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October 09, 2005

A Sense of Small Places & The Shape of Diversity

There are a number of observations that I have made upon reflection of my recent trip to Greensboro. The first has to do with the big city fantasy of small city life.

Out here on the Coast, we're all scrambling around - most of us on the upper edge of the middle class anyway - to find that million dollar idea or deal. We say, once we attain that we're going to chuck it all. All the stress and the traffic and competitiveness that we thrive on that occasionally overwhelms us, we say we'll leave the city for some peace and quiet. Maybe finally learn how to play acoustic guitar or fish with our sons. And since we recognize the huge distortions in the value of real estate, we look outward across the country in search of an idyllic place where our tract house mortgage could afford us a mansion and a yacht. And so by consensus, the location of choice seems to be Asheville, NC.

They say that Asheville is growing, that it's progressive and that it's a very nice place. They say the schools are good, the people are friendly and it's up against the mountains in a beautiful location. They say that 400k can get you a 4,000 square feet house on an acre of land in the better 'burbs. They say that there's an airport nearby and the cable modem service is top notch. I'm sure that there's enough branches of Starbucks around to make you feel as though you're never far from civilization. Sounds like paradise.

In Ravelstein, among the many ideas presented is that there is a reason that solitary confinement is the worst punishment. We humans are social animals. We need each other desparately. We'd go mad without each other. So the very idea of retiring to the woods is foolish. And yet that fantasy persists. Somewhere along the scale, with New York at the upper end and Timbuktu near the bottom, there is the right level of crowds we need for our mental health and well being. Maybe a small American city has that level, but there's a problem and that problem is the mix.

As a big city creature, there's a certain level of cunning and wariness I have among crowds. There's a lot to expect from people when there are millions of them in close proximity. Living in LA and NY has made me come to expect just about anything from just about anyone. It's the characteristic of the large set. But when you downscale, you reduce variety by definition. And so I am coming to appreciate that there are various flavors of diversity. Growing up in Southern California, sure you speak a little Spanish, but you also learn to distinguish Veitnamese from Japanese from Chinese from Korean from Philipino. I can't say I'm so good differentiating Indians from Pakistanis, but I'm not completely inept. Point? It's more than just 'Asians'. And let's not even get started on 'Hispanics'.

In Greensboro at the conference there were many testimonies of pride in their own diversity, but there was not one Asian in the whole joint. I haven't seen one during the whole trip, not even at the airport. As far as I can tell, Greensboro's diversity is a species of black and white. And so, I may very well imagine, is the case for other Southern cities of its size and shape.

When I spoke to Jill Williams with a skeptic air at the Flatiron over the fate of her Truth & Reconciliation Commission, I did so from the perspective of the impact of 5 murders in the global scheme of things. But I also did so as a race man on the far shore, across my own lake of fire. Anti-racist activism is an absolutely necessary yet relatively thankless task, and it's a hard thing to face that success doesn't often resonate as globally as it might seem. I think it's a function of the relative size and shape of our diversity.

I want to live in a neighborhood like Aycock. There are several like it in South Pasadena. It's the big house with the big trees and the big porch and the wide street with not much traffic. It's the warm glow of lights on in the evening in wide open windows. It's the free traffic of children and food from house to house and neighbor to neighbor. In all of us lurks the dream of the beloved community. South Pasadena is very very expensive. It draws from a huge metropolis, and so while supply is low, prices are high. Those that got, get, and in LA there are lots of ways to get and consequently a bigger kind of diversity in its cozy places. This is to be expected of a world city.

I checked IBM's website for jobs. There are none of my description anywhere in the entire state. Troubling. I think we have Jefferson Pilot as a customer, but I didn't find out what the other big employers are in the area - most likely the schools. Of couse the ultimate goal would be to keep my big city salary and live with the small town economy like a big fish in a small town. I could make a difference. I could connect with the city patrons and do. There's a great deal of attraction in that.

But what troubles me is my own commitment to the small - to the close up and the lost ability to escape. In the big city, I can be conservative easily. That's because the alternative is so large and ungainly. But in the small town one needs to be liberal, because the narrow becomes stifling. The size of the diversity is smaller and therefore embedded with more meaning. A diversity of black and white means little in Los Angeles County. A diversity of black and white is a big deal in the town where the Woolworth Sit In took place.

I don't mind good old boys, tractor pulls, NASCAR and trailer parks. It's a small part of my big world, and so I can tolerate it. I don't mind slow church folk, and quiet. I can always go to where the action is. It's a balance I've been able to achieve living in my big cities. So the fantasy persists and I'm still attracted to the small, and yet I remember the feeling of isolation when I recognized that even in Atlanta, there were days when I missed the big oceans of humanity I grew up and thrived in.

Not quite 9 months ago, I was studying Mandarin and poised to head to Beijing. Things change. I've got a lot more thinking to do.

Posted by mbowen at October 9, 2005 09:25 AM

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Actually... Greensboro does have an Asian population. And for the record, there were at least 2 Asians at ConvergeSouth (me being one of them, since I was a planner). ;)

I'd be careful of Asheville if that's all you heard. Heh. It's a great place, but there's some really raging politics. And if you wish to find a black person downtown, good luck. They're very difficult to find... (I wonder what that means?)

Wonderful post and thank you for coming to speak at Converge!

Posted by: darkmoon [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 9, 2005 10:06 AM

Interesting take, Cobb. I'm a guy who grew up in the rural outback of undeveloped Eastern North Carolina. Thus, I spent many a moon dreaming of the big city. Wife and kids have guided my path away from the major metro areas, though I've done quite a bit of traveling in the name of news. Having moved to the big city of Greensboro eight years ago, I've found I'm happy with its size and scope - though I still yearn for broader cultural offerings. As they say, the grass is always greener.

As for Asheboro, it's a great place - IF you're a fan of Birkenstocks and smelly jam bands. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Good talkin' to you. (Will you be my Blog-Uncle?)

Posted by: Lenslinger at October 9, 2005 12:57 PM

As Ben (darkmoon) wrote, his Chinese parentage makes him Asian; could be you didn't run into him often because he was working mostly on the night-time music events. GSO has a large Asian, Cambodian, Vietnamese population and a growing Hispanic one as well. Given our "no advertising budget except in-kind" funds, we couldn't be all things to all citizens this time around.

We're going to Converge again. Next time, we're going to make a bigger effort to be even more inclusive yet one of our this-time goals was to introduce the A&T faculty and staff (overwhelmingly African American) to the "white boy" world of blogging and creativity online, where we think many of our former textile-manufacturing jobs will be found.

Our Hispanic population, we're told by our Hispanic community contacts, isn't online yet. This conference wasn't for them this time. Our Asian population in Greensboro somehow didn't get plugged in and we want them too. A good goal to add to our efforts next time.

We're going to find you a job here. We should be so lucky to have you here. I saw JR at the grocery store this a.m. and we talked about lots of things, but you were a big topic. You were a hit here on multiple levels and I loved watching you click on who Paul Jones was.

Many thanks due to Ed for helping bring you here. Come back. Please. Stay longer. The shuttle driver misses you.

Posted by: Sue at October 9, 2005 03:36 PM

Blog-uncle!! Blog-uncle!! I'll be your blog-niece!

Posted by: Sue at October 9, 2005 03:37 PM

If you are serious about thinking relocation, be sure to check out the area colleges and universities. There are sometimes opportunities there. Though, not often because once we get here, we tend to stay.

My workplace --

A Little Urbanity works here --

Your host school was --

Run by a woman we all call "Sister President," --

Others here or near --

Thank you for all your wonderful words. You added so much to my experience.

Posted by: jw at October 10, 2005 08:44 AM

Cobb: Your transplanted Compton brother (by way of Anaheim, Alhambra, Pasadena, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco) here, saying, in all your observations about Greensboro, you neglected to observe (at least, I didn't see it) that the Gate City is the glorious birthplace of the galvanizing student sit-in movement, which became an integral part of the ongong civil rights struggle.

Incidentally, the four students (Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain) who embedded themselves in history and the white only Woolworth's lunch counter were freshmen from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical University, where ConvergeSouth blossomed this past weekend.

Posted by: Ivan Saul Cutler at October 10, 2005 10:03 AM

I've found you a house here in Aycock. Needs a little work, but what abode doesn't?

Catch is, you have to demonstrate an abiding appreciation for Bourbon.


Posted by: David Hoggard at October 10, 2005 08:58 PM

You're killing me.

There are many many reasons to love Greensboro and I have learned too many to give me peace with my own place. Your collective magnetism has disturbed my orbit. And yet I have to honor the commitments I have made over on this side of the Mississippi. If there were some way for me to have it all, I'm not so sure I could resist. Instead I have to do a standard bit of diligence and try to be conservative.

That said, the spousal unit has ordered me to investigate. The question is, what should I ask?

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 11, 2005 05:13 PM

What about "a summer home"? Have one on this side of the big river and that regular cramped crowded undiversified place on the left side? Here you got green grass, neighbors, bourbon, and bloggers. Lower cost of living. Relatively (for you) cheap housing prices and taxes. Did I mention green grass, neighbors, bourbon, and bloggers?

And, as a local hero, we'll all trackback to you and make you King. The mayor is running unopposed.

Posted by: Sue at October 12, 2005 09:10 AM

You'd better watch out. You get these Greensboro bloggers on a mission and they will deliver.

Email your resume and "spousal unit," (?!) out to folks around here.

Greensboro -- We get things done!

Posted by: jw at October 12, 2005 10:40 AM

I meant spousal unit's resume. Not email spousal unit.

I meant well, but you'll find I'm not the brightest bulb in the Greensboro candelabra.

Posted by: jw at October 12, 2005 10:42 AM

But you glow warmly and that's what matters.

Posted by: Cobb [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 12, 2005 12:58 PM