Ex-Urban: Losing My (Urban) Religion

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Walking home from breakfast one recent Saturday, I ran into a neighbor.  He was up on a ladder pruning some trees.  An ex-Mayor of San Antonio, he began much of the downtown revitalization years ago that the mayors have henceforth continued.

We exchanged our normal small talk before he asked about the sale of our home, listened to my horror stories about getting appraised in line with the market, and then asked me that horrific question that seems to cut me every time it’s asked.

“So where are you moving?”

I feel my shoulders slump as I explain how we’re going to be outside the outer loop, trading in our charming craftsman for a charmless box in a row of identical charmless boxes. He tries to avoid looking disappointed in our choice and I hedge with some vague mumbling about schools (he chairs the inner-city school board so I abandon that line of reasoning quickly), we agree to continue our days independently.

I walk away, feeling like a sellout - again.  Every conversation with the established folks in the neighborhood (the city Chief of Staff down the street, local business owners) leaves me feeling like I’ve decided to abandon something transcendent.

(In truth, with most of the decision being related to area schools, almost all of the folks who leave me feeling this way are either wealthy enough to afford private school or lack school-age kids altogether.)

It was in walking away from the ex-Mayor that I realized why it always felt so defeating to leave. 

Inner-city living (especially in the areas that are pre-gentrification) is a religion.  It requires faith and hope in something that has yet to arrive - namely a stable, safe community on an upward economic trajectory.  We have to suspend disbelief that the schools are a repellent, see graffiti-soaked buildings as redevlopment opportunities rather than eyesores, and allow that higher crime, street dogs, and random gunshots are part of the righteous persecution we face as adherents to this special faith.

We believe in a better future and we are trained to see suburban outsiders not as folks with greater economic sense or different cultural preferences, but as people with insufficient faith to enjoy the fullness of life near the center-city. They simply lack the will to endure the lack of services or retail options. They simply can’t appreciate the intricacies of life in the midst of decay. In reality, they simply live in a different life circumstance, enjoy something less gritty, and are just as beholden to the real-estate realities of the modern sunbelt (hint: schools drive everything).

So maybe the suburbanites aren’t missing the point after all. Maybe they’re just a different denomination, a separate, more-mainstream sect of the same faith. And maybe urbanites aren’t some set apart people, brimming with righteousness around every crumbling corner. Maybe they’ve just been granted the freedom to experiment for a bit longer than those who left long ago.

All that said, there are reasons that the religion that is inner-city living has trapped so many in it’s spell. The reason it hurts to leave so much is partially tied to how much we enjoy the lifestyle. Walking to breakfast, taking mass transit to cultural events, and being part of the countercultural movement towards urban life are all strong narcotics. Not strong enough to keep us from leaving, I suppose.  And not strong enough to dull the sting of packing the house for the move.

Perhaps it’ll be just strong enough to bring us back in a couple of decades. Maybe we can earn back our place at the altar…

Brace for MPACT

In politics, it is said that there is no such thing as an off-year. Unfortunately, on the American Left, we have failed to live up to that creed. We often find ourselves getting involved every four years or in two-year intervals, at best. MPACT (Member Policy and Campaign Teams) is seeking to change that in a big way, across the country.

MPACT is a nationwide nonprofit that will support year-round, issue-based local and national organizing efforts across the socio-economic spectrum — from underserved populations of color, to all low-income rural, suburban and exurban communities.

Three of the brightest stars from the 2016 Race for the White House are joining forces to create a vehicle for national political activism. Former State Sen. Nina Turner (D-Cleveland), Dr. Cornel West, and Activist/Entertainer Killer Mike, along with Bernie Sanders campaign staffers bring their prodigious talents to bear for the greater good. Senator Turner, Dr. West, and Killer Mike span three generations of activism and politics. They may be the best examples of American Prophetic Fire in public life today. With the exception of the remarkable voice-of-the-voiceless Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II of North Carolina. It is all but assured that Rev. Barber will be involved in North Carolina, in this writer’s humble opinion.

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Screwing Over Urban America: Why the GOP's Top Contenders Hate Cities | News & Politics | AlterNet

The Republican presidential primary has covered significant ground. Against a backdrop of Iowan cornfields, candidates have debated socialism, capitalism, immigration and American exceptionalism, and have even touched on the finer points of Shariah law and the Federalist Papers. One thing you don’t hear about is America’s cities and the ongoing, and growing, urban crisis.

There are some oblique references, like Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that child labor laws be modified so that poor children can work as school janitors. “Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods,” mused Gingrich, “have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works … They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”

Gingrich’s comment is a surviving dog-whistle politics that include new state laws to drug-test those on public assistance and the ongoing effort to cut food stamps (and Gingrich did call Obama the “food stamp president”). The specter of the black ghetto still scripts urban dwellers as villains (often as thieves robbing the citizen either directly, or as in this Rick Santorum comment, indirectly: “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them other people’s money”). But unlike the era of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, today cities are more ignored than attacked. And this goes well beyond Iowa.

“The core of the Republican constituency in metropolitan America are the growing, racially and economically exclusive ‘outer suburbs’ whose privileged status Republicans seek to protect at all costs,” says former mayor of Albuquerque David Rusk, now a consultant. He cited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as an exemplar of the trend.

Today’s Republican candidates are rarely city-dwellers.

Gingrich owns a Northern Virginia cul-de-sac mansionette that “tends toward the ornate” and includes a master bath entirely covered in mirrors, according to a recent New York Times article on candidate homes. Rick Perry moved into a high-end gated community in exurban Austin, Texas, while the governor’s mansion was under construction. Michele Bachmann lives in a McMansion with a builder’s description that “reads like a synonym finder for nouveau suburban glory, touting the home’s arched stone entry, hand-scraped walnut plank flooring, and a fully paneled library with see-through fireplace.”

Romney rose to the pinnacle of Massachusetts politics from the leafy and high-end Boston suburb of Belmont, where he had a bathroom with “vaulted ceilings and a soaking tub some might mistake for a lap pool,” a residence “heavy on cream-colored upholstery crowded with pillows. The curtains are pleated so precisely you might think they were styled by Mr. Romney’s barber.” The house, until recently one of four owned by Romney, has now been sold.

While Romney’s father, George Romney, served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in PresidentNixon’s administration, the candidate has said nothing in particular about cities. As with so many other things, Romney once had a different opinion. According to The New Republic, he was a devotee of smart growth during his years in the governor’s mansion — transit-oriented development and anti-sprawl measures included. “We don’t want to become like Houston,” said Romney. “Not that there’s anything wrong with Texas.”

The neglect of the cities can be traced back a half-century to the apogee of mid-20th-century American liberalism. In the 1950s and 1960s, the captains of municipal state, flush with federal funds and armed with great confidence in modern planning and architecture, bulldozed miles of “blighted” neighborhoods (often non-white) and rammed highways through the centers of many American cities. The feverish remaking of the cities was a desperate attempt to compete against the suburbs and woo back the middle class, which had departed thanks to the federal dollars propping up millions of (whites only) mortgages and miles of highways. Tragically, it was the liberal federal government’s funding of suburban homes and highways, and bulldozer-heavy urban renewal programs, that paved the way for Nixon and Reagan’s abandonment. Black people and the left were suspicious, the rising conservative tide was contemptuous, and politicians changed the subject. So, then, went the neighborhood.

It was from these very suburbs that modern conservatism arose, then proceeded to wage war on the city. In 1964, Orange County suburbanites reaping the benefits of government-financed defense jobs mobilized against fair housing legislation, and for their Sun Belt champion, Barry Goldwater. Nixon’s more successful 1968 silent majority was a suburban one, legitimating the postwar success “earned” by white elites. He promised protection against school busing, and promised that they were not, like George Wallace’s rural poor disciples, bigots. Just because suburban conservatives had backed off from de jure segregation doesn’t mean they wouldn’t attack urban blacks: take, again, Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen.” Save for Buffalo congressman, H.W. Bush HUD secretary, and 1996 vice-presidential nominee Jack Kemp, cities would get little Republican attention. In the two decades since the Los Angeles riots, urban issues are more often ignored. Concerns and paranoias now seem more abstract or diffuse: Shariah law, or the Mexican day laborer in the parking lot of your local Home Depot.

On the policy level, Reagan’s 1980s cutbacks were followed by modest and private-sector-focused initiatives under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. The programs, dubbed “enterprise zones” under Bush and “empowerment zones” under Clinton, were a clear repudiation of the direct government intervention that characterized Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society. Whether prompted by resignation or opportunism, urban policy now caters to business-minded solutions: tax abatements and special service districts to encourage downtown development, and a fervent belief that young “creative class” professionals (think Portland, Ore., as national role model) and tourism (think Baltimore’s Inner Harbor) could serve as the foundation for a new urban economy.

“Republicans saw little gain by reaching out to minority voters (the quixotic efforts of GOP maverick Jack Kemp excepted) and Democrats feared that if they put too much effort into solving urban problems,” says University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Sugrue, “they would reinforce their image as the party of ‘special interests.’”

President Obama has encouraged smart growth and regional cooperation between cities and suburbs, but the efforts have been fiscally and politically modest, and far from high-profile.One promising initiative has HUD, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency participating in a tri-agency Partnership for Sustainable Communities, which Rusk calls “an important initiative in re-orienting federal ‘urban policy’” toward metro-wide solutions. But he criticizes the Obama administration for being “much too cautious in setting their requirements” and called the $100-50 million in annual funding “a pittance compared with the $145 billion that the three federal agencies give out in annual grants-in-aid to state and local governments.”

h/t: Alternet

(ex)Urban: Suburban Culture Shock

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“We are not from here…”

We spent much of Friday morning in the suburban house of our choosing.  We have an accepted offer and our inspector was out making sure that the house was not money pit and that it was, as it appeared, just as sturdy and wonderful as all of the other house on the street WHICH LOOK EXACTLY THE SAME.

Even in a few hours in this different environment, I felt a bit…unfamiliar?  Out of place?  Foreign?  Yes, that’s it.  Foreign.

We have become inner city people.  Between Austin, Africa, and San Antonio, I have now spent the majority of the last TWELVE years living in generally urban, walkable environments.

The roads in our future suburb feel different.  The school-children run around freely (although they are tracked at a distance by helicopter-moms).  People look different, dress differently, and (likely) think differently than we do - for now. To paint the picture: I drive a Yaris, don’t own cowboy boots, and may have been the first male to wear man-capris in this wonderfully friendly (and incredible conservative) hamlet outside the outer loop.

I am sure I’ll have a Canyonero, boots, and one of those vented fishing shirts soon (soon = probably never), so let’s hope I don’t become the victim of the first man-capri related hate crime in history before then.

The way that culture shock works (both in my own experience and from research) is that, basically, after a few frustrating ups and downs, the human being eventually adapts and assimilates to whatever cultural situation they’re dropped in. 

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This bodes well for the family and the next 20 years of life that await us in the foreign lands of suburbia.  The hinterlands will not be quite so weird once we’ve been grafted into the culture better.

Of course, I am not exactly anxious to trade my love for the more urban setting.  Perhaps we can merely become accepting of the new environ and quietly look forward to that spot in the graph (after the dotted line on the right) where the line shows us again returning to our native (urban) culture.

(ex)Urban: No Snakes in the City and The War to Come

I hate snakes.

I don’t know if it’s an irrational fear, some sort of repressed childhood trauma, or the result of a deep, holy desire to avenge man’s defeat to the wily serpent in the oft-cited historical Battle at Eden.  (Wait, that isn’t an historical battle?  It’s a biblical thing? Oh, didn’t know that…thanks.)

No matter, I hate snakes.

And I love the city.  Perhaps I love the city in some small way because of a simple undeniable reason: There are no snakes in the city.  (Admittedly, that cannot be true, but who cares what science and facts might say…you don’t see snakes crawling down 5th Ave next to the Burberry Store, so they don’t exist.)

In walking through the house we’re aiming to buy, I had the great fortune of running across this ridiculous creature.

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What’s that? A Texas Rat Snake?  And it is 5 feet long? And it lives in my prospective garage?  

Swear Word.

Freaking fantastic.

As if it wasn’t hard enough to move from the charming inner city hood we’re in to the sanitized suburb out yonder, now I have to do a full on inspection of every nook and cranny for evil, crawling beasts?

I didn’t think it would be an easy process to become and ex-urbanite.  I never thought that I’d be warring against snakes as part of the deal.

Welcome to the exurbs, I suppose. 

Time to go to war.

America: This Is Your Future
What's the country really going to look like in 30 years? Get ready for older, more diverse, and new tensions about who gets what. By DANA GOLDSTEIN

Barack Obama roared onto the political stage in 2004 with a speech many Americans found soothing. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he said. “There’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America. The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states. … We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.”

Twelve years later, the Obama era is ending with a lesson—taught by Donald Trump—in how deep political divisions of race and geography remain. The electoral map that emerged on Nov. 8 looked like a sea of red speckled with islands of blue. Hillary Clinton won the cities and close-in suburbs where affluent professionals, millennials and people of color are clustered. Donald Trump prevailed in the farther-flung suburban, exurban and rural places where residents are disproportionately white and aging.

It will take a long time to fully understand why this election turned out the way it did. But part of it, undeniably, has to do with anxiety about how America is changing. Some voters idealized a picture they grew up with, in which culture and politics were dominated by a white Christian majority. They found a voice for their disorientation in Trump’s rhetoric and his promises that he could restore an older vision of the country.

Demographic change, however, is not a force that is easy to halt — and as American leaders and policymakers grapple with the country’s real challenges and political trajectory, it’s the actual face of Future America they’ll need to deal with, not an imagined one. It might sound unknowable, a kind of crystal-ball exercise with numbers, but in many ways the picture is already becoming clear. The big trend lines in our population are powerful and hard to budge. The next official snapshot will arrive in the form of the 2020 Census, which experts project will show an America becoming slightly less white and more diverse: white Americans will likely make up 2 percent less of the population than they did in 2015, while Hispanic Americans will make up 1.5 percent more. Asian Americans, foreign-born Americans, and those who identify as multiracial will all make up a larger share of the country, while the black population will hold steady.

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(ex)Urban: Luminaria and Culture Loss

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Someone, quick…take a poll.

Of the total number of people that attended this year’s Luminaria (only 315,000 this year), I want to know how many were residents that came from more than 10 miles from downtown. 

I want to know because I didn’t want to go.  Life has been exhausting recently and I would be preaching Sunday, meaning a restful Saturday night carried more weight than normal. And a night of downtown crowd-fighting (while fun) did not sound like rest.

The argument that won me over sounded something like this:

“We live five minutes away.  If we love it - great.  If we need to bail, we hop in the car and are home in no time.”

Hmm…  Hard to argue.

So what happens next year, when we live 25 minutes away?  How does distance affect the willingness to get out and get knee-deep in culture?

One of my great fears of suburbia, of becoming ex-urban, is that the attractive things that happen in the city will, slowly and with great subtlety, become less attractive in direct proportion to their declining convenience.

If I am not careful, it will be a quiet loss, as no amount of Dora the Explorer can replace a life-size illuminated Pac-Man scene or bizarre, glowing, outlandish street performers.  The city, for it’s many flaws, stretches the imaginations of me and my kid.

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The gas company that says it can take your backyard

NORTH STRABANE, Pa. — For more than a decade, the country around Ronald and Sallie Cox’s home, 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, has been an unchanging landscape of rolling green foothills. Sitting atop a modest promontory, their property is ringed on three sides by a border of woodland, and to the east, the ground slopes down into a neighbor’s horse paddocks.

The Coxes built their home in 2001, and they’ve paid to maintain their enviable slice of exurban Pennsylvania. When Ronald, a financial adviser at Prudential, grew fed up with the way his wraparound backyard deck shifted every time he sat down for an evening drink, he spent around $30,000 to rip it out and replace it. You could probably land a plane on the new one, he jokes.

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Photo: Julia Wilkinson / Delaware County Daily Times