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The highway overpass that funnels vacationers like me toward the high-end shops and million-dollar mansions of downtown Charleston, South Carolina, soars a hundred feet above a very different kind of neighborhood, a part of the city known as the Upper Peninsula. The homes here are small, interspersed among warehouses and union halls, and lived in primarily by low-income, African-American Charlestonians. With three thousand residents spread across 800 acres, the streets have a worn, slightly abandoned feel.
This is a part of Charleston that’s expected to change dramatically in the next five or ten years. As people and businesses are crowded or priced out of other parts of Charleston, the Upper Peninsula will, it’s hoped, get the spillover. Already new restaurants are being built and businesses are moving in. It’s the city’s wild frontier, and as Rachel Parris, director of development and community relations for the placemaking nonprofit Enough Pie (because they believe “there’s enough pie to go around” for everyone in Charleston), explains, “Right now we’re looking to mold that growth and shape it in a way that’s really inclusive. That’s where creative placemaking and community engagement come in.”
To show me, Rachel drives me to the Romney Urban Garden. Once a vacant lot where Romney Street dead-ends a few blocks past the Highway 26 overpass, the space is now a well-groomed park, marked by a gate and an archway welded from garden tools. Grow boxes overflow with last season’s most persistent greens. A few beachy blue and green picnic tables offer a place to sit. Rachel points out a mosaic hopscotch board that was funded by an Enough Pie microgrant and assembled by people who live around here.
Outside the garden gate, the rest of the street is a high-low jumble of churches and houses, some that seem to be standing by virtue of only a few coats of peeling paint. The white clapboard house next door has weathered into a forlorn gray, with a slumped front porch that suggest it’s not long for this world. It makes me wonder: Is an urban garden just a Band-Aid solution?
Obviously, Charleston isn’t the only city to try this. Community gardens have sprouted in vacant lots all over the country, from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Phoenix, as a way to repurpose empty land and beautify blight. Nice, but in places scarred by poverty, neglect, and racism, does something this small really help?
Here’s the thing: urban gardens aren’t just lovely to look at. They’re meant to be gathering places for neighbors, and when people get together and start talking, when they start having fun, and when they see something awful turn into something lovely, it makes them excited about where they live.
When the Romney Urban Garden opened, Enough Pie sponsored a pizza party. “Holding a meeting, you might get five to ten people in your community,” Rachel tells me. “At the pizza party we had 300 people here, so it’s a great opportunity [for neighbors] to talk about how to grandfather in your taxes so your taxes don’t raise, or hey, you need help with this, this person’s here, they can help you.”
Sometimes cities fall into disrepair because people don’t feel connected and invested enough to keep them up. But as the beloved urbanist Jane Jacobs explained, old houses have a way of being snapped up and rehabilitated once “life [breaks] out” in a neighborhood. “People in search of what is both unique and alive would ferret them out.”
Because they make streets like Romney come alive, something as seemingly minor as a community garden or a mosaic hopscotch board could turn around a block. Already you can see signs of that here, with construction workers buzzing around a historic freedman’s cottage that’s being restored next to the garden. “It helps bring people together and reinvests them in the community they’re already in,“ Rachel says. When people get together, they share information, form alliances, and build trust. They start to feel like they have a voice, and for communities that are changing, that matters. A lot.
Cross-posted from the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill School of Government’s Community Engagement Learning Exchange blog. They have more photos! Go see!
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Vamonde is a new iOS app inspired by the age-old question, “What happened here?” This is a way to make the walls talk. Download guided tours through the history of a 100-year-old theater, or the architecture of a particular neighorhood, or the food of an entire city, mostly Chicago right now, where Vamonde is based. Users can create their own place tours too, with stories embedded.
I’m not the kind of person who cries at a Kleenex commercial, and yet there was something very sweet about this ad’s conception of place. Every place has a story. And, as the video points out, “every story has a place.” Every moment of our lives is embedded in a specific geography. Everything that’s ever happened to us or to anyone else has happened somewhere. Mind. Blown.
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Years ago, when we were just graduating from college, Quinn and I had a choice: Washington, D.C., or New York? In Washington he’d been offered a fine, upstanding job as a legislative aide to a U.S. senator; he would wear suits every day and work in an office next to the Capitol building. In New York, he would have a gig designing textbooks for McGraw-Hill. The two roads diverged in a serious way. The pros/cons list we had to make to handle that moving decision were epic.
Eventually, we went with D.C. I can admit now, sixteen years later, that we did it primarily because it seemed safer and easier, in so many ways. My skewed vision of New York City revolved around crime, rats, steaming subways, and soul-killing rent payments for squalid apartments. Frankly, the city scared the crap out of me.
Since then, I’ve visited Manhattan enough times to know that it’s not one nonstop episode of Law and Order: SVU. Last week, however, on a three-day trip to meet with my agent and editor, it felt for the first time like the city was pulling out all the stops to sway me into loving it (and to maybe give me a slight twinge of regret that I’ve never lived there).
The weather was insanely glorious. It was the first week of November and warm enough to shrug off jackets and sweaters. With the sense that this would be the season’s last hurrah, people were streaming out of their office buildings to luxuriate outdoors. I spent a good 45 minutes on a bench in Washington Square Park, people-watching and reading.
In fact, apart from a few meetings, the week’s to-do list went a little something like this:
In This Is Where You Belong I explain why walking helps us fall in love with where you live, so no shock it does that when we’re on vacation. This time, I never once set foot on the subway. Not only did I clock between 17,000 and 24,000 steps each day, thus enabling guilt-free pizza consumption, I never had that vertigo-inducing feeling of emerging onto a street corner and having no idea which way is north. By walking aimlessly through streets that weren’t exactly on the way to somewhere, I finally figured my way around a little bit.
Travel gives us a sped-up, high-intensity version of the place attachment process. By doing only what made me happy, I designed precisely the kind of experience that would make me fall in love with New York—or any city, for that matter. At the end of the week, I found myself sitting on a bench on the High Line (obligatory stop for all New York tourists), reading a book of Meghan Daum essays I’d bought from the Strand and eating a pumpkin donut from Donut Plant. And I wouldn’t mind doing that most days of the week.
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It’s Wednesday night, dinnertime, and I’m weaving at top speed through the back roads of Blacksburg, trying to make it downtown before the snare drums do. Cranking my window down as I parallel park, I cock an ear. Are they coming? Is that a distant brass section or just the complaints of Main Street traffic? Finally jammed into a mostly legal space, I grab Ruby and run to the corner of Roanoke and Main. Two silent, stolid police cars are rolling toward us, signaling the start of the Blacksburg High School Homecoming Parade. We made it, and in that moment of relief the nostalgia hits me and it’s like I’m seven years old and back here again:
Because for a long time, when you said “parade,” Disneyland is what I pictured. I grew up about ten miles north of the Happiest Place on Earth, and my family made enough pilgrimages that I came to be intimately familiar with the Disneyland parade ouevre. There was a Christmas parade with whirling snowflake roller skaters, an ever-changing summertime parade themed around the latest Disney blockbuster, and a classic parade where, eventually, my own friend dressed as Cinderella and waved Kate Middleton–style from a ballroom on wheels.
My favorite was the Main Street Electric Parade. At 8 p.m sharp the lights along the parade route went out. Tootling electronica music blasted over the loudspeakers, heralding the arrival of blinking, stroke-inducing Disney characters. I loved it. Even now, the first bars of the Electric Parade theme send a pulse of dopamine through my body.
For all the Disneyland parades I saw growing up, I didn’t see my first genuine municipal parade until I was 29 and living in Ames, Iowa. Nothing at Disneyland had prepared me for their Fourth of July parade. We sat in camping chairs for a good hour and a half watching an endless stream of tractors, hot rods, garbage trucks, fire trucks, bands, bikes, and patriotic floats. I had never been hit with such a pure, unadulterated blast of Americana. Disneyland, but real. I loved every second of it.
Since then, it’s been important to me to live in a town where parades happen. In Blacksburg, we have a Fourth of July parade, a Christmas parade, and not one but two Homecoming parades in October. The one I’d rushed to tonight was the high school parade. (Virginia Tech’s would come on the weekend.) I know some of these kids. They’re playing with the marching band and sitting with the cheerleaders on top of the fire truck. They go to church with my family. I teach them at early-morning seminary.
Parades are my favorite because I live here. These are my people. And because there’s something deliciously small-town and wholesome about a town that shuts down traffic so that high schoolers can ride in trucks and wave like kings and queens and throw candy at small children. I love that I live in a place where this matters. It makes me love Blacksburg more.