I was on a bridge over the East River headed toward Lower Manhattan. The train halted to a stop. A woman gasped. We all looked up. 

There was no way to know what was happening. All we could see, out the window, was the towers on fire. (Or maybe just one tower? This part I can't recall.)

All I know is when I got on the train in Brooklyn it was a normal day, and when I got off in Manhattan it was not.

The day is a series of snapshots like these. Going to the hospital to donate blood, lines wrapped around the block. Finding refuge at a friend's apartment for company and cable news, trying to piece together what was going on. Walking all the way back home that night, over the Brooklyn Bridge, because the subways were shut down. A kind stranger offered a bottle of water. The streets were eerily silent. The sky was filled with smoke. 

Everyone I knew would be fine. The three people I knew in the World Trade Center, they were not in the building. Francis was safe at home.

But that wasn't true for everyone. Makeshift memorials and "missing person" flyers sprouted up all over the city, reminding the fortunate how many were not.

One person who occupied my thoughts that day is a gentleman named Leslie Robertson. Leslie was the structural engineer of the World Trade Center. I met him a couple years prior, the same way I met Francis -- working at The Skyscraper Museum, just a few blocks from Ground Zero.

Leslie had invited us to his office to share his wind tunnel models, construction photographs, and stories of working with Yamasaki on what would be the world's tallest buildings. We were curating a new exhibition, and like a proud father showing off his children, he was gracious with his archive and generous with his time.

So of course my mind floated to Leslie. What must that have felt like, to have worked so hard to make them safe and stand forever, only to watch them come down?

"They weren't supposed to fall," he would later say. "It was just terrible to watch, painful and horrible."

The next time I saw him, at Cooper Union, he looked shook. And then at another conference not long after, when asked if there was anything he wished he had done differently, he had broken down at the podium and wept.

Architects and builders can be a cocky bunch. So Leslie's humanity really moved me.

It wasn't just the loss of an object he helped design -- it as many rhapsodized on TV. I would follow his press, curious to hear how he was processing all this. In one exchange printed in The New Yorker, he responded to a fellow engineer who had sent a note of support:

"Your words do much to abate the fire that writhes inside

It is hard

But that I had done a bit more…

Had the towers stood up for just one minute longer…

It is hard."

How rare, in public life, to hear a man share vulnerability like that. I'm not sure I had ever fully grasped the awesome responsibility of defying gravity to hold so many people safely in the air.

The day after 9/11, Mayor Giuliani asked all "non-essential" workers to stay home, so as not to tax city systems. This was the first time I understood myself to be "non-essential," an identifier I can claim still today. I don't say that to be self-deprecating, I mean it sincerely: I cannot save lives, I cannot repair buildings. I have very little technical expertise to bring to a crisis, let alone the everyday operations of a big city.

I know my role in an emergency -- to avoid being a burden, to stay out of the way. I'm not a first responder, I'm a second shifter. Maybe even third. 

In the months following 9/11, our office at Van Alen Institute became a gathering spot for architects and planners to share ideas for the future of Lower Manhattan. There was a strong movement to restore the neighborhood grid, and to re-introduce ideas of sustainability and community -- in stark contrast to the developer-driven bravado to rebuild "bigger than ever."

We offered some counter-narratives, hosting exhibits and forums on how other cities renewed after traumatic events, often with a little less hubris and a little more humility. My boss Ray Gastil and colleague Zoe Ryan researched places like Beirut and Berlin and Oklahoma City, presenting narratives and renderings. I learned a lot, just following their work.

For my part, the conference I had been working on with Ray before 9/11, with partners at the Port Authority in the World Trade Center -- it moved forward, but with new meaning now. Charles Landry & a crew of city designers from London brought examples of revitalization led by arts and culture and community, not traditional commercial interests. Old news today, but it felt a bit radical back then. A small shift in consciousness. 

A year later, I would follow Francis to Detroit, a city with a different set of challenges. From then on, I just knew -- I was so much less interested in what was happening at the skyline than on the street, where the physical and social city meet.

"The problem is with us, not our buildings," said Leslie, responding to a question about the risks of high-rise construction in a post-9/11 world. "And it will be with us for a very long time."

I'm not sure exactly what "us" he had in mind, but I know what comes to mine: Our economic systems. Our cultural values. Our political priorities. How we respond to extremism and fear. 

Sixteen years later, I am no more "essential" than I was on that day -- but I believe so strongly that these broader conversations are. Who are the people we'll allow in our country? How will we choose to share space in our cities? When does security go too far?

I want us to lean into these questions, a bit deeper than might feel comfortable -- not just after a crisis, but before. I see the "too soon" comments after Harvey & Irma, and the lasting trauma in New Orleans & Detroit, and I don't want us wondering "But that I had done a bit more..."

It is hard. But have you ever seen a first responder run toward danger? Or a proud engineer admit some doubt?

We can do hard.


Claire Nelson, Urban Consulate

New Orleans, LA


Informed voters are essential for a thriving democracy. (We know you know that!)

Detroiters, the Primary Election is August 8, 2017. Do you know the people vying to lead your city? Our friends at Citizen Detroit have produced helpful candidate videos so you can do your research at home. Watch, share & vote on August 8:

For the full collection of individual videos, visit Citizen Detroit's YouTube page here.


The DIY public space movement is growing up. So what have we learned? On March 22, 2017, we joined 5th Square to host A Tactical Urbanism Guide to exchange insights on starting & scaling small neighborhood projects in cities, inspired by the new book from Street Plans Collaborative.

To a sold-out hall at Johnny Brenda's in Philadelphia, a stellar line-up of neighborhood lovers & leaders from Philly & New York shared their stories, tips & lessons learned. Wanna hear what they had to say? Video below.

Big thanks to: Jon Geeting, 5th Square; Akeem Dixon, New Kensington CDC; Lauren Vidas, SOSNA; Emaleigh Doley, Germantown United CDC; Justin DiBerardinis, Bartram’s Garden; David Weinberger, IOBY and Mike Lydon, Street Plans Collaborative (who joined us virtually). Much gratitude to Knight Foundation for their support.

Interested in more conversations about the city? The Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for urban exchange. For future events in Detroit & Philadelphia, follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and check out our event listings here.

Video by Meredith Edlow. Photos by Patrick Morgan.


We moved to a new home in Detroit! This is the historic Mackenzie House, longtime home of Preservation Detroit. We're now open for our weekly parlor talks and special meetings & events by appointment at 4735 Cass Avenue, Detroit, MI 48201 USA. Locals & travelers welcome. Thanks to Knight Foundation for their support.

For a peek inside, check out the feature in Curbed Detroit and our photo gallery here

Photo: Michelle and Chris Gerard for Curbed Detroit


"What do mass incarceration, criminal justice reform and prison abolition have to do with urban planning and economic development?"

On Thursday, February 2, the Urban Consulate in Detroit was standing-room-only for "Building A Just City," a conversation led by Amanda Alexander, founder of the Prison & Family Justice Project at University of Michigan Law School, with visiting guests Deanna Van Buren and Kyle Rawlins of Designing Justice + Design Spaces in Oakland, California. 

"We cannot build an inclusive Detroit without addressing mass incarceration," said Alexander. "So what would that mean in practice?"

"I think we can borrow something from our colleagues in the immigration movement who thought about the elements of a Sanctuary City. What does a 'Just City' look like? What would it mean to truly welcome people coming back from prison?"

Alexander offered some ideas.

"A Just City would:

  • Promote access to opportunity through Ban the Box ordinances;
  • Lift conviction-related bans on public assistance;
  • Foster a prison-to-higher education pipeline instead of a school-to-prison pipeline;
  • Build up restorative justice infrastructure and high-quality public defense;
  • Link people to transitional and affordable permanent housing; and
  • Stop depending on revenue from ticketing and fining their poorest residents."

What else would a Just City Agenda include?

Three takeaways for consideration:

1. Court-Related Costs to Families

"Incarceration costs poor, disproportionately Black and Brown families thousands upon thousands of dollars. That's money not going toward food, investment in education, keeping lights on, transport, or paying rent. If we're not talking about this hemorrhaging of money and resources out of households, then we're not having a full conversation about inclusive economic development." -Amanda Alexander

Source: WhoPaysReport.org

2. Priorities for Community Reinvestment

"Our national team for the Who Pays? report interviewed nearly 1,500 formerly incarcerated people and their families to learn how much families spend on prison visits, collect calls, and all the other costs associated with a loved one's incarceration. We also wanted to hear their dreams for alternatives. How would families like to see the U.S. reinvest the $80 billion that we spend on 'corrections' each year?" -Amanda Alexander

Source: WhoPaysReport.org

3. State Policy Drives Mass Incarceration

"Most of the rise in incarceration has happened at the state and local level. These are state laws driving the expansion of the prison population. You should find that empowering, I hope. We often think of 'mass incarceration' as something that happens 'out there' or 'in D.C.,' but much of it happens at the state and county level. Despite how bleak prospects are at the federal level, there’s still much that can be done locally." -Amanda Alexander


Amanda Alexander is a racial justice attorney who has worked at the intersection of economic development, law, and community-based movements in Detroit, New York, and South Africa for over 15 years. She is an Assistant Professor and Postdoctoral Scholar in Afro-American Studies and Law at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Michigan Society of Fellows. As a 2013–2015 Soros Justice Fellow, Amanda founded Michigan Law School's Prison & Family Justice Project, which serves families divided by incarceration and the foster care system.

She has worked with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, and the Centre for Civil Society in Durban, South Africa. Amanda serves on the steering committee of Law for Black Lives, a national network of lawyers committed to building the power of the Black Lives Matter movement. Amanda received her JD from Yale Law School and her PhD in History from Columbia University. 



The Urban Consulate is a network of parlors for city dwellers & travelers seeking urban exchange. Our parlor talks in Detroit are hosted by Chase Cantrell, founder of Building Community Value and made possible thanks to support from Knight Foundation. For future talks, follow us on Facebook, Instagram & Twitter at @UrbanConsulate.



Photo: Pete Souza

Dear President Obama:

Thank you for representing the best of our country at home and abroad. You made us proud.

We will never forget your anniversary address at Selma, your historic visit to Havana, and your moving eulogy in Charleston.

Thank you for your leadership on climate change, criminal justice reform and marriage equality. Thank you for your commitment to science, research & innovation. Thank you for championing women’s equality, black excellence and cross-cultural understanding.

We will carry these ideas forward in our lives & work.



Could we do a pop-up parlor on Six Mile in Detroit? (Sure, why not?) So on a snowy evening in December, we joined our friends at Live6 Detroit & Model D to transform a storefront on Six Mile into a speakeasy for urban exchange, per the vision of Ms. Lauren Hood. We packed up our parlor in Midtown, and we invited some friends in Chicago & Philadelphia to join us. They shared their work, and we took notes

Thanks to our friends at PlaceLab Chicago, Little Giant Creative & Witty Gritty for flying to Detroit for the occasion. And thanks to our partners at Live6 Detroit, Model D, Patrick Thompson Design, Detroit Collaborative Design Center, Detroit Sip, Axle Brewing Company, Detroit City Distillery, Knight Foundation & Kresge Foundation for their support. 

Photos by Bree Gant for Model D.


{Scroll through slideshow above}

Theaster Gates

We've been following the work of artist Theaster Gates for a long time now. His Dorchester Projects first caught our eye back in 2010. Since then, we've made multiple trips to the South Side of Chicago to visit the Black Cinema House, Stony Island Arts Bank and Arts Block. And we've learned a lot from his visits to Detroit.

So naturally, our ears perked up when he formed Place Lab Chicago to help turn his earned wisdom on arts-driven, neighborhood-based development into a philosophy for mindful city-building. 

In Spring 2016, Place Lab published their 9 Principles for Ethical Redevelopment. The goal, as they tell it, is to "shift the value system from conventional, profit-driven development practices to conscientious interventions in the urban context."

We're listening...

To help shape and share these ideas, Place Lab invited a group of city builders from across the country to participate in a series of salon sessions. Thanks to support from Knight Foundation, a dozen of our friends & colleagues from Detroit & Philadelphia have been participating.

Eager to hear what they are learning, we invited the Philly fellows to share insights at City Lobby, our monthly parlor for urban exchange. A group of 45 city planners, artists, nonprofit leaders and neighborhood advocates gathered at Le Meridien in Philadelphia on October 6, 2016 to discuss.

The slideshow above offers some key ideas & takeaways from that conversation, as shared by Place Lab salon members Tayyib Smith, Little Giant Creative; Akeem Dixon, New Kensington CDC; Keir Johnston & Ernel Martinez, Amber Art & Design; Lindsey Scannapieco, Scout Ltd; and Jennifer Mahar, Fairmount Park Conservancy

We will also post their thoughts on Instagram & Facebook. Look out for them there, and please share.

We look forward to continuing the conversation in Detroit in December. In the meantime, make sure you're dialed into Place Lab's work as it evolves. Check out the video. Download the PDF. Watch Theaster's TED talk. And follow @PlaceLabChicago on Facebook & Twitter.

Urban investment need not always mean gentrification. You, too, can be a voice for more ethical redevelopment in your city.


Posted by Claire Nelson, with special thanks to Michelle Freeman, Jermaine Jenkins & Leah McGlone at Witty Gritty for hosting & recording; Carson Poole & Isis Ferguson at Place Lab for collaborating; and Knight Foundation for their support.

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Philadelphia has enjoyed some serious spotlight this last year. From the Pope's visit last fall, to this summer's Democratic National Convention -- and continuing even now, as both presidential candidates vie for Pennsylvania voters -- Philly's all over the news.

Seems a good time to check: Any gaps in the city's media narrative? What do we, as Philadelphians, want our story to be?

On September 1st, we gathered for our monthly City Lobby series to ask this question. 

Not surprisingly, many guests emphasized the city's deeply-rooted spirit of cooperation and camaraderie. “That’s one thing I love about Philadelphia," said guest Katie Monroe, "its openness and accessibility." 

Here are some other things we heard:

“It’s exciting to be in Philly. You come here and want to make things happen, but you can’t do anything alone. So you find people with the same interest. You find someone with a similar problem, and work together, and then both of your businesses succeed. All of the work I’ve done since I’ve gotten here has been surrounding that.”

--Heather Marold Thomason, Primal Meat Supply and EatRetreat

“One of Philadelphia’s greatest jewels and tools is its independent artists and underground arts scene. I think every time we talk about anything that we’re doing in any of these creative outlets -- the strength of Philly, honestly, is building off of effort and stability before we personally came into that space. And we need to keep that energy going. That’s what inspired me, because I’m not originally from here.” 

--Erica Hawthorne-Manson, Small But Mighty Arts

“If you have a good product, whether it be the guys who opened up the bagel shop in Fishtown, or a food cart somewhere, people come. Philadelphians come out and support you. So if you’re an entrepreneur, this is the city to come to.” 

--Avram Hornick, FCM Hospitality

“I think [accessibility and collaboration] has to do with our Quaker roots system. There’s more collaborative action and community here. It’s one of the reasons Philadelphia isn’t a showy city. It’s literally the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection.”

--Heather Blakeslee, Red Flag Media

“There is an openness and an ability to speak to people on a grassroots level.” 

--Michelle Nelson, Grey Dolphin

“Accessibility is what makes Philly great. Encourage people to show that to others, and lead the way for everybody else to follow, whether that’s in big ways or small ways." 

--Heather Marold Thomason, Primal Meat Supply and EatRetreat

And one of our favorites:

“When I moved to Philly, I lived on 52nd Street and my neighbors told me, ‘Look, we sit on the porch here. We talk to each other.' So I think the personality of Philadelphia is, when coming into spaces, honoring what existed there."

--Erica Hawthorne-Manson, Small But Mighty Arts


Does this reflect your Philadelphia experience? What do you want the world to know about Philly? 

Help us shape and share the story using hashtag #PhillyStory


Special thanks to Leah McGlone for reporting.


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Have we shown you our home? This is our Detroit home. So many stories in this building, where to even begin? We know someone who rode his tricycle through the hallways as a child. We know someone who ran a shop in the basement. We know musicians who performed in the parlor. We don't know anyone who was around when it was Leong Hand Laundry, but an old photo at The Bronx Bar reminds us that yes, it was once that, too.

Let's throwback to the 1990s. When it was the legendary Zoots Coffeehouse and Space 19.

In this piece for Model D, Walter Wasacz interviewed Adriel Thornton, Greg Baise and Joel Peterson about those halcyon days:

"Me and Clark (Warner) and Aaron Anderson (later of Zoots management) began doing ambient rooms at parties," says Thornton, who by then was running a shop called Space 19, featuring his clothing line Visual Laundry, in the basement of the Zoot's house at 4470 Second Ave. "We moved those to Monday nights at Zoot's and it just took off. We had Scott Zacharias, Carlos Souffront, Derek Plaslaiko (some of the best young, up-and-coming DJs in the city) playing every week."

"I remember seeing live sets by Ersatz Audio artists that Adam Miller (of Adult.) brought in," Baise says. "I was playing Trivial Pursuit with some people when (glitchcore innovators from Sheffield, UK) Autechre played there. We didn't know it was them and we seriously heckled them, hahaha."

"That was the nature of the night. People could play whatever," says Adriel.

"I was there too, haha, it was March 1996," Baise says. "They were awesome. I just didn't know it was them (at Zoots)."

"It started to become a thing around then," Thornton says. "Not just our friends were coming. We started charging $1 cover. The fury over that has never been matched by anything I've done since. People said I was like the greediest motherfucker on the planet, hahaha." 

Around the same time, a party that Thornton was involved in at 1515 Broadway was raided by Detroit Police, who were accompanied by news reporters. The raid has long been considered a low point in the underground party scene. Trust for media eroded, then largely disappeared. More raids, more media attention, now by television crews, had a stifling, corrosive effect on local rave culture.

"It was on the front page of the Free Press. Channel 7 showed up to talk to us at Zoots," Thornton says. "We had a meeting -- I was with Sam (Fotias of Paxahau) and Richie Hawtin -- we said we weren't going to talk to the media after that."

Zoot's was branded as home to "Detroit's illegal rave scene," which Peterson, Baise and Thornton say was ridiculous.

"No one even danced there, except when the TV cameras showed up, hahaha," Baise says.

"The media said it was the place to get 'secret passwords' to find out where the raves were," says Peterson.

Read the full story here.

And the neighborhood? So much history. On Saturday, April 2 at 1pm we are pleased to offer a special Cass Corridor Walking Tour led by Armando Delicato, co-author of Detroit's Cass Corridor. Take a stroll back in time to learn about the social & architectural history of this storied community. Join us.

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R & D

Hello there! While we're busy in research & development mode to launch The Consulate in 2016, we thought we'd share some of what we've been reading, watching & listening to. In no particular order, like a messy bookshelf, for anyone as obsessed with cities as we are...






Just a little primer. More to follow...

Have any suggestions for our list? We'd love to hear. Let us know.