Suburbanite to Urbanist: My Journey

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Title Photo by Kendra Fee

Occasionally, I get frustrated when I post about an urban topic that’s carefully researched, citing data and expert opinion, only to read the inevitable comments like “the city is hole, it’s a waste of time and money,” or “I don’t go to the city, too much crime.” In my moments to weakness, I try to remember that I was once a suburban kid who had a skewed view of my city and what it could be. This is my story of how I went from being a suburban kid to an urban advocate.

I remember it clearly, the crinkled piece of paper taped to my dashboard.  On it, my home-printed color banner that read “Anti-Carpoolers of America,” with a line through the photo of a minivan.  I gave the engine several revs, aurally augmented by my aftermarket muffler on my tricked out Honda Civic.  The light turned green and I was off, speeding through traffic at speeds that probably were never safe.

My friends?  Yeah, they all had the same homemade banner on their cars, and most of them had the same tricked-out accessories on their vehicles.  Our belief was that we should drive as many cars as possible to get from one place to another.

I grew up in the small town of Victor, New York, which, thanks to urban sprawl, isn’t so small anymore.  It was a nice place to grow up as a kid, and I truly enjoyed my time there.  My friends and I would occasionally venture into the city, but it was only to get coffee, and we always joked about not venturing too far from the areas we knew because we might get shot.

That was me in my late teens and early 20s.  I was a suburban kid who was critical of the idea that my city could be a good place.  And I probably would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for a connection I had to urban life long ago.  I was born in Chicago.

While my mother and I moved to the Rochester area when I was 3, I would always return to the Windy City to visit my dad.  It was there where I had virtually my only encounters with the beauties of diversity, transit, walkable neighborhoods, urban parks, art installations and the idea that a city could be a fun, livable, interesting and attractive place.

To be perfectly honest, I never thought Rochester could be that place.  I thought that the level of cultural diversity and urban vibrancy was something only big cities enjoyed, and as a result, I found myself longing for Chicago once again.

As I grew older, I began to visit Rochester bars that my friends and I could connect with.  None of us were really the “sports bar” or “townie bar” type, so we really liked places that were different.  I dated a few women who lived in the city, and slowly but surely I was introduced to the beauty of a quietly growing Rochester food and drink scene.

About 8 years ago, this scene began to explode.  Wine bars, cocktail bars, places other than the typical trucker-hat wearing suburban stereotype establishments began popping up all over the city, with amazing cuisine and adult beverages.  The exposed-brick, reclaimed industrial craze had finally reached my long-vacant city and I could not wait to explore it.

Not long after, I began The Urban Phoenix as I hopped around to cities across the state by train, experiencing the same movement of excitement around our urban revivals, big and small.  This, paired with my newfound love for my own city and the realization that much larger sites like Strong Towns, StreetsBlogUSA and CityLab were writing about the same urban topics that I was beginning to explore led me to realize that there are hundreds of thousands of people across the country that believe in building better cities, just like me.

Finally, with the help from all the above forces, I made the leap this year to go virtually car-free in my everyday life.  I’ve felt the freedom and simple beauty of what it is like to cast off the automobile, while seeing first hand how difficult, frustrating and at times dangerous not having a car can be.  I have a better understanding of those in our communities who cannot afford to drive, and just how difficult our suburban sprawl makes finding employment and other necessary services for this population.

My blog and my missions have changed, as I have begun to sprinkle in more stories about the lesser-embraced ideas behind lasting, sustainable urban development and growth.  The stories I discuss today focus on how to make our cities better for everyone, as well as how to make them livable, not just entertainment destinations.

How did I get here?  How did I go from being that kid who loved his car and hated anything that restricted it to the man who now advocates for walkability, cycling infrastructure and “traffic calming” features?

The connection to Chicago certainly helped. It wasn’t a city I visited, it was a city I lived in for periods of time. I understood what it meant to walk down the street, see someone that didn’t look, walk or talk like me and embrace them as part of the colorful urban fabric. I saw more than just tourist attractions… I saw how people in the city lived, how they moved about, and how they connected with their hometown and their neighborhoods.

I also grew up pretty poor. And sick… I had childhood leukemia when I was 8. Right off the bat of life, I learned first hand that having no money, contrary to the often- held belief, is not something you choose, but a card you’re dealt. Rather, it’s an environment you exist in that is terribly difficult to transcend.

I was also raised to appreciate the power of diversity, fine art, music and educational resources that, quite honestly, are typically only available in cities. Growing up loving these things while living in a small town that didn’t have them created a sort of hunger for those opportunities, so when I saw that urban fire being stoked again in Rochester, my attention was captured. I honestly don’t know if I would have experienced the same excitement over Rochester’s “revival” if I hadn’t been raised to appreciate the beauties of urban life. Based on my time in Chicago, I was able to quickly identify the first rumblings of rebirth in Rochester’s core.

As I got to know Rochester better, as I began developing a relationship with my hometown, I began to see areas that needed attention. From there, it was a desire to look past the simple, superficial reasons for why some things weren’t the way they should be. Surely, in a city with so many social, economic and political nuances, there must be more to the currents that were driving our deepest shortcomings.

It wasn’t until I began visiting other cities and seeing that most of them had the same strengths and weaknesses that I realized the problems in our communities are based on the same mistakes. My further curiosity led me to an informal but thorough (and ongoing) study of city data and resources that helped articulate the complexities surrounding the urban issues I was seeing. I had no idea just how many unseen and rarely appreciated forces have shaped and maintained everything from struggling business districts to our worst urban nightmares.

So how did I, the suburban kid, get here? It was the knowledge of what a city can be at its best. It was an exposure to urban living and the nuances that come with it. It was the desire to see big city amenities in my mid-sized Rochester. But it was also the appreciation for diversity and the importance of understanding why it’s something to embrace, not run from. It was growing up poor and realizing that it’s never the “choice” so many people think it is. It was also the exposure to others who, as poor as we were, considered us rich.

Finally, it was the desire to look outside my own city for examples. This is something we as city-goers don’t do nearly enough of. We have a world of urban environments to explore, and seeing the ones that work best, as well as the ones that fall short, helps us all understand and improve our own communities.

In my youth, my eyes were opened to what a city could be. Now that I’m an adult, I understand just how important it is to preserve our urban fabric… not just for the sake of vibrancy, but for sustainability, education, job creation and equal opportunity. As I grow older, my desire to create that reality isn’t driven by a car, it’s driven by an appreciation for the diverse fabric of people that make our communities the colorful, beautiful places they are.