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Are You Mad About the Mall?– An Urbanist Holiday Tale

Are You Mad About the Mall?- An Urbanist Holiday Tale

It’s the holiday season. You went to the mall or the mall-like replacement that’s available in your city or town. You left in one of two ways, both of which made you mad about the mall.

The first way, you couldn’t get enough of the mall. You’re enamored with all the presents you were able to get. No person in your household or extended family or friends or office will not get the perfect present. The Christmas decorations were magnificent and the cute pictures your kid took with Santa will satisfy all of those nosy family members, especially the ones who don’t understand why you’re just now having a kid or why you rave about riding your bike everywhere or why more shops should be downtown and not just at this suburban spot.

If you’re in the Toronto area and you were fortunate enough, you took one of your own with this guy. Maybe you went to the Mall of America for the first time in years and rode the roller coaster, because hey, sometimes these mall thingys have cool stuff! You took the light rail back to downtown Minneapolis in prompt order though. You’ll get all your last-minute stuff from Target on Nicollet Mall. Or maybe it’s actually Michigan Ave in Chicago or on the Plaza in KC (wait the Plaza has Sephora now?). In that sense, you’re mad about the mall and can’t wait to go back. Plus, if you’re here in North Carolina this year like me, it might be raining, but it’s warm out and taking a nice stroll through Friendly Center doesn’t seem so bad. Or you’re in LA or Florida or somewhere where’s warm and sunny and Santa wears shorts outside the shopping plaza and you’re laughing at all of us rejoicing over a warm Christmas.

The second way you were mad at the mall is more negative. You were fuming the minute you were doing your normal Halloween candy shopping and you ran into that inflated plastic Santa Target insisted on having in the middle of the aisle. It was bad enough you had to go to Target, try as you must, you can’t give out beer to the kids that seem to multiply every year in your streetcar suburb.

Yet, at the central business district of this area, it seems that beer is the only thing sold, other than rotten fruit at the well-meaning farmer’s market co-op and overpriced, but somehow still fancy vintage dresses and antique chairs. You may have felt all self-righteous the week before Thanksgiving, going around to all the mostly empty parking lots and tagging them #blackfridayparking. What you didn’t tell folks is that you did that while your wife and kids were running through the store, growing more and more irritated at the scene on the inside, and at you making them feel stupid for even going inside, instead of helping them get through as quick as possible and even suggesting a nice day after Thanksgiving recipe idea. Because you didn’t just have one Thanksgiving on one day. You had to have two.

Now, it’s just days before Christmas and since you finally decided to get presents, all the local craft vendors are out of those mugs your wife likes. Your kids have to have that thing that only comes from Toys ‘R Us and nowhere else. Two hours before everything closes on Christmas Eve, you arrive back at your car in the back of the parking lot (or if you’re fortunate, the bike rack in front of the main entrance of the mall). You’re skin’s visibly red or at the very least, your body is very tense. You hit your digital device’s walk goal walking the 2.5 mile radius of the mall, but you could use a nice, leisurely ride or walk to relax.

Clunk. The custom mugs you bought for everybody at that one loud kiosk fell out of the cargo basket. All your Christmas presents broke. You’re plenty mad at the mall.

The Wikipedia definition of a mall is any concentration of stores, connected either by a central holiday or some other connector. The North American malls tend to connect on the inside. Malls in other countries tend to connect on the outside. Either way, there’s one key link, that makes this all urbanist, you’re walking, you’re connected, in theory, you’re exchanging goods and services and you’re making meaningful connections. We’re going to assume for the sake of this article, that the mall is any place you go to do your holiday shopping, whether it’s an old downtown or an insane Super Walmart. Many decisions about placing malls, creating parking lots, even if stores will open or close, are made from this time of year, too. See there, not just touchy-feely urbanism, but some hard numbers too.

Yet, other decisions are made too, ones involving family, friends and colleagues. Maybe you made a new work friend and you have plans to ride bikes more in the new year. You made that decision commiserating at the back of the room at the Maggiano’s Little Italy in the far suburb that you had to Uber too. Thankfully, you now how have an Uber partner back to Midtown. One floor of that empty department store is now a handmade craft fair. You took some of your crafty things out there and now you have a few extra pennies (Insert shameless plug, check out some of my crafty prints here). You’re back in your hometown and there’s a bike-sharing station outside the mall, the old downtown might come back alive thanks to its new cycletrack and there’s that Santa trolley that folks have asked when it’s going to run year-round, as a regular bus. Your grandma really loved being able to take it to her favorite grocery and shoe store without driving or having your mom drive her.

May there be a Christmas miracle in your city or town. At your mall, old or new. May all your presents and your presence be received well. And many wishes that your new year’s resolutions of that mall teardown, bikeshare station, reduced parking minimum and hey, let’s be honest, your prefered professional certification (or job of choice) of choice comes through. May you be happy, wherever this holiday brings you.

 

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How Does Your City Do the Holidays?

How Does Your City Do the Holidays?

We are just 10 days from Christmas and we just finished Hanukkah a couple of days ago. Throughout October-January, people will celebrate more than they have all year it seems, at least on a national scale. How has that manifested in different cities? What are some of the holiday traditions you’ve observed. I’ll share a handful and invite you to share yours in the comments and on various social media channels.

The Forever Mall Santa–The Friendly Center Santa, Greensboro, NC

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Santa waves out to greet shoppers at Friendly Center, Greensboro, NC

I couldn’t crank this up without sharing one of the first major public displays of Christmas I grew up with, the Friendly Center Santa. This guy has waved at people for as long as I’ve been alive (30 years) and I know for much longer. He’s also been remarkably standing at that same spot, although what surrounds him has gone through some dramatic changes (in the picture shown, he’s standing next to Belk, but when I was born, he would have been standing in the same spot next to Harris Teeter). Accompanied by some wreaths on the light poles and the tram to cart people around (because re-parking is almost impossible this time a year, here’s to some early transit-related memories for me), this signaled Christmas’s arrival at what has become our premier shopping mall in Greensboro.

The Neighborhood Carol of the Balls–The Sunset Hills Balls,Greensboro, NC

About a mile and some change from Friendly Center, the Sunset Hills neighborhood hangs those Christmas light balls, not just in their smaller, newer trees, but the huge, stories-tall ones that overarches their neighborhood, which dates to the turn of the 20th century. Growing organically over the years, now the neighborhood boasts a 5K run and has been featured in national publications (you know, ones that unlike mine don’t have a personal tie to the city), for its uniqueness.

The Life-sized Hallmark Keepsake Village–The Plaza Lights, Kansas City, MO

Plaza Lights, by Flickr User Franklin D. Thompson

Plaza Lights, by Flickr User Franklin D. Thompson

In my first few weeks here, dead in the middle of the summer, folks were telling me to get ready for the Plaza lights, no sooner than the sun sets on the same day we  gave thanks and ate some form of turkey. Sure enough, despite heavy rains this year, people came out to see them be turned on for the first time and I’ve driven through several times over the last few days. Kansas City is home of Hallmark and you can see where they got the idea of their Christmas villages from when you see this spot. It’s literally a life-size version, with Spanish Revival undertones. The lights stay on each night until 3 a.m. and will be lit nightly until well into January.

The Central Outdoor Ice Rink Made of Synthetic Ice– Greensboro, KC, Your Town Too, Even If It’s 70 Degrees Outside.

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Skating in Downtown Greensboro, December 14, 2011

It used to just be Rockefeller Center. Now, at least for the last 4 years, we’ve skated outside somewhere in the proximity of downtown, the lifestyle center, the corporate redevelopment with the extra mall tacked on, with plastic palm trees in the back ground, etc. For a girl who grew up on her roller skates and adored figure skaters in prior Winter Olympics, it’s fun to pretend to be doing a freestyle skate routine in the middle of town. Of any of the holiday traditions listed above, this is one that’s pretty universal it seems, at least in the past few years.

Centralized Christmas Trees and Major Parades– Everywhere

Who doesn’t have a town, that doesn’t have a town Christmas tree, or if there’s no central major Christmas tree, there’s at least a holiday parade. Not that these things aren’t unique, but I feel they are one of the easiest ways towns and cities honor the winter holidays.

Finally, not to leave Hanukkah out– 2nd Night Plane Drop, Greensboro, NC

Greensboro’s Center City Park held a plane drop of treats for kids and kids at heart on the 2nd night of Hanukkah this year at the Center City Park, in the shadow of the city’s Christmas tree. The two holidays seemed to merge a bit this year, as the city’s tree went with solid golden lights, essentially like the candles on a menorah. Makes sense as both Jewish and Christian businessmen paid an equal part in building many of the companies that have made Greensboro what it is today. I’ve also heard about a number of life-sized menorahs in city squares.

And of course, New Year’s Eve, what do you drop?

The Raleigh Acorn Drop. By Ke4roh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Raleigh Acorn Drop. By Ke4roh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Raleigh, my beloved college hometown, it’s an acorn, in honor of Raleigh being the City of Oaks. That story you heard about the possum drop, that’s true too, although the poor guy sounds like he’s getting a break this year. Another nearby Eastern North Carolina town drops a pickle, to honor its status as a major pickle mill town. And if your town isn’t dropping anything to countdown to midnight, you can always borrow Times’ Square’s ball. Although, now that I live in the Central time zone, I’m not sure how that will work. I will be back east for New Years Eve though.

So again, that’s how the cities I’ve lived in and a handful of others, do the holidays. Let me know how you celebrate?

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My Ultimate Urbanist Gift Guide

My Ultimate Urbanist Gift Guide

 

This year I decided to go ahead and talk about how to buy gifts. I feel this list can be applied to any time a year and any holiday. After all, these things are unique and they’re always greatly appreciated by any urbanist I know. I would ask your urbanist for some guidance because they may want some things more than others. Shall we get started?

Books

Especially textbooks. For the longest time I though like my urbanist practice was dependent on just how much I was able to write and how profound that writing was. Maybe it was because I came from an academic background in studying community and economic development plus having hung around architecture and design departments in the past. I’ve always written books, even before I was writing about urbanism. And so it seems has everybody else that I meet up with at conferences and who actually speaks say conferences. Also textbooks are expensive and if you’re not a student anymore it’s true but not quite starchitect level, you’ll squee anytime you get an actual book.

Experiences

This can be anything from plane tickets hotel gift certificate/rooms, show tickets, food and restaurant gift certificates, and transit passes. As much as you think we already have all the hip urban stuff, again a free ticket to a hot show like Hamilton in New York is super valuable. Bonus points if it’s something like a house tour or a transit tour that’s not normally open to the public or only happens rarely.

Things to Make or Make With

I know this one is really cliché but still who doesn’t like Lego architecture sets or model train sets. For those who are more realistic in their building and making , gift certificates to home-improvement stores, art and craft stores and home design stores as well as museum stores also work well. Or you can buy specific supplies like nice pens, markers, pencils or paper.

Clothing Actually Made for Commuting

This goes beyond a pair of sneakers that match a formal suit. This gets into rain coats that actually wick off water, shirts and pants and skirts that breathe and come with pockets and undergarments that keep things you don’t want to see out of sight. Also, leisure weekend wear like bike kits is nice too. Again, ask your urbanist, but they’ll be glad you’ve considered their commuting habits in the first place.

Donations to Organizations that Support Urbanism

They are probably getting those notices already to donate to their favorite charities related to these different issues and causes. They may also be the type that has everything that we’ve already listed above. So how about just going ahead and sending all good chunk of money to an organization that they care about, namely the one for whom they work. That way, not only do they benefit but their home city and the causes that they care a lot about do as well.

You may notice that I’ve not actually listed places to get these items. I leave it up to you to choose vendors,books, nonprofits, stores and experiences that speak to the even deeper held values of your individual placemaker. I’ve also listed vague categories of items, again, because I want you to still exercise some creativity. Know that you can and will find the perfect gift for your placemaker.

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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.

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Why I’m Grateful for Cities

Why I'm Grateful for Cities

Just in time for the United States Thanksgiving celebration this week, I want to positively but honestly, give thanks to cities for what they do well and right. So why am I thankful for cities?

Public Libraries

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Big Books by Flickr user Tim Samoff

You may have seen the above picture on some social media site. It’s actually the parking garage of the central branch of the Kansas City (MO) library. There are many other branches. Some of them are open daily. Some aren’t. Some are open late, some aren’t. However, that doesn’t always matter because there are plenty of books, events and even a coffee-house at one branch for me to use. Books have always been a refuge for me. I have fond memories of my mom taking me to our nearest branch, as well as doing summer reading programs. I’ll talk more about my actual education later, but the school library has always been a good friend and in this time of transition in my life, I can’t help but thank my new public library for helping me adjust. And having great architecture, which adds to the greater placemaking value of the city.

Public transit that comes on its own rails 

Looking back at San Francisco from the Rockridge Station in Oakland. Image by Malcolm Kenton

Looking back at San Francisco from the Rockridge Station in Oakland. Image by Malcolm Kenton

I’m aware of every recent DC Metro problem. Really, I am. But I can still plan around most of the lines being on time. They ride on their own rails, therefore other traffic doesn’t hold them up. In the industry, we call this kind of transit fixed-guideway. The idea is that it’s fixed to one clear path and therefore you can plan its movements and know exactly where it is at a certain point. There are buses that simulate this, but often they don’t ride in their own lanes and they move at the speed of the driver. Streetcars are also technically fixed to the ground, but they are in mixed traffic and driven, so they also have this issue. Anyway, transit in theory comes on a schedule, you plan around that schedule and you can propel yourself with your two legs or a bike in combination or in lieu of transit. Still, I don’t have to worry about car maintenance or parking it. Well, I do, but one day I could give it up and lean on public transit, because cities provide that.

Unique cultural experiences 

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Spinning Mothers sign in front of the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago in November of 2012. Photo by the author.

Someone recently changed the sign on the front of Greensboro’s Elsewhere to whereelse. That’s how I’ve always felt about that place. So much so I made it a key part of my going-away celebration and I looked longingly at pictures from this year’s fundraiser for the arts space. Every city needs to have a quirky space, whether it’s explicitly art or explicitly about bringing together marginalized people or if it’s just fun but unique like that flying pig I saw in Cincy a few weeks ago or this swinging banner that says Mothers in front of Chicago’s Contemporary Art Museum that I saw three years ago this month! Also, Elsewhere has worked really hard thanks to grant monies to improve several vacant lots near its Downtown Greensboro building, many of which despite downtown’s renaissance have not seen their property values rise. Now, they’ve risen in a more organic and people-focused way.

My education 

Image from the 2015 Homecoming on the Free Expression Tunnel on the Campus of N.C. State University. Image via the N..C. State Alumni Association Facebook Page

Image from the 2015 Homecoming on the Free Expression Tunnel on the Campus of N.C. State University. Image via the N..C. State Alumni Association Facebook Page

I’ve said it before that I learned my urbanism in college. This is because both my campuses provided such a great community. There were social issues, much like  many campuses are having now. But I’m proud to say that we have leadership and even fellow students who want our actual campus to be a safe space, a learning space, a growing space. However, I’m thankful the most that I finished school before the mass gentrification around both campuses. I feel like the neighborhoods surrounding our schools are just as important and because it is college after all, let it be a little grungy or at the very least middle-class so professors and service workers can also live nearby like students.  I’m also thankful for my K-12 education in the Guilford County School system. That it was just one system was the cause of concern of many parents over the years, but making the two major city systems and the county system one has created a better funding environment and a sense of unity that all students in the county are worthy. Also, the graduation rates have been climbing for the past six years.

So that’s my gratitude practice for cities for this year. Do you have any things you want to thank cities for? Tag them #thankmycity and I’ll be on the lookout to share them. Also, subscribe to my email list to keep up with me and where I’m at both on an off line.

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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.

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Why Feelings Matter Most with Citizens and Their Cities

Why Feelings Matter Most When It Comes to Cities and their Citizens

Design can’t be everything. Ask your kid who goes to Disney World and doesn’t like Mickey or Cinderella Castle. All they want to do is ride Space Mountain a bunch of times. That’s right. They’d rather go on a ride that strips away your sense of knowing where you are going and makes you trust your other four senses. Now this ride’s mechanics and even some of the cool spacey stuff are designed well, but it’s really about the feeling.

Your kid throws away their Goofy hat when you get home, but he starts figuring out how to create that feeling that he had in Space Mountain. Which probably means they are playing in their room in the dark. But they are still  happy about their trip to Disney World. And it is more about what they could feel than the actual design of the thing.

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Magic Kingdom’s Space Mountain via Wikimedia

We can apply the same idea to our cities.

But before we get deep into that conversation, let’s talk about that time Disney made an actual city. Celebration, Florida was conceived as the second effort (EPCOT was the first) to create the ideal 21st Century city. Borrowing some from the new urbanism movement, which had just been chartered, a small town was created on some Disney-owned land. I’ve written about the town before, namely the book written by a family who moved there as one of the first families in the new town. Another book, with a darker, more pedantic tone was written by a single man who moved into an apartment near the town square.

While both sets of people had praise for the community at first, the single man found that he was isolated and that the community didn’t have much to offer for singles. The family and families like them, had issues with the school. It prided itself on being very progressive from grades K-12. One of those progressive tenants was a non-traditional grading system, that didn’t even consider conversions of said grades into the A-F scale sought by most, if not all colleges. This ultimately caused some parents to leave the school. Also dead was the idea of a neighborhood school. The school split into a lower and upper school, with the upper school on a totally different side of the community.

Eventually the family in the book moved back to their New England home and to a traditional school. The other guy moved on too. Others stayed in the community, but not without encountering other struggles. Many moved there hoping that the Disney magical feeling would fall over them. Yet, this was a town, not a theme park. You can’t always create the feeling you want in a place.

Or can you? How do you find a place that has the right feel? How do I determine that feel? This is what I do.

First, I assess the variety of activities, living situations, transportation situations and other tangible places and experiences. Am I forced to live in a house or can I get an apartment. Do I have to drive all the time or can I take the bus, walk or ride a bike? Do people tend to cluster in diverse groups of friends or do people tend to only have friends who look like them? Does the music scene have more than one genre that’s predominant or at least have my favorite style of music? What kinds of things can I eat? Are their cool third places like libraries, parks, arcades and other places where I can go and not just go to work or home or eat? Who can fix my hair the way I like? This also ties into another metric i use, mobility. How easy can I get in, out and around town?

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Kansas City’s Historic City Market. One of the great urban markets and examples of variety in cities. Image by Kristen Jeffers

Second, I look at level of respect people have for each other and their differences. Do actual criminals get punished? Do people assume others are automatically criminals because of their skin color, their body type and size or some other arbitrary type? Do people have to join certain groups or churches or have attended certain schools to be able to affect change in the city? Is there a voice for the poor, the downtrodden, the powerless? Could I walk safely without the worry of a person yelling at me, thinking this is the only way he could get my attention? Even in a room of “professional” people, will those guys carry on a conversation with me that doesn’t reek of “I need to take her home with me”? Will the women see me not as a threat, but a potential friend? Will they all have stupid, and in some cases completely offensive ideas about me as a black woman? I’m doing my best to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, will they do that for me?

Third, how resilient is the city? Does it mope and moan when major companies don’t pick it or when those companies shut down?Does it recognize why its young college students are leaving? Does it get stuck in its old ways or think things can only happen one way? When natural disasters show up, is it ready to evacuate or properly house people on better ground? Is it constantly complaining about how much it has to clean up? Is it doing all that it can to help people come back to where they were or is it sitting, ready to gentrify the land that those devastated homes sit on?

As our Disney examples earlier illustrated, you could have the perfectly designed city, both real like Celebration or more fake like EPCOT and the rest of the theme park. Yet, if someone doesn’t feel comfortable there, then all of your efforts are wasted. Or, sometimes people just want a feeling, and don’t need special designs or programs or events. They just want to be put in the right environment and be allowed to fend for themselves.

This doesn’t excuse efforts to help people feel better about needed changes, i.e. our friends who feel bike lanes, while open to everyone, are part of the residential gentrification going on in DC and other places. This again underscores why we need to ask open-ended questions.

Finally, quantitative measures are great, especially when they help us keep our streets clean and our buses coming on time. But if they don’t feel right, then they are doomed to fail too, just like our cities as a whole.

Interested in my thoughts about Kansas City and how I feel about it so far? I’m talking about that live on KCUR’s Central Standard at 1o a.m. Central/11 a.m. Eastern Tuesday November 10 (which is today if you are reading this post within its first 24 hours). You can always catch a replay of it as well. Both can be found at this link. Also, catch me on Twitter and Facebook.

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Sportsball as Community Ball as My Ball

Sportsball as Community Ball as My Ball

We are all Royal. At least we are in Kansas City right now. In both the spirit of the World Series win, me being nostalgic over different pieces of my writing and the fact that IT IS NOW BASKETBALL SEASON, I’m re-working this piece and adding a bit more context around what I’ve seen happen in KC this year and what I already know about my own sportsball fandom. Let’s play ball!

Sports build community. From pride-of-their-suburb Little League teams to pulse-of-their-city World Series pennant holders to that proud handful of farmhouses who raised that NASCAR driver, sports makes a community.

I grew up in a pre-Carolina Panthers, original Charlotte Hornets, retiring Richard Petty, saying hello to Stormy, but never to a Major League Baseball team of it’s own, Greensboro, NC (also known as Tournament Town).

There were these two mystery Coke (and yes, they were actually Coca-Cola) cans in the hall closet next to my bedroom door. One of them looked normal enough, it was bright red and had white lettering. It did have a wolf-head, and the words National Champions 1983 on them. Clearly, that wasn’t so normal. The other one was bright blue and nobody’s soda came in a bright blue can. The ram’s head and the 1982 national championship it honored wasn’t that weird.

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Food cans to support your basketball team aren’t that weird where I’m from. Photo by the author.

I tried being a NASCAR fan for five seconds. No lasting interest in watching cars go around a track. Baseball’s just so much better in person, plus, our beloved Grasshoppers are really the benchwarmers for the Miami Marlins. Too many degrees of separation[Hold this thought, we’ll get back to it soon, in this version].

The Charlotte professional men’s basketball team should have never stopped being the Hornets. Major League Soccer shouldn’t give up on us. Having your football team see the inside of a Super Bowl isn’t too shabby though and hockey’s decent. The Canes do have a Stanley Cup, so I’ve felt what it’s like to have your team be national champions. However, I much rather be at the PNC Arena when the normal HVAC system is operating and I can yell out Wolf and be met with a resounding Pack.

And when your arch rivals are only a few miles away, but still get major airplay on ESPN, this is how you choose your favorite sport. I’m a proud alumna of N.C. State University. That is how I chose my team.

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The only court that matters in my world.  Photo by the author.

And so bracket time is like my Super Bowl. In the weeks leading up to the Big Dance, I’m dancing around my TV at home, watching all the conference tournaments. I’m paying more attention to games when I’m out at networking socials at bars. I’m wearing red, lots of red. And I’m more than ready to make more than one bracket and explain to you why I did.

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But that’s March. Now it’s November. If you’ve been following me on Facebook and Twitter these past few weeks, there haven’t been a lot of posts about N.C. State anything, besides a brief one about homecoming. I am proud of the football team doing so well, but they did just lose said homecoming. Business as usual.

I’ve been in a city for almost five months now, that has a handful of college teams of prominence, but none that tickle my fancy the way my Wolfpack do. I hear the Big 12 tournament turns KC into tournament town, we shall see about that.

But this is November. In November, one of those professional teams that plays hundreds of games from April through October with a bat and a ball has beat all the other teams like that that use a bat and a ball. This year, that team is the Kansas City Royals.

When it comes to the National League, because of my affinity for DC, I’m pretty settled on the Washington Nationals as my primary team. If I have to pick a New York team, it’s the Mets. Chicago, the Cubs for the sake of the underdogs. My family members that do follow MLB tend to be Braves fans.

But the reality is, outside of that, prior to this year, as I said above, I was more a fan of the ballpark experience. My first Royals game this year was just that. I was moving to Kansas City, I like going to ballparks, they did go to the World Series last year, let’s check it out.

Now mind you, I have a significant other who can spit out stats and knows all the rules. That also helps.

At this point, let’s get back to that idea that sports build community. When I was thinking about that World Series pennant holder in the first paragraph, I was thinking about the Royals, not the Nats. I’d seen all the #beroyal tweets last year, seemingly from everyone I knew in KC at the time, which was only a handful of folks, and they didn’t seem especially sports crazy.

But I was wrong and now I understand. I’m also going to go ahead and say it: as far as the feelings they invoke and the frenzy they cause, the Royals are Duke and Carolina basketball rolled up into one pretty bow.

The Royals even use both blues, which makes my dressing to support them so much easier. Despite my status as a proud Ms. Wolfpacker, blue, in any shade, is my favorite color and color to wear.

Again, what makes the Royals fandom and playing style like Tobacco Road, despite the fact that there’s a difference in sport, region and level of competition, is that people care so much. I Facebooked this article out Sunday night, just before the game started.

The article shows where the two World Series teams gained new fans this year. The Mets fandom reads like the NYC diaspora. The Royals fandom is centered on a huge blue blob in the dead center of the country. If it weren’t for these Royals, it seems, some of these states out here would have no major national attention, at least the sports world.

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The map itself. Image by 

Again, outside of the Kansas, Wichita State, Kansas State and Missouri dominance in various sports in their respective leagues there would be nothing that excites the nation about Kansas City sports. The Chiefs don’t consistently dominate enough, at least not in this era. And neither did the Royals, until last year. In fact, they’ve not won a World Series in my lifetime. Until now.

And when your city turns blue at night and you like blue and everybody, from either side of Troost, the state line, the River, the Plaza, inside 435, outside 435, even back home tell you they want to see the Royals win and then celebrate when they do?

Yeah, I might have to be #foreveroyal. Meanwhile, it’s time to #surviveandadvance. Maybe if the Royals can come back from the 80s, the Wolfpack can too.

Also, as a P.S., check out this New York Times article by an Overland Park native, on what it feels like on the ground to have this win here. I’ll also try to Periscope from the parade, but at the very least check me out on there on Wednesday at 5:30 Central for a recap of what I saw, I’ll be tweeting pictures and finally, I’m going to be on Open Source with Christopher Lydon this week talking about Boston, as well. Check your iTunes and your local listings for that.

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Why Road Gentrification Is Good Gentrification

Why Road Gentrification is Good Gentrifcation

I’m a firm believer that transportation is one place where equity can and should be had. At the end of the day, a street is a street, we all have to use them and their presence should not be the signal of gentrification you worry about. It should be the one you champion to get you to where you need to go. Hence why I’m here advocating for what some call complete streets, others call road diets and yet others call road gentrification.

Why All Three Names Matter

Why three names for this kind of road construction and maintenance? Well, because each name covers three key benefits of such changes.

First, you are completing what should already be standard on all roads, the ability for any mode of transportation to thrive.

Second, when you go on a food diet, if you want to be successful, it becomes a lifestyle change. It also is tailored to what you actually eat and how your body is actually made. Hence a good road diet, like form-based codes in architecture, works best when it takes into account what’s already there, and how others use the road.

Food diets also insist on being the most lean and green version of one’s self. Same with road diets, they insist that roads be the most efficient, but not just for one use, but for all users.

My last food analogy: it introduces more than one food (transport) group to the roads, more like the old four group pattern where all groups were somewhat equal.

And finally, gentrification at its purest, takes something that needs a touch of class and makes it better for everyone. Unfortunately, making it better for everyone doesn’t always come out of gentrification of housing and commercial buildings. Instead of making it so everyone can be part of a neighborhood, residential and commercial gentrification often privileges one group, namely the wealthy, of any cultural background.

But road gentrification is different. In adding more than one mode to the road, it allows everyone to use the roads, at whatever place they are in life.

What Institutions Can, Are and Should Be Doing

As we see with much of housing and commercial gentrification, it is government policy which really seals the deal in terms of how housing and commercial markets are allowed to work. Governments at all levels regularly get flack for not implementing community and economic development programs in the right way.

However, there’s really no wrong way to do a complete street/road diet/road improvement. Unless you decide to continue to privilege one mode at the expense of others.

You don’t have to do that. In the image leading this post, I was participating in a demonstration led by students at the University of Oklahoma ‘s Urban Design Studio at the 2015 American Planning Association’s Quad State Conference in Kansas City. They brought us model pieces giving us multiple options to create a complete street from a scale model of a portion of 11th Street in Tulsa, also known as part of the historic Route 66.

Our group came up with what is pictured above. This was after I (and others) insisted that we have both bike lanes, trolley/car lanes, sidewalks and at least one lane where cars can pass the trolleys safely without endangering the cyclists and walkers other than to turn into the businesses with parking lots.

Another group came up with something completely different. Both were solid complete streets. Both even had low-density, suburban retail. And when someone suggested that my sidewalk was too narrow, I reminded them that some shop fronts could still roll up their windows and make the outside come in.

Yet, their concerns about how the buildings would work were valid. So are those of these folks in DC, who are concerned about a new road diet plan, even though they can be annoying. What it tells us is that we still need to work on making sure people understand, that when it comes to having all modes of transit on a street, that means everyone has a right to the street, a right that can’t be questioned. A right that allows people to advance their lives in other ways.

Imagine the college student from the housing project who has to walk to school. They continue to walk and may even bike to school, then to their next job and then maybe with a baby carriage attached. America Walks has a great fact sheet on how complete streets help low-income and other underprivileged families.

So many other organizations around the country, such as Changing Gears in Greensboro and The 816 Bike Collective and RevolveKC in Kansas City exist just to get poor, homeless, black, Latino, refugee and any other underserved or under-resourced population to bicycling.

Then there are the Major Taylor Clubs, the Black Women Bike clubs, traditional cycling clubs with membership fees and jerseys, that do long distance rides and sometimes compete in races, which also tend to attract African-Americans and other people of color with means.

Finally, many schools are adding bike education to their main curriculums. My office is in school districts across the KC metro doing just that and soon DC will teach every second grader in the traditional  public school system bike safety, with actual bikes and making sure every kid who comes through the program can ride.

With these programs children biking won’t be a thing of the past. They will then grow to commute and maybe even race by bike. More adults will be able to take advantage of having a mode of transport that they control and pay little, if nothing at all besides sweat equity to use.

Also, completing streets is something that municipalities can adopt and put money to at the same time. By training the staff who make improvements to the roads and sidewalks, by absorbing more of the costs to make road and sidewalk improvements and by being creative as to what makes each street in a city complete, then they can turn around their reputations for creating bad gentrification and unsafe streets.

So there you have it. A gentrification method, that when done right, makes a community whole and connected, no matter the economic class, counters the obesity epidemic and creates more equal opportunity for jobs, education and cultural engagement.

Chat with me about this live on Periscope Thursday evening (October 29 at 5:30 Central). Also, be sure to get on my email list to never miss a post! 

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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.

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