Tag Archives: urban life

Location, location, location

Robert Pinero art

Robert Pinero urban samurai art

“It’s comforting to believe that there’s an essential version of each of us — that good people behave well, bad people behave badly, and those tendencies reside within us.

“But the growing evidence suggests that, on some level, who we are — litterbug or good citizen, for example — changes from moment to moment, depending on where we happen to be.”

The preceding quote is from Adam Alter’s NY Times opinion piece, “Where We Are Shapes Who We Are.”  For a while now, I’ve been writing about the silver lining of so called “bad” neighborhoods — that they can make for a certain kind of strength — but I may have only delved a bit into the thug culture that pervades in some of those neighborhoods.  This was probably because an abundance of people of color in a given neighborhood unduly makes for a bad place to live in the culture at large, even though most of any such people aren’t “thugs” at all.  Beyond a “black people are scary/cool” mentality, the Alter piece got me thinking about the role that location has in the way thug culture plays out — and also in the way that people extend themselves.

There is no greater fulfillment of the way that African-Americans have been disenfranchised than thug culture.  For the past century and a half, black people migrated to the north in a search of less discrimination and more opportunities — but, by and large, found themselves being looked over for working-class jobs (pretty much decreasing in number the more there was an emphasis on valuing employees as people).  Historically, such jobs have been the starting point for families to become middle-class and gain some sense of mobility.  With the people providing those jobs vastly preferring people who looked like themselves, African-Americans, already dealing with the psychological scars of being treated as less than human, typically had to reside in locations redlined by a population that fled to suburbs and various other enclaves.  It’s not an easy place to be (literally and existentially), and if you didn’t have much of a value system internally in the first place . . . well, it’s always easy to embrace mindlessness.

When hip-hop first emerged in crowded, urban black enclaves, it was something that was against hopelessness — much in the same way that rhythm and blues was when it came out of the backwoods of black southern life.  But that was then (and to be fair to what’s labeled as hip-hop presently, it’s the corporate stuff that’s the most mindless), and this is now, when what sets the tone is bass-thumping self-aggrandizement.

In his opinion piece, Alter mentions various studies that postulate that people who live in less densely populated areas are nicer–essentially, more likely to extend themselves.  Urban areas are defined by how crowded they are in relation to surrounding areas; gentrification by whom it thins out.  If you’re in some densely urban place that’s not gentrified (or maybe only a little), and you still haven’t succumbed to apathy and a hard heart, that’s really something, isn’t it?  Just because it’s easier to be selfish where there’s less resources doesn’t mean it’s natural to the locale.  In a world with a population that’s becoming increasingly urban because such is where the opportunities are, it seems to me it’s not all that much to only be able to find kindness where it’s less crowded, less noisy and where the streets are less cracked.


Near and Far (Part 2 of 3)

Since Nellie told Limon that they’d always just been really good friends, he’d been using up a lot of his sick days.  And Julia, my other friend at work, was sort of floating through it, worried about her boyfriend giving up altogether.

After another day like this, I was passing by the lot on my way to the house that Limon’s mom owned — where I rented the basement.  It was raining and the flower pollen in the air was minimal.  Over in the lot, a pale freckled woman was planting something yellow throughout its grounds.  Her volunteers were limited today to the two guys  whom usually stood with their arms crossed.

“Hey, fellas,” I said, passing the part of the chain link fence they hung out at.  “I’m local, so you know what to do.”

Arms did, in fact, cross.


I went further along the fence and stopped at the section I used to look out on some days when it was raining; there’d been a nice view of the overgrown weeds that smelled nice when the water hit him.

At some point, the woman waved to me.  “Hey!” she yelled.  “Would you like to help?”

“Heck no!” I yelled back. “And I mean that in the most polite way possible.”

Hell, that was why I used ‘heck.’

“What?”  She grinned and squinted, then headed over to my part of the fence.  Her glancing over at the volunteer guys put a stop to their slow advance.

“Hi,” she said.  “I’m Jean.  And you are?”


“Where are you from?”

“Here,” I said.

“Oh, you don’t seem like it.”

“If you say so.”

“So why don’t you want to help?  Just don’t have the time, or . . .”

“Well, I’m allergic to what you’re planting, for one thing.  And honestly, I’m not sure who they’re for.”

“That’s a bit silly.  I mean, flowers are for everybody.”

“Then why are they usually in places that aren’t for everybody?”

“Yards don’t count, if that’s what you mean.”

I laughed a little.  “Not really, no.”

“Well . . . I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’ve been getting some positive feedback from other people around here.”

“People who are, like, around here all the time?  When it’s not a rush hour?”

“I’m sure, yes.”

I nodded.  “Cool.”  I started walking south when Jean spoke again.

“Don’t you want this place to be . . .”  She spent a moment searching for the right words.

What were they?   Decent?  Pretty?

“Look, I just know that–whatever flowers weren’t here–it’s already been some people’s everything.  People left us to it until it was back near some pretty place on a map or something.”

“So what?” she said.  “You think I’m doing all of this just for who exactly?”

I looked back and shrugged.  “Beats me.”


I opened the door to my basement apartment at the house Limon’s mother owned, and found her son sitting with his head in his hands on the couch.  The smell that wafted through the vents upstairs was nice.  Hopefully I could some swing some dinner out of it.

“Hey, buddy,” I said.  “Unless my rent is due, I’m going to have to ask you to sob upstairs.”

Limon didn’t look up.

“Phil said your sick days are running out.”

Limon lifted his head and rubbed his eyes.   “That sounds about right.  But look, check it.”  He tapped a flyer on the table..

I went and picked it up: “‘Pie as Art — City bakeoff contest.'”

“Her people–they do these things, and then they talk about how this or that is the best in the city.  But we’re never in play, right?”

“No, I guess not.  So this contest is tomorrow night and you’d want to enter with what?  I can bake in theory, and since it’s probably the same for you, that doesn’t add up to a whole lot.”

“We’ll use my mom’s recipe.  I would have told her about it, but contest rules say that things have to be baked on the premises.  There’s something about my mom being judged there that don’t sit right with me.”

I closed one eye and took a breath.  “All right, man.  I’ll help you bake this pie.  Hopefully the power of friendship trumps all.”

Limon slowly nodded.  “Good.  I already went over there and signed up.  It’s just, it’s the only winnable thing right now.  I know it sounds stupid.”

I shrugged.  “It sounds less stupid than clubbing.  Anyway, I’m starving.  Do you think your mom would let me have some of whatever she’s making?”

“I kind of ate it all ready,” Limon said.

“Oh, well . . . It’s cool.  I’ve been there.  Lots of emptiness to deal with plus food equals . . . . yeah.  I’ll put something together for myself.”

“I went to raid your refrigerator, but you didn’t have anything.”

I scratched my head.  “You mean that glass of water isn’t even half-full anymore?”

“Nope.  Shit, um . . . One of Nellie’s friends tweeted that they’re having a party.  I’ve been to the place before; plenty of food. If you really are hungry . . .”

“Do you think Nellie will be there?”

“Maybe, but it’s not her party.  Dude who tweeted it used to always want to talk to me about hip-hop.”

“You know what?  You deserve to go to a party and not be someone else’s ticket to street cred.  I want that for you, man.”

Limon sat up, chuckling a little.  “Yeah, all right.”

“We won’t even be five minutes.”


After they talked about some music video, the guy Limon knew let us in at the door of his building.  We got some dirty looks as we moved through the hallway–mostly from Nellie’s friends, I imagined.  Limon was probably breaking some cardinal rule of dating that I’d never really bothered to keep up with.

Nellie, wearing a green headscarf, was in the middle of a bunch of people over by a bookshelf.  Limon stopped at doorway when he saw her; I tapped him at the shoulder and went straight for the table with all the food.  I sensed a general disquieting by the books, but the other guy at the table nodded at me.

“Hey,” I told him.  “What’s on the menu?”

“Chips.  Something that looks like it should taste like syrup, but . . .”  He shook his head.  “It don’t taste like syrup.  And, uh, some kind of pasta salad thing.”

“Is that last thing great?”

“Not really.”

The guy assured me he didn’t want anymore, so I lifted the whole platter up.  When I turned around, Nellie was standing there.  Her eyes scanned me up and down; they stopped at the platter and then my hair for a little while, until I said:

“My eyes are up here.  I’d point to them, but I don’t feel like I should have to right now.”

“Um, okay . . . You’re Roger, right?  I don’t think we’ve ever really talked.”

I looked back at the doorway; Limon was gone.

“How is he?” Nellie asked.

“Not great.”

She nodded.  “I’m very sorry to hear that, ’cause, whatever he thinks, I really do care about him.  Can you tell him that?”

Some red-haired guy was swishing his head a lot in our direction; he was head and shoulders over the rest of the bookshelf group.  “Hey, Nellie,” he called out.  “Is everything okay?”

When she said “yeah,” I headed for the door.  Then I heard her tell him to let us have the food.  My head dropping, I put the platter down near the door.

“Um, it’s an art thing,” I offered.  “Speaking of which, if you like pie, come to that bakeoff two nights from now.  My friend and I are going to reproduce the best pie in this city, and in doing so, redeem all the people who used to live in this building before they got kicked out.  That is all.”

I found Limon out in the hallway by himself.

“I think she’s going out with that guy with the red hair now,” he said.

“Yeah?  I guess that makes sense.”

“If you heard her on stage, it wouldn’t.”

Together, Limon and Nellie had been big on spoken word clubs.

“Your problem is you’re thinking about it,” I told him.  “Let’s go to Julia’s.  If you have to think about something, think about how the hell we’re going to make a pie even with a recipe.”


It may have been falling apart, but Julia had a great little porch.  Two of the steps were stable at just the right height from the concrete.

There was a warm undertone to the chill in the air, so the three of us sat there, trying to deal with the knowledge that Julia couldn’t join our pie venture because she had to cover her boyfriend Tom’s rush hour shift.  He’d been getting up less and less for it, and she had to make up the difference.

“Hey,” I said, “can I go in and see him?”

Julia shrugged.  “You can, if you believe you can.”

Limon stared across the sidewalk into our reflection in a car door.  “It probably won’t do any good,” he said.  “Ah, well.  Hey, Jules.  Did they start planting flowers around here yet?”

“I wish they would,” she said.  “We could sell ’em.”

“Maybe,” Limon said, “but that’s all they’d let you do here after a while.”

I went inside and found Tom sleeping on the couch.  Its fourth seat was empty, so I took a running leap into it.  Tom did not stir.

“Hey, Tom.  It’s Roger.  You gave me a ride a couple of times with Julia, remember?”

“Yeah,” he said meekly.  “I remember.  Is your heart still broken?”

“It was my chest actually–my breastplate, if you want to be technical.  But no, it’s not too broken anymore.”

“I hope it heals all the way.”

“Yeah?  Well, thanks.  So what’s up with you?”

“I’m just tired, man,” he said.  “When I’m out there in the street, nobody even sees me.”

“I’m sure selling flowers at red lights isn’t easy, but you’ve got Julia, and you know, she’s really sweet, got a good head on her shoulders, and she sees you.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “But I don’t know what she sees in me.”

“That is a bit of a mystery.”

Tom let out a small laugh.

“Try to get up soon,” I told him.

He nodded his head up and down.

“Just so I know, that is a nod, right?  With you lying down, it also kind of looks like you’re shaking your head.”

“It was a nod,” Tom said.

I waited for him to get up, but he didn’t.  When I got outside, only Julia was there.  She patted the empty piece of stairs next to her.

“So, why did you take Limon to that party?”

“I can’t help but feel like this is a bit of a loaded question, so I’m going to go with, ‘Because I’m an idiot.'”

“It’d be hard enough if she just broke up with him, but seeing her with someone he thinks is on a whole different level . . .”

“That’s the way of the world.”

Julia shook her head.  “When was the last time you felt a connection with someone?  Do you even try anymore?”

“Not really.  It’s like, you know how at the agency every couple of months, I apply for something out of the mail room.  I’m never quite enough there, though.  There.  Here.”

“Enough of what?” Julia said.  “None of that matters to any woman worth having a connection with.”

I hopped up.  “I know that . . . Hey, look, I’m going to cover Tom’s shift tomorrow night.  You should help Limon.”

Julia turned away from me and slowly nodded.  “I do have mad baking skills.”

“You do.  And I should still be there for the judging of that pie contest.”

“You better be,” she said.

My stomach growling, I took the long way home.


To be continued

Something to be mindful for






There’s smiling by the serene waters of a lakeside village.  Or in some welcoming place tailored to what you look like.  And then there’s smiling in what’s generally considered a not so nice place.  The kind of smile I’m writing about isn’t because someone’s simply passing through that spot, either.  No, it’s the one that emerges on the face of someone for whom that not so nice place is ordinary.

I see this sometimes, and it always gives me pause.  It’s far from unusual to see two or more people smiling in camaraderie over something anywhere that isn’t supposed to be a great place to live, but, being by one’s self and smiling is a different matter altogether.  It requires one to stand out.  It’s an old, mushy sentiment that smiles are contagious, but any such transference usually happens when people are already in sync anyway.  But what if you’re not in sync, or you’re not that reflection of a part of the world someone else wants to see smile back at them when they look in the mirror?

Sometimes a business will have someone whose job it is to stand out on the street and hand out fliers.  Usually people with this job have cultivated a light stoicism, but a while back I saw an exception to that.  I passed behind a woman whom was doing this job just as a bus inched past her at a red light.  She smiled warmly and waved emphatically to the passengers.  I’m pretty sure not one of them waved back.  Blank stares all around.  After that, the woman was all slumped shoulders and there was a twinge of regret.

It could be said that such a level of unabashed enthusiasm is rarely met well on any plain in a society where people are trying to get through the day with minimal being one-upped.  Someone I knew once expressed the sentiment that in a particularly ‘good’ neighborhood, people will extend themselves with enthusiasm because they can afford to.  If you can’t buy your way in to such a place on any long-term basis, you’ll shuffle off stage quickly enough.  And if you can, well, some kind of obvious positivity is a hallmark of the good life.

But that’s the good kind of neighborhood that isn’t so terribly concerned with being cool.  A gentrified neighborhood would have likely offered the same blank stares for someone who didn’t look the right way.  Back on the other side of the tracks, though, there’s usually enough reasons to remember why one goes about stoically or with the equivalent of a samurai’s mask–a face that’s supposed to be formidable.  The by-one’s-self smiles seem to be like a flower in concrete.  Rarer and stronger perhaps than one from some garden, but there’s always the chance of being trampled on.

As hard as they may be to sustain, I think the world of smiles that appear so keenly where it’s hard to keep smiling.  Makes me always want to check my own face–that it’s not hardened like one of those old samurai masks.

All Robert Pinero art

All Robert Pinero art

Meanwhile (Part 2)

An urbanist is someone who specializes in urban planning – specifically architecture and how space in and around such is utilized.  There are a significant number of disenfranchised urban communities for which any planning was done for a demographic that fled, and new projects have often simply about cramming more units (stack, stack, stack) to be lived in.  When it comes to that original planning, it’s kind of like being given a pair of shoes that don’t fit and having to make do.  This is a legacy black Americans are not unfamiliar with.  Lately I’ve been feeling like it’s another thing that contributes to the anxiety that comes with living in such a squeezed misfit.  I’ve written some about the positives of that—the strength that comes from not having the world tailored to you, and how it’s such that both its upsides and downsides look good enough for appropriating.  For those in disenfranchised places that can’t make that—or, better, more traditional channels of success—work for them, you’d have to figure there would be a certain hopelessness.  Or at least I do.

Despite the way they’re portrayed, urban cities with large black populations are not always boiling over with people lashing out in hopelessness.  But getting out there and living can often mean getting caught up in all kinds of negativity and dead-ends.  And existing around or in between that can be trying, to say the least.  This isn’t even a ‘black thing,’ though on the urban scale of American life, it does unduly affect large swaths of black people.

So, with all this in mind, first, two excerpts from some blog posts worth checking out–


Though other studies have claimed that gentrification does not necessarily push people out the fact remains that as older residents move out others of their same socioeconomic standing fail to move back in to take their place. As a former community and campaign organizer in San Francisco I found that among longtime residents’ biggest concerns is their feeling of powerlessness in the face of unrelenting change.

And the blogger of Contemporary Contempt theorizes about upscale food trucks:

What this trend has done is spread gentrification to a cultural space that one might not think was possible: the truck. A space that transcends space, occupying many. Nothing is safe from this upwardly mobile force. It seeks and destroys all things lower-income and non-model-minority.

–And, lastly, a great piece in which Pete Saunders explores “a dire lack of a black voice and perspective in the traditional channels of urbanist dialogue.”  It also offers up potential solutions to improving urban spaces that would involve some small form of gentrification that might be a bit too ideal in scope, though that doesn’t mean it’s not crucial.  Excerpted from 60spunk:

African Americans have been perhaps the most urban of American populations for the last half century. With the formation of the Great Migration between 1910 and 1930, and the Second Great Migration between 1940 and 1970, blacks moved from the rural South to urban areas throughout the country – primarily in the Northeast and Midwest.  Today, many blacks are leaving Northern locales and returning to Southern spots, but they are firmly remaining urban.

As a result of this transition, African Americans have had a profound impact within the communities they’ve moved to.  According to the 2010 U.S. Census, blacks are the majority demographic in 19 of the nation’s 273 cities with more than 100,000 residents, and are between 25 and 50 percent in another 36 cities.  Taken to a metropolitan scale, blacks exceed the 13.6% national proportion of population in eight of the ten largest metropolitan areas, with blacks making up 32.4% of metro Atlanta’s residents, 25.8% of metro DC, and 21.0% of metro Miami.  Clearly, blacks have left a significant imprint on America’s cities.

So where are the black urbanists?