Welcome to my new site.
Briefly, I am a journalist, an activist, and a committed urbanist. I was born and raised in Southern California, specifically West Los Angeles and Santa Monica.
I spent much of my childhood — especially my teenage years — thinking about getting away from my home city.
I went away to college in Portland, Oregon. After graduating, I returned home briefly before joining the Peace Corps. In 2008, I was accepted into a TEFL program. I spent the next two years in a small town in Bulgaria and those two years have been perhaps the most formative of my life until now.
One particular conversation I had with my friend and colleague Pavel, to this day, continues to guide my life trajectory.
Pavel lived in the same cluster of Communist-era block apartments as I did and taught at the school to which I had been assigned for my service. He was in his 50s by the time he and I crossed paths and he had lived the majority of his life under Communism.
Ihtiman, the town in which we now both lived, was not his hometown. He was from a small village near the Danube. I was in my mid-20s at the time and when Pavel was my age, Bulgarians were not allowed to move freely about their own country. Many would live and die in the place they were born because the Communist regime restricted them from seeking out new homes.
The command economy necessitated controlling population movements in order to maintain the workforce in towns and villages that otherwise would have emptied out as people sought better opportunities in larger population centers, like Sofia, Plovdiv, or the coastal cities along the Black Sea.
Pavel married into Ihtiman, a town of about 15,000 people today. I had been told that before the Communist regime fell, the population was double that. Ihtiman is only an hour train ride from the capital city and an hour and a half train ride in the other direction to Plovdiv, the second largest city in the country. Its fortuitous location was likely the reason it hadn’t become a complete ghost town, like many other Bulgarian towns had.
The stretch of road that leads to the train station at the southern outskirts of town was lined with the hulking, rusting factories illogically planted decades ago. Now empty and grown over with weeds, their smoke stacks nesting places for storks in the spring.
Behind these heaps of broken glass and crimson metal, empty fields stretch out until they crash into the ancient mountains known in Bulgarian as the Sredna Gora, sisters to the Balkan mountains that grow out up out of the vast fields to the north of this modest town and divide the Tennessee-sized country in half.
Pavel and I often drank together after work. A beer or two (sometimes more), depending on how close we were to payday, at one of Ihtiman’s improbably many cafes, many of which consisted of little more than some plastic furniture in someone’s patio.
Under the Communist system, Pavel explained to me once, marriage was one way someone could get permission to relocate. Many married in order to move where the opportunities were. Otherwise, they remained in their home towns, working in the factories that today stand empty.
That conversation helped me to realize that having the ability to choose where I lived was a privilege that I had taken for granted. It made me take stock of the place I was from and appreciate it in a new way I hadn’t when I was younger.
When I returned home after my Peace Corps service, it was with a greater appreciation for the community in which I had grown up. I began to dig deep into its past and to better understand how this place had come to be what it is today, to appreciate all the things about it that make it a great place to live, and to better understand those aspects that need to change in order to make it a more livable place for all.
I have been guided by the question I asked myself after my conversation with Pavel: What if I hadn’t had the luxury of being able to choose where to live, like many of my friends in Bulgaria?
The energy I had been investing in seeking out elusive greener pastures, I decided, would be better spent working to improve my home city, to invest in its future, and to be part of the larger movement to bring it into the 21st century.
Thanks for stopping by.