From Brainerd to Memphis and Back Again


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A little over a year ago, I signed a contract with Wiley & Sons publishing to write a book. Tomorrow, that book—Strong Towns: A Bottom Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity—becomes available everywhere.

At the end of 2008, I started writing the blog that would become Strong Towns. In trying to explain—and more fully understand—why our cities were struggling financially, I wrote about my experiences as a planner and engineer working in Central Minnesota. A large number of the stories I shared were about my hometown of Brainerd, where I still live today.

I grew up here on a farm homesteaded by my Great-Great-Grandparents. It’s a small town and I have a lot of family here. Even more so, I have a lot of connections, even many I’m not aware of. Just this evening I paid for something and the woman taking my credit card said, “I thought you looked familiar. You must be related to….,” and she referenced one of my family members. There is no such thing as anonymity in a small town like this one.

Which is why, when I started airing the family laundry, so to speak, voicing my frustrations with decades of development practices in a way accessible to the outside world, many people didn’t appreciate it. It’s one thing to criticize the community publicly at a council meeting or privately among a group sitting on the sidelines of a football game. It was quite another to say these things publicly, where people from outside the city, even people at the state legislature (gasp) might read it.

More than one prominent citizen called on me to leave town if I didn’t like it. I’ve been made fun of in the newspaper and at public meetings, blacklisted from volunteer opportunities at city hall, and one local leader used to follow me around to some of my early speaking events just to heckle me. It got pretty nasty at times. You might picture me as a stoic, immune to this criticism, but it really tore me up. Still does. I can speak to audiences of a thousand people or more without even a hint of a nervous butterfly, but ask me to stand up in front of a small group here in Brainerd and I revert back to the irrational terror of judgement I see my middle school daughters experience when called on in class.

Brainerd is my home. I love this place, wholly irrationally. And I love the people here, also irrationally. In the way only irrational love begets, I get angry and frustrated over what we’ve lost and what we’ve thrown away, what we’ve done to ourselves and all the opportunities we have let slip by. I find it more difficult here to forgive, to move on, to express the generosity of spirit that comes so easy to me in places not so close to the heart. To the extent that I have a gift for communication, it doesn’t manifest here. In Brainerd, I’m nearly impotent in sharing my vision, in bringing others along. Despite other professional success, this failure is probably my greatest personal torment.

So, when we started to talk internally about how to launch this book—how to kick off the huge Strong America tour we’re embarking on—there was some push to begin here in Brainerd, but not from me. I knew a year ago where this book needed to be launched: Memphis.

Memphis, 2014. Photo by Gracen Johnson.

Memphis, 2014. Photo by Gracen Johnson.

There are few places that have meant as much to my thinking, or to the Strong Towns movement, than Memphis, Tennessee. Many years ago, I received a call from a guy named Tommy Pacello asking me if I would be interested in coming to Memphis and meeting with a team they had put together. Quite frankly, I thought it was a prank call. Or someone a little not-with-it. What in the world would I have to share with Memphis? Yet, they were quite insistent. So I went.

The entire first trip was a little surreal. They showed me around, and here, block after block, mile after mile, was Brainerd, but different. The same neighborhoods in decline, the same history of mega-projects trying to magically create success, the same underlying insolvency, the same tragic choices between immediate, urgent needs and long-term prosperity. The same, yet so, so different.

Perhaps the most obvious difference was that Memphis wasn’t full of Scandinavian-Americans. There was, and remains, a deep racial element to all public conversation, a reality that I’m admittedly not fluent in. Layered on that is a history of promises—some kept but many broken—and a track record of systematic disinvestment. Again, while I initially questioned what I had that could possibly help them, I started to grasp many of the commonalities in our struggles.

When I offered my thoughts to the mayor’s assembled team, they wrote them down. When I gave a public lecture, the room was full and the audience engaging. When I met privately with council members, they asked great questions and followed up later. And when I had a chance to meet with the mayor, A C Wharton, not only did I find him a sincere and humble leader of his city, I found him thoughtful and engaging.

And when the mayor and I looked at the value per acre map the mayor’s team had put together at my urging—a map my home town wouldn’t even consider assembling and actually fought giving me the public data so I could do it myself—I never imagined that our intense conversation would lead to some sweeping policy reforms. Yet, within a couple years I found myself in attendance when the mayor announced an end to their longstanding, and destructive, annexation policy.

They’ve since followed it up with many, many substantive reforms stretching across other administrations. Many of these, to my pleasant and humbling surprise, came directly from a memo I put together for them outlining how a Strong Towns approach could benefit Memphis. While they have done all the work and deserve all the honor and accolades for it, I’m really proud that I was able to help them, that the ideas that we’ve developed here at Strong Towns were a catalyst for them to make some big changes.

And those changes are very Strong Towns: meeting people where they are, serving the needs of those who are struggling, making sound investments and seeking to build wealth incrementally, over a broad area, over a long period of time. Whenever I’m asked for a success story, I say to look at Memphis. In terms of their approach, they are everything I wish my city was, and that is why I wanted to start the Strong America tour there.

Even more so, my work in Memphis represents everything I wish I was here in Brainerd. I wish I found it easier to be forgiving, to see beyond the mistakes and moments of incompetency to the decent and frail humans beneath. I wish I were more generous with those around me, slower to speak and more dedicated to listening. I wish I saw the potential of this place as intensely as I feel the damage we have done. In short, I wish I were a better messenger for Strong Towns here in this place I care about most.

That is why we’ll start this tour in Memphis, and it’s why we’ll end it in December here in Brainerd. I’m going forth over the next three months on this marathon to share the Strong Towns message, but we’re also celebrating the successes of so many great people who are doing the hard work across the country to make their places stronger. And while we have some insights that can benefit them and their community, they have always inspired me, personally, to work to be a better advocate for a Strong Towns approach here in my hometown.

From Brainerd to Memphis and back again, sharing a message of transformation across America, starting a bottom-up revolution that will make our cities, towns, and neighborhoods more prosperous, learning from those doing the hard work I wish was easier for me, and eventually returning to roll up my sleeves—and open my heart—to make my town stronger.

Thank you, everyone. See you all soon.


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Note: Earlier this year, we asked for places that wanted to be part of the Strong America Tour. Our estimate of two or three dozen inquiries was way off. We now have over 300 different requests. Our 2019 calendar is full, but we’re now starting to work on 2020. If you’d like to be part of the Strong America Tour, if you’d like to bring the Strong Towns message to your community, you can sign up here.

Also, we’re going to be sharing excerpts from the book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity all week, and I want to kick that off with the acknowledgements. As printed in the book:

I would like to acknowledge the guidance and insights of Steve Mouzon, Jeff Speck, Andres Duany, Mike Lydon, Jason Roberts, and Monte Anderson. They have all added disproportionately to the insights contained in this book. I would also like to individually acknowledge John Anderson, whose friendship and counsel has gone beyond what I ever deserved. I will strive to pay it forward.

I would like to thank Jon Commers and Ben Oleson for their efforts in founding Strong Towns, and Justin Burslie for his critical help in the early days. The Blandin Foundation took an early gamble on us, a model of philanthropic leadership worthy of admiration, and I thank them for their faith.

I am also extremely grateful for the stewardship – and friendship – of Andrew Burleson, Ian Rasmussen, and John Reuter in running the organization. So many great ideas were hatched with them while standing in line at theme parks. Strong Towns would not have accomplished much without them.

I also want to acknowledge my co-conspirators at Urban3, Joe Minicozzi and Josh McCarty. The sleepless nights and long car rides geeking out together have become tales of legend. May there be many more.

I’m also grateful for the team at Strong Towns, especially Kea Wilson, Michelle Erfurt, Daniel Herriges, Bo Wright, Jacob Moses, Missy Trees and Rachel Quednau. They always picked up the slack when my late nights writing wore me down. Churros for everyone!

Thank you to Quint Studer and Dottie Dehert for the support and for nudging me to write this book.

And I want to thank my mentors, George Orning and Stuart Lade, for everything they did to push me along this path in life. I’ll never repay the debt.