I had a curious experience last night. I went to a party at my friend Jon Ramer's house and I had a lot on my mind. Everyone at the party was well acquainted with each other and I was well acquainted with my wife. So I was keeping my wife company and working out a lot of things in my head and not really integrating with the party.
But most things with Jon are about community. His parties are no different. His new house has a bizarre little quirk - a viewport from a landing which serves nicely as an impromptu stage. Now, it is safe to say that Jon is a "save the world" type. So everyone was invited to stand at the little stage and talk about how they might, in some little way, "Save the World."
It's been years since I've been consciously trying to save the world.
So I was musing about my days with The Names Project and wishing that I could talk about that as part of my present. But, in the end, I got up and gave an impromptu story about being with the NAMES Project. It was well outside where my headspace was about 10 minutes before that, and my delivery showed. But the thing that was interesting was the NAMES Project story opened a rapidly developing map where I asked myself "Well, how did I get here?"
And it was oddly coherent.
"As The Days Go By" or "My Relationship with Community".
The Early Days, a Planner is Born
In the 60s and early 70s in Nebraska, every kid belonged to a self regulating community of kids. The only rule was "be home before dinner". We could go anywhere and do anything (within reason). So the tools for community were provided to us at an early age. Today, as Danah Boyd has pointed out, kids are under virtual house arrest, which worries me.
But it wasn't how I grew up, certainly. Somehow, though, I managed to have a few experiences beyond that.
My father, well ahead of his time, was a developer of Townhomes. Zero lot line, shared open space, townhomes
- in Nebraska. So I grew up during my formative years attached to my
neighbors, in some of Grand Island's most expensive houses. We had a
nice view of the golf course (it's flat there, so don't expect anything
other than the golf course for a view), a huge amount of space to run
around, and a lot of grounds to care for.
I loved living in the townhomes, they always felt
comfortable and logical. We had a good, but not overly tight community
there. We'd end up in someone else's townhome for dinner every other month or so.
At the same time, I was trying to reconcile Grand Island in my mind. I was born in Omaha and lived there until I was 10. Even at that age, I'd been downtown a lot and always liked it. When we arrived, Grand Island was systematically destroying their downtown. As residents sat by and watched, the history of the city was bulldozed for the want of surface parking lots because surely people only went to the mall because you could park there.
Like any kid, I liked going to the mall because you could get an Orange Julius and play video games. Then they got this cool place that had fresh white pistachios. But I never liked the mall itself. Despite its hallways the side of four lane roads, it always felt claustrophobic and manufactured.
In 1982, Dave Fisher took me to the library and showed me the Candube-Fleissig
plan for downtown Grand Island. Like my father, this plan was well
ahead of its time. It wanted to make downtown more pedestrian friendly,
update some buildings and in general, pretty the place up. It was
Suddenly the mall was put into context. We paid for the mall by destroying the downtown. We had an either/or choice, and we chose the mall. I ended up writing my Senior Thesis in high school on the trade-offs of building a mall as opposed to renovating the downtown. That we had traded community for convenience, personality for parking.
WE JUST WANNA HAVE SOME FUN WE JUST WANNA HAVE SOME FUN WE JUST
WANNA HAVE SOME FUN WE JUST WANNA HAVE SOME FUN WE JUST WANNA HAVE SOME
FUN WHILE WE'RE YOUNG ENOUGH TO GET AWAY WITH IT.
Punk Rock was community for kids who hated their community. Punk Rock was structure for kids who hated structure. Punk Rock was a military for kids who hated the military.
Punk Rock was fantastic.
We had a lot to be angry about and punk rock gave us what we needed to channel it. Every parent of a punk rocker - turned hard working adult should praise the ground punk rock walked on.
Punk Rock provided a strong community identity, clear uniform rules, clear messages and - oddly enough - a ticket out of teenage narcissism. It gave us community rules for being narcissistic. Imagine that. And the beauty of it is, it gave it to us at such mindbending speed that it was utterly unsustainable.
But as a Punk Rocker, suddenly I was friends with people all over the world. I belonged to a club that very few people in Grand Island did. Just me, my close friends, and the people smart enough not to live in Grand Island, Nebraska. And that was very empowering.
We had our local Grand Island community, were in touch with the Omaha and Lincoln communities, even with the Kearney community. We had our own bands, traded tapes with people around the world, and had something to really focus on - rather than ourselves. We had to start doing things like showing up for band practice on time.
By embracing Punk Rock - whose major message was irresponsibility
and angst - we became responsible and hopeful. And that makes me smile.
Psychology - Religion for the Agnostic
Since I was in grade school, kids always came to me with their problems. We'd go sit under a bush or next to a river and they'd talk about their problems and I'd try to help out - by listening or giving advice or talking through something. This is a very natural one-on-one state for me and persists to this day.
So, naturally, one would expect me to become a psychologist.
In high school and the first year or so of college I assumed that was where I was going to end up. In 1985, I ended up at The University of Nebraska and quickly fell in with a professor named Monte Page. True to form, I went to the University of Nebraska, a school known largely at the time for "rat psychology" and ended up working with the only guy there working in transhumanistic and transpersonal psychology.
In no time at all, I was overloaded with Krishnamurti, Maslow, and Wilbur. And it was fascinating. I loved it.
The only problem is, UNL was a rat-psychology school. "When we put 72 rats in a box with David Hasselhoff, they get mad." That sort of thing. And as much as I loved the work I was getting from Monte, I couldn't see how I would apply it.
In other words, I was getting information on how to foster and embody community - but I wasn't getting information on how to apply that to "Save the world" in a Jon Ramer fashion.
(Incidentally, here's Monte's son Ken's IMDB page.)
The Return of Urban Planning
My dad built things. I was always building little cities from Lego and other tools. And it's no surprise now that I would end up in Urban Planning.
I ended up there due to my friend Chad, who is now the planning director for our hometown of Grand Island (Hall County). Chad came home one day and said he was taking a cool, graduate level course in Community Futures from the architecture school at UNL. He thought I should check it out. After a discussion with the instructor I ended up in the first of two graduate level courses I took as a freshman at UNL.
So I ended up in Joe Luther's Community Futures class. If every class were like that, I never would have wanted to graduate. It was the most fun I ever had in education.
We discussed downtown redevelopment, the role of urban futures in art and film, and the science of futurism. I knew then that Urban Planning would give me the structure I needed to utilize my interest in psychology and satisfy my need to see things come to fruition.
But UNL didn't have an urban planning degree for undergraduates and while I loved my professors, the administration of the University of Nebraska had strongly indicated their preference for football over academics or community. So I left the University of Nebraska and went to Michigan State. While MSU did have a strong football affiliation, I was able to get an urban planning degree in the midst of a very strong community.
There I met two professors who had a powerful influence on me: Rene Hinojosa and Roger Hamlin. Roger taught courses in public / private partnerships - which required then and now a strong sense of purpose and an ethic that a PPP is important in the first place. Actually, Rene's courses weren't as important as the time we shared together just talking about planning, community, international development and culture.
It was also with Rene that I went to Tokyo to study new town and transit development. That trip was a definite turning point for me in many ways. Mainly, it got the Nebraskan out of the USA which was vital for letting me thing well outside my previous box. Tokyo is very different from East Lansing and if things can be that different and still work, then the possibilities for human communities are endless.
Also, though, having the Tokyo trip and the ability to articulate it, led to my first real internships and later to my first real jobs in urban and transit planning. Without which, I wouldn't have found opportunities and subsequent jobs that had a strong impact on my relationship with community.
I should also mention that MSU's urban planning department was very small. So the community there, during college, was very tight. That helped all of us learn better. Small class sizes, students that actively discussed what we were learning, available and willing professors all created an academic community that was self-sustaining and vibrant. We didn't appreciate it enough while we had it. The other students at the huge MSU weren't so lucky. I am glad every day that I was not a business major.
Zines are Scenes
Concurrent with the punk rock and university was Zines. I've written about zines before, so I'll keep this brief. But zines provided a 20 year community of art. The buzz word of Zines (as with punk) was DIY. But DIY in a vacuum is just so much masturbation. Zines, as with punk, provided a massive support group of mutual authors with whom you could discuss your writings and theirs. It made people more likely to speak up, to put pen to paper, to distribute their thoughts.
That community was held together by the activity - as is blogging today. Watching that community gel, from the first zine I put out in 1977 to the last one I put out in 1997 was incredible. Trying to decide who was making a zine because they wanted to or if they were doing it because it was cool. Reading points of view that were mind blowing, puerile, or otherwise. The zine community was the first real asynchronous community I was a part of. Non-real-time conversations leading to honest feelings and support between the participants.
We Bring a Quilt
When I moved to Seattle, I went to work for a large multinational consulting company. My goal was to build a light rail system. I wanted to foster community by helping end reliance on automobiles. I thought that was going to be my fostering of community.
But I was blindsided by a different community.
My first day at Parsons Brinckerhoff in Seattle, I walked through the lobby and there was this 3 foot by 6 foot wall hanging in the lobby. I was mostly nervous that this huge company wouldn't be accepting of my long pony tail or my 20something hipster aesthetic - so I didn't pay much attention to the thing on the wall.
I was taken upstairs to my new office and sat down. There was no Internet in those days, so I was lucky to even have a computer. I moved my stapler around a bit, and puttered around waiting for something to do.
Then it hit me that the wall hanging must have been a part of the AIDS Quilt. I went down to the lobby again and looked at it. It was. I was dumbstruck. There was an AIDS Quilt panel here. There was also a book about Ed Eliott, the man for whom the panel was made.
He was a really cool guy. A transit architect whose main goal was to make transit a thing of beauty.
In the months to follow, I participated in the Quilt display at the Seattle Convention Center and traveled around the country learning about Ed and visiting his projects. He became a mentor I never met.
I also got involved with the NAMES Project itself. Becoming Co-chair of the Seattle chapter and participating in one way or another for 8 years.
The Quilt is the most amazing community I will likely ever see. There is far too much to fit into this already over-long blog post. But I will say that the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is the most successful thing I have ever seen. Period.
The Quilt is the worlds largest public art project and the worlds largest memorial. And each piece of it has deep, personal purpose. It's not the Washington Monument with a lot of bricks dug from the ground, it is thousands of 3x6 panels crafted by hand by people grieving to memorialize someone they deeply, deeply cared about.
Think about that.
Being part of the Quilt was an overwhelming honor and often utterly
intimidating. We sat with people while they made panels, talked about
AIDS and love and loss and politics, laughed or cried at stories so
personal they could only be told by that person, and felt the trust
they placed in us when we accepted them into the Quilt. We sat with
parents who had cut off ties with children and now, after death, were
making panels with their children's friends and learning who their kids really were. We poured coffee while people's world views visably changed.
We were invited to unlikely places like the teamsters unions, Baptist churches and fraternity houses with the Quilt to talk about the issues, to educate, the converse.
We took the community of the Quilt and turned it into the community of AIDS awareness. That community changed the world.
I say this myself now, 6 years after leaving the NAMES Project, with
the same awe I felt at the time. The same tears in my eyes. And the
same incredible disbelief.
The NAMES project was a cluster of self-perpetuating memes that were so emotionally charged - yet so expertly channeled - that is was the true beauty of community.
More Urban Planning!
During the middle of my NAMES Project experience, I moved to Portland and became part of the planning team that developed Portland's Region 2040 Growth Management Plan. Region 2040 sought to undo the planning regulations that rewarded bad development (unsustainable,alienating and ugly suburbanization) and replace them with code that rewarded good development (walkability, transit orientation, community).
While the work was interesting and enjoyable and sometimes exciting, I was more amazed at how Portlanders approached issues. Unlike Seattle or Michigan where people argued incessantly with NIMBY mindsets, Portlanders actually asked themselves "how does this benefit my community?'
The results are obvious. Portland is walkable, transit friendly, enjoys good parental involvement in schools, lower than average crime rates, etc. I went to Portland to learn how to create code for a good community and learned how a thoughtful community is the necessary first step.
People specifically moved to Portland because of its stated vision. They wanted to be somewhere where self-selected community-motivated people were. That sure made my job easier. But it also made it easier for me to walk to the store for a tomato.
Our Loudest Community
And we come back to blogging. Always with me it is about the blogging. The link above for the Zines will also talk about blogging. So, like the zine part, I'll keep this short.
The blogging community has a strong identity that fosters community,
but part of that community is freedom of diverse expression. So unlike
Punk Rock and perhaps even Zines, Blogging rewards a wide array of thought. Bloggers are quick to defend other bloggers even if their views radically differ.
That is a special aspect of blogging that we don't talk about much. We talk about the conversation and about freedom of expression and so forth. But the discontinuity of bloggers are their real strength. It's a community of thought - not a community of a particular thought.
Put It In Your Head
I am part of the cooperation commons.
This group is working to understand one of the primary underpinnings of
community - cooperation. We are studying everything that even hints of
cooperation and trying to bring it together in a wisdom-of-the-crowds
format by having shared resources (blogs, document
archives, etc). We are always looking for new and unique thought to
bring into the study and are examining world events an noting
cooperation in real-time.
This is a pretty academic exercise in my long-term relationship with community but already epiphanies from game theory and microbiology have occurred. So we'll watch as this develops.
This is a lifelong journey, girlfriend! There ain't no conclusion!
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