Issues and Ideas

My take on the great debates of the urban policy world

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, www.kristenejeffers.com

What Should You Do When Weird Weather Shows Up?

 

Sometimes, all you can do is make sure you buy enough food at Harris Teeter to get ready for weird weather.

Sometimes, all you can do is make sure you buy enough food at Harris Teeter to get ready for weird weather.

So we’ve had another situation of weather causing bizarre things to happen. Whether it’s snow in Atlanta or a major hurricane in New York, Americans seem to never tire of comparisons to the zombie apocalypse or The Day After Tomorrow. Never mind that in a few weeks we’ll forget this never happened, while those affected may still not have their old house back almost 10 years later.

So this all leads me to what we should and shouldn’t do, at least when it comes to community-building and placemaking and management, when a natural disaster happens.

Take those personal natural disaster plans seriously.

Don’t be the person who giggles when it’s time to stop, drop and roll. You’ll want to roll into a ball if you didn’t remember to pack a blanket, clothes and everything else that goes into a roadside disaster emergency kit. So you’re a bike or subway kid, throw an extra shirt and your meds into your bag. Even planes will let you carry those on. Let your pipes drip. Sprinkle the ice melt. Make sure you can fit in the bathtub. Drink enough water and put on sunscreen.  Drive slow, but not too slow. Sometimes we need to admit that there are some effects of natural disasters we can prevent.

Act as a region or have a plan for regional disaster preparedness

As we saw in Atlanta with #snowgridlock, and of course famously with Katrina in New Orleans, the powers-to-be were not even ready for what they saw. Yes, you may salt the roads. Yes, the weatherman on TV may move the eye of the storm further south. But that doesn’t excuse why you don’t have enough money for the right amount of disaster preparedness.  It doesn’t allow you to blame the municipality next door that you don’t like and claim as a blight on society. Anyone who wants and needs to go to a shelter should be able to. If people want to guard their homes or stay outside, let them (I just warned them about their safety). However, if you as a municipality have no real plan for the weather, then yes, you deserve the shame that you get. Side note to all the issues involved with no transit in Atlanta. Yes having more MARTA trains could have helped.  Still,  the night this was all happening, I saw two trains come into the Greensboro station and sit there for 30 minutes to an hour longer than they should have. Remember when half of Manhattan’s tunnels flooded during Hurricane Sandy? Transportation breaks down sometimes. Sometimes.

Don’t laugh at or perpetrate problematic stereotypes of people in trouble.

We love to use weather events that are abnormal to bring up stereotypes, right? The only exception would probably be with earthquakes and tornadoes. I was quite disturbed with the coverage of the Southern #snowgridlock that was making fun of people sleeping and staying wherever they could for upwards of 24-48 hours, which in some cases meant Whole Foods, Home Depot, The Waffle House  and at worse their car claiming that this is why we as Southerners were so backwards. So all the folks that get stranded at Logan and JFK during northern storms are funny too? Oh and don’t get me started on the “refugees” of New Orléans from Hurricane Katrina.

Keep the Home Depot or _______________(business/school/church) Open To Make Sure People Are Ok

There’s a reason schools are routinely used as disaster shelters when people know that something big and bad is coming. They have room for tons of cots, they have massive cafeterias, many have locker rooms with lots of showers. Hence why the kids that were stuck at them were better off than the rest of us. What I loved about what happened in the 2014 Atlanta and Birmingham situation is that I was that so many of these non-traditional shelters stayed open and did what they could to keep people entertained and fed and the like. Southern hospitality is the one stereotype I love and I love it because that’s community and placemaking at its highest point.

Don’t Share Information That’s Not True

If you don’t listen to anything I say on this post, please listen to this, be careful what you tweet or share on social networks, especially when it comes to a major storm system or something else that is happening in real time. Hence why I shared multiple views of the Atlanta storm and emphasized the ground coverage being done in Atlanta by news outlets and Instagrams and Twitters from actual residents of the cities that were affected. Also, make sure your information on relief efforts is coming from the right area nonprofit. All Red Crosses are not the same and able to do the same things. Also, tweeting something like the name of someone who died before the family can get the phone call is also insensitive.

Feel Guilty When You Can’t Keep Something Bad from Happening

Some of us chatting about the Atlanta storm response were reminded of 2005 in Raleigh. I thought I was going to take the campus Wolfline bus back to my dorm , but instead all the buses stopped running and Hillsborough Street was gridlocked, along with much of the Triangle. All that kept me from doing is getting a ride home versus walking like I normally do. Other people were stranded at schools and offices too. Yet, this time Raleigh closed school early, preventing any surprises as far as weather from affecting the students and parents throughout the county. Yet, the folks who get hit by freakish tornadoes and 100 year floods can’t always be ready for the worst. That’s ok, just do your best as individuals and as a community to be ready.

So this ends my PSA on disaster preparedness and coping. Hopefully this reminder will help us continue to grow stronger communities, especially when we and the weather are at our worst.

The Privilege of Urbanism, The Democracy of Placemaking

Privilege.

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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Statement of Support for the Renaissance Co-Op

This evening (May 7, 2013) the Greensboro City Council will vote on the future of their stake of ownership of the Bessemer shopping center and in turn, the Renaissance Co-Op. In case I do not get a chance to read this statement at tonight’s meeting. I am publishing it here.

Members of Council and Members of the Greater Greensboro Community, I am here to encourage council to retain this investment in the growth of our city. While some in this room may feel like we don’t need to have the city make these types of investments, I beg to differ.

All of you who sit on the dais are there because your care about your local community. You all want to support job creation, home ownership, and a strong local economy. You all want your individual neighborhoods to be stronger and capable of producing positive growth.

It is in this spirit that I encourage you to maintain your support of the Bessemer Center and your stake in the Renaissance Co-Op. This council would gladly put up funding for a major national corporation or retailer  to move into the city. However, have you all stopped to think about how that corporation started? That many of the grocery chains began as corner stores, corner stores that anchored and strengthened communities. Unlike some of these manufacturing operations that have come in in the last few years, there is always a demand for fresh food at affordable prices and manpower needed to staff these stores. There are also plenty of service organizations and community groups who are willing to train workers, which may also provide a cost savings of labor, that will not be detrimental to real wages of these people. That alone would lower our unemployment rate.

Need I remind you that this council has a growing history of supporting community projects and community entrepreneurs. This ownership will allow more citizens of Greater Greensboro to have an ownership stake in something that serves our community. All one has to do is turn on the TV or pull up the news online to see that the local food and local merchant movement is more than a passing fad.

That same Internet allows many products that would never have a shelf-life in the pre internet days to be million and billion selling enterprises. Granted, this co-op could have modest financial returns, but for many, the city’s stake in the process would allow people to get a taste of what it’s like to actually own something or create something.

Currently, there is a a lot of momentum around what Greensboro is doing to better itself, namely downtown. Yet, we cannot forget that the vast majority of our citizenry lives elsewhere. They too deserve the ability to walk or make a short drive to services right around the corner.

Lastly, to the community itself. I know it’s not Harris Teeter or something fancier. Yet, as I just told the council, we have to start somewhere. Food is food, as long as it is fresh, reasonably priced and healthy. With the city’s stake in this co-op, there are many of us who can afford to purchase a stake in something positive for this community, that we can have a hand in saying how workers are paid, food is priced and even how long it is open. As we have seen over the years, the larger retailers appear to have no concern for this at all.

So let’s just see how this goes. What harm is it in trying to run this co-op? After all, for 15 years that space has been vacant. Anything’s better than vacant right?

Reconciling Education Reform and New Urbanism

Schools may not be the urbanist anchors we want, but the community can serve as a school, as well as push for transit that connects other educational needs.

I once read an article in the News and Observer that illustrates the true effect of the modern neighborhood school. In this article, schools in wealthy neighborhoods had established private foundations, some that were able to pay teachers outside of state funding. This is on top of the money raised by their Parent Teacher Associations (PTA). However, schools in poorer neighborhoods were dependent completely on government funding.

Say what you will about who’s to blame for the poor education system, but it often comes down to economics. Equally troubling were the comments on the article. These comments bashed the idea of having a big all-district endowment instead of the per-school endowment. The assumption would be that each school would get equal dollars. I think this makes sense in the public school realm. Yet, this was slammed as socialism by many commentators on the post. One commenter offered to help other schools establish private foundations, but the sad part about him was that he was also anonymous. Still, parents who are buying into public schools, remember that they are public. Your money goes to the public good. If you really are concerned that bad about helping other students that you don’t like or know, consider taking your kids to private school.

A part of good urbanism is having amenities close by. This includes our schools. However, I believe our schools will be the last piece to join a compact, self-sustaining urban neighborhood. There are far too many curriculum choices, learning styles, parenting styles and age groups in fluctuation to allow for a successful neighborhood school network in line with urbanist principles. However, urbanism can embrace equal school access.

For cities like Raleigh that have a large enough urban and suburban base, I propose that we go to zone based schooling.  Zones would have several types of schools in one geographic area. No student would be bused out of this area unless demand far exceeded supply. A plan like this was proposed in Wake County. It was passed, but with far too many holes and disagreements and politics to work well.The main concern was that schools would re-segregate by racial and economic lines. They probably will, but that’s only a problem if the teachers and parents make it a problem. Kids bully, cheat, and fail tests all across the school income spectrum. I witnessed at the suburban high school I attended.  While these privileged kids from the suburbs were in high end classes and some did quite well, not as many did so well in college and so far there aren’t any who are doing above-average things that their high education would speak to. For the record, we do have aspiring lawyers doctors and young engineers. We’ve launched an Olympic athlete and a governor. Yet, just like any school, no matter the level, there’s not a 100% success rate.

Yet, what is success? People have different definitions. My own success came from a parent making me do well. In college I had professors and mentors that cared enough about my future to push me to the top. People are needed to help all students find resources they need and they don’t always cost money. They could be your neighbors. In a dense urban environment that’s economically stable, these neighbors also have careers and occupations that serve as educational outlets.

Ultimately, if we can’t get schools into the neighborhood fold, at least get mentors and teachers there. Find store and business owners who are willing to train students who aren’t too academic to  run tech based businesses or manage stores. Provide an adequate transportation network to and from schools that offer something the neighborhood school doesn’t. The neighborhood school should host other community events either free of charge or at a reasonable rate. Bring mentors in for students who are struggling, as well as for parents who may need help with continuing education and entrepreneurial training. Also, as we hold all parties (parents, teachers, students and the community) accountable for environmental issues, let’s push for educational excellence as well. Lastly, we must remember that success looks different, but we should strive for whatever it is for a particular person.

At this point, we can then start solving the urban schools problem and cross that off our list of urban renewal(the good kind) and suburban retrofit.

Mixed-Use Ain’t Always Pretty

Over the last couple of weeks I was made aware of the attempts by a community in Raleigh to determine once again, what they think looks right in a community. As far as I know, the accessory dwelling battle continues to happen in Raleigh and it’s cranked up again in DC. This latest situation is a bit different.

A woman wanted to take advantage of state funding for those who are willing to take care of developmentally disabled people. She built a staircase onto the exterior of her home in order to comply with state-mandated safety regulations for people who operate state-funded homes for disabled people.

Yet, her neighborhood association has slapped her with fines and demanded she tear down the staircase. All the usual arguments are there: property values, appearances, etc. Yet, to me, it speaks again to how housing and building codes, as well as incentives for a certain style of neighborhood, are pushing communities backward.

Communities are more than their buildings. If people can’t learn, make a living, raise a family, worship, or entertain themselves in a neighborhood, then there’s a problem. Even if one of the above is missing, one should still be able to have a link, that they don’t have to drive themselves or fill up with expensive fuel, to get there.

Furthermore, if we want to bring back the element of freedom to the American Dream, why are homeowners so worried about structural elements or even the appearance of more traffic or people than a house normally holds? Why do areas such as this one in Brooklyn get taken out by developers even though they are wildly successful? This is even more problematic in New York, as there are more connections to areas that have a different mix of retail. If urban planning at it’s core was began to deal with sanitation issues, then why has it evolved into or maintained elements that declare situations such as an abundance of working class occupations, housing, and businesses a nuisance? Let’s not even get started with the racial inequities built into what’s known as urban planning.

Yet, at the end of the day, we have to remember that mixed-use, which I’m going to define here simply as a community with multiple activities and types of activities, isn’t always pretty. The successful shopping district may not look like Michigan Avenue in Chicago. A home-based business may require an oddly placed staircase instead of an extra cell phone line. A granny pod in your backyard may be your only solution to age in place and next to your children and grandchildren.

Time is up for us to privilege looks over function. Especially if we expect everyone to buy into the “back to the city” placemaking movement and stop harassing those who don’t fit the mold of what neighborhoods should look like.

Image by Flickr user Shards of Blue.

Maintaining Good Places, My One Wish for 2013

Every year for the last two years, I’ve put up my wishes for the urban fabric. This year, my wish manifests in one word:

Maintain.

It’s nice to have brand new town center neighborhoods, but let’s not forget to maintain the old ones, especially those that were already town centers.

It’s nice to have brand new transit lines, but lets not forget to maintain the old buses and trains, so they won’t fall apart and stop coming on time.

It’s nice to have new civic centers, but let’s not forget to maintain the old recreation centers, that serve so many children and their parents who need a nice community place, for a reasonable cost.

It’s nice to have new markets, but let’s not forget to maintain the old ones, lest they start to sell moldy or old food, because they don’t believe they have the clientele or the money to support good food.

It’s nice to have new homes, but let’s not forget the old ones, the ones that are well made, with unique, authentic features. Also, let’s not forget those who live in these older homes, that may have paid off their homes and have lived honest lives. Let’s help them maintain their American Dream, especially if they’ve been there for 30 years, fought for this country, endured racism, sexism, classism and any other isms. Sometimes, gradual change is good enough.

It’s nice to have all these new things, but if people can’t maintain sanity, cordiality, neighborliness or a general positive sprit, then people have failed before they have even walked out of the door.

And with that, I hope to maintain this page more this year, to bring you more of my ideas and commentary. I hope to maintain a space where all community voices can come out and talk about what creates real community.

Kwanzaa’s Seven Principles and the Community

Millions of people are celebrating Kwanzaa this week. Founded by Maulana Karenga in 1966, the holiday started out as a cultural celebration for African-Americans and a replacement for what were thought to be non-African affirming holidays such as Christmas. However, over the years, the celebration has a evolved into a celebration of Pan-Africanism coupled with the other holidays celebrated in and around December. People all over the world and from all different backgrounds are celebrating Kwanzaa.

The holiday is observed over seven days from December 26 through January 1. Physically, people interact with symbols such as African and African-inspired clothing, corn to represent agricultural traditions, and lighting a kinara, a menorah-like candle figure that has seven candles, three red, three green and one black. They are lit each night to honor the Nguzo Saba, the seven principles of Kwanzaa. These principles are the heart of the celebration and considered the heart of what it means to be African or African-American according to Karenga.

It’s these principles that I want to highlight. I believe that these principles can go beyond the seven day celebration and become part of our daily community life, no matter the cultural tradition. In fact, Karenga has stated that these principles are part of a “communitarian African philosophy.” With evolutionary science in agreement that civilization as a whole began in Africa, we are all Africans anyway. In his 2012 statement on the holiday, he calls for continued examination of who we are as people and to fight for social justice for all.

The Nguzo Saba itself is as follows:

  • Umoja (Unity): To strive for and to maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
  • Kujichagulia (Self-Determination): To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves.
  • Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility): To build and maintain our community together and make our brothers’ and sisters’ problems our problems, and to solve them together.
  • Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics): To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses, and to profit from them together.
  • Nia (Purpose): To make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.
  • Kuumba (Creativity): To do always as much as we can, in the way we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it.
  • Imani (Faith): To believe with all our hearts in God, our people, our parents, our teachers, our leaders, and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

How would these principles connect to other urbanist creeds and general community goodwill?

First, Umoja speaks of keeping people together. Although race is arbitrary, the good traditions from different cultural groups should be celebrated and cultivated. Yet, a unity that is unjust should not be tolerated. The re-segregation of schools and continued segregation of neighborhoods by race and class are detrimental to a society that seeks to maintain growth and prosperity.

Kujichagulia speaks of branding oneself, instead of letting others define you. Some of the new city branding projects sound great, but fail to reach out to average community members and leaders of communities that have been excluded. The principle is better manifested when all community leaders and members come together to define themselves, instead of yielding all control to PR and marketing experts.

Ujmaa manifests itself in tactical urbanism, and other forms of grassroots planning and activism. I see this principle in the community gardens, community policing that builds instead of breaks trust, and in faith communities who continue to invest and include the communities they surround instead of walking away when many of their congregants do. I  also see this principle in the Occupy movement, especially around the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Ujamaa  in some respects equals Buy Local. It talks about local commerce, something that’s trended in many circles over the past few years. Yet, to me it speaks to the need to support good, just, honorable businesses.While this is easier said than done in a world of Walmart being the only affordable option in many households, we need to do what we can to force all businesses to do better to serve instead of sell to customers. I  also want to use this point to disparage the belief that there is no need for culturally-based stores. Some of the same people who would laugh at the black bookstore selling incense, gladly support the local, family owned sushi bar or Irish pub. Mind you, all these businesses could be donating money to schools and senior centers. They could employ youth who need something to do besides walk the streets and terrorize others. They could be paying workers a fair wage and also making good, strong products.

Nia is pretty self-explanatory. Everything has a purpose and everything should have a purpose. That purpose should not be self-serving. If I were to choose a planning/urbanist element to pair with this principle, it would be the community plans, maps, and the process of creating such. These documents serve as the basis of our efforts and help us remember our purpose in creating communities.

Kuumba goes beyond its basic principle. It honors the creative arts and the creative mind. It is here where the creative class principle makes sense. The creative class is not the whole of the community, but it is worthy of respect. Eventually, if creativity is not respected, there will be no innovation and adaptation to changing realities, from natural disasters, to obsoletance of technologies.

Finally, Imani goes beyond religious belief. Even if you don’t believe in God, you have to believe in the ability of your fellow man or woman to do whatever has been granted for them to do. Everything is not simultaneous, fast, or easy. In many communities, it’s been faith that has kept them from completely dissolving and giving up their culture and value to outside groups. Faith is what has kept inventors, builders, and other creators doing what their titles entail. Faith is the heart of all the above elements of community.

To close, we should not completely divorce Kwanzaa from its African culture or celebratory elements. Yet, we should honor the community building elements of Nguzo Saba as we continue in our quests for creating great places.

Image credit: Flickr user soulchristmas.

What If The City Doesn’t Want You Anymore?

A study of urban political systems is a study in the history of cities spitting out or sectioning off their least desirables, namely lower class and people of color of any class. First, it was the gentry of the streetcar era that found they could move further away from their servant class. Then it was housing covenants that kept out non-whites from post-war suburbs. The 1960s brought urban rewewal and slum clearance. Today, we have people who are underwater in shoddy built suburban houses because the city was such a bad place, we needed to get everyone out. Meanwhile, shiny new condos and apartments are filling cities. Sadly, or should I say ironically, some of these places are failing to sell units. A great primer on this history is the textbook City Politics: The Political Economy of Urban America by Dennis R. Judd and Todd Swanstrom.

One major example of failed “urban renewal,” which I was not familiar with until recently, is the World Trade Center complex. The area was a vibrant neighborhood until the Port Authority decided to start being a real estate developer instead of a promoter and operator of decent ports and commuter subways. City Journal has more details on how the taxpayers of New York are dealing with a potential white elephant, which now has not just one, but two tragic events attached to it.

Another example of modern urban renewal is the “entertainment district” that many downtowns have become, including my own. As a woman, I can do all of my shopping downtown, and there are a couple of affordable boutiques. Yet, men are out of luck. Outside of thrift stores, there are no suit shops for men. The restaurants have a new allure, yet, we don’t have shiny new stores downtown at all. I love the local consignment shops and the old theater that plays classic movies. Yet, what about the chain stores that fill our shopping malls and power centers that attract the mass majority of the population?

Once upon a time, downtown was the shopping mall. Department stores were locally owned and did not pay workers inhumane wages. Another concept that’s now foreign downtown is the supermarket. The farmers market we had was great, but it only operates in the summer. What am I supposed to do about fresh food during the winter months if I want to be true to my walkable, urbanist principles? What if I had no car because I was broke, but I was trying to live in a place where everything was close by? Downtown looks cute architecturally, but it far underperforms for the style of real estate it contains.

Those are the surface problems with cities pushing folks out. The real problems come when the suburbs they come into are suburbs in the truest since of the word. They were only subdivisions to begin with and there are no centralized services, shops, or even schools. People complain about parents not coming to schools in low-income areas. The suburbs make it worse by forcing these people to go even further to their schools, possibly via a non-existent bus. What does one make of the dead Kmarts and dead Borders that were so hot when the demographics of the neighborhood were different? Granted, Borders was part of an overstreched business model, but the one in the “inner-ring” suburb I grew up in, up the street from the dying mall, died first.

So hence why I fault those that want to willingly be part of a failing system that traps people. Many suburbs are truly towns and offer people services in walking distance, as well as concern for all it’s citizenry. Yet, too many suburbs are housing subdivisions with nothing to offer. With cities that practice covert forms of urban renewal and suburbs that don’t want to recognize their role as small cities or big towns, we are left with not only suburbs of self-hate, but hateful, hostile cites as well.

One last note before I close out this post. Posts like this and my previous post expose how different governments consider one place a town, a city, or a suburb. I see Greensboro as one big suburb with two to four walkable urban areas, some with all the necessary services such as Lindley Park and others without such as Downtown proper. In other states, a suburb may be an actual city such Alexandria, VA, but thanks to the media, overshadowed by it’s neighbor across the Potomac River.

Either way, there is no excuse for governments of any type to contribute to the demise or the migration of their citizenry. Putting a subdivision next to a landfill, selling out downtowns to one developer, and continuing to pursue loop roads that are known contributors to sprawl are not good. Governments, as well as residents, need to come to terms with being good citizens. Stop stealing, whether it’s your neighbor’s car or “prime land” that’s already a small-scale, but thriving community.

Photo of Downtown Greensboro by Flickr user dmattphotography.

Suburbs of Self-Hate?

I’m seeing lately that communities of color are buying into suburban ideals that are actually hurting rather than helping the community. This article in the Atlantic Cities talks about how this has happened in some Asian communities in California and I’ve seen it firsthand in the Black community here in North Carolina. (Latino readers, I’m not going to speak for you here since I have no evidence, but I don’t doubt it happening there too).

What disturbed me the most about that article is that people were leaving the city because of bad schools and crime. It makes me ask, attends these schools and who committs those crimes? If these are our neighbors, are we giving up on our own people? I know race is arbitrary, but culture is not, nor is neighborliness.

I do understand the embarrassment, real safety risks involved in staying in certain neighborhoods, especially as a member of non-white group or even as a white person who’s been unfairly targeted for ridicule or persecution. I understand the feeling of entitlement once one has come upon a better social class and standing to move somewhere where the class is well known and celebrated. I know that it speaks to victory over ones oppressors to move on sometimes.

Yet, when will we take responsibility for what’s in our neighborhoods and stop running away when problems start? Are we sometimes holding the very same attitude as our oppressors?

Suburbia, in many cases, was built for purposes of isolation. I do understand that folks like nature and that’s well and good. However, the proliferation of gated communities (for average, non-celebrity Americans), zoning restrictions that assume malefeasance out of its citizenry, and even charter schools are doing more hurt than harm.

We have to realize that we have to take the good with the bad. If the man on the corner calling out crazy stuff is physically harming you, then yes, please report him to the authorities. That kid that’s bullying your child may actually be the victim. We actually need to question our children more, especially when they claim they are not learning or being bullied. Are we sure THEY aren’t mistreating fellow classmates or cheating on tests? If the problem is inside the four walls of your home, moving to a different place will not change it. In fact, you may find youself to be the new nuisance in your new neighborhood

I also understand wanting a more rural setting. But if you want that, consider an actual rural setting. Or, be mindful of other ways you can be environmentally friendly, such as growing food in your yard, carpooling, or lobbying for better, more connected infrastructure in your new neighborhood.

Please folks, stop this whole running away to the suburbs because of the Other. Look hard in the mirror and make sure the Other isn’t yourself. Stop hating yourself. The time is up for racializing our neighborhoods and this kind of “grass is greener” thinking.

Photo credit: flickr user Derek Bridges.