Category Archives: Ambition

Vision for Detroit, 1807

There was a time when Detroit was in worse shape than today. In 1805, the entire settlement burned. There may have remained remnants of buildings and streets, but for the most part, Detroit was simply a memory.

Just a few years before this fire, America invested in the idea of a completely master planned city: Washington D.C. There had been many American cities planned out of the raw earth, but none compared to the beauty and design of D.C. When Detroit burned, Augustus Woodward looked east for inspiration and found this new vision for the city called Detroit:

Old_map_1807_plan

In the two centuries that followed, this city grew to nearly 2 million residents and has now shrunk to a little more than 700,000. It’s easy to look at Detroit today and marvel at its losses. But we have to remember that fire. When Detroit lost everything, before the world knew her name, one person rose to draw this vision. He found inspiration in another great American city and drew a plan that became the backbone of an empire. It remains mostly intact to this day.

While bulldozers roam the city demolishing abandoned buildings by the 10,000s, as the earth returns to prairie as it was found over 300 years ago, residents of the city are wondering what could possibly become of this place. When I visited in 2013 I met so many people excited to tell me about the recent improvements: new jobs, new businesses, arts and culture. A few months later, the city declared bankruptcy and Kevin Orr took control of the city’s fate.

I’ll be going back to Detroit this summer and I can’t wait to see what has happened in a year: to walk around and experience it for myself. There’s so much to learn in that place: inspiration, caution, fuel for my endless curiosity, and context for the situation in Richmond and other American cities.

Until then, I’ll be wondering how a Shinola watch can cost $950 while this house was recently listed for $100. Until then.

Minor League City

The mayor of Richmond has plans to build a new baseball stadium in the historic neighborhood of Shockoe Bottom. It’s been called, “the best ballpark in minor league baseball.” In the past two months, this plan has provoked fierce debates in Richmond. Part of the opposition has been to the planning process. The Mayor chose to develop the plan without meaningful public input. Furthermore, there are reasons to believe the plan itself does not meet the full potential of this land in the heart of our city. Here is what it would look like:

Jones Plan

Of all the ways to present this plan to the people of Richmond, Mayor Jones chose what I call the “blitzkrieg method.” That’s where politicians attempt to stun the public with a fully developed plan without getting any public input. This also happens to be the method that Richmond leaders chose when first planning I-95 straight through Shockoe Bottom and Jackson Ward. This method is the most “efficient” on the front end, but results in bad ideas down the road because there is so little information being shared. Mayor Jones and his team followed this planning model because they knew that Richmonders didn’t want a baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. They knew that there would be no chance for constructive criticism.

Rather than listen and seek to understand the opposition, Mayor Jones had people put together this plan then he threw a party for himself to celebrate:

New Ballpark

Here’s a link to the complete RTD coverage of the story if you’re interested.

When I first saw the “LovingRVA” plan I was definitely impressed. I thought it was beautiful and coherent. I was amazed that the footprint of the ballpark could somehow miss all the slave auction sites in Shockoe Bottom. I didn’t understand how the stadium actually fit, but it seemed to make sense. Also, I was pleased that the designs included other elements that I could get more excited about such as this “Slavery and Freedom Heritage Site” over Lumpkin’s Jail:

Slavery-Freedom

The plan also includes a grocery store, a hotel for visitors, and even more apartments to bring people to Shockoe Bottom. It seemed like they thought of everything.

And that’s when I realized I’d been blitzed.

As I followed the story and talked with others I realized the flashy plan simply wasn’t ready.  Mayor Jones had “thought of everything” in a paternalistic way because he didn’t want public input. Mayor Jones feared it would be immediately rejected by a vocal community of people that care deeply about the past and the future of this city.

But that’s an area of disagreement because Jones seems to believe that the future of the city is this baseball stadium. So Jones is trying to push the plan through.

Mayor Jones and his allies seem to have a short-sighted concern for the present. In 50 years, he most likely won’t be around to help the next generation of Richmonders figure out what to do with another old, dilapidated sports arena. And he doesn’t seem to care.

People in favor of this “ballpark + hotel + grocery + heritage site plan” seem to have very little patience for the planning process. Proponents seem to have very little patience at all. And proponents also seem to think that bad ideas become good ideas after a few years of sitting on the shelf. There is an unbelievable excitement for the plan, almost a greed, that has clouded our logic. This perspective can be seen in a post a friend left on my Facebook page:

“… while this may not be the ideal, it’s a good plan with a lot of stake holders, public and private, that want to see it work. No, I don’t like how it was put together any more than anybody else. But this is the best, most workable plan to resolve the seemingly never-ending stadium debate that I’ve seen in 6 1/2 years I’ve lived in Richmond.”

In a recent article in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Mayor Jones said something similar:

“Jones said the city needs to act swiftly in order to have a new stadium ready by 2016 and because others are ‘eyeing’ the $11 million that then-Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed in the state budget for the slavery commemoration.

The mayor also said it’s not good for the city to have a prolonged debate involving ‘people who are anti-growth and anti-economic development.'”

Ok, we’re all tired of the ballpark debate. But is the best response to just say, “Forget it, let’s spend $80M on this plan so we can be sure we won’t ever have to hear about it again.”

Proponents of the Jones plan are acting like this is the first time we ever had pretty plans drawn for our city. They tell me this is the best thing for Richmond. They argue that this is going to put money into Richmond’s schools and pave our streets. They say they are “loving” RVA.

So anyone who opposes the plan hates Richmond, wants to defund the schools, and hopes the city spirals into ruin and shame. And that’s what’s so ridiculous about the rhetoric in this ballpark conversation. Most reasonable people believe the benefits to the tax base will be marginal. There are new businesses and apartments being built in Richmond every year. Each has made a small contribution to the city’s tax base. The impact of the Mayor’s project will not be any more significant.

Of course, it will be publicized 10x as loudly.

And besides, every added bit is just a ruse to distract us from the baseball park. Jones knew that it would be politically divisive so he loaded the ballpark down with a “something for everyone” patchwork plan to make it more acceptable to a wide audience. A week after the ballpark plan came out, I joked to some of my friends that I would actually prefer the ballpark plan if we simply removed the ballpark. The smaller elements seemed to properly fit the neighborhood and also fill a need.

The ballpark itself is just a shortsighted, small-town idea. I remember when I was a sophomore in college the city of Richmond floated the idea of a ballpark in Shockoe and it was generally opposed. Those opponents (along with a host of new allies) are still not impressed. To them, it’s not about a flashy or beautiful plan. It’s about determining the best use of valuable, urban space. And they believe that baseball in Shockoe is fundamentally a bad idea.

In response, they have drafted this plan:

Shockoe

Here’s another view from above:

new shockoe vision

This alternative plan fits the street grid. It honors the natural features of Shockoe Valley. It provides for a full museum devoted to the history of Richmond and the city’s role in international trade of enslaved people. It’s still very preliminary because they haven’t been given much time, but it’s a move in a new direction for Shockoe Bottom and the city of Richmond. This plan allows Richmond to accurately and adequately tell a story that is globally significant. This history is not just a “black eye” for Richmond. The era of slavery is quite possibly Richmond’s most important moment in global history.

One vocal supporter of the Jones plan told me this new option is “ridiculous.” He told me the private investment will never agree to the plan without the ballpark. But it seems like he and others are too distracted by $125 million and projected future revenue to think critically about other options to this plan. We’re all acting as if we’ve never seen this kind of money before. Fresh Market just built within the Richmond tax base. Our universities have been flooding the local market with construction projects every year. The $30 million First Freedom Center in Shockoe Slip is projected to bring “162 construction jobs, 76 hotel jobs, and $930,000 a year in tax revenue for Richmond.” The McGuire Woods building currently under construction “represents a combined investment of more than $110 million.” The new VCU children’s hospital up the hill is costing an estimated $168  million and, when completed, will provide numerous year-round, entry-level jobs to residents of the city and nearby East End.

Clearly, we don’t need to build a baseball park just to convince a little private investment. Without the baseball stadium, they say, no one will want to build in a flood plain.  So why don’t we encourage more development on the many hills of Richmond where we don’t need the ballpark concourse in the first place?

Have you seen the old Gamble’s Hill neighborhood lately? There are nearly three full city blocks taken up by parking lots and it’s located directly adjacent to downtown Richmond. Not in a flood plain. Also, what about the old Murphy’s Hotel location at 8th and Broad? Or the half-block space by Center Stage? What about Manchester? Is there any comparative analysis of these locations to determine their potential for generating more tax revenue for the city?

Richmond desperately needs more tax revenue. We don’t desperately need a new  minor league baseball stadium. The two seem to be getting confused.

I’ve heard a lot of people talking about “private investment,” but I haven’t heard many people getting creative about the many sources of funding at our disposal. To build something great, Richmond could allocate tax revenue, apply to federal/state/foundation grants, ask the universities to pitch in, and seek out private donations from the wealthiest Richmonders down to the average citizen. Below are two world-class projects that were paid through generous donations from citizens, corporations, foundations and local tax dollars.

Millenium Park in Chicago:

millenium

And Klyde Warren Park built directly over a highway in downtown Dallas:

Klyde

These are not examples of what we should do necessarily. These are examples to say, “If we build something that people are excited about, they might be willing to pitch in.” There are many wealthy Richmonders and foundations who would consider signing onto a plan for Richmond that is both world-class and enduring. The ballpark would be neither.

I also don’t trust the statistics that are being used to convince me that the ballpark is a good idea financially. I worry that we’re putting too much hope in the projections of tax revenue and not spending enough time developing the project itself. Instead of building an “OK” project with the hope of later economic vitality, we should build something that is world-class so that in the worst-case scenario (where overall tax revenue changes very little) we will at least still have something that is world-class. This is simply an argument for making the most of the variables that we can control rather than pushing through something less-than-stellar to get to the variables we can’t necessarily control. Also, if it’s a good idea it should be able to stand for itself.

That brings me to my closing thoughts on the idea of a ballpark in Shockoe.

Richmond should leverage assets that are world-class and significant to the identity of Richmond. If we’re going to spend over $80 million on a project, why don’t we spend it on something that people will visit from more than 10 miles away? Why don’t we build something timeless?

I love the Flying Squirrels. I don’t believe they are integral to the success of the city of Richmond. Richmond is made up of artists, businesspeople, state and local governments, universities, entrepreneurs, historic buildings and neighborhoods, the James River rapids, and many incredible institutions that are more pervasive and invested than a baseball team that has been here for a couple of years. Together, those assets could become world-class.

Minor league baseball will always be minor league. At this point in the debate, it actually makes me sad for Richmond that our leader is putting all of his political clout behind this plan. When you take a step back from the glitzy designs and ancillary projects you realize that it’s just a minor league baseball stadium.

At first, I couldn’t tell why I was so annoyed by the Jones plan. Was I just another development-averse history buff?

No. I realized it’s because I am embarrassed for Richmond. I have come to love this place that educated me and gave me my first job. I’ve travelled the world and I believe that this city could become something truly noteworthy. I think that Richmond could make national or international news for a project that is unique and inspiring.

We could make a statement that is thought-provoking. We could shift a trend or start a conversation. I want the rest of the world to wish they had been here sooner. I want them to feel like they missed out. I want Richmond to be one step ahead.

And minor league baseball is not a step ahead of anyone. In fact, it’s more of a step behind. By investing millions of dollars into a feeder team, we are simply reinforcing the second-rate status of our city to the major league team that we serve. Furthermore, by continuing to grovel for minor league baseball we are giving more and more legitimacy to the world-class cities where baseball has long been king. We did the same thing with the Redskins training camp. I know the Redskins camp is cool, but it basically says: we’re on the outskirts of greatness. As an institution, baseball is the same way. It has nothing to do with Richmond. It is not “our best side.” It’s not “ours” at all. And yet every few years one of our leaders gets the idea that it’s our ticket to fame.

Somehow, we have begun to believe that our city will be saved by the construction of a temporary stadium for a team that’s not even formally connected to our city. Baseball doesn’t make cities great. Great cities make for great institutions.

For the past 60 years, the leadership in Richmond have sliced and diced our city’s most historic core. In an effort to save these places, they’ve destroyed them. With broad brush strokes, the current mayor and his allies are fighting for more of the same. Instead of restoring the oldest neighborhood in Richmond (one of the oldest in Virginia), we want to dig it out and haul it away.

A few weeks ago, Mayor Jones took city council and the press to Durham to learn about their baseball stadium and to talk about how local leadership managed to sidestep democracy during the planning process. Jones and others got all excited about what they learned there just like they did in Denver and Norfolk and everywhere else. But I’m so tired of Richmond leadership going to other cities to find the answers to our problems. If they had to drive somewhere, they should have driven two hours north to D.C. where locals are developing world-class ideas and feeding world-class aspirations.

And I don’t want to hear about the Nats stadium as an argument in favor of a ballpark in Shockoe Bottom. The stadium in D.C. is tucked away in the southeast corner of the city. What’s at the center of D.C.? The Mall:

Sky-View-national_mall-

The center of New York is Central Park:

central park

Boston has the Boston Common and Emerald Necklace, San Francisco has Golden Gate Park, the list goes on. Great cities have at their core beautiful, timeless spaces where people have been congregating daily for centuries.

What about cities with ballparks downtown? Detroit:

detroit

Charlotte:

Generial aerial views on uptown / downtown / city center Charlotte skyline

I know everyone loves Charlotte right now, but look at how much land is taken by highways, parking lots, and the stadium. These were once neighborhoods where people lived, shopped, worshiped and recreated. Not to mention that some of these developments went through the heart of the city’s black community, Second Ward. That neighborhood was cleared starting in 1963, paved, and later sold and developed because “no one seemed to want it.”

I contend that the urban stadium is not a symbol of progress, but an admission of defeat. It’s significant that few thriving cities have a stadium at their core in the way that Richmond is proposing. In contrast, these cities have consistently committed to improving the quality of daily life from transportation to housing to public art and institutions of learning to public spaces and recreation. That is what makes a city worth visiting. That is what makes a great city great: connecting valuable assets with efficient and beautiful public investment.

And this is why I get angry every time I hear that phrase, “This is why we can’t have nice things.” That statement is said to people like me who don’t support the ballpark, a “nice thing” I apparently “don’t deserve.” There is so much wrong with the comment, but the most clear response is that Richmond deserves nicer things. In the instance of this ballpark plan we have set our sights so sadly low.

But this was not always the case. When Rachel Flynn was Director of Planning and Development, Richmonders passed a thoughtful and comprehensive plan for downtown that, if enacted, would finally unite the core of this city in a way that is sensible and beautiful. It would transform Richmond.

The plan was democratically developed, it was given a thorough review, and I’m guessing Jones hopes it will remain forgotten like every other world-class idea that Ms. Flynn gifted this city. Two years after this plan was passed she was demoted and run off by our small-town politics. She has since worked for Otak, and she is now the Director of Urban Planing in Oakland, California. I guess she’s better off without us, but Richmond will never know how much it has missed by losing someone so brilliant who loved Richmond so well.

Here’s a page from the downtown plan published in 2009:

Richmond Downtown Plan

For the rest of the plan, click here.

The Richmond Downtown Plan was guided by seven core principles:

  1. Variety and choice
  2. Traditional city
  3. Urban architecture
  4. Green
  5. River
  6. History
  7. Mixed-income

These are principles that sought to make Richmond a more livable, historically relevant, and desirable city. This plan would enhance Richmond’s world-class assets without being over-bearing. It would create a city that is accessible and integrated. In contrast, Mayor Jones’ primary goal seems to be generating more tax revenue. But he has missed the point: people invest in cities when they invest in themselves. Sidewalks, street trees, parks, bike lanes, public art: These are a few ways that Richmond could continue to make itself more attractive to private investment.

Large single-use projects such as the Coliseum, the Greater Richmond Convention Center, City Stadium, and the Redskins Training Camp (even the Siegel Center and Robins Stadium) have moments of vibrant activity connected by long stretches of nothing. Small businesses nearby rarely benefit from their proximity.  Visitors come for events then leave without stopping nearby. Everything, from food to entertainment, is provided “in house.” These big venues serve a valuable function in the city, but should be relegated to the edges where no one will notice their vacuous presence.

The center of a city should exist to facilitate and enhance residents’ daily lives.

***

In a few weeks, the Richmond City council may vote to construct a stadium so insignificant it will never be written about in any noteworthy international or national publication or be visited by leaders from beyond our state. It will exist for approximately 50 years and then it will surely be destroyed.

At that point I suppose the people of Richmond will once again be given a chance to discuss the value of their history and identity to the rest of the nation and the world. Perhaps at that point Richmond will look to rebuild the baseball stadium elsewhere and restore the historic urban grid laid out by William Mayo in 1737. We might replace it with something that is uniquely “Richmond.” Until then, I suppose we’ll have whatever our elected officials decide is best for us.

If the stadium is constructed, many people will try and claim that it has resulted in great advancements for our city. It will not take much for this project to be deemed a success. But we will never get the chance to know what the space could have been. Richmond never got the chance to dream.

If we want to build a new centerpiece for Richmond. If we want a “crown jewel” development for our city, here is my advice:

Build something that will still be relevant in 100 years.
Build something that people will travel more than 10 miles to visit.
Build something that will be open to visitors all hours of the day.
Build something connected to the history and identity of Richmond.
Build something that will make generations of Richmond proud.
Build something that will turn heads.
Build something that is architecturally innovative.
Build something that is innovative in general.
Build something that is environmentally integrated.
Build something that is thoughtful.
Build something that is the first of its kind.
Build something that is truly world-class.

We are living in the midst of a renaissance in Richmond, but the guy at the top seems to have completely missed it. Some might say that my hopes are too lofty for Richmond. Maybe I’m the deluded one. Or maybe I’m just worried that we’re moving in the wrong direction.

World-class cities are not built on a foundation of minor-league ideas.

Everybody’s doing it

When Richmond was debating whether to construct an urban highway, one argument used in favor of the highway was the citation of other cities with urban highways. Here are two prime examples from June 4, 1950:

june 4 1950-eight cities with highways say they're good-news-propoganda

june 4 1950-First ad-Forward Richmond Highway Committee in favor-Political ad

To read an opinion article related to this topic, click here.
For more artifacts like this, check out my page, “Highways in Richmond?

Book review: How Children Succeed

I love books written by journalists. In his latest, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough weaves together delicate personal stories and obscure academic research into a nonfiction that reads like the biography of a life I would be proud to live.

Beyond a student’s GPA and SAT score,  there is an entirely different measure that determines whether a they have what it takes to succeed. These “hidden” strengths are called a range of terms including non-cognitive skills, socio-emotional intelligence, soft skills, and character. Without a critical mass of these character traits, which range from self-control to optimism, an individual has a significantly lower chance of success. The research on character forces us to look past academic knowledge to something deeper that guides our choices and drives our behaviors. While the new psychological research is fascinating, the idea of character isn’t the most revolutionary.

But there’s another concept that I find to be more eyeopening and important: the idea that stress in life causes harm to the body and the mind. I first wrote about this topic in a blog post a year ago in response to a This American Life episode. In it, Ira Glass (also a reader of the book) interviews Tough and others  about the emerging research on the relationship between stress and the brain. As I listened, I memorized the phrase, “the biology of stress.”

As in, the biological response to the stress of life.

You see, ever since I graduated from college I’ve followed a meandering path of books on topics such as leadership, therapy, and growth. But none of these books made a biological connection between life and the body. In his book, Tough more clearly describes this connection as the HPA Axis which stands for the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (the chemical) response to stress. It’s this system that senses stress and responds in an attempt to protect the person involved. When these chemicals flood your brain, you lose the parts of your brain that house the executive function and revert to a “fight or flight” response and a more reactionary animal nature. Sadly, the more often you’re in stressful situations, the more likely this will be your primary response to life.

It’s this connection that most influenced me when I heard  Tough speak about his book at the Sabot School in Richmond. (I’m also proud to say I shook his hand and spoke with him when sat down at the end my row before the program.) While he spoke, I diagramed his speech on my bulletin:

Notes from Paul Tough event

As you can see, I found two main ideas: The Biology of Stress and the Psychology of Growth. It’s clear from the research that trauma and stress (and especially chronic stress) wreak havoc on the human brain, stunt learning, and prevent growth. But there is also incredible research in the field of psychology about the antidote to this stress: a secure attachment to parents who are are comforting and who help children manage their stress. For those who are older, a caring adult and a safe support group can also provide opportunities for people to feel accepted and to accept themselves.

This acceptance is the first step to growth.

But there also is a surprising third point that connects both stress and growth: that is the believe that growth is enhanced by, indeed requires, the presence of stress. And on the affluent end of the spectrum, Tough and others believe there is even a deficit of adversity which prevents students from ever fully developing into themselves. They simply pass from one institution to another seeking stability and a straightforward path of rewards for their work. In contrast, students in poor communities have a much higher risk of failure, but the students that get out have something their wealthier peers lack: the knowledge that they have achieved something great and the determination to do it again. I drew another diagram while trying to explain this concept to my girlfriend and simultaneously trying to understand it myself:

Notes on Class and SuccessThe point is not to be naive about poverty (especially extreme poverty) and it’s also not about “success” in monetary terms, but in the more personal sense of achievement. Tough writes that the point is to be more understanding of the role of adversity. For the high school student I mentor in Richmond, it wouldn’t help for me to remove all adversity from his life. That would stunt growth as well. Instead, I need to give him a safe place to feel accepted, to know he is loved, and to enjoy life for a moment. He can go to school or the basketball court and know that I’m only a phone call away. And, of course, when he needs something that he definitely can’t get on his own, I’ll do my best to help him out.

Which brings me to Fatima.

I first met Fatima while she was walking home from work one day this summer. I am friends with her roommate, but I had never met her so I made the connection and asked her about her life. I quickly realized that Fatima has a goal: she is determined to get her driver’s license. So I agreed I would teach her how to drive and do whatever I could to help her. A month or two later, I got a call and for the past two weeks, her roommate and I have been riding in the passenger seat while Fatima, timid and incredibly nervous, has been learning how to drive.

This morning, I picked her up to go to the DMV and take the driving test for the first time. She told me she has three chances to get it right before her learner’s permit expires on October 14 so she wanted to get an early start. “I want to drive,” she said when I picked her up. “I want to drive to the DMV.” Aside from a few “dad moments,” I kept my cool on the way and she got us both there with relative skill. As expected, the place was crowded so Fatima got in line to get her number (to wait in another line) and I sat in a seat nearby.

As she stood there, a short, middle-aged Moroccan woman, I was amazed by her courage. No mother or father was there to help her. No husband, partner, or lifelong friend was there with her for support. A stranger (me) was her only chance to get this right and to accomplish her goal. But to Fatima, none of that mattered. It didn’t matter that the woman behind the counter was a little rude or that she was surrounded by people speaking a foreign language. She was focused on one thing: getting a driver’s license to get a car to get a job.

And at first I thought she was incredible for her courage, ambition, and resilience (qualities she certainly possesses in great measure). But, as Tough writes in his book, that is never the full story. While we were waiting in her third line of the morning, I asked her about her family. She told me that she has three younger brothers: one who lives in Rhode Island, and who two live in Morocco with her mother. Her father has passed away. “How is your mom?” I asked mostly to be polite.

“She’s doing good,” Fatima replied.

“Do you get to talk to her very often?”

“Oh yes, I talk to her everyday.”

Every day. I don’t quite know what drives Fatima, but I know it’s somehow connected to the relationship she has with her mother and her brothers. She is loved. And every day when she goes out into this stressful, foreign world she knows that she can return home to a conversation with her mom, a peace, a calm. She’s even told her mom about me, about her goal of getting her license and the stressful test she has to take. And from this loving relationship she goes back out into the world, ready to fight every step of the way. Tough writes that this is the fundamental difference between stress that harms and stress that results in growth: a chance to be restored.

This book may make you think about your life, your kids, your students, your friends. It’s a study that pushes the conversation about “education reform” to a new and more meaningful place: failure, success, and the perilous journey in between.

Sadly, Fatima did not pass the driving test today. I don’t even think the instructor let her out of the parking lot. She very gently told us that Fatima needs more practice. She was just way too nervous and unable to complete some basic tasks as a result. I know she was devastated. After months of work and hours of waiting, she her license was still out of reach..

If that were the end of the story, if Fatima went home and gave up on her dreams, it would be a pretty sad story. But I am sure that she is Skyping with her mom as I write this post, telling her all about this morning, the lines at the DMV and the events of the day. And as she shares with her mom, Fatima is slowly replacing her own stress and fear with her mom’s love and acceptance. She even called me a few hours later to make sure I would let her know when I found a time to take her back for her second test. I believe that through her experiences today Fatima will move forward more prepared for the test and determined to pass.

And that is how anyone succeeds.

Grad school brainstorm

For me, grad school is a foreign country. Below is a brainstorm I wrote down after having a clarifying conversation with a friend last weekend. You may notice that I use the word “clarifying” relative to what my thoughts were before the conversation, but I’m nowhere near clarity. These are the topics that I’m interested in, not the path.

Having a blog has given me momentum through this process since I’ve had a chance to “try out” different topics and disciplines. While “trying out” is fun, it will soon be time to choose. For now, I have the intersection of three areas of interest and the title of my hypothetical grad school thesis:

20130708-112352.jpg

The difference of an early bloomer

There is so much truth to this Mozart quote I found on The Meta Picture:

Mozart

I personally don’t identify as an early bloomer/genius. Crazy, I know. If you’re the same way, check out this article about a late bloomer for some inspiration: “Discovered at 64, a Brooklyn artist finds his place” and definitely read through Malcolm Gladwell’s article related to the topic: “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?

Naming New Worlds

Behind the house where I grew up there is an undeveloped lot of trees and grass. As a child, my neighbors and I often climbed over the back wall into this untamed world. We constructed imaginary realms and a gateway to the outside. We even gave it a creative name: Trocourba.

Always fair (even as children), I remember we pulled the name from fragments of each of our respective school mascots: Trojans, Cougars, and Braves. As children, we saw this lot as an empty palate for us to fill with our imagination. Much of what we built has been lost, but I still walk through those woods when I’m home and remember the days spent claiming and naming that empty space.

***

This post is about the attitude of the explorer: the belief that discovering a place makes it “new.” And if it’s new then it’s never been named. We name things every day in order to claim them and make sense of them. In order to understand a place, we give it a name. It makes it familiar.

What first started me thinking about the idea of “naming and claiming” was a conversation I had with my high school students last year. I was teaching the “pre-European” section of a class on Richmond history and we started to discuss the word “savage.” This post is a follow-up to my fascination with the word “savage” over a year ago.

The concept and conviction of savagery, I realized, is a necessary precursor to the process of “naming new worlds.” There are two primary steps in this process. First, discovered lands are proclaimed “new” simply because nothing there is familiar and, second, the existing names for that land (and all inhabitants) are deemed illegitimate. In my class, we discussed the British invasion of present-day Virginia, but that’s not the only example of “savage” places being invaded. Many years after the US gained independence from the British monarchy, the kingdoms of Europe made similar claims on land in Africa. Much of this continent was subdued by the military might and shameful brutality of early Europe. As tribes and kingdoms in Africa fell, new nations were formed.

It was time for some new names:

Many of these names have been changed in the past 50 years of independence, but the legacy of colonization, of course, lives on.

In my search to understand this connection between mapmaking and empire, I remembered one of my favorite sections in the play, Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe. Tamburlaine is a play about a man that seems superhuman in his ambition and his strength. In one scene, Tamburlaine discusses the growth of his kingdom by using the metaphor of a map and a pen:

“Zenocrate, were Egypt Jove’s own land,
Yet would I with my sword make Jove to stoop.
I will confute those blind geographers
That make a triple region in the world,
Excluding regions which I mean to trace,
And with this pen reduce them to a map,
Calling the provinces, cities and towns
After my name and thine, Zenocrate”

(Marlowe, Tamburlaine, I, iv, 72-79).

Here Marlowe conveys the dreams of a new map for a new kingdom with a new king. Tamburlaine connects the map of the world to his goals for military conquest and his desire for increase. With these words he boldly speaks the future into existence. He, like many leaders throughout history, desires to claim the earth as an extension of himself and his power. His kingdom will be as large as his desire because his strength will not be stopped in his pursuit.

This confidence is not unique to Tamburlaine or fiction at all. There are many examples of powerful men looking over other people’s land with greed. These days we all understand this idea of a “nation” as if it is the way that we’ve always structured the world, but that is not the case. As we shifted to nations from the former powerful families, kingdoms, and empires, many voices of dissent were silenced as neat maps were drawn by powerful hands. Here’s a few examples (with dissenting factions in parenthesis):

  • The United States of America (The Lakota, The Sioux)
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo (The Banyamulenge)
  • The United Kingdom (Northern Ireland)
  • China (The Uighur, The Tibetan)
  • Iraq (The Kurds)

In America, we expanded our borders with military victories and the conviction that God Almighty had ordained our growth. In other nations, it was a colonizing force that created new borders with little regard for indigenous territories or cultural differences. While the colonizing or invading forces subdued, they claimed the land and it’s “inferior” inhabitants. In nearly every single case, it went something like this:

“Sorry, that place you call home isn’t your home any more. Oh, and stop calling it that. It’s not called that any more. You’re pronouncing it wrong. How could you be so stupid?”

***

This is the power of names. When a name is given, it becomes familiar. When the name of a place is changed, natives become foreigners. Dignity is stripped. Identity is lost. And there is a deep unquenchable resentment that lives on in hearts and minds.

We are all a part of this legacy. We are all naming or being named.