The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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Rock Your Assets

Lake Michigan Rainbow

This post is about cherishing and celebrating whatever is good in your city. In activist lingo, that goes by the name of “asset-based community development.” Put simply, it’s the idea that when you’re trying to improve your neighborhood, you don’t start out by listing all of its problems–trash in the streets, few local businesses, speeding cars, etc.–but instead, you begin from a place of plenty. You consider what your neighborhood does have going for it right now and build from that. For example, you might have trash in some of your streets, but you might also have a great park that kids love to play in down the block. You might have an active faith community, or families that have been in the neighborhood for decades, or a great art museum… When you start by highlighting your community’s assets, you can build your plan to make it better from those good things. You can rally the faith community to help clean up the streets. You can advertise that museum and get more bike or foot traffic from the surrounding neighborhoods. You can encourage food trucks to hang out at the park.

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One thing I have loved about my new community in Milwaukee is the way we really utilize one of our biggest assets: water. The city sits against miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and it also has a network of rivers running through it. Summer time means thousands of people are creatively enjoying the water in a myriad of ways. Continue reading


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The Promise Zones Initiative

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“A child’s zip code should never determine her destiny.” So reads the webpage for President Obama’s “Promise Zones” initiative, which concentrates financial and community-based resources in five select cities and regions around the country in hopes that it will dramatically invigorate their economies and transform the lives of children who grow up in them. Announced in January of this year (and slated to grow over the next ten years), the initiative targets such varying regions as the Choctaw nation of Oklahoma, several neighborhoods in Los Angeles and the Kentucky highlands. This diversity, combined with its place-based focus, is reason to pay attention to the Promise Zones Initiative, but there are also concerns about its leadership model and the different community entities it aims to unite. I’m going to outline a bit of the history of the “Zones” concept and talk about why it’s such a promising project (forgive the pun).

Promise Zones are modeled after the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was originated in the 1990s by Geoffrey Canada, an activist from the Bronx. As Amanda Erickson at CityLab explains, “Now spread over 90 blocks in Harlem, it takes an intensive and comprehensive approach to child development. At its most basic, the idea is to support children in the neighborhood from the minute they’re born until they leave for college. […] In Harlem, it’s been a wild success.” (Fun fact, I ride through the Harlem Children’s Zone on the bus all the time.) The problem, Erickson argues, is that, “For this model to work in other cities, it would need a similarly passionate, visionary leader.” I think most people can agree President Obama is pretty passionate, but he is not the one leading this initiative on the grassroots level. That will fall to individuals in each of the regions, and time will tell whether their charisma and vision are able to propel their cities toward similar success.

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Now, it’s important to note that similar anti-poverty initiatives have also been created by past presidents. However, Obama’s is different in a couple significant ways. First, and most intriguing in my opinion, is that it concentrates on a handful of significant, yet diverse areas. This is such an important direction to be moving in; it acknowledges that our nation has a long way to go before we can eliminate inequality and economic injustice, yet it makes a concerted effort to determine how we can achieve that goal on a small scale. If it works (and even if it doesn’t), we can learn from the model and figure out how to apply it in other places based on their needs.

That leads me to another fascinating aspect of the Initiative: it is “place-based,” meaning that it’s not attempting to insert a one-size-fits-all solution into every region but rather, targeting resources and allowing each community to direct them. Place-based actions are cropping up in all sorts of arenas, from education to urban development, and that angle makes perfect sense in the context of the Promise Zones, which will require strategies tailored to each location. For instance, Los Angeles, a major metropolis, wants to focus on developing more affordable housing and improving access to transit. On the other hand, rural Kentucky hopes to diversify its economy and build job training skills through local colleges. All of the Promise Zones incorporate education and economic advancement, but they approach these tasks in different, place-based ways that draw on their diverse needs and resources.

Part of what’s exciting about the Initiative is that it intends to draw on the faculties of businesses, housing authorities, schools, nonprofits and developers in order to collaboratively move an area out of poverty. But some people are skeptical about the effectiveness of these entities in tackling the issues. On the one hand, Susan Greenbaum, a professor emerita of Anthropology at the University of South Florida, questions whether private partners could ever be as accountable as public servants are. And on the other hand, Harvard sociologist, Robert Sampson states, “Nonprofits are important but we know from past research that sometimes local organizations get wrapped up in their own agendas and simply surviving as an organization. If so, the public good can fall to the wayside.” How will all these diverse entities work together with their potentially competing priorities? Will profit-driven businesses, funding-driven nonprofits, and process-driven local governments all be able to prioritize the wellbeing of a community over their own struggles? Aiming high is usually better than aiming low, so I applaud Obama’s effort into putting together a holistic, forward-thinking initiative, but we should be realistic about the challenges it might encounter when uniting so many different organizations.

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The final piece in the Promise Zones initiative is, of course, money. The Federal Government plans to support the initiative through tax breaks for local businesses, designated AmeriCorps positions and Federal government staff, and priority in accessing federal resources “where necessary to achieve […] goals.” Critics have argued that this isn’t enough funding to empower the Zones toward success. For one thing, investment per city is only 4% of what went into the wildly successful Harlem Children’s Zone. For another, the Initiative’s combination of tax breaks, staffing and Federal line-jumping, while no doubt innovative, is not the same as cold, hard cash. We’re talking about new housing developments, new education programs, and new public transportation plans in large regions. And none of those are cheap. A reliance on public interest and private investment may not be enough to lift these regions out of poverty.

Nonetheless, I hope it is. The Promise Zones initiative isn’t perfect, but it could help develop future models and it will undoubtedly have a positive impact on the communities it serves in some manner. I’ll be keeping an eye on these diverse areas and following their place-based strategies with an optimistic attitude. They’re a step in the right direction.


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Not in My Backyard

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Things might be a little slow around here for a few weeks because I split open my hand after I tripped during a run and now it’s all stitched up and in a cast. Luckily it wasn’t my writing hand, but it still makes typing a challenging endeavor. Today’s will be a short post.

I won’t name names, but there’s a plan to put in a new apartment complex near my office and some people in the neighborhood are livid. The grounds upon which the apartments will stand are currently an empty lot and the owners badly need the money in order to keep the doors of their other community operations open, but the complainers mention things like “sight-lines” to a historic building next door and vague notions of “preserving space” in their arguments against the development.

It’s as if they want the whole city to stand still and stay exactly the way it’s always been (yet magically find the money to keep those other community resources functioning). For what reason? I understand these arguments in circumstances where direct harm will come to a family or a community through the creation of a new development, but arguing against shadows on the sidewalk is just ridiculous.

This resistance to change falls loosely under the category of “NIMBYism.” N.I.M.B.Y. stands for “Not In My BackYard” [feel free to skip this paragraph if you’re already familiar with the concept] and NIMBYism is the attitude of citizens who raise objections to any sort of update or change in their neighborhood. They complain about the affordable housing that is proposed on their street. They attend community meetings in order to shoot down the new bar or restaurant that wants to move in. Their attitude is: “Sure, it might benefit another area of town, but not mine. Keep mine the way it is.”

I don’t think that labels are a solution in themselves (and they’re often actually a problem), but in this case, knowing how to call it when you see it can encourage critical questioning and awareness. What’s really at stake here? Why are some people so insistent on freezing a neighborhood or a city or a building in time? What are they afraid of?


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Interview: Anna’s Word on Detroit

My cousin Anna is an inspiration for a lot of people, and one of the ways she inspires me is through her activism for racial reconciliation and economic justice. She spent the past two summers in Detroit for that very reason, and I told a bit of her story last month. In today’s interview, Anna digs deep on the causes and effects of Detroit’s economic struggles, as well as potential paths forward. Sincere thanks to Anna for sharing these powerful words.

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Q: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

A: I grew up in a suburb about 15 minutes outside of the city of Detroit, called Farmington. The past two summers, between my semesters at school in Chicago, I have lived in Detroit, in an impoverished neighborhood in the heart of the city. It’s been eye-opening to see the differences in resources and opportunity between the city I grew up in an where I’ve been living. I was privileged to go to a high school where I was well prepared for college, when right next door in Detroit, there is a graduation rate of just under 65%. Besides education, there are stark differences in employment opportunities, racial demographics, public services, police activity and access to fresh food.

Q: Can you describe your neighborhood in Detroit?

A: The Detroit neighborhood I lived in is ridden with abandoned homes and buildings. Before I lived here, I had never seen a place with paralleled vacancy. There are only a few businesses, and since the city itself is lacking in adequate public transportation and businesses that would offer jobs, there is not a lot of opportunity for people. But in the midst of this struggle, people fight on. There is also a sense of community that I’ve never experienced before. There are regular neighborhood gatherings, and it is common to see many people gathering together on porches and in parks. People in my neighborhood love being together, and they welcome each other, and that is something that was less prevalent in the community I grew up in.

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Q: What did you do in Detroit?

A: Both summers I have been working for a Christian community development corporation that creates affordable housing, runs parenting and homeownership classes, helps start small businesses, provides affordable produce, runs many programs for children and youth and more. During the summer, their main youth program is a day camp for kids in the city, which is a way for kids to have fun, be safe, eat hot meals, learn, and experience the city while they are out of school. The day camp is also an employment opportunity for teens in the city. I spent most of my time in this area, specifically helping with the children’s activities in the organization’s community gardens. Continue reading


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What’s the deal with “development”?

from last year's visit to an at the Chicago Art Institute on the Studio Gang Architects

from last year’s visit to an exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute on the Studio Gang Architects

This blog is partially about urban development and I think it’s pretty clear by now what “urban” means—of or pertaining to cities.* But what about “development”? We hear talk of community development. People advocate for development in the Third World. We see plans for neighborhood re-development (often viewed as a codeword for gentrification). For some people, development suggests positive outcomes and hope for the future, while other people understand development as overreaching, unnecessary or coercive action. Because of this disconnect, I want to weigh the diverse definitions of the term and varying responses to its implementation.

To begin with, proponents of development argue that it signifies progress and greater equality. For them, development is the new façade on a dilapidated building repurposed for use in a community. Development is internet access in remote villages of South Africa and indoor plumbing in the slums of Cairo. Development means improvement, renovation, democratization. And how can we argue against a rise in living standards, a lessening of the massive inequality in our world? Continue reading