life in cities

On (Invisible) Emergencies

Most emergencies in the U.S. nightly news are conceptual in nature. Ed Snowden dumped (invisible) data from government servers. has (invisible) back-end problems.  Food stamp recipients risk their names being unrecognized or credit frozen within an (invisible) government database, depending on budget outcomes. Obama's administration placed (invisible) bugs on Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff's phones. In other regions, such as Latin America or other parts of the Global South, emergencies are often much more visible. Buildings fall. Parts of ceilings collapse.

Cars crash, and one catches fire. Bad rainstorms flood towns up to knee level, and dynamite downs whole shopping centers.

These are not 21st century problems. This is physical infrastructure, collapsing on purpose or by accident.

When I was in the Sao Paulo area a couple days ago, the nighty news ran a story about a neighbor who, in a heated fight with another neighbor, arsoned that person’s house and in the process lit their entire 90-house complex on fire. Let me repeat:an entire block, engulfed in wild orange flames. Watching the story, I found myself (in a sardonic SNL voice), asking, Did that just happen?

It serves as a reminder – beyond our #firstworldproblems like raising the debt ceiling and administering the knowledge economy – human beings live physical existences, and an emergency is an emergency. Whether you can see it or not.

The Kids of St. Paul

Fernanda stopped to tie her shoe
while Miguel sauntered over to a Leaf Near You
Tomas turned around, on solid ground,
while Julieta went to go ride the pike

The kids of St. Paul are
short, thin, fat, and tall
black, brown, white, and small

Giggly-face peeps
screaming relief

that the parks
spray-mist in the summertime

The kids of St. Paul aren't greedy at all
they are polite, without respite, and
really are a delight

The kids of St. Paul: God loves them, one and all

Our Good Life

The ten year anniversary of September 11th is tomorrow. Although that means many things (most of which I'm not going to dive into here), let's remember something: Patriot Act or not, it's pretty good to live in America.

It’s not perfect, and it’s not always easy, but it's good.

Somewhere in America, an immigrant is opening up their own business. There is a child being born. A vegetarian has unlimited food options. Women can marry each other. Someone can wear overalls to church, just because they want to.

Here in Washington, DC, many people forget about the good life, but back home in LA - a city of immigrants - there is an unshakeable feeling that life there was a privilege. For people from war-torn or broken countries, simple afternoons filled with the scent of homemade meals, fresh laundry, and laughing children is the good life.

Tranquility might not make the 6 o’clock news, but it’s the tick-tock of the new American heartland.

So, as Kanye says, throw your hands up for the good life.


The All-American Schlep

Why did I schlep around in the rain the other day? For America.

Not really.

But kind of.

I went car-less for environmental reasons. In my hometown of Los Angeles, I would spend two hours a day in traffic, and in 2006, I decided to move to the East Coast in order to live in a walkable city and get around the old-fashioned way: on foot.

Standing drenched in the rain the other day, though, clinging to a pathetic bounty of three CVS bags, I suddenly thought of my Irish forefathers in Bedstuy, Brooklyn and wondered, “(Why) am I… living like them? They left the East Coast for California so they wouldn’t have to do errands on foot… is this history repeating or just my dumb ass being stubborn?”

I imagined them looking at me, shaking their heads. Thinking, poor girl…100 years and a Masters degree later, and she's still living like this.

For the record, I would have taxied my errands, but npf (non profit salary). And I would have skipped church and the two mile walk there, but it’s Lent, and I do my Jessica's Affirmation's Catholic-style.

In the words of David Brooks, groups are smarter than individuals. Last year, a bunch of young people here in DC did a Tweed Ride, in support of “19th century transportation solutions.” They dressed up vintage and spent their Sunday afternoon on bicycles.

They did the All-American Schlep the smart way = in style, and in the sunshine. 

Their event was an enormous success; because the end of the day, the All-American Schlep is a pretty good thing.

Just not when it’s raining.

[vimeo w=400&h=225]
DC Tweed Ride from ReadysetDC on Vimeo.

Obama in South Philly windowsills: Hope and Change on 11.2.2010

Just like some Latino families have faded pictures of the Virgen de Guadalupe or the Holy Family in their windowsills, some black families have pictures of the First Family in their windowsills.

On Election Day 2010, I volunteered to canvass South Philadelphia neighborhoods in order to get folks out to the polls. I saw a lot of crumbling buildings, and brownfields, but also a lot - a LOT - of images of Obama.

In South Philadelphia, Obama seemed to BE the Democratic party. "Obama needs your help - vote today!" some of the literature said. And most said they were going to. The neighborhood was economically depressed, but almost every SINGLE person I talked to - no joke - said they voted, or were on their way to vote, and knew where their polling place was. Contrary to popular belief, neighborhoods other than rich ones vote early and often.

It is, in public sector speak, an "engaged community." Here's the thing, though: being civically engaged and being served are two very different things entirely.

The Stimulus Bill was supposed to fix problems like elderly people being swindled into bad deals or out of their homes. One older man who pointed to a grassy field across the street from him and said that a developer came in there, started to build something, tore it down, and let it lie fallow. This man tried to re-model his home using that same developer, only to find later that the developer had gone bankrupt and the money he poured into improving his home had been lost forever. 

"That man robbed 51 senior citizens," he said. "And I've never seen a dime of my money back."

Residents of South Philly might "made their voices heard" at the polls, but they're just not listened to.

Which leads me to this conclusion: engagement is not enough. 

The public sector needs to check itself; dialogue and participation are no substitutes for respect.

The fairest conversations are ones in which both sides listen to each other; but politics is a blood sport.

On Gentry, and Gentrification

The Fenty vs. Gray mayoral race here in Washington, D.C. has brought to light old feelings about the g-word. That word that every city planner, journalist, and city resident cringes at: gentrification.

The big-G banks on the idea that Gentry - folks with new Masters degrees, a new job, and a big checkbook - will line up to buy condos that cost as much or more than a home would, all for the charm of living in the city. It banks on all of the Gentry choosing not to move into or in some cases moving out of the suburbs into inner cities and in doing so transforming (read = eradicating) either poor or struggling neighborhoods.

The idea sounds gross, and the practice is by and large gross. But it's also more complicated than we think.

The Gentry that the fancy new "multi-use" housing developments are built for don’t really exist. None of those structures have offered a return on the investment needed to build them; hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into them, yet development upon development lays unoccupied. Half-finished. Failed.

And that’s because middle class people - not the upper class Gentry - are the ones moving into big cities across America. These people are assumed to be Gentry, but they're not. The Left howled and whined when the new commercial development in Columbia Heights was built here in Washington, D.C., claiming that the area's residents, mostly Latino, couldn't afford Target, a gym, Best Buy, or...Payless. That turns out to be untrue; that Target (the Macy's of the masses) is the only store in the District that is actually diverse in terms of race and class, and that Washington Sports Club is the only one in the District to have a sizable amount of Central American immigrants as members.

While it was well-intentioned, the Left's argument there was actually a racist one; Latinos are seen as "disadvantaged" American consumers only because they are assumed to be so. But when businesses come to their area, Latinos participate like any other consumers.

And so works the "invisible hand" of the market:  the consumer base for Target is large, as Target is low-priced, but the consumer base for half a million dollar lofts is very small. And amongst the young hipster adults moving into cities, it's even smaller. I mean, let's face it: hipsters are broke as f***. They make property values go up as people move in to try to live like them, but they themselves can't keep up with those prices.

What made a dirty port city known for manufacturing, shipping, and schlepping into the "New York City" of Carrie Bradshaw-awe are the broke-ass artists and writers who defined Broadway, the Village, and Brooklyn from very small, rented rooms. The big new lofts of Williamsburg, NY and the Arts District in Downtown LA were built for (hipster) Gentry, but the hipsters who create work there can't afford them. (And if they can afford a $400,000 condo, then they're not hipsters. They're attorneys in skinny jeans.)

I have friends in Columbia Heights, Washington, D.C. who had to get on affordable housing lists to buy a "gentrified" condo because "people like them" (read = college grads) were assumed to be able to make those price points, but in real life, "people like them" who work in non-profits make less than plumbers and elevator repairmen.

Plumbers and elevator repairmen buy homes in the suburbs whose prices aren't over ninety percent dependent on subsidies, loans, or the kind of ballooned mortgage structure that caused the housing collapse in the first place.

So while the Gentry do gentrify, loft by loft, they don't in the kinds of large numbers needed to make the policies of people like Mayor Fenty even work. When Fenty catered to those he thought wanted to improve the city by "gentrifying" it, he was actually catering to nobody. The Gentry bought cheap in quiet ol' Virginia, and those who vote early and often in the District live along the Anacostia River.

Ramadan Mubarak

The Pentagon might be administering a War on Terror abroad, but here in the District of Columbia, some young residents are administering a different politik.

These aspiring diplomats, International Affairs graduate students, and Arabic-speaking Wisconsinites all know that it's Ramadan right now, and make their respect for it known.

They form their usual 2 am weekend lines in DuPont Cafe, a popular gyro shop in the DuPont circle area, but preface their orders with "Ramadan Mubarak." And instead of saying "thank you" after ordering, these young adults exclaim "Shukran. Shukran!" with fervish nods.

The Syrian shop owner smiles to himself, nods, and responds, "You're welcome."

A couple in the back discusses why everyone's spontaneously trying to speak Arabic . "It's Ramadan, their holy month," a twenty-something man explains to his girlfriend. "During Ramadan, you say 'Ramadan Mubarak', which basically means Happy Ramadan."

"Oh," the girlfriend muses. "Cool!"