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Why All the Development in the World Doesn’t Matter if You Don’t Know Your Soul

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Politico has written some great longreads recently on cities in the Piedmont region of North Carolina and Southern Virginia. So good, they have helped me refine and shape my urban theory. Namely, they’ve helped me be at peace with just being an urban theorist and influencing the world in that way.

Before I went to Roanoke, one of my good friends sent me this one, on Roanoke. Having been at the first CityWorksXPO, I knew some of the story, however I didn’t know all the story of how Roanoke brought itself back to light. And again, I am thankful for how this community has taken the bold step of allowing both young people and black folks to take on prominent roles, in government, in art and on the street corners. I’m also thankful it helped me dig back into one of my premier urban theories—the civic inferiority complex in time to present it at this year’s XPO.

I came up with this theory back when I was watching and trying to make sense of why cities like my hometown of Greensboro, seemed to be chasing after the next big thing. Why they felt like they weren’t good enough by themselves to create economic opportunities? Why only certain people owned and built buildings?  Why only certain people were allowed to assume greater leadership? Or, if you are allowed to assume greater leadership, why does it have to be done in a certain way? Or why do you have to be allowed, why not let people do and then co-sign?

This battle has taken me a merry chase (as my mom would say), in the past ten years, since I put on my radar that I wanted to return home to Greensboro and get active in local politics. In my younger years, I always believed that cities that had smaller footprints and leaders that you could get to know, would be perfect for young folks with drive, much like myself, could come in and do a lot of good. I could create my destiny. I could manifest it.

Honestly, for a lot folks, that turns out to be true. But the nitty-gritty of how that happens is not often portrayed well. People don’t always explain from the outside that you have to nurse the egos of the big funders and developers in town. If you don’t go that route, then you have to be in good standing with the academic institutions and they have to be completely in tune to the concept of academic freedom and not trying to stoke the egos of the big developers. You need to have rich parents, or their rich siblings or a rich spouse or be savvy at getting and paying back loans and credit cards. Finally, being connected with a wealthy religious institution and their congregation of wealthy folks doesn’t hurt either. And sadly, it’s easier if you’re a white straight male, and a white straight male native to the region you are coming into.

I don’t regret learning this the hard way. However, knowing and really believing this going in would have saved me some tears. Those of you who missed my writing and wondered why there were periods of censorship and just lack of output should know, at times I was struggling under not having a lot of these resources. Or having these resources and not liking the terms that I had these resources under.

I’m at the point now though where I see my role in life as being exactly where I need to be. And also not all of my fault. It’s kind of hard to be something you aren’t and also hard to try to be who you are in a community that only wants you to be a certain thing or go about things in a certain way. Especially when there are exceptions to the rule and you’re not one of them.

Reading the recent Politico article on tt-Salem pulled all this together for me, as well as a lot of self-reflection as I continue (at this writing) to adjust to being a resident and not just a frequent visitor of D.C. Even though I went to school to be a community and economic developer, it’s not something that you get trained to do and then you go out and you do it. It’s not residential and small commercial electrical contracting and wiring like my dad did and it’s not grade school teaching like my mom did.

There’s no set career path and it depends on being in cahoots with lots of the big wigs. The old-school capitalists and their heirs who have money to throw around will either create their own alliances or they will handpick people they’d like to work with. People can pitch to these guys (and they are still mostly guys) good ideas, but they have to be things that the big wigs ultimately like and think would be ok.

Also, this assumes that the big wigs weren’t about destroying your community in the first place. In the Winston-Salem example, a brief mention is made to a church, which I have had some family members attend, that purchased a lot of downtown land and decided to become their own developers. Sadly though, even though this is black-owned and black-controlled land, it’s not quite a 40-acres-and-a-mule model. The power elite could have decided these folks have no value (and some have, check this article out from a few years ago were black properties were openly valued less by local banks in Winston-Salem). They could have completely taken their land.

If you don’t believe me, read the article and then also look of the history of forced sterilization that happened at the hands of employees of one of Winston-Salem’s power elite companies.

Also, I like how the Politico article, both of them, mentions that the power elite was afraid of losing their livelihoods. Even though rich people lose fortunes all the time, we don’t often think of that happening, especially not to our employers, some of whom we can see living lavish lifestyles. However, it does happen. You can have flush years and you can have fallow years no matter who you are. You can be blacklisted from contracts. Your industry loans could dry up while you are in the middle of the paying back your debts. You could get cancer or some other major illness or be in an accident and die. Your family and friends and your colleagues and business partners could turn their back on you. A tornado or hurricane could flood or flatten all of your possessions.

When it comes time to asses our ultimate purpose and we look ahead to the ending of this current life individually, we are all destined for the same fate.

So, I say this all for two reasons, one, having a civic-inferiority complex is normal and curable and two, learning how to ask and be courageous and press on and create your own tribe is vital.

I am learning that having a building and things around them, can be great community builders. And of course show off some awesome creativity. I think modern architecture has a place in the neo-traditionallist model, in moderation.

But as I mentioned in this post, what happens when all the buildings and spaces are gone and it’s just you and your soul?  Do you cease to be a person without a body?  Or do you live on,as a spirit, doing what you can to tell your story and encourage others?

After all, it doesn’t take a body to make a community. But it does take a soul and a mind to tell a story.

May we all always be telling our stories, sharing our stories and banding together as communities in that manner to make sure we don’t all float away, never to be heard of again.

I’m Kristen. Six years ago, I started blogging here to make sense of the built environment around me. You can find me on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. You can find out more about me at my main website, www.kristenejeffers.com.  Photo of Cincinnati above by the author.

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  • This post really resonated with me as I come from a smaller city, too, and when I first graduated school I was hopeful about civic impact and influence being more accessible to me as a young woman than it would be in other larger cities. I completely agree with your discussion of what the nitty-gritty of it really involves, and how it is not just drive but also courting the favor of institutions that often leads to getting heard.

    • Aww, thanks! I wanted to be as authentic to my experience as I can, and I did worry a bit that I erased the handful of women who are doing well. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge the challenges so we can go forward and create new paths for ourselves and the people after us.

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