Intent

This may not be the forum for this, but if not, there is not a forum that exists, as this blog is supposed to be a look behind the curtain that is our outward NoLi CDC persona and image, supposed to be a look into the innerworkings of who we are, our ruminations steeped in working in dozens of directions each day to try to make one or another small aspect of one small community better in some small way, step by step, poco a poco. And right now, what is troubling me, and has been a topic of conversation since I joined NoLi CDC, is how it is incredible the way in which some people feel like they can say and post things on the internet that they can't | wouldn't | shouldn't say in person, and that is both good and bad.  On the positive side, it is empowering to be able to have a placeless discussion where anyone can offer up anything without having to vie for time to speak, without having to work to be heard, without really having to fear retribution, rebuke, or rebuff. It is truly democratic (at least for those who have access to and are aware of the platform). But, at its vitriolic worst, it is treated as a free pass to lob hurtful, accusatory, polarizing, and often wildly overblown or even baldly untrue verbal barbs at each other. So, to the person who may either seriously or facetiously feel that the Common Market proposal that is in its developmental infancy is some sort of economic or cultural genocide that is not in the best interest and even will be to the detriment of long-time Northsiders and their way of life, I would ask if they feel that those who have been here the longest and have made this place their home do not deserve to have easy and affordable access to fresh local foods and other locally produced wares, do not deserve to have a platform for starting and growing a business ambition, do not deserve to be able to do what they love and make a living at it, do not deserve to see a forgotten and neglected building activated and filled with life and energy.  How could any of this be at the expense of those long-time Northsiders? Is it because any improvement is viewed as gentrification, and it is assumed that the improvements and associated investment that goes with those improvements are not for those long-time Northsiders, but rather some other "coveted" group of outsiders? Why? Those people, those "coveted" outsiders don't need that access, don't need that opportunity, don't need those stepping stones to success. And if they do need that access and opportunity, there is more than enough empty space to let them join our melting pot. If we were going to kick those long-time Northsiders out and totally change the neighborhood, we would propose a Northside Fayette Mall or some other safer and more proven model of suburban stripmall. But what we are doing is as far from that as can be imagined. Make no mistake - this will be hard to accomplish, will be hard to make work, and will have a lot of moving parts, will be complicated and costly and not nearly as fast as the neighborhood deserves.  But it is the right thing to do. The right thing is often the hardest thing to do. But it is worth it. 

I have had a good friend and confidant/counselor of sorts tell me that it is all about intent, that if our intent is pure, if we intend to make the neighborhood better for the people who are already here, who have always been here, to strive in every action to make it a more beautiful diverse artful well-thought-out community building on the rich history and fabric that exists and persists through all incarnations good and bad throughout its history, if that is our intent, and if we spend every waking working minute to make this happen, then we can only be judged based on that intent - that 'haters gonna hate,' and to remain undeterred.  But that doesn't mean that they get a free pass, at least not from me, they will not get a free pass to be ignorant, hateful, ugly, or base under the guise of righteousness that rings hollow false and feigned, as they advocate for those long-time Northsiders that I can only assume they are not only not a member of, but have never even met or lived next door to or said hi to on the sidewalk or shoveled out of the snowstorm or taken out their trash or given them a ride home from work. So, people can say whatever they want, and they will, no matter what we do.  But our intent is pure, and we have and will spend every waking working minute to make it real, for this neighborhood, for all Northsiders, whether here for 5 minutes or 50 years.

[KMN]

Building Community | Community Building

“We shape our Buildings; thereafter they shape Us.”  Winston Churchill

I am biased. I have a perspective all my own. I have had the chance to live in a number of wonderful places, inspiring structures, beautiful communities, in a wide range of settings and contexts, near, far, pastoral, primitive, and post-industrial. And I’ve lived in a number of places that weren’t one or any of those things. So my bias, my perspective, it gives me pause to reflect on those differences, on what are the cogs and pins and rails and levers that make up each machine that is each place, in each place, and what makes some resonate with only a few versus with many, what makes a place not only discrete and unique, but also desirable and exciting and, well, vibrant. Is it memory? What do we remember of a place, and how? Is it the details and dimensions and empirical stuff of metrics, or of the feeling of a place, of the smells and sounds and textures and tastes – the things that imprint themselves on each our own psyches and elicit visceral responses when triggered.  Dogs ferociously barking at each other through fences and a young girl timidly practicing violin; the smell of wet paint and coffee roasting and someone smoking between two houses; rough broom-finished concrete underfoot and a rusty-staple-riddled telephone pole and sleet stinging your face; acrid trash and fresh-cut wood in the summer’s thick heat. No one cares about the drawings done on paper of this place, or even if they were done – they care only of what it is. To create a place out of nothing is impossible, to try is foolish, for everything has context. We shape our buildings, sometimes in the most banal, uninspiring, opportunistic ways, cheaply perpetrated on proud bones, trying to make something familiar, to make people feel comfortable, when in fact it does just the opposite, placing them in a sea of undifferentiated sameness, unmemorable and placeless. So shape with care, we advise ourselves, so as to be a model, an example of a road not easier but truer to place. To take a place and augment its character is to hear its resonance and pull it into sharper tuning, bringing out the overtones one on top of the last, to let it ring truer than it has previously had the chance. For this shit is important – terribly important, deathly important – if we don’t create great places, we limit our chances to be great – that is what Churchill would have us believe, and I don’t disagree. And you may not agree with this, and that is probably good. This is meant to be provocative, not a one-size-fits-all piece for the masses, but a question. This is not intended to make anyone mad, but to acknowledge one of those issues we all instinctively shy away from, like saying I Love You, as perhaps as too gratuitous or heart-stringy, despite its gravity and truth. But it is real – I have lived it, as one person among so many. And it doesn’t have anything to do with money, at least not directly. It has to do with time, and care, and thought, which are all at their core free, if we can keep all of the secondary matters at bay, or even finagle them to work to our benefit. A community is certainly more than a sum of its parts, but clearly it is also comprised of those parts, and so place is about the structures and the spaces between, the rhythm and cadence, harmony and dissonance, elision and separation, as much as place is about the people who live there, of this place and come to this place, among all the rest. We, right now, have the chance to shape those buildings that will in turn shape us long into the future. Proceed with care and abandon, both, for these chances are not perpetual.

“We shape our Buildings; thereafter they shape Us.”

[KMN]

 

The Luxury of Beauty

I’ve been carrying around this idea with me for weeks – it’s written on my to-do list in my phone, sandwiched between people I need to contact and why, just sitting there silently, like a reminder of some momentary epiphany while walking through this beautiful and yet bedraggled place – the luxury of beauty – and it is an interesting question, a curious statement, provocative perhaps – is beauty a luxury, is it the thing that comes after all other basic needs are met? And is, therefore, beauty only for those who have all other of their needs met? Or is there some other way, some way to make beauty some intrinsic thing, woven into the function of a building, into the planning of a place, into the character of a community? Make it in the doing, and not the end product. Make it in the idea, and not in the so many surfaces and faces of a thing. Is there a way to make beauty not out of lavishness or excess or some arcane iconography or imagery that we no longer connect with, Ionic columns or Palladian windows or half-timbering or hammer beams – all things that were, at one time, the definition of beauty for what they represented as the true and honest way of building. Beauty is to be inspiring, though not always necessarily in a positive way, but always compelling, making you feel… something, making you think… something. Aspiring to give you pause to reflect on something, on your own condition, on how you feel about something or where you stand in this world, or maybe even making you see something differently, causing a shift in perception. And so, by extension, this kind of beauty – of idea, of fundament and essence – is not so easily achieved with granite countertops or chrome fixtures or hardwood trim or crown molding or any other surface treatments that can be changed out on a sliding scale depending on your budget. It is that essence of a thing that is laid bare for all the world to see, should they look. So give them a reason to look, and see… something.

[KMN]

Face Value

There is something I have come to discover, come to love about our neighborhood, about York Street and the surrounding environs, something that is very accessible, something very positive amidst the gritty and patchwork image that it seems to outwardly maintain. And that is that, when you are walking on the street and you pass someone going the other way, no matter age, gender, race, class, they all look you in the eye, generally smile, and say hello, or some variant thereof. I’m a Midwesterner, where the joke is that the introverts stare at their own shoes, and the extroverts stare at your shoes. So it is refreshing to encounter this kind of acceptance, this kind of openness and connection. True, there was a high-speed chase tearing down York just today, sirens in hot pursuit, past a school bus full of kids, true the ambulance comes to our street more than we care to admit or would ever want, and there is still the lingering stereotype of what York Street was for decades up until fairly recently. And yet, everyone I have met (and I have met a lot of the neighbors and more each day) are very welcoming, very pleasant and open and forthcoming. Maybe it is my worn work boots, sooty cracked hands, hunched shoulders and rusty old truck that make me approachable, that vouch for me as worth talking to. Maybe it is that people are yearning for something positive here, and are willing to meet that something halfway. Maybe I’m a naive simpleton who is being played. But, if I’m honest with myself, I’m okay with that. I’m okay with giving people the benefit of the doubt, people who maybe have not gotten a lot of that in their lives. I’m okay if they are patronizing me or playing me – I will still give them a shot, a chance to show me, to show us, to show themselves, what they stand for, what is true in what they say and do, and show them that they don’t have to play games with me, with us, in order to get respect, to get attention, to get what they need in life to make it what they want. I am not going to make that choice for them, but will give them that chance, to the last one. I will do the best I can, with all of the support and hard work of everyone who supports us in all of the various ways that manifests itself, to make good things happen, to make beautiful things happen, to make better happen, and make it accessible and attainable and affordable, not just to one age group, gender, race, class, or whatever division you can dream up, but to all who want to be here, those who have been here, those who are new here, those who want to be here.

[KMN]

PUD, the G-word, and the mission of Maker Revitalization in NoLi

We here at NoLi CDC have very exciting news: you may have heard us talking about creating a “live-work artists community” on our website, our facebook page, our printed materials, or in talking to us. We have heard a lot of questions, not the least of which is “How are you going to do that.” I am excited to announce that we cleared a major hurdle by having our Planned Unit Development (PUD) Text Amendment application passed unanimously by the LFUCG Planning Commission a few weeks ago. We even got “Yea” votes from those who seemed to be skeptical or critical of our proposal, which I almost feel is more powerful than the votes we got from those who vocalized their support from the get-go. In any case, we are on to the Common Council for their vote in December, and are optimistic that an endorsement by the Planning Commission, as well as all of the wonderful support we have from the LFUCG Planning Staff, the NoLi community, and our partner organizations, will go a long way toward convincing them of its merit and import, and pass it as well.

Once the Text Amendment is passed, we can then apply to have our properties converted to this new PUD-2 zoning, which allows such uses as live/work space, artist studios, artisan food & beverage production, artisan manufacturing, digital makerspace, urban agriculture, and the list goes on from there. Once our properties, as well as those of a few partners, are converted in the first Map Amendment application, we plan to make regular applications every 6-9 months to facilitate other property owners converting their properties without having to bear the burden of the application fee or the time to see it through.

And what about Gentrification, that dreaded buzzword, that linguistic death knell that signals the pushing out of all that we understand to be the authentic, rooted and established culture of a place, pushed out by rising property values, an influx of “outsiders,” and ostensibly a shift in the cultural and racial make-up of a place? How are we going to not gentrify NoLi? What we are doing, what are we going to continue to do, is combat this displacement of the people who call this place home by making placement of current residents the top priority; combat the common “fix-and-flip” approach by creating well-built, efficient, inspiring, unique places that will combine to reflect the richness and diversity of this place; combat creating a stand-off between those who have been here and those who want to come here by treating everyone as equals, by preventing “flipping,” by promoting owner-occupancy, by keeping our budgets as lean as they can possibly be, by taking all proceeds and rolling them into more work, by being transparent and honest and clear.

We are Vitalizing NoLi – it is already vital, to be sure, and we are working to augment that vitality and vibrancy, to stand on the shoulders of the history and character that exists, and add to it, to shore up the rotten sagging floors and straighten the bellied bulging walls, but maintain the character, learn from and add to the history. We are working with all of our tenants, and anyone in the existing community who is interested, to place them in a Maker Space, to help them secure financing to buy a house, regardless of their income or financial circumstances, to work with them to design a space that suits their specific needs and personality, to be a steward of this finely-grained and richly diverse place, and to lift it up to the next level in its evolution.

From our point of view, this is an experiment in how to position, empower and support Makers to be at the core of a neighborhood Vitalization effort, and how the combination of the existing cultural and architectural fabric, overlaid with all of the economic possibilities that come with this expanded list of uses, will create a diverse community that will enable people to do what they love and support themselves doing it.

This PUD only applies to the 177 properties bounded by N. Limestone, the RJ Corman railroad track, Maple, and 7th Street. But it is a model that we hope bears repeating in the many other blocks that could use this kind of attention and love. We are grateful for everyone that has had a hand in making this happen. We are excited to see what this can yield. We are ready to start Making.

Do what you love | love what you do.

[KMN]

Under the Umbrella

What is NoLi? It is a question we ask ourselves a lot. It is a question we get asked a lot. And the answer is not cut and dried. It probably should be. Or at least it would be easier if it was, but then again, maybe it would be less effective if it was an easy answer. Is it the neighborhood? [and what are the boundaries of the neighborhood?] Is it our non-profit organization? [and how can a corporation a non-profit?] Is it the neighborhood association? Is it something else, perhaps the general movement and collective will to reinvent this beleaguered but beautifully rich and diverse part of town? The answer is that it is all of these things, and more. But, the problem with branding, we are finding, is that sometimes it works too well, and if it works well, which, in our case, it seems it has, the image or icon can become pervasive or ubiquitous without conveying the complexity that lies beneath. Such is the case with our NoLi four-square icon. It appears in hundreds of places, on shop doors and storefronts and car bumpers all over the Northside here in Lexington, and yet it is not clear what this supports. Presumably it supports all of the entities under the NoLi umbrella. But who is who? What does the CDC do? What does the Neighborhood Association do? Who are the people renovating on York Street, and what do they do, and why, and for who? Who are the people leading neighborhood meetings on 7th Street? All of these questions make up one central question: What is NoLi?

But perhaps out of all of that ambiguity and uncertainty  arises our challenge: we are charged, each one of us who live here, work here, sweat here, who think and make and do here, we are all charged with defining that question, individually and collectively: what is NoLi? For our part, at NoLi Community Development Corporation, we are working with each and every initiative, big and small, to make NoLi a more vibrant, safe, sustainable, beautiful and livable place. How we do that unfolds with each day, with each opportunity realized, with each challenge addressed and met, and so we work to earn the right to represent NoLi, to be a community and cultural steward, to include all who share in any part of our goal, to join us, under the umbrella of NoLi.

[KMN]

The big picture and the details

Each day is a new challenge, a new task, a new hurdle to figure out how to clear without stumbling, or how to recover from stumbling, or even how to crawl under the hurdle, to get to the other side. I suspect that it is so with everyone reading this, and life in general, and not at all unique to us. But that is how it is here at NoLi, most certainly. And with each day, yesterday’s unfinished tasks remain, hurdles stacking up along the path. We each of us are going in many directions at once, directions both overlapping and disparate: making connections, corresponding, networking, dreaming up projects, developing projects, executing projects, funding projects, making it real – more to do than there is time in the day. And it is all fueled by the big picture, the dream for North Limestone, for the North Side, the prospect of what each and every project, big or small, can accomplish for the neighborhood, what asset it can create and provide, how each piece can contribute to the big picture of augmenting the vibrancy of the North Side. The big picture and the details – keeping them both in focus – each hurdle and the finish line both.

[KMN]

Poco a Poco

If I was a “Successories” inspirational quote poster kind of guy, if I could see just the quote and it’s essential meaning without all of the cliche baggage and “footprints in the sand” images and frilly pedantic fonts, I would say that I have been noticing that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” applies beautifully to our work here at NoLi, to the myriad initiatives and concentric and nested tasks that are all aimed at one goal – to better the North Side. But then again, I never met Lao-tzu, he certainly had never heard of Lexington, and I’ve heard this particular quote cited so many times that it is approaching meaninglessness, ringing hollow in the space carved out by its vacuous popularity. I did, however, have the opportunity to work alongside a young Pemon man named Manuel who I had the great fortune to work beside some years ago in rural Venezuela. He was very quiet but always listened with an exuberant intensity, and when I would talk excitedly and somewhat overwhelmedly about everything that we had to do on this or that project, he would look at me with a measured yet youthful gaze and say simply “poco a poco,” motioning with his hands down toward the dry packed red earth, palms down, as if to slow my pace, to assuage my growing anxiety through this simple motion, this simple phrase. I’ve found myself thinking a lot about that, about Manuel’s saying, because it is so simple and yet so empowering. Bit by bit. Little by little. That is how we make all big things, from the bevy of small things all stitched together by purpose, by vision, by many hands and feet and minds all come together. I find that much more compelling (no offense to Lao-tzu) for its simplicity as well as the inherent possibilities. Lao-tzu would seem to imply that there is but one arc. But to recite “poco a poco” to yourself is to remind yourself of all of the arcs that you are a part of, not just on one journey, but as a part of many and disparate paths, going in all directions at once, all being traversed and progressed and built and developed concurrently, by one, and one, and one, become many.

Poco a poco.

[KMN]

All the hats we wear

Earlier this evening, after the Bullhorn office had cleared out and the sun’s rays were getting long and golden through our windows overlooking Loudon and Lime, and as I was entering invoices into a spreadsheet, and Richard was squinting at a map tracing linework, and Jay was resting (as much as he could sitting on a yoga ball) after having spent the heat of the day taking down chainlink fence, and Haley was singing out each Facebook bump in the July 4 Night Market attendance as she worked her iPad and iPhone in tandem, and Griffin was doing more things than I can even attempt to document, it occurred to me how many hats we all wear.  Each of us, chief cook and bottle washer, and everything in between.  For my part, I am working in many directions: developing contacts and relationships on all fronts, from contractors to city staff to other like-minded organizations and individuals; setting up, breaking down, and refining budgets; dreaming up designs both grand and straight-forward and considering their relative merits, challenges, and feasibility; managing construction on the first shotgun house; and on and on… All of us are like that – and that seems to be one of our strengths – to be able to each play not just one role, but all of the roles that are required of us to keep moving forward, keep moving in the direction toward all of the goals we carry in our minds and hearts, even when to-do lists get impossibly long and minutia reigns supreme. I thought of this, and smiled to myself, and went silently back to my spreadsheet.

[KMN]

Getting started (or, falling into place) on North Limestone

It is odd, in some ways, for me to be kicking off the blog for the LuigART project.  I mean, who am I, anyway, and what authority do I have to tell anyone else about this project?  The answer to the former: my name is Kris Nonn, and I have been hired by the folks at NoLi to come to Lexington to be the Project Manager for the LuigART project. Really, it is my understanding that I am the first in a succession of design and construction professionals to be brought in to lend their unique view of how to transform York Street and beyond into a vibrant, livable, sustainable, affordable place that can support as many activities and ambitions as there are rooms to house them, and more.

But that doesn’t answer the initial question – who am I?

I grew up outside of Madison, Wisconsin, and have been interested in place, the power of building to shape place, the power of building to augment our view of nature’s beauty, since I was a young boy watching light streaming in through the cracks in my cousin’s dairy barn, the pattern made tangible as the sun’s slanting yellow light fell on the haydust hanging in the air.  I studied music from an early age, first piano, then trumpet and voice, and parlayed that into a Bachelor of Music Performance degree in Trumpet at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  I then took a year to work on my cousin’s dairy farm (another of my loves), then made the jump down to Knoxville, TN to get my Masters in Architecture at the University of Tennessee.  I met my now-wife there, and we then lived in Brussels, Belgium and Santa Elena, Venezuela before returning to Madison, where I got a job at KEE Architecture, a wonderful little firm where I put in 6 great years getting to design a wide range of things from new 40,000 SF buildings down to a cor-ten security wall to window replacement and recaulking projects.  And at the same time, my wife Helen and I bought an 1868 frame house in downtown and decided to do everything but tear it down – new foundation, super-insulate with spray foam, solar pv and hot water on metal roof, concrete floors with radiant heat, a reclaimed glazed tile silo.  We did this all while preserving the original house frame and sheathing, lifting it, protecting it, sandblasting it and exposing it to view to speak to the history that would have otherwise been hidden behind drywall.  So, we are no strangers to the complexities and contradictions of design and construction, and what it means to be modern among so much history.  Griffin VanMeter, the esteemed and ebullient founder of NoLi CDC, heard of our work (and it didn’t hurt that his wife and my wife are 2nd cousins or thereabouts), and dangled the carrot of coming down to Lexington to work my particular brand of crazy contextual modern historicism on this first group of shotgun houses the CDC had bought.  Always having been a disciple of Samuel Mockbee, with all of his artful benevolence and contextual irreverence, and seeing this as a chance to make designed spaces affordable, beautiful, and unique, we worked out how to make it happen.  So we loaded a big yellow truck with tools and wares, and schlepped ourselves and our two boys down to Lexington, just earlier this week.  So that’s the answer to question number 1.

Question 2: what right do I have, as a Yankee from the North, a transplant, an outsider, what right do I have to tell you about this project?  I can tell you that I am dropping into a project that has already had so much groundwork laid, Richard and Griffin having already worked for years to build relationships with Lexington Fayette Urban County Government (LFUCG), Blue Grass Community Foundation (BGCF), Fayette Alliance, Lexington Rescue Mission, SeedLeaf, and so many others that I am just trying to keep up as they rattle off the folks involved.

I can also tell you that the core of the NoLi mission at LuigART is rooted in doing right by the community, the North Limestone community; doing right by the people to try to provide an option for owner-occupied housing where only rental options currently exist, and for about the same monthly price; doing right by the community to provide properties that are flexible, inspiring, accessible, sustainable; doing right by this archetype of the Shotgun house to not just restore it to whatever workaday and ad hoc character it originally had, but to understand its roots, its derivation, its role in Lexington and American history, and reimagine it as the embodiment and outward expression of all of those core mission goals, of living compactly, efficiently, densely, creatively, vibrantly.

I am new here, but I am glad to be here, glad to be around so many inspired and inspiring people.  I look forward to every drop of sweat and every minute of thought that each of these structures will require.  I look forward to building, not just houses, but relationships, with workers of all skill levels, with folks from the highest position to the lowest, to work together to make something we are all proud of, something we feel is right for this time, this place, and  hopefully it will become a stepping stone to bigger, grander things for this neighborhood, for this community, for these people, of which I now count myself one of.

[KMN]