urban studies

The worst urban studies student ever……

My freshly minted college degree includes a concentration in urban studies.

While I have no plans at the moment to become an urban planner, I’ve always felt that many of urban studies’ core ideas — about the ways we live and the demographic groups that define us — were deeply relevant for the 21st century and are applicable to just about every industry and every part of our country.  I found that it encompassed many of the things I’d been writing about for years, the changes in how we live and work.

In my personal life, I’d been doing a lot of things we’d discussed in class. I have never owned a car and, perhaps more shockingly, have never held a license to drive. I’ve walked or taken public transportation for most of my life, and I always lived in the core of a city, so I could have an existence that allowed for walking and mass transit.

Three years ago, my partner and I bought a home in the middle of a neighborhood close to Chicago’s Loop.

Our neighborhood (the West Loop) has growing density, a great walkability score, access to multiple channels of mass transit, two parks within a few blocks, and more restaurants and nightclubs than I can count.

Yes, it's true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

Yes, it’s true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

There’s only one thing: I’m really unhappy living here.

Some of the things that I’ve always endorsed? Are driving me crazy.

I am the worst urban studies student EVER.

The biggest negative impact for me has been noise pollution. While we live in a nice building, literally every flat space surrounding us has been under construction for three years. THREE. YEARS. That’s three years of not being able to sleep past 6 a.m., of constant drilling and hammering and bulldozers and cranes.

A new company has moved into a neighboring commercial building (formerly part of Harpo Studios), and promptly installed a motion alarm on their parking gate that I am pretty sure can be heard in Aurora. Possibly in space.

Indeed, our neighborhood is BOOMING. Google’s Chicago headquarters are moving just a few blocks north. A hotel is opening just east of us, and many of the small, nondescript factory spaces dotting the West Loop are being snapped up by developers. A company called Sterling Bay has, to a large degree, bought the West Loop and is now developing its use.

Of course, beyond the noise, which feels as if it will never end, many of the issues that are emerging show the wisdom of good urban planning and the repercussions that happen when it’s absent. It’s nearly impossible to cross Madison Street now with the boom in traffic, and lack of pedestrian crosswalks near us.

Parking has become a huge issue. The West Loop, like the South Loop and Andersonville, desperately needs a dedicated parking area. Instead, patrons who think nothing of spending $200 at a Restaurant Row eatery or at a Blackhawks game will insist on parking for free on one of our streets. (With car alarms set to stun; the West Loop is a symphony of sounding car alarms every day.)

Parking in the city is its own nightmare (Google Chicago parking meter deal)  but I’ve never understood why parking doesn’t come *before* or *as part of* planning here. There’s a huge, hulking half-built building at the west end of the West Loop that would be perfect to retrofit into a neighborhood park house, with shuttles running up and down Randolph.

Residential development has been the main part of the boom thus far, but as commercial development continues, a conflict is emerging between the two camps. I haven’t seen any movement to define patches of the West Loop as solely residential or commercial. We’ll have two rooftop bars opening soon near us – far closer to residences than they should be.

The other main irritant hits a little closer to home.

In my mind, I always thought that living in close quarters with your neighbors would lead to that kind of engaged community, where neighbors became friends, where people socialized and looked after one another.

A few homeowner’s association meetings have disabused me of that notion.

With precious few exceptions, our neighbors create more drama than Downton Abbey, and are guilty of more metaphorical backstabbing and bloodshed than Game of Thrones. It’s a toxic batch of entitlement and manipulation. (While we’re on the pop culture references, the most entitled and manipulative ones bring to mind Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

There’s still much to be said for sustainable urban living, and I haven’t changed my stance on those ideas, those policies.

I think it might just be that we’re outgrowing this place. This neighborhood is becoming a huge cluster for clubs and nightlife, and will be a fast-paced hub for twentysomethings. My twenties are a bit in the rearview mirror for me, though.

My partner and I want something quieter and calmer for our next home, and will likely move out of Chicago to find it. But I think we’ll be sticking with urban settings, or the “cosmoburb,” where access to walking paths, bike paths and mass transit still exist.

Of course, I also know that I’m ridiculously lucky. Lucky to have a home, lucky to have a choice to leave a place that isn’t a good match.

We’re in Chicago, where bad planning and years of discriminatory zoning and lending policies have created neighborhoods where basic life, liberty and safety are harrowingly hard to come by. Lots of people don’t have the choices we do to change neighborhoods, or to move at all.

Rahm Emanuel has followed in the footsteps of the Daleys, enacting or sustaining policies that stand in the way of evolution or change for disadvantaged neighborhoods. 2014 feels a lot like 1974 in some of these neighborhoods. It feels impossible to effect change here.

Hopefully, our next home will be in a place where we can take advantage of good planning and great living space — but also contribute to our community, where we can become advocates for everyone who lives there.

I’m going to brainstorm about this right now! You might not be able to hear me, though, with the noise in the background…….

 

Intro: The Metro Stories

Welcome to The Metro Stories!

As we start 2013, I’m launching a new blog to write about the future of the cities and suburbs where we live and work. I want to examine the ways we build communities and connections, and rethink how we’ve traditionally grown and expanded our use of the land around us.

I also have a special interest in how we can reuse and find new purposes for space we’ve already developed. Many of these areas are considered “the rust belt,” and had been written off at the end of the twentieth century. But interesting things are happening in these communities, and I’m hoping to bring those things to light.

WHO AM I?

I’m a writer and journalist. Although I’ve technically always been a writer, my freelance career started about seven years ago. I wrote freelance pieces for newspapers and magazines, and also served a stint as a staff writer for an Internet job site.

My career and my life has followed an unconventional (and divergent) path, and in 2011, I decided to return to college. I’d hit the pause button on my prior stint in college, promising to return after a “short break.” That short break gave way to well over a decade of climbing the ladder and eventually carving out a pathway in the corporate world. I worked for banks (one) and insurance companies (two).

I’ve developed an interest in urban studies and planning because (a) it covers so much of what I was already writing about thematically, and (b) it encompasses SO MUCH of what we need to think about and plan for our futures: education, energy resources, infrastructure, transportation, housing, food sources and our economies, for starters.

THE METRO STORIES

So here’s the thing: I’m still learning about the issues and the history of urban studies and urban planning. There are many talented people who write about urban planning issues, and can amass and interpret amazing amounts of data and statistics. I’m not quite there yet.

What I CAN offer is my skills as a writer and a storyteller, and my own experiences. My family hails from one of the rustiest Rust Belt cities around (Johnstown, Pennsylvania) and I spent my childhood in a suburb of Pittsburgh. I’ve lived in many places in the Rust Belt and elsewhere, and I bring that perspective to this blog.

This is my writing and my work, but I also hope that some of these posts will become a conversation, and I welcome comments, questions and debates.

The great Madison debate

Don’t you have the feeling sometimes that all the fun stuff happens after you leave a party? I swear, my timing is off.

I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for five years. It was peaceful and tranquil – but once I leave? All hell broke loose!

First, the election of Scott Walker and the subsequent political controversy shakes Madison to its core and brings thousands of people to the Capitol grounds for months. I’m not sure it that was really “fun,” but it was certainly eventful.

More recently, there’s been a spirited debate happening about the pros and cons of life in Madison.

The catalyst was an article in a newly launched magazine (with a primary focus on Minneapolis and the surrounding region). Writer Frank Bures, a Madison expat, wrote an article for the magazine Thirty Two, about Professor Richard Florida’s ideas about the “creative class” and how that new cultural class is reshaping our economy and our cities.

Before I go any farther, let me be clear about a few things: Madison is an acquired taste, and I definitely acquired it in my time there. There is much I like about the city. The people can be ridiculously kind and polite to each other. Clerks in the grocery stores and shops were so warm and friendly I was half-convinced they were flirting with me. The outdoor spaces in the area are magnificent.

Professor Florida included Madison in his list of creative class strongholds. And that’s what much of Bures’ article is about – that while conceptually Madison should have had a vibrant economic and artistic culture, attracting new people and new energy, the reality of Madison was quite different.

A new flow of students and newly elected politicians may bring energy to the polar ends of State Street, but much of the rest of Madison is a very traditional town and a very insular one. Many of the people I worked with had grown up in and around Madison, attended high school and college there, met and married their spouses there, and were raising children there – and so had their parents and grandparents. Those are great things, but substantially different than what Bures expected – and what I’d expected, too.

How insular of a town? Hell, I’m a self-confessed introvert and I had connections to almost everyone mentioned in Bures’ article. Including Bures himself.

  • I was in a class Bures taught about how to market your freelance work. (It was part of the University of Wisconsin’s continuing education class offerings and ran for two weeks.)
  • One of the first people I ever interviewed as a freelance writer in Madison? Penelope Trunk. I talked to her by phone on an article about Madison. My editor killed her comments as she was, at that time, a contributing writer to a competitor’s site. She was a memorable interview.
  • I’d even – for a whole two seconds – met Jamie Peck, the former UW professor mentioned in the article. (A friend of mine was a professor as well and had a neighboring office in the science hall.)
  • Look to the left of this post – see the blogroll? You’ll see two names – Bures and Trunk – that have been part of this blogroll pretty much since I launched this back in 2009 (though I haven’t spoken with or corresponded with either in years).

One of the best things about Madison – the Farmer’s Market

Those are not unusual connections in Madison. It’s a tightly knit community and that’s true for all professions.

All the artists and writers know each other. Before a lot of outside money and outside influence came into Wisconsin politics, those folks also  had known each other for years.

I never felt unwelcome in Madison, but I was also never part of the inner circle, and never spoke the shorthand that everyone already knew. And that does make a difference. It made it very challenging to make friends. Bures’ descriptions of some of the people he met in Madison are very accurate.

Madison claims to appreciate diversity on paper, but in many cases it’s less a true appreciation of differences and more of a celebration (but not necessarily acceptance) of eccentricity. There are many colorful street people and musicians in Madison and people acknowledge them – but they’re not quite welcoming them into their homes, or breaking bread with, say, the Piccolo Man.

And for a town that celebrates diversity on paper, it’s unwelcoming to many African-Americans; I’ve seen the body language of people on State Street when an African-American is present and it speaks volumes. The segregation in Madison is just as vivid as it is in Chicago.

One of the biggest challenges for me when I lived there was that Madison was not a very fun place to be single. As a member of the LGBT community, it was even more challenging, but the reasons that Madison’s single scene was such an uphill battle are pretty universal – the dating pool is remarkably small and many good candidates in any age range are usually married and raising a family. Those strong family ties also meant that many people are caring for – and living with – their parents, which doesn’t always make for a positive in the dating world!

Bures makes a number of points in his essay (worth a read at the link above) but in essence, he says Florida’s theory about cause and effect of the creative class being the economic engine of any city (including Madison) just isn’t so.

I’m just starting to explore urban studies as a field, so I can’t speak to theory with any authority. And I found a great deal of thought provoking content when I read Professor Florida’s book Rise of the Creative Class several years ago. I look forward to exploring these ideas much more in my studies this years. (NOTE: Florida responded to this article in an in-depth letter, which prompted a counter response by Bures.)

Yeah…I don’t quite get it, either.

There’s a whole other realm of discussion about Madison in the context of urban studies – and I could fill a whole separate blog post with that debate.

There’s much to discuss about Madison’s growing suburban sprawl, as well as the lack of sensible public transit options and the utter failure that happened when previous attempts were made to have a discussion about those options.

Transit planning isn’t happening when a major artery in and out of the city still has an active and busy rail crossing running on it, blocking traffic for up to a half an hour some mornings. (They’ve redone and rebuilt the road a number of times but apparently never thought to put a bridge or tunnel on the road or the tracks so that the east side didn’t come to a complete halt.)

And while the height limit for buildings close to the Capitol is appreciated to maintain a view of the Square, density is desperately needed, particularly as the east side of Madison starts to evolve.

But I will say that I believe Bures’ essay is spot on in many ways. One of his more stinging comments is that Madison is a “giant suburb with a university in the middle.” I’d say that Madison’s biggest strength is State Street, bordered by Capitol Square to the east and the university to the west.

Both the university and the state jobs bring in college-educated workers, many with PhD’s, and an economic engine that attracts new infusions of capital – monetary capital and human capital – all the time. The influx of students and their energy and enthusiasm in pursuing a degree and a profession add fuel to that formula. Much of the rest of Madison is, in many ways, a cluster of suburbs sprouting up around the isthmus.

The reaction to Bures’ essay has been mixed. I never saw it as an indictment of Madison as a place or of its people – more as a critique of Florida’s theory vs. the reality of the city – but nonetheless some Madisonians are taking it personally.

When I first read the response of Brennan Nardi, an editor at Madison Magazine, I felt that her narrative came across as patronizing, and her knee-jerk response was utterly predictable, topped off by the dismissive comment, “Unless you are extraordinary, you have to actively pursue the good life, not passively expect it to find you.” Thanks, Mom!

But Nardi makes some solid points in her rebuttal, and the main one is one that has been overlooked by just about everyone: Madison isn’t that flush economically. It’s still a mid-sized town in a state that, like every other state, is facing budget shortfalls. Madison is an affordable place, but many of the best neighborhoods to live in thrive on their offbeat charm and old housing stock. Fresh financial investment is more rare than people think in Madison.

Overestimating the wealth, the need and the growth potential of Madison is a pitfall that the city’s fallen into twice now, with the building of Monona Terrace and the Overture Center. They’re great buildings in great spaces, but questions exist about their sustainability and whether Madison will ever have enough need to fill the cavernous space of those halls – or enough business to sustain them for the long run.

And the local job market can, at times, be as tranquil and sedate as the city itself. Nardi notes (correctly) that many in cultural fields can max out on opportunities or salary. Jobs are just not that plentiful in Madison, for any industry. State jobs and university jobs are rare and it’s a super-competitive process to land one. And if a professor is hired at UW, their spouse has to find a job in Madison too, and so on.

Madison is an interesting, unique space, and I still cherish my time living there. But it’s not Nirvana. Then again, there are pros and cons about every city I’ve ever lived in. Textbook theory may be a useful tool, but in the end you have to dig deeper to find out what place works for you.

EDITED TO ADD: Bures wrote another related essay here. To me, this relates in many ways to much of what I’ve posted about recently, including the career and job searching posts I’ve written and the recent debate about the value of music and downloading, and how musicians make a sustainable living. There’s a definite change and evolution happening in how we look at where we live and how we make a living.

The geography of jobs

I’ve been a feature writer for almost a decade, and for a brief blink of an eye, I wrote for a Web site about jobs and careers.

I still find it an interesting field and one that connects in some way to everyone.

This fall, I’m taking classes in urban studies, and jobs are definitely a key element in understanding why people live in cities and suburbs.

When I was a staff writer for that Web site, I worked with a great manager/editor and really talented writers, and although the content was accessible (and easy to read), we put a lot of hard work into what we wrote.

But even with that research and all our great intentions, many of our articles carried an unintended but obvious bias: we were writing for white-collar readers who lived and worked in larger cities and larger job markets.

Yes, we wrote about blue collar jobs, jobs that didn’t require a degree and work for people who were beginners, part-time workers, older workers and interns. But our demographic was primarily young white-collar college grads, and we delivered.

I’ve lived in Chicago for four years now, and I admit to some collective amnesia about some of the other places I’ve lived and other jobs I’ve had. But a recent trip reminded me of how different the job market – and the art of establishing and sustaining a career – really is in other areas.

Perhaps the most vivid example for me was a recent visit my partner and I made to a lakeside community. The town had a bustling boardwalk area – fun and frentic, with a mixture of shops and little ramshackle restaurants where people could eat dinner or have some candy or ice cream.

We walked by one of the more famous places on the stroll, and I sat outside as we waited for food. From my vantage point, I could see the staff working. And their segregation – and interactions – were in some ways very chilling to me, even on a hundred-degree day.

The workers, all college age or younger, were grouped together. The female employees were all up front, essentially there to wordlessly deliver food to the customers with a smile. They were not allowed to take orders.

The young men gathered around the grill and clearly had an ‘alpha male’ attitude. In the short time that I sat and waited, their body language – and the rude, unflattering things they said to the young women working – told me all I needed to know about the hierarchy there.

And then, off to the side, ignored by both groups, was the sole “diverse” face in the group, a young African-American girl.

I realize I’m making a judgement about a place I saw for maybe five minutes. But something about this haunted me. The place had been open for 60 years and something told me that very little had changed in that time.

It reminded me that in small towns, there aren’t always multiple career options. Sometimes you are dealing with outdated ideas about gender and race at a workplace. These are issues that no resume tweak and no interview tactic will fix.

During that same trip, I visited a few friends in northwestern Pennsylvania. One is an amazing writer who just recently finished a business degree. He was valedictorian of his class and went searching for a new “career” job – and promptly found offers that were no better than the part time work he’d sought before he was in school.

He eventually found a job with fair wages, but soon learned he was working for a boss who was homophobic. No matter how efficient my friend was at his job, the boss  created an unfriendly work environment for him. Eventually my friend had no choice but to leave that job.

Another friend is a very talented interior designer, and has established a name for himself and for his eye for design. But the opportunities for him to practice his craft in his own backyard, so to speak, have significantly diminished in the last several years. The company he’d worked for closed up shop. There simply weren’t other options in the community he loved and where his parents and family were anchored.

When his job at home ended, he had to go where the action was, so to speak. As a result, he’s had to live “a tale of two cities” for years, living part of the week in his home in Pennsylvania and part of the week in the Ohio town he works in a couple of hours away.

I don’t think any of the career posts and article I wrote are any less true or real. I’m just beginning to believe that too often, white collar bias and urban career bias slipped into those articles and blog posts.

And this IS the part of the job creation puzzle that I think has been widely ignored by all political parties. We can talk about big scale projects in urban areas, or big energy and manufacturing plants that are booming in the Southeast and Southwest.

But what are the choices on Main Street? If you’re in a small or medium size city, is relocation the only resolution to a career crisis? I honestly don’t have the answers, but I know the disappearance of small local businesses (and the advent of big corporate ventures like Wal-mart settling in those areas) has changed the job landscape in small American towns forever.