The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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A Recipe for Success

Brady Street 2015

Milwaukee, WI has made more frequent appearances on this blog, now that I live here, but usually I write about it in something of a critical light. I walk its streets every day, so I see the good and bad that goes on here, and it’s usually more productive to write about the bad, and constructively brainstorm ways to make it better. However, today I want to talk about Milwaukee in a wholly positive light.

Brady Street Milwaukee

I’m going to talk about one specific street here—Brady Street—because I think it is a fantastic model for a thriving, positive neighborhood street. Brady Street is one block from my house and it serves as a commercial anchor for the East Side of Milwaukee. The businesses here range from a hardware store to an STD clinic, from a Waldorf school to a Catholic church, from a Mediterranean nightclub to a popular sushi café, and from a dingy sports bar to one of the best wine bars in the city. It would take days to explore every storefront on this lively avenue. The street runs parallel to the river and it’s tucked in something of a residential area, yet it’s a busy, bustling thoroughfare with so much to offer. This is due to several important factors that I hope to see in more neighborhoods around the country: Continue reading


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What Happens to Small Businesses During Light Rail Construction

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It’s always exciting when I get to post on the Strong Towns blog. This week, I wrote about an issue I tackled a couple years ago on this blog: Summer Construction and Small Business Struggles. I expanded on it and dealt specifically with light rail construction on the Strong Towns blog, asking the question: How should we handle situations where the long-term goals of one entity–in this case the government and the city–clash with the short-term, day-to-day existence of another–small businesses? There’s already a lot of good ideas shared in the comments section. Here’s how it starts:

Four years ago, I sat in a small Caribbean restaurant called Caribe, in St. Paul, MN enjoying some phenomenal tostones and cuban sandwiches with an old friend and thinking to myself, “How did I not know about this place before? I’m definitely coming back soon.” A couple months later, I learned that the business had been forced to shutter its doors. What happened so suddenly that this beloved cafe had to close? If you’ve been following the public transit scene in the Twin Cities for the last few years, you know the answer: a light rail line was built in front of this business and hundreds of others on University Avenue. Getting to these diverse small businesses by car–and even on foot–became a serious challenge during the construction phase, thus many businesses saw a severe downturn in profits…

Read on for the rest.


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4 Truths You Need to Know About Homelessness Now

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Nearly every city in America is faced with an entrenched problem of homelessness. Whether you see homeless people on your streets or on our televisions, their plight exists at an appalling rate. And yet, our country has also made strides in addressing this issue. Here are 4 truths you should know about homelessness right now, gleaned from my own experiences working in the field, as well as relevant research.

1.  Homelessness affects people in all demographics. The stereotypical picture of a homeless person is an old, scruffy-looking, alcoholic man begging for change by the side of the road. This is simply not the whole picture. The U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) most recent Point in Time Count estimates that across the nation, 1/4 of all homeless people are under the age of 18, and 10% are between the ages of 18-24. In addition, families make up nearly 40% of all homeless people in the United States. People of any race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and age can and have been homeless in our country.

2.  Homelessness impacts every aspect of a person’s life. Homelessness is not just a problem because it means that individuals and families are without a place to go at night. It is also a problem because it prevents people from thriving in numerous areas of their lives: professional, mental, relational, people. When you’re homeless, your ability to apply for and find jobs is severely diminished because you lack access to showers, reliable transportation, nice clothing, a computer (unless you go to the library)–all these building blocks that are important to making a good impression on a potential employer. That’s an automatic setback as a homeless person tries to gain economic stability.

Homeless people also suffer mental health issues at a higher rate than the rest of the population. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 20-25% of homeless people have at least one mental health problem, as compared with 7% of the general population. Mental health issues can be both a cause and an effect of homelessness. These can also lead to relational conflicts with family members and friends.  In addition, homeless people often encounter relational conflicts due to their need to rely on family members for support in tough situations. On the flip side, homelessness can also result in transience–meaning that close friends and family may be cut off from the homeless individual. And tragically, many homeless men, women and children are fleeing domestic violence. These are all ways in which homelessness accompanies family break up and relational conflict. Finally, homelessness affects the physical wellbeing of a person making it challenging to find doctors and access medical services, while also taking a physical toll on a person’s body due to the need to wander and even sleep outside. Overall, it’s clear that homelessness does not just mean “without a home,” but rather, it brings with it a slew of other concerns.

3.  Homelessness is getting better in some places, but worse in others. The next truth you should know about homelessness is that there is hope. New Orleans recently announced its accomplishment of one of the nation’s major homelessness goals: ending veteran homelessness by 2015. They are part of a large pool of cities and states who have made enormous strides in the direction of this goal.  Some other recent successes include an overall decrease in homelessness nationally from 2012 to 2013 (the most recent data available). Family homelessness is down 7% and 31 states saw a decrease in homelessness. However, 20 states saw an increase. Emergency shelters across the nation have consistently been at almost 100% capacity from 2007 to 2013.  I urge you to read up on your own state to see where it fits into this picture, and what policies it has implemented to help end homelessness.

4.  Different solutions work for different people. I wrote last year about how shelters are not a long-term solution to homelessness, yet they are often used as such, with individuals and families bouncing from shelter to shelter for months. Indeed, emergency shelters are really only suited for people who have exhausted all other options and need a temporary place to stay while they figure out their next move. Many individuals who are homeless, particularly those who are chronically homeless (meaning they have been without a home for 1 year or more, or have had several episodes of homelessness) need affordable housing more than they need emergency shelter. They need a permanent solution to a persistent problem. For individuals like this with addiction issues, disabilities or mental health programs, permanent supportive housing is the best option. Supportive housing usually entails affordable apartment-style living with counselors, doctors, and/or case managers readily available to help people work through their challenges.

On the other hand, for a homeless family who is merely low-income and doesn’t have as many health issues, independent affordable housing is the best solution to homelessness. This housing can be provided by a public housing authority, a local nonprofit or for-profit company committed to providing affordable units, or through vouchers that subsidize living in normal market-rate apartments. Affordable housing can also be accessed through rapid rehousing programs like the one I work with, which gives homeless families a rental subsidy and case management for up to a year. Rapid rehousing is a temporary solution to homelessness, and rapid rehousing programs aim to have their clients paying for their own housing within a period of months or years. I detailed some other affordable housing options in this post on Strong Towns.

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The best way to learn about homeless people is by speaking with them, working or volunteering with agencies that support them, and reading relevant research from organizations like the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I urge you to explore the stakeholders in your community who are working to end homelessness and familiarize yourself with their tactics to understand what works and what doesn’t. Finally, you can also check out previous posts I’ve written on the topic here.

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The Mysterious Building Down the Block

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This photograph was taken a block from my apartment in Milwaukee, WI. It contains a mysterious, abandoned building that I have been wondering about since the day I moved in. Last weekend, I decided to do some digging and find out the story behind 1640 N Franklin Place. Continue reading


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The Other Problem With Walmart

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Today, my next post is up on the Strong Towns blog. It’s about Walmart’s effect on our towns and cities. (Spoiler alert: That’s a negative effect.) Here’s how it starts:

Whether you are stumbling on this website for the first time today, or whether you’ve been a Strong Towns advocate for years, you’re probably not a fan of Walmart. Big box stores are not really our thing here. We know that they create a far smaller tax base than your average mom and pop shop, that they take economic value out of our communities, and that they dominate town landscapes with their unnecessarily massive parking lots and ugly buildings. But there’s another problem with Walmart, and it matters because it hits the most vulnerable people hardest: The problem is that Walmart systematically depends on the poverty of communities. 

Read the rest on the Strong Towns blog. Thank you for your interest in these topics and for your support of organizations on the front lines of this movement.

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The College Campus: A Pedestrian Paradise

Pedestrian Bridge University of MN

Last weekend I went home to Minneapolis to visit my parents and also meet with a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Urban & Regional Planning department (where I’m exploring potential graduate school options). Stepping onto the University’s campus (which I admittedly, didn’t spend any time on growing up, despite the fact that it’s in my hometown), I was immediately struck by how wonderfully pedestrian friendly it is. This is true for most college campuses, but it’s been a while since I’ve had reason to go to one, and my own alma mater was so tiny that it didn’t feel particularly remarkable that it was walkable. It was basically one big square block. But this, the University of Minnesota, home to 40,000 students, is a mini-metropolis completely accessible on foot. I’ve heard other urbanists talk about what a great model college campuses are for walkability and good city design, and seeing it in person really brought that point home. Here are a few photos and observations to showcase this.

Sidewalks University of Minnesota

I walked across an entire bridge devoted only to foot traffic. It even had a covered area for when it’s snowy or extremely cold. I moved from building to building on pedestrian-only sidewalks and through courtyards, in addition to skyways that connect many of the buildings too. Due to a combination of cold weather and my visit being during a time when there weren’t too many classes in session, these pictures don’t show very many people, but you can clearly see the wide, plowed sidewalks and the bridge open to pedestrians and bikers, including demarcated lanes for each mode of transportation.

Pedestrian Bridge 2 University of MN

When most of us look back on our college years, there’s a certain fondness felt toward that experience. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a relatively carefree, enjoyable time in our lives. I have to think that some of that is due to walkability. When many people talk about why they loved college, it was their proximity to their friends, their opportunities to play a quick game of football or watch a late night movie or grab snacks in the cafeteria on a whim. It was the fact that they didn’t have to wake up at 5am to endure a 1 hour commute to class but could instead just roll out of bed, gulp down coffee and stroll over to their classroom in a matter of minutes. That walkability contributes to an overall sense of community and closeness.

University of MN winter

It’s also important to note that this pedestrian-friendliness almost always means wheelchair-friendliness. In a car-centric environment, someone in a wheelchair often needs to charter a ride service in order to get anywhere, or rely on the public bus. However, in a walk-friendly area, a wheelchair user can seamlessly travel from place to place, via safe, accommodating sidewalks and accessible building entrances. There is less segregation between able-bodied and disabled individuals. I love that this is an aspect of many college campuses. Certainly many old buildings at universities have catching up to do when it comes to accessibility, but the paths in between the buildings are a good start.

This walkability makes me even more excited to be back in school. And even if academia is not in your plans for the future, you can take advantage of the walking paths and public squares at any university near your home. Our cities could stand to take a page out of their books.


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A Change in Perspective

Rockwell Automation Headquarters

Last Friday evening I was able to step out of the office around 4:45pm, a little earlier than I usually do. It had been an exhausting, full week—the phone constantly ringing, coworkers needing me for this and that, new projects starting and old ones wrapping up. My job ebbs and flows with one day feeling very relaxed and the next feeling off-the-walls hectic. An issue will arise and in my line of work—where good people are faced with impossible circumstances compounded by a lack of housing—that issue usually needs to be handled immediately. So it was a week of immediate needs.

But when I finally got to lock the door of my office and step outside to the bus stop, I was met with a glorious sight: sunlight. Up here in the north, 95% of my workdays end in darkness, the sun having set by 5 or 5:10. On Friday, this was not the case. As I shuffled my feet fighting off the cold while I waited for the bus, I looked across the street at the hard concrete façade of the grand Rockwell Automation Headquarters and caught the sun gracing its corners at the most gorgeous angle. They don’t call it the “magic hour” for no reason. A layer of golden light seemed to have settled on the glass windows in a perfect, cascading arc. The neighborhood where I work, Walkers Point, is mostly industrial buildings and Rockwell is king of them all, so this massive representation of industry and mechanics looking beautiful was quite a sight to behold.

It reminded me that a change in perspective is sometimes exactly what we need in order to help us think about improving our cities.

One of the most basic examples of this is taking a walk. If you’ve never, for instance, walked to get your groceries, walked to work, or walked to drop your child off at school, it can be an utterly eye opening activity. Please try it. I guarantee you will find at least one building or view you’ve never noticed before. You might even run into a friend coming down the sidewalk. The differences between traveling from point A to point B in a car and walking to get from one place to another are numerous and significant. Biggest of all, you’re forced to interact with your city instead of viewing it from behind glass at high speeds (plus you get exercise and fresh air). You start to understand the delineations of neighborhoods, the need for green space and the history of the architecture around you. You start to comprehend what many of your neighbors go through every day if they cannot afford a car or choose not to use one for whatever reason. That change in perspective is invaluable.

Rockwell Automation Headquarters sunlight

For me, seeing that view of the sun hitting the Rockwell Automation building gave me a new perspective on all these hulking buildings, chain link fences and billowing smoke I am surrounded by in my office. They are, after all, a part of the city too, just as much as the trendy coffee shops in other neighborhoods. Historically, in towns across the country, residents and governments have tried to exile industrial buildings to the edge of their towns or put them outside the city limits altogether. That’s certainly why Rockwell is in this particular location on the south side of Milwaukee. However, this city has since grown up around the industrial zone so that now there are houses and schools just blocks away from auto-part factories and machine manufacturers.

Last week, that moment of sunlight made me I realize I kind of like this about Milwaukee. It’s not every city where you can actually see the industry that is helping your city run, the companies that your livelihood was built on—that generations of people have worked in to support their families. Most cities separate usage so strictly that you might never know where the factories in your town are, or if they exist at all. Now, obviously it’s no good to have toxic fumes wafting into schoolyards, but those fumes shouldn’t be permitted in any area of a city—no matter who’s is hanging around there. Ideally, parents who work in these factories can walk over and pick their kids up after school in a matter of minutes. How great is that?

Walkers Point has always been a solidly working class neighborhood, meaning that it is a neighborhood with jobs to do and affordable houses to live in. It is changing, no doubt; employment has moved overseas and upscale restaurants have begun to take advantage of the cheap, empty buildings in the neighborhood. Nonetheless, I am hopeful that the neighborhood can grow without losing its history. Clearly, the Rockwell Automation Building isn’t going anywhere.

That’s a bit of a rambling way to say that a little sunlight can do a world of good in opening our eyes to the possibilities around us. And, as winter slowly fades, I know there’s more sunlight on the way.


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Interview: Earl Schwartz shares a history of Jews and African Americans in North Minneapolis

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A year and a half ago, back when I had just started this blog, I wrote a post about Jews and African Americans in North Minneapolis. North Minneapolis is a neighborhood in my hometown with the fascinating history of two minority populations living side by side, although currently it is a predominantly African American area—Jews having moved out during the second half of the twentieth century as they made more money and ascended in class. The trouble was, when I went to write this post in 2013, I couldn’t find much information on that history. I dredged up a PBS documentary and a small book and wrote a brief blog post on it, but I’ve always known that there was more to the story—if only I could hear from someone who lived during that time. I wanted to know whether the two populations truly interacted and if so, what that relationship looked like.

So a few weeks ago, I went out on a limb and asked my Facebook friends whether they had any ideas, and thankfully, they did. A couple suggestions brought me to interviewing Earl Schwartz, an Assistant Professor of Social Justice, Religion and Middle East Studies at Hamline University in Minneapolis. Professor Schwartz is Jewish and grew up on the Northside. He had a lot to share about that time, particularly, about why there’s not very much information available concerning this history. I’m so glad I got to have this conversation with him:

Q: What is your background? How did you come to be familiar with this history?earl-schwartz

A: My parents grew up in North Minneapolis, so essentially, except for my dad’s experience in WWII, neither of my parents ever lived more than a couple miles far from their birthplace. I and my brother and sister were also born on the Northside.

Q: I see, so your knowledge comes from personal experience. Do you still live on the Northside?

A: Currently, my wife and I live in Como Park in St. Paul. However, when our kids were young in 1993 and we had outgrown our tiny house in South Minneapolis, we put our house up for sale and it sold in 6 days, which really took us by surprise. My mother was still living in the house we grew up in—in North Minneapolis. So completely by good luck, we ended up spending almost the entire school year of 1993-1994 with my mother, in the bedroom I grew up in. Continue reading


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A Strong Towns Response to Homelessness

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I’m immensely honored to begin writing for the Strong Towns blog today. Strong Towns is an organization that I have learned so much from over the last few years. In fact, I would say they are the main vehicle through which I have grown my knowledge of and passion for making cities better. Naturally, I chose to write about an issue very close to my heart: homelessness, in my first post. Here’s an excerpt:

Last year, on a given night in January, more than 600,000 Americans were homeless. That means they were sleeping in their car or under a bridge or in a temporary shelter in cities across America. Most of the time when we see disabled veterans asking for change or single mothers waiting in line at church food pantries, we turn away and ignore their presence in our towns. We even design our public spaces to try and prevent homeless people from being in them. But homeless people have the potential to be Strong Citizens too, and, no matter how much we might try to zone them out of certain areas, they are still our neighbors, deserving of the same respect we try to extend to the family who moves in next door. With that in mind, we should strive to more fully include the homeless in the activities of our towns, valuing their unique perspectives and working to create better places that serve all our citizens.

Read the rest on the Strong Towns website.


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What’s in a homeless person’s bag?

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If you’re a lady, or you read lady magazines, you’ve undoubtedly come across the “What’s in my bag?” trope. In it, a celebrity or fashion blogger displays and discusses the contents of her purse including favorite brands of lipstick, fancy wallets and so on. I want to share something in the same vein, but with a goal that is entirely different from introducing you to a new make up company. Today I want you to understand a little bit of what it’s like to be homeless in America.

I work at one homeless shelter and volunteer at another because, among the issues that are present in cities, I believe homelessness is one of the most serious, and one that must be addressed before I feel I can start working on things like better parks or mixed use developments. Of course, many of these assets go hand in hand with ending homelessness, but right now I am focusing on the root cause. In my day to day, as much as it feels awkward and uncomfortable, I am often privy to the contents of homeless and low-income individuals’ bags. Whether they are unloading their items as they check in each night at the shelter (in which they literally have to remove everything from their purses) or just sifting through their bags to find a document that will allow them to sign up for food at the pantry downstairs, I’ve noticed a few items that show up consistently. I’m not revealing anyone’s personal information here, just hoping to give you a sense of what a homeless woman (or man) must often carry around with her every single day.

As you read over these items, consider the weight of them—literally and figuratively. What would it feel like to carry these items around with you every day? Consider also, how these items are not so different from what a wealthier woman might have in her purse, yet serve different or additional purposes.

So, what’s in her bag?

Every important document she possesses — The first thing to know is that when you’re homeless, you are constantly in need of documentation. You have to show it to the shelter where you’re hoping to get a bed. You have to show it to the cop who tells you you’ve been sitting on that park bench for too long. You have to show it when you arrive at the government office to sign up for food stamps. Not only do you need your own social security card, ID, and birth certificate, but you need the documents for all your children and any other relatives that might be with you. You carry it constantly in a folder, or sometimes in a plastic bag in case of rain. We’re not talking about making sure you have your driver’s license in your pocket. We’re talking about every important document mapping out your entire life, carried with you at all times.

Cell phone and charger — If you see a homeless person with a cell phone, you might initially think it’s a frivolous expense, but actually it’s one of the most important items to have if you’re without a permanent residence. Thankfully, most homeless individuals I have met in this country do figure out a way to afford a phone. Unfortunately, whereas homeless individuals could probably make better use of a smartphone than anyone else (being able to look up directions to a food pantry, respond to emails for job interviews, etc.) it’s rare that I come across anyone with an iphone or android in my line of work. Still, those trusty cell phones will help people through many a tough situation, and provide a way to connect to family who may be far away.

Make up — Everyone wants to look his or her best, including people who are struggling to get their basic needs met. She will undoubtedly have job interviews or meetings with social workers where she wishes to present herself in a certain light, and make up can really help with that. Access to basic hygiene is a huge issue for homeless people. Imagine not being able to feel clean each morning by taking a shower, or not being able to afford deoderant when you run out, or not having access to a bathroom when you need to change your tampon (there was recently an enlightening article about that topic in the Huffington Post). Not only are you without the safety and comfort of a permanent home, but you also lack the amenities of a permanent home. Make up is a small way to take strides in the direction of personal hygiene and dignity.  

Tissues and napkins Similarly, having tissues or napkins with you (probably grabbed from a cafeteria or soup kitchen) can be an important way to keep clean. If your days are not spent inside a home or office or school, you’re likely on the streets or moving from place to place, anywhere that will allow you to hang out. There’s only so many times you can use the bathroom at a mall or McDonald’s before someone tells you to “move along.” I wrote about the need for better public access to restrooms in this post, but until that time, tissues will likely be found in the bags of homeless people.  

Candy, condiment packets, other small food items — When you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, every little bit helps. Whether it’s a Snickers bar you bought for a dollar from a vending machine or even some condiment packets you grabbed from the checkout line at the deli, keeping forms of sustenance with you is vital. A homeless person cannot just head for her kitchen cabinet when she gets hungry for a snack. Furthermore, for homeless individuals who experience illnesses like diabetes, having food available can mean life or death.

A few cigarettes — You may be thinking, why on earth would someone who has so little money spend her precious dollars on expensive, unhealthy products like cigarettes? In fact, there are several reasons. First, if you were a smoker before you became homeless, its unlikely that in the midst of all you’re undergoing—what with trying to find housing and income and support—you’re going to decide that that’s the right time to try to quit smoking. It would likely only add to your stress. Second, when you’re undergoing the trauma of being without a home, probably juggling a few children, managing a health issue, trying to keep it all together—it’s natural to want a momentary stress reliever. These are two reasons why you might find cigarettes in a woman’s bag.

So, there’s a look into the life of a homeless American. Think about the weight of it. Think also, about how it’s not so different from what a wealthier person might have in his or her purse, but everything serves a much more life-and-death purpose. You’re not carrying around lipstick so you can freshen up on the way to a date; you’re carrying around lipstick because it’s a minute way to make yourself feel presentable for a job interview that could dramatically change the course of your life. You’re not bringing along a candy bar in case you get hungry in between the gym and your dinner plans, you have that candy bar for when you can’t make it to the soup kitchen in between doctors’ appointments and food stamp sign-ups, and you’re facing a night without supper.

Homelessness directly impacted more than 600,000 Americans last year, many of them children. That’s equal to the entire population of Washington, DC. I hope this post gave you a small sense of how homelessness is both normal, and not so normal, for many Americans–women, men, white people, black people, children, seniors and more.

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