I was standing precariously on the edge of the sidewalk trying to get some good images of the buses in Lima, Peru, when I noticed that most of them were lopsided, tilting slightly to one side, a detail I had never noticed before. While taking pictures of an old cinema that had been turned into a church, I had the opportunity to chat with an extremely friendly greeter who seemed very interested in the fact that I was taking pictures for an urban planning blog called The Grid. Riding through Davis Square in Somerville, MA, on my blue bicycle, while doing research for my post on chain stores and independent stores, I deliberately stopped because I *needed* a picture of a store window with a bust of Elvis Presley. Local coffee shops and libraries all over Cambridge and Somerville, MA, became my writing and editing “offices” as I struggled with deadlines, writers’ block, and the challenge of linking small, quirky stories, events and people, to larger urban forces and topics.
When I first started my urban planning writing internship for The Grid in October 2013, I did expect that it would be an opportunity to explore urban issues, as well as two cities which I knew and was fond of (Lima, Peru and the Boston area, MA). A few months before, I had obtained my Master’s degree from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, spent a summer working at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum and Library in Washington D.C., and was considering what to do next. My work and experience in archaeology and historic preservation had led to a wider interest in urban themes, including placemaking, the use and nature of public spaces, transportation, infrastructure, policy and adaptive reuse. So, camera, laptop and bicycle in hand (can you spot how many times my bicycle appears on my posts?), I set off on my blogging adventure.
Over the following months, I developed the ability to identify the larger urban forces and issues at work in the smallest details of urban life: a marshmallow fluff festival in Somerville, MA, led to a story on active placemaking and the relationship between public space, citizenship and democracy. An afternoon of bus-spotting in Lima led to an exploration on the politics and challenges of public transportation in Lima, Peru. Exploring the changing neighborhood around an archaeological site in Lima led me to consider the issues of gentrification, displacement, and the many roles archaeological sites play in modern cities.
However, what I appreciated the most from the internship was that many of my posts triggered comments, stories, feedback, and even some sharp criticism, not just on the blog itself but on many other social media channels. Writing for The Grid became a weekly exercise not just in research and in developing a critical approach to each topic, but also in developing my skills as a storyteller in writing and photography. I also appreciated working with my editors and their feedback. I especially credit Adam Kabir Dickinson for helping me to overhaul, restructure and dramatically edit some posts, and for coming up with some brilliant titles and closing questions, my favourite being “horrible historic preservation” (or, “how to take an article from yawn-inducing to thought-provoking”).
A big thank you to the whole team at The Grid, and thanks for the adventure!
Credits: Image 1 by Sam Scholes. Images 2, 3 and 4 by Rosabella Alvarez-Calderon. Data linked to sources.