The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

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Around the Block – Links from the Week, 7/18/14

Around the Block - Links from the Week

Relevant stories in the world of cities and their residents.

  • If you’ve ever set foot in a library, it’s likely that you’ve come across a homeless person using the bathroom or the computer. This Reuters article talks about how libraries are on the “front line” in the fight against homelessness, offering services, meals and safety. But they also have their not-in-my-backyard critics. Read about it here.
  • You may have read about how the Detroit government shut off water to 100,000 of its residents. This story in The Atlantic covers the details of how that’s impacting day to day life in Detroit. My own posts about Detroit can be found here and here.
  • In the midst of unceasing violence that makes me question when peace will ever truly exist in the Israeli-Palestinian region, I found this NPR story about Israelis and Palestinians breaking fast together after their respective religious observances particularly significant and moving.
  • Speaking of religion, a “dinner church” is blurring boundaries between rich and poor, religious and non-religious in Brooklyn, NY. Read the story here.
  • I discovered a blog called Pattern Cities yesterday and I’m finding it the perfect place to learn about how cities’ ideas spread around the world. You might be interested if you like geography or politics.
  • Finally, a New York story that made national headlines: The Long Island Rail Road workers, who operate the most trafficked commuter rail in the nation, ferrying some 300,000 people back and forth every day, almost went on strike. Things were looking pretty grim for all parties until an eleventh hour deal was solidified between the unions and the government.

And here’s a quick tip, I usually post these links to Facebook or Twitter as they happen.

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Cafe Maude, My Neighborhood Bar


If you wanted to walk from your house to a bar on a given Thursday night, would you be able to do it? Unless you live in an extremely dense urban area, you, like most of us, are out of luck on the neighborhood bar front. You’d have to find a bus route or pay for a taxi or get in the car (always risky when drinking) and drive somewhere just to enjoy an evening beverage. But if you allow yourself a little creativity and leeway, you might just find the neighborhood spot you’re looking for. In my case, it came in the form of a classy restaurant that moved in a few years ago near my parent’s house. It’s called Cafe Maude and I have made it my neighborhood bar,

Café Maude in Minneapolis, MN is the sort of place where you can bring your friends for brunch, your family for dinner, and your date for a late night cocktail. It can be all things to all people. I make sure to stop in each time I’m home in Minneapolis visiting my parents as it’s just a five minute walk from their house. Perfect. The décor is dark, with warm purple, red and gold accents—enough to feel luxurious but not so fancy that you can’t enjoy a California burger in your jeans on a Saturday afternoon, too. Guests find seats at the bar (always my preference), at a table, or in a cozy booth/couch combo that invites relaxation and intimacy. There’s also a breezy patio out front, although the view from those seats is just a gas station and a hardware store. That’s alright with me though, because it’s a neighborhood bar and it doesn’t require anything more than a drink served by a friendly bartender.

The drinks are an art-form here, and as cliché as that might sound, I mean it. I have never seen someone make a drink with such care, style and creativity as I have at Maude (besides my bartender boyfriend, of course). For example, last summer I ordered my first gin gimlet and watched in awe as the bartender pulled out a homemade, infused simple syrup (can’t remember what it was infused with now), fresh lime juice and top quality gin. He proceeded to shake these simple, but select ingredients with ice, double strain for smoothness, then pour into a chilled coupe, with a tiny bottle of the remaining liquid that wouldn’t fit in the glass on the side. Anyone who’s going to pour me a cocktail in a coupe, and set that little glass bottle of just-a-bit-of-extra-drink-to-top-me-off-later next to it, knows the way to my heart.


If fancy cocktails aren’t you’re thing though, let me address your concerns. First, these bartenders execute their craft with zero pretension. They won’t talk to you about the ingredients unless you ask, and they definitely only shake the cocktail enough to meld the ingredients—no gimmicky shaker-tossing here. Second, they have draft PBR for $4 that comes out of a tap covered with dancing pink elephants. (It looks like this.) So everyone can truly be happy.

That’s probably what I like most about Café Maude. The crowd is casual, low-key, and no one’s putting on a show for anyone else, but rather, enjoying a pleasant evening with a drink or two to accompany it. This is definitely a neighborhood bar—not a sports bar, or a club, or a hipster bar. A neighborhood bar, where even the kids and non-drinkers can find a beverage they’ll enjoy and some olives or mac & cheese to go with it. You can stroll down the block from your house, get a seat easily and hang out for a few hours any night of the week.

Cafe Maude is definitely not cheap, with cocktails in the $10-15 range and entrees around $20. But for an evening out, especially if you’re just grabbing drinks and snacks, it’s well worth it. (And if you’re determined to get a good deal, the afternoon happy hour prices are completely reasonable; $2.75 tap beer, $5 house cocktail, oh yes.)

It’s hard to properly convey the distinct pleasure of walking to down the street to a local joint, except to say point out that one couldn’t possibly find a better evening activity than taking a stroll through one’s own neighborhood (getting to know it a little better) and enjoying a crisp beverage now and again. Please do give it a try.

Photo credits: Heavy Table, Cafe Maude

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Revisiting the City Run

Central Park in spring

One of my very first posts (over a year ago!) was about running through city streets and how it’s a way to become familiar with a new place. Today, I’m even more in favor of this practice after spending the last month with doctor’s orders not to run due to an injury (which I, coincidentally, received while running). I miss my running routine dearly, and that’s something new for me, as I’m definitely not one of those marathoners who relishes the 5am sweat of a jog more than her morning coffee. Running isn’t often something I look forward to; it’s just a part of my life, like showering or taking out the trash. However, being cut off from this practice for the last four weeks has given me a fresh craving for it. As they say, you never value good health until you lose it. I certainly have a whole new reverence for the cadence, the pavement, the breeze and the city that I get to experience when I run. Honestly, there are whole sections of this city that I never see unless I’m running. Either they’re too far to get to on foot, or they’re not destinations in themselves; rather, they are the places I love to move through. If you step outside with your sneakers on, you might just discover some of these places yourself. I challenge you to give it a shot.

I was surprised to find that the city has changed since the last time I ran. Back in June, the tourists were less present on the parks and trails where I usually jog, and even the residents were slow to make their way back outside after a long, hard winter. It was as if we all discovered the city anew—the flowers that bloomed where snow banks once resided, the birds pulling fresh worms out of green grass, the street-stands shifting to advertise ice cream and popsicles. I ran all the way through the winter, but most of my runs were solitary, broken only by the occasional die-hard biker or insistent nanny with a bundled up child burrowed inside a stroller. In June, folks reappeared and found their favorite park benches all over again.

Coming out a month later now, the parks and trails are utterly alive. For those of us without air conditioning, these may be some of the coolest spaces in an otherwise 90 degree city, so we make them ours. On my first run since my injury, I skipped down to Riverside Park, a trail that runs along the waterfront of the Hudson River and found it boisterous and jubilant. Children raced each other on scooters while their parents roasted meat over portable grills, coolers and picnic tables overflowing with potluck-style dinners nearby, delicious smells wafting across the water. Music blared from all manner of speakers and vehicles. Young couples lazed on blankets in the grass or strolled down the sidewalk. Residents carried the day’s produce and staples back home from a nearby grocery store along the pleasant path. As I moved south and the path narrowed, the demographics changed to runners of all ages—some alone and others joined by friends—jogging uptown, downtown; bikers too, commuting or enjoying an evening ride with their families.

Without my running shoes, I might never have set foot on this trail. I find myself privileged to take it in, especially after a month without it. So all that is to say, if you’re curious about running as a way to get to know a city, I urge you to give it a try, particularly if you haven’t done so in a while. I assure you it’s not that hard. Just start with a walk. Bring a friend or your iPod along. Let the path unfold in front of you and I bet you’ll discover something new.

Photo taken in Central Park.

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Milwaukee, WI: The City That Contradicts Itself

Milwaukee's Third Ward in Winter

My boyfriend and I have this debate about his hometown. He’s tired of it, ready to get out soon, disgruntled by the vast majority of its bro-y residents, and skeptical about its insurmountable segregation. Meanwhile I relish every opportunity I can to adventure in Milwaukee (and not just because he’s there). I’ve visited enough times now to have a favorite breakfast spot, a favorite neighborhood, a favorite park and a favorite corned beef sandwich (of course!), but I think what fascinates me most about Milwaukee is that it is a city of urban contradictions. It’s established and exciting enough to draw a national audience, and yet the population is mostly Wisconsinites. It’s an attractive, inviting city in many regards, and yet it’s still widely affordable to live in. It’s got a progressive sensibility and a fairly successful economy, and yet it’s the most segregated metro-area in the nation. These contradictions make Milwaukee a captivating case study and an important city to pay attention to as other Midwestern cities rise and fall (here’s looking to you Detroit). It’s a hidden gem, with some dark secrets.

First, what’s attractive about this place? Milwaukee has incredible assets: a gorgeous lakefront, high-quality public transit, hundreds of affordable and delicious local food options, proximity to other important cities like Chicago and Madison (and rail transit to these as well), plus local industries to be proud of like world-famous beer factories and incredible cheese companies. Talk about products that we’ll always have a demand for! Moreover, Milwaukee does all this with not an ounce of pretension or snob. It’s the friendly guy from down the block that your parents will definitely approve of when you bring him over for dinner (but he secretly has a motorcycle).

It surprises me, then, that more people haven’t figured out how cool this place is and driven the prices up for the rest of us. I think it’s the Midwest curse—if you’ve never actually stopped in the “flyover states,” you have no idea what you’re missing out on. Outsiders think the Midwest is just mountains of snow, plates of hotdish* and caricatured accents, but the truth is, it is far more nuanced and diverse. Then again, maybe people aren’t moving to Milwaukee because its industries aren’t flashy enough; it is not home to any health care conglomerates, famous nonprofits or big banks—just the Harley Davidson factory, a slew of beer companies and the small bits-and-pieces manufacturing that this nation is built on.

Yet another possible reason for why Milwaukee isn’t quite as popular as it could be is that it’s got serious competition in nearby cities like Chicago, Madison, and even Minneapolis. Why would you move to Milwaukee—a town of 600,000—when you could live in Chicago—a metropolis of 2.7 million? Answer: Because you might actually be able to afford it. It’s utterly strange to walk through a pleasant neighborhood with lovely, old houses in close proximity to a downtown and find out that they aren’t all $1 million. It’s equally strange to see a handful of warehouses converted into trendy condos, but dozens of warehouses still being used for their original purpose.


What’s more, Milwaukee isn’t gentrifying—or at least, not nearly to the degree of other similar metro areas. You hear rumblings about this or that development, but for the most part, the transitions are happening to vacant buildings and empty lots. A revitalization of the city is good news and I think gentrification here is minor enough that it can be stopped before it prices anyone out of their neighborhoods. Sure, a few people are starting to move into neighborhoods where they hadn’t formerly lived, and new businesses are cropping up in previously exclusively-residential areas, but that should be heralded as good news. Continue reading

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The Promise Zones Initiative


Photo credit

“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.


Photo credit

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.


Photo credit

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


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?


A Slice of the Walkable Urban Life


Today I want to give you a concrete example of “walkability.” It’s a term you might have heard from the sorts of people who also talk about “parklets” and “seed-bombing,” but I’d like to demonstrate exactly how relevant it is for everybody—not just the urban enthusiasts.

Wednesday afternoon I walked out of the office on my lunch break with a set of tasks to accomplish: I needed to pick up a book from the library, find some new light bulbs (but I wasn’t positive what kind) and grab some groceries for dinner. In another city, this might have involved driving to Target in order to knock the last two items off the list (and hoping there was a Target employee who knew about light bulbs), then heading in the opposite direction to get to the library. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do it without a car, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to squeeze it into my lunch break. In fact, given the short amount of time that libraries are open now due to budget cuts, I probably only would’ve been able to do this trip on the one day a week when the library is open past 5pm. Quite a challenge.

But this Wednesday, because of the walkability that my neighborhood offers, I accomplished all of these tasks in just half an hour. First I walked a couple blocks north to my local library and picked up my book. Then I crossed the street to the local hardware store where a friendly employee helped me find the proper light bulb. I then made my way back towards the office, stopping at the grocery store on the way to get a few items. It was a delightful walk and I was done in thirty minutes.

Now, I know—I know—that there is no city in the world like New York City. I know that 99% of cities and towns could not support an infrastructure comparable to that which is present in the Big Apple. But nonetheless, I believe slices of walkability such as this are possible in the dense areas of most cities, and they are possible to a smaller degree in many towns. Maybe you couldn’t get all your shopping done in a quarter-mile radius like I did, but you could probably do it in a half-mile. Doesn’t that sound appealing?

If you’re starting to like the idea of this, you should try Walk Score. It’s a tool that rates the walkability of a given location (map-style) on a scale of 1-100, based on how easy it is to access restaurants, grocery stores, schools, parks and more on foot. It’s an interesting exercise (pardon the pun) to investigate the Walk Scores of the areas you frequent, but it’s an absolutely essential activity for anyone who is apartment or house hunting (that’s me!). PadMapper, a useful apartment-hunting site, even integrates Walk Scores into their overall search functions, so that you can factor in walkability just as much as you factor in the number of bedrooms or bathrooms you need.

What do you think? Is walkability worthwhile? Can we achieve it on a broader scale?

P.S. If you missed last week’s announcement, I just made a Facebook page for this site. Follow along over there?

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I finally got around to making a Facebook page for this here blog. So follow over there for updates and such!

Also, if Twitter is more your style, that’s another option. I mostly tweet links to urban development news and articles of interest, intermixed with the occasional life observation.

Finally, I also hopped on the Pinterest wagon and there are a couple city-related boards over there.

1271084_10152203108461729_809245696_o     download    images

And with that, I am off to the wilderness. Even I need a break from city life sometimes. Enjoy your Memorial Day Weekend.

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Charlotte’s Place

Math Camp Charlotte's Photo Gallery

What would you do if you had $100 million? I bet most of us could come up with a use for $1 or $2 million easily (donate to charity, buy a house, send our future children to college), but $100 million? It’s unfathomable. And yet, as most Americans grasp for jobs and salaries in this economy, an elite few are swimming in money—hundreds of millions of dollars of it. One of those is Trinity Wall Street, a massive, historic Episcopal church in lower Manhattan that owns 14 acres of New York City real estate.

Naturally a church with such a gargantuan income stream has invited a wide assortment of controversy and criticism over the years, and you can read all about that online. But frankly, religious groups get enough bad press these days, so, being an interfaith activist and a person of faith, I prefer to highlight the instances where religion serves as a force for good. When you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars at your disposal, you darn well better do something good with it, and here’s one solid and impactful thing Trinity did: they created a space where everyone was truly welcome.

It’s called “Charlotte’s Place” and the idea is simple yet transformative. Charlotte’s Place is essentially an open-door community center, but instead of just drawing children to an after school program, or seniors to a free lunch program, they draw everyone into a flexible and welcoming space. (Interesting fact: Charlotte’s Place actually grew out of a need that Trinity recognized when it found itself entangled with the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years back.)


The Financial District (where Charlotte’s Place is located) is a confluence of high-powered Wall Street employees, wandering tourists (mostly visiting the World Trade Center memorial) and homeless people. Charlotte’s Place serves them all. Businessmen and women can eat their lunches in the sunlit community room without having to pay for an overpriced sandwich and fight a hundred other customers for space in some meager dining area. Tourists can stop in to use the free wifi and rest their legs for a bit without having to buy a coffee at Starbucks. Homeless people can use the clean, spacious bathrooms without drawing looks from department store employees or being kicked out by a manager. All are welcome at Charlotte’s Place.

The space is mostly devoted to one large, tiered room—a renovated storefront that had previously just been church storage. It’s wide windows let in copious sunlight and invite passersby to see what’s going on inside, while smaller rooms in the back provide space for meetings and classes. One of the most exciting features of Charlotte’s place is the art blossoming all over its walls. What started as a mostly blank canvas is gradually being filled with media like mosaics, collages and paper cranes—all created by community members. Overall, Charlotte’s Place has an attractive, modern feel while still offering more intimate spaces to chat with a friend or find some peace and quiet.

On any given day at Charlotte’s Place, you might find a college student working on a paper, children reading books with their parents in the mini library, a free yoga class in the afternoon and a free movie screening with pizza at night. Charlotte’s Place attempts to meet the needs it recognizes in all of the people who use it space. Staff members connect homeless visitors with housing counseling, screen for SNAP eligibility, provide free lunches and even help arrange transportation for low-income people to get to doctors appointments. (For a complete list of services, click here).


I came to Charlotte’s Place for a community gathering a couple weeks ago and within minutes of being there, I thought to myself, “Yes. This is exactly what I’d do if I had millions of dollars.” Now, this ministry is still new (and I’d love to see it expand its hours) but it is such a promising start. I can’t count the number of times I’ve wanted something better for my city only to be confronted with the insurmountable cost that it would take to implement that idea. It’s refreshing to watch an organization with money do something transformative and progressive with that wealth, especially when it is so well-situated to serve its community.

Houses of worship are practically the definition of grassroots, and they’ve been active in their communities for centuries. All around us, synagogues quietly serve weekly meals to their hungry neighbors, Mosques birth movements for racial justice inside their back meeting halls, Buddhist temples offer true relief for the weary on all walks of life, and so on.

Most of these religious institutions stand by a mission of welcoming and they avoid proselytizing their guests, but they also maintain their faith-based roots. For example, Charlotte’s Place attempts to provide a meditative, calming presence in one of the busiest neighborhoods in the country. What a blessing for the neighborhood to have this space for all of its members to come together and get what they need.

All photos from Charlotte’s Place Facebook page


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