The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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The East Library in Milwaukee

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Every so often, you encounter a building that just astounds you with its perfection, and if you’re lucky, it’s a building you can actually spend time in (not a million-dollar penthouse, for example). The new East Library in Milwaukee—completed just months ago—is absolutely that astounding, especially when you consider that so many libraries are decades old, dreary relics. These pictures tell the East Library’s story, but I’ll add some context too.

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First, a word about the neighborhood where this library is located. I wrote a profile of a nearby intersection for Urban Milwaukee, which will give you a good idea of the area, but to summarize: It is a dense, popular neighborhood filled with restaurants, bars, grocery stores and residences. Located on the East Side of Milwaukee, the area trends younger (a university is fairly nearby) but has many families and seniors too. It’s connected to several bus lines and well-used traffic arteries. It is ripe for a public library and it had one for quite some time, but that library wasn’t built to meet current needs and its dark, low-ceilings and brick walls were far from inviting. Continue reading


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How to Live Small and Still be Happy

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Suppose you’ve been reading all these ideas on this blog about mixed use developments and public transportation and inner city living, and you finally feel like giving it a shot. I bet the first thing that stops you is the cost. You think you couldn’t possibly afford to live in one of those fancy downtown condos, and that’s the only way to live in the city. Plus, you couldn’t fit your whole life—kids, dog, etc.—in one of those anyway, even if you could afford the cost. Well I think you’re wrong. In fact, I know you’re wrong.

What follows are a series of questions to ask yourself before you say that city living is not for you. They’re also a great set of questions to ask yourself if you’re just trying to save some money, no matter where you live. This is about downsizing without losing your sanity or your happiness. I know it’s possible because I’m living it right now.

I currently live in a small (I would guess between 400-600 sq ft) apartment near downtown Milwaukee with my partner. It’s a 1 bedroom with a tiny bathroom, a tiny kitchen, a tiny dining room, and a tiny living room. Inside that apartment, we fit two peoples’ stuff, a cat, and plenty of fun gatherings with friends and family. We love it. And it is 100% within the price range of two young people not making very much money.

Here are some questions we asked ourselves to help us find our current downtown apartment in an affordable way (and the photos to prove it). I hope that considering them helps you recognize that you can live small and still be happy. Continue reading


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Proud of This Place

The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis, MN

Downtown Minneapolis icons: the Guthrie Theater, and the Gold Medal Flour building.

Maybe it’s something in the water here (or the beer) but Milwaukeens are fiercely loyal to their neighborhoods—it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. In the city where I grew up, I barely knew the name of my neighborhood, let alone cared to assert any sort of pride toward it. It contained my house and my friends and a few nice places to go, but I viewed it as part of a whole—the city of Minneapolis—rather than anything special unto itself. Suddenly, though, everywhere I go in Milwaukee it’s “Bayview-this” and “Riverwest-that”. Have you ever lived in a place like this? Upon hearing that my boyfriend was moving from a neighborhood on the south side to a neighborhood just a couple miles north, multiple people asked him whether he was going to miss his old area—as if he might never see it again! This pride for mere city blocks can turn neighbors out to support local causes, but it can also turn citizens against one another. Let’s unpack the positives and negatives of neighborhood pride, and consider why it exists in the first place.

The most productive aspect of neighborhood pride is that it gets people fired up and supportive of local things that could, frankly, use defending. Who else is going to hold a bake-sale when the high school theater program gets cut besides the neighborhood folks? Who else is going to stand up at a town hall meeting and demand that the speed limit be lowered near the playground besides proud residents who take their kids to that playground every weekend? Without pride, we are left with apathy. Pride gives people the feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves.

Neighborhood pride is also a testament to the diversity of the city. Instead of a town with only one identity (a “mining town” or a “college town,” for instance), we have a city that means different things to different people and holds the potential to succeed in diverse industries, or at least to draw diverse populations to its attractions.

Finally, neighborhood pride tells outsiders what to expect when they enter that neighborhood. This can devolve into negative stereotyping, but in its ideal form, it is fairly objective. For instance, if a particular area of the city is known for its baseball stadium (and accompanying sports bars, jersey shops, etc.) you’d probably benefit from knowing that before you tried to take a quiet stroll through there on game day. By the same token, if you were looking for a fun Sunday afternoon activity, you might remember that neighborhood’s reputation for baseball games and head over there.

National Bohemian Beer

National Bohemian or “Natty Bo,” Baltimore’s signature beer

So, each neighborhood has its positive aspects that outsiders and residents praise, such as “Oh I love walking down Main Street on a Friday night” or “Your district has that great park with the farmers market!” On the other hand, each neighborhood also has negative stereotypes associated with it. For instance, “That’s where all the yuppies live,” or “Gosh, that place is stuck in 1955.” Or worse. Unfortunately, I think about half of all neighborhood pride is built up through distaste for other neighborhoods, as common enemies usually unite. For instance, residents might rally around their favorite local supermarket claiming it’s the best in the city; but only at the expense of every other grocery store, especially “those grungy stores on the south side,” or “the east side,” or whatever the case may be. A more severe example: Residents will demand funding for their local school and claim that other schools are not worthy of it in a statement of thinly veiled racism and classism.

I’m not sure how productive it is to spend so much of your time putting down other neighborhoods with name-calling and avoidance. Then again, it happens internationally, interculturally, interreligiously. Why should we expect anything different from our microcosmic neighborhoods?

My concluding question is, why does this neighborhood pride exist in certain places more than others? Do some cities just lack emotion and passion? I have a couple guesses. One is that perhaps certain cities maintain more ties to the industries that exist in their neighborhoods. For example, in some cities, the factories have long ago moved out of town, but in others, they’re still churning out washers or paper or whatever the product might be. Thus, neighborhoods in the latter category keep their reputations for whatever they produce. In still other cities, neighborhoods may have lost their factory jobs, but kept their factory buildings, so the reputation of an industrial feeling remains. The same follows for other niche areas of town that may have kept up their historic roots (for banking, fishing, etc.) or shed them over the years.

Another possible explanation for the existence of neighborhood pride in some places has a darker origination — in racism, classism and segregation of the past. Calling a neighborhood “the ghetto,” for instance, is a nod to the days of redlining when minorities would literally be confined to properties in a small area of town, removed from white people. While some cities may still be operating under these pretenses (and thus keep up their neighborhood name-calling), others have, thankfully, moved on.

Chinatown, NYC

Chinatown, New York City

Another answer for where neighborhood pride comes from is diversity. While some towns may be fairly homogenous (ethnically, religiously, etc.) and maintain a singular identity as “Pleasantville,” other towns have built up diverse populations over the years. This can create distinct neighborhoods where different languages are spoken, different food is prepared, even the architecture looks unique. A classic example of this is the Chinatowns that exist in cities all over the country.

Finally, perhaps neighborhood pride is simply the result of a convergence of circumstances—industry, diversity, and something else intangible, that spark that makes people congregant around a place to sing its praises. Wherever it’s coming from, neighborhood pride is something to be on the lookout because, for better or for worse, the attitudes of the people around us shape our experience of each place we visit. (I touched on that concept in this blog post last year too.) For my part, I’m already working hard to memorize neighborhood names and identities so I can start sounding like a local in Milwaukee. My next task will be figuring out whether each neighborhood actually lives up to its reputation. Until then.


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Skills I’ve Learned in New York City (and a few areas for improvement)

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I’ve been in this wild city for six months now. It’s had its ups and downs but one thing is certain: New York City has taught me bucket-loads about urban landscapes and my place within them. Today, I’m sharing a handful of skills I’ve developed during my time here, plus a few things I could stand to improve on:

What I’ve Learned

  1. Moves like lightning— I think there was a time in my life when friends would accuse me of being a slow walker, but not any more! In New York City, you snooze you lose, so you better believe I am speedwalking down those streets and running up the steps from the subway platform. (I get my fair share of actual running done in Central Park too.) The New York style of movement is about more than just speed though, it also demands limberness and careful maneuvering. You have to be ready to dodge that pack of tourists, sneak around that man dawdling with his shopping bag and get to the door in time to help that woman pushing a stroller—all in a manner of seconds. I’m glad I’ve honed this skill because I use it every day.
  2. Spotting the un-crowded places—In a city of 8.3 million people, open space should be cherished above most other things. Thus, I am developing a knack for spotting those places with a little more room in them: libraries, cafes (like the one I’m sitting in right now), museums and even calm neighborhoods where one can wander freely, undisturbed. I’m always looking to add to my list of uncrowded places, too. Let me know if you have ideas (but keep your voice to a low whisper. We can’t let too many people in on the secrets).
  3. Cultural awareness—Back in the Midwest last week, I realized I might be starting to take New York’s diversity for granted. I stepped into a lounge bar in an old warehouse in Wisconsin and the first thing that hit me was not the music or the décor but the enormous amount of white people—more than I’ve seen in one room in months. It’s not that I don’t notice race and class in New York. Quite the contrary: I notice it every day, everywhere I go. But the diversity around me—racial, economic, ethnic, and religious—is beginning to feel normal. Like why on earth would I not hear five different languages on the bus on my way to work? It’s a joy to be exposed to such varied lives and to have my privilege questioned on a daily basis in such an in-your-face way. I won’t get it like this anywhere else so I’m learning from it as much as I can.
  4. Dressing for all occasions—Let’s start with the feet. Life in New York requires  a considerable amount of walking (see #1) so you always need a pair of trusty, walkable shoes on hand. And yet, New Yorkers also spend time at the office and out to dinner and at other venues which require nice-looking shoes. Here, preparation for any occasion is key. Moving upwards, you’ve got to have the right clothing to keep you warm outside in the winter, cool on the subway platform in the summer, and dry during a thunderstorm. You can’t just stash a rain jacket in your car; you have to carry everything with you. This I have learned, but not without a fair amount of mistakes along the way.
  5. Sucking it up and opening my wallet—This is one thing I wish I didn’t have to do, but sometimes it’s unavoidable that I’m running to an event after work and I know that with subway travel I probably won’t get home till 10pm. On these evenings, it’s inevitable that I’ll be eating out instead of cooking for myself more affordably at home. I keep a mental list of cheap spots near my office and other frequent destinations. However, eating out more has definitely been a mindset shift and I have to compensate for that budgeting in other realms of my life.
  6. Finding friends in surprising places—When I came here, I thought I wouldn’t know anyone, but that turned out to be wrong. Quite a few people end up in New York City and I am blessed to have rediscovered several friendships from past periods of my life because those people are in New York suddenly too. In addition, I’ve opened myself up to meeting new people through friends, coworkers and roommates. When you’re surrounded by millions of people, you’ve got a pretty high chance of finding some good eggs among them.
  7. All the other stuff—Naturally I’m learning more than just what clothes to wear and how to walk in New York City. There’s personal growth, career experience, spiritual exploration and all the other juicy things one would hope to encounter in a new place and new phase of life. But I’m not ready to speak on all that just yet.

Areas for Improvement

  1. An ear to the ground—Within my wonderful network of friends, several are long-time New Yorkers with a serious awareness of what’s going on in the city, and others are just naturally in the know. If I tag along with them, I get to enjoy underground concerts, hole-in-the-wall restaurants and secret neighborhoods that I would never have discovered on my own. I’d love to be able to find these myself though, so that I can pass on the knowledge to future newcomers and visitors.
  2. If only I could walk in heels…this would solve the whole “carry nice shoes and wear walkable ones” situation. Alas, I possess zero skill in this arena.
  3. Deep breaths—Patience is not my strong suit and in this fast-paced city, I could stand to cultivate a bit more of it. I need deep breaths for those moments when I’m stuck behind a crowd of people or when public transit fails or when this place doesn’t quite feel like home.

So there you have it: seven lessons learned, three areas for improvement. Maybe we’ll revisit this when my service year is over in August. For now, Happy Monday!

Photo taken in Sunnyside Queens


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What Makes a Building Work?

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One of the shops down the street from me is getting a new façade. The place is boarded up right now, but every day I see construction workers hammering and sawing away inside, giving the building what promises to be a refurbished appearance in a few weeks. I don’t think about architecture very often, yet a project like this gives me pause. It’s the same feeling I get when I stumble across a particularly stunning structure in the middle of the city—a feeling of wonder and curiosity about that decisions that go into the creation of that building. It causes me to consider: what makes a building work?

With such a diversity of architecture in our cities—from hundred-year-old schoolhouses to drab apartment complexes to shiny, new stadiums—I’m struggling with how to best tackle this question, so I think I’ll approach it from the opposite angle first: What indicators can we find that a building isn’t working? Sometimes we recognize instinctually that we don’t like a particular building, from the outside. Perhaps it dominates the street in an overbearing, shadowy manner, or its architecture is so jarring as to be ugly. Or maybe we notice the opposite: It’s a building that seems aged—and not in the charming, historic sense but in the broken-down, outdated, dusty sense. From the interior, we can also perceive the dysfunctionality of a structure. Take, for example, the office buildings that I’m sure we’ve all spent too much time in—the ones located in office parks on the edge of town. As soon as you walk in, you’re met with dark wood or glass paneling, misplaced tropical plants and some strange, awkward piece of artwork. Besides the plants, everything is basically the same color and seems to be arranged in such a way as to make you more depressed with every step, never offering the eyes anything pleasant or attractive to land on. You ride the lonely, claustrophobic elevator up to the eleventh floor where you find bland, carpeted hallways and the ever-present hum of an HVAC system—perfectly mirroring the hallways on every other floor. This building is boring, dreary and monotone. It was built forty years ago for businessmen in maroon suits and it has little relevance now. Continue reading


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City Styles

You only have to visit one new city to realize how much your clothes depend on your location. I’m not just talking about bathing suits in Hawaii and hiking boots in Alaska; I’m talking about the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in dress that we find when we roam between cities, states and regions. The outfits of New Yorkers are definitely not the same as the attire of New Jerseyans. They’re not even the same in the Bronx and Manhatten.

What defines the style of a city? Broadly, dress differs by age and gender—this transcends cities, but I think we can still observe some trends in different places and perhaps point to the origins of such divergences. The Midwest, for instance, is defined by warm coats and boots for much of the year (arguably October through April). Outerwear might range in style but you can be sure that you’ll see a lot of jackets in Chicago, Detroit or Minneapolis. My friend Isabel rocked velvet leggings and a fur coat last January in Minneapolis.
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In Praise of Farmers Markets

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I probably don’t have to tell you what a delightful asset a farmers market can be for a city; I’m sure you’ve already been to one. Maybe even this weekend. At first glance, farmers markets may look like cosmopolitan elitism disguised as a rustic pursuit—the wealthy condo-dweller traipsing down her street to buy fresh cut flowers and blueberries so she can feel distantly connected to rural America (the real America, as Jack Donaghy puts it)—but I think that at the heart of the farmers market we’ll find good intentions and wholesome food.
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The cities that do it right have markets in every neighborhood. Maybe there’s a central plaza downtown where the big dogs set up shop, but there are also smaller gatherings of stands in parking lots throughout the city. A good farmers market has fresh produce, food products like honey and eggs, and prepared foods such as baked treats. Musical acts or cooking demos are a plus too. Continue reading


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Little Kid in the Big City

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I’ve been taking care of two wonderful girls in Minneapolis all summer and through this job I’ve learned about cities from a new perspective. When you’re a kid, the city is an entirely different scene. Everything is bigger, more confusing, but usually more exciting—and we often forget about this viewpoint once we grow up. I highlighted several ideas for free summer fun a few weeks ago and most of those are suitable for children, but here are some specific ideas that I’ve picked up while traversing the city with kids.

Make it bold: Kids are attracted to bright colors and lively music, big splashes and sweet treats. To keep them engaged, you’re going to have to keep your landscape interesting. (Of course, some kids are also scared of loud noises or crowds so know your child.)

Get there a different way: I’ve never met a kid who didn’t like riding the train and—while many of us don’t have easy access to trains in our neighborhoods—any new form of transportation is bound to delight. Take the bus. Try walking. I’ve been impressed with how far my girls can walk without complaint (particularly when there’s the promise of ice cream at the end).

Seek out special events: I mentioned festivals and concerts in this post and those are often a perfect kid-friendly activity, but it’s worth mentioning that libraries, parks, shopping districts and book stores also often sponsor child-centered events.

Mix it up: Do you take the kids to the farmer’s market every weekend? Visit a new one this time. Better yet, visit an actual farm. 

Be mindful of energy: Sometimes I forget that I can walk much faster and farther than the kids I’m in charge of. Pay attention to the endurance of your kids. Plan a reasonable amount of time for a given activity and give them a chance to take a break on a bench, drink water, nap, etc.

Welcome the questions: Children come up with the most outlandish questions when they encounter something new and this is a fantastic opportunity to challenge you own assumptions and learn things. Kids ask how library books are organized and why the lake doesn’t have chlorine in it. They ask why one park is filled with rocks and another with woodchips, or what exactly is inside a bottle of sunscreen. I welcome these teaching moments and sometimes find myself googling the answers when I get home from work.

Stay cool with the kids this summer!


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Facets of a Small Downtown

I’ve been blessed with a lot of travel opportunities this summer, particularly in July. Two weeks ago, I was—as we say in Minnesota—“up north” in Grand Marais, which is about sixty miles from the Canadian border. Next weekend I’ll be in Chicago, IL and Milwaukee, WI visiting family and friends. But last weekend, I took my first solo road trip down to the tiny town of Grinnell, IA to see a close friend who just finished college there.

As I’ve done with previous trips, I collected some urban observations in this new place. Grinnell seemed like a typical Midwestern town. It had a handful of employers (the college and some nearby factories), some fast food joints and gas stations, rows of tree-lined residential streets, several churches, and a quaint, historic city center. Here are a couple features of that small town downtown which seemed prominent and beneficial to the Grinnell community.

The coffee shop

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Doing triple duty as a café, communal gathering place and concert venue, Saint’s Rest coffee shop seemed like the go-to hang-out in Grinnell. I found myself there on a Saturday morning for a bluegrass concert, and I couldn’t have been happier. I hope every town (and every city neighborhood) has a place like this. Continue reading


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Fun for Free

Washington DC's pride parade last summer

Washington DC’s pride parade last summer

It’s getting to those hot hot days of summer, but resist the urge to curl up in your air-conditioned room and venture out into the city instead. Cities (and towns) can provide an awesome array of free activities to occupy your summer days. Here’s a smattering of options:

  1. Cool off with free pools, lakes, and spray zones. Even if the only thing near you is a wading pool, I say go for it.
  2. Unless you live in Washington DC, your nearby museums probably cost a small fortune to visit on a normal day, but if you’re lucky, they have also set aside a day or two out of the month when you can visit for free.
  3. Outdoor movies are becoming more and more popular in cities around the country. They’re usually family friendly events where you simply bring a blanket or a lawn chair and camp out in a local park for a couple hours.
  4. In the same vein, you can often find free outdoor concerts in your city or town.
  5. Every outpost of civilization takes pride in something—whether that’s sweet onions or SPAM—and thus its citizens deem it necessary to hold a festival to honor that item. These festivals usually take place in the summer and unless they’re a huge deal, they won’t charge an entrance fee.
  6. If your city has any sort of community education programs, chances are they offer some free classes and events throughout the summer. Libraries also tend to offer similar programming.
  7. Farmers markets are an excellent place to purchase food, but they’re also quite entertaining sites for people watching, music and sometimes cooking demos—all of which are free.
  8. And of course, with Independence Day tomorrow, you can be sure that your city is offering free fireworks and probably a parade or two as well.