Sometimes it pays to get out of your comfort zone. That’s one of those obvious pieces of advice, but one that’s worth repeating every so often. Last week, in the midst of too many work deadlines and with the inexorable, unbendable deadline for Christmas shopping hanging overhead, I nevertheless took time off to attend a function in Philadelphia.
It was the 15th anniversary celebration of a group called Next City, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reporting and writing about urban issues and the need to make cities sustainable models for inclusive communities. It started as a magazine and then morphed into a website and accompanying newsletter. I have been following it since I started my book project on William H. Whyte, whose own writing foreshadowed much of what is now being discussed by Next City participants.
The $40 a head event was held in an old vocational high school building in the heart of what had once been, and probably still is, a working class neighborhood in South Philadelphia. In an example of what is happening in the core of many American cities, when the school board shut the 340,000 square foot building down in 2013, the structure was not torn down but turned into working spaces and offices for artists, craftspeople, and entrepreneurs. Some 80,000 square feet are now leased out. What appears to be a trendy bar occupies the eighth floor. The rest of the building is still pretty much as it was when it was built in 1938. But you can envision what it will look like as it gets modern updates and original architectural details are highlighted.
For a while the building tour seemed to be the single payoff of this trip outside the comfort zone. The party itself, held in what had been the cavernous school gymnasium, with thick climbing ropes still hanging from the rafters, was a succession of small encounters with 20 and 30-somethings in an acoustically impaired environment. Hoping to get a feel for how this online-only editorial operation was managed, I tried to connect with an editor or reporter for Next City, but was unsuccessful.
By the time the formal presentations began, I had pretty much tuned out the audio. But when the original founders were introduced I perked up a little. I couldn’t hear much of what the first two speakers said. But I managed to hear the third co-founder say something to the effect that he realized the precarious state of our cities when he took a job out of college and ended up living in small apartment above a store in the heart of Baltimore. His grandparents showed up and were appalled. They had worked their entire lives to make sure their kids and grandkids could live in the suburbs, not in some inner-city walk-up.
He seemed to be the quintessential millennial who has rediscovered the city as a model for sustainable, inclusive, post-suburban living — both a subject and potential reader of my book on William H. Whyte, the editor- turned-urbanologist. I made my way over to where the speakers were gathered and planted myself next to them, determined to get at least the co-founder’s e-mail address so that we could communicate later. The man identified himself as Adam Gordon, who now works for an affordable housing agency. Interestingly, he said he was familiar with U.S. 1 — he sees it when he visits South Brunswick.
About 10 minutes into the drive back to the comfort of Princeton, I started to think about Gordon and South Brunswick. Could Adam Gordon be related to Gil Gordon? The latter is the retired consultant with whom I had been trading e-mails for the past few weeks regarding the Period Project, a charitable endeavor aimed at providing feminine hygiene products to young girls whose families are already in need of assistance for basics such as food. (See Between the Lines for an update.)
A word about Gil Gordon. U.S. 1 interviewed him back in the early days of the newspaper, the 1980s, when he was a consultant advising businesses how to handle the relatively new concept of “telecommuting.” Gordon, who has a master’s degree in organizational behavior from Cornell University, worked in human resources at Johnson & Johnson until 1982, when he started work as a consultant and expert on telecommuting.
When I googled Gil to determine his relationship to Adam, I also discovered an IT trade magazine that presented a time line of telecommuting. Number 1 on the list was the coining of the term in 1973. Number 2 on the list came in 1982: “Telecommuting expert Gil Gordon began his consulting business for companies wishing to start telecommuting programs.”
But telecommuting was not my interest now. I sent an e-mail to Gil Gordon to confirm my connection with his son. Gordon replied:
“Yup, that’s him. My wife and I pinch ourselves — our two kids and their spouses managed to land in ‘good’ jobs (a qualitative assessment). Adam you know about, his wife runs the dental practice in a Center City low-income medical clinic. Our daughter is an assistant principal in a South Brunswick elementary school and her husband is an ER nurse.”
Then I made contact with Adam. It turns out he is more than a little familiar with U.S. 1, he is very familiar with the new urbanism and the revival of city centers. To top it all off, as associate director at the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, he is at the forefront of providing the critical element to all those trendy urban centers we are reading about: Affordable housing that will enable those vibrant downtowns to include the full spectrum of people, not just the upper 10 percent.
The younger Gordon remembers his father bringing home U.S. 1 when he was growing up. “I was reading it when I was in high school because it covered planning issues that I was interested in even then,” he says. “I got interested in planning in large part because of the rapid change that happened in and around where I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. There was a lot going on in the area then — attempts to create more of a sense of place in places like Forrestal Village, the Jersey Center Metroplex proposal, the opposition to Route 92 (which I got involved in as the president of our high school environmental club), to name a few big things. And I gradually understood the impact that the Mount Laurel decision in particular had.” That affordable housing case, Gordon realized, resulted in his high school being much more diverse than his elementary school. It was a transformation that “was a very positive experience,” he says.
Gordon graduated from Yale and then Yale Law School. As was the case with the other two co-founders of Next City, Gordon started his career living in relatively poor neighborhoods and observing first hand some urban dynamics that were not “adequately reported at the time — how cities and suburbs were grappling with race, new forms of development, and sustainability to name a few issues,” he says. “I think the country is leaps and bounds beyond where it was 15 years ago in creating good development and great places, but the question of who those places are for, from both a race and class lens, is perhaps a more pressing question than ever, as more and more places become unaffordable to broad swaths of the population.”
Next American City was launched in 2003 as a quarterly magazine. The name was later changed to Next City and the publication became online only. Gordon left in 2006 to become a staff attorney at the Fair Share Housing Center and has been fighting the affordable housing battle every since.
When Governor Chris Christie ordered the disbanding of the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH) in 2011, Gordon and his colleagues took the case to the state Supreme Court, which overturned the decision in 2013. More recently he took a critical look at the new Main Street North Brunswick, a mixed use development of office, retail, and residential all clustered near a new train stop planned for the northeast corridor — a testament to the new planning that’s needed in the suburbs. Not so fast, said Gordon. “We sued the developer a few years ago when they tried to not include any affordable housing and reached a settlement for several hundred units as part of it, which we are excited about.”
For all of us who have already bought our way into some enviable residential location, why should we care whether someone else can afford to live in our neighborhood? One answer is that there is a real value to economic diversity. When the cop on the beat in your neighborhood also lives in that neighborhood, everyone is better off. Ditto teachers, ER nurses, and — dare we say it — media reporters.
Another answer is that those who might find your town unaffordable are not only those who cannot afford it, but also those who choose not to afford it. My guess is that people like Adam Gordon and his wife have not followed the gold bricked path that others with their credentials might have followed.
And one more reason comes to me, as I see there are just six shopping days left before Christmas. While I am out at CVS on Christmas Eve trying to find some last-minute gifts, my better Christian friends will be hearing the story of an overbooked innkeeper making room in a manger for two down-on-their-luck travelers, Joseph and Mary.
As the tall tales of organized religion go, this one is pretty good. And to make a little room for those less affluent than ourselves seems a good idea at any time of the year, as Adam Gordon would argue. To then help the newcomers through their difficult entry into a new community is also not too much to ask, as Gil Gordon would argue. And to get outside your comfort zone can pay off in all sorts of ways, as I would argue.
Merry Christmas, y’all, and happy New Year.