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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A Day in the Life of a Bus Rider

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Want to get healthier, save money, and lower your stress? I have a simple answer for you: Ride the bus. I use the bus in Milwaukee almost every day and it has made me more active and fit, saved me thousands of dollars, and kept me out of hundreds of stressful traffic jams and endless hunts for parking. It also familiarizes me with my city and my fellow residents.

If you haven’t used public transportation much, it can seem really daunting to figure out how to make it work with your life. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard someone say: “The bus system in my city is horrible,” only to later find out that that person has never even ridden the bus! It’s absurd but far too common for Americans to dismiss bussing altogether as a viable transit option. There is a major stigma surrounding bus ridership–that it is only for poor minorities–and that needs to end now.

I’ll be up front here: Public transportation in most cities is woefully inadequate. It serves far too few people and takes far too long to get them where they need to go. However, without riding it, we’ll never figure out ways to fix it and convince our leaders to make that happen. Systems don’t change unless they have buy-in. So today I’m going to walk you through how I use the bus on a given day to get everywhere I need to go. It isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than driving a car.

Here is what a day in my life as a public transit user looks like:

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7:30am  My alarm goes off and I shower, dress, eat cereal and make coffee. Continue reading


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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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Old is New: Inside a Brewery Turned Office Park

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Few urban features make my heart beat faster than a really well-done repurposement project. It’s not so much because I like old-style buildings (although I do), but because I value the positive environmental, cultural and social impact that repurposement has on cities. By transforming a former factory, church, or even gas station* into a new space you cut down on the amount of materials that you would normally need to create a completely new building and you often also undergo the important process of getting an old, potentially dangerous or toxic building up to health and safety codes. Renovation can also preserve iconic spaces and the designs of generations past. This is particularly valuable since historic methods of building often create more lasting, resilient structures which can still benefit us today. Finally, renovation is an important method for creating value and vibrance in an area that might previously have been empty or abandoned.

Thankfully, warehouses transformed into condos or offices are practically a normal feature in most American cities nowadays. Drive through any historic downtown and you’ll find trendy lofts built inside old printing presses or granaries. But there’s so much more you can do with an old building no longer being used for its original purpose. I shared some ideas in this post regarding an empty community center/church down the block from my apartment. The sky (or ceiling) is really the limit when it comes to transforming historic spaces. I’ve seen homes inside old churches, accordion shops inside old White Castles, and elementary schools inside old strip malls.

I want to share a particularly beautiful and well executed repurposement project today. Milwaukee has been the “Brew City” for more than 150 years. Many famous, global beers like Miller, Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon got their start here, paving the way for many more craft breweries to dominate the scene today (including Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company and more). While a few of the large beer producers still have their headquarters here, most have moved on to bigger facilities or transferred ownership, leaving large factories behind. In other cities, perhaps these factories would be knocked down or left to become gigantic racoon palaces, but not here.

When the Schlitz factory closed its doors in 1982 after being sold to the Stroh Brewing Company, a decision had to be made. Wanting to preserve this historic structure but undoubtedly struggling with how to convert such a massive space (40 acres) into something functional, developers eventually settled on an office park to fill the campus anew. Continue reading


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A Life Update

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It’s been too many weeks since I published something on this blog and I miss it. My life has been caught up in work, side projects, planning for the future, and a new kitty. (See above.) Plus I’ve been feeling a tad uninspired, and I’ve been spending more time reading other peoples’ work than writing my own, which is an okay space to fall in sometimes. But since a lot of what I do is relevant to cities, here’s a brief overview of my life right now.

Work

I am extremely fortunate to be working in a field that is basically exactly what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time—helping to end homelessness. I get some direct service interaction with clients, which I truly value, but I also get to do a lot of behind-the-scenes work, which is where I really thrive. I am helping to run a rapid rehousing program (read all about that type of homelessness intervention here, in one of my first ever posts on the blog) in Milwaukee, WI. That means that every day, I help homeless families find apartments, and connect them with funding from the federal and local governments to help them afford to live in those apartments. The goal is that by the end of 12 months in the program, with the help of our case managers,  they will have increased their income enough to afford the apartment on their own. Thus far, we have put more than 40 families in housing, just in the span of 3 months. So naturally, that’s been keeping me pretty busy, especially since the program started from scratch on January 1 of this year. It’s been incredible to see the transformations that a family experiences when they go from living in a homeless shelter to living in their own home. The stability that a home brings is an essential foundation for helping parents to create a better life for their children, not to mention addressing mental health issues, financial struggles and more. In the short span of time that I’ve been working with this program, I’ve had many reflections and new ideas about how to combat homelessness in the future. One of the realizations that has definitely risen to the top is the need for more affordable housing, which I wrote about in a Strong Towns post on Wednesday. More on this topic soon.   Continue reading


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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.

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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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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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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.

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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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The Car Conundrum

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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.

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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.