Tag Archives: Politics of Place

Why Homeless and Homeless-Ally Suppression Has to Stop if We Want Good Places

Prior to my father’s passing, he was in a state that I have come to term “functional homelessness.” He was often a fixture at the local soup kitchens and occasionally popped into the Interactive Resource Center (IRC), our local day center for those who are either homeless or in transition. He still had his home, intermittent work, and a working car.

A similar situation had befallen the young man who was also featured with me in the Sunday News & Record two weeks ago. Once gainfully employed and able to keep himself and his mother under a more stable roof, he’d been forced into a tent city after a stint of unemployment and losing his apartment. His mom eventually found more permanent shelter, but he continues to live in his tent, getting by on a temporary minimum wage job. People have reached out for help as a result of the publicity the article garnered and I hope that will mean that he’s free from living in a tent and intermittent employment.

But there’s no shame if he actually wants to live in a tent. There’s no shame if he wants to participate in an untraditional, but legal, economy such as bartering his skills and services. Why do we create these kinds of spaces and places of shame? Why do we not support simple economies, economies that allow for simple dwellings, bartering, and sharing food, tools, skills and other things in a marketplace as a major economic development strategy? Why must cities chase after luxury apartments, performing arts centers, multinational corporations and “young professionals” to feel successful? Why are we not concerned enough, at least in Greensboro, with the loss of a major health clinic, so much so that we’d pledge money to make sure it stays open, like the sudden pledging of money to ensure we have a major performing arts center and a brand new partially private park?

I do want to commend Greensboro for continuing to support initiatives around providing people with stable homes, jobs, and food such as the IRC, the Urban Ministry and Bicycling in Greensboro. Another shout out to the churches, including my home church, who support the homeless and those on the fringes of the traditional economy and middle and working class. Why can’t we be proud of those measures and make sure we support them  as an economic development strategy?

The Corner of Lee and Eugene Streets. A central point for homeless services and a congregation point for those in transition, outside of the IRC, here in Greensboro.

The Corner of Lee and Eugene Streets. A central point for homeless services and a congregation point for those in transition, outside of the IRC, here in Greensboro. Photo Credit: Kristen E. Jeffers

This is especially relevant after this weekend, where in my other hometown of Raleigh, the basic act of feeding the homeless out in the open became illegal. This is on top of Columbia, SC banning their homeless from their downtown and other cities enacting similar restrictions either downtown or in the city limits.

I don’t fault the minister in Raleigh for not wanting a criminal record of his own, since that’s problematic in itself. However, this man was forced to choose between feeding people and giving himself a record that could keep him from employment, therefore, putting himself in the same situation as many he was hoping to help. It makes those who have been arrested at the Moral Mondays even more courageous as many of them are risking respectability on one front to protest injustice on another front. There’s also the other issue of the high cost of obtaining a legal permit to serve food or hold an event in the park in Raleigh. If the park is for the public use, why such high user fees for an official assembly? What constitutes an “official assembly”? I understand helping pay for clean-up and security, but is there not a way to reduce the costs to use our open, completely public in this case, space?

Ultimately, the City of Raleigh has stepped up to apologize and work on a real solution to allow Moore Square to continue to be a place where those on the margins, whether by choice or by necessity, can come together and at least break bread. After all, we encourage those of greater means to eat in the parks during lunch and dinner hours, what’s so different about what this ministry and other ministries are doing for those of lesser means?

There are two major issues here that we need to address if we want to move forward in an inclusive manner. First, we need to continue to find ways to incorporate services and opportunities in centralized areas, namely our traditional main streets, downtowns, uptowns, CBD’s, lifestyle centers or whatever your city chooses to call these areas. Second, the criminalization of those who LOOK undesirable and of those who choose to help those who are “undesirable” has to stop.

The loss of public services like health clinics in centralized areas will push our most vulnerable further and further to the margins. The reason why areas of urban poverty were able to sustain some form of a civil society was due to their proximity to social services. When we shut down or push further out these services, then we create larger and more vast pockets of metro-area poverty. Areas that were built for people of decent to massive means to take care of themselves are now areas where the rent may be cheaper, but the other costs are far higher. If we re-centralize and continue to support centralization of all of our social services, much like we want our entertainment and luxury centralized, it brings up all the members of society, regardless of the level at which they choose to engage the greater economy.

The criminalization of people who LOOK threatening adds to the prison-industrial complex and lowers the morale of those who are on the margins of the city. The greater issue I’ve had with our youth curfew here in Greensboro has not been safety and positive activity of our youth, but of the idea that one bad apple spoils the whole lot. So you may have had one or two panhandlers that harass. What about the others that quietly beg or even better, are singing on the streets? So the singers can stay, as we have made provision for here in Greensboro with our new street busker program, but the person whose need we really can’t determine can’t? I’ve been victimized by people claiming to need help on the streets, but does that mean all people living on the streets are bad? I feel like my own black peers, from my teen years until now, don’t always respect or understand who I am, but does that mean I write them completely off, to the point where they could go to jail just because I THINK they are a threat? Absolutely not.

Cities really need to check their privilege and methods of advancing their cities, if they think criminalization of certain populations or the inhibition of servicing certain populations is going to aid in the continued economic growth or re-start economic growth in their cities.

I know we can all do better. Let’s keep doing better and keep making sure that just like I said in my last post, placemaking remains democratic and not a privilege. And even though there is evidence that homelessness has decreased, it doesn’t mean that it’s over or that a tent is less valuable than a house.

UPDATE 8/27 9:35 a.m.: Some community officials and advocates are speaking out against the closing of the Healthserve clinics here in Greensboro. H/T to the News and Record. Missed this before I went live this morning.

The Privilege of Urbanism, The Democracy of Placemaking


The one thing I can take from reading this article and reading my words back to myself on what it has been like living as a classical new urbanist over the past year. I cannot think of another way to illustrate how I feel vis-a-vis a young man, only two years younger than me, who’s trying to get his life back on his feet, facing challenges. It also brings me to a hard truth that my design-focused friends and followers will not want to hear.

Design, even new urbanist design, is out of reach or a major stretch for far too many people, including myself.

Prior to speaking with the reporter about the issues and frustrations I have with where I live, prior to the noise ordinance and curfew restrictions, I’d been thinking about a change in living situation.

However, I kept beating myself up with a major what-if: if I leave my apartment and go somewhere cheaper, then many of the theories I’ve put forth on this blog and in other forms would go unproven.

Isn’t that what a theory is though, an idea that hasn’t been proven? Is anything on this blog law?

No, it isn’t, and that’s actually a good thing.

One of the greatest new urbanist writers of our time is actually not quite an urbanist, in the sense that he doesn’t live in an apartment, near transit, by himself or with one or two other people. I would like to think his credibility on the subject is far superior to mine and the marketplace agrees (slowly but surely).

Yet, I still believed for the longest time, that the only way anyone would listen to my words and create a marketplace around them is if I lived the most extreme urbanism I knew how to live.

And it’s urbanism, but it’s not placemaking.

Placemaking does require an address, but it’s not necessarily an address in demand. Place can be made from old-line suburbia, where each neighbor can decide to grow a different vegetable and then teach the community how to clean and cook those vegetables, in order to eat healthier. The streets of that old-line suburbia could become woonerfs, places where cars automatically go slow and people take advantage of the sloping hills and winding curves and dead ends to get in workouts, that shed the pounds earned by sitting in cars commuting to ever further away jobs, or from sitting at home doing a job that no longer requires a specific location. They could carpool to stores. I think my reporter friend said it best in this article, “Even for a staunch new urbanist like myself, the logic is inescapable: If you want two or three bedrooms and you can afford a mortgage of about $100,000, you head for the suburbs.”

While I truly don’t want the center city to yield to the gilded class, I don’t want us to give up on making good places because we don’t live or can’t afford to do so. I also don’t want those of us with massive privilege to forget that it doesn’t take much for anyone to fall on hard times and not all dealing with hard times are lazy and uncommitted.

Whatever happens and whatever I decide to do in the coming months, my goal is to commit myself to a new theory, the democracy of placemaking. To create, to invent, to include, to incorporate, to adapt, to save and to grow. Let me not forget again, what it really means to be a placeist.

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Thoughts on Bringing Our Youth Back Downtown

Between the Trayvon Martin verdict and the recent youth fights resulting in our downtown curfew for the remainder of the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can do to make sure downtown is solidly diverse, without sacrificing safety.

I’ve had to think long and hard about what my response would be. I could rail and say that this city is forever racist, that the kids will never amount to anything, that there will never be any chain stores or any other negativity that has been thrown at downtown and even our city lately. However, it is just like I told Sarah Goodyear of Atlantic Cities in this article:

Kristen Jeffers, a Greensboro native who lives downtown, founded the blog The Black Urbanist. She says that anxiety about young black people who flock to the entertainment district masks deeper issues facing the city’s development.

While there’s been a lot of investment in high-end rental housing, and the city is talking about putting in a performing arts center, Jeffers says the area still lacks basic services like pharmacies and a full-scale supermarket.

“For a neighborhood to be a true neighborhood, and not just a vertical suburb, you need those services,” she says.

What the also downtown needs, she says, are amenities that attract more people of a variety of ages, like playgrounds for families and a first-run movie theater. And young people should be supported with more structured programming, rather than marginalized. “Our city needs to bring back a full-on youth program,” says Jeffers, the type of effort that includes job training as well as recreational opportunities.

What my solution look like?

Western Part of Downtown Greensboro

What you see in the left oval is an area that consists of a YMCA to the top right of the oval, a magnet performing arts high school flanking the left side of the oval and school administration building between the two surface lots. The right oval shows how close this area is to Elm Street, the new hotspot for everyone that’s become ground zero for the fights, and also new upscale stores and development. My office is also in that oval and my apartment is just southeast of it’s boundary, along with our central bus depot and Amtrak train station.

We are talking about roughly a square (rectangular) mile here. This area is also owned and managed by either the county school system or the Y. The Y already has programs for youth, even though they are fee-based. The school system has a mandate to educate the teenagers that go through their building. Adults already know this area as a place that is family-friendly. Teens know this area has places they can go and not be pushed out.

The only caveat is that this area is adjacent to the county jail. However, this also means law enforcement is quite close by and can deal with people who fight. Otherwise, one of the surface lots along with the brick school administration building can be upfitted into a family entertainment center, with lazer tag, bowling, a skate park and playground, go-karts, and a movie theater. The administrative functions could move to another building that the school system owns just north of the school building. The center could be closed during school hours except during the summer. A deck could be built next to the Y building to accommodate the increased traffic to both the Y and this entertainment center. It could also accommodate jail parking, which has been a need since it opened last year. The playground area would be a public, free facility, or the Y could open their existing playground area to the public. A private company could operate the entertainment center, and employ students of either the high school or nearby colleges. Students could even build the center, as this high school at one time housed one of the construction trades programs in the county.

In addition to beefing up the existing Greensboro Youth Council, these initiatives would go a long way in serving the growing and in many ways already existing youth population who want a place to go downtown, along with the adults.

This also does not excuse the current curfew, nor let other areas off the hook for being accepting of students and youth. As long as youth don’t fight each other, they have every right to play sports on the lawns and sit on the benches of Center City Park like everyone else. Yet, once that park closes, they could go to the Y or the entertainment center and spend the remainder of their evening in a place that is ready and willing to accept them.

Voting Rights, Civic Duty, and Neighborhoods

Nearly one week ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The part that was struck down, pre-clearance, required state legislatures in several states across the country, including my own in part, to submit any plans to re-district or reform the voting process to the Justice Department. The idea was to make sure any voter suppression or restriction efforts, such as literacy tests, were not reenacted. Also, districts were drawn to ensure minority, namely black voting turnout. The idea of pre-clearance is not dead. However, the formula is and it is up to Congress to make a new one.

So what does this have to do with neighborhoods? Lots. Follow me and you will see why.

For the record, I want to say that the idea of reducing the ability and ease of voting is wrong. I don’t understand why we have not figured out how to make it EASIER to vote for our political leaders. The online universe is littered with polls. Granted, some of those polls allow you to vote multiple times. Yet others don’t and somehow we can’t bring that technology to the polls that matter the most?

Yet, I feel lawmakers want voting restricted because it favors the populace and not them. However, these lawmakers forget a central tenet: they serve at the pleasure of the people. Or do they? As we have found out, there’s no true constitutional right for the common people to vote for their leaders. At any moment, state legislatures and other local governing bodies could decide to start appointing their leaders and disenfranchise the entire populace.

Another issue with the VRA and the current state of voting is that the rules were becoming a restriction for those it sought to help. It was as if it was not worth trying as a black individual running in a non-VRA district. Similar things happen on the local level in other districts and to other marginalized groups where states have drawn districts to ensure an extreme level of compliance with the VRA. Take a look at North Carolina’s map below. Thanks to a very off interpretation of the VRA, that “snake” district is the only thing that guarantees at least one solid, African-American U.S.House member in this state.

North Carolina Congressional District #12. The VRA in action.

Yet, I want to remind everyone that as a citizen of any place you live and a good community steward, voting is essential. See, this is what has to do with neighborhoods. I took a bit of heat for not including it in my list of things that make one a lazy urbanist. However, to me, being a lazy urbanist allows for a representative democracy, as such we have throughout our country at all levels of government. If one has a crop of good leaders, why vote? Some would also say that we are too large to caucus in many areas. However, we are not too large and shouldn’t be too lazy to vote, find people worthy of serving us in our own communities, and even become that person ourselves. True governing requires door-to-door campaigning and town hall meetings. If neighborhood residents can come together on a regular basis and vote on activities, then why not vote on the leaders and issues that matter to them?

However, it comes down to one thing and one thing only: how to be a good neighbor. There is a Christian scripture that commands us to love our neighbor. If you don’t like the use of scripture, then go to the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which has become a universal ethics code. Being a good neighbor requires that we sometimes lay down our personal differences and the personal mandate we have been given, for the good of others. It requires that we lay down our jealousies, envies, and feelings of being threatened and we allow others the right to exist and live. Sometimes we can’t blast our music loud. Yet, does that mean we can’t paint our house purple? What are we doing that we are allowing residential home values to be what they are such that segregation, competition for home bids, flipping, and other detriments to home values are happening? And back to the main issue at hand, why are we not voting, not allowing potential elected leaders in our homes, or realizing the type of country we are supposed to live in, which allows for liberty AND respect for our fellow people?

I can’t answer that question, but I can say that we have to be better citizens and in turn that creates stronger neighborhoods and communities.

The Common Man’s Legacy in a City

My dad will probably never be a statue or have buildings named after him, but he still managed to leave a legacy in Greensboro.

My dad will probably never be a statue or have buildings named after him, but he still managed to leave a legacy in Greensboro.

What does it take to leave a legacy in a city? Is it having your name on a building that you either built or gave a lot of money to make?

Is it knowing your entire block or neighborhood?

Is it leaving behind children and grandchildren who continue on with the family cause or business?

These are questions I’ve been thinking about lately. I’m not going to go into any more details about what brought me to these questions, because there’s a lot I cannot say about why and what happened. However, the root of it all starts here, as I detailed in my About section and in my 2010 Grist article “Does urbanism have to be black or white?”

It all started with a map on the floor. My dad and I would spend Saturday afternoons “driving” around with my toy NASCARs from my friendly neighborhood Hardees. As I got older, I became enamored of the small skyline of my hometown of Greensboro, N.C. So enamored that one day, while I was sick with the chicken pox, my dad went out and bought me a postcard with the skyline on it. It hangs in my room to this day.

When they widened the main road next to our house, I cried. I also was opposed to a hotel project near my current residence that threatened to upstage the downtown area. Mind you, I was only eight. I was an urbanist in the making, although I would have had no way of knowing there was a name for it.

Dad and I biked through our neighborhood on Saturday afternoons. Those bike rides took us through housing projects and 1940s era single-family homes until we made it to the main suburban artery. I loved my bike until I moved to a neighborhood where I was teased for just walking around. It’s taken me about 15 years to consider getting back on a bike. My dad still bikes; he’s always had a string of intermittently non-working cars, so he doesn’t think twice about it.

My dad doesn’t have any buildings named after him. I’ll probably have to sell his house. He struggled to walk down streets with no sidewalks. Then there was the bike. When he got tired of fighting our stroads with both of those, he put money into a car he could barely afford. Yet, he fixed up homes that weren’t built well in the first place. He mowed yards that others couldn’t maintain. He always had a song in his heart and brought music to any space. Finally, he made sure that I knew that people, all people, mattered. All these things are his legacy.

How can you leave a legacy in your city? DO YOU and do what your community needs. My dad did. It does not take money, a building with your name on it, or a stone edifice of your body to be someone who is never forgotten or to create an example.

In fact, if you create an example, that legacy lives on and it lives in the present.

GUEST POST–Rethinking Community Development Efforts: Creating Incentive to Stay or Building Reason to Flee?

When Allison Guess reached out to me about guest posting, I noticed she was from Pittsburgh and I asked her to tell me about what’s really going on in East Liberty, an area lauded for its new development lifeblood. However, as I expected and even more, she has taken us back to the roots of gentrification (colonialization) and illustrated how the current changes are right in line with previous patterns. Her post raises questions and intensifies my hope that one day, we as Americans can come to terms with land ownership, cultivation, and value in an ethical and honorable manner.

A few years ago, I began doing some preliminary research on land based historical trauma. I was specifically interested in land theft and the effects gentrification on Black communities. In a 21st century effort to expand my bibliography, I did a basic Google search of “land theft.” Although not specific enough, my search request did birth a critical evaluation of the stories of land theft that our country has told.

As grade school children, we as United States citizens learn about how the Pilgrims came to the “New World” on the Mayflower and later had a blissful Thanksgiving meal with the Natives. Educators are not honest when describing this situation of overt land theft, the rapping of communities and extreme injustice those Native American communities experienced and continue to face. History books ignore the past and presently lingering notion of Manifest Destiny that lead to the colonization of the African continent (before and after the Pilgrims came to the “New World”) and the seizure of off-continental U.S. territories. Only as adults and when entering college do a few of us hear or care to learn of this bitter truth.

Ironically, past and present conversations about land theft, more often than none seem to tell a drastically biased tale. In the post-slavery Jim Crow Era, one can clearly evaluate the thoughts and fears of urbanization that took place during in Industrial Revolution. Many whites during the time made their concern of the African American Great Migration, also described as the “Negro invasion” known in large public spheres. In that era it was Blacks that were being accused of taking all the jobs and displacing white Americans, sound familiar? On the other hand, major history sources fail to mention that Blacks participating in this massive move, were responding to the terrorism of the south by fleeing for their lives in hopes of salvaging their communities and living out the promised American Dream.

To speak to today’s biased tale of land theft, we can simply encounter present day conversations about immigration and “Mexicans” “stealing” land, resources and jobs from “Americans.” Paradoxically, most of the inhabited lands that some U.S. citizens see as the biggest “threat” of immigrant occupancy (southern and southwestern states such as Texas, Arizona, California, Alabama etc.) are the lands that were not only once occupied by Native Americans but more resounding the country of Mexico, alike. It is interesting to me that advocates of border control and harsh immigration policies, continue to seek ways to police and keep out the descendants of the original inhabitants of these lands.

My point in creating this past and present parallel is to highlight the deeply imbedded fears, bias, and racism in the white psyche. Understanding (not judging) these feelings while having an open and honest “immigration” conversation can help many of us to understand the “memories” that Black Americans have of land theft and land based historical trauma. They can help community organizers, community planners, and investors understand that all people, regardless of skin color, develop relationships, memories, and some level of fondness to their communities regardless of how blighted these spaces may be or have become. We should be reminded that a simple change in community design that ultimately leads to the attraction of a different demographic group other than the already present residents is in and of itself a model of invasion as well as a type of land theft.

Courtesy Allison Guess

East Liberty redevelopments. Courtesy Allison Guess.

An example of not taking the above into consideration and the possible damaging ramifications of community development includes that of East Liberty. East Liberty was once a predominately African American occupied neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a child, I grew up just minutes away from East Liberty. Like many urban Black neighborhoods in the U.S., there was certainly violence, drugs and crime; I will not negate that. However, there was also a strong community that sought to overcome the effects of systematic poverty and disenfranchisement and thus give back to the community.

East Liberty seemed to change overnight. I went away to college and then returned to a new neighborhood. There were fancy restaurants, Target, $400,000+ homes being built and parking meters lined major streets. Soon these streets would become a nightlife and fine dinning Mecca. Commercial for sale signs were everywhere and one could see the future plans of those particular spaces in their windows and on their lots. A majority Black middle school ended this past school year early so it could be demolished and turned into costly lofts.

One of the more sincere objectives of investors is to create incentive for those dwelling in certain areas coined slums to stay. Adversely, in East Liberty (and some other gentrified neighborhoods in United States) the incentive that was created was one that encouraged former residents to leave. Although beneficial to get the “blight” out of neighborhoods, it is very clear that the “original” residents of East Liberty had no or a very small voice in the changes. The documentary East of Liberty highlights this struggle between original residents, new residents, and developers.

Now I know many on the defense will say that supportive, mixed-income housing was built. One could argue that this was established with the community impute. However, I believe this housing is a monument of negativity: a symbol of the undermining of a people due to an enduring history of racism, disenfranchisement, and historical trauma. While support is needed for the abused and addicted, the best support comes from true policy change, the critique and modification of systems, and the desire to see competitive groups excel and take pride in recreating their own community. This support does not include takeover, theft, capture, poverty, forced socialization, or community defeat.

Thus in in moving forward, I have some normative suggestions to community planners and investors. We should seek to make sure all residents are included when making decisions about neighborhood change and development. We ought to be critical of who is or who is not at the conversation table. This means we do not just include the more vocal or affluent voices in the community that are still deemed different in some ways to us, but we should also seek representation of those community members who barely have a whisper. It is not anybody’s responsibility to make decisions or decide the fates of others. When creating incentive to stay, we should make sure it is just that. The primary intention in development should always be to have people stay and the secondary focus should be to attract others into the community and thus naturally foster a more diverse community over time. In doing all of this, the memories and experiences of land theft, invasion, and immigration should inform our discussion as all racial and regional groups have experienced their own story of settling and seizure from an “outsider” group.

Allison Guess is a resident of Pittsburgh, PA. Allison graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with two Bachelors degrees in Political Science and Hispanic Languages and Literature (Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese). Currently, Allison is a consultant and the Academic Liaison for the Black/Land Project. Allison is interested in land based historical trauma, gentrification, redlining, gerrymandering, policy histories, displacement, ethnography and storytelling, just to name a few. Allison hopes to pursue a PhD in African American/Africana Studies in order to further research Black peoples’ relationships to land and place.

Reconciling Design and Social Justice in the Place

I’m not naive to my role straddling the middle of design and social justice in the Place. What is the Place? I define the Place as the entity that comes up for discussion, dissection, or manipulation by policymakers, planners, residents, and developers. In essence, this concept is summed up in one word: Placemaking.

Place is more than the apartment block, the two-story house, the town center, the farm. If we don’t have people who can use the objects of Place, then we are useless. Even worse are people who can build Place but only for profit.

However, place should be where social justice and design meet.

Witness what’s going on here in Greensboro with public art and creative placemaking. The Greensboro Mural Project has revitalized a parking deck…

stairwell mural

…and brought homeless individuals into creating public art.

IRC mural 2

They chose murals because:

  • “[They build] bridges by painting walls.” This theory believes that beautiful, shared space helps breaks down social/cultural/political/etc. barriers for people to connect. Murals help beautify surroundings of any city.

  • Anyone can be involved in the process who wants to be, regardless of talent, skill or experience.

  • The process engages the community and forms a sense of commitment, creating community ownership.

  • Murals have proven to assist in raising property values without gentrification.

  • Quality murals make art available and free for the community.

  • Murals become landmarks in the community.

  • Murals define the cultural identity of a neighborhood or an entire city.

  • Murals attract more artists, visitors and media coverage for the area.

So you say, hey, that’s just murals and of course murals won’t gentrify, they’re just a painted wall. Well, in Cleveland, a developer is starting to put small amounts of money into flipping homes, yet maintaining both a quality standard and a low price point for rentals.

We must take away all the barriers for people to build, yet give barriers that provide for easy access, basic safety, shared prosperity, and easy growth. When our places die, we need to be able to pick up the pieces ASAP and make something new. We need to let whomever wants to come in do so, but it needs to be a WE effort, not a ME or THEY effort. It’s great that some culture has been preserved in some areas, but what about current events and life. Can we make sure people can continue to live in these new “prettified” areas.

Design is not just for the developer. Social justice is not just for the downtrodden. Place needs both to be.

Images Courtesy: Alyzza May

Reflections on Downtown Greensboro, As The Community Addresses Its Future

On Tuesday April 30, I spent a good bit of time thinking about downtown with a bunch of dignitaries and fellow young leaders. Our civic foundations brought back Richard Flierl of Cooper Carry, The Center for Connective Architecture, who helped the city conduct a downtown plan in 2002. At lunchtime, 100 of my fellow young professionals met to learn about the plan, talk about ideas to improve on it, and be encouraged to do more pop-up(tactical) urbanism.

To say that I love downtown Greensboro is a major understatement. When I was six years old and stuck inside with the chicken pox, all I missed was “seeing the tall buildings downtown.” My dad went and got me a postcard of downtown just so I could see my beloved buildings while under quarantine . What I was marveling at the most were  the  three year old Jefferson-Pilot (Lincoln Financial) and  First Union (now Wells Fargo) towers. The towers gave us a distinctive skyline and showed that we were serious about remaining a gateway city and also a prosperous city.

Yet, there was not much in the way of activity under those buildings. In 1993, when this chicken pox story happened, Elm Street laid mostly vacant, save the Miller Furniture Company and the Greensboro Record Center, which my parents went to often for the latest albums. Woolworths was still operating as a store, but it was not long before it, and the entire chain, shut down in Greensboro. The Junior League had started operating their new Bargain Box on the first floor of the original First Union building (Currently the Self-Help building, where my office is located). However, my current apartment, my favorite watering holes and restaurants, and even the room where we held this seminar did not exist. Downtown would lay fallow for at least three to six more years before major urban plans such as Flierl’s were created.

So where are we now?

Richard Flierl addresses a Who's Who of creative forces in Greensboro on April 30, 2013.

Richard Flierl addresses a Who’s Who of creative forces in Greensboro on April 30, 2013.

In a decent place according to Flierl. Many of the things he suggest we build are in place, namely Center City Park and the downtown ballpark (albiet not in the place he put them). He noted that good progress had been made on the Downtown Greenway , adding residential properties and increasing cultural events. His primary challenges were for the young professionals to continue doing pop-up activities and to the elders to finish what they started, namely the performing arts center.

(An aside: It was great to see where some of the energy and the nucleus of the performing arts center and other ideas came from. It now gives me more context as to why we are pushing so hard for certain things).

At the end of the day, he just wanted us to “get it done.”

So do I.

On the local news, I got a chance to tell a reporter that I feel like we need to work our hardest at becoming a 24 hour city. I want to be able to walk out my door, come down into that beautiful skyline and be able to pick something to do without having to dig into the Facebook invites and event calendars, or stumble on something awesome that I didn’t know was happening and don’t know when it will happen again.

Also, what about our displaced and left out residents?  Community organizer and  friend Wesley Morris challenged the young professional crowd to be  be mindful of who has been displaced by movements that have already happened. An elderly woman at the evening session reminded us that not all seniors are near death and they’d like to have a senior center in the heart of the city. Several adults who appeared to be parents of teenagers called for a downtown skate park.  We need to up the mix of people downtown. Make it accessible to children, teens, seniors and the disabled along with young professionals and wealthy people.

I am reminded of the fish market on the corner of Lee and Friendly, that happened to be surrounded by a dilapidated old bakery, but was bringing business to that corner. Yet, in the redevelopment plan, the market was moved, initially for the ballpark, but later for our yet to be conceived South Elm redevelopment. Why not develop around this market? No this isn’t a sexy businesses, but it’s business none the less. Kaid Benfield said it best in his recent list of smarter smarter growth that we really need to start growing around who’s already here and make sure they get a say and get to stay.

At the end of the day, as I’ve said in other media, downtown is really where I want to be in Greensboro. I walk to work down here, I wake up and can look out upon my beloved skyline (and the trains), and I get to meet regularly with many strong minds willing to do something to make this place a bit better.

I want everybody to be in love with downtown. If we can keep up this energy, I know everyone will be.

Coming Back to the Streets, Coming Back to Action

Many times, it is very difficult for me to feel like I make a real difference in lives by writing. Are words are what people need the most? Don’t they need action?

Well, action is what they got out of me these past two weekends. On the weekend of April 20-21, 2013, a project that had been sitting under some dust, the Pop-Up Promenade came together in Greensboro. A partnership between Action Greensboro, Downtown Greensboro, Inc.,the City of Greensboro, and several community partners, February One Place will become a place in the truest sense of the word every Friday and Saturday from 6-10 p.m. throughout the months of May and June. Food trucks, musicians and who knows what else will show up and ignite this alleyway right in the heart of downtown Greensboro.

One of the centerpieces of this project is a street mural pattern created by graphic designer Nadia Hassan. Half-homage to the lunch counter seats of the Greensboro Four and half-octagonal M.C. Escher memorial, the street itself gets to put on a nice costume and be more than the place where we put our feet and drive our cars. Due to the complicated nature of the design, the city asked that volunteers come out and paint the street. I picked up a paintbrush on April 21 and helped with the first leg of the project. Yesterday (4/26/2013), other volunteers came out and finished the project. While the paint is semi-permanent, we all hope that this paint will last a very long time. I am also excited that this project has been on major local news stations and our city manager has filmed a video to encourage people to the painted street. I can only imagine what our weekends will be like this summer, with lots of people engaging the street and not just from the sidewalk.

Personally, it took me back to drawing Escher-esque patterns in grade school, doing volunteer work as a student leader in undergrad, and back to the basic core of why I’m a community advocate and placemaker. It’s fun to make something beautiful of out of a place. Plus,there’s a pride in doing something with your hands that changes the physical space. I’m not a formal planner or even a full-time community developer and getting a chance to do just that, even for just a few hours on the weekend, was priceless.


Painting February One Place in Greensboro. Photo by Cecilia Thompson

Painting February One Place in Greensboro. I’m in the pink hoodie. Photo by Cecelia Thompson

The city of Durham is one step ahead of us in Greensboro though. I spent this past Saturday (4/27) afternoon helping put on Durham’s Longest Dinner Table and Block Party, a Build a Better Block initiative put on by the City of Durham Neighborhood Improvement Services and Marry Durham. The goal was to block off the street and create the longest communal dinner table ever in Durham. The table was a good 1/8 to 1/4 a mile long and there was wonderful food and music all up and down the street. According to the event organizers, 669 people showed up, including a man dressed as Jesus. How’s that for divine intervention. The diversity of people was brilliant. And to think, the City of Durham took the lead, then the community organizations followed. Oh, and the neighborhood is in transition, but holding on to it’s mixture of people and income levels ever so slightly.

There were several personal tugs here.Durham was the first city I completely legally resided in, outside of Greensboro (my years in Raleigh were campus years, in which I only registered to vote and did not establish a permanent household of my own). I learned how to drive on my own in Durham. I rented my first apartment there. I worked my first full-time job there as well. However, I never really got a chance to learn and love Durham. The name of it being the cesspool of the Triangle region lingered so heavy, I was not surprised when I was mugged in my own apartment parking lot in August of 2008. My job fell through and so did several subsequent efforts to find employment in the region. I came home to Greensboro, climbed under a proverbial rock and didn’t go out at dark for months. The streets stopped being my friend.


Check me out towards the middle with the red shirt and fro. Great conversations with folks of all ages. Photo by Mary Beth.

Check me out towards the middle with the red shirt and fro. Great conversations with folks of all ages. Photo by Mary Beth.

Yet, here I was, back on a Durham street, eating a nice lunch and chatting with a variety of positive folks. What really touched me was talking to an 11-year-old. Outside of my younger cousins, talking to children doesn’t come easy to me. Yet, as I was telling another table mate about where I lived in Durham and how much of the city I missed while I was there, the young man and I were able to chat about living in and around the same place. I also told him about this page, so hopefully he’s reading this. I also hope that he gets the chance to know that I really enjoyed talking with him and was honored that this page might have some interest to someone his age, who clearly has an aptitude for learning why the world is the way it is. I have no doubt he will do great things in his life if he keeps up his love for learning.

As I bring this to a close, I look forward to great times at the Pop-Up Promenade and look forward to next year’s Longest Food Table. I also feel better about the action of the pen/keyboard. I wouldn’t have known about either event had I not started writing this blog and had I not had a will to be a public servant in some form.

Sometimes actions and words speak at the same volume.

The City and Tragedy

I wanted to drop a quick note here on the blog about city and tragedy. Really, it’s about community and tragedy, but it’s a city that was most recently hit, so that’s where I’ll start from.

First of all, tragedy is an every day, every moment thing. Sometimes we get something so horrific, something that is incomprehensible and that activity tends to happen where there’s some form of density or concentration. This is the Newtown, the 9/11, now the Boston. Yet, we also have the slow burning tragedies, where over time, people are dying slow deaths, or quick, but sudden deaths. Here you have your Chicago, some say New Orleans, and really any place abandoned and left high and dry. There are so many of those, the ghettos, barrios, trailer parks, and deserted farms and factories of the world.

Dreams deferred and dying on a regular basis.

Yet, this is the time when community and place come to the forefront. When people offer their homes, their money, their blood, their tears, their hugs, and their social media platforms.

Some have already used this time or series of events to tell people to run from the cities, run from each other, to retreat and go away and blame.

Yet, I’m inspired by the runners whose first instinct was to run straight to the hospital and give their tired blood. To the well-known first responders, the people our municipal taxes go to so they can be there when trouble comes suddenly. And in lesser known, slow-burning tragedies, the daily foot soldiers, the community activists and the dreamers, all those who see a better future.

When the city and the greater whole of the place, no longer see tragedy.