I drove back to Cleveland from D.C. on Wednesday. I cried intermittently until I passed Damascus, while listening to a stupid Menzingers song from their stupid new album on repeat, which reminds me of my life in general and gives me a lot of feelings, and, at that particular moment, made me want to disappear. This is probably a new crying-in-the-car low.
Like a kaleidoscope admiring years
I navigate around your tattoos
Said you got that one on a whim
When you were breaking up with him
And that matryoshka Russian doll
The largest shell from big to small
What a way to start anew
To shed your skin and find the old you
I was in D.C. to see my mom for her birthday and because I needed to not be in Cleveland. I didn’t take time off, because I can work remotely, especially when it’s too cold for my 250-bike system to be used heavily. I am lucky that I can do this, because if I stay in Cleveland too long, I don’t like it much.
I’m not from here. D.C. is my home, and I regret leaving—but know I that I wouldn’t be doing what I do, which I really like, if I hadn’t. I hope that I can move back, sooner rather than later. I’ve been telling people that I’ll be here through 2019. That covers the citywide race this year, and statewide elections next year. Maybe the bikeshare system that I run will have expanded by then.
But if I had a solid job opportunity in D.C.—I mean, like, I won’t take just anything, but it doesn’t have to be job-of-a-lifetime material; really, it’d just have to be something transportation-related that would pay me enough—I’d leave tomorrow.
This isn’t just a finicky allegiance to Cleveland. I had a finicky allegiance to San Francisco. It was so finicky that I was extremely nihilistic about living there. I didn’t want to be there and I didn’t see much of a future there for myself. I actually like living in Cleveland, and I bought my house with my boyfriend. This was something that prompted many people to tell me that I was putting down roots, which I squalled against. Hearing that definitely didn’t make me feel good, for reasons that I’ll get to. But that doesn’t mean that I did any of the things that I’ve done with anything less than absolute sincerity. Why would I move to Cleveland if I didn’t mean it? Why would I buy a house if I didn’t mean it? Why would I take a job that made me miserable just so I could move to Cleveland? I fought like hell to get into the role that I have now, and I’m really proud of that.
Working here, though, is emotionally taxing in a way that I’ve never experienced. I’ve been likening it to emotional labor because, much like sexism, classism, and racism are the systems through which emotional labor and exploitation are enabled, the systems in Cleveland and Ohio—political, social, cultural, environmental—make it extremely difficult to do the things I do, and for many of my friends to do the things they do.
I’m not going to give an overview of emotional labor here because you can read about it in other places! Here’s a good piece from the Toast, which gave rise to an extremely comprehensive Metafilter thread. This post, “Men Dump Their Anger Into Women,” says a lot of things I feel often. Open these tabs and go for a spin. If you don’t believe that emotional labor exists, or think that feminists cry emotional labor when things get too hard—despite a ton of other people clearly articulating why it’s a real thing—then the rest of what I write here is going to come off as privileged-person whining. So, bye!
Back to Cleveland. I went to D.C. last week (after going to D.C. over Christmas, and in January, because, yeah, I’m comfortable saying that I’d just like to move home already, and I miss it—but understanding what I’m writing about here is only going to work if you believe me that I can both miss D.C. terribly and care deeply about doing good things in Cleveland, which is how I feel, but is remarkably difficult for people to get, I guess? I’ve heard everything from, “Well, you like being in D.C. because it feels like being on vacation,” to “Why are you here?” to “You’re not giving Cleveland 100 percent because you miss D.C.,” to “You miss D.C. because it’s home, and it’s changed,” all of which is a complete slap in the face, because I’m here, and I’m working, and I’ve spared pretty much no expense, emotional or financial, to throw myself into being here) shortly after Public Square was opened to buses. Clevelanders For Public Transit, of which I am a part, has worked extremely hard to keep the pressure and attention on the Public Square debacle. Explaining the factors related to Public Square is going to require hard alcohol, because I’m tired of talking about it, but Public Square is highly representative of the problems in the city of Cleveland. The whole thing was an issue because our mayor wanted it to be an issue. That’s it. Full stop. I spent six months looking for an underlying narrative, whether it be legitimate or corrupt. There wasn’t one. The only reason we were fighting to open Public Square to buses, to keep in accordance with what was decided during the planning phase over two years ago, was because Frank Jackson didn’t want it open. This is such an unbelievable waste of literally everyone’s time that I got stressed out trying to clearly explain what was happening to people who lived in Cleveland, and people who didn’t. I went through the motions to do so because I do think it’s a good proxy for what we—anyone who broadly identifies as a progressive, or anyone who aligns themselves with the national, city-focus, urbanist movement that is becoming more prominent in America now—are up against.
Explaining what my city is doing should not stress me out, I don’t think. I’ve been working at the municipal level for a long time. I did it in D.C. and in San Francisco, intensely. There was a lot of stressful work. There were vexing and frustrating problems. But overall, I felt like the places I lived were bending toward a better future for most people. (You can’t please everyone.) I felt like I was a part of that. I felt like we had a chance, even if there were setbacks. I felt like the people who needed to listen actually listened, sometimes.
I don’t feel like that here. I think it’s partly a personality thing: Frank Jackson has been mayor for 12 (!) years, and even if he were going gangbusters, that’s enough time in office that the simple argument for an administration change would have sturdy legs. And he’s not going gangbusters. Cleveland is losing by all accounts. Pittsburgh is kicking our ass. Columbus is considering subsidizing transit passes for downtown workers, while COTA is conducting a full-system redesign. Buffalo axed parking minimums. Indianapolis built the Cultural Trail and just passed a transit tax increase. I think Detroit at least has a protected bike lane, and even though their transit tax lost last November, it at least got in the ballot.
I know that Cleveland has been in rough shape for a long time. I am not trying to deny the existence of the foreclosure crisis. I am not trying to deny that Ohio strangles its cities in a perverse fetishization of its rural areas (which it also doesn’t help, because Ohio’s policies are mostly love letters to wealthy exurban Republicans). I am not trying to deny the nearly uniformly negative impacts of regional sprawl, which is a cancer. But Cleveland could do so, so much better. I’m continually stunned at how the city or the council does not produce policy. The council votes on things that happen in the wards, which is how I learned that the vote on the $2.3 million dirt bike park in Ward 5 wasn’t on whether we should spend money on dirt bike parks, but on whether Phyllis Cleveland would be allowed to spend her own money.
There is so much happening here that the city has not enabled. It’s happened on the backs of people who, for whatever absolutely insane reason, give so much of a shit that they’ll do it on their own. Things that I’m used to cities contributing to or running themselves are totally outsourced. The CDCs are responsible for essential functions of government! Cuyahoga County Arts & Culture is a county program. UHBikes’ operations contract is with Cuyahoga County, which paid for the equipment with federal dollars from NOACA, and we have a title sponsorship; it’s a public-private partnership. The Public Square redesign was pushed forward by the Group Plan Commission and massively funded by the foundations. The RNC committee was pushed by Destination Cleveland, etc., and the new construction for it was county-funded. If you want property data, you probably use NEOCANDO—which lives at Case Western Reserve University. The city planning department is partnering on the Midway now, but the idea was dreamed up, and the plan mostly executed, by a group of bike advocates. I mean, Jesus, the Cavs win, which collectively raised the energy here in a completely bonkers way, can be attributed to LeBron and Dan Gilbert. This is insane. This is insane. Anything that you might say that Cleveland is “working on” is conducted largely by groups and funders who are definitely not the city. Cleveland kicks in funding here and there (it contributed $30,000 to UHBikes, and I am grateful), but it definitely doesn’t take the lead.
I mean, people were like, “Alex, you are crazy,” when I said I wanted the city—not the councilmembers, with their casino funding, or whatever—to pay for a bikeshare expansion and that I wanted it in the capital budget. This is not crazy. It’s crazy in Cleveland, but it’s not crazy, objectively. I run a citywide system that crosses ward boundaries, and its success is highly dependent on how accessible and dense it is to riders. Cleveland doesn’t really have citywide systems that cross ward boundaries (CMSD is its own thing), and something like bikeshare (as much as I’d like it to be a real transportation option, it won’t be until there’s more of it) is seen as something that councilmembers should pay for have in their ward because their constituents might like it. But that’s an awful way to fund a bikeshare system. It’s a network, not an amenity that generates activity or economic development in isolation.
Working here is like being inside of a systems novel. There’s no low-hanging fruit because, rightfully, the CDCs have probably tackled it. Everything is a structural issue. And that’s the emotional-labor piece: Like a husband who wouldn’t have any sort of maintenance of relationships if it weren’t for his wife sending Christmas cards and reminding him to call people on their birthdays (this is an extremely narrow example of emotional labor—I do really hope you read the stuff I linked above), Cleveland is running on the goodwill of citizens who are willing to dive in and do the work, on CDCs and other nonprofits that have taken on the mantle of providing community services, on foundations that pay for it all, because I’m still not entirely clear what the city pays for. But there’s very little structural support, even though Cleveland ultimately gets the benefit of, say, a redesigned Public Square. Or a bikeshare system, if you must point that out.
I am being really harsh here. But my trash doesn’t get picked up some weeks, and the numbered streets on the West Side never really get plowed, and the patching on the potholes on Bridge Avenue probably makes it more dangerous. There was a Facebook thread today about how University Circle, Inc., is looking for money to fix a super-dangerous slip lane outside of the art museum. A nonprofit. Is looking for money. To fix something that the city should fix so that people aren’t killed. I voted for the tax increase knowing that its passage would give Jackson the fuel to run for a fourth term and that it would probably go largely to pay for police reform under the consent decree necessitated by Tamir Rice’s murder by Cleveland police. And I would gladly, gladly vote for another tax increase. I’d rather the money be misspent than not be there at all. But we can’t keep saying we have no money. Or, Cleveland needs to embrace that it could do a lot for safety and attractiveness of streets with some flex posts and paint, a la Janette Sadik-Khan.
Instead, we got a protracted fight about an imaginary issue over lane closures in Public Square, which put RTA in the crosshairs of the FTA. I don’t think that the mayor’s actions over the past few months have been called out for being as ridiculous as they were. Observing this shit wears you down and does not leave you well-equipped to go on to do better work. And then you hear that that’s how we do it here. So it’s a big bucket of emotional labor and gaslighting that makes you feel that nothing you do is ever enough, on top of the fact that, after spending just a few months working in what I have started calling the upside-down of civic infrastructure, you start to deeply internalize that it really never will be enough, because the systems and structures are too hard to puncture.
Also, this is literally all I talk about with the people I hang out with here. I have some incredible friends doing incredible work. But every single one of us is dealing with this, and we realize how fucked up it is, and how unlikely it is to change.
Maybe I wouldn’t feel like this if I were from Northeast Ohio. The pride runs deep here. I get it. The thing that keeps people working here, despite all of the above, seems to be that it’s home. (For, like, all of them, that means it’s where they were born—not where they chose. If you chose Cleveland, you may also choose to leave.) And that’s totally fine, even though there’s probably an attendant factor of Rust Belt shame.
But no one should feel like they are succeeding in spite of their city. We are getting our ass handed to us while bending over backwards to finance the Q deal and crow about the success of the RNC, as if megaprojects are proven to be economic development spurs, or something. A new mayor would help considerably—when I talk to people who actively work on safe-streets policies and initiatives, they all acknowledge that this kind of attitude needs to come from the top down. But we have a council whose effectiveness is judged on the services that they provide to their constituents, rather than on the policy they’re introducing, and a business community that I suspect is not particularly forward-thinking in terms of building cities for people. Cleveland’s sought validation from outsiders for most of its life without trying to get its own house in order; that’s the underlying message of Daniel Kerr’s excellent Derelict Paradise.
It’s 2017! We know that creating cities that work for the people that live in them nearly guarantees that people will visit them. This is nearly 3,000 words, and so I am going to leave my rant against the awful boosterism culture here for another day. But a huge, huge thing that I think would make a vast amount of difference is for Cleveland to shoulder the burdens of being a city rather than continually displacing it onto, um, us.
(Addenda to say that this is a lot of personal ranting and that I am pretty damn privileged to have the time and energy to be as civically engaged as I am. Northeast Ohio presents endless [structural!] challenges to those who aren’t white, middle-class, college-educated homeowners, and I do not in any way think that my experience is universal. If people like me, and there are many here, could work with the support of the city on things that benefit its residents, rather than doing that through the byzantine empires of well-meaning nonprofits, we’d be making slightly better headway, perhaps.)
Vox is hiring for a bunch of stuff, including a reporter to cover distressed communities. The job is based in Washington, D.C. Here is what the role encompasses:
Vox.com is seeking a reporter to chronicle life in distressed communities across America, from coastal inner cities to de-industrializing towns in the Midwest, and how policy changes help and hurt the people who live in them. The job will include reporting from across America, and just as importantly, through the halls of power in Washington.
This is fine! It is exactly fine. I think it is really important that Vox is hiring someone to do this. I understand why it’s based in D.C.: Access to the people making decisions that distress communities further is super-important. Also, Vox has an office there.
But those are, like, exactly two reasons for this job to be in D.C., and there are a lot more reasons for it to be grounded predominately in the middle of the country—or, even, the deeper west or Southeast. “De-industrializing towns in the Midwest” is the zeitgeist right now, and that’s where I live, so I feel very anecdotally qualified to emphasize the points made by a number of smart Midwesterners on Twitter:
- Media jobs are precisely the kinds of jobs that can be done remotely.
- It is expensive to live in D.C. and expensive to fly out of it on short notice. It is ridiculous, per JA, to expect a reporter whose focus should be other places to pay D.C. rents. My mortgage is $1,404 (you know, less than a studio apartment in D.C. right now), and I’m a drive away from a lot of the places of which Vox would probably like coverage for this beat. I also return to D.C. often and know that it’s not difficult to get there and jump into your work.
- The insinuation that it’s harder to find people who are good at, say, reporting on data because coastal cities are stronger markets is reductive and dismissive. Yes, the job market sorta sucks here. But that doesn’t preclude people from being good at things—or learning, quickly, by talking to people, training themselves, and asking for help. This mindset infuriated me when I lived in San Francisco, and it does a disservice to the talent that is, frankly, not being put to work in stimulating and challenging ways in places like Cleveland because our job market sorta sucks.
- Newsroom diversity includes geography. Full stop. I parachuted into places when I worked for Remix and felt, glaringly, like the out-of-town consultant every time. My clients (in Raleigh, Greensboro, even Baltimore, where, Jesus Christ, my parents were both born and raised and which I grew up 20 minutes south of) were defensive of their work because no matter how I presented, I couldn’t change that I, you know, flew in from San Francisco to interview them on their projects.
- Noting that distressed communities exist in coastal cities is a non sequitur. No shit. They exist across the country. Is that not the point of this beat? Anacostia’s existence does not deny the existence of East Cleveland, which does not deny the existence of Fresno, which does not deny the existence of [insert your stereotypically distressed place here].
I would like to be Vox’s distressed communities reporter, honestly. I felt a sorta-flutter when I saw this posted on Jim Tankersley’s Twitter account last night. My academic work dealt with gentrification and displacement, and was concerned specifically with the power dynamics of policy in marginalized communities. Literally, distress, or lack thereof, is how I tend to assess things, and my immediate instinct is to identify existing structures and systems through their impact on people.
I haven’t worked in journalism for a long time, but since then I’ve worked a variety of really interesting jobs that have exposed me to the inner workings of a lot of different municipalities, as well as the federal government (for those following along at home: bike advocacy [D.C.]; AEC marketing and procurement [San Francisco]; transit-planning software startup [San Francisco]; AEC marketing again, but this time for construction [Cleveland]; now I run a bikeshare system [Cleveland]). I have a wider circle of acquaintances that could, if they were comfortable, become sources. And I’ve learned how to quickly navigate the policy levers and departments and org charts and budget priorities of quite a few different cities and towns. I am fluent in and quick to see so many things in a way that I am, like, 95 percent certain I would not be if I had stayed in D.C. media.
I have learned the most by living and working in Cleveland, my resume’s most frustrating city. I have a much better sense of the lingering effects of Rust Belt machine politics. I know what to look for in terms of public structures and systems when learning about a new place. Overall, I just know more because I live here, and I ask better questions about other places because I have, better, deeper experience. By growing up in Maryland and living as an adult in D.C., San Francisco, and now Cleveland, I have a much better starting point for understanding the kinds of places that deserve stronger reporting. And I am not the only person like me here! We aren’t legion, but there’s a lot of us! And while I, personally, might be happy to relocate to D.C. for this job, it is so not necessary for Vox’s distressed communities reporter to live there.
D.C. is as much Real America(TM) as Cleveland. I know, because I’m from there, and I would do a lot to come home. It is the best place for me, and I have so much angst living here. I think there are real-America problems in San Francisco, too. I think they’re everywhere. I don’t think one place is better than the other, or more real, or more authentic, or more representative of what it’s like to live in the United States. And I do really think that ailing Midwestern cities have themselves to blame for a number of their ills. And, and! If you made me pick the kind of place that’s definitively Real America(TM), I’d tell you it looks a lot more like New York or Los Angeles than Lima, Ohio.
But I think the default assumption that it’s somehow better for a beat like this, specifically, to be based in D.C. is ridiculous, and that operating under that assumption is causing us to lose out on people who would be really specially qualified to tell the stories that America needs to read.
I said yesterday that I don’t want to see a narrative between LeBron’s return and victory tied to whatever’s going on in Cleveland. Just because millennials live in apartments in downtown Cleveland now, and just because Ohio City’s really hot, doesn’t mean that we are doing that well. The state of Ohio just asked our metropolitan planning organization to help fund a highway through our neighborhoods—and, to pull back for a moment, remember that in the Year of Our Lord 2016 we are planning to build a highway through a city, despite every piece of evidence indicating that it’s a horrible idea.
In early 2003 I got back into NBA ball after a long hiatus (I’d spent my childhood watching Bird’s Celtics but fell out of sports fandom in my teen years and into my early twenties). That spring, I saw an ESPN Magazine cover with some dude on it, labeling him the future of basketball. Curious, I picked it up, and read through the article on a plane flight from California to visit my family in Syracuse. That was my introduction to LeBron, and from then on, I was fascinated to see if he’d live up to the hype. I’ve watched him play in hundreds of games over the last thirteen years, and I can saw without hesitation that he’s the greatest basketball player I’ve witnessed (the caveat here is that I missed the Jordan era almost entirely).
Is he better than Michael? I have no idea. I don’t think it matters. Watching LeBron means watching a transcendent, once-in-a-generation talent—someone so gifted he sometimes seems like a different species—and it’s been an absolute pleasure even when I was rooting against him (which was most of the time). He’s everything we ever hoped he’d be, and anyone who can’t see that due to some kind of “count da ringz!” nonsense doesn’t understand basketball. I’m happy for him and for Cleveland, and I thank him for a series full of moments and box scores that left me shouting out loud in disbelief. As I said on Twitter after game six: he is so, so good, and I will be so sad when he’s not, anymore.
Some bonus Gchat dispatches:
JP: YOUR CITY IS GETTING ATTENTION
JP: CLEVELAND RENAISSANCE
JP: HEALTH LINE, THAT ONE MARKET, LEBRON
AB: and a highway through some of our poorest neighborhoods
JP: LEBRON CAN BLOCK THE HIGHWAY LIKE HE BLOCKED THAT 4TH QUARTER SHOT
the new mural in downtown cleveland if cavs win G7 pic.twitter.com/yr59XY9NwK
— alex (@steven_lebron) June 17, 2016
Several years ago, I presented my (undergraduate!) research on a panel about gentrification and displacement. It was moderated by a PhD candidate from the University of Southern California, and the final comment was provided by a noted housing-policy researcher, who headed a university think tank in the Northeast.
This housing researcher was an academic hero of mine, and his book had greatly informed my work. So it was disappointing when his comment was a rambling mess that essentially put cultural tastes, family rituals, religion, and sports rivalries on the level of race, class, and gender distinctions. My thesis adviser later apologized for his trivialization of the big issues that I and the other panelists were trying to tackle through our work.
But while his comment did seem to dismiss more urgent topics, I’ve warmed to it. The execution was messy, and I expected more nuance from a noted academic, but five years later, I’m not so sure that he was wrong—especially when it comes to sports.
Anna Fahey of Seattle’s Sightline Institute made a tremendously clear point at this past weekend’s YIMBY conference: Facts, and the most strategic of communications, can’t counteract the emotions spurred by a torn-down building, or a block whose population has changed rapidly. When explaining to the public that increased density (in Seattle’s case, executed through measures like HALA) is a good thing, you have to accept that nothing is going to remedy how people feel when they see something that startles them into believing that any kind of neighborhood change is fundamentally negative. Those gut reactions make it tremendously hard to advocate for things like multifamily housing, transportation, variety in zoning, and new construction, all of which are beneficial in the aggregate but do very little to alter affordability significantly on individual blocks.
I think the only thing bigger in its irrationality, dedication, and fervor than opposition to neighborhood change might be sports. And I love that.
I’m a bandwagon Cavs fan. I’m a bandwagon anything fan, because I wasn’t raised by sports fans, and I didn’t watch the entirety of any game, ever, until the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2012 (and I think that was largely because I watched it on a friend’s projector screen with a stockpile of snacks). I didn’t play sports, and I still don’t understand how plays are executed, really. But in college, because I worked the late shift, I wound up as one of the Diamondback‘s de facto sports copy editors, and I was privileged to copy edit Dave McKenna’s columns while I was at City Paper. I learned about sports by reading box reports and watching YouTube clips and digging into Washington Post archives and absorbing any sort of culturally driven sportswriting; luckily, Grantland launched around this time in my life. But I haven’t felt the desperation for a win until this year’s finals.
Maybe the seed for my Cavs fandom was planted as I walked home through the Mission last year; when the Warriors won the 2015 finals, my neighborhood was silent. My heart was already in Cleveland by that point, and the Cavs’ loss was more palpable than the victory at hand. (Maybe The Town was lit.) Since moving here, I have wanted to watch Cavs games. I’ve never wanted to watch sports before! Game 5 was incredible. I watched Game 6 through my fingers on Thursday in Boulder, Colo. Last night, I watched as much of Game 7 as I could before sprinting to catch my flight out of Denver. I refreshed the score until my plane was too high in the air to receive a signal. And when the flight attendant told us that we won, I cried and cheered with a bunch of strangers. I watched the father and son next to me stream highlights and wipe away tears for two hours. I sat on Twitter and barely kept it together every time I saw that photo of LeBron crying, too. I reread this, one of my favorite sports-and-cities essays of all time, and marveled at how, five-and-a-half years later, I live across the street from the bar that’s mentioned in the first section. The places that Wright Thompson visits in his reporting aren’t abstract concepts to me anymore. They’re in northeast Ohio, which I have chosen to make my home.
Cleveland, and its region, has astounding issues. I do not want to undermine the urgency of housing affordability, but the painful deadlock of fitting in everyone who wants to live in places like San Francisco, or Boulder, or Seattle, or Austin is a challenge faced by a minority of American cities. Here, we are still recovering from the recession. There are vacant houses and vacant lots all over the place. Jobs are not easy to come by, and are likely to be flung into the suburbs. Our transit agency just cut routes and raised fares. Lead paint puts kids in danger, tremendously so if they are poor. Neighborhoods are balkanized by race and class. We could have sentient rocks paying taxes in the city of Cleveland and it would be an improvement over the way the region has eroded our base. We put in bike lanes ass-backwards, buffering curbs instead of protecting riders from cars, ignoring reams of engineering best practices. The long shadow of police brutality is going to haunt us; I dare any of you to forget Tamir Rice. Meanwhile, our politicians and business leaders threw a bunch of money at the RNC, which, like any mega-event, is not going to generate a return on investment, and are presently faffing around about how to attract millennials.
The Cavs’ victory is not going to solve these problems. That’s up to us. And I am near-dreading the lazy narrative about LeBron’s promise-keeping, a sports soap opera that I am totally here for but which I am already dreading seeing dragged by writers (around here, and afar) into a stupid, thoughtless link with Cleveland’s “revitalization.”
But here’s where I think that housing-policy hero of mine wasn’t too off the mark: Nothing may convince someone that their neighborhood is going to be “OK” once they see a condo replacing a single-family home, or a subway-tiled coffee shop replacing a carry-out joint. Conversely, nothing makes us feel good like a championship. My boyfriend and I might have just bought a move-in-ready house on the historically white West Side, in a neighborhood that’s as up-and-coming as Cleveland has got, but I can say with certainty that there were few dry eyes in Collinwood, in Union-Miles, in Glenville, in the suburbs. Sports, as lame as it feels to say, unites like nothing else. We’re all going to remember this.
Nothing has been given to Cleveland in quite some time, in part because we’re unwilling to learn from so many other cities’ mistakes. We’re 10 years behind everybody else and are still making ourselves available for tremendously questionable gifts (see: RNC), while the good things here—particularly the amazing, deep, and extensive community development infrastructure—brings change at a glacial pace that’s hard to definitively celebrate. Even the most thoughtful neighborhood stabilization efforts, which Cleveland still needs, can get derailed by any given individual. How in the world do you get a neighborhood, a city, a region to go all in on anything?
Win a sports championship, that’s how.
As I was taking notes during Sonja Trauss’ kickoff speech yesterday morning, I wrote myself a little sidebar of terms that could’ve populated a YIMBY bingo sheet: ADUs, bike lanes, neighborhood email lists.
You could do that for any conference (imagine the social-justice terminologies that would come up at something like SACRPH; most wouldn’t fit on a single bingo square), but here, where a whole bunch of hyper-concerned, above-average-involved individuals are obviously wrangling with how to bring back what we’re talking about here to where they live—and turn it into something actionable—it made me laugh a bit.
Sonja’s speech was good for this crowd; she’s is the seemingly never-ending font of enthusiasm behind the Bay Area Renters Federation. Much writing has been devoted to her vibe, which rides largely on showing up and making people pay attention to the fact that there are demands in San Francisco for something other than the preservation of the value of historic single-family homes. While I disagreed with her comment on growing up with an anti-suburban bias and seeing that broaden (most of the country lives in suburbs, maybe by honest choice or maybe because we’ve subsidized the hell out of them; regardless, suburbs are still the default operating standard for Where Americans Live), she effectively linked integration with housing affordability. We can’t count on liberals, or even ourselves, to integrate neighborhoods, even as that’s the best way to bring the benefits of mixed-income places to everyone.
There was only one session timeslot today. I went to Anna Fahey’s presentation on communicating Seattle’s Housing Affordability and Livability Index. Anna is the communications director of Seattle’s Sightline Institute and comes from a background of climate communications, another field in which facts don’t play well in the face of high-key emotions. Sightline performed a media audit in advance of the vote on HALA in order to understand how people were talking about the potential of increased density in their neighborhoods. (I realize now that this isn’t Sightline’s first rodeo with media audits and resulting talking points. Here’s something it put together for green jobs.) I need to ask Anna for a copy of density media audit, but the major takeaways were that people aren’t swayed by facts; new buildings (perhaps condos) replacing old favorites is an emotional wave you can’t counteract; “density” scares people but easy, common words like “enough housing” are more palatable. I think all of this is fairly intuitive, but it’s nice to have backed up by research.
Here are some concepts I’m thinking about:
The left, progressivism, what have you: To me, YIMBYism seems borne out of a techno-liberatrian view on regulations, but maybe I get that vibe because I lived in San Francisco and read a lot of the Twitter, the rallying cry of which basically, “Build it all! And also deregulate!” (This is valid.) One thing about this movement that seems weird to me is that there have *always* been affordability problems with housing—increasingly so post-recession, I will grant—but now that it’s smacking those who should be able to afford housing in the face, it’s a marketable problem. I mean, I made $85,000 in San Francisco and paid $1,350 a month to live in a group house on top of a hill. This was not that bad, but my long-term prospects for housing were shared spaces subject to a landlord’s whims. I wasn’t down about this because I was going to leave San Francisco, I knew it. But I get semi-depressed thinking about what I’d have to do to move back to D.C., which is where I actually want to be living. Anyway, there seems to be some sort of dithering over whether YIMBYism is left or right or somewhere in between, and whose party and ideology can best represent the myriad ideas it holds. To be honest, I’m not really sure it matters—some objectively good ideas are liberal, and some are conservative. While I fall well on the liberal side, I also know that the things I love best about, say, public transit and density, like their economic ROI, are straightforwardly conservative. There are some occasions where the market is obviously straining against regulations (San Francisco), and other places where sensible regulations could provide a check on an inefficient market (Cleveland, or any other mid-size, middle-America city).
Who’s here: I’ve only met one person who works for an elected official. There are many advocates here, some full-time at organizations like Sightline and some volunteers. The people who aren’t day-job YIMBYs seem largely to work in software. There are a few people affiliated with what seem to be socially responsible developers. Even though this is an unconference and you didn’t need to provide any credentials to attend, I am definitely the outlier in that my employment does not match my personal interests whatsoever, that I am from Cleveland, and that I’m not the leader of some sort of initiative. It’s cool, #YIMBY2016, I’m not too proud of myself either; I’d happily take on the mantle of Cleveland’s full-time transportation advocate as soon as I find a grant that will allow me to quit my job and still pay my mortgage. Geographically, there is a whole bunch of San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, and Boston people, in addition to our hosts in Boulder. I am doing my best to speak up for the not-so-hot areas of the nation. (This blog may just turn entirely into an attempt to speak up for the not-so-hot areas of the nation.)
Who are we going to talk to in the future: This entire thing is so blatantly white, it’s almost painful. It feels…squicky? I understand that it was the first year and that donors for this kind of conversation are not exactly plush. I feel incredibly lucky to have received a scholarship that covered my airfare and hotel stay even though I don’t do this kind of work full-time. (I used to pay out of pocket to go to APA for my own personal enrichment, and it was steep.) And isn’t it really important to pull in the people who aren’t directly engaged in this? I think everyone was sensitive to the diversity issues, and to be fair, there was a surprising fluidity in age and gender. But the whiteness was real. We gotta do better next year.
How much do people dislike stuff just because it looks new: Famously, people once hated bungalows. Is there kneejerk opposition to condos in part because they are generally snoozy glass boxes? The opposition to new housing is complex and multi-layered. But I can’t help but think that design plays a role.
Nothing is a monolith: #notallliberals, #notallconservatives, #notallsuburbs, #notallcities. Everything contains multitudes! The affordability and supply problems facing Seattle and San Francisco are actually not limited to Seattle and San Francisco, though they work differently in different places. For example, I just saw a neighbor in my Facebook feed bemoaning the new construction of single-family homes on empty lots, because they cost $200,000, and who would pay for that? We don’t need those in the Shoreway! But, we do, because the Shoreway is one of maybe four Cleveland neighborhoods that’s in demand. If we don’t build now, we’re going to be facing Seattle-ish problems later. I have infinite examples of this. But I think it’s useful to remember that while we’re all special snowflakes, there’s a lot to learn from other places.
Reposting this from my Facebook. This is where this should’ve gone, anyway. Many updates coming soon, I hope.
This time eight years ago, I was in the process of transferring out of CU-Boulder. Like many college freshman, I realized that my chosen university was not a great fit for me, and fled to something more manageable. (Go Terps.) I wound up at Boulder in the first place because CU is one of the few schools with an undergraduate urban planning program, and that’s what I wanted to do. It’s still what I want to do. I am generally bummed out that it’s not the thing I do, and in the time since my freshman year I’ve made a career out of false starts in that direction.
I was graciously granted a scholarship to #yimby2016 this weekend, a coalition that I hope will spark a more reasonable discourse, and result in better policies, around affordability, livability, and transportation in cities of every size in our country. It’s meaningful that I’m able to attend a conference about these issues adjacent to the place I believed would give me what I needed to break into those fields.
As goofy as it sounds, I often feel like planning, transportation, and land use are parties whose doors I’m scrabbling at, begging to be let in. I especially want to be doing this work in Cleveland, which, for all its seemingly intractable complications, *will* someday face San Francisco and D.C.-esque affordability issues, at a much broader scale than just, say, Ohio City.
I’m excited to be a very small part of what I hope will be a very large movement toward inclusive, accessible places, if only for just a weekend.