the walking green

personal commentary on marriage & motherhood, urbanism & sustainability, theology & culture

Are You Prepared?

Truth be told: I have survivalist tendencies.

I don’t speak a lot about preparedness because I don’t want people to see me as a weirdo Doosmday Prepper, building a bunker in my basement and storing ammunition under my bed. (I am doing neither of those things, btw.) I am a planner by nature. So, emergency preparedness is a manifestation of that need to plan ahead and be prepared for any situation, especially now that I am a wife and mother and have more than myself to take care of.

I think my interest in survival scenarios started young. While some of my female peers were reading The Babysitter’s Club, I was reading books like Hatchet. When I was a bit older, my taste gravitated more toward dystopian apocalyptic literature and movies. Then, when I entered college, more toward outdoor survivalist and adventure stories. The “What would I do in this scenario?” question has always been exciting for me. When I had my first child, I developed a lot of post-partum anxiety. So, my natural need to feel prepared has been both a blessing and a curse.

Living in a city, we take for granted the fact that we can get anywhere we need to get, to get anything we need, at any time. But we should know better than that. I have no desire to breed fear or anxiety in other people (because, Lord knows, I have enough for myself), but do you ever stop to ask yourself, “Are you prepared?”

Enter, the Polar Vortex.

Now, I am a Chicagoan by birth, so cold weather is not new to me. And, in general, I handle the worst of Cincinnati’s weather pretty well. But I will admit that there have been a few really cold days this winter and it appears that some more is headed our way. When extreme weather hits, it has ripple effects that run through all aspects of our lives. In the past two months, around the country, we’ve read story after story of the effects of extreme cold, ice, and snow: cars stalled, traffic stopped for hours, huge highway pileups, water pipes bursting or freezing, electricity down, busses stranded, etc.

And how about the recent chemical leak in West Virginia? Did you hear about it? We were lucky to be a large municipality, far from the leak. But, still, the City of Cincinnati had to close off intake valves from the Ohio River and use stored, treated water for a day while the hazardous material floated past the city. What if you were one of the 300,000 people further up river who had no drinking water because of the crisis?

Now, consider hurricanes, floods, extreme heat, earthquakes, tornados. These are just the natural disasters.

What if you had no access to the public water system for 24 hours? 48 hours? 72 hours?
What if your heat went out? Or your electricity?
What if your city closed the roads for three days and the grocery stores couldn’t receive deliveries?
What if you couldn’t leave your home for a week?
Or what if you absolutely had to leave your home for a week?
What if you only had an hour to leave?

These are questions we don’t like to ask because they make us feel powerless and vulnerable. But we have to ask them because we are powerless and vulnerable. And, if we don’t ask them, then we stay powerless and vulnerable.

Part of dealing with my anxiety has been reconciling my powerlessness and relinquishing control over things I cannot control. The other part? Being reasonably prepared.

There are four phases of preparedness.

Immediate.
This is preparation for a sudden, local emergency like a power outage or public water loss. It also includes car emergencies like being stalled on the side of the road or being stranded away from home. A good estimate of time for supplies is 72-hours. Preparations include simple emergency kits for on-hand at work or school, and in vehicles. Basically, if you were stranded in your house or in your car or in your office for 1-3 days, what would you need to survive?

Extended.
This is preparation for a few weeks of limited access to resources in times of civil unrest or after a disaster situation like a tornado. Preparations are usually as simple as keeping bulk supplies of what would normally be found in a functioning household, including water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. This would also include short-term evacuations.

Long-term.
This is where we get into the real “prepper” scenarios that make for tv-worthy entertainment. This goes beyond a few weeks’ worth of supplies and veers into months’ to years’ worth of stored food and sundry items, alternate sources of water and heat, and means of protection (i.e. firearms and ammo). This phase also considers long-term evacuation situations. Think: New Orleans, post-Katrina.

Perpetual.
People who enter this phase of disaster preparedness are generally preparing for a complete collapse of society, lone-wolf survival, and living off-the-grid. Have you seen the show Revolution? Imagine yourself in that America.

As much as survivalism and emergency preparedness fascinate me, I have not ventured much past those first two phases of preparedness that I outlined above. I’m just not convinced that there is an urgent need. So, I’m definitely not suggesting my friends cash in their IRA, buy a dozen acres, and bury a bomb shelter for the apocalypse. But, there are simple, affordable ways to prepare for potential emergency situations and it surprises me how few of my friends (especially those with children) haven’t even considered doing it.

The American Red Cross has a pretty good list of resources and tools for emergency preparation. This is probably a good place to start if the concept is new to you or seems overwhelming.

Like I said, I don’t talk too much about emergency preparedness because the “Prepping” world is a bit of a freak show that I’d rather not associate myself with. But, I think I have a responsibility to protect and provide for myself and my family in an emergency situation. It’s not quite as simple as keeping a few extra batteries and boxes of cereal in the house, but it’s also not as difficult as you may think.

Consider it.

(I’m happy to post more online resources if anyone is interested.)

Read this: News from Elsewhere

A few excellent articles worth sharing:

 

1. Here’s How Much Money You Must Earn To Buy A Home In 25 Big US Cities via Business Insider

Although this doesn’t seem to take into account the enormous amounts of debt and extravagant living expenses of most Americans, it does point to the fact that homeownership is relatively affordable for most of us. In Cincinnati, where the average home is just over $100k, “the American dream” is well within reach.

2. Pigs and Chickens Save Struggling Kansa School via World

I might not be a fan of standardized schooling, in general, but I could get behind an agricultural-based school. I wonder what this would do in an urban setting in the Midwest?

3. Chicago Aims to Beat Detroit on Horse-Drawn Carriage Ban via NextCity

Our city has a few horse-drawn carriages in the Central Business District and, as a downtown resident, I’ve heard varied opinions about them. This article offers an interesting discussion about the issue and how it’s playing out in two other cities.

4. The Yuppie Price Index for Services via Locality

Cincinnati was not included in this list (I wonder why?), but it’s interesting nonetheless. What exactly does it cost to be a yuppie in this city?

5. The Case for Big Cities, in 1 Map via the Washington Post

In 31 states, one or two metro areas account for the vast majority of economic output in the state.  Those numbers make clear that while you may like to hate on big cities, you — and we — need them.

It’s hard to ignore such striking facts. I would love to see one done on a local level. There’s got to be some Cincinnati-based data analyst willing to put together a similar study (and infographic!) for our region…

 

 

Enjoy!

 

Why I’m Thankful for Winter

What is it about winter that makes me feel so reminiscent?

Everything slows down. The nights are longer. And there seems to be more – s p a c e – for quiet and contemplation. Now, with three kids, space is generally pretty limited. (As is the quiet.) But the past few weeks have found me trapped inside my mind more than usual, thinking about the past.

On February 21, 2004, I stepped foot in Cincinnati for the first time. It’s an easy date to remember because it was the day after my brother’s wedding. And I’m glad I can remember it gives me a timestamp for that monumental day.

You see, at the time, February 21 didn’t seem so monumental. It was cold and I was visiting a good friend who was to become my boyfriend and I thought Cincinnati was pretty cool. But nothing about that weekend could have prepared me for all that would happen in the next few weeks, the next few months, and the next ten years.

It was winter. And, in winter, everything feels slow and quiet. So slow and quiet that you’d never know what’s actually happening under the surface.

The truth is that winter is alive, even if it looks like it’s sleeping.

Winter is like the calm before the storm
or the silent, early stage of labor
or the kettle of steaming water just before the whistle.

We cycle through the seasons every year but, for some of us, “winter” (in the proverbial sense) can last much longer. When I first arrived in Cincinnati, I was deeply imbedded in one of those winter-y seasons of my life. At the time, the cold, dark, and quiet of February 21st were apropos. And that cold, dark quiet stuck around for quite some time.

But, speaking literally, I’ve always loved winter.
I love winter because, even though the ground is frozen solid, there is magic underneath it all. It’s the kind of magic you can’t see, hear, or smell because it’s hidden until the ground thaws.

Why am I thankful for winter?
I’m thankful for winter because winter ends. And, when it ends, I’m reminded that every winter ends.

There is a storm brewing,
that baby is about to be born,
and you will hear the steam whistle.

We know this because storms and babies and hot cups of tea have all happened before and we can trust that they will happen again.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time looking back on my first few years in Cincinnati. At the time, I could have never known how monumental those years would be and what I would find at the other end. But, looking back, there were markers along the way that I simply didn’t have eyes to see.

If reminiscing involves looking back for the subtle hints we missed the first time around, then faith involves looking forward to what we have every reason to believe lies ahead.

After the ground thaws.
When the lightning crashes.
When our baby lets out that first cry.
When we finally warm our hands on that piping hot cup of tea.

Winter is a lot like the still railroad track the moment before it starts to rattle.
Maybe faith is something like holding your ear to the rail.

Are you listening?

The Hidden Cost of Sprawl

I came across this link on Twitter (via @brenttoderian) and had to share it here.

infographic1000It’s a Canadian study on the hidden costs of suburban sprawl and it reveals the economic stress sprawl puts on all citizens, both those inside and those outside of the city:

While a suburban mortgage may look cheaper, it’s perpetuating a problem for municipalities, businesses, and taxpayers.

The report can be found at thecostofsprawl.com and I’d love to know if there is another study with US-specific statistics. Preferably one with an awesome, user-friendly website like this one?

Can someone send me a link?

Urban Families: How to Get Them & How to Keep Them

I’d be a millionaire if I had a dollar for every time someone has said to me, “Oh, I would love to raise my kids in the city, but…”

(Okay, maybe I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I would have a decent wad of cash.)

There are two sides to the “urban family” paradigm. There are the things we choose to live here for. These are the inherently valuable aspects of urban life, the positive things about the city. And there are the things we choose to live here in spite of. These are the battles we fight internally, as a family, and externally as we go about our lives.

I’ve argued over and over again for families to consider urbanism as a valid and valuable lifestyle decision for themselves and their children. And I know many people who have seriously considered it and, maybe in another life, would have actually done it. But the truth is that, in the past 50 years, our cities have simply not been designed with families in mind while the suburbs, on the other hand, have. And although I’d argue that the design of the suburbs is flawed in many ways, it is at least a response to what families wanted at the time. It delivered on its promises of safety, privacy, and comfort, and families flocked to get a piece of it.

So long as the people designing our cities are designing them for everyone but families, our cities will have a hard time attracting them and keeping them here. At another time, I’d love to draw out my manifesto a bit more and explain why, exactly, our cities need families (and why families need cities). For now, I’d just like to offer some suggestions for how urban planners can design cities that will appeal to families in the first place.

1. Make it safe. I don’t believe urban areas are actually any more “dangerous” than other areas, but the dangers are different. The population density and economic diversity of cities creates a level of insecurity that will probably always be present. But there are subtle ways to increase the comfort and safety of urban environments, which will make parents more comfortable having their children around. For example, get police officers back on sidewalks instead of in cars. Keep streetlights in working order, especially in alleys. Enforce vehicle/pedestrian laws that make walking safer. Enforce loitering and public drunkenness laws. Ticket speeding cars. Invest in “main street” districts that encourage foot traffic, which increases safety. Make bike lanes. Get guns off of the streets. I could go on and on…

2. Provide diverse housing options. As a city becomes more economically viable (or successful, even!), working- and middle-class families are quickly priced out of the housing market. There will always be low-income, subsidized housing options. And their will always be high-income options. But a family living near the median income of any metropolitan area will have a hard time finding a comfortably-sized living space that they can afford in the urban core. A city that wants to attract the sustaining power of the middle-class simply must find a way to make it possible for them to live there. I wrote about this a while ago, and I’ve thought about it a lot since then as my husband and I consider how long we will stay in our home and where we’ll go from here. In my mind, the perfect housing market is one in which a couple could move around the same neighborhood from their first apartment to their first home and eventually to their retirement condo, if they wanted to. But if this is ever going to happen, if young couples will consider investing in a neighborhood for the long run, there have to be a multitude of options for the present and the future. And there has to be space for creative situations like living/working properties and multi-family co-op housing.

3. Don’t neglect public (indoor and outdoor) space. This should be obvious, right? One of the biggest things a family gives up when moving to the city is literal space–both outdoor space and square footage. So families will be drawn to communities that have a variety of public spaces that offset that loss. And I’m not only referring to public areas like parks, playgrounds, and squares. I would also include amenities like libraries, zoos, and museums. Invest in making these places where people actually want to spend time on a daily basis. Make them clean. Make them beautiful. Keep them safe. And, please, make them free! (At least sometimes.)

4. Provide diverse food sources. “Where do you do your grocery shopping?” is among the top five questions other moms ask me when I tell them where we live. In Over-the-Rhine, this is a simple question to answer. Between the OTR Kroger, Findlay Market, GreenBean Delivery, a csa co-op, and the few big grocery stores within a 5-minute drive, food is the least of my worries here. But some other urban dwellers are much less fortunate, especially those without a car. (Have you heard of “food deserts?” This article from 2011 will–and should–break your heart.) Make it easy to find affordable and healthy food and parents will be able to cross off one of the things on the top of their “anti-urban” checklist. (Victory Garden, anyone?)

5. Support transit options. One of the hallmarks of young urbanists is their love for public transit and for car-lite cities. As these young folks get a bit older and start having children, they will be looking for other ways to get around. And they will want to live in places where loading and unloading a couple kids into a car five times a day is not necessary. I am very thankful to have a reliable vehicle. But I am thankful that, living in the city, I can go days without using it. And I am even more thankful that, if we continue to live here, my kids might be able to live, work, play, and attend school as teenagers without ever needing a drivers’ license (or needing to use it). Pedestrian- and bike-friendly, car-lite, rail-based commuter cities are a future that I’m willing to invest in. And I want to live in a city that invests in that future, as well. It will take some time for families (especially with multiple children) to get used to a pedestrian lifestyle. But, once they’re acclimated to it, I would bet that most will never want to go back.

6. *Invest in education. Another question on the top of the list of Questions Often Asked of Urban Families is, “But, where do your kids go to school?” People ask this because the quality of the public schools is probably one of the top 2-3 things that keep families out of cities in the first place. Most middle-class families cannot afford private schools, so public schools are their only option and sending their kids to a struggling school means a whole lot more work for the parents and risking all sorts of academic and cultural stresses for the child. A sure-fire way to attract educated, middle-class families to the city? Create a kick-ass neighborhood school. It will bring them in in droves.

7. Invite families to the table. Do you want to know how to attract families to your city? Ask them. Believe me when I say that many parents would actually love to move to more urban areas if they felt those areas were a legitimate option. But, for the past fifty years, it has not been (at least for those in the working- and middle-class) and, so, families were written out of the urban planning equation. Invite families back to the table and let them be a part of building a more liveable city.

I understand that this is really a matter of “the chicken or the egg” as far as urban planning goes. Will families move to the city because the city is designed with them in mind, or will the city design with them in mind because they move to the city?

There will always be pioneering-types who are willing to move their families to the city, regardless of its design. In our neighborhood, I could name a half dozen families who were here long before me, raising children in a neighborhood that is far safer and more comfortable now than it was when their children were young. In this aspect, I am in no way a pioneer of family-friendly urbanism. But, now that I’m here, I want to help steer the design of my city toward one that is more welcoming of my peers and more liveable for them once they’re here.

If you build it, they will come. Right?

I sure think so.

* On a personal level, I did not want to include “Invest in education” on my list. I have all sorts of wacky ideas about education, one of them being that a child’s academic success is almost completely dependent upon their family dynamic and parental involvement in their education. Basically, I believe that a parent who is committed to providing a good education for their child will do so, regardless of the schooling options available. This is especially true in a city like Cincinnati where children can opt out of attending their neighborhood school. I decided to include it on the list anyway because: 1) I am sympathetic to parents who are committed to public schooling (and neighborhood schools) and understand why the quality of the neighborhood school will make or break a decision to live in that neighborhood; 2) that urban schools are often the most under-served and academically weak; 3) regardless of what middle-class families may move based on the success of a neighborhood school, the lower income urban kids who have no other option than their neighborhood school deserve a chance at a better education. This, we all know, is the first step toward a better future for them post-graduation and is worth the investment, all middle-class yuppie families aside.

What’s In Store for 2014

I’m not one for New Years Resolutions. I never keep them, so I stopped making them. But, I do think that a new year is a great time to make plans for a new season of life.

With that in mind, there are a few things I’m prioritizing for 2014.

- Working on de-cluttering, purging, cleaning, and repairing/replacing around our home. Living in an old (over 100 years old!) home means constantly keeping an eye on repairs and updates. Our house is, thankfully, in good condition structurally-speaking. But it needs many cosmetic and comfort updates. This may be the year we get new couches and central air conditioning! Whoo-hoo! And there are about seven million things I could get rid of right now if I got serious about it.

- Hosting more events. Long before we were married, my husband and I realized we were a great event-planning team. In fact, one of the reasons we chose our first apartment and our first home was that they both offered space for hosting events. We’ve been using our house as an independent arts venue since we moved in and I’m hoping to continue doing so. On the top of my list of people to host? These guys.

- Setting things in place for a more structured homeschool schedule in fall of 2014. This means: initiating a more structured family life with loosely scheduled waking, cleaning, eating, outdoor, and reading times. As a mostly un-structured person, this will be a challenge for me, but I’m going to make it happen for the whole family’s benefit. (I’m really excited to add tea time–yes, I said “tea time”–to our daily routine.) I’ll also finish compiling my library for Grades 0-1 (see: Ambleside Online) and starting Izzy on his nature journal. For a kid who loves to read and draw, this is going to be a fun year.

- Writing more music. Did you know I’m a songwriter? Yeah, me neither. Who would have known that child-rearing would suck all of my creative energy? I’ve taken up blogging since having children, but I haven’t written a song in years. I’m hoping that 2014 is the year I re-learn the art of songwriting as an adult/wife/mother and see where it takes me. If I can’t write anything new, I hope to at least master some songs that are new to me, some of my favorite folk songs, hymns, and lullabies.

- Being a better wife and friend. Relationships have never been “easy” for me. As a very self-aware introvert, any level of social awkwardness or emotional vulnerability gets me running in the opposite direction. My marriage, as always, must remain my top priority on the relationship front because, as my husband could tell you, my relational dysfunction affects him the most. Also, during the past few years, I’ve tried to hone in on my “girl friend” issues (i.e. why it’s so hard for me to have female friends) and I am going to work really hard on developing and maintaining relationships with women I love and trust. I have made many wonderful friends here in Cincinnati and I need to work on making those relationships prosper.

- Learning how to dress myself. What is second-nature to one person is a foreign language to another. And, in all seriousness, fashion has become a foreign language to me and I need to learn how to speak it. This is the year that I learn what is appropriate for an articulate, semi-creative, 31 year-old, urban, mother of three to wear. I got some killer shoes for Christmas, so at least that’s a start…

- Getting more sleep. (Maybe.)

Wish me luck!

(What about you? Have you made any resolutions??)

Seven Truths About Conservatives

Us vs Them.
In popular culture (and in popular media), the presentation of social and political issues would make you believe that all controversy comes down to this, right?

“Either you’re for us or you’re against us.”

Sometimes it’s easier to simplify complex issues and controversy by minimizing our enemies than it is to approach our differences with a generous and open mind. In Cincinnati these days, the political climate is quite hostile. A few key issues (namely, the streetcar) may have perpetuated the Us vs Them dichotomy, but the dichotomy between “Progressives” and “Conservatives” is not new. Regardless of the issue in question (the streetcar, healthcare, gay marriage, etc.) there is a lot that we assume about the people on the other side. Most of these assumptions are based on stereotypes and, though we know that stereotypes are often true, they are unfair.

While working in the secular nonprofit world, I’ve always been one of the most conservative–both socially and politically–of my peers. And, though I’ve never considered myself an “apologist” for Conservatism, it’s been necessary at times to step in and speak on behalf of other Conservatives. Even those with whom I disagree.

And, that’s the point.
If it’s possible for me to consider myself a Conservative, yet still disagree on certain issues with my conservative brethren, then it’s safe to assume that there is more diversity on all sides than we’d like to acknowledge. I’m sure there are just as many Progressives who could tell you the same story.

So, let me offer an oft-needed reminder of seven truths about Conservatives that every Progressive should know.

1. We are not your enemies. Although some of the loudest voices among us call you names and reduce you to the ignominious “Them,” they do not speak for all of us. Many Conservatives are interested in cooperation and are willing to work together with you.

2. Conservatives want a better world, too. You may disagree with them about what a “better world” looks like, or how to get there, but you should not assume that those worlds can’t co-exist. Sit across the table from an articulate, passionate Conservative and you might be surprised by how much you actually have in common. Many of them are motivated by the same things you are, things like a safe community, a peaceful world, millions of full bellies, and a thriving economy.

3. Most Conservatives are not wealthy. You may think that all people with a conservative bent are only out to protect their pocketbooks, corporations, and investments, but that’s simply not true. My guess is that most of the folks who stand on the conservative side on social and political issues are working-class and middle-class citizens. They might not be “the poor,” but they are definitely not wealthy by American standards. And this is why they often vote against issues that raise taxes. They are often the ones who are on a fixed budget and are most affected by small changes in tax rates.

4. Conservatives give generously. Progressives think that Conservatives are stingy and selfish and hate poor people. But that characterization is unfair. Sure, many Conservatives give to faith-based organizations instead of secular ones. Sure, many of them are donating more money to their church than they do to their neighborhood homeless shelter. But, conservative individuals and organizations are meeting needs in every corner of the world, from clean water in the Third World to medical care in large metropolitan areas to GED tutoring in the poor urban core. The reason Conservatives don’t support socialized medicine or government assistance and subsidies is not because they don’t want to give their money to support good works, but because they’d like to have more control over how their money is spent and how that work is done.

5. Not all Conservatives are trigger-happy war mongers. Let’s be reasonable here. George Zimmerman does not speak for everyone who is passionate about 2nd Amendment rights. And not all people who support US involvement in wars do so because they profit from those wars or love the feel of blood on their hands. These issues are more complex than that and we do ourselves a disservice when we write them off as having simple solutions.

6. Sometimes, Conservatives are right. You can learn a lot from people who are different from you. If you care at all about being right, not simply winning an argument, it might be in your best interest to take some time to understand what Conservatives really believe and think. Find a Conservative that you respect and ask their opinion about something, not for the sake of debating but for the sake of understanding. You might be surprised to find that your new friend knows something that you don’t. Let down your guard, give them the benefit of the doubt, and try to learn something.

7. Sometimes, Conservatives are wrong. Yes, just like you, sometimes Conservatives are wrong. But do you think you will ever change someone’s mind by minimizing their opinion? If you are unwilling to sit across the table and peaceably discuss an issue with a Conservative you, frankly, don’t deserve their time. This should be a no-brainer, but if you want the opportunity to change someone’s mind, you need to show them the same courtesy that you’d expect from them.

All seven of these things might seem obvious but they’re things we need to be reminded of every once and a while, especially in times when the “Us vs Them” narrative dominates the political scene. This is true in Cincinnati right now and true elsewhere, as well.

Educating Your Children in the City

One of the first questions my peers ask, related to our life in the city, is usually about my children’s education.

“So, where will they go to school?”

My oldest is not yet five years old and, unlike most of his peers in the city, he has never been to daycare and is not enrolled in preschool. When strangers ask him if he is in preschool, he simply answers, “No, we do school at home.”

When my son was born, I went from full-time to part-time (~15hrs/week) employment and never looked back. When I’m not at work, on top of daily household tasks, I am ushering our children into the world of homsechooling. How do we make this work? Well, it’s definitely not easy. I’ve been able to keep my job because my boss is gracious and flexible and we have always been fortunate to find affordable childcare (no, it’s not a family member and, no, it’s not free). It works because my husband and I are willing to sacrifice my “earning potential,” along with the comforts that it would afford, for the sake of providing a home-centered family life for our children.

Educating my children at home was never my plan. But, as my husband and I began building a vision of our life together, it started to make sense to me. We have made this choice for a multitude of reasons, some of which I wrote about back in January, so I’m not going to get into that now. Suffice to say, I believe it is the best option for most children and preferable to modern standardized public schooling.

We have many friends who homeschool, and many friends who don’t, for all sorts of different reasons. So, I understand that it is neither practical, nor desirable, for many other families. Education, in general, is a very polarizing issue. (Isn’t everything about parenthood? Geez.) And, here in the city of Cincinnati, there are three viable options for parents: 1) public neighborhood schools; 2) private, charter, or magnet schools; 3) homeschooling or co-op schools.

I’m not interested in drawing out the three different options. but would like to share a few articles that I’ve come across lately that have helped me clarify my own opinions about the options. Maybe they will helpful to you, as well.

1) Public Neighborhood Schools.

In the City of Cincinnati, without parental intervention, children default to their neighborhood schools. The school they’re enrolled in is based solely on their home address. Some of these schools are fantastic; some are not. They are always at the mercy of the demographic of their area and, therefore, are the most successful in higher-income areas and tend to struggle in lower-income areas. For parents who don’t want to fuss with private or magnet enrollment, neighborhood schools are one of the top few reasons they re-locate when getting ready to “start a family.”

A few months ago, I read an article published by Christianity Today, written by a woman who sent her children to a struggling neighborhood school–the worst one in her city. Before I got married, I always saw myself as a future public school mom. After reading this article, I felt like my former self might be telling my current self that I’m taking the easy road by keeping my kids at home. The sentiment of the article is gripping. And I will question myself again and aging during our tenure here in the city about the balance between caring for our children vs seeking the welfare of others’.

Our neighborhood school here in OTR is struggling. There are talks, among some like-minded neighbors, of pushing for an overhaul at the school. This is, after all, one of intended benefits of gentrification, right? Committed parents move into a neighborhood and, by sheer numbers, change the culture of the neighborhood schools. But, as it is, no drastic change is in sight for our neighborhood.

For families in other parts of the city, the neighborhood schools might be a good option, one that allows them to engage locally with their neighbors without sacrificing a sound education for their children. We know that the largest contributing factor to students success is parental involvement, anyway, so maybe it’s possible for our children to succeed academically no matter where we land. If that’s true, maybe there’s no reason to avoid public neighborhood schools.

2) Private, Charter, or Magnet Schools.

As a  “public school kid” myself, with good memories of my schooling experience, it never really crossed my mind that I would enroll my own children in private schools. Since I’ve married and started having children, I have considered it at times. After all, having our children enrolled at a school that prescribes to our own educational philosophy would take away the stress of doing it ourselves. And it would connect us to a support system of families who prescribe to the same philosophy. But, economics aside (because I’d have to work full-time to pay for it, which I don’t want to do), I’m simply not sold on the idea.

I have one main argument against enrolling children in alternative schools and it’s captured here, in this article:

…the (magnet) system as it is stratifies communities. By the time they graduate high school, many of the brightest kids already feel alienated from their neighborhoods; after all, they spend the majority of their day somewhere else.

(“Magnet Schools: More Harm Than Good?” Victor Harbison, NY Times)

What alternative schools do is pull families out of their immediate neighborhoods and plant them, for the duration of their educational career, in a “community” with their educational peers. Rather than engaging with their neighbors and early childhood friends, they now spend all of their time in another part of town with people their own age who are much more like them. It’s a comforting scenario and, to be fair, creates many strong and lasting relationships with both children and their parents. But it’s a shallow sense of community in that it is, by design, more controlled, homogeneous, and could easily end the moment enrollment ends.

The great thing about alternative schools is that parents can live anywhere it’s affordable or convenient, while still getting the education they desire for their kids. Heck, they can have three kids in three different schools if they want! But, from my perspective, this decision is counterproductive to engaging with the community where they live, inhabiting that space, and truly investing in their neighbors. They are, as the article above states, spending the majority of their day somewhere else. This is not to say that families always disengage from their resident community, only that their time will always be divided. So, though not rendering engagement impossible, it is at least now more difficult.

One obvious exception to this rule is the parish model of schooling that the Catholic Church has followed for years. I think it’s a good lead for us to follow. Another exception is when families relocate to be in closer proximity to their chosen alternative school, thereby creating more of an intentional “neighborhood” model. This second option, though, does not guarantee that any of the other students in the school live nearby, as the nature of alternative schools is that they are open to those both near and far. So, you may not need to drive your kids 20 minutes to get to their school, but you will now have to drive them 20 minutes to visit any of their friends.

(As a sidenote: These are the very same issues I have with those who join churches far from their homes. I’m sure I’ll write about the issue someday, but today is not that day.)

3) Homeschool or Co-op Education.

When I was young, I knew a handful of homeschooling families. Then, in the 80′s, homeschoolers were on the fringe of even religious circles and were often isolated in their decision for home-based education. Now, thirty years later, the world of homeschooling is as diverse as our education system itself.

A few weeks ago, I saw a link to this article posted on my Twitter feed and it absolutely made my day. The source of the article is Next City, a nonprofit online news source and blog written from an urbanist perspective. The article tells the stories of a few urban homeschooling families and articulates, much better than I can, the rich lifestyle education afforded to families who homeschool in urban areas. It also helps illustrate the level of community engagement that’s possible for families who may feel committed to the place they live, but cannot sign-on to the available schools for whatever reason.

Far from disconnected protestors against the mainstream, urban homeschoolers use the city as a resource — and in turn, can become deeply embedded in the city’s wider life.

(“Charter for One: A New Breed of City Parents Embraces Homeschooling,” Carly Berwick, Next City.*)

*The article itself is viewable, in its entirety, by subscription only or for $1.99, but it’s worth the cost.

I know that homeschooling is not always a better alternative to other available options, especially in smaller communities with more parental control and involvement. But, the potential for homeschooling in an urban environment really excites me, especially when so many of my peers can’t imagine living in the city because of the schools.

The article above does not address homeschool co-ops, but you can find a quick run-down here on About.com if you’re unfamiliar with the idea of co-oped education. In my mind, some type of co-op is absolutely necessary for homsechooling families and provides just enough of the “alternative school” benefits, without a full-time commitment.

But, what about you?
Do you live in a city?
Where do/will your kids attend school?

A Quick Note about Subsidization

Subsidization.

Depending on which side you’re on, the word elicits either hope or disgust.

I’m sympathetic to both sides.

I have worked in the nonprofit industry for the past 9 years and know firsthand how stark the difference is between private donations and corporate funds. In our world, the difference between small award money and large government grants can easily mean the decision of sticking to volunteer help vs hiring paid staff, seeking free tagline promotion vs paying for billboards, or repairing outdated computers vs upgrading to new office supplies. Subsidies make the impossible possible. And, when used strategically, they provide better services and improved efficiency which, in turn, actually paves the way toward independence and increased capacity.

Conversely, I understand that the goal of every entity is to be independent of government handouts and subsidies, free from corporate entanglements, and at liberty to make decisions without needing to answer to those who are actually footing the bill. And I do believe that privatized systems usually do work better and more efficiently (which is why I am not a Socialist).

When it comes to an issue like the Cincinnati streetcar–whose controversy has made national newsthe opposition has a legitimate point: Why should residents in the outskirts of the city subsidize a project that (directly) benefits only a small minority of the population? Like I said, it’s a legitimate question.

So it needs to be addressed.

One of the gentlemen who commented on my blog post about the streetcar debate echoed many other Cincinnatians when he wrote (mocking me by his quote):

So… the “strong urban core” requires looting people from the suburbs. Who is depending on whom?

I am sympathetic to his point and I’ve heard it said a million times in a million different ways. But I believe it speaks out of a misunderstanding of how vibrant cities actually work.

A metropolitan area is a complex machine. If a city were the human body (the most complex machine in existence), the city’s infrastructure would be the veins and arteries and the people would be the blood vessels. The urban core is the heart of the city. The heart pumps the blood that pushes out into the rest of the body to move the limbs and keep the brain functioning at full capacity. If the heart dies, the rest of the body dies.

What does this have to do with subsidies?

No part of the body–or the city–functions alone. We all want to pretend that we exist independently of each other, but we don’t.

Too many of us have a false sense of autonomy.  It’s as if we believe that we are “self-made men” who have not (directly or indirectly) benefited from the financial investments of others. And maybe it’s true. Maybe we never accepted $20 from our parents for gas money. Maybe we didn’t attend a public university with the help of some sort of financial aid. Maybe we purchased our home with cash and have never borrowed from a bank. Maybe our neighborhood association paid for the street lights on our street. Maybe we wrote a personal check to off-set the cost of the mega-grocery store relocating to the shopping complex down the road. Maybe we don’t send our kids to Cincinnati Public Schools or use city trash services. Maybe we live off the grid and use electricity from solar panels (that were made by a company that was not partially-funded by a government grant).

Maybe someone somewhere lives in a place that is growing and thriving and a safe, wonderful place to live, but where everyone pays for only their own stuff and no one ever has to share anything.

But I don’t live in that place.
I live in a city.
And, in a city, we share.

When we choose to live in a city–and I don’t mean an “urban area,” I mean an incorporated City in the proper sense–we make a promise to cooperate with our neighbors to make the city a better place for all of us. When we have an opportunity to embark on a new project that could benefit us all, we do it together or we don’t do it at all. And, if we can’t agree how to do it or how to pay for it, we put it up for a vote and the majority rules.

I understand that some people are skeptical of the streetcar project. I’ve admitted many times that I’m a bit skeptical myself. But, in this instance, the majority has already ruled.

Twice.

When people on the edges of Cincinnati say that they “shouldn’t have to pay” for development in our urban core, they are functioning with that false sense of autonomy. They act like the quality of life or culture, energy, or economic vitality of the urban core means nothing for the quality of their own lives. It’s as if they’ve never watched a Bengal’s game. Or had a job with one of downtown’s Fortune 500 companies. Or their kids didn’t beg to go see the fireworks on the riverfront or the Christmas tree on the square or the exhibit at the museum. Or they didn’t buy their wives or husbands or grandparents or secretary a ticket to the Symphony or the ballet.

Amenities and cultural institutions are what make Cincinnati a vibrant and desirable place to live, work, and play. A healthy urban core gives businesses and institutions a safe and comfortable place to exist and a safe and comfortable place for you to bring your out-of-town guests (and take your urban-chic family photos, which are all the rage among suburban folk). Without a healthy urban core, we decentralize these amenities to a point where we lose the very thing that draws people here in the first place–our shared identity.

We, collectively, choose to subsidize the infrastructure of our city because it’s what keeps the people–the blood, if you will–moving in and out and around the entire machine. Without a healthy urban core and an efficient and updated infrastructure, we simply cannot make the city the machine it needs to be to sustain the rest of the parts.

Said another way:
We can live without an arm, but not without a heart.

Or:
If you want a healthy city, you need to pump some love into its heart.

Here at Home

Fall came quickly this year and we’re taking it all in.

IMG_6658

I have a few blog posts planned for the next few months, but I’m honestly enjoying the distraction of family, friends, and seasonal celebrations. It’s moving too fast (Next week is already Thanksgiving!) and these kids are growing like weeds.

Stay tuned for:

- Locally-sourced Christmas gift ideas.

- My most recent thoughts on the Cincinnati streetcar debate.

- Meditations on Advent and New Years.

- What I’ve been learning about the blessing of “daily bread.”

For now, enjoy the season. It will be winter before we know it and you’ll miss all this color!

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