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On The Constant State of Motion Through Imperfect Cities

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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.

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