Vacancies, Population Decline, and Household Size: now you know!

We here at the Wise Economy Workshop have known for a long time how great Jason Segedy is — his writings

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The Fabulous Jason, aka @thestile1972. People who wear Joy Division t -shirts can’t _not_ be trusted, right?

here and here and here and here and elsewhere have been some of the best, and often most lyrical, content that we’ve run in the last few years (plus he added a deeply philosophical chapter to Why This Work Matters).   And, finally, word of that is starting to get out even farther.

Here’s what the online magazine Planetizen  just published:

 

Jason Segedy has published a long, brutally frank look at blight and vacant properties, especially at the underappreciated culprit for the woes of so many shrinking cities around the Rust Belt: household decline.

Segedy begins the long article (originally published on Notes from the Underground and later picked up by Rustwire) by asking the question of  “why is widespread vacancy and a glut of abandoned property a relatively recent phenomenon, while population loss is not?”

The proliferation of vacancies and blight during the 21st century is the result of demographic trends taking place over 50 years independently from the planning decisions of many cities. In fact, Segedy suggests we “[forget], for a minute, the usual suspects in urban decline, such as “white flight”, larger suburban houses and yards, highway construction, increasing automobile usage, crime, declining schools, etc.” and focus on demographic trends like rising divorce rates, rising age of first marriage, rising life expectancy, and declining birth rates, which occurred all at the same time.

Here’s how Segedy then sums up the impact of shrinking household: “The role of shrinking household size in urban population loss may be the most under-reported story about urban decline of the entire 20th century.”

And it follows: “Urban population decline in the 20th Century, was, in many ways, an unavoidable demographic reality that could only have been mitigated by rezoning and building at even higher densities – a housing trend that would have been running exactly counter to the prevailing market wisdom at the time.”

 

Full Story: What’s in a Number? Confronting Urban Population Decline

 

Come see us! Why This Work Matters hits the road

Sorry for the double post, but in case you didn’t see this on the blog for the Why This Work Matters book — wanted to make sure you knew that we’re developing what I think will be an interesting and rewarding way for people to explore their own frustrations about their work in communities — and reconnect with their passion for doing it.  If you’d be interested in doing this in your own community or at your own conference, let me know.

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I’m thrilled to say that you have two upcoming opportunities to join in the discussion of Why wtwm cover ebookYour Work Matters with your colleagues and some of the authors this fall!

On October 3, I will be moderating a panel at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Planning Conference with Jason Segedy, Mike Hammes and Bill Lutz.  We’ll be talking about the experiences that they shared in the book and their experience managing the demands of working to make communities better on their time and their energy.  Knowing these guys, this will be a no-holds-barred, brutally honest discussion.  To learn more about attending, check out www.oki2014.com

On October 17, Kimberly Miller and I will be leading a discussion at the Texas Chapter of the American Planning Association’s Annual Conference.  We’ll be sharing our own insights and selections from the book, but more importantly, we’ll be able to have a discussion of frustration, burn out and determination among all the participants.  I think this will be an amazing experience, and I’m intensely looking forward to aving a deep, free-flowing conversation!   For more information, check out www.txplanning.org/

I’ll also be preparing audio, and maybe video, of the sessions, so if you can’t get to these, stay tuned.

Fall 2014 Speaking/Running Around Update

Just realized that I’m overdue to give you an update on upcoming speaking / tapdancing gigs.  There’s a few that are still floating around, so expect to see some updates in the next few weeks.  Here we go!

 

  • From September 12 to 14, I’ll be hanging with the cool kids at the Strong Towns National Gathering in Minneapolis, helping Strong Towns supporters figure out where they want to go and how they can best make a difference.  I’m pretty excited about the way Strong Towns is growing and evolving, and it will be a blast to get back to Minneapolis proper for the first time in a few years.

 

  • On September 17th, I’ll be teaching two sessions at the Great Placemaker’s Lab event in Columbus. Ohio.  The first one, “Managing the Axe-Grinders,” is an exploration of methods for facilitating more effectiveand fair public meetings (spoiler alert: we do role playing!  You get to be the meeting’s wing nut for a change!).  The second one, “Hack Your City,” focuses on techniques for enabling grassroots civic tech to help communities make better-informed decisions and share the burden.

 

  • On September 21 and 22, I’ll be at the Heritage Ohio Annual conference in Kent, Ohio.  Any speaking I do there will be to help uncover information to guide a client’s project, so I’ll send more targeted information on that when I know more.

 

  • On October 1-3, I’ll be at the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional American Planning Association Conference in Lexington, Ohio.  As a result of, I suppose, karma coming back to bite me for something I don’t remember doing, I’ll be givng my best Phil Donohue impression for two sessions.  One in the veeery first time slot, and one in the veeery last.    The first one is with Martin Kim, Jason Segedy and Steve Strains in a tough heart-to-heart about the real-world struggles and victories that come with trying to create a regional land use plan.  This will be the first time Martin and I have had a chance to talk about the Going Places process since it wrapped up in May, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to set that complex and often emotional process within a larger framework.  And all three of those guys rock.

At the end of the conference, I’ll be leading a discussion with three of the contributors to Why This Work Matters, talking honestly about frustration, short-staffing, burnout, and remembering why we do what we do.  This will be the first time we’ve done this kind of a discussion, and it won’t be the last.

 

  • On Friday, October 17, I will be doing a second conversation based on Why This Work Matters with Kimberly Miller at the Texas APA conference in Plano.  That one’s scheduled for late afternoon — more when I know more.

 

If you’re going to be at any of these events, please let me know!  And if you’re looking for a speaker to give your peeps a push on economic development, entrepreneurship, tech or public engagement, just say the word.  Beats heck out of sitting in the office…

 

 

Transforming Our Grey Towns

My friend Jason Segedy once again wrote something on his blog that everyone should read.  Where else will you find urban regional policy, Better Block and C.S. Lewis all in one place?  I didn’t think so.   Both he and I would love to hear your feedback.

Here’s Jason – check our his blog at thestile1972.tumblr.com

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There is a widespread belief that Americans hate cities. I think it is probable that Americans hate city failure, but, from the evidence, we certainly do not hate successful and vital city areas. 

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

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An abandoned house on York Street, up the street from where my grandparents (both the children of Sicilian immigrants) lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. The neighborhood is suffering from increasing blight and abandonment – although hope remains, as a brand-new wave of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America is slowly breathing new life into portions of it.

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A vacant lot on Vesper Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood, where my wife’s great-grandparents lived after moving here from West Virginia. Her grandparents lived just down the street.  Both of the houses where they used to live recently became meth labs and had to be torn down.

The Grey Town

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, an allegorical meditation upon the afterlife, many of the dead are denizens of a shadowy city called the Grey Town, which is either purgatory or hell (depending on how long one chooses to stay there).  The people of the Grey Town are free to leave it any time that they wish, but most, in their state of near-total narcissism, choose to stay.

The Grey Town is a place where (unlike Earth) anyone can get any material possession that they wish (although not of very good quality) simply by imagining it.  Unable to cooperate (or even to coexist) with others, each person finds their neighbors so intolerable that they simply wish themselves a new house, and continually move further and further outward from the town’s center, leaving nothing but abandoned buildings behind.

As each person continues to act in (what they mistakenly think is) their own self-interest, all semblance of community, civic life, social cohesion, and basic human kindness is lost; as the town continues to grow exponentially, ultimately consuming millions and millions of square miles, with an astronomically large central area of abandonment surrounded by a thinly-settled, ever-expanding urban fringe, populated by inhabitants that are increasingly estranged from one another.

What they end up creating is, quite literally, hell – a lonely and hopeless place extending out into infinity, in which each person freely chooses to remain utterly and completely self-centered.  It is a place of self-imprisonment, where the metaphorical door is locked from the inside:

“It seems the deuce of a town,” I volunteered, “and that’s what I can’t understand. The parts of it that I saw were so empty. Was there once a much larger population?”

 ”Not at all,” said my neighbour. “The trouble is that they’re so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours – and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.”

“Leaving more and more empty streets?”

“That’s right. And time’s sort of odd here. That place where we caught the bus is thousands of miles from the Civic Centre where all the newcomers arrive from earth. All the people you’ve met were living near the bus stop: but they’d taken centuries – of our time – to get there, by gradual removals.”

“And what about the earlier arrivals? I mean – there must be people who came from earth to your town even longer ago.”

“That’s right. There are. They’ve been moving on and on. Getting further apart. They’re so far off by now that they could never think of coming to the bus stop at all. Astronomical distances. There’s a bit of rising ground near where I live and a chap has a telescope. You can see the lights of the inhabited houses, where those old ones live, millions of miles away. Millions of miles from us and from one another. Every now and then they move further still. That’s one of the disappointments. I thought you’d meet interesting historical characters. But you don’t: they’re too far away.”

“Would they get to the bus stop in time, if they ever set out?”

“Well-theoretically. But it’d be a distance of light-years. And they wouldn’t want to by now…

“Wouldn’t want to?”

“That’s right…

“Then the town will go on spreading indefinitely?” I said.

“That’s right…” 

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

Lewis’s description is powerful, regardless of whether you are the least bit religious, spiritual, or believe in an afterlife – for its power comes from what it says about human nature in the here and now.

His description is sobering:  a town full of people who are so completely self-deluded and estranged from one another, that they think they are acting in their own self-interest, when in fact, they are actually destroying the place that they live, and along with it, any chance that they will ever have for real happiness.

For those of us that live in shrinking cities in the Rust Belt, in regions with negative net-population growth and continued outward expansion that are simultaneously suffering from widespread abandonment, Lewis’s allegory is more than a little bit disturbing in its familiarity.

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A dilapidated house on Carpenter Street, in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Increasing Abandonment in Northeast Ohio

Brent Larkin of the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote two pieces recently, discussing the many problems associated with the ever-increasing spread of blight, vacancy, and abandonment in Cleveland and its inner-ring suburbs.

Larkin makes the case that this problem and its antecedents are not limited to the ones that are commonly perceived as only affecting city residents – crime, poverty, hopelessness, inequality, and paying more in taxes for less in services.  He reminds us that the holistic, interconnected nature of our modern world means that everyone in our region is ultimately affected by the abandonment of our urban core areas, in one way or another.

I addressed this same issue recently in a blog post discussing population loss in our region:

What goes on within a given city’s actual municipal boundaries has incredibly important ramifications for its tax base; its employment base; the performance of its schools; the distribution of everyday amenities like grocery stores, shops, and restaurants; the delivery of public services; and less tangible, but equally important things like its sense of place and its sense of itself.  As cities are abandoned, decline, and become hollowed out, access to social and economic opportunities diminishes along with the population:  the jobs disappear, the doctor’s offices disappear, the grocery stores disappear – relocated, often, to a distant and increasingly inaccessible locale.  To pretend as though the economic and social well being of city residents is not directly impacted by population decline is to turn a blind eye to reality itself.

But it is not just city residents that are affected by decline.  The health of the entire region suffers as a result.  The shrinking tax and resource base of City “A”, is not simply counteracted by economic growth in nearby cities “B” and “C”.  In a region anchored by a declining central city surrounded by dozens of separate municipalities, the redundant duplication and proliferation of local government services (education, public safety, public utilities, transportation infrastructure, social services) ends up costing all taxpayers more. 

The worst-case scenario is a shrinking central city and a shrinking region with an overall population decline, coupled with continued central city abandonment and continued outward expansion.  In a region like this, there is not only more costly “stuff” (redundant public services and physical infrastructure) than there needs to be, but there is more “stuff” with ever fewer taxpayers to pay for it.

It’s an issue that is hauntingly familiar to every resident of a shrinking Rust Belt city.  The statistics on abandonment in places like Akron, Toledo, Dayton, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cleveland, Flint, Gary, Youngstown, and Detroit range from the sobering to the horrifying.

As I’ve written before, there are explicable, rational reasons for why these cities are experiencing such high levels of abandonment – although no one seems to be able to agree on precisely what they are.

But I’m not so sure that agreeing on why the abandonment of our core city neighborhoods is occurring is all that important.  Yes, there is a logic (that I cannot argue with) behind the notion that understanding the root causes of the problem is important if we are going to address it.

On the other hand, I would argue that even if we perfectly understood why the problem is occurring (and for the sake of argument, let’s assume that we couldadequately understand such a complex socioeconomic phenomenon), I’m not sure that we would be any further along the path toward actually doing something to change it.

In my experience, the discussion of why our cities are being abandoned is largely a useless distraction, and I continue to believe that those who are the most dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how these problems came about in the first place, also happen to be those that are the least interested in actually doing something to solve the problems.

So what should we do about the decline of our cities and the abandonment of our neighborhoods?

The first step is for people to be aware of the magnitude of our vacant and abandoned property problem in Northeast Ohio.

The term “awareness” is itself, multifaceted.  It entails: a) knowledge of the facts; b) acknowledgement that these facts translate into an actual problem that we should be concerned with; and c) a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something to address the problem.

I would argue that (a) is somewhat widespread; (b) is debated by some, with many more people in our region simply living in denial; and c) is still virtually non-existent.

When I say that people lack a sense of felt, shared responsibility for doing something about the problem, I don’t mean that we simply need to throw lots of public money at the problem, or create a bunch of new, intrusive government rules and regulations, or transfer wealth from some communities to other communities.

I mean that citizens from all sectors, and all walks of life, from all over the region need to recognize their shared destiny as one civic community, and work together in myriad ways great and small (most of them yet-to-be-determined, because we don’t feel the collective sense of urgency yet) to solve an incredibly complicated, mutual problem that manifests itself in different ways, in many different places.

A common reaction to the abandonment of our city neighborhoods is the belief that it will somehow correct itself, and goes something like this: “Well, eventually the free-market will assert itself, and people working in the private sector will be able to buy these properties so cheaply that they will swoop in and rebuild the neighborhoods.”

This has happened here and there, to be sure, but it is very much the exception, rather than the rule.  For every gentrifying neighborhood like Ohio City, Tremont, or Highland Square, we have a dozen neighborhoods that are disintegrating before our very eyes.

There are a couple of problems with the theory that the free market will save the day.  For one, the market value of many of these properties is already at (or near) $0, and they can’t get any cheaper.  So it’s not just a matter of dollars and cents.

For another, the abandonment of our cities is largely a consequence of the free-market doing what it does, as it has always done it.

But, it is equally a consequence of short-sighted public policy decisions regarding infrastructure, education, housing, and other social services.

And, of course, we can’t leave out the untold billions of individual choices, great and small, which are incrementally making our cities places that are either becoming better to live in, or becoming worse.

If the free market were solely the answer (and I do believe, incidentally, that it is part of the answer), then the problem would already be solving itself.

But it isn’t.

Clearly, something needs to alter the behavior of the free market.  Just as clearly, our current public policy regimen is not working either, and needs to be altered as well. Ditto for our societal priorities and many of our present-day cultural norms regarding the individual, society, and place.

But how?  And, just as importantly, altered to do what?

Well, that’s a great question.  Because what do we want to see happen in our cities?  What is our vision for what they should look like in the future.

I’m not sure that we have one.

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An abandoned warehouse on Cuyahoga Street in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood

Today’s Reality in Akron

Here in Akron, where I live, the problems of vacant and abandoned property, disinvestment, and depopulation get a little bit worse every day.

It’s an issue that has perhaps been more difficult for those of us living here to see as clearly as those living in other shrinking cities do – for a couple of reasons.

Compared to our neighbors in Cleveland and Youngstown, we have been relatively untouched by the scourge of abandonment and massive disinvestment in our neighborhoods.  Yes, we’ve seen our share of abandoned properties (there are roughly 2,300 right now) and population loss – we’ve lost 31% of our peak population, declining from 290,000 residents in 1960, to 199,000 residents today.

But most of the population decline has been very gradual, and has been relatively dispersed throughout the city.  Even our most distressed neighborhoods are nowhere close to experiencing the scope and scale of the abandonment that is seen across large swaths of Cleveland or Youngstown.

While I personally believe that a lot of this is due to a strong civic leadership culture and a solid history of successful public and private collaborations, some of it is also due to “dumb luck” – historical factors largely beyond our control.

Akron is a newer city than Cleveland and Youngstown.  By the time that Akron began to grow in earnest (around 1910, when the rubber and tire industry exploded), Cleveland was already a very large, established city; and Youngstown was well on its way to becoming one.

Akron was also able to annex many neighborhoods that were developed between 1920 and 1960, while many similar neighborhoods in Greater Cleveland and Youngstown ended up in outlying communities.

In addition to containing a newer stock of housing, Akron had the advantage of being home to not just tens of thousands of blue collar industrial workers, but to the white collar industrial workforce, which numbered in the thousands.

Unlike Youngstown, which contained numerous steel mills that were headquartered elsewhere, Akron was home to the production facilities and headquarters of four Fortune 500 rubber and tire manufacturers (Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, and General Tire).

This fact was incredibly significant for the city’s neighborhoods and for the quality of its housing stock, because the numerous executives, managers, engineers, scientists, and other highly-paid workers all built extremely nice houses within the city limits, especially in the neighborhoods located throughout the northwestern quadrant of the city (not coincidentally, uphill and upwind from the noxious air pollution generated by the rubber and tire plants).

To this day, roughly one-quarter of the City of Akron (primarily in the northwest) is still composed of neighborhoods that meet or exceed the levels of education and wealth found in all but the most affluent suburban communities.

So we’ve had a lot of advantages, and we have managed to weather the abandoned housing storm storm pretty well.

But our time is coming, and the chinks in our armor are appearing. They are easy to spot, especially if you know where to look.

Akron has enjoyed strong, visionary leadership from Mayor Plusquellic for close to 30 years now, and it has paid-off, especially in terms of the city’s economic prospects relative to its Rust Belt peers.  Job retention and economic development have been fairly robust compared to other cities in the region (the retention of the Goodyear corporate headquarters and the Bridgestone/Firestone Technical Center, serving as two recent examples).

The city has also done an admirable job of keeping up with the increasingly vexing problem of vacancy and abandonment, and has been quite proactive when it comes to tearing down abandoned properties.

While all of this is extremely important, I would argue that tearing down abandoned properties is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for creating a strong, healthy, and vibrant community that people want to call home.

So, we’ve done pretty well with job retention and economic development, and we’ve done pretty well at tearing down houses.

But what about keeping people here?  Cities are first-and-foremost a place for people to live – and our population continues to decline.

The 2000s were a wake-up call in that respect.  After losing a fairly modest 6,000 residents in the 1990s, we lost nearly 18,000 residents in the 2000s.

Why?  I think a lot of it has to do with housing supply and demand. There is an over-supply of housing that people do not want, and an under-supply of housing that people do want.

Akron was the fastest growing city in the United States between 1910 and 1920, exploding from a population of 69,000 to 208,000 in that one decade.  This means that a very large proportion of the city’s housing stock, which was built during those boom years, turns 100 years old this decade.

Lots of that old housing is blighted, vacant, or abandoned, and much of it is being torn down right now – and at a much faster rate than new housing is being built.

So, we will continue to lose population unless we figure out how to do more than simply tear houses down – we need to figure out how to rebuild our neighborhoods from the ground up.  It’s simple math: less occupied housing units + less people per household = less people.

No matter how great of a city this is to live in (and it most certainly is), no matter how much we do right (and we do a lot that is) we will inexorably continue to lose population if we don’t learn how to build lots of marketable new housing.

Yes, a city can succeed if it is smaller.  Yes, things like urban gardening, and open space have their place.  But I would argue that for a city our size, with the types of everyday neighborhood amenities that we have come to enjoy and are currently in the process of losing (grocery stores, neighborhood retail, restaurants, doctor’s offices, churches, synagogues, schools, etc.) it is paramount that we figure out how to grow our population again:

Detroit is so far gone, the argument goes, that the only conceivable use for all that abandoned real estate is to re-ruralize it. This speaks to our lack of confidence in architecture and urbanism per se, and leads to the current default remedy whenever our cities fail: tear things down in favor of green space.

Such thinking is the result of architecture’s decades-long inability to provide buildings worthy of our affection; municipal planners’ design ignorance and extreme reliance on traffic engineers; the environmental movement’s focus on wilderness, wildlife, and disdain for human activities; and, of course, suburbia itself, which prompts most of us to despise any human imprint on the landscape. Detroit is rotting from the inside out. The inside, the old city center, the part closest to the river, is destined to be the urban site of highest value in the future. Although it may never resemble the Detroit of 1960, we have the skills and knowledge to rebuild something of appropriate urban quality there again….

But the USA doesn’t need more architectural fashion statements, moral status posturing, or art stunts. It needs places to live that are worth caring about and compatible with the capital and material resources that we can expect to retain going forward, which are liable to be scarcer than what we’re accustomed to.

I don’t think there’s any question that we have to return to traditional ways of occupying the landscape: walkable cities, towns, and villages, located on waterways and, if we are fortunate, connected by rail lines. These urban places will exist on a much smaller scale than what is familiar to us now, built on a much finer grain. They will have to be connected to farming and food-growing places. A return to human scale will surely lead to a restored regard for artistry in building, since the streetscape will be experienced at walking speed.

-James Howard Kunstler

Our only possible means for growing our population are: 1) increase average household size; 2) rehabilitate/renovate existing housing; and/or 3) build new housing.

Long-term demographic trends tell us that option #1 isn’t going to be happening anywhere in the United States.  As for option #2, however you feel about historic preservation (and that’s a topic for a separate blog post), it is clear that it’s an option that becomes more difficult (and impractical on a large scale) every year, as more structures succumb to the wrecking ball.

That leaves us with option #3.  We need to develop a replicable, scalable model for learning how to rebuild entire neighborhoods (both housing and commercial structures).  I think that Akron has the human capital, and the innovative and collaborative culture to pioneer something that we could transfer to other shrinking cities in the Rust Belt.

But we have to get intentional about it.  It’s not going to happen on its own.  On the ground, here in Akron, I don’t see much awareness of this fact yet.  I think that we still think that things are going to somehow take care of themselves.  We have not yet recognized that the greatest challenge of the 21st Century in this town is going to be to learn how to embark upon an ambitious, comprehensive, coordinated, collaborative effort to rebuild large parts of our city.

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The abandoned corner of Cuyahoga Street and Mustill Street, just up the street from where my Sicilian immigrant great-grandparents lived in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.

Thinking Big, But Doing Small

But when I say “ambitious”, I’m talking about something that is the polar opposite of urban renewal.  It’s not a top-down, big government, command-and-control, out-with-the-old/in-with-the-new approach.

I’m talking about something that is human-scaled, context sensitive, and collaborative – something that requires public, philanthropic, non-profit, and private sector leadership, in partnership with everyday people working together, one block at a time, one neighborhood at a time, to rebuild and transform their community.

I’m not sure exactly what that looks like yet.  But I’m starting to get a general idea…

Several weeks ago, I had the distinct privilege to meet Jason Roberts of The Better Block.  The entire premise of Jason’s work is to take one block at a time, start small, and actually do something.  It could be some temporary new bike lanes; it could be some temporary street art, or street furniture; it could be a makeshift coffee shop, or art gallery, or beer garden.  The important thing is to do something new in a neighborhood, let people see it, let people experience it, and, most importantly – let them participate in actually creating it.  People build, borrow, or (as a last resort) buy the materials that they need to transform their block.  The process of working together to build something is even more important than what is physically built, because what is really built are relationships and a sense of community.

At a recent event in Akron, Jason talked about the need (especially in the community-development professions – planning, engineering, economic development, public administration) to learn how to think small, and to implement modest, low-cost improvements that can lead to transformative changes later on.

Instead of simply talking about intangible future plans that will never be realized due to fiscal considerations or bureaucracy, people work together to accomplish small things that they can actually see and touch; and learn to savor that first taste of success, which leads to building the kind of trust and inspiring the type of hope that it takes to transform an entire city.

It’s a simple, but incredibly powerful and profound concept – get people working together on small, but significant and visible projects in their own community, and watch the trust build, see the relationships develop and grow, and watch the hope begin to infect other people throughout the community.

The Better Block concept isn’t a panacea.  But that’s kind of the point – there is no panacea.  We need to start somewhere.  The work of rebuilding our cities begins one person at a time, one block at a time, one street at a time, one neighborhood at a time.  When a grassroots effort like The Better Block is coupled with visionary and innovative leadership from the public sector, the private sector, non-profits, and the philanthropic community, the results can be truly transformative.

I am looking forward to being a part of it here in Akron – and I’ll be sure to keep you posted as it moves forward.

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A potential Better Block location on Jefferson Avenue in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Kenmore Boulevard in Akron’s Kenmore neighborhood.

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A potential Better Block location on Aster Avenue in Akron’s Firestone Park neighborhood.

You Should Read This: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

My friend Jason Segedy posted something last week that I think should be required reading for every urban planner, every zoner, every economic developer and every other local government administrator.

Seriously.

If you teach college courses, you should be making your students read this.  If you manage a department, you should make your staff read this.  If you write a blog, you should reblog it.  Period.

It’s complicated stuff, and I know it will take you a couple of minutes.  And that you have other stuff to do.  And if you’re honest, this will make you squirm.

Read it anyways.

Thanks.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us

By Jason Segedy

May 22, 2014

Follow me on Twitter @thestile1972

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Cascade Plaza, Akron (completed 1968) – A place with the all of the human warmth of a Soviet gulag, and a living humility lesson for urban planners

Hilary went to her death
Because she couldn’t think of anything to say
Everybody thought that she was boring, so they never listened anyway.

-Belle & Sebastian, If You’re Feeling Sinister

Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes a great post today about the planning profession, its future, and some of its present challenges.

Excerpt:

We need the planning profession to not only be relevant but we need planners to be leaders in our communities. The current planning paradigm is stuck in 1950’s thinking. It is old, stodgy and defensive. It not only clings to dogmatic beliefs about zoning, projections and centralized planning but fails in the most important duty of any credentialed profession: to systematically challenge itself to improve.

APA comes across as less concerned about great planners and great places than in ensuring continued employment for their dues-paying members (and collecting said dues). 

His critique is spot-on.  The urban planning profession does a lot of good work, but Chuck is absolutely correct when he says that we are stuck in 1950s thinking; and are, far too often, defensive, dogmatic, unapproachable, inflexible, and needlessly abstruse*.

*See: I could have simply said “difficult to understand”

As a profession, we are generally followers, rather than leaders; risk-averse; and poor communicators.

Indeed, our three greatest weaknesses as a profession are in the realm of: 1) public policy leadership; 2) risk-taking; and 3) authentic, substantive, two-way communication.

Leadership

Take public policy leadership, for example.  Even now, after spending the past 19 years as an urban planner, I am still continually struck by how rare it is to hear or see a planning official actually offer a substantive subjective opinion on anything.

Planners make plenty of definitive statements when it comes to objective matters (e.g. “the code does not allow for that use”; “the design manual clearly states that these lanes must be 12 feet wide”; “the benefit/cost ratio of the project is sufficient to justify public investment”).

But you hear nary a peep from most planners on matters that they consider to be the least bit subjective.

Subjectivity is not a dirty word.  It is an inescapable reality of decision-making.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince us that objective criteria are not subjectively chosen.

The code doesn’t allow for that use, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that that use was a bad idea at that location.

The design manual states that those lanes must be 12 feet wide, because whoever wrote it made a subjective value judgment that wide lanes are better than narrow lanes on that type of road.

All of these supposedly objective criteria reflect someone’s subjective value judgments about what is important. This doesn’t by any means invalidate them, but it should remind us that measures like the “cost-effectiveness” of a project are predicated upon subjective value judgments of what “effectiveness” means.

None of the supposedly “objective” tools that planners use came down from Mount Sinai carved into stone tablets.  They are all rooted in someone’s subjective opinions.

This should be self-evident, but, far-too-often, it is not.

I would argue that it is your job as an urban planner to have clear opinions on urban planning and development issues.  This doesn’t mean that your opinions are the most important ones, or that they are always right, or that they should be written in blood, or carved into those selfsame stone tablets, or that you can never change your mind; but the very essence of public policy leadership is the ability to say “I think that ‘this’ is better (or worse) than ‘that’, and here’s why”.

Then, let the debate begin…

We do elected officials and the general public a grave disservice when we shirk this particular responsibility.

I hear many planners dismiss the entire notion of public policy leadership with statements like “Well, yes, but we only play an advisory role, anyway…And it is the job of others to decide.”

Well, of course.  So what’s your point?

First of all, if you are an adviser, then for the love of God, you should be advising people.

Secondly, since when was it only the people with the formal, official power to change things, that were the ones who actually changed them?

In reality, hasn’t it often been the precise opposite?

Those with the formal power to lead, and to change things, have often been the very people that most vigorously enforced the status quo, and kept things from changing.

Think about it: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil Rights Movement…

Most of the people in this world that have changed it for the better were precisely those that did not have the formal power to change it.  In fact, many of them did things to that were considered inappropriate, illegal, or heretical, and they were often ostracized, abused, jailed, or killed for their trouble.

It is safe to say that few urban planners are going to end up jailed or martyred for their beliefs.  So what is stopping us from becoming thought leaders?

Risk-Taking

It is often fear that is stopping us.  Most urban planners are risk-averse.

In a battle, or in mountain climbing, there is often one thing which it takes a lot of pluck to do; but it is also, in the long run, the safest thing to do. If you funk it, you will find yourself, hours later, in far worse danger. The cowardly thing is also the most dangerous thing.

-C.S. Lewis

I am fond of saying that the best humility lesson for today’s urban planners is a five-minute meditation upon the fact that our primary job is fixing the mistakes that urban planners made 40 years ago.  It will be all too easy for us to fall into the exact same trap.

At first blush, this would appear to imply that our risk-averse, conservative professional tendencies are justified.  But I would argue that it should lead us to the exact opposite conclusion.

Trends are an inescapable fact of life.  They are not going anywhere anytime soon.  Some trends leave lasting positive impacts, and are healthy reactions to things that truly need to change; some trends leave no impact whatsoever, and are harmless fads; while other trends leave lasting negative impacts, and in retrospect prove to be huge mistakes.

The history of urban planning is full of examples of all three types of trends.  The simple lesson for planners is that we can’t escape from any of these trends simply by staying risk averse.

It is our job to try to sift through them, figure out which is which, and to do our best to embrace and promote the first type of (positive) trend; to not concern ourselves too much one-way-or-the-other with the second type of (neutral) trend; and to actively resist and fight against the third type of (negative) trend.

This means that we need to be smart, savvy, and vigilant; to provide leadership; to exercise good judgment, and to demonstrate humility at the same time.

We need courage, integrity, and honesty; recognizing that it is not primarily our job to try to look good, or to tell people what they want to hear so they will like us, or to seem smart, clever, or important; but, instead, to tell the truth – to elected officials, to the general public, and to ourselves.

In fact, it is precisely our fear, and our unwillingness to take risks, that ensures that our profession will continue to be marginalized, and considered unimportant by most people.

The job is about helping people, and about making their lives better.  If you are an urban planner, and this is not primarily what you are concerned with, you should clear out your desk immediately and go do something else, because that’s the job. That’s what it’s all about.  The rest is just a bunch of paperwork and technical details.

Which leads me to my last point…

Communication

It’s about people.

Urban planners, as a general rule, are poor communicators.  This is unfortunate, because (like most jobs) communication is the single most important skill that you can possess.  It is not a substitute for other skills, but it is indispensable if you want to be effective at what you do.

This is especially true in a profession that involves ideas and concepts.  The success of your ideas or concepts is heavily dependent upon your ability to effectively communicate them.

One of the saddest ironies of the urban planning profession is that although it is fundamentally about people and places (two things that most people have a profound personal interest in) we end up managing to boil nearly all of the life out of it, and transform it into one of the most boring and obscure endeavors that there is.

But men love abstract reasoning and neat systematization so much that they think nothing of distorting the truth, closing their eyes and ears to contrary evidence to preserve their logical constructions.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The reasons for why this is the case could fill another entire blog post, but suffice it to say that much of it has occurred through a mixture of professional arrogance, an affinity for abstraction, sheer ignorance, and a lack of simple human empathy for our constituents.

Too often, we end up blaming the victim, and when our ideas, or concepts, or intentions are misunderstood; we are far too quick to criticize elected officials or members of the general public (intentionally or not) as being ill-informed, unenlightened, or disengaged.

Here’s a hint: when virtually no one seems to be able to understand what you are saying, perhaps it is time to look in the mirror and consider the fact that you may need to change your approach.

When no one seems to be able to get excited about what you are doing, or promoting, or planning, perhaps it is time to reevaluate the way that you are doing things.

When people are complaining on a regular basis that you are not listening to them, that they do not have a voice, and that you are just going through the motions, perhaps it is time to consider that they may be right.

Urban planning, done well, is one of the most engaging, exciting, and invigorating of all human pursuits.  It is the stuff of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Library of Alexandria, Central Park, the Eiffel Tower, Greenwich Village, and Rockefeller Center.

At its highest and best, it is about the diverse and wondrous array of people that comprise our society; and about the incredible places and spaces in which they live, work, and play.  At bottom, these are things that every person is interested in, because everyone interacts with other people, and everyone exists within time and space.

Urban planning doesn’t have to be all about lifeless charts, and graphs, and maps, and budgets, and zoning codes, and design manuals, and forecasts, and plans, and other similar abstractions. These are simply tools.  They are means to an end.  Far too often, we portray them as ends in themselves.  And when we do, we only have ourselves to blame.

Chuck Marohn is right:  the most important duty of any credentialed profession is not to ensure continued employment for its due-paying members; it is to systematically challenge itself to improve.

Shrinking Cities (Back to the Future)

My friend Jason Segedy posted this excellent piece of analysis at thestile1972.tumblr.com/, and I felt that this was probably the best quantitative sum-up of the challenge of post-industrial communities, such as those that make up the Rust Belt.  I don’t know how he found the time to do this, but he pulled together a set of data that is both humbling… and encouraging.  As we’ve said more than once, the challenges our communities are facing didn’t spring up overnight, and it’s ridiculous to think we can solve them overnight, either.  But if you’re taking a long-term view, then there’s a little comfort in the idea that we have time to keep plugging at it.

Here’s Jason:

I’ve seen a lot of lists drawing attention to America’s shrinking cities over the years.  These lists normally show population declines since 1950, or since the city’s year of peak population.

Both of these measures are interesting and useful.  1950 is a good year to look back to, since it represents the first census since the end of World War II.  The end of the war is often looked at as the beginning of the suburban boom:  the interstate highway system, shopping malls, separated commercial and residential land uses, and low-density housing that is not walkable or transit accessible.

Examining a city’s decline since its year of peak population is useful for benchmarking a city against itself, but is slightly less useful for making comparisons to other cities.  In the portions of the Rust Belt centered around the steel and automotive industries, the population decline generally begins around 1950, 1960, or even 1970.

In the portions of the Rust Belt located further east, the decline begins even earlier – generally around 1920 or 1930.

What I haven’t seen a lot of, though, are lists that actually go back this far – to 1920, for example.  1920 is an interesting year to look at, because you don’t find many large U.S. cities that reached their peak population earlier than 1920.  1920 also marks the tail end of the great wave of European immigration.  Most northern cities continued to grow long after 1920, due to high levels of domestic migration, largely from the rural south and from Appalachia.

So, looking back to 1920 cancels out a lot of the statistical “noise” associated with the Great Depression, World War II, and the post-war suburban boom, taking us back to the initial heyday of the industrial era in many Rust Belt cities.

1920 is also a significant date because all of the cities on this list were large enough by then to have developed a substantial urban core with tens or hundreds of thousands of housing units in it.  So, every city on this list has a significant stock of housing that is at least 100 years old.  This means that the cities which have not yet experienced much in the way of gentrification, redevelopment, or neighborhood revitalization (and this is most of them) will be facing increasingly difficult challenges in terms of vacancy, abandonment, and brownfield mitigation.

For many of these cities, it will be a race against time to see whether they can turn around their residential housing markets – either through rehabilitating older properties, or though constructing tens of thousands of marketable new housing units.  If they cannot learn how to do this, there is little reason to believe that their population decline will slow down.  In fact, it could get even worse before it gets better.

So, here is a list of U.S. cities that had at least 100,000 people at some point in their history that are smaller than they were in 1920.  They are ranked by their net change in population between 1920 and 2010.

1) St. Louis, MO – loss of 453,603; 772,897 in 1920; 319,294 in 2010

2) Cleveland, OH – loss of 400,026; 796,841 in 1920; 396,815 in 2010

3) Philadelphia, PA – loss of 297,773; 1,823,779 in 1920; 1,526,006 in 2010

4) Pittsburgh, PA – loss of 282,639; 588,343 in 1920; 305,704 in 2010

5) Detroit, MI – loss of 279,301; 993,078 in 1920; 713,777 in 2010

6) Buffalo, NY – loss of 245,465; 506,775 in 1920; 261,310 in 2010

7) Newark, NJ – loss of 137,384; 414,524 in 1920; 277,140 in 2010

8) Boston, MA – loss of 130,466; 748,060 in 1920; 617,594 in 2010

9) Baltimore, MD – loss of 112,865; 733,826 in 1920; 620,961 in 2010

10) Cincinnati, OH – loss of 104,302; 401,247 in 1920; 296,945 in 2010

11) Rochester, NY – loss of 85,185; 295,750 in 1920; 210,565 in 2010

12) Youngstown, OH – loss of 65,376; 132,358 in 1920; 66,982 in 2010

13) Scranton, PA – loss of 61,694; 137,783 in 1920; 76,089 in 2010

14) Providence, RI – loss of 59,553; 237,595 in 1920; 178,042 in 2010

15) Jersey City, NJ – loss of 50,506; 298,103 in 1920; 247,597 in 2010

16) New Orleans, LA – loss of 43,390; 387,219 in 1920; 343,829 in 2010

17) Wilmington, DE – loss of 39,317; 110,168 in 1920; 70,851 in 2010

18) Camden, NJ – loss of 38,965; 116,309 in 1920; 77,344 in 2010

19) Trenton, NJ – loss of 34,376; 119,289 in 1920; 84,913 in 2010

20) New Haven, CT – loss of 32,758; 162,537 in 1920; 129,779 in 2010

21) Utica, NY – loss of 31,921; 94,156 in 1920; 62,235 in 2010

22) Fall River, MA – loss of 31,628; 120,485 in 1920; 88,857 in 2010

23) Syracuse, NY – loss of 26,547; 171,717 in 1920; 145,170 in 2010

24) New Bedford, MA – loss of 26,145; 121,217 in 1920; 95,072 in 2010

25) Reading, PA – loss of 19,702; 107,784 in 1920; 88,082 in 2010

26) Somerville, MA – loss of 17,337; 93,091 in 1920; 75,754 in 2010

27) Albany, NY – loss of 15,488; 113,344 in 1920; 97,856 in 2010

28) Canton, OH – loss of 14,084; 87,091 in 1920; 73,007 in 2010

29) Hartford, CT – loss of 13,261; 138,036 in 1920; 124,775 in 2010

30) Duluth, MN – loss of 12,652; 98,917 in 1920; 86,265 in 2010

31) Dayton, OH – loss of 11,032; 152,559 in 1920; 141,527 in 2010

32) Akron, OH – loss of 9,325; 208,435 in 1920; 199,110 in 2010

33) Lynn, MA – loss of 8,819; 99,148 in 1920; 90,329 in 2010

34) Lowell, MA – loss of 6,240; 112,759 in 1920; 106,519 in 2010

35) Chicago, IL – loss of 6,107; 2,701,705 in 1920; 2,695,598 in 2010

36) Cambridge, MA – loss of 4,532; 109,694 in 1920; 105,162 in 2010

37) St. Joseph, MO – loss of 1,159; 77,939 in 1920; 76,780 in 2010

38) Niagara Falls, NY – loss of 567; 50,760 in 1920; 50,193 in 2010

There are some surprises on this list.  There are cities that are “shrinking cities” by any possible definition that I expected to see on here, which are not.  There are also cities listed here, which are not generally perceived to be “shrinking cities”.

Some of the cities that are smaller than they were in 1920, really have not lost much population since that time, nor since their peak.  These cities generally peaked-out around 1920 or 1930, and could be categorized as “East Coast Gentrifiers” and include places like Lynn, Lowell, and Cambridge – all located within the suburban orbit of Boston.

Other cities are at the opposite end of the spectrum, and their degree of decline, if anything, is understated by looking solely at this list.  Not only have they lost considerable population since 1920, but they have lost at least half of their population since their peak, which generally didn’t occur until 1950.  These cities could be categorized as “Rust Belt Poster Children” and include places like St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Buffalo, and Youngstown.

There are other cities that could also be classified as “Rust Belt Poster Children” that do not show up on this list at all, due to the fact that their rapid growth occurred after 1920.  They grew in the immediate pre and post World War II years, and then rapidly declined shortly thereafter. Cities in this category include smaller places like Gary, Flint, and East St. Louis, as well as larger cities like Toledo and Milwaukee.

Several cities, some that show up on this list, and some that do not, have experienced numerically significant population loss, but have either slowed or reversed long-standing declines, and are currently in the process of “gentrifying” and redeveloping many of their historic core neighborhoods.  Cities in this category include places like Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

As we move further into the 2010s, it will be interesting to see how redevelopment efforts in places like Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. play out.  Is it a permanent sea change that will dramatically improve the economic prospects for all residents?  Is it something that redevelops much of the core, but ultimately leaves most residents in the dark, leading to more inequality, with poverty moving increasingly to the suburbs?  Or is it just a temporary blip on the radar?

For cities like Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Youngstown, where the bottom has virtually fallen out; and for others like Akron, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, whose decline has been more manageable, but are still facing significant challenges, the answer to these questions could prove to be extremely important.

New Book: Why This Work Matters launched!

I am delighted to be able to share a very important and beautiful new book with you — important and beautiful because it comes from people like you. 

Why This Work Matters was envisioned as a way of encouraging people who do the hard work of running and improving our communities.  My goal with this book was to give you a portable, on-demand shot of that encouragement, sympathy, and reinforcement that you might try to get from your professional peers… if you have people around you who understand what you’re facing.  I know that not everyone who does your work has that.  And it’s also a way to start changing the too-common popular perception of government employees, and showcase the dedication and determination that doesn’t show up in the popular press.

In Why This Work Matters, I asked 11 community professionals to reflect on why they keep doing the hard work that they do — and what they think about or call upon when they get frustrated, when they want to give up.  These folks come from all over the United States, they work in everything from local nonprofits to federal agencies, and they do urban planning, community development, government administration, downtown revitalization and a lot of other things.

These reflections are written in some of the most personal, heartfelt voices you have probably ever encountered in writing about work, and the honesty, the power of what they wrote continues to amaze me.  As editor, I did my best to polish up their gems, but the beauty of the raw materials is the real power of this book.

You can learn more about it at WhyThisWorkMattersBook.com.  You can also buy the book for e-reader or print, and you can read selections from the book and link to the authors there as well.

I’m really proud of this book, and I’m really proud of these authors.  Some are experienced bloggers, but for others, this was their first experience in writing anything other than a zoning report.

I think you’ll find them unforgettable.  Kind of like you.

 

 

 

Who cares? Not Everyone: the wicked challenges and vicious necessity of fixing regional development

I have been meaning to share this essay from my friend Jason Segedy, in part because it’s so insightful and beautiful, and in part because…. you get Metric, Death Cab for Cutie and geospatial cultural analysis in the same essay.  You cannot ask for more than that.  You just can’t.

Jason explains, better than almost anyone I can think of, the deadly challenges and the very difficult social psychology that blocks the two sides of the “sprawl” debate, and has left us ineffective at actually addressing these issues from any ideological angle.  Jason’s role as head of a regional planning agency, and as a leader in development of an incredibly ambitious 12-county planning framework, means that he knows of which he writes.

And in between his erudite quotes, he gives us the facts behind eye-opening assertions such as this:

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount….

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned….

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened….

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.  But this is irrelevant now…

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

 

This essay is about Northeast Ohio, but there’s lessons in it for every community and region that experienced urban flight.  Or lost businesses.  Or lost industries.  Or has residents who are so isolated from each other that they have no idea why Those People keep whining and don’t get with the program.

Or for those regions and communities that don’t think sprawl is a real risk to their fundamental economic survival.  Or who think the Rust Belt experience will never happen to them.

I think that covers pretty much all of us.

You can read more from Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com.  And you should.

Here’s Jason.

_____


Where a gothic spire raked her nail across a concrete sky
Where onion domes from Slavic homes grew round a vale of fire
Where Irishmen from tenements kept the furnace burning white
Where the rod and staff that smote the fascists rolled off of the line

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

One day, several years ago, a friend and I were driving across the west side of Cleveland on a beautiful Sunday morning.

As we drove along I-90, somewhere between West Boulevard and W. 44th St, I was admiring the beautiful Gothic and Romanesque architecture of the numerous churches that you can see from the side of the road.  I thought about all of the generations of immigrants that had built, and then cherished, those places, finding in them solace and a sense of community.

I looked at the hundreds of modest wooden-frame houses with front porches, in varying states of repair, clustered tightly together around the churches.  This neighborhood had seen slightly better days, but, all-in-all, to my mind, the image formed an idyllic, and somewhat winsome, tableau.

I remember thinking to myself, “You know, with a little bit of tender-loving-care, these neighborhoods could really be something special.  All of the components of a great place are here, even if it needs to be polished up a bit.”

Suddenly, my friend turned to me and said, “What a shithole!  Who the hell would ever want to live here?  I wouldn’t live here if you paid me a million dollars.”

Que sera, sera.

The Gathering Storm

All the way from where we came
Built a mansion in a day
Distant lightning, thunder claps
Watched our neighbor’s house collapse
Looked the other way

-MetricSpeed the Collapse

Most of us have driven through a formerly thriving city neighborhood, and have seen the abandoned buildings, the vacant lots, the potholed streets, and the decrepit infrastructure.

Some of us have reflected a bit further upon this explicit physical decay, and have begun to grasp and wrestle with the implicit inequality that is, in part, both its cause and effect.

But the decline and fall of our urban neighborhoods is a devilishly vexing issue, even for the most passionate urban advocates among us.

For every person, like me (and like many of you) that loves our aging cities, and is profoundly concerned about their welfare, there is another person like my friend, that views our cities with indifference, at best; and outright hostility, at worst.

Issues of perception aside, we in Northeast Ohio are dealing with some hellishly difficult issues today.  Our 12-county region has lost seven percent of its population since 1970, falling from 4.1 million to 3.8 million people.

But instead of shrinking our footprint, we’ve done the exact opposite.  The region developed an additional 250 square miles of land (over three times the land area of the City of Cleveland) between 1979 and 2006 – a 21% expansion.

Meanwhile, our four core cities continue to deteriorate and hollow-out.

image

People know that our core cities are losing population, but not many people understand the sheer magnitude of the decline.  Collectively, since their peak, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, and Youngstown have lost more people than they have today.

These four cities, which, in 1950, all ranked among the 100 largest in America, are today, added together, smaller than Cleveland was in 1950.  Cleveland, the 7th largest American city in 1950, ranks 45th (and dropping) today.  Akron, Canton, and Youngstown have all dropped out of the top 100.

It doesn’t take an expert in finance or public administration to imagine what collectively losing 750,000 people has done to these cities’ tax base, housing stock, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure.  We have a core city infrastructure built to support 1.5 million people that, today, serves less than half of that amount.

This trend, by itself, would be bad enough.  But it’s not just a matter of bricks and mortar.  As ruinously as the built environment and urban landscape in these cities has fared, many of their remaining residents have fared even worse.  The poor are increasingly isolated from social and economic opportunities, as the region continues to sort itself geographically by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

image

The effect on the most vulnerable neighborhoods located within the core cities themselves has been nothing short of catastrophic.  Thousands of houses have been torn down, leaving gaping holes in the urban fabric, while tens of thousands more are sitting vacant and abandoned today.

Short of intentional action to do otherwise, the future of our core cities looks even worse.  According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), the region can expect to abandon an additional 175,000 houses between now and 2040.  That’s a staggering 18 houses per day, day-in and day-out, for the next 27 years.  If current trends continue, very few of them will be rebuilt in place.

The cost of removing all of those abandoned houses is estimated to be around $1.75 billion dollars.  Federal, state, regional, or private funding to address the problem is unlikely to materialize.

So, in a perverse vicious cycle, the cities themselves will likely be on the hook to dig deeper into their already decimated tax bases, and foot the bill to remove the houses.  It is a no-win situation:  ignore the problem, and watch the blight and disinvestment spread even farther, or spend money that you don’t have, raise taxes, and drive more residents and businesses away, in order to try to keep things from getting worse.

If you are skeptical about this future projection, the future is already here.  Today, over 15,000 houses in Cleveland sit abandoned.  In Akron, the number is around 2,300.  And in Youngstown, a city of 65,000, that used to have 170,000 residents, an estimated 5,000 abandoned houses and 20,000 vacant lots pose a problem almost too overwhelming to comprehend.

The problems of blight, vacancy, and abandonment have spread to the inner ring suburbs, as well.  In East Cleveland today, one in five houses sits abandoned.

It gets worse.  The 12-county region, which has about the exact same population that it did in 1960, has spread those people over a much larger footprint, replicating all of the housing, public utilities, and transportation infrastructure that was already there to support them.

So, taxpayers at the federal, state, and local level already paid once to build all of the infrastructure that was in place prior to 1960.  Now, they are in the process of paying a second time to build a largely redundant duplicate infrastructure in many of the areas that have been developed since 1960.

The end result, with the region’s population aging, and predicted to grow by less than 100,000 people over the next three decades, is a lot more infrastructure with the same amount of people to pay for it.  This means more public debt, higher taxes, and probably both.

In the coming decades, many of the areas developed since 1960 will face a similar dilemma to the one that the core cities are facing today: spend money that you don’t have to maintain infrastructure in an effort to stave off abandonment, or slowly watch previous hard-won investments in housing, economic development, and public infrastructure wither and die.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

Sorrow drips into your heart through a pinhole,
Just like a faucet that leaks and there is comfort in the sound.
But while you debate half-empty or half-full,
It slowly rises, your love is gonna drown.

-Death Cab for Cutie, Marching Bands of Manhattan

We are living through an abnormal, historic aberration, in terms of the way that we plan and arrange our communities.  In the long-run, it is socially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.

In the short-run, it is an abnormal new normal.  Our pattern of abandoning thousands of houses, building new ones elsewhere, and building redundant infrastructure, all while (in the case of Northeast Ohio) continuing to lose population, is a social experiment.  It is one that is unlikely to end well, as Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has pointed out.

In the long-run, there are simply not enough federal, state, or local tax dollars to simultaneously pay to maintain legacy infrastructure and deal with continued abandonment in our older communities, while paying to maintain (and build more) infrastructure in our newer communities.  We are caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

Urban decline, as such, is not the historical anomaly to which I am referring.  Cities have grown and declined throughout human history, sometimes due to economic conditions, and sometimes due to things that are even more unpleasant:  natural disasters, disease, and war.  People died, were displaced, or moved away, and the city shrank accordingly.

What people haven’t historically done, though, is to rebuild a new version of the city right next door to the old one, expected both of them to carry on as they always had, as if nothing fundamental had changed, and had taxpayers at all levels of government foot the bill.  That’s the historical anomaly.

To be clear, we are not just talking about people building newer, nicer, dwellings; wanting a little bit more land; or about the rich separating themselves from the poor.  These things have always happened.

But they have never happened on such a massive scale, by building what is essentially a duplicate publicly-funded infrastructure of modern utility and transportation networks, with capital, operating, and maintenance costs stretching into the billions of dollars; all (in the case of our region) to serve the exact same amount of people.

And then the storm was overhead
All the oceans boiled and rivers bled
We auctioned off our memories
In the absence of a breeze
Scatter what remains
Scatter what remains

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

The 21st Century will mark the first time the United States has ever had to replace a modern public infrastructure.  We’ve never had to comprehensively rebuild a modern water and sewer system, transportation network, or electrical grid.  The staggering expenditure associated with doing this is is going to be an unpleasant wake-up call for a notoriously short-sighted culture.

Did I mention that our country is $17 trillion in debt?  This wasn’t the case when we modernized our much less extravagant 19th century infrastructure in older cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.

But it is not the maintenance and replacement costs that will be our ultimate undoing.  It is the fact that we are doubling, tripling, and quadrupling-down on this unfunded liability, by continuing to sprawl outward.  No one in human history has ever attempted to do what we are doing.  That is, to build a modern, urban infrastructure at what is, in-effect, a semi-rural scale.

This is uncharted territory. There is an inexorable, compelling, and inherently conservative economic logic that says it is better to serve more people with less infrastructure, rather than doing it the other way around.

The likely consequence of flouting such a reasonable course of action will entail our going broke, or having to abandon much of the modern transportation and utilities grid, or both – neither of which are appealing options.

Looked at from this perspective, it is hard to imagine something more short-sighted and fiscally unsound; a greater breach of the public trust; or a larger waste of human labor and natural resources.

It is at this point that people typically seek to avoid this uncomfortable truth, and prefer to preempt the discussion of what to do about it, by instead dwelling on why they think that all of this has happened.

Everyone has a different pet theory:  the automobile, government corruption and/or incompetence; corporate greed; personal irresponsibility; race and class-based social tensions, etc.  As Charles Marohn, of Strong Towns, has astutely pointed out, people from one ideological perspective can find plausible narratives that run completely counter to plausible narratives put forth by people of the opposite ideological perspective.

Both a racist and a civil rights advocate, for example, can explain what “went wrong with our cities” entirely in terms of race.  And the more that someone is uninterested in actually trying to address the problems of our cities, the more likely they are to be dogmatic and reductionist in their account of how the problems happened in the first place.

But this is irrelevant right now.  What I want to do is to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem that we are facing, not assign blame for why it happened.

So what are we facing?  We are facing a situation that is a recipe for fiscal disaster and financial collapse.  And if that is not scary enough, I would argue that it is also a recipe for worsening social pathology, civil unrest, and civic decay, as people are further segregated by race, class, and socioeconomic status.

Pushed away I’m pulled toward
A comedown of revolving doors
Every warning we ignored
Drifting in from distant shores
The wind presents a change of course
A second reckoning of sorts
We were wasted waiting for
A comedown of revolving doors
Fate don’t fail me now

-Metric, Speed the Collapse

It’s a death by a thousand cuts.

Who Cares?

The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.

-Elie Wiesel

There are some that see any attempt to get a handle on runaway infrastructure costs by stemming the outward tide of development and the continued abandonment of our core cities, as a form of communism (at best); or totalitarianism (at worst); that will eliminate individual rights, private property, and destroy the principles that our nation was founded upon.

There are others, like me, that see this as the very essence of conservatism itself:  good stewardship of our tax dollars and our natural resources, a respect for community and tradition, a belief in the social and spiritual importance of place, and an acknowledgement of this inescapable reality of life – that we all need one another, and that, in the end, no one is an island.

The fiscal unsustainability of our current pattern of growth and development should naturally appeal to conservative sensibilities.  But the political right has largely drifted away from this type of conservatism (conservation of financial, human, and natural resources).

Meanwhile, the political left has either ignored the issue, or has gone about addressing it in typical tone-deaf fashion, failing to engage the imaginations, hopes, fears, and aspirations of everyday people.

Like so many other difficult issues, it represents a colossal failure for both political parties.

So where are we in Northeast Ohio today?

  • Our core cities have collectively lost 750,000 people since 1950.
  • Hundreds of thousands of residents currently lack access to social and economic opportunities that people like me (and likely, you) take for granted.
  • Tens of thousands of houses in our core cities and inner-ring suburbs currently sit vacant and abandoned.
  • An additional 175,000 houses (18 per day, for the next 27 years) are projected to be abandoned, and it would cost close to $2 billion to remove them.
  • Suburban areas are building more infrastructure than they will be able to afford to maintain, especially in the long-term.
  • Absent a will to change this unhealthy dynamic, we will repeat this cycle in community after community, until we are broke.

We need to have a spirited debate about how to deal with all of these complex and interrelated problems.  These are difficult issues that people of goodwill all over the ideological spectrum can and should disagree about how best to address.

The solutions are not immediately apparent and will not come solely from one person, group, or political party.  They will not come from a couple of urban planners sitting around a table, but will instead need to involve the private sector, public officials, and all of the citizens that they represent.

But first we have to acknowledge that there is a problem.  A problem that that we have a collective responsibility for.

This isn’t just a matter of dollars and cents.  It is ultimately about people.

So, our core cities continue to be abandoned, and we develop more land on the fringes of our region into what amounts to a parallel-society that is much wealthier and whiter than the region as a whole.

The poor, the working class, and many minorities are left behind in the places with shrinking tax and resource bases, while the wealthy continue to concentrate themselves in places that are increasingly homogeneous, with greater access to social and economic opportunities.

Who cares?

Not everyone.

The deep-seated inequalities and inequities that exist as both a cause and an effect of our current pattern of growth and development should be obvious, but often are not.  Most of us see what we want to see, and we see the world through our own two eyes.  We know what we know. But we don’t know what we don’t know.

Without a philosophy that allows us to transcend the self, it is there that we will stay – prisoners of our own experiences and expectations.

In the end, it all comes down to our views on people and place, and on this thing we call “society”.

What is society?

Well, for one, “society” really just means “other people”.  The term itself is a tacit acknowledgement of the truth that we are all connected to one another, whether we want to be or not.

It is actual individual human people with names and families (and not abstractions like “society”) that are important.  But actual human people are inextricably linked to one another in physical space, and through thought, word, and deed.  The word “society” reminds us of this reality.

And what is place?

Are the things that are associated with place (like tradition, identity, stability, and community) objective values that are intrinsically important? Or are they just subjective and arbitrary?  Are they really just subordinate means to (more important?) ends such as economic development and personal profit?

Are places really nothing more than engines for economic growth that, like machines, can be discarded as obsolete when they are no longer “useful” in the most reductive, narrowly-defined sense of that word?  Or do places have an emotional and spiritual significance that we ignore at our peril?

And what about people themselves?  Where do they fit into the equation?  Where do they stack up on the balance sheet, and in the benefit/cost calculations?  Who is measuring the true human cost of abandoning entire neighborhoods, entire communities, and entire ways of life?  Is it possible to truly understand the social, economic, and spiritual impact of our collective decisions on where and how to build our communities?

These questions are never considered in conversations about economic growth and development.  But they should be.

You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

-Matthew 5:13

How do we see ourselves?  Are we stewards tasked with upholding the values of community and stability, acknowledging our interconnectedness, mutual dependence, and our responsibility to look out for one another’s well being?

I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

-Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Or do we see ourselves simply as consumers of resources, and maximizers of utility; confident in our own self-sufficiency; content to put our faith and trust in the invisible hand to separate the weak from the strong?

Are we just makers and takers? Or are we fellow human beings, created equal, with a mutual responsibility to look out for one another, and to care for the places in which we live?

It is a sad and sorry ideology that sees any type of virtue or courage in simply succumbing to the fatalistic logic of social darwinism; to glorify in being swept to where the tide was going to carry us anyway.

We should fight it tooth and nail until the day that we die.

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Robert Frost, Reluctance

It is a decision point for our region.

Happy New Year, everyone.

What the Berlin Wall Taught Me

My dear and admired friend, Jason Segedy, ran a lovely post on his blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com the other day.  It does a beautiful job of tracing out how our assumptions about the future can so readily turn out wrong — and why the fact that they so often turn out wrong means that we never have an real excuse to say that thing we often say:

It is what it is.  It (our politics, our leadership, our lack of money, fill in the blank) will never change.  

After all, we all thought the Soviet Union was invincible.  Until 1991.  As Jason says, Who knew?

So who knows whether your  tough challenge will last or change?

Maybe you do, after all.

Here’s Jason:

___

Meine Reise nach Berlin

In 1987, when I was 14 years old, I went to Germany.  It was the first time that I had ever been outside of North America.  And it was the first (and only) time that I had been behind the Iron Curtain.

 

Twenty-seven years ago, this March, I crossed the Berlin Wall at Checkpoint Charlie and visited Soviet-occupied East Berlin.  Twenty-six years before that, in 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed.  The wall separated the totalitarian east from the democratic west.  It separated friends and colleagues from one another, divided families, and served as a major flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

 

It was easy to see what the West Berliners thought of the wall – every square inch was covered with (mostly political) graffiti.  The side that faced East Berlin, however, was virgin concrete, unsullied by graffiti.  It bore mute testimony to the voiceless East Berliners that had been silenced by their own government, the German “Democratic” Republic (a.k.a. East Germany).

Berlin wall
West Germany side of the Berlin Wall (there were actually two walls a few hundred feet apart). From thestile1972.tumblr.com

 

When we crossed into East Berlin, it was like crossing from a color world into a black and white one.  West Berlin was like New York, with a little bit of Las Vegas thrown in for good measure.

Crossing over into East Berlin, you could actually feel the oppression.  Some areas of East Berlin were still bombed out from World War II, and piles of rotting lumber sat unused at vacant construction sites, where it looked like nothing had happened for decades.  There were far fewer people on the streets, and far fewer shops and stores.  It was a city full of drab blocks of apartments, with a few communist monuments thrown in for good measure.

 

In the west, people smiled, and would make eye contact with you.  The place was lousy with advertisements, neon signs, and street level kiosks selling cigarettes, snacks, newspapers, and lots of pornography.  Late-model Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes-Benzes filled the streets, and edgy electronic music emanated from the ubiquitous discotheques, seemingly located on every block.  In the east, no one really made eye contact.  The streets were largely silent, and looked empty by comparison. The cars that we saw were these little two-cylinder numbers that looked like you could kick them apart.  It looked depressed, and felt depressing.  It was a place without hope.

 

I wish that I could go back and do that trip over again.  Although I was pretty mature and well-behaved (for a 14 year old), there are so many more things that I would have noticed and appreciated as an adult. On the other hand, seeing the Cold War up-close-and-personal, as a 14 year old, offers a valuable perspective, too.

 

Growing up, I honestly believed that there was a decent chance that I would be vaporized by a Soviet ICBM.  Like a lot of other kids in the 1980s, I put my odds at surviving until adulthood at around 50/50.

 

Here in the present-day, it is all-too-easy to forget that we went to bed every night knowing that a global thermonuclear war was a horrifyingly real possibility.  Millions of people in Berlin were forcibly separated by a wall that served as a constant reminder of the atomic sword of Damocles that hung over the heads of an additional billion people, like myself, living throughout North America, Europe, and the U.S.S.R.

 

I became an adult in 1990.  The Cold War ended the very next year.  Who knew?

 

Twenty-seven years after my visit, it is starting to hit home that my trip to Berlin actually is a “historical” event, just like World War II was when I visited.  Time is a funny thing.

 

The Scourge of Fatalism

 

So what did the Berlin Wall teach me?

It goes back to that “Who knew?”

No one did, of course.  Not, for sure, anyway.

We never know.

So why is it that we so often pretend like we do?  Why do we default to a fatalistic, you’ll-never-change-it, assumption about what the future holds?

Fatalism is to the 2010s what irony was to the 1990s – a defense mechanism that we employ to avoid confronting the crushing reality of free human choice.

Fatalism might be the single biggest thing that holds us back as a culture.  We forget that what we do here, in the present, controls what happens in the future.

It is the collective sum of the untold billions of human choices, great and small, that each of us make each and every day, which (excepting what is truly beyond our control – accident, natural disaster, disease, and death) are directly responsible for every ounce of misery and suffering on this planet.

We have met the enemy and he is us.

 

On the other hand, we collectively have the power and the capacity to make our world into a virtual paradise.

 

But what can we really do?  We are just individuals.  What can any of us, even the most virtuous or noble among us, really change in the end?  We are, each one of us, simply one of a billion of grains of sand on a desolate beach.  How can we be expected to make a difference?

 

So, instead, we resort to fatalism.  We assert, and assume, that we can’t.  It makes the conundrum of free human choice a lot easier to deal with, and it assuages the feeling of helplessness that come with the recognition of our individuality and our dependence upon others.  It’s a cold comfort, that some may argue is better than nothing.

 

But, the thing is, taking the cold comfort doesn’t help us.   In fact, it makes our situation even worse.  It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

 

See, if we know that the future is going to be such-and-such, there’s really no point in trying to change it.

 

Sound familiar?

 

How about these:

 

We know that people of different races are just never going to get along.  People are people.

 

We know that there is no way that we are going to be able to produce the energy that we need, and protect the environment at the same time.  We’re powerless to change it.

 

We know that, no matter what we do, we are never going to be able to provide enough health care, food, or shelter for those that need it.  So why bother trying?

 

We know that Americans love their cars and their big houses, and there is no point trying to promote alternatives to driving, or to urban sprawl.  That’s just the way it is.

 

But, see, the thing is, we don’t really know any of these things.  Take a look at history.  Most of our prophecies about the future have been wrong.  And most of the prophecies that were not, were of the self-fulfilling variety.

 

Some of the people in Warsaw, in May 1942, were undoubtedly just as sure as the Nazis were, that the German Reich would last for a thousand years.

 

By May 1945, the Reich was gone.

 

Some of the people in Berlin, in March 1987, were sure that the Cold War would never end, and that the Wall would never come down.

 

By November 1989, the Wall was gone.

 

Some of the people in Northeast Ohio, in 2014, are sure that we are destined to remain the “Rust Belt” from here to eternity.

 

We’re not.

My trip to Berlin in 1987 was a reminder to never give up hope, even when things seem dark.

History is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  It is whatever we choose to make it.

 

There will be new Berlin Walls in the future, and there will also be new people to tear them down.

 

Fatalism.

 

Don’t believe it for a second.  Reject it, and choose your future.  What you choose to do today matters.

 

Live it out.

What we learned: lessons from the Rust Belt’s children

A slightly different version of this essay appeared about a week ago at my friend Jason Segedy’s blog, thestile1972.tumblr.com, and then (to my delight, because he deserves a much broader audience) at Rustwire.com.  In the meantime, I had done a little tweaking to the original post, since everyone benefits from an editor, myself definitely included.  So I’d like to share this with you as a very moving and profound response to my Rust Belt essay here not too long ago.

One thing that Jason gets at beautifully, which I think kind of got lost in my piece, is that neither my goal nor his was to rewrite history, to put some kind of Rust Belt Chic spin on the industrial era.  Jason references his uncle’s death in an industrial accident, which wasn’t as uncommon as you might think.  The Phelps brothers’ sculptures that I described in the previous piece resonates with me because of the labor and the dirt and the exhaustion they portray.  And my own father’s brain tumor probably had more than a little something to do with a lifetime around toxic chemicals. Romantic, not so much.

The thing that I want to explore, though, and that Jason has picked up on, is whether that experience of being in that time and that place at that formative age impacted how those of us who work on making communities better…do that work.  I think it colors the experience, shapes the perspective of this subset of 30- and 40-something community professionals and advocates, and my theory is that because of that experience, this subset does that work a little differently than others.

And since communities of all kinds and all regions are struggling with how to deal with massive changes, wicked problems and bewildering economic issues, maybe those of us who grew up in the first wave of this sea change might have something beneficial to offer.

So, I’m toying with this topic for an upcoming book, but I don’t know exactly where we’re going with it yet.  If you’d like to share your insights, please feel free to send me a note at della.rucker@wiseeconomy.com.

Thanks.  Here’s Jason.

Go to sleep, Captain Future, in your lair of art deco
You were our pioneer of progress, but tomorrow’s been postponed
Go to sleep, Captain Future, let corrosion close your eyes
If the board should vote to restore hope, we’ll pass along the lie

-The Secret Sound of the NSA, Captain Future

In the Beginning…

map of NE US
“Image Source: Wikipedia: Change in total number of manufacturing jobs in metropolitan areas, 1954-2002. Dark red is very bad. Akron is dark red.”

As near as I can tell, the term “Rust Belt” originated sometime in the mid-1980s.  That sounds about right.  I originated slightly earlier, in 1972, at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron, Ohio, Rubber Capital of the World.

My very earliest memory is of a day, sometime in the summer of 1975, when my parents, my baby brother, and I went on a camping trip to Lake Milton, just west of Youngstown.  I was three years old.  I have no idea why, of all of the things that I could remember, but don’t, I happen to remember this one.  But it is a good place to start.

I remember looking at the green overhead freeway signs along the West Expressway in Akron.  I remember the overpoweringly pungent smell of rubber wafting from the smokestacks of B.F. Goodrich and Firestone.  I remember asking my mother about it, and she explained that those were the factories where the tires, and the rubber, and the chemicals were made.  They were made by hard-working, good people – people like my Uncle Jim.

When I was a little bit older, I would learn that this was the smell of good jobs; of hard, dangerous work; and of the way of life that built the modern version of this quirky and gritty town.  It was the smell that tripled Akron’s population between 1910 and 1920, transforming it from a sleepy canal-town to the 32ndlargest city in America.  It was a smell laced with melancholy, ambivalence, and nostalgia – for it was the smell of an era that was quickly coming to an end (although I was far too young to be aware of this fact at the time).  It was, sometimes, the smell of tragedy.

We stopped by my grandparents’ house in Firestone Park on the way to the campground.  My grandmother gave me a box of Barnum’s Animals crackers for the road.  My grandparents were Akron.  Their story was Akron’s story.  My grandfather was born in 1916 in Barnesboro, a small coal-mining town in Western Pennsylvania, somewhere between Johnstown, DuBois, and nowhere.  His father, a coal miner, had emigrated there from Hungary nine years earlier.  My grandmother was born in Barberton, in 1920.  Barberton was reportedly the most-industrialized city in the United States, per-capita, at some point around that time.

They both worked in factories their entire working lives (I don’t think they called jobs like that “careers” back then).  My grandfather worked at Firestone.  My grandmother worked at the Saalfield Publishing factory, one of the largest producers of children’s books, games, and puzzles in the world.  Today, both of the plants where they worked form part of a gutted, derelict, post-apocalyptic moonscape in South Akron, located between that same West Expressway and…well, perdition.  The City of Akron has plans for revitalizing this area.  It needs to happen, but there are ghosts there…

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

My grandparents’ house exemplified what it was to live in working-class Akron in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  My stream-of-consciousness memories of that house include:  cigarettes and ashtrays; Hee-HawThe Joker’s Wild; fresh tomatoes and peppers; Fred & Lamont Sanford; Archie & Edith Bunker; Herb Score and Indians baseball on the radio on the front porch; hand-knitted afghans; UHF/VHF; 3, 5, 8, and 43; cold cans of Coca-Cola and Pabst Blue Ribbon (back when the pop-tops still came off of the can); the Ohio Lottery; chicken and galuskas (dumplings); a garage floor that you could eat off of; a meticulously maintained 14-year-old Chrysler with 29,000 miles on it; a refrigerator in the dining room because the kitchen was too small; catching fireflies in jars; and all being right with the world.

I always associate the familiar comfort of that two-bedroom bungalow with the omnipresence of cigarette smoke and television.  I remember sitting there on May 18, 1980.  It was my eighth birthday.  We were watching TV coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington State.  I remember talking about the fact that it was going to be the year 2000 (the Future!) in just twenty years.  It was an odd conversation for an eight year old to be having with adults (planning for the future already, and for a life without friends, apparently).  I remember thinking about the fact that I would be 28 years old then, and how inconceivably distant it all seemed.  Things seem so permanent when you’re eight, and time moves ever-so-slowly.

More often than not, when we visited my grandparents, my Uncle Jim and Aunt Helen would be there.  Uncle Jim was born in 1936, in West Virginia.  His family, too, had come to Akron to find work that was better-paying, steadier, and (relatively) less dangerous than the work in the coal mines.  Uncle Jim was a rubber worker, first at Mohawk Rubber and then later at B.F. Goodrich.  Uncle Jim also cut hair over at the most-appropriately named West Virginia Barbershop, on South Arlington Street in East Akron.  He was one of the best, most decent, kindest people that I have ever known.

I remember asking my mother once why Uncle Jim never washed his hands.  She scolded me, explaining that he did wash his hands, but that because he built tires, his hands were stained with carbon-black, which wouldn’t come out no matter how hard you scrubbed.  I learned later, that it would take about six months for that stuff to leach out of your pores, once you quit working.

Uncle Jim died in 1983, killed in an industrial accident on the job at B.F. Goodrich.  He was only 47.

The plant would close for good about a year later.It was an unthinkably tragic event, at a singularly traumatic time for Akron.  It was the end of an era.

 

Times Change

My friend Della Rucker recently wrote an essay entitled The Elder Children of the Rust Belt. .  It dredged up all of these old memories, and it got me thinking about childhood, about this place that I love and where I still live, and about the experience of growing up just as an economic era (perhaps the most prosperous and anomalous one in modern history) was coming to an end.

That is what the late 1970s and early 1980s was:  the end of one thing, and the beginning of a (still yet-to-be-determined) something else.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s because I was just a kid.

In retrospect, it was obvious:  the decay, the decomposition, the slow-at-first, and then faster-than-you-can-see-it unwinding of an industrial machine that had been wound-up far, far, too tight.  The machine runs until it breaks down; it is replaced then with a new and more efficient one – a perfectly ironic metaphor for an industrial society.  It was a machine made up of unions, and management, and capitalized sunk costs, and supply chains, and commodity prices, and globalization.  Except it wasn’t really a machine at all.  It was really just people.  And people aren’t machines.  When they are treated as such, and then discarded as obsolete, there are consequences.

You could hear it in the music:  from the decadent, desperately-seeking-something (escape) pulse of Disco, to the (first) nihilistic and (then) fatalistic sound of Punk and Post-Punk.  It’s not an accident that a band called Devo came from Akron, Ohio.  De-evolution:  the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society.  It sounded a lot like Akron in the late 1970s.  It still sounds a little bit like the Rust Belt today.

As an adult, looking back at the experience of growing up at that time, you realize how much it colors your thinking and outlook on life.  It’s all the more poignant when you realize that the “end-of-an-era” is never really an “end” as such, but is really a transition to something else.  But to what exactly?

The end of that era, which was marked by strikes, layoffs, and unemployment, was followed by its echoes and repercussions: economic dislocation, outmigration, poverty, and abandonment; as well as the more intangible psychological detritus – the pains from the phantom limb long after the amputation; the vertiginous sensation of watching someone (or something) die.

 

And it came to me then
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to Father Time

As I stared at my shoes
In the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409

It sung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous paces bracing for bad news

Love is watching someone die…

-Death Cab For Cutie, What Sarah Said

 

But it is both our tragedy and our glory that life goes on.

Della raised a lot of these issues:  our generation’s ambivalent relationship with the American Dream (like Della, I have the same unpleasant taste of rust in my mouth whenever I write or utter that phrase); our distrust of organizations and institutions; and our realization that you have to keep going, fight, and survive, in spite of it all.  She talks about how we came of age at a time of loss:

not loss like a massive destruction, but a loss like something insidious, deep, pervasive.

It is so true, and it is so misunderstood.

One of the people commenting on her post said, essentially, that it is dangerous to romanticize about a “golden age;” that all generations struggle; and that life is hard.

Yes, those things are all true.  But they are largely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

There is a very large middle ground between a “golden age” and an “existential struggle.”  The time and place about which we are both writing (the late 1970s through the present, in the Rust Belt) was neither heaven nor Lord of the Flies. .  But it is undoubtedly a time of extreme transition.  It is a great economic unraveling, and we are collectively and individually still trying to figure out how to navigate through it, survive it, and ultimately build something better out of it.

History is cyclical.  Regardless of how enamored Americans, in general, may be with the idea, it is not linear.  Our existence as a culture is neither a long, slow march toward utopia, nor toward oblivion.  We  see times of relative (and it’s all relative, this side of paradise) peace, prosperity, and stability; and other times of relative strife, economic upheaval, uncertainty, and instability.  But we have clearly moved from one of those times to the other, beginning in the 1970s, and continuing through the present.  And I think the Rust Belt has been that movement’s ground zero.

The point that is easy to miss when uttering phrases like “life is hard for every generation,” is that none of this discussion about the Rust Belt – where it’s been, where it is going – has anything to do with a “golden age.”  But it has everything to do with the fact that this time of transition was an era (like all eras) that meant a lot (good and bad) to the people that lived through it.  It helped make them who they are today, and it helped make where they live what it is today.

For those of us who were kids at the time that the great unraveling began   a big part of our experience has been about the narrative that we were socialized to believe in at a very young age, and how that narrative went up in a puff of smoke.

In 1977, I could smell rubber in the air, and many of my family members and friends’ parents worked in rubber factories.

In 1982, the last passenger tire was built in Akron.

By 1984, 90% of those jobs were gone, many of those people had moved out of town, and the whole thing was already a fading memory.

Just as when a person dies, people reacted with a mixture of silence, embarrassment, and denial.

 

As a kid, especially, you construct your identity based upon the place in which you live.  The whole identity that I had built, even as a small child, as a proud Akronite:  This is the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD; this is where we make lots and lots of Useful Things for people all over the world; this is where Real Americans Do Real Work; this is where people from Europe, the South, and Appalachia come to make a Better Life for themselves.

That all got yanked away before I was 12.  I couldn’t believe any of those things anymore, because they were no longer true, and I knew it.  I could see it with my own eyes.  Maybe some of them were never true to begin with, but kids can’t live a lie the way that adults can.  When the place that you thought you lived in turns out not to be the place that you actually live in, it’s jarring and disorienting.  It can even be heartbreaking.

___

We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives.

Tyler Durden, Fight Club

I’m fond of the above quote.  I was even fonder of it when I was 28 years old.  Time, and the realization that life is short — and that you ultimately have to participate and do something with it– has lessened its power considerably. But it remains the quintessential Generation X quote, from the quintessential Generation X movie.  It certainly fits in quite well with all of this.

But, then again, maybe it shouldn’t.

I use the phrase “Rust Belt Orphan” in the original title of this post, because that is what the experience of coming of age at the time of the great economic unraveling feels like at the gut-level.  But it’s a dangerous and unproductive combination, when coupled with the whole Gen-X thing.

In many ways, the Rust Belt is the “Generation X” of regions – the place that just doesn’t seem to fit in; the place that most people would just as soon forget about; the place that would, in fact, just as soon forget about itself.  The place that, if it does dare to acknowledge its own existence or needs, barely notices the surprised frowns of displeasure and disdain from those on the outside, because it has already been subsumed by its own self-doubt and self-loathing.

A fake chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

-Radiohead, Fake Plastic Trees

The whole Gen-X misfit wandering-in-the-Rust Belt-wilderness meme is a palpably prevalent, but seldom acknowledged, part of our regional culture.  It is probably just as well.

It’s so easy for the whole smoldering heap of negativity to degenerate into a viscous morass of alienation and anomie.  Little good can come from going any further down that dead-end road.

 

Whither the Future?

“The Greek word for “return” is nostosAlgos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.”
– 
Milan Kundera, Ignorance

So where does this all leave us?

First, as a region, I think we have to get serious about making our peace with the past and moving on.  We have begun to do this in Akron, and, if the stories and anecdotal evidence are to be believed, we are probably ahead of the region as a whole.

But what does “making our peace” and “moving on” really mean?

In many ways, I think that our region has been going through a collective period of mourning for the better part of four decades.  Nostalgia and angst regarding the things that have been lost (some of our identity, prosperity, and national prominence)are all part of the grieving process.  The best way out is always through.

But we should grieve, not so we can wallow in the experience and refuse to move on, but so we can gain a better understanding of who we are and where we come from.  Coming to grips with and acknowledging those thingsultimately enables us to help make these places that we love better.

We Americans are generally not all that good at, or comfortable with, mourning or grief.  There’s a very American idea that grieving is synonymous with “moving on” — and (even worse) that “moving on” is synonymous with “getting over it.”

We’re very comfortable with that neat and tidy, straight, upwardly-trending line toward the future (and a more prosperous, progressive, and enlightened future it will always be, world without end, Amen). We’re not so comfortable with that messy and confusing historical cycle of boom-and-bust, of evolution and de-evolution, of creation and destruction and reinvention.  But that’s the world as we actually experience it, and it’s the one that we must live in.  It is far from perfect.  I wish that I had another one to offer you.  But there isn’t one.  For all of its trials and tribulations, the world that we inhabit has one inestimable advantage:  it is unambiguously real.

“Moving on” means refusing to become paralyzed by the past.  It means living up to our present responsibilities and striving every day to become the type of people that are better able to help others.  But “moving on” doesn’t mean that we forget about the past, that we pretend that we didn’t experience what we did, or that we create an alternate reality to avoid playing the hand that we’ve actually been dealt.

I don’t think we can, or should, “get over” the Rust Belt.  The very phrase “get over it” traffics in denial, wishful thinking, and the estrangement of one’s self from one’s roots.  Countless attempts to “get over” the Rust Belt have resulted in the innumerable short-sighted, “get rich quick” economic development projects and public-private pyramid-schemes that many of us have come to find so distasteful, ineffective, and expensive.

We don’t have to be  something that we are not. We can’t be, even if we want to.  But we do have to be the best place that we can be.  This might mean that we are a smaller, less-prominent place.  But it also means that we can be a much better-connected, more cohesive, coherent, and equitable place.

The only people that can stop us from becoming that place are we ourselves.

For a place that has been burned so badly by the vicissitudes of the global economy, Big Business, and Big Industry, we’re so quick to put our faith in the Next Big Project, the Next Big Organization, and the Next Big Thing.  I’m not sure whether this is the cause of our current economic malaise, or the effect, or both.

Whatever it is, we need to stop doing it.

Does this mean that we should never do or dream anything big?  No.  Absolutely not.

But it does mean that we should be prudent, and that we should  prefer our economic development and public investment to be hyper-nimble, hyper-scalable, hyper-neighborhood-focused, and ultra-diverse.  Fetishizing Daniel Burnham’s  “Make no little plans…” quote has done us much harm.  Sometimes “little plans” are exactly what we need, because they involve fundamentals, they’re easier to pull off, and they more readily establish trust, inspire hope, and build relationships.

Those of us who came of age during the great economic unraveling and (still painful) transition from the Great American Manufacturing Belt to the Rust Belt might just be in a better position to understand our challenges –and to find the creative solutions required to meet them head-on.  Those of us that stuck it out and still live here, know what we have been through.  We’re under no illusions about where we live, or who we are.  I think Della was on to something when she listed what she thinks that we can bring to the table:

  • Determination
  • Long-game focus
  • Understanding the depth of the pit and the long way left to climb out of it
  • Resourcefulness
  • Ability to salvage
  • Expectation that there are no easy answers
  • Disinclination to believe that everything will be all right if only we do this One Big Thing

 

When I look at this list, I see pragmatism, resilience, self-knowledge, survival skills, and leadership.

It all rings true.

He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never go back any more. The gates were closed, the sun was gone down, and there was no beauty but the gray beauty of steel that withstands all time. Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had flourished.

“Long ago,” he said, “long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.” 

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, Winter Dreams

 

So, let us have our final elegy for the Rust Belt.  Then, let’s get to work.

 

False Choices, Suburban/Urban, Welcome to Reality in Akron

Yesterday I shared with you an excerpt from a great piece by Jason Segedy that used a recent post from New Geography about raising children in urban versus suburban environments as a platform for calling us to order around the over-simplification of our “debates” over planning and public policy.  As he said so well,

“Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic.”

Jason did a great job of challenging us to stop allowing this kind of yes-no-yes-know thinking, and challenging us to debate all of the “hows” of how we organize communities “with intelligence and good will.”

In the same post that I pulled that selection from, Jason also shares some of his experience growing up in one of the urban neighborhoods that the New Geography piece claimed was anti-child.  There’s a lot of ink on this topic –Better Cities and Towns ran a piece yesterday as well – but I thought that the picture Jason painted of growing up in an urban neighborhood was worth sharing for those of you who did not have that kind of experience.   I grew up in a neighborhood that looked a lot like the one Jason describes, except that we lacked his neighborhood’s racial diversity.  So for me Jason’s neighborhood looks like largely familiar territory.  But that might not be the case for you.

OK.  You can keep reading, but only on one condition: please don’t read or mis-interpret this essay as a “suburbs suck/urban neighborhoods rock” kind of didactic post.  Please.  Jason’s point from yesterday is more important than anything he or I say about one kind of neighborhood or another.  There are pros and cons to every location – urban, rural, suburban, the Moon, whatever.  It’s not an either-or choice.  It’s a range of choices.  The metrics Jason laid out about fiscal sustainability and long-term community viability… those are what matter. Those are how we have to learn to discern places and place-creating and sustaining options.  Everything else is just noise.

Back to Jason:

_____

So let’s get to the substance of [the New Geography post’s] argument. Much of his perspective, I believe, stems from projecting his own experiences of city and suburb onto society at-large. We all do to some degree.  We speak from what we know. You do the same thing. I will do some of it here. My initial reaction to his post on Twitter was defensive and reflected my own biases as well. It’s largely unavoidable.

So, in the interest of full disclosure; my formative experiences involving growing up in a city are as follows:

Akron Neighborhood
Akron Neighborhood. From thestile1972.tumblr.com

I was raised as the oldest of four children (all boys) by middle-class parents in Akron, Ohio in the 1970s and 1980s. My great-grandparents were poor immigrants from Hungary and Sicily. My grandparents were blue collar, working class, devout Roman Catholics: several factory workers and a cop. My father is an attorney. My beloved mother was a teacher and a homemaker.

We were a white family in a predominately black neighborhood. Like us, most of our white neighbors were Roman Catholic. Several were Jewish. Almost all of the white people, including us, went to private (Catholic) schools. Most of the black people went to public schools. Our block and the blocks surrounding it were full of nearly equal numbers of black and white residents, living side-by-side. To this day, it is still one of the most integrated neighborhoods that I have ever seen.

Playing sports and being the only white kid in a large group of black kids gave me a tiny feel for what many black people experience all of the time – being the lonely only in a group of whites.

My parents loved living in the city. My dad still lives in the house that I grew up in. But contrary to stereotypes, they were conservative Republicans and evangelical protestants (they left the Catholic church when I was a teenager). I’m not sure that they have ever voted for a Democrat. But they regularly supported tax levies for public transportation, schools, libraries, and parks. They were hardly urban elitists. I don’t think I ate a piece of sushi until I was close to 30. They have never owned a new car. They taught us to love and respect everyone, regardless of their race, creed, or color. We should have listened to them more often. They were the best parents that one could ever hope for, but that is a topic for another post.

I live in the City of Akron today. I am a Christian and a political independent. I voted for George W. Bush twice. I voted for Barack Obama twice. Go figure. I try to see political issues from as many sides as I am capable of seeing them from. I dislike the binary political choices we are usually offered. I am imperfect. I am wrong more often than I would like to believe. I will never be perfect, or perfectly fair, or totally unbiased, but I can learn, and grow. Just like everyone else.

Growing up in the city, we learned to be street-smart: unlocked doors were unheard of (they still shock me); unlocked bikes would be gone in 10 minutes; walking too far afield, especially at night, was ill-advised.

But our house was never broken into. None of us were ever the victims of violent crime. Neighbors looked out for one another. There were plenty of kids around – nearly every house on our block had at least two or three. Yards were not gigantic, but they were big enough to play baseball, football, hide-and-seek, and “fight the Soviet invaders with plastic guns” (hey, it was the 80s). There were plenty of parks nearby to enjoy. We went to story-hour at the local library. We played CYO soccer. We tried to get out of yard work as frequently as possible. We were happy kids. Living in the city wasn’t a form of child abuse.

Everyone owned a car. No one used public transportation. We walked and rode our bikes, but there were not a whole lot of stores or businesses to walk to, since neighborhood retail had already begun its inexorable march to the suburbs. It has never looked back. Our neighborhood is all the poorer for it.

So why am I boring you with all of the details of my life? Why? Because my experience does not remotely resemble the false dichotomies proffered as dogma in this (and in so many others) article on cities and suburbs. Contrary to what Lanza says, private schools didn’t destroy life for kids in my neighborhood. Kids from St. Sebastian? Kids from Archbishop Hoban? Kids from Walsh Jesuit? We all knew each other, carpooled together; rode the bus together. If nothing else, we were unified by hatred of our school uniforms.

Which box do I belong in? Which one does my family or life experience fit neatly into? The urban elitist? The All-American suburbanite?

The city that I grew up in and live in today is not one full of urbane, snooty, secular, childless, upper middle class elitists living in a concrete jungle with nowhere for the (non-existent) kids to play. This is Akron, Ohio. Have you ever been here? The city is full of single family homes on small (but adequate for children to play) lots. People living in the city own lawnmowers here. People drive everywhere here. It’s cheaper to live in the city than in the suburbs. “Driving ‘till you qualify” means driving further into the city, not out of it. There’s a lot of open space here in the city, because a lot of people moved to the suburbs. But there aren’t a whole lot of elitists to be found in either place. This is Ohio.

But Akron is still undoubtedly a city. It might not be a city like San Francisco, but it’s still a city, and the people that live here identify it as such. They have just as much pride in where they live as anyone else does. And they should be allowed to. But so should the people of San Francisco. And so should the people of Menlo Park. And so should the people of Stow, and Tallmadge, and Green.

Do I project my life experiences on to my understanding of what cities are and who lives there? Sure. Is my experience representative of, or applicable to that of most Americans? Probably not. Maybe a bit more so to those that grew up in the industrial Midwest. You know what I’m saying Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Buffalo, Flint…

But, similarly then, Lanza’s description of suburb hating and anti-child sentiment amongst some in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. is hardly representative of the experience of most Americans either; urban, suburban, small town, or rural.

——–

Well said, Jason.

We have a range of communities, just like we have amazing varieties of people and families.  It’s not either-or.  It’s And.  And it’s within the context of Jason’s critical questions from yesterday:

1)    How do we support this place fiscally?

2)    How do we enable a quality place that will last for generations?

So let’s lose the false choices, and start focusing on the things that matter: making the places that we have better.

False Choices and the Only Differences Worth Exploring

Jason Segedy is a planner and transportation leader extraordinare, and he’s also one of very few people I have ever, ever met who can both talk with expertise about Complete Streets design and put a quote from Dostoyevsky in his email signature.  And then share an obscure Joy Division track.  The Renaissance Man is alive and well, thank you.

Jason recently started blogging, which is fantastic because he’s had a tendency to write multi-Tweet epistles that you know are saying something profound but you have to tease it out from all the intervening junk (not your tweets, of course!).   So I’ve been delighted to see him get a chance to take his perspective and run with it.

He posted a piece yesterday that quite impressed me – both for its insight and for its articulate-ness.  He embedded a description of the neighborhood where he grew up in the middle of it, and while that description paints a powerful picture, I wanted to make sure you heard both his primary focus and had an opportunity to think about that experience.  So I’m going to share his work with you via two posts.  This one is mostly focused on what I’ve termed in the past False Dichotomies…but I think Jason says it better than I did.  The second post is going to get into his personal reflections on what it was like to grow up in the kind of neighborhood that he sees being challenged.

Full, albeit uninteresting, disclosure: I had a piece published by New Geography a couple of years ago.  I read the blog occasionally, but I haven’t yet read the piece that Jason is responding to.  Didn’t want to wait the 6 months it might take me to get back to it at my current rate before I shared Jason’s work with you.

Make sure you go follow Jason at thestile1972.tumblr.com, and pick him up on Twitter @thestile1972.  You will be glad you did.

____

Over at New Geography, Joel Kotkin says this:

“In this bizarrely politicized environment, even the preservation of the most basic institution of society – the family – is morphing into a divisive partisan issue.”

I agree with him.

But then his very own web site runs an a post by Mike Lanza entitled “Suburb Hating is Anti-Child” that says this:

“A large proportion of intellectuals and politicians, including President Obama, decry these problems with suburbs as reason to hate them and advocate for their elimination, in favor of dense, big cities.”

So, after decrying the fact that the civic discourse regarding cities and suburbs has been “bizarrely politicized” and bemoaning the fact that it has “degenerated into a divisive partisan issue,” New Geography proceeds to do just that: create a bizarre politicized environment and foment partisan divisiveness over that very same issue.

What gives?

I have never seen someone with strong opinions about residential living environments (be they urban, suburban, small town, or rural) change their mind in a point/counterpoint exchange. It is about as likely as seeing atheists and theists; staunch conservatives and liberals; or abortion opponents and proponents change their point-of-view following a spirited debate. It doesn’t happen.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to respond. Why?

Because I think the entire debate is a false choice to begin with. And if there is one thing that is singularly responsible for hamstringing our civic discourse in this country for as long as I’ve been alive, it is the proliferation of false choices and how they get foisted upon the unwilling and the unaware.

Generation X and Millennials have never known an America where you could have an honest disagreement on public policy without the same tired partisan straw men being trotted out over and over again. Cities vs. Suburbs is an old classic. Elitists versus Salt-of-the-Earth; Enlightened versus Ignorant; Socialists versus Real American Patriots.

The real Americans are all in small towns! No, that’s where the bitter clingers and fanatics live!

It’s tiresome and depressing – all the more so  because none of it is even remotely close to the truth.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: Good and decent people; people that love children, their neighbors, the place they live, and their country; they are found everywhere – big cities, small cities, suburbs, towns, rural areas. Everywhere. There are also some crummy people out there. Unfortunately, they can be found everywhere, too. And they always seem to have a disproportionately large negative impact. C’est la vie.

The only differences worth exploring and debating with regards to cities and suburbs, in my mind, are those that involve space and place; along with the associated and interrelated issues of:

1) Fiscal Sustainability: How do we ensure that taxpayer dollars devoted to public infrastructure are used wisely? and

2) Community Viability: How do we create places that future generations will cherish, enjoy, and be willing to sustain?

The short answer to both questions is that we should want to have cities, suburbs, small towns, and communities of all types which are fiscally sustainable and are built to last for generations to come. How precisely, we, the American people, should do that is a topic that is worth debating.

Here is what is not worth debating: Which types of people live in which places and which types of grievances do they have to bring against one another? Which places contain people that are good and virtuous and which ones contain people that are evil and corrupt?  This is all just begging the question.

The core premises  are fallacious: suburb hating; child hating.

Why do you hate the suburbs? Why do you hate children?

When did you stop beating your wife? These are classic loaded questions.

Are there people out there that hate suburbs? Yes. Are there people out there that hate children? Yes. Are there people that hate both, and see a connection between the two? I don’t know.  Probably.

Do most intellectuals and urban politicians hate suburbs and children? I don’t think so. Do some? Sure. There are boorish cranks in every crowd.

None of this is new, or noteworthy. People of every social class, ethnicity, and creed that have hated people that aren’t like them. There are not a lot of them, but there are far too many. This is why the history of humankind is one of nearly continual strife, bloodshed, and warfare.

But is there really an organized conspiracy, involving President Obama and a cadre of elite intellectuals, bent on eliminating suburbs?

If there is, they are failing miserably. Honestly, it begins to sound like Agenda 21 paranoia.

I don’t believe that Mike Lanza really believes in his heart of hearts that there is a far-reaching organized conspiracy to eliminate suburbs. I think this is simply rhetorical posturing on his part. But even if he does, this is America, and he is entitled to his opinion; and either way, I wish him well personally. We agree to disagree. He has something that he cares enough about to devote an entire blog post to it; he clearly cares about people and places, and that’s good enough for me.

But I don’t recognize my experience, or that of my urban friends, family, and colleagues in the piece that Mike Lanza has written. Similarly, I don’t recognize the caricatures of suburbanites that appear in the missives penned by those with a political axe to grind against the suburbs.

 

So let’s not do it anymore. Let’s not get caught up in these endless arguments about the real and imagined virtues or vices of the people that live here, or the people that live there.

Let’s focus instead on the ends that we can agree on: Quality places that are built to last, which people can love, care about, and will preserve; infrastructure and public investment which is fiscally sustainable and which furthers the cause of creating better places.

And let’s reserve our disagreements and our passionate debates (and we should have them) for the means to carry out those agreed-upon ends. What should our transportation policy look like? Housing policy? Land use? How do we strike that balance between environmental protection, jobs, and property rights? Let’s debate it all.

But let’s debate it with intelligence and good will. Let’s assume that one another’s intentions are benevolent, rather than malevolent. It’s obvious that Mike Lanza cares about places, he cares about people, and he cares about kids. I know that he is doing good work for kids. I apologize for hastily characterizing his piece as “outright lies” on Twitter yesterday. I still disagree with his overall premise and with the false choices that it entails. Disagree we may, but I think we can still learn from one another.

“To find the middle way will require all our intelligence and all our good will…”

-Aldous Huxley