I was at an panel discussion about Retrofitting Suburbia recently. The moderator began the post panel discussion by asking the audience two simple questions. Q1: “Who here was raised in a city?” A little less than half of the hands went up. Q2: “Who here was raised in the suburbs?” Basically the rest of the hands went up. I was waiting for what I thought would be the obvious next question, “Who was raised in a rural area?” But it never came. I had heard numerous times from people in NYC upon revealing where I am from, “Wow, I’ve never met anyone from Mississippi before!” But I never really understood until this moment just how rare it is for a fellow from the country to move to the city, especially this city. I guess I am truly an anomaly here.
This realization has made me contemplate things in a little bit different context lately. For example, at a recent Transition Towns meeting, during a discussion about peak oil, one lady remarked that the first and second ring suburbs are in serious trouble with folks becoming unable to afford gasoline and since they must drive to get anywhere they are having trouble getting to work/school/daycare/grocery store/church/etc. It seems that these suburbs are becoming the new ghettos, American versions of slums. Additionally I have been speaking to several folks about what may become of NYC after the major effects of peak oil begin to be felt. Opinions vary widely but I am of the mind that the city will refocus on the working waterfront, the small, specialized industry that is already thriving in the more art/industrial areas with experience a renaissance and this type of activity will keep the city alive, albeit not as big, or populous or filthy stinking rich in some parts, but alive and even vibrant compared to some other post peak oil places.
But now I realize that there is a whole other piece of this conversation that I was neglecting. What of the countryside. The small towns and rural areas throughout mid-America. How will they be affected and what will be their response? It is clear that there is no back to the land movement today as there was in 1960-70s counterculture so there won’t be an influx of hippiefied city slickers headed to the hills to “turn on, tune in and drop out“. This time around the revolutionaries are staunchly advocating for fixing urban ills in place as opposed to trying to escape from them.
In my heart I know that the country folk can survive. But I must admit I worry about the small towns like the one I am from, with almost 50, 000 people living there it is tiny but it is still the fourth largest “city” in Mississippi. My family there doesn’t live in suburbs, there is no thriving downtown to support suburbs. There are some suburban like developments and I guess some people could be commuting to larger cities for work, after all Hattiesburg is known as the “hub city” since it is 90 minutes from New Orleans, Gulfport/Biloxi, Mobile and Jackson. But I feel that the commuter population is small. The fact is, this is a historically rural place where really crappy development has occurred in recent years. When I was in elementary school, our mailbox was on a rural route. It got a proper street address when I was in middle school (junior high). It is interesting to realize that the suburban form has been copied and pasted all over the place, even where it makes little to no sense. Of course I never realized what was going on as a school kid, but I did know that it wasn’t right. In fact I can trace the trajectory of my entire professional career back to the disgust I felt when I drove past the hideous steel frame, aluminum siding strip development and outparcel buildings that where vomited into existence in mere weeks up and down the country roads I used to travel.
I can completely see why people show up en mass to oppose new growth now a days. I used to be one of them. While I may still not be the authority, over time I have come to appreciate the difference between good growth and bad growth, density and sprawl. The conversation seems to be a moot point by now as it is clear, to me at least, that growth is not inevitable. Development on the other hand, if done correctly can continue but this is usually in a much slower and steady pace. This also leads to much more thoughtful elements created in a purposefully studied way. Not necessarily the cheapest fastest, most convenient way.
I once thought that I was going to leave Mississippi and learn about great development strategies in order to bring them back to Mississippi, or some other place that could use innovative solutions for their development and infrastructure needs. I am now beginning to question that motive, as I am probably equipped with the knowledge and even the knowhow by now, but I’m having a hard time convincing myself to go back, actually I haven’t even tried as it is not even on the radar at this point.
For a little more context please feel free to visit my bio page. Essentially I was raised in Mississippi with many visits to Los Angeles during my school years. So how did I end up in this cold, congested, Yankee ridden city?! I would initially pin all this on two factors, the recession and my loving girlfriend. I moved to Orlando Florida not long after graduating college and lived there for five years. After being laid off from a respectable landscape architecture firm in Downtown Orlando I dealt with underemployment by working part-time jobs, one at the Home Depot and another one-and-a-half as a cook and server at a nice Mediterranean restaurant. I was enjoying life but not really happy. An opportunity came along via an old coworker that was also laid-off, He had and moved back home to NY and found a good job. His company was hiring again. I piddled around and didn’t end up applying for the position. I was still sold on trying to save the home I had bought and keep on keeping on in Orlando. I had recently started dating a smart and beautiful young lady and I just didn’t feel I was ready for a city quite as big as New York.
But the idea was now in my head.
A few months later another opportunity arose in the same company my friend was within NYC. This time I had been thinking about the opportunity I had missed, talked about it with my girlfriend and was getting frustrated trying to keep up with my mortgage. I spoke to the company and sent in my resume, a week later I was interviewing at Hill International’s Manhattan office atop Penn Station, later that day I accepted the temporary position and two weeks later I was moving into a room sight unseen in Flushing, Queens. It was very fast and it doesn’t feel like things have slowed down much in the year-and-a-half I’ve been here. I’ve lived in three different neighborhoods and had at least as many jobs.
Juggling social, professional and personal goals has become absolutely necessary. I have had to completely rethink the way I work, the way I get around and the way I socialize. I instantly became a devout student of the city soaking in the many lessons she has to offer. From history, culture, and architecture to the riches that come about in the form of simple subway, bike and bus maps; in depth city government, NGO and academic reports and studies on everything from food systems, green infrastructure, the waterfront and brownfield sites; expanding my culinary horizons; and of course attending so many professional events it is making my head spin just thinking about it all.
I feel like I have had a lifetime of learning compressed into this short time. I know a lot more now than I did before in terms of information. But what I have recently realized is that the contextualization of all the previous information I knew, contrasted with all the things I thought I knew is where the real learning, or rather, understanding arises. Maybe it is inevitable with age, I did just add another notch on that pole this week, but I believe it has more to do with exposure. Exposure to things I did not previously understand, even though I may have been taught about them. Exposure to people, of all sorts and stripes, contradicting and reinforcing my understanding of the human spirit.
I should probably feel like a newcomer or an outsider still but I don’t. I really do feel like I belong here. I guess if that were not the case I would have left months ago though, lord know it hasn’t been all shits and giggles, but I feel it’s all been worth it.
Just to wrap up my rant I would like to share a quote that a wonderful woman shared with me not long after I moved to New York. She said it reminds her of me and I am charmed b y the sentiment. It is abstracted from E. B. White’s essay “Here is New York”….
“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.
…Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion. ”
I have also found my passions and the city is fertile ground for cultivating them.