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Three Lessons I Learned About Place in 2015

Three Lessons I Learned About Place in 2015

I learned a lot about place this year. Yet, those many lessons coalesced into these three big lessons: a progressive, inclusive, tactical charrette process, people over money and the need to legally live in more than one place, to help you guys out there learn more about your own towns and cities. Let’s dig into those lessons.

You Can Have a Progressive, Inclusive, Tactical Charrette Process

I was invited to come to Chattanooga back in April to participate in the Next Big Thing, a design charrette centered on the Glass Street area of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Having grown up and really come up politically in Greensboro, cities like Chattanooga and Greenville, SC are aspirational places to the governments and stakeholders of other smaller cities like Greensboro. In fact, a delegation of Greensboro folks was in town doing a comparison shopping tour, while I was there working on a lesser-loved area of town.

Despite its status as lesser loved and its lack of waterfront view and mountain height, the Glass Street area doesn’t lack for good people and good infrastructure. The group that brought us all together, The Glass House Collective, is embedded and dedicated to the betterment of this community.

On the surface, the Glass Street area seems like your typical predominately black community, that as a result of redlining and legal integration, has a double whammy of having good housing stock, but not being a place that even Blacks of means want to invest in. Well, besides liquor stores, clubs, and various houses of worship, that, unfortunately, don’t work together and have even been the sites of murders and thefts.

Yet, there was this diner, The Glass Street Breakfast and Lunch House, on the corner of Glass and Dodson, across the street from the building where we set up shop. The woman who owns it wasn’t on my team, but I could see and feel her energy and excitement throughout the process. All of our teams had community members, mostly Black property owners and other stakeholders local to the area. What was also key, was that there were a number of other Black American planners and group facilitators. There were white Chattanoogans from the other sides of town, who wanted to see a sustainable development (more on this dynamic later in the post). Yet, it was seeing this Black woman, believe in the power of her building, which outside of the fresh paint job, with the mural of the yummy-looking bowl of something on the outside, was nothing more than an old gas station, which in another context could look like a shack, that inspired me myself to look into the power of taking buildings and spaces, no matter their shape, and infuse value into them.

Even if her venture ultimately fails (as more ventures do, despite the race and energy level of their owners), it’s the intent, the ability to try. Oh and I hear her food was awesome. I was, unfortunately, battling the need to drive back down I-75 to make my flight and return my rental car at the Atlanta airport because flying into Chattanooga’s airport was nothing short of impractical, so I couldn’t try her food out. (Another problem for another day, like the need for someone to help her out with a website).

More on people-power later, on the big scale. At the root of this lesson is that you can have energy in the room and people, especially the people of color and low-wealth that may be in your charrette room, are just as powerful and can add just as much to your charrette process, as you. Even if you have a foot in both the elite, mostly white and wealthy, architecture, planning and development world and another in the mostly black neighborhoods, labeled as slums and ghettos even if there were at one point rich cultural assets, you can be valued and you can be heard in the charrette room. Charrettes, public workshops and other community listening processes have to have this going forward and they have to have a means of action.

In the meantime, I needed to not just see places, but immerse myself in places for longer than just a week…

You Can’t Really Be a Global, or Even Just a National Urbanist, If You’ve Only Lived in One State

Ultimately, I can come into a city and tell people what to do 365 days a year. I could do it on this blog 24 hours a day. It, however, doesn’t compare to actually being a resident and investing in two metro areas, if not three, simultaneously.

This is the first year that I’ve ever lived in two cities. Even when I was younger and going back and forth between the Piedmont Triad and the Research Triangle (they are different, if you click on their names you’ll know why they are different), I was still in the same state. I could get most of the same food (although Biscuitville is a uniquely Greensboro thing and Bojangles only hands out free sweet tea at their Triangle-area locations). I knew the names of the local politicos. I knew my sales tax rate. My license plates were the same (and there was only need for one of them). School districts tend to cover counties, not just a pod of a couple of elementary schools that feed into one middle and high school. Cities tend to only extend to county lines and if they do jump a line, it’s only a few blocks or a few neighborhoods.

Kansas City takes up pieces of four different counties. That’s just on the Missouri side. On the Kansas side, what we refer to as KCK, is also the entirety, save a place called Bonner Springs, of the county of Wyandotte. And then there’s everything wrapped up in Johnson County and the areas around the University of Kansas and the military operations. Having been East Coast-centered my whole life, I only knew of DC’s interesting position of being a bi-state metro area. Likewise with the New York City region. Charlotte’s also rapidly becoming as much a South Carolina major metro, much like Western Kansas propels that state’s entire economy.

To me, being a bi-state, bi-county area isn’t so bad, if you have a completely connected public transit system, so everyone has equal access to jobs. Likewise, when your school curriculums and calendars and resources are in sync. When you have the same tax rates and the same mix of national stores. Your local institutions are empowered and service the area equally. I have yet to see that in many regions and I feel like the communities I know and love back east do this better than the KC metro. It’s one thing to have a frontier/pioneer spirit. It’s another to have it so bad that you can’t be interdependent, much like the folks who were native to the land you built on.

Having lived in a totally different region, I feel like I have more fodder for writing this blog and my planning and development practice than ever before. I can properly compare the effects of how public policy, especially housing, tax and education policy, shape a city’s development. It’s deeper than those city trips where they show you all the pretty things. I was doing a radio pre-show interview and the producers asked me to describe Kansas City for a person hopping off at the airport and going to the convention hall. I think we can all do that, even if our only relationship to a city is going to its airport and convention hall. (Bonus aside, read my case for a new Kansas City Airport). But you have to go deeper than that if you are like me and you are involved in the development and maintenance of your city.

I also re-introduced and fortified the concept this year of the American Expat. Before, it was something I knew about in abstraction, having had several aunts and uncles who’d moved away for work and only came home at major holidays. There are parts of both metros that they love and embrace, so much so that I think my aunt may never move back to North Carolina.

For me, I’m still in the city audition process. Ultimately, I know that wherever I choose to plant my home base, it will have 75% of the values and things I recommend out of the gate. Or, it will have a solid group of people, committed to sustaining it and making it better. I will always come back to North Carolina and rejuvenate, due to this being my homeland and that of so many people I love and who helped me grow in my formative years.  Speaking of the content and concept of people sustaining a place, though…

Money is Magic, People are Sustaining

If we had millions of dollars, everything we want to happen on Glass Street (and your street) could happen tomorrow. However, a lot of the things that were proposed for Glass Street, like the street and sidewalk improvements, as well as the façade improvements and the addition of more than just tax preparers, liquor stores and some solid restaurants, require PEOPLE to patronize the store and bring the money to them.

The Glass Street area was labeled as a food desert, due to the loss of a grocery store, ironically right behind the Glass Street Breakfast and Lunch House. In my group in Chattanooga, I introduced the idea of a co-op grocery, something that’s happening twice in Greensboro, in two very different contexts. Many people are  familiar with our downtown natural food co-op market and deli/bakery, as a natural extension of a community supported agriculture delivery membership and provider of a downtown option, which is still not where developers want it to be to do a traditional supermarket concept. You may also be familiar with our other co-op, founded due to the lack of a major supermarket company, wanting to locate where it had no problems operating 30 years ago, a mostly Black, middle-class community. With some financial help from a local Black church and our city and the usual major foundation nonprofits with mostly white leadership, that community has funded a supermarket that will look more like Harris Teeter or at the very least, restore some of the character that the Winn-Dixie left.

While they are still waiting on the magic of money to come through, they are a determined group of people, a lesson that as we also honor the Kwanzaa week, is relevant in placemaking and all year.

Right now, city leaders and stakeholders are waiting on money to turn a once vibrant, but now vacant lot into our next Broadway-caliber performing arts center. Much money was pledged for this effort and they’ve unfortunately come up short. In turn, they are calling on people and their money, to help get this spot to the end. In the meantime, there were lots of people doing business on this big lot. There were a gas station and hospital and hotel here once upon a time. Then, just before demolition, there was a jazz club and doctors offices and hair salons and the chamber of commerce. I feel those things could have remained on that lot until the last dollar needed was in hand and then the demolition could start and within just a few short months, the new arts building would appear. (Edit on 12/31/15: The chamber is in fact still standing. But just barely. The building almost has no parking lot. Again, an institution that helps us to be capitalist can stand, but some aspects of capital can’t stand and we still don’t have the art we were promised. Hopefully, the money will be raised, but until then, I use caution in talking about this particular project as an economic driver and a value-add to Downtown Greensboro).

This gets me to a major lesson I want us all to learn this year and in coming years, to get back to a simple economy, where we can start paying things in full. Granted, the credit economy is what allowed us to grow as even things we take for granted, such as our rail system and certain shopping malls needed mortgages and loans to get started. Yet, what if even back then, people valued things at whatever could be given at the time? What if we made all houses less than $5,000? There could be variation in the market, but the idea is that things like houses, modes of transportation and education have a basic cost, that is keeping in mind that people need these things to get started as adults. Then, over time, other things could be valued more. While I don’t think we need to eliminate capitalism or financing systems like loans and mortgages, I think we need to become more people-centered with how we spend and loan money and less about creating magic tricks with our money.
Next week, we are in 2016 and I’ll be dropping my wishes for the year and evaluating how some of my 2015 wishes did. Let me know what some of your placemaking lessons were on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn on my pages or at least, share this article with your own commentary on those social networks. Keep up with me on a regular basis through my Tuesday emails.

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