Things I Wrote

A YIMBY recap, an essay or two about Cleveland in the face of the RNC, and an installment of my generally neglected newsletter. It’s not much, but it’s more than I’ve eked out in the past few years.


Still #allin

I can’t stop reading Cavs takes.

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.

But LeBron is amazing, and thinking about the Opportunity Corridor hurts my head, and I liked this Deadspin comment, from this piece:

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
AB: don’t
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


#allin

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.


#YIMBY2016 Dispatch #1

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.


We’ll get better, whenever

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.

(For reference.)


Left and Leaving

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My going-away party (via Jenna)

You tend to talk a lot about moving when you’re, um, moving. Everyone wants to hear how things are going, and everyone has wisdom to impart. Which is good—I need to keep hearing that D.C. will be here, that New York will be here, that I can always come back. Everyone wants to know if I’m excited.

At the risk of sounding like a total asshole, I’m skeptical about San Francisco.

I say this all the time, but it’s true: I have the life I never knew I always wanted in D.C. Sixteen-year-old me would be in awe of the fact that my going-away party was at Black Cat’s backstage, and present-day me is unendingly grateful for the relationships I’ve established here. I’m comfortable, but not bored. I like my neighborhood, I like what I do on weekends, I like my yoga studio, I like the bars I go to, and so on. I like that I don’t need to experiment; I still try new places and new things, but I know what works for me. I appreciate this.

I know those things will come in time in a new city. Given that I don’t have friends from high school or college, I’ve already made friends as an adult, and I’m confident I can do so again. But I really, really like D.C. I’m not moving because I want a change, or because I want the experience of living in a different city. I’m moving because I got a job that I believe will position me well in the future, and because I did not earn a similar opportunity in D.C.

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Matching Fryes (via Anqi)

San Francisco is fine. I get why people like it. It’s naturally beautiful, but there’s only so many times you can bank on natural beauty making up for social experiences, you know? (I woke up looking at snow-covered mountains every morning in Boulder. It is still one of the prettiest places in the world to me. But I didn’t want to live there after nine months, so I left.) There’s stuff everywhere—like, even the far-flung neighborhoods have stuff (because density). The dining scene is great. All issues with gentrification in the Mission aside, Craftsmen & Wolves makes a baller salted chocolate chip cookie. You can bike to Sausalito. It’s a very livable city, and the day-to-day costs are lower than in D.C. or New York.

But at the end of the day, I am a tightly wound East Coast exceptionalist, and I would not feel as if I missed out on anything if I lived at 16th and Newton streets NW for the rest of my life. Seriously! I have lived hard here, in a great way—it’s why I don’t have a D.C. bucket list, which is another thing people like to ask about when you are planning to move across the country. But my “bucket list” is getting as much time in with my friends as possible. I’ll miss them infinitely more than Ben’s Chili Bowl, or the cherry blossoms, or the free museums, or even Friday nights at Smoke & Barrel. Sure, there’s stuff I’d like to do: ride my bike, try new restaurants (I haven’t made it to Roses’s Luxury), return to old favorites (Daikaya), sit on my balcony and read a book. I’m devastated to be missing a summer of Fort Reno.What will I do without Black Cat? I wish I had spent more time on the waterfront, in Meridian Hill Park, in Anacostia. I will miss being so close to New York, to Philly, to Atlanta, to Boston.

And all those things and places and events are great because they are filled with great people. I know that I can go to, say, Fort Reno alone, but that I’ll see friends and acquaintances that I genuinely enjoy. It is stability in relationships and confidence in my social life that I’ll miss the most, and no bucket list can give me enough of that.

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Walking home from Black Cat with Justin (via Kate)


Marketing! at Transpo Camp 2014

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Transpo Camp was, like, a month ago. This past week, I finally got around to assembling notes from my session, on marketing transportation and planning.

I didn’t plan this session. I didn’t have an agenda or a list of things to talk about. But I do feel frustrated with my work, sometimes, because I, effectively, have to market WABA and feel like I don’t really know what I’m doing. And: Marketing is so traditional, can be quite boring, and encompasses way too much for people to find it an interesting, useful, and important part of the transportation field, which is so wrong. It was in that spirit that I pitched this session at the last minute.

I was very pleased with how the whole thing went. The room was mostly all people who do public-facing communications in some capacity, and I was able to moderate a lot of very smart comments on the trials and tribulations of a type of work that is basically throwing it at the wall and seeing what sticks, over and over and over and over and over again—until something sticks, and can then be justified  in the future. No sweeping theories were presented here, just some ideas that might help us all tighten our communications work.

I tried to get at all this with this (month-out, so take it with a grain of salt) write-up of the session. It’s below the jump. Read the rest of this entry »