The northern end of Main Street in downtown Kansas City has been torn up to put in a streetcar for so long it is hard to remember what it was like as a functioning thoroughfare. Lanes closed, new lanes marked with a snaking line of orange poles, signs warning you to “keep right” and of “open trench”, driving down Main Street has become a stressful and tedious journey to be avoided whenever possible. Increasingly you hear that the businesses on Main Street, in the RiverMarket district (where the streetcar will turn around), and in the Crossroads (just west of Main) are struggling from the prolonged disturbance of major road construction.
While there are finally signs of progress, namely that there is actual streetcar rail in the street as opposed to just countless blocks of trench, the streetcar project is appears to have entered into a morass that many large scale projects with lots of moving parts fall prey to:
And not merely in the “bungled or confused undertaking” of the formal definition of this word. In the sense of feeling like there are multiple forces working at odds with one another and possibly not being aware of this fact until a perpetual state of stalemate becomes clear in a sudden and unpleasant revelation.
It is hard to witness this project falling into this state knowing the controversy that surrounded it. Kansas City citizens by and large have been opposed to the streetcar and to extensions of it beyond downtown. They perceive it as being too expensive and not a particularly effective form of transportation. City officials are invested in its development and cite the possibilities for economic development, increase in urban density, and reduction in car traffic. I will admit, my own perspective has vacillated between the two since I first moved here. What I have increasingly come to believe is this:
You don’t build for what you have. You build for what you want to have in the future. You build to create something new out of something that has reached its limits. You build to expand. You build to embrace possibility of something bigger and better than what you have now. You build to manifest a vision.
These ideas all sound very abstract and slippery when it comes to talking about taxes, construction, and return on investment. And they aren’t particularly persuasive. Citizens want facts and accountability and prudence from the government. They are averse to risk and by extension, will accept a status quo that is somewhat uncomfortable to going through the chaotic upheaval that will create truly dramatic change.
And that is the real crux here: if you want things to be different, then they have to actually change. And change can tear things up and leave them unsettled for extended periods of time. Change can look a lot like major construction (and destruction). Change can get really messy before it gets organized. It can begin to look very random and the strategy can be hard to see. It can get so complex and bring up so many new issues and obstacles and problems to solve, that you begin to feel like you are in the quagmire.
Change can be totally fucked up.
But if you will hold fast, keep looking ahead and putting one foot in front of the other on your course of change, you will wake up one day and see something amazing has been built. And with this newly built aspect in your life, even more change begins to trickle out from it like dominoes falling. A vision that once seemed abstract becomes more clear and the future you couldn’t imagine before begins to grow before your eyes. And best of all, when you embrace change, those around you also embrace it and begin their own transformative change process.
So just buckle up and enjoy the ride…because what comes from change is limited only by the breadth of your creative vision.
It was one of those exquisite spring mornings when all the potential of the season that has been sleeping beneath the surface wakes to stretch its arms up to the warm and clear sunny skies. Everything seems to be sparkling a bit as the sun glints brightly off shining surfaces, a slightly mischievous winking at what the day might hold. It is in the thick of the NCAA tournament and the Plaza, an affluent outdoor shopping area in Kansas City, is a swarming sea of color from both the visiting and home teams. It is already crowded in the late morning, with people strolling, shopping, and dining. There is excitement and anticipation in the air for what is to come on this bright and shiny day that has just begun.
I am there for a few small errands and as I walk past Barnes and Noble a familiar homeless man greets me with a friendly salutation. He is a relatively constant presence there and I see him most times, in the same place, whenever I walk through this part of the Plaza. Always friendly, he never asks for money, as he also does not today. I never give him money, not for any great moral or philosophical reason, but because I rarely have any cash on me. I did have a few dollars with me this morning, and after returning the greeting, I hand him a dollar. As I step past him, I am politely stopped by a security guard: dark trousers, crisp white shirt with a dark tie, a Mountie style hat. He hands me a very small square pamphlet, which I accept without scrutiny. I walk several yards before I open the pamphlet to read it.
It is an informational pamphlet, or at least that is how I believe its creators would describe it. It informed me that while many people believe it to be a kind and generous gesture to give money directly to people who are homeless, this action exacerbates the social issues of homelessness and can even potentially contribute to criminal activities. It provides a list of homeless outreach services to whom money could be safely given that can provide assistance in an appropriate manner to the homeless; hence, best meeting their needs and minimizing the potential harm of inappropriately assisting people directly with money.
As I read the pamphlet, I can feel my cheeks burning.
Brene Brown reminds us that we all know the “warm wash of shame”, this experience ubiquitous as its emergence is one we can neither deny nor control. And I felt that uncontrollable burn in that moment because while the pamphlet was written under the auspices of education, it was in actuality a correction, a prescription to guide future behavior, and a judgment of what had just transpired.
The bright and glinting sunlight was beginning to feel a bit blinding.
I was fuming under my breath when a middle school aged girl stepped towards me. She was wearing the blue plaid uniform of a Catholic school and was trying to direct my attention to the clipboard she was holding. As I waved my hand dismissively and sidestepped her to continue walking, her face initially scrunched into a frown of disappointment which she quickly erased and replaced with a patient nod of polite acknowledgement. She seemed to have been schooled not to expect that all would give her the time and attention she felt entitled to. To be fair, I don’t know what she wanted from me; however, my guess is that she wanted money. I can imagine any number of causes: money for camp, for band, for sports, for charity.
Whatever it was, it must have been legitimate and worthwhile because I received no informational pamphlet regarding the potential societal harm of middle schoolers being sent out from religious institutions (which their parents pay for them to attend) into public areas to ask for money for their private use.
This juxtaposition of legitimate and non-legitimate monetary requests was repeated in several places through the Plaza: a Catholic school youth with a clipboard able to freely stop people with their requests, and homeless people each with a security guard in a crisp uniform standing a few feet away holding informational pamphlets and ready to hand one out to every person that gives money.
The inequity was infuriating, as was the dehumanization. It was like we were being instructed not to feed animals in the zoo for their own well-being. This was not about well-being or what was best for the homeless. This was about control and privilege and paternalism. It was about the insular economics of the housed, the employed and their expendable income which ensures that money only changes hands through very well circumscribed transactions between very specific parties. At that moment, I would estimate 50% or more of the adults in restaurants on the Plaza were drinking some kind of alcoholic beverage with breakfast. (And some of them potentially planning on driving afterwards.) But if there is the possibility that a homeless person can buy a beer to drink in the park on a beautiful sunny spring day, well, that is something we’d better put a stop to and fast.
And what better way than to remind people not to deviate from the prescribed course of when and how to exchange money than with a discreet little slap of shame wrapped up in a small educational pamphlet.
I returned to the Plaza a few weeks later, this time mid-week. The streets are mostly empty and the security guards nowhere to be seen on this idle morning. I pass by Barnes and Noble and see the same familiar homeless man out in front warmly greeting all who pass by. I wish him a good morning and hand him a dollar.
He said, “My children thank you.”
And I said, “You are very welcome.”
No correction necessary.
In the thin and fragile winter sunlight, the large silver blue pit bull stands in the worn dirt outside of a makeshift wooden shed. With his back hunched over and his tail tucked between his legs, he appears as though he were curling himself up against the cold even while standing. He is tied with a cable coated in plastic that wraps around his neck and disappears to some attachment inside the shed. From my porch I can see his ribs, his spine and his hip bones as he huddles, bow shaped, in the wan, duplicitous sun. He turns slowly three times before curling up on what appears to be a piece of worn cardboard, his only cushion against the bare and frozen ground.
It is mid-morning in January and it is 5 degrees outside. It is so cold you expect your breath to freeze into a cloud of frozen spun glass in front of your face. But it is too cold even for that. Cold, dry and brittle, I try not to breath without my mouth covered by a scarf. It is too cold to remain standing on my porch, even dressed well against it, even to feel sympathy for this sad creature. On a day like this, sympathy doesn’t warm you, hope doesn’t warm you, even the flush of anger doesn’t warm you, because it is quite simply too cold. All you can do, all you want to do, is go indoors to escape it.
I go inside and prepare to call Animal Control for the third time.
If you have never called Animal Control or Child Protective Services or the police on your neighbor, then it might be difficult to imagine that this is something you need to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for. I think we all like to believe that in the face of injustice we would act swiftly and decisively. We don’t like to acknowledge that we have a very thick set of social filters that enable us to remain detached from this kind of protective action involving the authorities: we don’t want to get involved, we don’t really know what is going on, maybe we will make matters worse. Better to wait, see if something changes, maybe it will go away on its own. And perhaps deeper down, the fear of being judged ourselves and of possibly having that same judging scrutiny turned on us. And below even that, in our deepest and darkest place, the fear that we won’t be heard, won’t be believed, or will be dismissed. That when we open our mouths to speak, all that emerges is silence.
So something inside has to shift significantly to overcome all of this inertia and resistance. Something within us needs to change to recognize that helplessness comes from the choice not to act and that whatever the result, action is the only way out of the feeling that you are powerless. Your uncertainties and vacillations will not comfort you. Time does not heal all wounds and will not be a palliative remedy to the suffering you see in others. You don’t need power to make something happen, you only need the courage to give voice to your experience in order to share it with another. Like a child learning to give a speech at a school assembly, you need to walk out to the center of that stage, plant your feet, and S-P-E-A-K. Use your voice, use your breath, use your hands to gesticulate. Do not be silent and do not be silenced by ephemeral thoughts in your head and lurking fear in your heart.
The first time I called Animal Control it was 27 degrees outside and I thought that surely it could not be acceptable to leave a dog tied outside when it is below freezing. I left an “anonymous” complaint of concern for the dog’s welfare. The second time I called it was 13 degrees. This time I left my name and address and I made sure it was clear to mention the dog had no food or water and that the owners were rarely home to care for him. When I looked up the complaint, it simply read “unable to make contact” and was closed. The third time I called, I asked them to help me understand how the animal welfare process worked and whether they had left notice for the owners, and let them know that things hadn’t changed. The phone representative checked in with Animal Control dispatch while I was on the phone, said they would continue to try to follow up with owners, and told me to call as often as I felt I needed to. While encouraged by this, I expected that I would need to wait until the dog looked hungrier, colder or sicker than it was now for further action to occur.
Animal Control was out at the house within a couple of hours.
They propped open the door of the shed so the dog could sleep off of the ground, filled a bucket with water, and left a notice on the door of the house regarding their visit. The pit bull remained outside of the shed during their visit, excited for the unexpected company, but retreated into the shed once they had left to escape the frozen and unyielding winter ground.
Within a couple of days, the pit bull was gone.
I don’t know what became of him. I hope something better…that he is not tied up, cold and alone, in another yard somewhere. And while I am relieved not to see him suffering before me each day, I miss him. He was a constant, a reminder. He was a stick that poked and scratched me uncomfortably. He was someone I looked for and thought of and cared about. His lonely existence revealed the desire in me for connection, and reflected the idea that we want not just to be visible but to be seen as our true selves, as of value, as of worthy of love and belonging, regardless of our breed, appearance, or status. He had no voice of his own and his presence questioned me whether I too had no voice? Could I not speak for him? Must I remain silent?
I was not silent, and yet now I feel the silence of his absence. It is still winter, and while the sun may warm me some, even in his absence my gratitude towards the cold blue pit bull who inspired me to speak warms me more.
What is reliable formula for trust? What variables comprise this critical equation in which we entrust another person, another place, another process with our safety and comfort? Trust implies something certain and reliable, and yet a peek beneath it seemingly solid surface reveals not a stationary foundation, but a shifting one. Trust can land you firmly planted on solid ground or trust can lure you out onto thin ice, creaking and threatening to break beneath your feet for an unsuspecting plunge into treacherous waters.
Where to start with trust? and where to go from there? So much of trust is implied…
I trust what I know.
We tend to trust most easily that which is familiar to us: looks, thinks, and acts most like us. Our families, neighborhoods and social circles, all carefully selected and cultivated to reflect ourselves. And yet, to what extent can you trust something that has never been challenged by an unusual (and potentially adverse) situation or condition? How often do we hear the sound of surprised betrayal in someone’s voice when they recount how someone they knew and thought the could rely on has let them down when the unfamiliar circumstances arrived?
I trust a proven track record.
Some would say that they only trust those who have proven themselves worthy and have displayed the stalwart loyalty necessary to earn trust. Trust is not so much implied by familiarity, but is validated by experience and observation. But what about those situations that arise suddenly when you have to trust someone with whom you have no history and who comes without adequate information? How do you make a decision whether or not to trust?
Moving across the country brought up key moments when trust was necessary and upon reflecting on those, I propose that a combination of faith, empirical observation, and pure situational chance wind up influencing our decisions around trust. Because in the end, my husband and I found ourselves throwing away a major piece of our moving strategy and trusting ourselves and one complete stranger to help us make a pivotal decision for our move.
It is safe to say that we had a fair amount of naivete in going about what we were trying to do. We had picked our city and knew we wanted to live in its urban core. And we had decided we wanted to buy a house under 50K. Looking on the Internet, that great engine of information, we found many possibilities. But the algorithms of the Internet rarely deliver information with the context of culture and history. The city’s long history of institutional red-lining and racial segregation were not apparent on Realtor.com, but the effects of it were. Realtors we spoke with expressed reluctance, resistance and even refusal to show houses past certain dividing lines in the city, thus making these effects even more explicit. It became increasingly and disconcertingly clear that we were uncomfortable trusting an agent who wanted to ensure we only looked in neighborhoods with “like minded” people. We began to feel anxious around this lack of trust and became aware of how necessary trust is to feel able to move forward, make changes, and make decisions. To remedy this, my husband started reaching out to people he was connected with on social media that he knew were invested in the urban core and from there it was a shorter, albeit still precarious, leap to an agent willing to show us homes that would enable us to fulfill our goals.
Hardly had we established ourselves back on firmer ground, when uncertainty inserted itself in our path once again. Shotzee, our lovely old schnauzer, got sick the night before we were scheduled to fly to Kansas City and look at houses. And we knew we couldn’t leave him with anyone. It had to be us to care for him. We had to decide: do we cancel the trip entirely? does one of us go? and which one? We didn’t like any of the options…we wanted to go at that time and we wanted to go together. But we had no choice. We had to make a decision and there were multiple outcomes of the decision which required a lot of trust. Trust to work with a realtor we didn’t actually know, to confirm KC was where we wanted to move, to pick out a suitable house (no easy feat in the urban core of a complicated city), to ensure Shotzee got the care he needed, and for one of us to face having Shotzee put to sleep in our absence and the other to put him to sleep while home alone. Thinking of all these decisions now, I see how we could have drawn a very complex diagram with corresponding risk analysis weighing all of the options. But in the end, it was relatively straightforward. My husband had never been to Kansas City and he had been in contact with our realtor up until that point so he was most familiar with her. It really didn’t make sense for him not to go. And while it wasn’t really discussed in conversation, if I had to choose between picking out the house I was going to live in and deciding what medical care my dog was going to receive, I would choose the dog. No contest.
So our strategic plan to go to KC together was out the window. All three of us went to the airport: myself, my husband, and Shotzee. My husband went on to KC by himself to look at houses with our completely unfamiliar realtor. And I stayed home to care for Shotzee…and put him to sleep three days later while my husband was gone. The day after my husband returned to Portland, we put an offer in on a foreclosed home in Kansas City made possible and facilitated by our outstanding realtor. I never saw the home or the neighborhood before we bought it other than in photos.
When I tell this story, people are stunned that I bought a house I had never seen. The wonder at how I could put so much of the weight of this decision in my husband’s hands. And the answer is pretty simple…
I trusted him.
There have been two universal reactions to my announcement that I was going to move from Portland to the Mid-West: surprise and disbelief. But I also found a number of people who, if given a few moments to find clear and honest footing in the conversation, could see through the self-absorbed mental fog that covers the city in equal measure to the grey rain clouds and tells its inhabitants every day that Portland is the most amazing possible place in this country to live. The amount of media devoted to reinforcing this idea is overwhelming in the sense that I believe it has overwhelmed people’s ability to have their own thoughts and identity in Portland. Instead they have a Portland identity…because they live in Portland and that is what defines them.
On the surface, Portland has many progressive aspects. Sustainability and the “greening of the city” stand front and foremost as two easily recognized. Curbside recycling and composting, increasing investment in bicycle transportation, native gardening, and urban farming. There is an intense concentration of a wide range of alternative health practitioners. Artisan craftspeople abound, creating specialty foods and other handcrafted products. “Shop local” is the resounding cry to support small businesses, and farmers markets adorn every neighborhood in the summertime.
Idyllic as this sounds, there is a less appealing aspect to this picture. As Portland concentrates is cultural practices into a few baskets, the proliferation of other ideas diminishes. Ten years ago I would have characterized Portland as a place that had progressive perspectives. Now I would characterize Portland as a place with few ideas, all perpetually reinforced and more deeply ingrained everyday. People regurgitate a handful of versions of the same thoughts in ever narrowing expressions. Everywhere you look it is repetition of the same ideas, whether it be on politics, design, or social culture. People strive to look the same, to dress the same, and to have the same lifestyle. It is so pervasive, that women within a 30 to 40 year age range may display similar choices in hair, dress, and accessories. What began as a city with progressive and forward looking ideas to develop a new urban course has become a closed container of cultural conformity. There is a new cookie cutter in Portland, and it is young, alterna-hip, and white.
I grew up in a place like this…it is called Orange County.
Sweeping shocked gasps aside, this comparison is worth a long pause to consider. Stripping away the key difference between Multnomah and Orange County of political affiliation, with Orange County being a historic Republican stronghold and Portland staunchly Democrat, these two counties have some key cultural similarities all hinging on a pivotal word used above: conformity. Conformity of dress, thought, and mannerisms, shared ideas and ideals, and a strong attitudinal belief that their is a “right” or “correct” way to be and to appear to others. There is also limited interest or investment in the arts, creative, innovative, or intellectual development. Just because the surface ideals these two places seem extremely different from each other, does not mean that they don’t breed the same obedience to a self-referencing norm within themselves. And by perpetuating their particular cultures and tailoring their environments to fit with a narrow range of ideals, the inhabitants of these areas increasingly live on the margins of reality and instead inhabit a fabricated cocoon of their own self-rewarding design.
What disturbed me most about Portland in the months leading up to my decision to leave was the increasingly strong social culture of invisibility. I am referring to the tendency of people in Portland to not acknowledge the physical presence of other people around them in close proximity. This can easily be seen by the increasing tendency of people to brush past you without making eye contact or saying “excuse me” and instead being intensely focused on some spot just beyond your left shoulder. But it manifests in countless other ways: letting dogs off leash (and not picking up after them), ignoring red lights and stop signs, allowing children license to act out without discipline in the presence of other adults. In this city where conformity to a particular identity is so strong, people no longer see each other as people. People come in and out of your field of vision as an object to be ranked according to usefulness to you, and invariably avoided, ignored and dismissed the majority of the time. It is unpleasant, unsettling and dehumanizing. The countless tiny social interactions we have with other people throughout the day are the glue that hold us together as a community and keep us from being automatons randomly bumping into one another like the balls in a pinball machine. And this critical stickiness in Portland is dissolving rapidly. As people lose the ability to engage and connect with one another, there appears to be an increasingly growing level of resentment, frustration and anger brewing under the surface of social interactions. Not just ones where overt conflict is involved, but all of them. Because it feels like they all contain some level of conflict just by the occurrence of people being together in a place, time and circumstance.
There is little likelihood that I would ever have been physically assaulted in Portland. But I think there is a pretty strong likelihood that if I were physically assaulted that no one around me would react or get involved or help. Because chances are, I wouldn’t even be seen.
When confronted with difficult situations or challenging environments, often it is heard “it’s the people that keep me here…keep me working, living, etc. in this place despite its shortcomings”. In Portland, the situation is reversed….the environment is being made increasingly pleasant and comfortable, but it is the people that make it so difficult to live there.