Kansas City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I WILL ALWAYS CARE ABOUT ALL THOSE PLACES.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris Teeter=Every City I Lived in In North Carolina

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

Power Plant Live!= Power and Light in Kansas City

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

The MTA Metro Subway=The WMATA Metrorail Blue Line

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

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

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

The Rowhouse Blocks and the Turrets=D.C.

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

The Sprawl=Kansas City

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

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

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

The Hospitality= North Carolina

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

30% of the License Plates=North Carolina

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

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

Listen to the audio version of this post:

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

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

The Real Answer to Why I Moved, for the Second Time in 18 Months, to DC.

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People have been asking me why I moved. I’ve given them answers and sometimes they’ve not been as foolproof as I’d liked for them to be. And now a month out from the move, I feel like I can answer the question a bit better.

“But you can buy a cheaper house here. Food’s really expensive out there. You know, there’s racism everywhere. No, we didn’t call all the time and it may have seemed we weren’t there for you, but we were.”

I’d like to remind everyone that I’m from North Carolina. I heard all these things when I left for Kansas City and then some.

This is not to lay shade on any one factor of why I ultimately decided that Kansas City wasn’t going to be end game. In fact I’m going to start with a pretty easy one.

I can walk here. And when I walk, I find myself at a reasonable destination. And when I can’t walk, there’s a bus within 10 minutes and maybe even a bike too. It sometimes takes me 30 minutes to an hour to get somewhere across DC. It used to take the same to do so in KC.

What’s the difference? It’s been both necessary and fulfilling to have to propel myself. Granted, the weather here hasn’t been horrible, besides being wet, yet. But I now own real winter clothing, I can get through the winter just fine. I thought saying goodbye to my beloved Betsy (and yes I did love my car a lot), was going to be more shocking than it has been. In fact, even as folks consider getting cars with all the turmoil with Metrorail and suburbanizing jobs, the stress of calling an Uber after a missed bus pales to being faced with hundreds of dollars in fines and maintenance.

Secondly, DC, if we go with how the Great Migration went, is my natural second homeland. If I was going to leave for a greener pasture, this is the one that my ancestors had chosen over and over again, with the help of rail lines and even horse and buggy. Plus, if I need to travel in and out of DC, I don’t feel like I’m constantly making a mini Great Migration of my own. I constantly felt like I was living in two worlds and I needed to be cultivating both.

Speaking of those two worlds, it was really three. I’d already moved my heart to DC, long before I moved my body and my body was forever punishing me for being without its soul. It wasn’t as bad when I lived in North Carolina, because my body always knew its soul was only a 5.5 hour drive away (and yes only five and a half because I drive efficiently up I-95 or U.S. 29). And now that I’m in DC, and have both parts of my being connected, I feel less like I’m fighting.

And at the end of the day, a new cut of barbecue couldn’t make up for the absence of the community and my soul I was desperately seeking in the metro.

You guys know I’m all about full disclosure at this page. So I’m going to bring something up that the Kansas Citians don’t always like for folks to know about. That thing is the one-year freeze. I get it, if you only expect people to come and go. If a person starts showing signs early that they are plotting an exit, why engage?

If I had been honest to myself in the early days, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much that I didn’t make as deep of connections as I wanted to in Kansas City. Now as I said before, folks made it clear that if I was dying, they would know about it or they would make sure I didn’t die. But what about making sure I don’t cry? What about making sure I don’t have to beg and plead for what I need?

I’m going to pause the post for a minute to lighten the mood and  put in my musical interlude of my new D.C. centric Spotify playlist:

And if you want a nice movie to watch that shows non-political Washington and has a nice indie love story vibe and you’re an Amazon Prime member, check out Last Night.

I left town for the first time since I moved when I went to Roanoke for CityWorksXPO the other week. I cancelled the rest of my trip home to Greensboro, for two reasons. One, I don’t like driving in the rain. And two, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to go home on I-95.

Let’s take a moment and notice what I did there.

Now no shade to Greensboro. It taught me the sheer joy of popping out of the Dupont Circle metro and meeting Krispy Kreme’s hot light. I recognize that bit of Texas Pete-drenched breader in the Bojangles smell I smell faintly at the Union Station metro stop. When I carry my Harris Teeter reusable bag with the big N.C. State block S on it, even the Carolina fans stop and say hello. We then ask each other where we got our best Nats and D.C. United gear. One day we’ll get pro baseball and soccer in our home state, but until then, we can borrow DC’s.

And of course, had people before me not taken that migration up I-95, I wouldn’t know the joy of Busting Loose in the Chocolate City.

 

Speaking of Nats. Can I get the right Natty’s on a tap? We’re regional. And seriously Cookout and Biscuitville, it’s time, come on up the road. Lots of hungry Carolinian Washingtonians are waiting for you.

In the meantime, I’m off to the corner cafe with the croaker fish and that hot dog spot that carries slaw along with its chili, mambo sauce and those half-smoke things people keep telling me about, that in all my visiting, I’ve never had chance to eat. I’ll be riding there on Capital Bikeshare and I’ll be trusting Metrorail to get me home, as long as it still continues to run late in the evening.

I’ll still use Kansas City in my banner. You guys possess one of the coolest things in the world and that’s being in the center of it all. And the better streetcar. And a can-do spirit that rivals so many.  Plus, DC really doesn’t have a skyline and you guys do and I like dramatic illustrations of my love for all things urban and cities.

Plus,  I won’t be a stranger. But when I come back to visit, I’ll come back with my soul in tact.

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, www.kristenejeffers.com

On a Woman and Her Bikes

On a Woman and Her Bikes

Anyone who’s owned at least one bike, even if it was just a tri-cycle, has a story. As I’ve added to my fleet recently, here’s my story.

It was Christmas of 1988. I can’t spell out any other details, but there’s photographic evidence,  snapped by a parent of mine really being geeked out by my third Christmas. In the photo below, you can see it and you can also see in the foreground, the handlebars and basket of a lavender trike. I suspect my mom had a role in choosing the color, but it was dad making sure it was recorded for posterity. Oh and it was also his idea that I stuff myself into the empty Kid Sister box that you can just see in the corner.

 

Yet, this wasn’t even my first trike. I had this big hot wheel sucker, that I really don’t remember riding around very much outside the house. What you see here in this picture, of me riding in the living room, is pretty much what you get.

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By age 6, I was starting to get creative. I’d moved up to my first set of training wheels. However, not to leave my old trike behind, I decided to go out back and hitch the old gal up to my new bike. My motivations for this twine-fueled activity are dusty now, but it did make for another fun picture.

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The next Christmas brought me my next bike, this time, without training wheels. There’s photographic evidence of it in all its pink and green glory, next to a pile of other things, including roller skates (my other favorite wheeled activity).

Yet, that evidence did not make it to the digital cannon. I will note that this was the bike that started me riding regularly with my dad. I rode by myself in a nearby traffic circle, that was only occupied by elderly folks in city-sponsored senior housing and practically empty of cars. I rode with my dad up the mild Piedmonty hills and across stroady roads (when in doubt, ride into the turn lane, look both ways again, then cross the street) and through more calmer neighborhood streets to a few of my favorite playgrounds and a slightly longer route (maybe about 2-4 miles each way) to the home of a cousin).

By bike number 4, there were plans for us to make longer treks. It was a 15-speed junior mountain bike, which I begged my dad for. Not that I understood mountain biking as it is today. If I’d understood the concept of the commuter/hybrid bike, then this is what I would have asked for, because all I wanted to do was get over some of our bigger hills in town. If I could only take little me here to Kansas City and show her that nothing Greensboro offered in hills could compare to some of what’s available here. Then maybe I would have truly understood mountain biking. ;). I digress. There she is, just as I’m ready to say goodbye to her to move away from Greensboro to Kansas City.

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But wait, why was she your only bike from age 10–29? Well, the short story of that was that I lost interest in biking. Not because I hated the feeling of riding or thought the distances were too long, but after my parents separating and divorcing and moving to different houses, biking just didn’t feel the same. My dad had a handful of adult sized bikes at his house, and I would borrow them. Technically, I still have one of his old bikes, living in storage with a few of my other things in Greensboro.

The main reason biking didn’t feel the same was that I was getting teased a lot by my neighbors. I was already a somewhat nerdy and quiet child, and by my teen years that was amplified. And then on top of me not riding the bike, some meaner neighbors stole my bike out of our garage (which was open just enough to get inside and out). A nicer adult neighbor saw the thieves and helped me get it back, though. I knew one of the thieves casually from school and I’ve always speculated that it was a stunt for that person to get cool points, not that they actually didn’t like me.

Still college came and I was warned that taking a bike there might result in a theft and that I’d do better walking. And then younger adulthood came and I was too busy driving to and from work and other activities. Plus, I’d honestly outgrown the thing by this time.

Which prompted me to go to REI and get one of those nice, shiny new Novara women’s hybrids. However, it wasn’t really in the budget and it went into storage and then eventually back to the store. Yes, even after I’d driven to Raleigh, and made all the effort to test ride it, get the right size and secure it to the back of my car so it wouldn’t fall off at 65 miles an hour for the hour and a half back to Greensboro. I still dreamed of having one though, this is from last spring, dreaming of what I could get. Still not in the budget though and so it stayed at REI.

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I think a bit of this story was also driven by my desire to ride like I did at CNU 19 in Madison, WS. I’d had a Trek hybrid rental (I’m not sure of it’s specs, but it feels a lot like my newest acquisition, one of the women’s FXs) and I had no trouble zipping around town on all the different paths and boulevards and in the lanes. I locked it wrong and it still felt ok. I also got to try this newfangled thing called B-cycle, a kiosk rental service, where you could take bikes between the kiosks and then return them. We had free codes and they stopped giving them out to attendees after a while, because people wanted to keep them overnight. I had no idea that B-cycle would come back in my life in a big way in the future, but it did. Here’s a foreshadowing, testing out B-cycle in Greensboro in 2013 as part of my role in the bikeshare task force that Action Greensboro has convened off and on since 2013:

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And just a few weeks ago testing out bike loading on the KC Streetcar (image by David Johnson)

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Meanwhile, the purple mountain bike still collected dust in my mom’s garage. Its size didn’t stop my dad from attempting to ride it the day I moved to my downtown Greensboro apartment (and having some success on it, despite him being just a few inches taller and wider). After seeing that, I took it for one more spin. As you see here.

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But it was obvious the frame was too small and I’m sure the inner tubes were dead. Upon my migration to Kansas City, it left my mom’s garage and my life for good and went to Goodwill.

With me working for a bike advocacy group and my lifelong love for bikes, not having one wasn’t acceptable. I just wish I’d taken a bit of time before I bought Lulu.

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You know her. She looks great in pictures. Also, there’s something kind of cool about riding a pink bike. Yet, what’s not cool is that as a cruiser, she’s way too heavy. As a bike from Target, that’s not just because of all the extra components, it’s because those bikes are made of heavier metal, than the ones that come from Trek, REI and other companies that only make bikes and make them for racers, as well as casual riders. And with the hills and just the inability to push the bike long distances, Lulu really only went from my apartment to the office ( a flat, quarter-mile distance).

But I couldn’t be satisfied. Meet Lina, short for the Spanish language pronunciation of Carolina.

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She’s bright. She’s a 7.3 Trek FX. She will need some comfort modifications (namely fenders and panniers ), but right now, she and I have already been on a number of trips, including several that Lulu and I made, with a bit less success. And Lulu never went to the grounds of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, as seen above. She’s been a big hit so far and brought lots of joy to my bike-loving office and to me.

And there you have it. The story of a woman and her bikes.

I’m Kristen, by the way. I started writing this site to tell my story of being a black urbanist and a lover of all things place and community. Learn more about me. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Subscribe to my email list. Learn more about my work with BikeWalkKC , namely our Women Bike KC initiative to get more women on bikes confidently and safely.

 

 

Why Are Black Folks Moving?

Why Are Black Folks Moving?

Movement and migration is constantly on my mind. And whenever I hear someone claim to know where black people are moving to and why, my ears really perk up. Especially when they do what USA Today did recently and crunch some U.S. Census numbers and make the kind of maps they did in their recent story on what’s been called the reverse migration.

Some background. The Great Migration is the term given to the movement of 6 million African-Americans from southeastern cities to northeastern, midwestern and far western U.S.  cities from 1910 to 1970. The Wiki on is comprehensive and legit, especially for our purposes today of getting into why this movement is actually going into reverse.

More background. This panel I served on back in 2012 and this amazing book by Isabel Wilkerson called The Warmth of Other Suns. Wilkerson’s book, which we discuss in the panel, talks to people who actually did the moving and asks them why they moved and what they learned. For three unique people, each who left different corners of the Southeast and each went to the Northeast (Harlem, Manhattan); Midwest (South Side of Chicago); and California (Los Angeles), it gets into their backstories of several years of their lives in the South.

That included: educations and running in high society in the Atlanta black community, then a solo car trip that was much longer than it should have been due to racism; an abusive marriage and fleeing a sharecropping Mississippi experience via the train; and organizing fellow orange grove workers, then needing to flee from the fear of lynching via train. It also gets into their regrets, as their new spouses and children, as well as working conditions and homes often did not meet their dreams and expectations.

Wilkerson recently posted on her very informative Facebook page , that her subjects learned that you unfortunately can’t escape discrimination, outright racism and even bad family trauma, by moving to a different region of the U.S. She encouraged all her followers and their families to find the warmth of the sun in their backyard and combat those issues wherever they are.

Back to our panel. I,myself,  warned panelists that moving South doesn’t mean you escape the racism and discrimination that we as black folks often experience. It doesn’t guarantee a home, a good education and that police and other public service officials and fellow neighbors of other backgrounds will see you as human. And I also, having not made my move to Kansas City, was intrigued about why people would want to move back to a place that still had so many issues with how people are seen and treated.

Having now made that move, I now understand better. It really comes down to property, affordability and proximity to services, even if political and social power is not as realized.

Places Journal’s recent article on Memphis and how its black community was developed and treated is a really telling story of how cities can do right and wrong by its black community, such that certain communities develop better reputations for black success and leadership than others. It contrasts Memphis with Atlanta, where black people were encouraged to buy property and to become leaders.

Atlanta still has had issues with housing its poor black populations and there’s still the MARTA issue, but compared to Memphis, it looks like a global city. Whole swaths of Memphis were destroyed and white families continued to move further and further out of the city and the city continued to follow them with annexations.

Yet, at a certain point, much like here in Kansas City, communities annexed themselves and became autonomous suburbs. Recently some of those Memphis suburbs broke their school systems out of the very recently merged county-city system, claiming that they were being asked to fund schools they didn’t want to fund, which sadly is often coded language for racism. Some Charlotte parents are threatening to do the same in the Mecklenburg County system. Kansas City has an extremely high number of municipal school districts, religious schools, traditional independent schools and charter schools. Of course, Kansas City proper also covers three counties, which is another bit of inefficiency, that goes beyond this conversation of migration patterns.

Meanwhile, back in my home county of Guilford, in North Carolina,  all public school students, save the ones at the handful of charters and independent schools, go to school in the same municipal district. While there are calls for Title 1 schools, as schools with high percentages of disadvantaged schools are termed throughout the U.S., there aren’t whole, very small, municipal school districts of Title 1 schools. That wasn’t always the case in Guilford County, but since 1993, my second grade year, our district has been merged, and we are now boasting an 85% graduation rate and we now have Say Yes to Education, which will fill in funding gaps for all forms of public or private post-secondary education in the county.

Couple that consistency in school funding and curriculum county-wide with the ability to purchase 3 bedroom/2 bathroom basic starter homes in good condition for less than $200,000 and 4 bed/2.5 bathroom homes for less than $300,000, even in the good school “zones.” In addition, because our county and metro doesn’t sprawl out of control, no services or major national chain stores or restaurants are more than 20 minutes away from any home in the county. Actually, if you live in the Greensboro city limits or any city limits in the metro, you are no more than 15 minutes away from at least a Walmart. We also have seven colleges and universities, including two historically black ones and a very robust community college system.

In my youth, we still had the textile, tobacco and other mill jobs that paid more than average across the South. Office jobs were stable and before all metros began to have stagnant wages and high rents, anyone who had a regular job, even at a department store or as a restaurant manager or regular shift worker could afford a home of the sort I just listed above. Our housing projects were built for both races. Neighborhoods were mostly victims of white flight and not of extreme redlining and complete denial. And the neighborhoods left were still high quality housing stock, and builders cared about making sure that places were up to code. We have slumlords, but they still have a minimum housing standard that has to be met or the home will be seized by the city and torn down, with the bill as the responsibility of the property owner.

Similar situations exist in the Research Triangle region counties and in the North Carolina counties around Charlotte. Politically we’re considered a purple state. All three downtowns are vibrant, so there’s a dense option and a more suburban/rural option in all three cities. Those downtowns have at least a green/organic grocer, a slew or bars and restaurants, and an open space to gather.

All three are connected by 3, soon  5, daily roundtrips on Amtrak, which take just about 3.5 hours now and will take 2.5 when recent track work and expansion along the route is done. The drive between the three is about 3.5 hours now, so soon, there will be a time savings. Already, professors and such who live in Cary, just west of Raleigh ( one of the fastest and wealthiest areas of growth in the state period, not just with Black Americans looking to return to the south) and Carolina Panthers fans who live both there and Greensboro, take the train to their classes and games in Greensboro and Charlotte and points in between. In the meantime I-40 and I-85 are clean, well-lit and well-marked guideways to a trip that if you start in the middle at Greensboro only take you an hour and half tops each way. All three cities have airports and the Charlotte one is a major international and domestic hub, Raleigh can take you to Toronto, Paris and London, plus Atlanta and Washington, without headache. Greensboro has these nice seasonal flights direct to and from Denver and Detroit, which outside of me in KC, house the outer reaches of my black family who have done some form of the classic migration.

Granted, on the USA Today maps, the census shows a net loss of people to Greensboro. To Charlotte and Raleigh though, it’s as if they’ve become the New York and Chicago of today. Atlanta is the poster child for the return migration, and DC, which has always been a source of black migration and wealth generation, even when it’s center city was in decline, is still a magnet for black migration. And then there are the Texas cities, which also offer cheap property, high salaries and in some areas, strong school districts.

I’m often asked this post’s title as a question. It’s been four years since I sat on that panel. I got on that panel because I wanted to challenge cities and also families to consider the benefits of light density on their lives. I want people to have the choice of apartment vs. house with yard. I don’t want them in their cars for 20 minutes just to go to the grocery store or the bank. I don’t want them in their cars at all really, save to go on long road trips or to pick up things that can’t be delivered or to ride with their friend as a groups to fun activities.

And above all, I want them to live in a place that sees them as 100% human and capable of contributing to civic society. I want us to have our own things and have the freedom to come and go as we please. This is why we move. We move for freedom and peace.

NOTE: This piece is very focused on the migration of African-Americans who were slaves or are slave descendant. We also need to discuss and include African immigrants of recent times, a handful who are doing their own return migration to countries that are much more stable and even competitive with some cities in the U.S. as far as housing, jobs and civic power. Also, I don’t see the data properly covering millennial movement, except of those who moved back South to attend colleges, namely historically black serving colleges. Also, the maps U.S. Today created don’t use Census data from the last five years. Oh and KC does have high outmigration. But you can call me an outlier. Sometimes, even “bad” cities can be beacons of opportunity.

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.

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Three Lessons I Learned About Place in 2015

Three Lessons I Learned About Place in 2015

I learned a lot about place this year. Yet, those many lessons coalesced into these three big lessons: a progressive, inclusive, tactical charrette process, people over money and the need to legally live in more than one place, to help you guys out there learn more about your own towns and cities. Let’s dig into those lessons.

You Can Have a Progressive, Inclusive, Tactical Charrette Process

I was invited to come to Chattanooga back in April to participate in the Next Big Thing, a design charrette centered on the Glass Street area of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Having grown up and really come up politically in Greensboro, cities like Chattanooga and Greenville, SC are aspirational places to the governments and stakeholders of other smaller cities like Greensboro. In fact, a delegation of Greensboro folks was in town doing a comparison shopping tour, while I was there working on a lesser-loved area of town.

Despite its status as lesser loved and its lack of waterfront view and mountain height, the Glass Street area doesn’t lack for good people and good infrastructure. The group that brought us all together, The Glass House Collective, is embedded and dedicated to the betterment of this community.

On the surface, the Glass Street area seems like your typical predominately black community, that as a result of redlining and legal integration, has a double whammy of having good housing stock, but not being a place that even Blacks of means want to invest in. Well, besides liquor stores, clubs, and various houses of worship, that, unfortunately, don’t work together and have even been the sites of murders and thefts.

Yet, there was this diner, The Glass Street Breakfast and Lunch House, on the corner of Glass and Dodson, across the street from the building where we set up shop. The woman who owns it wasn’t on my team, but I could see and feel her energy and excitement throughout the process. All of our teams had community members, mostly Black property owners and other stakeholders local to the area. What was also key, was that there were a number of other Black American planners and group facilitators. There were white Chattanoogans from the other sides of town, who wanted to see a sustainable development (more on this dynamic later in the post). Yet, it was seeing this Black woman, believe in the power of her building, which outside of the fresh paint job, with the mural of the yummy-looking bowl of something on the outside, was nothing more than an old gas station, which in another context could look like a shack, that inspired me myself to look into the power of taking buildings and spaces, no matter their shape, and infuse value into them.

Even if her venture ultimately fails (as more ventures do, despite the race and energy level of their owners), it’s the intent, the ability to try. Oh and I hear her food was awesome. I was, unfortunately, battling the need to drive back down I-75 to make my flight and return my rental car at the Atlanta airport because flying into Chattanooga’s airport was nothing short of impractical, so I couldn’t try her food out. (Another problem for another day, like the need for someone to help her out with a website).

More on people-power later, on the big scale. At the root of this lesson is that you can have energy in the room and people, especially the people of color and low-wealth that may be in your charrette room, are just as powerful and can add just as much to your charrette process, as you. Even if you have a foot in both the elite, mostly white and wealthy, architecture, planning and development world and another in the mostly black neighborhoods, labeled as slums and ghettos even if there were at one point rich cultural assets, you can be valued and you can be heard in the charrette room. Charrettes, public workshops and other community listening processes have to have this going forward and they have to have a means of action.

In the meantime, I needed to not just see places, but immerse myself in places for longer than just a week…

You Can’t Really Be a Global, or Even Just a National Urbanist, If You’ve Only Lived in One State

Ultimately, I can come into a city and tell people what to do 365 days a year. I could do it on this blog 24 hours a day. It, however, doesn’t compare to actually being a resident and investing in two metro areas, if not three, simultaneously.

This is the first year that I’ve ever lived in two cities. Even when I was younger and going back and forth between the Piedmont Triad and the Research Triangle (they are different, if you click on their names you’ll know why they are different), I was still in the same state. I could get most of the same food (although Biscuitville is a uniquely Greensboro thing and Bojangles only hands out free sweet tea at their Triangle-area locations). I knew the names of the local politicos. I knew my sales tax rate. My license plates were the same (and there was only need for one of them). School districts tend to cover counties, not just a pod of a couple of elementary schools that feed into one middle and high school. Cities tend to only extend to county lines and if they do jump a line, it’s only a few blocks or a few neighborhoods.

Kansas City takes up pieces of four different counties. That’s just on the Missouri side. On the Kansas side, what we refer to as KCK, is also the entirety, save a place called Bonner Springs, of the county of Wyandotte. And then there’s everything wrapped up in Johnson County and the areas around the University of Kansas and the military operations. Having been East Coast-centered my whole life, I only knew of DC’s interesting position of being a bi-state metro area. Likewise with the New York City region. Charlotte’s also rapidly becoming as much a South Carolina major metro, much like Western Kansas propels that state’s entire economy.

To me, being a bi-state, bi-county area isn’t so bad, if you have a completely connected public transit system, so everyone has equal access to jobs. Likewise, when your school curriculums and calendars and resources are in sync. When you have the same tax rates and the same mix of national stores. Your local institutions are empowered and service the area equally. I have yet to see that in many regions and I feel like the communities I know and love back east do this better than the KC metro. It’s one thing to have a frontier/pioneer spirit. It’s another to have it so bad that you can’t be interdependent, much like the folks who were native to the land you built on.

Having lived in a totally different region, I feel like I have more fodder for writing this blog and my planning and development practice than ever before. I can properly compare the effects of how public policy, especially housing, tax and education policy, shape a city’s development. It’s deeper than those city trips where they show you all the pretty things. I was doing a radio pre-show interview and the producers asked me to describe Kansas City for a person hopping off at the airport and going to the convention hall. I think we can all do that, even if our only relationship to a city is going to its airport and convention hall. (Bonus aside, read my case for a new Kansas City Airport). But you have to go deeper than that if you are like me and you are involved in the development and maintenance of your city.

I also re-introduced and fortified the concept this year of the American Expat. Before, it was something I knew about in abstraction, having had several aunts and uncles who’d moved away for work and only came home at major holidays. There are parts of both metros that they love and embrace, so much so that I think my aunt may never move back to North Carolina.

For me, I’m still in the city audition process. Ultimately, I know that wherever I choose to plant my home base, it will have 75% of the values and things I recommend out of the gate. Or, it will have a solid group of people, committed to sustaining it and making it better. I will always come back to North Carolina and rejuvenate, due to this being my homeland and that of so many people I love and who helped me grow in my formative years.  Speaking of the content and concept of people sustaining a place, though…

Money is Magic, People are Sustaining

If we had millions of dollars, everything we want to happen on Glass Street (and your street) could happen tomorrow. However, a lot of the things that were proposed for Glass Street, like the street and sidewalk improvements, as well as the façade improvements and the addition of more than just tax preparers, liquor stores and some solid restaurants, require PEOPLE to patronize the store and bring the money to them.

The Glass Street area was labeled as a food desert, due to the loss of a grocery store, ironically right behind the Glass Street Breakfast and Lunch House. In my group in Chattanooga, I introduced the idea of a co-op grocery, something that’s happening twice in Greensboro, in two very different contexts. Many people are  familiar with our downtown natural food co-op market and deli/bakery, as a natural extension of a community supported agriculture delivery membership and provider of a downtown option, which is still not where developers want it to be to do a traditional supermarket concept. You may also be familiar with our other co-op, founded due to the lack of a major supermarket company, wanting to locate where it had no problems operating 30 years ago, a mostly Black, middle-class community. With some financial help from a local Black church and our city and the usual major foundation nonprofits with mostly white leadership, that community has funded a supermarket that will look more like Harris Teeter or at the very least, restore some of the character that the Winn-Dixie left.

While they are still waiting on the magic of money to come through, they are a determined group of people, a lesson that as we also honor the Kwanzaa week, is relevant in placemaking and all year.

Right now, city leaders and stakeholders are waiting on money to turn a once vibrant, but now vacant lot into our next Broadway-caliber performing arts center. Much money was pledged for this effort and they’ve unfortunately come up short. In turn, they are calling on people and their money, to help get this spot to the end. In the meantime, there were lots of people doing business on this big lot. There were a gas station and hospital and hotel here once upon a time. Then, just before demolition, there was a jazz club and doctors offices and hair salons and the chamber of commerce. I feel those things could have remained on that lot until the last dollar needed was in hand and then the demolition could start and within just a few short months, the new arts building would appear. (Edit on 12/31/15: The chamber is in fact still standing. But just barely. The building almost has no parking lot. Again, an institution that helps us to be capitalist can stand, but some aspects of capital can’t stand and we still don’t have the art we were promised. Hopefully, the money will be raised, but until then, I use caution in talking about this particular project as an economic driver and a value-add to Downtown Greensboro).

This gets me to a major lesson I want us all to learn this year and in coming years, to get back to a simple economy, where we can start paying things in full. Granted, the credit economy is what allowed us to grow as even things we take for granted, such as our rail system and certain shopping malls needed mortgages and loans to get started. Yet, what if even back then, people valued things at whatever could be given at the time? What if we made all houses less than $5,000? There could be variation in the market, but the idea is that things like houses, modes of transportation and education have a basic cost, that is keeping in mind that people need these things to get started as adults. Then, over time, other things could be valued more. While I don’t think we need to eliminate capitalism or financing systems like loans and mortgages, I think we need to become more people-centered with how we spend and loan money and less about creating magic tricks with our money.
Next week, we are in 2016 and I’ll be dropping my wishes for the year and evaluating how some of my 2015 wishes did. Let me know what some of your placemaking lessons were on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn on my pages or at least, share this article with your own commentary on those social networks. Keep up with me on a regular basis through my Tuesday emails.

What Should Cities Give Us?

What Should Cities Give Us?

What should cities give us? Safety? Diversity? A place to live? A place to work? Places to eat? Places to learn?

This is the time of year where across the world, we turn our attention to gifts and what we can give people and what we have been given.

While this week marked the beginning of the church year and the season of giving that many Christian churches mark as Advent, representing the gift of the Christ-child, a more secular beginning also happened this weekend, as this weekend’s trifecta of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday marked the beginning of the major buying season. While the origins of why the days after Thanksgiving (plus now Giving Tuesday, which is today) have become THE ABSOLUTE DAYS YOU MUST SHOP AND GIVE OR ELSE are a bit muddy, the ideas of giving and getting are as old as time.

Since this is a city blog (and since I thanked cities last week in honor of the United States celebration of Thanksgiving), I wanted to take the time and mention three things this week that cities should give us, if they want us to think of themselves as cities.

Basic Needs

If you are calling yourself a city or town, legally or for the sake of a marketing brochure and you don’t have a health clinic, a school or system of schools or even just a library that can educate people from 0-100, a place where people can either sell their wares and make a living or make wares for someone else and get a paycheck, then you aren’t a city. Also, I’d add that you need a variety of housing at different sizes and price points. You may be a  community without these things, maybe even a village, but not a city.

Most of the major cities we think about are nation-states, even in a country like the US that also grants a federal and state layer of governance on top of their cities. In regions like the one I currently reside in (and our Nations’s Capital), the city and its suburbs cross multiple state and county lines, yet function together as a symbiotic whole.

Yet, some of these legal cities and towns are just neighborhoods with a civic building or some other bare minimum standard of being a legal entity capable of taxing or not taxing people. Let’s not even start with how many of these places have created school districts, police and fire departments and still legal means of housing discrimination such as only selling homes in a certain price range, to try to control their populations.

While I don’t like what you are doing if that’s the kind of municipality you are, I’ll give you a pass if you stop calling yourself a city. If you want to be a city, open yourself up to providing the basics, plus diversity, which I’ll explain in the next section.

Diversity

While there are plenty of homogenous neighborhoods, especially in countries like the US, Canada, France and Australia that have grown into cities by adding those basic needs I just mentioned above, I think some neighborhoods still lack the capacity to be a city.

A city allows people to come into it with whatever they have and contribute that service or product. Again, it provides the basic needs, so that a person can then contribute their unique contribution. For example, a cupcake baker sets up shop. They know that their kids, if they have them, can go to school. They themselves can get some extra educational help because some sort of adult learning experience exists, even if it’s just a public library or a culinary school.

A city is also not afraid of the variety of people it has. Actual, known criminals are dealt with, in a way that doesn’t strip them of their humanity, but helps them get back to life after learning some lessons. There are housing types at every size and price level. The difference in housing comes in basic, safe, bare minimum functions and high-end, luxury finishes. Far too many developers and cities are trying to build luxury-only and they wonder why we have a housing crisis. Same with groceries, hair salons and sadly hospitals, clinics and schools. Paying extra should be an enrichment and entertainment experience, not a do-or-die thing.

One would say that schools are winning at diversity, at least when you look at a metro area. However, that diversity diminishes when you have different school districts, with different tax rates, yet in a close geographic area. I believe that school systems that incorporate a singular taxing entity and operate on a county level or in partnership with more than one county, especially if the city extends into said county, do better.

Having one pot of money, plus one centralized superintendent, with regional superintendents, lifts up the value of the entire district. Instead of writing off schools in poorer neighborhoods, the school system is seen as a common good and outside of PTA money and other grants that go to schools on a more individual basis, the district as a whole invests the same amount of money and the same level of basic resources such as buildings and textbooks into the system as a whole. But I could digress here. Schools have their own thing going on and I’m planning on writing more about them at a future date. Let’s move on the final city need, mobility.

Mobility

If your citizens can’t navigate on two feet (or in a motorized wheelchair) safely, you’ve failed the first test of city mobility. The second test is if your citizens can cycle safely, on more than residential streets. The third test is if the transportation you provide, connects all major regions and neighborhoods, in a timely manner, for able-bodied people, not just for folks to who you are mandated to provide curb-side service.

Many cities are failing at the mobility piece. It’s part of why I’m in the line of work I’m in, to push the needle forward in having adequate ways to get around.

Plus, on a romantic level, so many cities are associated with their transit and transportation systems. These entities are often stand alone characters in the books and shows and movies that highlight a particular city. One example that comes to the top of my head is the movie Coming to America and how the subway seemed to shut the door on a romance. Getting out of the movies, I’ve heard many stories of people who don’t date people who live on a certain train line because it takes time to get to that part of New York. Yet, at least they can take the train. Think of how many people consider long-distance relationships the inability to drive an hour or two. Think of folks like me who regularly meet a significant other at the other end of a cross-country flight or train ride.

Think of not having anything but the open highway to get us where we need to go. Yet, everybody can’t drive. Every trip, especially those “glass-of-milk-on-the-corner” trips should not be a car trip. Some cities are even seeing property values rise when they put in things like streetcars. Yet, transportation entities should lift all boats, not just the ones in the special district where the cars will run.

But what about governance?

You may notice governance is missing in what cities should give, at least in the bullet points above. Here’s the thing, it doesn’t take much to be governed. Even if you claim to be stateless and off the grid, some entity, even if it’s just the federal government, will eventually show up at your yurt and tell you these are the rules you have to follow. Essentially you don’t have to live in a city to be a citizen.

Yet, if an entity wants to incorporate itself, and tax its residents above and beyond what federal and states are doing, then this is what my tax dollars should go to ensuring. Also, if tax dollars are going to some businesses, there should be a central entity, much like the school board governs schools and the city council handles basic city workings like fire, police and water, maybe power and telecommunications, that governs how much and when any company can ask for tax abatements or unrestricted grant money from the city.

I believe that so many lawsuits and a major cause of political debate and contention could be eliminated if we didn’t give out tax incentives based on what we perceive would be a major investment. Instead, we could support our own companies, so they can make a decent living at places like the City Market shown above.

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So that’s what I think cities should give us. I’d be remiss during this season of giving (and wishes) if I didn’t mention the gifts I have for you. A year ago today, I published my first print volume of essays and blogs A Black Urbanist: Essays Vol. 1. Yet I’ve felt like I need to print more, not just of that book, but more of my writings in general. While I’m still working a major full-length volume, in the meantime, I’m launching The Black Urbanist Monthly. For $25 a month, starting in January of 2016 you’ll get a print magazine edition of the blog, with both stories and images that you can take offline and share with your colleagues. The first five people to sign up will get a free, signed copy of A Black Urbanist: Essays Vol. 1.  Also, your subscription will help me continue to grow my writing, podcasting and in-person speaking and training opportunities. Learn more and sign up here.

The Life and Death of City Cool

The Life and Death of City Cool

Should we even worry about residential gentrification, when in a few years, the very people who make certain blocks hot, don’t even care about those blocks anymore? Is that something that only those of means and of the right color have to worry about? Do people rebuild the cultures that die in new places or do they just hang up their guitars and stop singing along to songs?

As I prepare to spend the holidays back in Greensboro, I want to think about what that means. At the beginning of November, it started to dawn on me that only had a few more weeks to endure Kansas City, at least for 2015.

In the midst of that thought, the Royals won the World Series. People started running through the streets (ok, about a handful of drunk guys jogged down my sidewalk) and the mood that had already been heightened by buildings turning blue at night, became even more electric.

I got a chance to express how I felt about Kansas City and some of the other issues I encountered here on the local NPR last week. On the other hand, I’d written a few months ago  about how I was happy to be here in Kansas City.

Even he knows when to hit the road. Image by Flickr user Caren Pilgrim

Even he knows when to hit the road. Image by Flickr user Caren Pilgrim

I can relate to the fickleness of a city being cool.

Especially after Allen Johnson, the head of the editorial page over at the Greensboro News and Record (who so graciously allowed me to write this about a time when I felt like Greensboro was dying and needed to come back to life), wrote his own reflection about what it used to mean to go Uptown.

That brought back my parents’ relayed memories of what it meant when Greensboro was Uptown and all the major department and other stores thrived there. Both Johnson and my parents echoed that there were still some remnants of people not being treated well or served well, but the atmosphere was festive. All three mention a shift in activity, when it happened and how they lived through the transformation.

My own memories of the fun of going through abandoned storefronts, seeing eveyrone in the city on various festival days as a child, teen and young adult and finally, living in downtown and all the happy moments that came from it, along with the trying times of feeling like others didn’t want me around or my income bracket didn’t really belong there.

Then I read this note, from a writer in the New York Times, who reminds us that cool is subjective, even if we don’t always like to admit it. This paragraph stuck out so much to me, I had to think about it even stronger.

I can sympathize. But I think there’s more to these “the city is dead now” complaints than money. People have pronounced St. Marks Place dead many times over the past centuries — when it became poor, and then again when it became rich, and then again when it returned to being poor, and so on. My theory is that the neighborhood hasn’t stopped being cool because it’s too expensive now; it stops being cool for each generation the second we stop feeling cool there. Any claim to objectivity is clouded by one’s former glory.

She goes on to admonish someone who claims that people don’t brunch anymore, by telling her in so many words that she only hates brunch because brunch doesn’t work for her anymore. Not that it’s not making money for businesses and defining New York City for other people in a positive way.

I will say, her piece has a degree of privilege baked in. It assumes that people find a new place to live and they re-sew all those cool things that used to be somewhere else. It assumes that the government or a landlord didn’t want you out. (Speaking of which, ProPublica wants to know about you New Yorkers with unfair rents).

However, when it comes to certain areas, areas like New York that still continue to attract tourists, propel businesses and even house people, I wonder if some of our concerns, the ones not attached to pure gentrification, are valid.

I only got to eat here once in DC and it was excellent. It's gone now. Does that make DC less cool? Won't somebody step up in a city that has that kind of wealth and create something new and similar and better?

I only ate here once in DC and it was excellent. It’s gone now. Does that make DC less cool? Won’t somebody step up in a city that has that kind of wealth and create something new and similar and better?

As much as we like certain restaurants, no matter where they are, many close down. We outgrow certain activities because we are no longer of a certain size or age. Some of those cool activities were destructive and moving away from them makes sense.

Again, as I’ve said before, subjective measures like this do not excuse city governments from providing basic services like transit, trash collection, medical, fire and even policing. City coolness is at the top of the Mazlow hierarchy, primarily because those other things I just mentioned are at the bottom.

But if you are at the top of the hierarchy and complaining about something not feeling right. By all means, do, as I encouraged you in this previous post. Do remember though, that “cool” is very subjective and it’s one of many valid feelings one can have about a space.

Only time will tell if your block, your city routine, where you need to live, will stand the test of your time.

On Mobility and American Expats in America

On Mobility and American Expats in America

I believe that a city lives or dies by how much people can move in and out. About four years ago, I reflected on the idea of being an American Expat in America. That idea is that despite the fact I was no longer an active member of my hometown or any town, I could still move somewhere else, become just as active, make a difference with my diversity of opinion and actions and promote my hometown and the awesome things it has and of course, do this in another one of the 49 states of America or a different city or even just down the street. Aaron Renn of the Urbanophile inspired this idea and I think it’s still very valid today. I even wrote home about it, for the Triad City Beat a couple of months back.

And as I sit back and reflect on five years of being an urban planning and development blogger, I want to talk about the keys to being a great American Expat. Then, at the end of this post, a moment on what it feels like to finally be a true American Expat, much like I predicted I could be back in 2011.

So what does it take to be a good American Expat in America?

Openness

Your new home, even if it’s right down the street, is going to be different from your old home. As you change even more of your surroundings, that fact will become boldfaced, underlined and even be struck through because something you thought would work for you, may not work for you after all. But that’s ok. I’m learning that it’s key to keep going to different meetings, gatherings, restaurants, grocery stores, libraries, Targets and such until you find the ones that allow you to create a routine. You also need to be ok with not going to certain things if they no longer work.

Another key adjustment is that the food and climate and even the time zone may be entirely different. You have an accent (or not). Your car may need a front plate and a back plate. You may find yourself walking more or less, driving more or less, riding transit more or less. You may have the company of people, lots of new vibrant people. You might be at home with a library book from your very robust new public library.

Either way, you need to be open to different experiences and also have a coping mechanism for when things get weird, hurtful, sad or some other form of negative. And then gratitude, but we’ll get to that later.

Finding Local Things You Can Support

 

Yes, I’m a Royals fan now. Who doesn’t like a winner? Ok, at the time of this writing they aren’t, but they have been and could still be! I think burnt ends from Joe’s Kansas City, along with their regular ribs are delectable. Yet, according to my mom, the line procedure there is not that much different from the NC State Fair’s lines for places to sit and consume fair food, next to the actual vendors.

You see what I did there, I managed to find something local I could pull behind, but I was able to tie it into something from back home. Then, I can go back to whining about the lack of Calabash seafood, namely Calabash seafood fried in House-Autry seafood breader. Or Biscuitville. Or I could drive 30 minutes to the Krispy Kreme on Shawnee Mission Parkway, and instead of eating the half-baked original glazed that’s apparently the modus operandi of the non-North Carolinian KK’s and eat that new seasonal salted caramel doughnut instead.

Seriously, folks need to go crazy over salted caramel and not pumpkin spice. And that sentence alone reminds us that while we are different, there are things that are the same and new things we can eat, see, root for and enjoy.

Savings and Travel Hack Savvy

You need to be a member of every travel club possible. You need to be a member of every shopping coupon site possible. You need to meal plan for the nights you don’t go out to eat. Mend your clothes. Do something on the side. Unless you are already one of those people who has a second full residence in your new town of origin or a division of your company in more than one place or you are location-independent, then all these things are vital.

Actually, they are always vital, in that’s how many people become successful expats and travelers and business people. I read somewhere that millionaires have an average of seven pockets of income.

Sometimes one of those pockets is penny-saving stuff like couponing apps and travel rewards. Seriously, the Marriott Rewards is how many a family vacation happened in my youth and also what helped me stay connected via wi-fi during my recent move. I’m racking up Southwest points and I’m using my knowledge of their routes and how trains work (and my friends and boyfriend who are geniuses at this), to learn how, when and where to travel to save the most money.

Also, not just how I travel, but also being at peace with what’s in your suitcase and what makes it to the moving truck. You cannot bring everything with you. You should not bring everything with you. You’ll bring things back, get new things, better things.

Gratitude

And finally, for the tips section, I say be thankful. There are so many research studies that state the benefits of having the ability to move wherever you need to for economic, health, spiritual and educational reasons. But if you’ve ever done it, you know that now your brain and mind is stretched because you’ve experienced life in another metro. So many people want to be you, but never get the chance. Some folks don’t even get vacations.

Historically, the Great Migration of African-Americans, along with the migrations of many other ethnic and cultural groups to and from this country, has created freedom, enhanced creativity, cultivated wealth and strengthened our ability to be diverse. No, the process isn’t perfect. But I do find that people who are thankful for the opportunity to move around, for new kinds of neighbors, for new experiences, make this country stronger and wiser.

And now, a more personal reflection.

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So that moment happened. When I, who’d been in bed alone, but with my new stuffed toy Southwest Airlines plane beside me for the third night in a row, had that nightmare. The nightmare where you wake up and you miss your flight, even though you’d made sure you Passbooked (or I guess it’s just simply Wallet now on the iPhone) your boarding pass and you went to bed early and all your stuff was packed the night before.

You get to the airport and you find that it’s an incomprehensible maze, made even worse by the fact that you are not carrying your nice purple carry-on, rolling suitcase, but a black purse you picked up because you forgot your tiny black backpack, and your real backpack and they are all heavy. And of course, since this is a dream, you try to move forward and you end up partially waking yourself up, especially when you realize that you’re really floating through your dream and not actually walking. But then you feel weighted down.

You wake up after this dream and you’re really sad. Your fridge is still making that noise that sounds like a jack hammer that you told maintenance to fix and they even showed up to fix, but isn’t really fixed.

You get on Zillow, just like you were the night before, scouting out houses in all different metros, including the one to which you just moved. You remember that conversation with that colleague where you were both reminiscing about various things you did when you lived in or visited that other city and how your current city just doesn’t fit the bill today.

But then it’s later that Sunday afternoon and you are sitting in a branch library, against a wall of windows, over a part of town that mimics parts of California or Florida (take your pick of inspired Spanish mission architecture, mixed up with buildings of all kinds of modern vintage and even a canal with a Venice-style boat cruise that passes through at least a couple of times).

You realize that in that spot, you’re honestly ten minutes from everything you have come to do in your new town, in all directions. You’re walkable to things to which are actually fun to walk. You can hop on the bus and be up the hill with your bike, which will pedal you to your workplace in no time. Or, if it’s a day you don’t really need to come into the office, you can just fire up your laptop and knock out your InDesign flyers and social media postings there, at a home not too far from that wall of windows and that branch library.

You realize that even though it’s not the city you dreamed you’d be living in for the past ten-twelve years, it’s still a different place, with different lessons and a different perspective. It helps you to see even more of the world than what you saw before. And who knows, you might be in another city, maybe that dream city, in a few more years. But for now, you are happy here. You are an American Expat in America and you are ok.

Join me at my Facebook page, on Twitter, on Instagram and on Periscope Wednesday, October 21 at 7 p.m. Central Time (That’s 8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific) for a live conversation around mobility and being an American Expat in America.