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Suburbs of Survival

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What if you didn’t have a house to live in? What if the only house you could live in at the present moment, was not a shack, had running water and electricity and a loving parent to make sure you wake up every morning even though your routine is currently more flexible? Oh, and that house wasn’t in a walkable neighborhood, but in a newish low-density area, with free parking? And the cherry: the fact that your family has possession of it proves that black folks, even in the age of bad mortgages, foreclosures and economic inequality, can in fact own and maintain a house?

This is my suburb, and it’s a suburb of survival.

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

So I’ve said before that I live in the suburbs. I lived downtown, but lately, many downtown apartment complexes are becoming vertical suburbs, with no real service providers, and a bunch of novelty items. Nate Hood warned downtown developers to stop building entertainment districts, but some didn’t listen. Those of us who would like to build wealth or take career chances or be creative, can’t actually do that when rent is at or beyond 30%. I and other Millennials would be amenable to paying a little more in rent to be able to enjoy the benefits of a walkable community with a variety of services close by, but not merely to live in the midst of restaurants, theaters and boutiques.  That’s why so many of the big places are losing out on their creatives. We may still travel there, live there, be there, but for some of us Millennials, of all cultures, we are only able to find the stability of income and wealth building we need in the suburbs.

Anyway, it was this article, by Paul Mullins, that highlighted how much the suburban concept was a survival mechanism for African-Americans of varying means, even in the era of redlining. While some cities did not allow Black Americans to truly own their suburban homes or move into certain areas, others, including my own, redlined neighborhoods that when built out, looked exactly like white neighborhoods and offered the same level of community cohesion and personal space.

And even though some people were forced to pay too much for their homes or the mortgage rates are too high, some people still own their homes. Some have owned them for years. And they, like anybody who has a home, know the power of being able to shelter family, traveling renters and maybe even themselves in their second house on the beach.

Many large older cities boast streetcar suburbs — neighborhoods characterized by detached single-family homes, oriented not around cul-de-sacs but around streets with sidewalks connected in a grid pattern. At the center of these neighborhoods lie what we consider the main roads lined with retail establishments. These roads were once served by streetcar lines radiating from the center city — lines financed and built by private companies that could sell the suburban land around their lines to developers and reap dividends.

This is the kind of suburb that the free market brought into being before a series of policy decisions hobbled streetcar companies and subsidized road building and car ownership. Current car-oriented suburban development patterns, where hardly anything is walking distance from spread-apart homes, are not the result of the free market, but rather of a market distorted by multiple levels of subsidy. Though there is not much that individual developers or local planning departments can do to change this situation in the short term, it is worth keeping in mind when envisioning the future built environment.

And this gets complicated by racial segregation and redlining. Urban renewal also throws a wrench into the old streetcar suburb concept as well. Many proper, predominately African-American streetcar suburbs were demolished or reconfigured to be car-dependent development. Gentrification is taking away a lot of dense, service-rich neighborhoods away from those with lesser means, many which happen to be African-American.

Before I close, this does not let developers and planners who choose to not plan sustainably off the hook. Sustainable place-making concepts must not be limited to downtown areas.There are clear health and economic benefits from building services into suburban neighborhoods. The density I want to start seeing starts with making sure more things are in walking distance, in both urban and suburban places, rather than focusing on putting more luxury high-rises in downtown arts and entertainment districts. We should give everyone a chance to have the home that they need and want, while being able to enjoy walking access to the commercial corridors that define neighborhoods and offer places — be they parks or libraries or coffee shops, casual eateries or corner stores — where communities come together, and that make possible a sense of shared wealth, to accompany the private wealth that suburbs symbolize.

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

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“A Black Urbanist” Book Cover

Keeping it simple today for your Monday, I am debuting the book cover.

Cover Image

Yes, it’s abstract. Yes, it’s bunch of white walls and black doors and ball lights hanging from the ceiling. I took the picture and I designed the cover myself. And it could change. However, if you purchase the book on December 1 as an e-book, this is the first page you will see. Say you haven’t pre-ordered the book, head on over to Gumroad and do it now.

Next week, I’ll be doing a Q&A about why a book, why now, why an e-book and I’ll be including a special project to take this book to the next level.

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

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You know how you admire someone’s work from afar for years, hear all kinds of wonderful things about them, meet them once, and twice and over and over, and continue to learn more? That’s how I feel about the inspiring person I’ve chosen for this week, Mitchell Sliver, FAICP, Commissioner of the New York Parks Department (and a litany of other things).

This is Inspiring People, the Sunday feature of the The Black Urbanist where I highlight people in the placemaking space who are inspiring and why they are. Before we get back into the meat of the post, just a reminder that The Black Urbanist is powered by Bluehost.  Check them out and they’ll get you started with everything you need about web hosting and blog making. They’ve kept me going right here for the past 4 years and counting.

I first met Mr. Sliver at N.C. State’s wonderful Urban Design conference back in 2011. I’d published the Grist article, been invited to CNU 19 and I was still reaching folks here and there on Twitter and Facebook. One of those people I’d reached was Mary Newsom, who at the time was still writing for the Charlotte Observer on placemaking and is now at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute (and inspiring on her own). She brought me over to meet him and that’s when I found out he was also a black urbanist.

Fast forward to CNU 20 in West Palm Beach. I attended conference sessions and shared meals with Mitch, at his first CNU. After that time, I felt like I’d gained an uncle in the planning space. I cheered him on as he handled the reigns of the American Planning Association. I looked on from afar as he continued to make Raleigh a better place. I heard him give one of his famous speeches at the 2013 NCSU Urban Design Conference. I was sad, but happy, like everyone else as he became parks commissioner of his hometown, New York City, earlier this year. In his official bio, his new mayor has this to say about him:

“He has a passion for fairness and equality, and he brings it to the work of government, and understands that we have to ensure that parks and open spaces are available in every community, and are well-maintained in every community in this city.”

Oh and Mayor DeBlasio called him a visionary.

It is that vision that inspires me and countless other planners, placemakers, park people and others in the space of making place to value his knowledge and his intellect not just for New York City parks and Raleigh but anywhere else he’s worked and taught and spoken.  In addition, he is a shining example of black achievement and proof that despite our small numbers in the field, we still know how to make an impact.

Read his official bio here.

And this nice profile of the work he’s been doing in New York as parks commissioner.

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

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Finding Oneself on the Pretty House Blogs

What strikes me as awesome with this apartment, is that first and foremost, there is a sense of calm, there are three people in it in a small space and there’s blue and gold. I’m beginning to fall for the idea of lots of blue and gold in my next solo space.

This is Apartment Healing, the Saturday feature of the The Black Urbanist where I talk about my love of interior design. This month, I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite home tours from sites such as Apartment Therapy, AprhoChic and others that share my sense of simple, electic and transformative style, especially in spaces and places where its un-expected. Before we get back into the meat of the post, just a reminder that The Black Urbanist is powered by Bluehost.  Check them out and they’ll get you started with everything you need about web hosting and blog making. They’ve kept me going right here for the past 4 years and counting.

I want to first commend Apartment Therapy for partnering with AphroChic. I just finished reading through Apartment Therapy Presents… and it’s inspired me to write this series of posts. However, the one thing I noticed about the book was that many of the homes were colorful, but not the people. Yet, clearly, I have nothing to worry about. Just like I was clueless about the world of African-Americans and other people of color in planning and community development when I started this site, I’m finding out the same is true in other sectors too. And I’ve added Remix: Decorating with Culture, Objects, and Soul, to my wish-list.

Which brings me to the home of  Jessica Cumberbatch Anderson, who is the editor of HuffPost Home. She’s been in this apartment through post-college career growth, getting married and recently having a baby. And most importantly, there’s this awesome living and dining room composition:

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That’s a turquoise table, against a gold splattered wall. The four pictures are of icons of civil rights leaders. A solid-looking wooden floor. A golden teddy bear on the coffee table. Chevron curtains.

And there’s more from where that came from, check out the original article  for more on how this home is, in the words of the original authors, “vivacious”.

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

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Senior Walking: A #Video Friday Reflection

So I joined the senior gym in Greensboro on Monday. When I’m home, I aim to work out there a few times a week and I even did beginners Zumba! My mom’s really enjoyed the community she’s found there and I’m happy that I have an inexpensive (and only after 5) option to get myself in better shape.

This is Video Friday and it’s the Friday series on The Black Urbanist. It’s my way of thanking you for hanging with me this week, by giving you something to watch instead of read. It’s also the holiday season and I’m sure you are either hosting all your family or you are getting ready to be one of those poor souls invading the airports and train stations and roads that the news always talks about on holidays. Take some stress out of your trip by using Expedia to book a good deal on your flight, rental car, hotel or all three. Click here  for more information and know that your purchase will support The Black Urbanist and help me keep writing! 

In that spirit, we have partnered with KCET’s City Walk. City Walk is a series of videos showcasing how people walk in their cities. This week we highlight a group of senior mall walkers in the Hillcrest Heights area of Maryland, just outside of DC. The video is here:

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

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A Gathering of Leaders-A #ThrowbackThursday Reflection

This week I attended with my mayor, several other councilpeople, local foundation leaders and other civic and educational leaders this year’s CEOs for Cities National Meeting in Nashville. That experience took me back to this moment:

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This is my first major panel session, at CNU 19 in Madison, Wisconsin in 2014. I organized this group and this session on “cultural” urbanism with my fellow panelists Payton Chung and James Rojas, each to speak on how their ethnicity and their culture, as well as mine, influences how we built things.

The amazing thing about this week’s conference is that I saw a very diverse room, on and off the main program. We saw diverse programs. Some of us saw community services in action, in a community center designed to reflect the primary cultures served. More on that in a future post.

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

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From the Census: The Actual Numbers of Educated Black Young Folks

So you may have heard that there are more black men in prison than in school. You may also wonder after Tuesday’s post exactly how many young black professionals are we actually marketing to? And while the numbers are small, a significant number of people still have some form of college degree or are familiar with a campus. The numbers below represent the highest level each person has REACHED, not how many of each degree is held by an African-American person. After the jump, we’ll let the numbers stand for themselves.

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

 

Educated Young Black Folks infographic

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

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We’ve all said it, that there’s nothing to do for black folks, certain black folks of a younger and more prosperous persuasion, in our  North Carolina cities. Lately, those fears were stroked by this article, by Jarvis Holliday, in this past week’s cover story of Creative Loafing Charlotte.

Dame's Chicken and Waffles in Greensboro, NC. Photo by Kristen E. Jeffers

Dame’s is pretty cool. Is it and “cool places like it” something we black young pros consider “something to do”? Photo by the author.

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

The article is a long read, but a worthy one. I’ll pull out this section that grabs its essence:

The phrase “young professionals” gets used frequently in the marketing of programs and events in Charlotte’s African-American community. It’s not simply a metric in the way it’s used in corporate lingo, to denote a person, generally between the ages of 21 and 40, who is college-educated and has a salaried position. When blacks use the term, that’s a part of it, but its intention is to further distinguish those young men and women who have “made it.” And that de facto badge of honor also implies that this group behaves a certain way.

Typically, a black professional wants it to be known that he or she defies whatever negative stereotypes other groups may have of African Americans. So within the social scene, you’ll find that they dress well, prefer upscale venues and have a taste for the finer things.

But the black professional social scene in Charlotte is often a source of angst for many within it, who lament the dearth of good or welcoming places to go to, or that the so-called hot spots never last. Newcomers quickly tire of not being able to identify where black professionals socialize after work or party after dark on a consistent basis.

Events that do get traction, for example, are Cufflinks & Cocktails, put on by the Charlotte alumni chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, and Charlotte’s Favorite Happy Hour, organized by prominent local couple Herb and Felicia Gray. Each takes place at posh venues and is well-attended by black professionals, drawing anywhere from 200 to 400 people, but what those events also have in common is that they only take place once a month (usually at rotating venues). In similar fashion, the Signature Saturdays event takes place twice a month at Vapiano, a trendy Italian restaurant and bar, where local party promoter Eddie Towner puts on an entertaining night featuring a live jazz band followed by a hip-hop DJ.

And what those events also have in common is that each essentially represents “black night” at the venues where they’re held. For that particular evening, night or the occasional day party, the African-American promoter has rented the facility and nearly all of the patrons who come out are black. But if one were to return to that same venue the following night or on the equivalent night a week later, they’d likely find few blacks in attendance. It’s a combination of the result of lack of ownership of these venues by African-Americans, and the segregation that’s common in Charlotte regardless of who owns the place.

When I googled Black Social Scene in North Carolina, before I could type the state name, Google’s autofill directed me to the black social scene in Washington, DC. Once I typed in North Carolina, I found this 2009 article from Ebony that highlights things to do in Charlotte, naming it as having:

…one of the most flourishing stylish and chic Black social scenes. Sure, you still have clubs where ladies have to worry whether about being bombarded by a million sweaty, overzealous guys, however, more and more sophisticated, grown and sexy individuals looking for a step up from that vibe, have found it in Charlotte.

Bonus: there’s an article about the Raleigh vs. Charlotte scene written by a white woman writer in 2007 who was then 39, married and with two children. She wrote the blog at the time with a 39-year-old single black woman. I assume that as of the end of that blog in 2009, none of that information has changed.

And one more cherry on top, by 2009, according to the Washington Post, the Washington social scene was completely integrated.

So what does one make of all of this? Do we have a real answer to the question if there are enough things for black young professionals to do? I’m going to attempt my own, recognizing that one, we are not all monolithic and two, I tend to enjoy a lot of things that aren’t necessarily tagged as black cultural activities, as well as plenty of things that are.

First, I believe that we as urban downtowns do a disservice when we don’t have restaurants, bars and bookstores that regularly have a mix of different genres of music, as well as places where people can go and see each others faces and hear each other talking. Granted, all three major NC downtowns are getting better and a few of the smaller ones have nice bookstores. Yet, what makes DC, Chicago and New York different is that it’s not rare or unexpected. A place like Busboys and Poets can be named after Langston Hughes, sell books, sell passable catfish plates, host talks by known revolutionaries, be owned by an Iraqi-American and patronized by Americans of all shapes and sizes. It can even become a chain and a sign of gentrification. Could Dame’s Chicken and Waffles or Mertz’s do that one day. Who knows?

Second, we have to realize that thanks to the Great Migration, there’s still a not lot of black professional growth happening back down South, outside of Atlanta. If you walk places or use public transit, enjoy random, free jazz every night on every corner, make a higher salary and have a sense that you are 100% part of the civic and leadership picture, it’s harder to want to come South to a Southern city that doesn’t have those things. Now I love my home state. I believe that it can be just as vibrant and is as vibrant as some of the bigger places in certain quarters, but there are things, some that are out of our control as young black professionals, that keep us finding that vibrancy in North Carolina.

And finally, sometimes, we have to look for things ourselves. If I hadn’t checked my Gmail for this newsletter, I would have not seen this post that stated Raleigh as worthy of note as a place that appreciates black literature. Of course, the usual suspects are at the top, but somebody is checking for Raleigh when it comes to black literature. Literature is one of the great cultural arts and the Creative Loafing Charlotte article notes that there are several great places of cultural arts in Charlotte. I can vouch for the Triad and Triangle and say I’ve attended a lot of nice, black-oriented cultural events, both with and without a lot of black professionals, white professionals and heck, a lot of people period. Also, sometimes, going skiing or to the Hoppers Game or being the only black person (at least in that hour) in Target isn’t a bad thing.

Looking forward to your thoughts on this one and look out tomorrow for me to drop some population stats on you, from the Census and their official records of who counts as an educated black young person.

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

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A Black Urbanist Book Preview: The Market

I’m starting this book with the market, as without the market, we would not have urbanism. Churches and homes and farms and schools and even some general stores survive and thrive without being in urban areas. You could always walk the terrain of rural areas, as well as navigate with all forms of human transport that have followed. Yet, there’s really no city without a major marketplace. Without the convergence of mass amounts of people to trade their goods. Over the years, this market has gone back into homes, it’s become enclosed inside big boxes and it’s become less about product and more about people. So where do I really stand on this thing I like to call the market?

Today’s post is the first part of my upcoming e-book: A Black Urbanist-Essays Vol. 1.  The e-book will launch on December 1, it’s only $10 and there will be a printed version coming. Find out more about the book here

Does It Matter Who Owns the Corner Store?

Recently, a friend on Facebook asked this somewhat quintessential question: Why don’t black folks own businesses in their own neighborhoods? One commenter to this status mentioned that it may be because we (as in black folks) have forgotten to help our own as we have achieved higher financial goals and wealth.

I personally believe (and I mentioned this in a comment myself) that black folks went through a period where some of the business types in predominantly black neighborhoods were unwanted and unneeded in their eyes. I’ve even had someone who remembers urban renewal in Greensboro tell me that they willingly tore down the neighborhood businesses in hopes of something better.

However, in many cases, that something better never came. I am also cautious of some modern “revitalizations”, especially when the lots have been sitting empty for several years with no vision and no purpose.

Meanwhile, I applaud those who took up the banner of preserving the history, the commerce, and the tradition of ethnic enclaves, of all cultures. I even applaud those of other cultures who have come in and filled up the vacant spaces, either with businesses and services more geared to their cultures. I especially love if they maintained the original businesses’ quality and culture, and improved the original operations.

When community and culture and affordability are respected, then I don’t think it matters who owns the corner store.

Yet, when businesses on these proverbial corners completely forget their legacy and their obligation for service, then they fail. If a shop owner follows its teenage customers instead of offering jobs, then they have failed. If women are looked upon as strange invasive creatures and vice-versa for males, then they have failed. Yes, we need safe space to be ourselves as men and women, but at the end of the day, there still comes a time for mutual respect. Elders should shop for free. It’s this vision of the corner store or business as a service that owners need to undertake.

Ultimately, I think that this obligation is what makes it hard for people to maintain such businesses over a long haul. These businesses are more than stores, barbers or beauty salons. They are sounding boards, mini town squares, and city halls. If you are not ready to be a de facto mayor or community leader, then you best take your business elsewhere. I believe this is why these businesses fall onto those who either want this charge or those who have no other choice but to run this type of business. I think some black leaders (and I’m sure there are others of other ethnic enclaves who feel the same way) who wanted to run a business that would not become every inch of their lives.

So does it matter who owns the corner store? Absolutely. Yet, it’s not a question of what the owners look like on the outside, it’s a question of what they believe on the inside about their community and their business.

Another store we pined for in Greensboro and it finally arrived in April of 2012.

Another store we pined for in Greensboro and it finally arrived in April of 2012.

What if that Corner Store is Walmart? Why Can’t it Be Trader Joes

What really determines who owns the corner store is the inability to take risks. Certain stores, you know, the ones that have cheapish stuff, but a somewhat upscale atmosphere, I believe are only taking advantage of what they think youth or boomers with disposable income or some other magical unicorn person will buy and will buy repeatedly. Unfortunately, magical unicorns tend to not have strong political views or bank accounts that hover around or appear to hover around zero. Stores that don’t take risks don’t like cleaning up old parking lots or making sure even the folks who carry EBT cards have the opportunity to have shiny electronics or even just basic food items.

Walmart, however, goes directly after that market. We talk about the exploitation that they do, but there’s a degree of exploitation in the pretty but cheap store market too. They exploit the emotions of those of us who make just enough to spend at least $50-100 at Target each month, 60% of the cart being non-food items that may or may not be adult toys or pure junk. They make us feel better as a town when they show up promising more Salted Caramel Chocolate cookies for cheap. They allow us to buy more clothes, even though those clothes fall apart at the end of the season.

But back to Walmart.They replaced an empty Borders store on a once vital, recently struggling side of Greensboro and whenever I shop there, it’s packed.They are now going into Quaker Village, the one place many of us Greensboro privately wanted Trader Joes to go, had they been willing to spend the funds to revamp the shopping center like the Walmart. But Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, so if it fails, then it’s no big deal. These other retailers, they aren’t as big as we think. Ask Harris Teeter. Yes, the bigwigs got golden parachutes in their deal with Kroger, but everyone else and the name itself took a small hit. If it weren’t for Kroger understanding the impact of the name on the market, then there’s just one more “luxury” name gone away.

I think the lesson learned here is that sometimes, it doesn’t matter what your name is or what your perception is as a store. At the end of the day, it’s all about the bottom line, customers are just props to be lured in like the Pied Piper, with colorful patterned displays and cheap wine.

Which Gets Us to Amazon

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

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

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

Target’s usually a stop after work when I’m tired and I need time to process my day, as well as pick up a few things. I know that most of those things will be there.

Plus, I get entertained by a few wants and for the most part they don’t fall into my cart. Even with the card security issues, Target offers an actual happy experience over crowded spaces, extremely overpriced, but of similar quality clothing, and just the right foods to stock up my pantry. Once again, they are committed to being a part of city life too, with stores in mixed use developments, traditional malls, East Harlem and its new CityTarget concept in the Chicago Loop.

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

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

I know I put this picture into sepia, but the mall isn't quite dead yet.

I know I put this picture into sepia, but the mall isn’t quite dead yet.

Don’t Sleep on the Mall Though

Say the words mall and main street and two very different images come up. I’m going to guess the former image involves neon signs, fountains and Sbarro, while the latter may also include a fountain, but a barber pole and Sheriff Andy Taylor. Well, until recently,when popular acceptance of new urbanist principles created a hybrid of the two in many areas, which is a revival, not a hybrid.

Much of my urbanism is informed by a love for the traditional enclosed mall. And like the love I have for my city, it is a tough love. After all, it depends on whether I really need to buy a bunch of clothes, or a Cinnabon, since that’s all that seems to exist at these structures these days. Once upon a time though, I lived for the weekend trip to The Disney Store and Waldenbooks. I find more comfort these days on “main street”, called Elm Street here in Greensboro. I like that there are multiple types of businesses, fresh air, and a culture of people just coming to hang out and fellowship, not just spend money on objects.

Yet, the truth is that I could probably stick to my budget and do all my ordering of things on Amazon and have a good time at an-all inclusive beach resort. Retail is retail is retail right? As long as there’s a product and an exchange of currency, all forms of shopping are the same right? Why then, should I (and in turn you) be concerned with the keeping of our shopping districts, no matter the form?

First, because for so many communities, even the reviled inclosed mall creates community. Many people have shied away from malls, citing too many_______ people (Fill in the blank however you please). However, for those ______ people, the mall does keep them out of  trouble , provide a source of employment, a safe place to walk, and of course clothes and Cinnabons. Also, for small business owners, older enclosed malls and strip centers provide cheap office and storefront space that can help them create a livelihood, and in turn, create opportunities for their families and the greater community.

Other older malls have reinvented themselves as churches, libraries, schools, indoor farms and food markets. Likewise for main streets in smaller towns and cities that were once areas of empty shells and blight, but have been brought back to life. A bonus for the main streets is that many of the buildings were built in an era where quality was king and time was taken to create structures that not only last, but have lots of architectural character.

Secondly, dead real estate is dead real estate, no matter the location. As we learned in Retrofitting Suburbia and the Sprawl Repair Manual, even if it started as sprawl, going back to fix it can re-ignite the community and keep a neighborhood from going into further decline. Going back to imagining things, I see a montage of main streets going from the heyday of the mid 20th century, to the late 20th century abandonment and neglect, to the indie stores and street festivals and new apartments of today. If we can fix main street, we can fix the enclosed mall and make it a proper community center too.

Third, not everyone will understand or find benefits in online shopping. It’s still best to try clothes on and handle fruits and vegetables before you purchase them. I remember the one time I bought shoes online, I ended up with major blisters and a weird gait on a day where walking really mattered (my graduation day from NC State). Plus, who can deny how well a human touch can make even the worst product the best in the world.

Closing this Store, For Now

Even though I’ve said that the mall is probably dead, I also believe it does matter who owns the corner store. Retail is a strange animal, but where would we be without it? This is where I give props to the homesteaders who seem to have answered that question. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, onward and upward to Target and IKEA.

Would we be people without commerce and a marketplace? Maybe, if we go full on into a marketplace of ideas. Would we be urbanists though? Probably not.

This post is part of #NaBloPoMo, an effort to post on blogs every day throughout the month of November. Find out more about it here. Also, if you would like to pre-order A Black Urbanist, you can here. Since this isn’t Amazon, all proceeds come right to me and you get it in a PDF that can be read in any format.

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Inspiring People: Veronica O. Davis

There are tons of Jills-of-all trades out here. Moms, daughters, sisters, cousins, people juggling a lot of hats and doing it well. You really see that when it comes to blogging. And my first pick for my new Inspiring People Series is just one of many who makes the juggling act look easy and fabulous.

This is Inspiring People, the Sunday feature of the The Black Urbanist where I highlight people in the placemaking space who are inspiring and why they are. Before we get back into the meat of the post, just a reminder that The Black Urbanist is powered by Bluehost.  Check them out and they’ll get you started with everything you need about web hosting and blog making. They’ve kept me going right here for the past 4 years and counting.

 

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I wanted to spotlight my friend and fellow renaissance woman Veronica O. Davis first, because one, she’s awesome and two, this has been a big week of press for her and her activities. There’s my profile of her in Urbanful, which is doing a celebration of 20 people making DC for the next few days. Then there’s this ThinkProgress piece focusing on Black Women Bike, the advocacy group that she and two other black women started which is in its fourth year.  Oh and Mobility Lab, a think-tank in our industry, has given her props lately too.

Another part of me is choosing her this week because I want you to go read the article I wrote and the others above. However, the other side is that she’s of my same generation and she’s doing lots of extraordinary things. She also knows how to have fun and keep a sense of purpose. She’s changing the game in DC for bikes, Wards 7 and 8, small business owners and a host of other groups. Of course, there’s that whole handful of black women placemakers thing, but even that’s becoming an afterthought.  Plus, she reminds me that I have a rusting bike in storage and I need to start building up strength to ride it again. So I can ride it to the next time we have a DC brunch.

Anyway, look for more extraordinary men and women on Sunday’s here on The Black Urbanist. In the meantime, other places you can find Veronica online:

Veronica’s Twitter

Veronica’s website

Black Women Bike DC website.

NspireGreen, her company.

Her poetry book.

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

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