoms). There would be bikes. And the sidewalks would be clear. If you still insist on bringing a car after I told you all this, you would have a place to park. But only if you make a compelling case to need one (you use it for your business, you are disabled and use it to cover long distances, you’re an Uber driver, you drive to a far-flung place that doesn’t have rail or bus or air service enough for you to go there as often as you need). While not directly in my KC fiefdom, I’d also donate money to get a streetcar or true light-rail (our existing vehicles can actualy do both!) to the airport. You’d start at the River Market stop, then wind your way through the Northland (possibly tunneled, possibly in the highway median), such that it’s only a 30 minute trip each way. Yes, it would go that fast too. Our  existing vehicles can safely run at 35 miles an hour.

There will be one central marketplace, which the community owns and staffs. There will be all kinds of healthy food options, with an eye to conscious omnivores on down to complete vegans. Subtracting staff salaries and real food costs, care will be made to make sure that people eat. You’d be able to get other things there too, either shipped directly to the store, to your home or inside the building. Yes, this is sounding like Walmart, but my Walmart would look like Target and pay like Costco. Actually, it would look like the City Market, because there would be room for both basic needs stores and also some fun stores. Just like homes, there will be different sizes for all. Also, services like doctors, yoga studios, and credit unions will be in this space too. 

There will be many open parks, with playgrounds and racket courts and basketball courts and even a fountain. This is KC. It seems that I must have a fountain to be a legit fiefdom.

There will also be one school, a campus if need be, that provides all that a kid would need as they grow. That includes any kid with a special need. If we can’t provide it, we will make arrangements free-of-charge for the kid to get the education they need, right by their own home. Or, if the kid was game, we’d bus them across town to another campus, which has mastered something we don’t quite have yet and gives them an opportunity to meet people who don’t live and work in their neighborhood.

But there’s a problem here. It should not take people buying up land and creating fiefdoms to provide education, food, education for all ages and all other needed and wanted services. Also, this could turn into separate-but-equal really quick, especially here in KC and in other places that still have very defined lines of where people of certain races and cultures live, exclusive of their actual income. My economics are probably way off, but I wanted to err on the side of providing homes and jobs and basic needs. I’m assuimg that I’m crazy rich already and can make up the difference.

But that’s what we have, fiefdoms, in an alliance under one city. Or in most cases, we have multiple cities, of multiple fiefdoms, doing whatever they feel like doing to provide basic services. Essentially, separate, but unequal, with a wee bit of separate-but-equal.

So what can we do?

I believe that as an alliance of cities and fiefdoms, we can set a goal to provide co-op grocery and markets, centralized and fulfilling K-12 and secondary education, and free and prompt transportation options. We can continue to provide places to gather, for various schools of thought, pending no one emerges from these meetings with the attempt to do real harm.

I think we could do this today, because these are our things that we can drop money on right now and shift the conversation and how we live.

I believe we can start looking at each other as human beings worthy of mutual respect and sympathy. I think we could switch to a system of true rehabilitation and re-training, to help those who truly have criminal minds (and not just those we THINK) do.

And housing. If we are going to spend money to build something, let us ensure our water and sewer systems are clean. Always. That there’s always a place to go when we are sick and going there doesn’t automatically bankrupt us and won’t bankrupt us down the line. We provide basic shelter, maybe communal at first, then small dwellings to people on a sliding scale. Then, because we’ve stopped servicing some of our other social welfare issues as hard or as inadequately as we were doing, we can zero in on the problems with costs and making sure people have adequate roofs, at the privacy level they so desire.

No city is perfect. Yet, we cannot keep going with the inadequate ones we are fielding today. And we cannot end with separate but equal.

Each week, I send out an email with these kinds of posts, things that I’m working on and other articles you should read. Leave me your information below and you’ll start to see it on Tuesdays.

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Place in A Time of Terror and Inequality

Place in A Time of Terror and Inequality by Kristen Jeffers, The Black Urbanist

This post took so long to write. I wrote about two versions of it. Maybe you’ll see them in the next volume of essays. Maybe they’ll be here. Ultimately, it gets down to how place and motion matter in a time of heightened instances of tragedy, terror and oppressive power driven by fear.

How can we say that design is our savior, when in one of the most perfectly designed cities in America, a man who was born in the 1990’s, one of the most progressive time periods in our history for race relations, decided to go to a church and even though he was moved by the friendliness and fellowship of the people. shot them anyway because they were Black and they were a threat to “his” women?

I just took a cross-country road trip to start a great new job, at an organization that’s committed to asking questions and getting answers everyday for design and use equity when it comes to everyday transportation. I brought my family with me mainly because I didn’t want to be alone. What if they couldn’t have come with me? What if I had made an error that was easily correctable in my car, got pulled over and after a series of events, I ended up dead in my cell, seemingly of my own devices?

And for the record, I can’t say what I would do if I went to jail. I am fearful at times and who knows what the shock of the experience would lead me to do if I feel like I’ll never get out alive anyway. But I will try to get out and stay alive as long as I can. Think of me as Olivia Pope in [spoiler alert] the jail last season, the first time she went to jail that is. [/spoiler].

As I look around and take in the sights, sounds and climate of my new metro area, I do find it sad the effects of sprawl very present in the area. Some sprawl has been useful or unavoidable. Bluffs aren’t always your friend. Major stockyards, wartime facilities and even farms need space. However, the huge legacy of Native removal and assimilation, as well as the redlining that kept many Blacks in certain areas, areas that are still underfunded and even abandoned is always a present thing.

The fact that so many of the box stores that used to only be ten minutes away, are now 20-30. Myself and Amazon are about to become friends, because in reality, none of these major chain stores or warehouses have the best records on wages, product quality and treatment of customers. I do have a Costco and Home Depot in walking distance and they’re some of the better ones, for being willing to pay well and have a presence in the inner city.

In spite of all of this that’s weighed heavy on my mind in the past few weeks between posts and moving and such, I still see hope. I love my colleagues and their commitment to making sure everybody can get where they need to go, car or not. “Right” side or “Wrong” side of town. I’m thankful for the many times I’ve been able to board planes, trains or ferries alone and without question. The ability to cross international borders and be seen as role model in my time in the other country. To be able to drive my car long distances, both alone and with company and have been able to escape the worst reaches of the law. And of course, all of my loved ones, friends and fellow foot soldiers in planning and development that I’ve been able to meet and work with over the years.

Even if that all were to change tomorrow, I am grateful for the life that’s been granted to me, the few privileges I have. I will dwell in those and I will continue to work to make sure everyone has the opportunities to be well and live well, no matter how they get where they are going, where they live and what stores are available to them to supply their lives. And of course, no matter skin color or who they choose to make a life with or how they present themselves.

And a postscript: Check out how real estate is done in this Chicagoland town. What if this was a wholesale solution to the problem of real estate segregation, which has undertones in the struggles in many areas to stop both failing schools and police brutality.
Another postscript, this book I was gifted about growth in Kansas City.

Finding the Lines

Once upon a time, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, the New Deal era agency that refinanced struggling mortgages. graded neighborhoods based on race, country of origin and other more practical and less discriminatory methods. This practice, known as “redlining”  looks different in every community. Hence, while there are lessons for everyone in this article, it’s best to study your city’s history for yourself. Today I’m sharing a resource to help you do that.

This is Potatoes and it’s the Wednesday series on The Black Urbanist. It’s when I take Tuesday’s current event and add a stat or a deeper commentary through images. It’s also the holiday season and I’m sure you are either hosting all your family or you are getting ready to be one of those poor souls invading the airports and train stations and roads that the news always talks about on holidays. Take some stress out of your trip by using Expedia to book a good deal on your flight, rental car, hotel or all three. Click here  for more information and know that your purchase will support The Black Urbanist and help me keep writing these posts! 

Slate’s history blog, The Vault, is compiling a bunch of the old “redlining” maps (and is looking for more). While every city is not represented yet, several are and they all provide a comprehensive view of how redlining was actually applied throughout the country.

As I mentioned in this previous post, in my hometown of Greensboro and in several other places around North Carolina, areas were segregated, but that did not keep African-Americans from owing homes. Many of my family members owned land and farmed on it. Yet, other factors contributed to segregation and unequal housing practices. Even today, those suburban-style neighborhoods built as black neighborhoods have lower property values and fewer services than identical built-for-whites neighborhoods.

Take a look below at the map of Durham, one of the closest maps to me and check out the other maps currently on Slate’s list.

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This post is part of my participation in #NaBloPoMo, the time of the year when bloggers come together to pump out daily content and connect. Find out more about that project and how I’m participating, here and here.

Letting Ourselves Go

Of late I’ve been reading a lot of articles on how people don’t vote or don’t engage with their neighbors. There’s also been a sprinkling of how gentrification really happens and how it breaks down the neighborhood fabric. A few of those articles are right here (leaving the links inline so you can copy the source links if you need to):

One key piece in those articles is the sense of abandonment. In the case of the black folks mentioned, there were several elected leaders and home and business owners who took financial incentives in lieu of staying behind and strengthening their communities. Now unfortunately, the people who have the control and the money have made massive amounts of income and they are creating a gentrification situation of which it’s impossible for the average person to buy themselves into or stay behind. After all, these corporations are people now and they have rights too. There’s always been white flight abandonment and regular housing racism on top of all these stories. And then there’s the general abandonment of the idea of neighborliness. If kids are loud, don’t go talk to them, abandon them and call the cops. If the price is right, abandon the neighborhood and go out to supposedly greener pastures. And then there’s the general ignorance, of the need to take maybe an hour or two and vote. Or get someone who wants to vote, but just can’t get there, an absentee ballot or a ride to the polls.

I’ve written before on the content of character, as it comes to our places. I’ve asked the question about who owns the corner store and found that it doesn’t matter who owns the stores, it matters what the people do with said stores. And yes, because I do subscribe to some new urbanism, I do believe design is a factor. But it comes in with cleanliness of stores, safety of infrastructure (can you cross that street without being mowed down, on foot?), and commitment to know and trust your neighbors. Oh and even though I wish that we could have a lazy urbanism that doesn’t require voting, it’s just not possible, because we thrive on democracy.

At the recent Strong Towns National Gathering, I facilitated a late Saturday afternoon session on what it means to be a Strong Citizen. I started the crowd up pretty easy, with asking them what they would do with $100 of funds in their neighborhoods. However, I wanted the crowd to get deeper and think about what it would take to shake up their community as it is, much as Ferguson has been shaken, much as harsh gentrification and segregation have shaken communities in the past.

While I was able to get the crowd thinking, we benefited from an older Native American elder who stepped out and said the needed things about race and also whose land was it anyway. Yet, what I’m most proud of is this group was able to circle up, stay civil, right down some great answers to my questions (some of which will show up here or on the Strong Towns blog) and really think about how they can do better.

It’s going to take us waking up and deciding how to treat our neighbors, how to see our cities and neighborhoods in a better light, and also when necessary, getting dirty and getting out the tools to plow the garden, knock on the doors and nail the wood for the bus shelter. Because we cannot continue to let ourselves go.

Yes, this means bookcation is over. Pre-order now and get the brand new e-book, A Black Urbanist–Essays Vol. 1, when it releases on December 1 for only $10. I won’t charge your cards until December 1, so go ahead and set aside some holiday money for an awesome book, with some of your favorite essays and a few new ones.


The Department Store of the Amazon and New Urbanist Age

Coming to the end of the maze that is IKEA. Satisfied and with a full yellow bag. Image by the author.

Coming to the end of the maze that is IKEA. Satisfied and with a full yellow bag. And yes, it’s blurry on purpose. Tell me I’m not wrong for feeling this way at the end of an IKEA trip. Image by the author.

As of this writing, I’ve just learned that the Belk at the Four Seasons Mall, the last remaining enclosed mall in Greensboro, will close at the beginning of 2015. I fully expect two things at that mall. One, it will go the way of the Carolina Circle Mall, our other enclosed mall and be torn down and replaced with a super Walmart. Or two, it will be rebirthed à la North Hills in Raleigh, JC Penney in tact and Target attached.

My theories are leaning towards the later. Walmart Neighborhood Market just arrived in the space of an old Borders (which was doing well until the chain itself went under), that’s just about a half-mile away and it seems to be happy and doing fine. As of this writing, I have investigated this claim in person, and walked out with a large tub of sea salt caramel ice cream. There are benefits to the world domination of Walmart.

Likewise, there are also benefits to the world domination of Amazon. Big box and traditional department stores either step their game up and stay in business or they count their losses and combine forces at one central location, as the Greensboro Belk will do, by going to Friendly Center. I also would like to note here that at one point, Friendly Center was said to be on the rocks. Now, it’s our shining example of that hybrid that I mentioned of the mall and the main street.

Getting back to that hybrid idea for a moment, although I bemoan the new North Hills’s gentrification from a housing standpoint, its efficiency is bar none. All the places I love to shop, save IKEA and the Limited are right on site. The best plain wings in North Carolina are right in-house at the Q Shack.  I get my chicken quesadilla fix at Moe’s and yes, I still have a soft spot for Chic-Fil-A chicken nuggets, which is conveniently located next to the movie theater, giving me more options besides popcorn for movies. Harris Teeter is now across the very busy Six Forks Road, but so is the brand new North Hills amphitheater and several other fun spots. The crosswalks are long and safe enough, it’s not so bad.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the suckling power of the Great Bullseye, the crown jewel of this setup. Just look at this map of how Target has grown over the years. The sad part is that map stops at 2008. I’m sure the map is completely red at this point. What is it really about the store? The Wikipedia entry gives a great nod to the attention to customer experience. When I come to Target, I’m not prompted in-between sad old songs to buy things. (Although, I will interrupt my Target love fest to say that the IKEA’s choice to play disco era jams during my last visit was also spot on. But more on the big blue box in a minute).

Target’s usually a stop after work when I’m tired and I need time to process my day, as well as pick up a few things. I know that most of those things will be there. Plus, I get entertained by a few wants and for the most part they don’t fall into my cart. Even with the card security issues, Target offers an actual happy experience over crowded spaces, extremely overpriced, but of similar quality clothing, and just the right foods to stock up my pantry. Once again, they are committed to being a part of city life too, with stores in mixed use developments, traditional malls, East Harlem and its new CityTarget concept in the Chicago Loop.

That other big box of weakness, IKEA, does its part to be urbanist and hip to the Amazon Prime crowd. You can actually see what everything looks like, in a real room setup. Now granted, I’m used to this, having grown up a stones throw from the furniture capital of the world and the year-round, well-dressed, showrooms of furniture of real wood and already-assembled craftsmanship. However, how many stores show you how cool your studio apartment really is? How many stores have kitchen and bathroom and office planning consultants on site? And seriously, how many have pillows made of hearts with arms ready for hugs. Sure, you’ll probably need lots of hugs after you finish putting together all that furniture, but they’ve also made sure you ate well coming in and out of the door.

Like all for-profit companies, including that Amazon, there have been issues with labor, poor products, poor customer service and once again, that many of these stores are always in driving distance. Yet, they do deliver. This, is what makes IKEA and Target, in my opinion, the department stores that will lead the way as we become more digital and return to the traditional main streets from the malls and the box stores.

All this to say that the Four Seasons Mall will not die from this announcement. It has a major Sheraton hotel and convention operation in its parking lot. It has one of those other hip for the digital age stores, H&M, which just moved in a little less than a year ago. It has lost and regained its movie theater, a major way of bringing traffic in that doesn’t involve the consumption of objects as much as it does the experience. The Greensboro Coliseum is only a mile away and it’s the bookend to the city’s new effort to revitalize and reinvigorate the soon to be Gate City Boulevard corridor. Its formal name is now the Four Seasons Town Centre, which would make it easy for someone like General Growth Properties, who currently owns the mall, to convert and market it in a manner similar to its Durham mall, The Streets of Southpoint, once the demand and demographics change. Even now, with its frontage onto I-40, it can still function as a great regional mall and destination, like it has in the past.

Yet,  all these ideas put revitalization and customer service in the hands of the companies. How does placemaking and tactical urbanism deal with retail and purchasing needs? Stay tuned.

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Wait, That’s Really a House?

Via Wikimedia

My dad and I used to talk about how he was going to make himself an office in his backyard shed. He’d made a good amount of money putting electricity in other people’s dutch barns and other iterations of storage sheds/backyard workshops. It was only a matter of time that he would slow down enough and put wires in his. Meanwhile, I’d use the shed as my play kitchen, with the nice wooden kindergarten furniture that we’d picked up at the local public school surplus auction.

Unfortunately, the shed never made it past my mud pie emporium to being dad’s full office. In fact, I’m sure he’d be tickled to see just how many people have decided to not only wire and keep some sort of office in backyard sheds, but actually live in the things and call them so nicely, tiny homes.

While the movement has origins as far back as 1960’s counterculture, the movement picked up steam during the recent major economic recession, as well as in the aftermath of several major devastating storms, namely Hurricane Katrina and the Katrina cottage. They’ve been touted as a solution to chronic homelessness. Many others are propelled by the ability to live life somewhat off the grid, somewhat simply and in some cases tax and mortgage free. It’s also a slightly more stable alternative than just living in a sedan or a van, but many van dwellers consider themselves members of the tiny home movement too.

So what makes a home “tiny” versus “small”? The common nomenclature (as listed by Wikipedia in their article on the movement), states that a tiny home is any house or non-self-propelled vehicular structure that is less than 1,000 square feet. As stated above, some van and RV dwellers count themselves in too, as well as those in traditional trailers. Yet, what makes these tiny homes different, at least in my opinion, is their resemblance to a normal, stick-built, bungalow or ranch home. If one took the wheels off of some of these homes, they could be confused for our friend above, the storage shed. They could also be right at home on Apartment Therapy.

Another question one may ask is that is this really new? No, not at all. What has happened is that much of the stigma of living in such a small quarter has dulled, seeing that many of these homes have many modern accouterments, and are remarkably space efficient, for far less money than some rental apartments.

Lastly, this has major implications for sprawl repair and even traditional new urbanism. Traditional new urbanism has always been a proponent of the accessory dwelling unit (ADU or more colloquially, the granny flat). Yet, with more and more people moving into already dense and raptly gentrifying metro areas, as well as fleeing to cheaper suburban areas, allowing for more units per acre and in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and financially prudent is vital. Plus, these have become showcases for homes in the 1,000-2,000 square foot range of how these homes can appear to be mansion-like, thanks to efficient uses of space. Especially in the case of the Katrina cottage, people can rebuild something that looks and may even be the same size as what they lost, in a short period and without incurring newer, higher expenses.

I can’t lie, the idea of a tiny house is very appealing for me for my next move. However, I have yet to see a community of them anchor what’s already in denser housing communities, at least in my area. I’m better to stick to a traditional sized ranch, bungalow or a townhome.

What about you? Would a “tiny” house be too tiny? Could you get over the feeling that you really live in a  glorified shack?

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Things That Should Never Be in Driving Distance

Lincoln Park High School in Chicago/Wikimedia

I was a good North Carolinian and went to vote in my recent  election.  As I’ve written about before, the district I sit in for US House is a snake district. As in it looks like a snake. And even worse, my polling place, which should be in walking distance, isn’t. I thought the rules were that polling places needed to be in walking distance of everyone residing in their district.  I could in theory walk to my polling place. If I wanted to cross a dangerous road at rush hour. Or even if I went before work, still, heavy traffic. Lunchtime. Heavy traffic.

My old precinct when I was in undergrad was at an arts center just across the street from my dorm. The road to cross was only two lanes and it was once again RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET. My precinct when I lived at mom’s was also right up the street, at my old elementary school. Where my dad used to vote was a rec center that was a little bit further from his house though. It was walkable in theory, but he still had to cross a very busy street if he were to go on foot. He still managed to vote, even when he had to walk. But seriously, should he have had to risk his life to cross a major street to vote? Unless a person can’t physically walk, we shouldn’t have to drive people to the polls. Yet, one of the things our new voting laws seem quick to create is consolidated districts and precincts.

This also had me thinking about where else no one  should ever have to drive. I came up with this list:

First, grocery. I’ve written recently about how grocery delivery can make the difference with sprawl. Also, I am aware that some neighborhoods do have curb markets. Yet, how many of these markets have the produce and other fresh goods, as well as the selection as the supermarket? However, with modern technology and more room on the roads for service vehicles, we could make supermarkets smaller, more connected and able to provide for people who are in walking distance. Not only would this include food, but there would be a showroom for other consumer products, and those could be ordered in the right size and mailed directly to one’s home. With all these deliveries, maybe the postal service could regain revenue traction or work closer with the other delivery companies for prompter delivery.

Secondly, healthcare. No one should have to pay for an ambulance ride, nor should they have to jump in the car every time they get the sniffles. Some hospitals are doing video checkups, however, I believe that we could provide in person checkups in a reasonable walking distance. In addition, these facilities would be equipped with places to do emergency surgeries or at least a helipad for airlifting to other hospitals that may have more expertise in dealing with whatever situation is going on with a person. This is the hallmark of public health and I think have both the technology and the money pouring into the healthcare industry to support it.

Third, schools. There are so many reasons people give for not being able to have schools in walking distance, except in certain neighborhoods and only for certain grade levels. With technology, we could almost go back to the one room schoolhouse. Only, this schoolhouse would have modern conveniences like science labs, band rooms, cafeterias with healthy food, maker spaces (shop and home ec classes for the 21st century), and video cameras and microphones for Skypeing other students, teachers and community members, close to home and worldwide. Instead of being a specialty school for ______ subject, all of our schools would be equipped for learning all things, even if it’s virtual or if transportation is free and provided readily to a site where the subject is taught better. Teachers who have strengths in one thing could specialize, but students wouldn’t be forced to make that decision at least until the university level. Students would only leave their neighborhoods on their own for speciality sites such as museums, extracurricular activity competitions and just to get to know people from other areas and how they live.

And the interesting part is that all these things I mentioned above could be under one roof, which would make connecting transit easier, as well as for cargo carrying vehicles. We would start with the current network of  streets and existing school buildings, then add on as needed for the health and the market needs. For those who are concerned about one healthcare provider and one grocer and the abuses that can cause, we could set a cap, maybe 10 or 12 on the number of facilities one provider can manage, with minimum standards in place to ensure that the experience only differs by the colors on the walls and not because certain people have only certain skills. In addition, health care providers and markets would be encouraged to refer people or order from other markets, if there were specialists at other facilities, even those not with that provider’s network or more grapes at another provider’s market.

With these functions under one roof, we would be closer to having solid community centers, and closer to better urbanism, even in lower-density neighborhoods. In addition, we would have the precedent set that no one should have to drive themselves or pay to transport themselves, to our basic needs. Lastly, even in a world of door-to-door Amazon delivery, people would still have a social place to go to pick up and touch objects they need.

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