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Uphill Both Ways...

Or Why the Green New Deal Must Honor My Place Story

to Honor Its Green Story

By now, many of you have heard my “story of place…”

And most of you know that it starts with Miami…

And undoubtedly, you’ve heard me wax dystopianly poetic about how terrifying it was to grow up there - namely, while attempting to cross Miami streets as a teenager.

But I bet very few of you know the story behind that story…

You see, despite the vivid image I often describe of what it was like navigating Miami streets and how that shaped me —

“as a carless teenager, I was forced to play a cruel, real-life version of a video game, tightroping down pencil-thin sidewalks, dodging cars as a crossed strip-mall laden, 6-lane highways, masquerading as city streets, all to get to a chicken teriyaki sub. But the stakes, the stakes were much higher than that, as I learned way too early at the funeral of my 15-year old friend who lost her life to that game”

— my Miami place story runs much deeper than that…

For me, the most vivid memory I have as a kid growing up in Miami is scrounging through my mom’s old beat-up Pontiac 6000 LE looking for change in between the seat cushions. It was the end of the month and things were tight till next payday. We were hoping to find enough money to get a soup at Dunkin Donuts.

As the first generation immigrant daughter of a single-mom struggling to get by on a secretary’s salary, raising me and my brother with learning disabilities, it’s this story, and the very many others I have just like it, that truly shaped my experience of place. I grew up in “Westchester” - a then and now - low-middle income neighborhood of unincorporated Miami-Dade County. Besides the fact that this meant our community was one of many under-invested afterthoughts of a poorly-run, centralized county system, with no urban planning to be heard of, it also meant that I belonged to a severely underperforming school district. A school district that neither me nor my brother ever partook in. Despite her already paycheck-to-paycheck stretched wage, my mom never once questioned the sacrifice she made to put me in private school for my entire pre-K-12th grade education and to pay for the special school by brother needed to ensure he graduated.

And if that price tag wasn’t bad enough, having to put me in private school also meant my mom drove me to and from school every day - in the opposite direction of where she worked. Not only did this translate into a small fortune being spent on gas, it also meant she had to pay an additional fee for my pre and after school care (it’s also why I didn’t learn to ride a bike till my mid-thirties and haven’t quite yet mastered it – my dirty little urbanist secret).

But it didn’t end there. The need to have a car to get around plagued me even into college. I swear I can’t count the number of times I got a call from my mechanic while I was at my work-study job at the University of Miami that brought me to tears. It was never good news. I still can feel the panic attacks I got when would inevitably get the news that it was going to cost at least two of my upcoming (measly) paychecks to fix my car. And if I wanted to continue to both work and study – well, I was stuck. And let’s not even discuss the fact that I was driving a car around Miami without a working AC and eventually a driver-side window that would not roll down…while most of my private school friends had gotten brand new cars as soon as they turned 16 (yes, only in Miami!).

So yes, my place story runs deeper than just that cruel video game, as messed up as that was. I often wonder, what if my mom didn’t have to make all of those sacrifices? What would our lives have been like? Or worse, what if she just had not been able to make those sacrifices? Would I even have this place story to tell? It’s not lost on me - or likely you readers - that so much of my family’s money issues were exacerbated by issues related to the tie between land-use planning, transportation, and the built environment - or I suppose, the broader meaning of place.

These days, I find myself wanting to tell this story behind the story more and more. As cries around gentrification and displacement get all the more louder, I worry that the more insidious problem, the more “covert,” entrenched, pervasive issues around spatial injustice and structurally built-in economic disparity - like what plagued my upbringing - are either not sexy enough or too much of a quagmire to get their due attention (and that’s not to demean the threat of displacement but man, I can attest to the fact that living in a place that’s nowhere near the radar of those “gentrifiers” sucks too). I particularly worry that the tie between economic disparities are not seen through the lens of spatial injustices perpetuated and/or exacerbated by misplaced-at-best, racially-motivated-at-worst, outdated land use and transportation policies. And that’s being generous as, while obvious to most of you, land use and transportation are often still thought about in silos. And don’t get me started about how urban design is left out of most of those wonky parties.

Clearly, I’m passionate about this. So much so that if I had taken the advice of my husband to run for office in my hometown Westchester district - the 26th congressional district - in 2018, this would have been my platform, starting specifically with a complete restructuring of how we fund public education in this country. Seriously, it’s mind boggling to me that we are STILL tying individual school districts’ budgets to the freaking property taxes of that district. If that doesn’t scream entrenched economic disparity…ugh, yeah, don’t get me started. Some days I still wonder what if…But I digress.

You might be wondering, why now? Why is she telling this more personal part of her story now? And was that subtitle nothing but red herring clickbait? ;) Hold, on, I’m getting there!

Well, clearly, the fact that I even thought of running for office might tell you that I’m a bit obsessed with the 2020 field and politics in general - and given my datageek status, the wonkier the issues, the better. And so, like many of you, I’ve been paying keen attention to any and all policies that touch upon sustainability, economics, and quality of life - yup, the Green New Deal in particular, which strikes all three cords. And while I meant to give you my take on the - oh no, it’s missing the tie between land use and transportation outcry - I thought my personal story about how these two factors - in addition to urban design (ahem, that’s missing too guys!!) - impacted me personally would bring this home in a different way…perhaps in a more emotional - and hopefully politically expedient way (yeah, maybe I should have run, haha) - than simply adding my purely professional take to this already well-laid-out critique. And maybe that’ll help get this issue in front of AOC or Markey or even Elizabeth Warren (who’s put out her own even wonkier version of economic development reform) or anyone else endorsing the GND. And at the very least, given I already overshared last week, why not keep it going? :)

That all said, don’t fret, I will be sharing a complementary, decidedly more data-driven, evidence-based take on how the Green New Deal can be slightly restructured to ensure it meets the mark in the next couple weeks. Stay tuned. It’s really nice to be back!