The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

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Giving a True Gift


Hi everyone, I’m going to talk to you straight today. It’s the season of giving and before you rush out to the store and buy tons of cheap products produced by underpaid child laborers, read my post about ethical consumption, then consider another form of giving. There’s no sense in filling our houses and cities with more and more stuff. The weight of that is taking its toll on our environment and on our psyches, creating an endless cycle that demands we buy more in order to keep ourselves happy. It will never be enough. Share a true gift this year instead.

Here are some gift ideas to get you started. They are completely non-material (meaning they don’t involve buying an object for someone), and all are low-cost or free:

  1. Bake something. It’s so simple and, if you’re like me, you’re probably baking tons of delicious goodies right now anyway—far more than you or your family could ever consume alone. So wrap up a plate and walk over to the neighbor’s house. Bring one by for your child’s teacher or coach. Ship off a box to an old friend far away. This is guaranteed to make everyone happy.
  2. Do something helpful for someone else. This can be as simple as a daily task that would be useful, or a more specific task that utilizes your personal skills. Offer to babysit a friend’s kids so she can go out to dinner with her husband. Shovel an elderly neighbor’s driveway. Help a family do their taxes, if accounting is your forte. Play a free concert for a local nursing home, if you’re musically inclined. All of these options require little to no money and are often much more appreciated than a material gift.
  3. Give a gift certificate to a local restaurant. What better way to support your local businesses than by sending your friends to dine at them? Not only will you be sharing the food you love with the people you love, they might come back for more, and continue supporting the business long after you give the gift. This can be completely customized based on your budget. I bet a $10 gift card to your favorite coffee shop will mean just as much as a $30 gift card to your favorite burger joint.
  4. Make a charitable donation:
    1. If you want to donate domestically, please consider making a contribution to this amazing organization: Strong Towns. They are a grassroots, nation-wide organization working to help cities and towns flourish and develop financial resiliency. Strong Towns also taught me a good chunk of what I know about urban development and making cities better. If nothing else please check them out on their website. This is a good place to start, and there are loads of great, free ideas and resources shared on their blog weekly.
    2. The options for international generosity are nearly boundless. Pick your region or issue of interest and you could be combing the internet for days looking for the perfect charity. I want to suggest just one, which I have been a committed donor to for many years: Blood:Water Mission. As the name suggests, Blood:Water Mission targets two issues: HIV/AIDS and clean water. It is a US nonprofit that partners with East African organizations on the ground to improve water access/purity and support people affected by HIV/AIDS as well as prevent the spread of the disease. They have a super cool feature on their website which shows you how far your donation will go to support several different AIDS- and water-related solutions, no matter how much money you are able to give.  Check it out.

Thanks for letting me preach a little bit. I wish you the very best this season.


The Car Conundrum


I’ve never owned a car in my life. For the first time though, I have actually started to consider it as an option. Part of me is so committed to the car-free movement that I can’t imagine letting go of my stance, but part of me wonders about the practicality of car ownership in certain regards.

I didn’t have a car as a teenager (my parents were kind enough to let me use theirs if I needed it) or during my college years so I have been holding off on this moment for a long time, not wanting to make that big purchase or shift my lifestyle in such a drastic manner. Previously I convinced myself I didn’t want the headache of constantly hunting for a parking spot, and I didn’t want to have to think about the price of gas or allocating part of my paycheck toward car insurance. But now I’m mulling over some other factors in my mind. So, let me walk you through the line of reasoning that began to point me in the direction of car ownership. Then I’ll reveal whether I ultimately decided to go for it or not.

First, I’ll lay the scene: I live in an apartment close to several bus lines in downtown Milwaukee, a mid-size city with adequate, but not great, public transit. I take the bus to work every day. I also take the bus to various activities around town, but a lot of what I do to get places is walk. I walk to my volunteer shift at the homeless shelter nearby. I walk to the grocery store every week. I walk to the commercial strip a few blocks away for food and drinks. I walk because I enjoy it. I also walk because the exercise is beneficial, because I get to experience the city in a personal way and because walking is free.

I like this lifestyle, and so far, my schedule can afford the extra time it takes me to get places in this manner. However, there are a few factors that have been weighing on me and making me rethink my decision to own a car.

Here are the factors that are making me reconsider:

  1. Winter is fast approaching and suddenly my pleasant strolls through downtown Milwaukee look more like bundling in five layers and hunching my body against the freezing wind while I dodge ice patches. Standing at an uncovered, unheated bus stop for several minutes each day looks equally unappealing. The idea of being able to cruise toward my destination in a warm pod sounds pretty darn nice right now.
  2. As a young woman, I have had various well-intentioned people tell me it is unsafe to be out walking or waiting for the bus by myself after dark. These people want me to get a car. I think I would feel safer traveling by car instead of walking.
  3. My back hurts from carrying bags of groceries. On the one hand, having a grocery store within walking distance is an incredible blessing. On the other hand, walking home from the grocery store with bags full of food is one of my least favorite activities. I have to plan my purchases based on what weighs the least and stagger my heavier purchases in multiple trips. It’s a pain.
  4. A car might not actually be that much more expensive than my current modes of transportation. I get by on a mix of bus trips, walks and Lyft rides. My unlimited bus pass costs $64 a month and my Lyft rides (which amount to maybe 2 or 3 a week when I don’t feel like taking the bus or don’t have the time to do so for whatever reason) add up to around $80-100 a month. Surely the price of gas, insurance and even a car loan or lease would be around that, right? Especially if I split those costs with my boyfriend, who is also carless.

Modes of transport venn diagram

Well, I weighed all these significant factors. I even went back to that Venn diagram I concocted a few months back that details the advantages and disadvantages of biking, walking, driving and taking public transit. But in the end, I still came down solidly on the side of my current lifestyle, and I decided not to purchase a car at this point. Let me address each of the above issues and tell you why it still wasn’t enough to convince me to buy a car:

  1. To account for the cold factor, I had to think about my morning routine in the winter. Right now, a few minutes before I’m getting ready to leave for work, I’ll start checking the Milwaukee County Transit System “Real Time” website, and when I see that my bus is arriving in 6 or 7 minutes, I head out to the stop, wait a minute or two for my bus, then hop on it. Total time out in the cold: 6 or 7 minutes, and 5 of that is at a brisk walking pace. If I had a car, my routine would look more like this: Trudge out to my car, turn it on, start scraping snow and ice off it, start defrosting the windows, jump inside and begin driving to work. Unless I had a really top-notch heating system, I suspect it would take a solid 10 minutes or so for the car to heat up in the cold months of a Midwestern winter. Thus, my total time in the cold is around 10-15 minutes, depending on how far I had to walk to reach my car. So the verdict is: on a normal day, a car is actually the less warm option. Of course, in circumstances where I am taking the bus somewhere different and have to, say, wait for a transfer, or walk several extra blocks to a particular location because it is farther off the bus route, then the car is a warmer option. But on average, I’m not better off in a car than in a bus when it comes to weather.
  2. Now, to the question of safety. Once in a car, I am certainly safer than I would be walking outside alone. However, if I owned a car, I would still have to walk outside to and from that car multiple times a day because my apartment doesn’t have a parking lot. In my dense neighborhood, it’s not uncommon for residents to have to park several blocks away from their apartments. So, under my current circumstances, a car would not completely eliminate my time outside alone. Furthermore, in a way it creates even more of a risk for me. Currently, someone might see me as a small female, and therefore a great target for a robbery. However, if I had a car, that someone would see not only my physical features, but also my automobile asset, making me an even more desirable target. On the other end of my trips, I might be able to park closer to my destination and keep myself a little safer, but I’m still going to have to park in my neighborhood and walk home at some point. The bottom line is, I’m street smart and I do the best I can. If someone wants to rob me, then my having a car is unlikely to stop them, and may actually make them more interested in targeting me so they could get my car too.
  3. Addressing the third factor of carrying heavy groceries is not so easy. Carrying groceries is down right pain, and it would definitely go away if I had a car (for the most part). That being said, if this was such a bother to me, I could shell out $25 for one of those collapsible shopping carts and save myself thousands on a car. Case closed.
  4. Here’s the clincher: Price. Supposing I did get a car, and even supposing that I shared all related costs (loan payments, insurance and gas) with my significant other, I ultimately conclude that it’s still more expensive to make that investment. First, car loans are a rip-off. Second, having a car would not completely eliminate my need to purchase bus tickets or Lyft rides. No doubt, I would be taking the bus sometimes if my boyfriend needed the car, or taking a Lyft if I was planning on drinking that night. So, sure I might only spend a third or a quarter the amount of money on those that I currently spend, but the cost would still remain. Finally, and this is one of the most important hidden costs to consider, I have to factor in parking tickets. Milwaukee is notorious for its vicious parking cops. They will ticket you anywhere at any time for any infringement possible. So, even though parking is technically free near my apartment and by my office, I’d undoubtedly be swallowing the cost of a few parking tickets, or at least plugging parking meters, if I owned a car.

Finally, there’s the intangible deterrent to car ownership: stress. I like to be able to roll up to my destination and walk right in without having to factor in the unknown of hunting for a parking spot, much less paying for one. I don’t want to have to worry about whether my car door will be frozen shut on a -5 degree day, or whether it will start at all. I certainly don’t want the added stress of factoring in all these additional costs each month. In the end, this was a straightforward decision for me.

One important note: You’ll recognize that there are a few key elements that make my car-free lifestyle doable. One is the Real Time bus website. If your city doesn’t have this, you’re far more inconvenienced when it comes to taking the bus, and you could spend countless extra minutes at a stop if the bus is running late or you’re unfamiliar with the schedule. Another significant element is the availability of Lyft (or Uber, if that’s your thing). For those unfamiliar, Lyft and Uber are phone apps that allow you to request a ride from any number of certified, background-checked and highly-rated drivers in your area at pretty much any time, for a price that is often lower than cab fare. Lyft is pretty big in Milwaukee, which means that if I ever miss a bus, or feel unsafe taking a bus, or don’t have the option of a bus because it doesn’t go where I need to go, Lyft is there for me. If that was not the case, and I had to rely on rides from friends or cab rides or the bus alone, I’d be much more unwilling to undertake this car-free lifestyle. Finally, probably the single biggest factor that makes living without a car possible is my location. My apartment is close to four different bus lines, including one that takes me directly to my office in about 20 minutes. I have grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and even hardware stores within walking distance of my house, so I never have to hop on a half-hour bus trip just to get toilet paper.

Geography is often the number one argument I hear from people defending their need to own a car. In one sense, I buy it. If your job is in a factory 10 miles south of town, surrounded by cornfields, and then you work another job right after your shift in a bar 20 miles north of that, the bus is probably not going to cut it. If you live in a suburban development that’s 25 miles from the downtown where you work and 3 miles from anything besides other houses, you’re going to feel like you need a car. My response to that is 1) jobs and living arrangements are somewhat based on choice, and 2) I know people who manage all that and still use public transit. And they don’t only exist in New York City.

I put this train of thought out there in the hopes that you’ll think through your own reasons for owning a car, besides just force of habit. Really walk through the pros and cons and the key arguments before you fritter away your time and money in an automobile.

Have you ever made the jump from owning a car to not owning a car, or vice versa? What influenced your decision?

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The Perfect Place

Lighthouse on Lake Michigan

We’re all searching for the perfect place right? Maybe some of us have given up on finding it and maybe some of us have already landed there, but I bet most of us are still stuck somewhere in between. I recently had a revelation about what makes up that perfect place, and it starts, like many revelations, on a plane.

A couple weekends ago, I snuck away from a hectic workweek to spend some quality time with my little brother at his college in Baltimore and on the flight back, I happened to have a layover in Minneapolis. As most of you know, I spent most of my life in Minneapolis (until college) and my parents, along with some of my very good friends, still live there. As the plane touched down in the Twin Cities, a calm, joyous feeling came over me—the sensation of coming home. I hope you are familiar with it. That feeling didn’t surprise me, but the sensation I had when I left the airport for Milwaukee an hour later did.

For some reason, I didn’t experience the ache of leaving home. Instead, as my next flight took off for Milwaukee, I felt an even greater sense of the good place I have found myself in there. It’s not that Milwaukee’s a particularly special city nor even a world-class city (yet), but rather, that it is the right city for me now—first and foremost because of its proximity and similarity to my home.

Throughout my time in college in Walla Walla, WA, I constantly missed home. It would take me an entire day’s worth of travel–at least twelve hours and several hundred dollars–to get home to Minneapolis so I only went for a handful of holidays. Worse still, Walla Walla felt nothing like my hometown: it was small where Minneapolis was big, a desert while Minneapolis was in the land of 10,000 lakes, and the culture was completely different. Everyone and everything I loved was far away. Of course this changed over time as I got to know people and immersed in school, but that feeling of homesickness never left me. I am convinced that it is because of the literal distance between me and my home, and between all those indicators of home like water, Midwestern food and family. The simple knowledge that something is close by and accessible can provide peace of mind.

And now I have that. I can hop on a plane leaving Minneapolis knowing that that home is still available to me whenever I need to go back. It won’t take me more than a half-day’s train or bus ride or a short flight to get there. Furthermore, Milwaukee has rivers and a big lake (Michigan) that I cross over or walk along on a daily basis. The way the Milwaukee River runs through the downtown means there’s a particular spot where I am compelled to stop every single time I’m walking to my boyfriend’s bar because it is just so beautiful I can’t not. Lights from the houses on the river reflect in the water, you can see the bridges that cross over it on streets up ahead, and little boats are tied to the shoreline, bobbing peacefully. I run along this river, and Lake Michigan too. Water is everywhere around me and it’s presence comforts.

Maybe that’s a little bit what home feels like. It doesn’t have to be the place you grew up in, or the place where all your fond memories happened. It just needs the essence of those locations, and proximity to them. I’m not ready to move back to Minneapolis yet, but I’m glad I’ve found a place that feels a little like it. That’s enough for now.

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Urban Milwaukee Column #2


My next column is up on Urban Milwaukee. Read about the intersection of 1st St and Pittsburgh in Milwaukee, a transition point between two very different neighborhoods, on the cusp of major change. If you missed the first one, you can read it here. I’m enjoying this method of exploring a new city–diving deep into one specific intersection in a given neighborhood.

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The Magical Town of Stars Hollow


“Grandma, you will be missing the true Stars Hollow experience if you don’t walk.” –Rory Gilmore (Season 1, Episode 19).

I have a confession to make: I never watched Gilmore Girls in my childhood, so I have been making up for lost time over the last month thanks to Netflix (and I still have many more delightful months ahead of me). Pretty much since the first episode, I’ve been fascinated by the urban setting of the TV show—the idyllic, walkable town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. Allow me, then, this interlude post in which I’ll break it down and talk about just how lovely—and mythical—it is. For those of you who haven’t seen the show, I trust that you’re probably not going to be persuaded based on just one blog post, so you can go ahead and skip reading this. (That being said, I do urge you to examine the settings of your favorite TV shows more closely, as I’m sure you’ll be able to make some interesting observations about urbanism there.) But for those who have watched Gilmore Girls, well, I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.


First, a summary. I’ll say right off the bat that I’ve only watched Season One thus far (please no spoilers in the comments) so I will only be speaking about Stars Hollow, where the main characters—mother and daughter duo, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore—reside. Stars Hollow is a charming, New England village. It boasts affordable housing (for example, a single mother who manages an inn can pay for a two-story Victorian), friendly neighborhood shops where everyone knows your name, a central gathering place in the form of the town square, and walkable streets in which kids can visit their friends after school and grandmothers can safely take a morning stroll.

This is an old-school small town that has yet to be corrupted by the trappings of mid-century “improvement” like wider roads, parking lot requirements and strip malls.* Never once do we see a McDonald’s or a department store in Stars Hollow. We rarely even see Rory or Lorelai in a car, except when they need to travel outside the town to visit relatives or get to Rory’s school. Stars Hollow is picturesque and peaceful.

Lest anyone think—judging by the posts on this blog—that I have no respect for small towns and only value the metropolitan lifestyle, you should know that I’ve lived in small towns before: one, Walla Walla, WA, which was rather depressing and definitely not a good place for me, and two, Ballyvaughan, Ireland, which was a wonderful, magical place. I can go into what’s wrong with Walla Walla from my perspective later, but the point is that I’ve seen the beautiful side of the small town life. It’s residents who all know each other, favorite local cafes, peace and quiet, and the ability to walk everywhere.


Stars Hollow certainly captures that. Everyone seems comfortable. They have a history with one another and with the town. They may leave for school or for travel, but most will come back because they love the place. They also love and support each other. For instance, there’s an entire episode that centers on a funeral for a neighbor’s beloved cat, at which the entire town is in attendance. Naturally, this closeness also results in some comical nosiness from various villagers constantly trying to get the latest gossip, which some people might find annoying. But by and large, who among you has watched Gilmore Girls and not, at one point or another, wished you could have coffee at Luke’s, or buy grocery’s from Doose’s Market, or stroll through the town square?

Stars Hollow is pure magic, and of course, it’s fictional. But we can learn from this fairytale place by reflecting on what we love about it, and then slowly working to make the places where we live in real life, look a little more like magic.

* As café owner, Luke Danes, states in Season 1, Episode 20: “No malls. I hate malls. They underpay employees. They sell overpriced merchandise. They contribute to urban sprawl. They encourage materialism. And the parking’s a horror.”

Image sources: one, twothree 

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Writing for Urban Milwaukee

Water and Humboldt MKE

This week, I’m honored to start writing as a columnist for Urban Milwaukee, an online journal that seeks to provide an informative and open dialogue on the issues, events, and people affecting Milwaukee’s most urban neighborhoods, and to promote urbanism within the city of Milwaukee.

Here’s the start of my first column:

Located at the convergence of the Lower East SideRiverwest, and the Beerline, the four-way corner of N. Water St. (E. Kane Pl. to the east) and N. Humboldt Ave. is a very important intersection in Milwaukee. It is also a space in transition, and has the potential to experience a lot more change in the next few years. It’s currently home to a mix of big, contemporary apartment buildings and older houses, as well as BelAir Cantina, the popular taco spot, Finks, a craft cocktail and beer lounge, and Greek Village Gyros. Just up the diagonal Pulaski St. is the famous Wolski’s Tavern and just south on Water Street is Brochach Irish Pub, soon to become the Red Lion Pub.

Perhaps most important, this corner is on the Milwaukee River, and while the new apartment complexes are slowly encroaching upon that view, I think there’s still a chance to save it, and benefit residents and river lovers….

Click here to read the rest! Check back every Thursday for a new column.

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Exploring Bus and Train Options in the US

Exploring Bus and Train Options in the US

Depending on where you live, you may have encountered any number of intercity transit options—that is, buses or trains that can take you from one city to another, all across the country—and wondered which was best. With the rise of Bolt and Megabus, non-automobile modes of travel are more available than ever and it’s important to understand your options. There’s also the trusty standbys: Greyhound and Amtral. Over the last several years, living carless in cities in the West, on the East Coast, and in the Midwest, I’ve explored these options and have a few insights to share from my experience. Of course, like plane travel, trips can vary wildly, but some general characteristics prevail for each of these modes. I’ll explore some of the most widespread intercity travel options and rate them (one to five stars) based on affordability, availability, speed, reliability comfort, and enjoyment. Let’s roll.

Megabus Route Map


Affordability: *****

While their supposed $1 fares are a rarity in reality, you can pretty much guarantee yourself a roundtrip ride for under $60, and usually more in the range of $40. My most recent megabus trip cost me only $13 for a one-way ride from Milwaukee to Minneapolis.

Availability: * * * *

Megabus is fairly well-connected between cities from the East Coast to the Midwest (and in Europe and Canada!). Its main untouched territory is the West and Pacific Northwest.

Speed: * * *

When they show up on time, these buses can get you to your destination with relative ease—at least as fast as a car would.

Comfort: * * *

Megabus has one main cool factor, which is that it’s double-decker. This not only means nice views out your window but also a higher likelihood that you might have a seat to yourself. That being said, I’ve been on some pretty uncomfortable Megabus rides in which the air conditioning was blasting way too cold, my seat-mate smelled bad and the bathroom light was out (to name a few complaints). Don’t expect any form of comfort in the way of a bus station either; Megabus usually picks up and drops off on a random, sometimes desolate road. You get what you pay for here. Continue reading

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Glorioso’s Italian Market

Glorioso's Italian Market

The specialty market is a dying breed. With the exception of bakeries, which will always have a home in the land of cakes, cookies and bread items, most specialty food stores—carrying just one category of foods—have given way to the one-stop supermarket. I’m not arguing with the logic of it because most of us don’t have the luxury of several hours to hop from store to store every time we need to go grocery shopping. Nonetheless, cheese shops, butchers, and green markets are a rare treat when I do have the time to visit them.

Glorioso's Italian Market

That’s why I was particularly thrilled to learn that my new apartment was a quick seven minute walk away from a specialty Italian market called Glorioso’s. Now, this is more than just a cheese shop or a butcher, but it’s a definitely not your typical grocery store. First of all, it’s arranged in an inviting manner, with an entrance that brings you down a few stairs, so you feel as if you’re stepping into another place, perhaps the cellar of an old Italian restaurant (although the windows on the edges prevent it from feeling dark or dusty). To your right is a small assortment of produce—just the bare essentials you might need to accompany one meal or so. To your left is a pleasant seating area where you can get right down to eating whatever it is you’ve just purchased (additional seating outside is also a nice touch during the warmer months).

Glorioso's Italian Market

In front of you is the butcher and cheesemonger section, with easily a hundred different types of cured meats and cheeses from around the world. You can either browse the coolers and grab whatever you’d like yourself, or you can step up to the deli counter and order the precise amount that you need, watching the butcher carefully slice it to your desired thickness for sandwiches, Sunday dinners or hor d’eourves trays. At one end of the deli counter, you’ll find the prepared food section, which offers pasta salads, calzones, lasagnas and more, for reasonable prices. Behind the counter there’s also a full kitchen where you can get any number of pasta dishes made to order. As if that weren’t enough, there’s another counter that provides housemade meatballs, sauces and pizza doughs, so that you can take them home and prepare them as you wish. This is food I’d be comfortable serving at a dinner party, but just as comfortable throwing together for a quick weeknight dinner.

Glorioso's Italian MarketThe center of the store is full of various goods including bread from a local bakery, coffee from several local roasters, and fancy imported canned fish. The second room of Glorioso’s is half-filled with a wine shop and half-filled with every item you could possibly need for Italian cooking. Homemade raviolis, fresh pastas, gourmet sauces and olive oils, salts, baking supplies and even cooking utensils. As a cook, I love just walking through the aisles and examining all these interesting products. I almost feel like I’m back in New York, meandering through the narrow aisles, surprised to find all manner of imported items crammed into a modest space.

Glorioso’s has made life easy for me in so many ways. For one, it’s the closest grocery store whenever I need to grab one or two items that I’ve run out of for a recipe—say milk or an onion. For another, it’s my go-to place for prepared food because it’s practically homemade, and it gives me the ability to put as much or as little effort into cooking as I want. If I felt like making my own ravioli (which I’ve done with my mother several times), I’d get my ingredients at Glorioso’s, but if I felt like just plopping a few frozen ravioli in a pot of water and topping it off with some jarred sauce once it was finished, I’d also get those items at Glorioso’s.

One might expect this place to have disappeared years ago, what with the competition of nearby chain grocery stores and sandwich shops. Yet, at nearly seventy years old, Glorioso’s is a piece of Milwaukee heritage still going strong today. It’s a testament to the Italian immigrants who helped to make this city great, and it continues to feed residents of all cultural backgrounds with delicious, affordable food. I feel blessed to have landed an apartment so near to such a rich amenity, and I plan to sample as much of this tasty food as I can over the next several months. If you’re ever in the area, you must make a stop here.


Who is my Neighbor?

Who is my neighbor?

“Who is my neighbor?” This question, posed by a crafty lawyer in the Gospel of Luke invites Jesus to launch into one of his most famous parables of the Good Samaritan. (For those unfamiliar with the story: A Jewish man is walking along a road when he is suddenly robbed and beaten up by thieves. While he is lying in the ditch, two people whom we would assume to be helpful simply pass him by. In the end, a Samaritan—a person of a different race, with whom the Jews had very poor relations—comes to the injured man’s aid, binding his wounds and giving him money to stay at a nearby inn while he recuperates.) When he has finished telling this parable, Jesus turns the question back on the lawyer and asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” to which the lawyer replies, “The one who showed him mercy.” Then Jesus says, “Go and do likewise” (NRSV).

I tell you this, not because I want to preach to you, or even because I want to talk about religion at all. Rather, I bring this up because that repeated question, “Who is my neighbor?” bears relevance for cities and neighborhoods.

Is a neighbor the person next door and across the street? That would be simple.

Does my entire neighborhood contain my “neighbors”? Linguistically, that would make sense.

Can I consider everyone living in my city a potential neighbor? This would mean a whole lot of neighbors.

Are business owners, cops and teachers my neighbors too, or just the people who live in the houses nearby? If they’re all neighbors, how do I get to know them in different ways?

After the Strong Towns National Gathering in which many of the participants challenged and encouraged one another to get to know their neighbors better, I realized I needed to first figure out “Who is my neighbor?” The passage from Luke helps me broadly define the term. If we were to follow the invitation of the Gospel passage, and the invitation of my fellow Strong Citizens last weekend—which is truly the invitation of any neighborhood that lacks community—we should show compassion, friendliness and warmth toward those around us. That means whomever we encounter in our daily lives. The aid pushing the elderly man at the senior center across from your office, the rambunctious children running around your grocery store with their tired mother, the fast-walking business man in a suit who passes by your house on his way to the bus every the morning, the immigrant couple that runs your laundromat, the teenager who makes your sandwich at the deli counter. These are the people around us and they deserve our kindness. One by one, person by person, block by block, these small acts add up to more pleasant neighborhoods and towns.

This week, as I have been intentional about saying hello to my neighbors on my way to work, in the grocery store, at my volunteering shift, and in the hallways of my apartment, I’ve discovered a few things:

  1. It’s harder than it looks. (And we already know this because we don’t do it very often.) First, it’s hard to be the one initiating. Most of the time when we’re walking outside on our own, we close ourselves off to the elements, process thoughts within our heads, and keep to our own business. So, it’s challenging for me to step out of that every single time I see someone (especially because I’m somewhat introverted) and say “Hello.” It’s also hard because the response from others is not always positive. I don’t know about your neighborhood, but in mine, people tend to keep their heads down. They don’t expect a stranger to speak to them, so when it happens, they sometimes take so long to process the occurrence that they can barely muster a reply before I’ve walked past. None of my neighbors have replied rudely to me—they just haven’t always replied with a cheery “Hello” right back. The two instances of pleasant greetings that stand out to me from the last week were from a young boy coming out of school, and an older man smoking a cigar on his front stoop. Unfortunately, most of the young people in my demographic are plugged into their iPhones or generally aloof. I’m trying my best to move against that stereotype.
  2. It helps to have a buddy. I’m not the most outgoing person, but I have plenty of friends who are. I like to be intentional when I’m with them about taking those leaps to talk to strangers, which I might not otherwise take alone, knowing that I have a friend at my side to join in the conversation.
  3. This is the beginning. Once I get my hello’s down and start recognizing faces, then I should move on to asking names. Saying hi to people doesn’t feel like it’s doing much, unless it encourages others to say hi too. I’m hoping to contribute to a community that feels warm and welcoming. Last week, without my doing anything, a nice woman struck up a conversation while we waited together at the bus stop. Her first comment was the simplest, “How about this warm weather we’re having?” but it led us to discuss our jobs, recent events in the city and the wild antics of the football fans  here. Later that evening, I caught a glimpse of the same woman standing in the check cashing spot near my apartment, confirming that she’s a resident of the neighborhood. Next time I see her (for all I know, it might happen today while I’m waiting for the bus again), I’ll definitely find out her name.
  4. We have nothing to lose. Being friendly is the simplest way to make our neighborhoods better. Once you get past the initial hurtle of opening your mouth, it’s smooth sailing. Only good can come of this.

Does knowing your neighbors come naturally to you? If you live in a neighborhood like that, I’d love to hear about it. I’d also love to hear about your experiences talking to your own neighbors. Will you take the challenge?

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Around the Block – Links from the Week 9/19/14

Around the Block - Links from the Week

I think it’s time for some links. On my radar this week:

  • First, a simple article about new businesses who moved in and didn’t gentrify, but did improve their neighborhood. Glad to see that it’s possible to do that.
  • Next, a quick rundown of “6 Cities Taking a Lead on Solving Homelessness.” Lots of creative, constructive ideas here.
  • From my hometown of Minneapolis, some exciting news that the city council in a nearby suburb of Edina approved the transformation of an old building into apartments for homeless youth! This is a huge step in the right direction, and I hope something we will see more of in other places, because youth homelessness is a major issue in our nation.
  • For a longer read: This New Yorker article, “Paper Palaces,” came out last month but my mom just showed it to me. It’s a breathtaking delve into a unique architect who builds functional, often portable shelters, schools, museums and more, around the world.
  • This one’s also from last month, but it may not have reached you yet: The United Sweets of America, a dessert for every state in the country. Find yours and tell me if you think it makes sense. All the ones I investigated seemed pretty spot-on. (For instance: Wisconsin’s dessert is “kringle” And that reminds me, I haven’t had any since I moved here yet!)
  • Finally, I recently added some new links to my Favorite Sites page, gleaned from the Strong Towns National Gathering last weekend. Some seriously top-notch people doing good work around the country.

Alright folks, don’t forget to follow the action on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. Have a phenomenal weekend!


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