mental health

On The Constant State of Motion Through Imperfect Cities

Via Wikimedia Commons

There’s no perfect city. We also can’t expect people to fix cities and not bear the brunt of what it means to be the only person in a city who seems to have all the answers.

And I am not that savior. I love helping you fix them, but I can’t do this all alone.

Aaron Renn and I may not see eye to eye on everything, even with urbanism, but we always seem to come back to the same place when it comes to needing to move to find the right place.

In Governing recently, he asked cities to again reconsider making everyone fit into it and being upset when people, namely people who are seen as promising leaders, movers and shakers, leave. I wanted to drop these two paragraphs in because they really spoke to me:

I travel around to cities across the country and always come into contact with highly talented and motivated people. But there is often a huge divide between those who get traction and find success in a particular place and those who do not. I’ve been puzzled as to why some people who seem to be skilled and sharp are frustrated in these places while others seem to be thriving. Many of the frustrated people leave and find great success elsewhere. This is then cited as evidence of “brain drain.”

The truth is, sometimes there just isn’t a cultural fit between a person and a city. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with either of them, just that they have incompatible styles. It’s the same as with companies, where a great person might not succeed at a great company simply because there’s not a cultural fit.

First of all, Aaron, thank you for reminding cities that one they have and two, they need to kill their inferiority complex.

Secondly, sometimes you need that reminder that you’re not doing anything wrong.

As much as I know I shouldn’t be seeking approval in others and that it’s a nice side effect over the years that this blog and my later ventures have garnered attention, I still struggle.

I’ve been solving my own city living/occupation-making/relationship-building puzzle for years.

This puzzlement, this feeling of being wrong, and the greater struggle, some of which I wrote about trying to overcome earlier this year, has kept me from being my best self. However, I’d like to first speak to the roots of my discomfort, the simple of act of having to move from home to home over the years.

A Life of Movement

Moving has always been a traumatic experience for me. For the first nine years of my life, I was fortunate that I was able to live with both parents in the same house with my own room and a big backyard that several of the neighborhood kids and grandkids could come and play in. This was 1940s-era suburbia in Greensboro, so imagine a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom ranch with a picture window in the living room a sizable eat-in-kitchen and a generous front porch with curly awning.  Also, because this is the south, we’ve been inside of the principal city for years, almost since the time the neighborhood was built.

I had a nice swing set, trees, a sandbox and enough room for pick up softball and other major playground games like hide-and-go seek.

However, my parents needed to separate and  divorce. My dad kept our old house and I moved with my mom to a garden apartment a little further out but still part of the city. Five years later mom and I moved to our own house just inside the city limits. 

The apartment had a playground and our unit faced it. Unlike our old yard, my mom couldn’t control and approve who got to play there, so I didn’t play there often and I began to stop going outside to play. Even at my dad’s, where he got me the camping tent I wanted, in addition to all my other old backyard toys, and I spent every other weekend and Tuesday and Thursday nights and a week in the summer. At my mom’s I’d just watch the playground kids from my window, some of whom were my new classmates at my new school, and then turn back to a The Babysitter’s Club book or my Macintosh desktop computer.

This alone, along with my bookishness, caused me a lot of teasing at my new elementary school. Not that I wasn’t teased at my kindergarten and the other elementary school I spent my first through third grade years at, but at least I had a refuge at home.

My parents did do a good job of making sure they spent time with me both inside and outside the house. When it was time to go off to college, my dad was with me every year I needed to move, to load the moving van that I managed to accumulate over the years, and then move me into my first apartment, out of that apartment, and then into my beloved downtown Greensboro second apartment.

I lost him before the move back out of my second apartment and I’ve been at the mercy of moving companies and folks who happened to have a bit of spare time ever since.

While I’ve adjusted to not being able to have conversations with my dad, I’ve not adjusted to the deferred dreams of working on a fixer-upper in my dream city that we had. Nor have I adjusted to having to do so much literal heavy lifting myself, when I’ve wanted to make a strategic move, like I did when I came to D.C.

Meanwhile,  my mom really wanted me to have a home to come back to, and I’ve been extremely grateful for my two trips back home as a resident, as well as summers during college and most of my post nine-year-old life.

Additionally, when she went back to full-time work as a teacher, she was often forced to move classrooms each school year. I used to loathe the end and the beginning of school, because of the time and the emotional weight of having to help her with all those moves.

As I’ve gotten older and had to make moves for my professional success, both with a mixture of trepidation and excitement, I’ve come to understand just why it took so long for us to pack up and rebuild her classroom each year.

As of this writing, I’m looking at having to move again. The basement I’ve been living in has flooded a multitude of times over the summer and I can’t take living in the moldy goo anymore. Plus, to add insult to injury, the temp job I was working has ended and I’m now scrambling to figure out what’s next.

I already felt confined at that job and I’m coming to the realization that often doing the professional work one loves means living in a city that may have less to offer in amenities.

Maybe I’ve not found the right group of folks and funding, but I do increasingly feel like I can’t do what I would like to do in D.C., at least not creatively. In the interim, I’m spending more time in Baltimore and have tested out living there these past few weeks. Also, leaving the United States was already an option pre-presidential election and has become even more of one post-presidential election.

Whose Brain’s Being Drained?

This gets me back to Aaron and his article and a lot of his own work over the years. He mentioned the words “brain drain”, often used by city boosters to mock those who leave despite having characteristics on the surface that they want.

Or do they really want those brains? Sometimes I feel they only want the money and the appearances that come from our thoughts and the jobs and art we create with them.

Oh and sometimes even the jobs and art aren’t enough if you come in the wrong hue, orientation or income bracket.

Even just today at this writing, another issue of the right to public space and provision of social services has come up in my hometown and it just saddens and drains me that most of the power élite, who are on the one hand celebrating innovation, can’t understand that cites thrive from the mixture of folks. Even the folks who have made mistakes have something of value and they definitely don’t thrive when we don’t give them a hand-up!

Granted, I know my hometown isn’t the only one having this problem, but it’s the most personal and hurtful example.

It also hearkens back to why I believe there’s no perfect city. I’m shifting my focus on being a connoisseur of cities. I believe all of them can grow and work, but there are some that don’t nurture me at all and I’m done with naming one or the other as the next best thing for me.

Check back in with me though and I may have found a more permanent spot.

In the meantime, I’ll be on the move, with hesitation, but at least I know my brain isn’t getting siphoned off.

I’m Kristen. 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. Get job listings, interesting articles, links to future posts and more from me via my weekly email. Support my work on Patreon.

How to Keep Your Citizenry From Going Crazy

The abandoned Henryton State Hospital in Carroll County, Maryland by Flickr user Forsaken Fotos under a CC-by-2.0 license.

One of the things I forgot to write in my post on the individual mental health things one should do to endure a city is to embrace its warts and try to heal them.

However, some warts are so bad, they might as well be cancerous. This is where you come in civic or business leader. It’s in your hands to cure these malignant lumps on your city and make them better. Here’s how:

Stop chasing after companies from other places, especially if that company is already in your metro region but not your jurisdiction.

We always complain that we don’t have millions to spend on another school, but millions magically appear to help companies move offices, sometimes just across the city, district or state line. If you want to support businesses, how about setting up a small business fund or providing low or no interest loans to local makerspaces and business incubators?

Create and recalibrate a law enforcement system geared to rehabilitation.

So many people in jails and prisons really should be in mental health facilities or even just job training programs. Yes, punishment for certain crimes is worthwhile, but think about all the new customers, scholars and homeowners we could have if we made sure this system didn’t hold people back for an unreasonable period of time. Or, if we provided the meals, shelter and sense of belonging on the outside such that people don’t look to these facilities and doing crimes just to have that community.

Stop the infighting between other departments, grantees and other nonprofit or corporate partners.

I know this often comes from limited amounts of capital and budget battles, but we’re all in this together. The people who need these services the most don’t want to hear about whose turn it is to get the extra $500,000 surplus or who’s turn it is to lose it. They don’t worry as much as you do about overhead vs. programming, especially if there’s no evidence of that battle on the service provision level. Going back to Mazlow’s triangle, they are trying to get to the top, starting at the base. You as civic and business leaders help them do that.

Everything doesn’t need to be developed, re-developed or revitalized for it to be successful.

I know this is down to making money or just having a dream of seeing something revamped. At its most purest motivations that is. However, what do we really gain from replacing one neighborhood with another, sometimes on top of the neighborhood that was already there? We are in a time where people want Art Deco, Craftsman, Federal, Mansard, Victorian and other types of architecture that pays a lot of attention to details. They might be ok with well-done mid-century modern, brutalist or “Starchitect” type structures, if it serves a good purpose and doesn’t take away from street life and it’s connected to many transportation modes. Also, we want our homes to be affordable, but not cheap. I shouldn’t worry that my brand new house will burn down because it’s made of wood that’s only a few sheets stronger than paper. Also, we can’t forsake neighborhood service businesses, especially corner stores. I won’t get into details of food production and provision here, but we have to keep looking into how affordable, healthy food can come back to our street corners.

Stop undermining our educational system.

You either get public funding for your school or you don’t. Also, some metro areas have way too many school options. The last I checked 2×2=4 and E=MC^2. Why do we need so many buildings that offer that lesson, especially ones funded with public money. I’m of the idea and I’ve said it before right here, that you can have public schools and private schools. Public schools provide a basic educational service, as well as service all kids regardless of background. Private schools provide supplemental education, especially of the religious variety. Why we can’t get that equation together is beyond me.

Strengthen the services of our safety net.

This gets back to affordable housing, healthcare, food, schooling, transportation and everything else. We all have good times and bad times. Not everyone needs luxury and everyone deserves a bare minimum of life to live. We shouldn’t have teachers and others who work for a living, just barely able to afford homes or living on couches not by choice.

Be ready for change from the ground up, while yet making sure everyone has a seat and a consideration of ideas.

You might be thinking, how can I do this? This isn’t possible. I have to make money. People like shiny new things. Also, you have no right to say all this. You’re barely old enough to be in the field. Wait until you have to balance a limited budget. Wait until you’ve had some family crisis.

Well, to answer that: one, I’m here to provoke new thought. Two, I have had financial and familial challenges. Three, when it comes to writing and planning things, I’ve been doing both professionally since 2005. Yes, as a teen. And I’ll admit I have more to learn, but I’d also like to fix and grow around both the individual and the corporate principles I’ve outlined.

With that said, we can all do better. And yes, there are sacrifices. However, if I can sacrifice, we all can too. I can say my sacrifices are starting to pay off. What can you say to your city when yours do too?

I’m Kristen. 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. Keep up with my weekly adventures  via my weekly email. Support my work on Patreon.