Holy cow it's been a long time since I've put out a post - and with nary a warning, I'm sure my faithful readers were wondering if I would ever post again. Well I must admit things have gotten very busy for me these past few weeks, so I've had less and less time to devote to a good blog post - but at long last I have an interview to share with you all! This week's (month's?) interview subject is Jesse Blitzstein of The Enterprise Center. Jesse and I had the pleasure of working together a few years ago, and I thought his work and organization would be of interest to read. So without further ado, please enjoy 10 questions with Jesse!
Hi Jesse! Thanks so much for taking the time to be my interview subject. So, for those who don't know much about you, can you please describe your organization, your position, and basic responsibilities?
You're welcome Dan! I work at The Enterprise Center (TEC), where I’m our Director of Community Development. The Enterprise Center is a community and economic development nonprofit that has three interrelated areas of focus – we help people grow their small businesses, with a focus on minority and women entrepreneurs; we do small business lending, with a focus on entrepreneurs who may face challenges accessing capital through the traditional financing world; and we do on-the-ground community development work, with a focus on parts of West Philadelphia. My job is tied to this latter part. I help oversee our community engagement and neighborhood revitalization work, including the ongoing revitalization of a neighborhood commercial corridor and the implementation of a neighborhood plan.
Sounds like fulfilling work! So, what made you interested in planning?
I first got interested in city planning and community development during my senior year of college. I took a great class on urban politics, and at the same time I served in a position with the university’s student government where I was a student liaison to the local city council. Both really opened my eyes to the world of planning, policy, and politics at the local level and on an urban scale.
Clearly you went against the stereotype of student government being just a resume builder. And what led you specifically to join TEC?
I moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, and when I was finishing I was looking for an opportunity to stay in Philly and work in community development, which is what I focused on within my city planning studies. An opportunity came up with TEC that was not exactly what I wanted, but was a foot in the door with a dynamic organization. I took it and several years later my role has evolved and I’m in a somewhat more ideal position now.
Goes to show you what patience and perseverance can get you if you're in the right place for you. In that vein, what’s something that you learned along your career path that you wish you knew 5 years ago?
Relationships matter. That’s not necessarily something I didn’t know five years ago, it’s just an ongoing lesson throughout my professional career. In this line of work, being smart and knowledgeable from a technical standpoint will only get you so far. You have to develop strong relationships with partners, funders, community stakeholders, and coworkers to really accomplish anything of value. And that’s something that’s hard to teach in planning school, although I would argue that more time could be devoted to cultivating those types of professional soft skills with planning students, on top of the traditional skill, theory, and history training.
Very good points all around. So, if you weren’t in planning, what other career path do you think you’d have gone into? Why?
That’s a good question! I mean I’ve always wanted to be a professional athlete but . . . I’d just be doing that already if I could, so clearly it’s not that! I would probably still be working with youth in some fashion, which is what I was doing for a couple of years before I went back to school to get a planning degree.
It's not too late Jesse, I'm sure you can get a spot on the professional Curling circuit if you're really keen! Though given that it seems you're unlikely to be leaving the planning world any time soon, what do you find to be the most interesting part of your job?
The most interesting part might be the strategy development component of what we do, and within that the fact that there are so many gray areas to this type of work. There isn’t necessarily one right way to revitalize a neighborhood, to run a community meeting, or to redevelop a property, for example. There are strategies, best practices, guidelines, and so on. But there is a lot of variability to what we do. Building consensus among community stakeholders, leveraging finite resources, and developing strategies to achieve positive outcomes – it’s all interesting and challenging.
And the least interesting?
The least interesting part is probably the administrative side of the work. Paperwork, reporting out to funders, sitting through meetings – the nonprofit system is an imperfect beast.
I'm sensing a trend about paperwork...
But lets go back to interesting topics - what was something that you were really proud of that you worked on?
I’m going to flashback to graduate school for this. I was and still am proud of the work that my group and I did for our final studio project, where we looked at all the school closings at the time in Philadelphia (this was in 2013). We explored possible reuses for the school buildings, and beyond that we tried to think through how the city and school district could bring different policies and strategies to bear to reactivate these sites and mitigate some of the ill effects of closing these schools, so that the buildings didn’t just languish as vacant and become eyesores in their communities, many of which were already quite upset about the school closings in the first place. The work was interesting and collaborative. While city agencies and politicians ultimately ignored most of our recommendations, it’s been very interesting to see what has (and hasn’t) happened with the shuttered school buildings in the five years since then.
When you say interesting - what do you mean? Anything in line with what you recommended or wildly off base?
At the time, we recommended that other city departments and agencies be more involved in coordinating the disposition process, which to some extent happened (PIDC helped manage the process for the school district); but in particular we also recommended that the city make a concerted effort to to use tools like pre-existing development incentives and already-completed neighborhood plans to stimulate and guide the reuse of sites, particularly in the weaker neighborhood real estate markets. I'd say that never totally came to fruition.
More specifically, I think several of the buildings are in the midst of conversions to housing in one form or another, or will be soon, which is kind of what we expected. Three different sites (two in West Philly and one by Temple) were acquired by universities and demolished for new development associated with those universities, which we also anticipated. At least one, Bok in South Philly (which is a beast of a building) is being reused in some creative ways, although not without some controversy regarding gentrification. Lastly, the sites that my partner and I had looked at for our case study, Vaux and Reynolds and the area around them in North Philly, are actually being repurposed in a somewhat similar manner to what we had recommended! They are part of the Philadelphia Housing Authority's Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods initiative (which is a controversial initiative unto itself, but that's a whole 'nother story!).
Schools in Philly are always a delicate subject, and certainly the urban planning around them is even more so. Given what you've seen the last few years, is the Philadelphia region right now a good place to be a planner?
Tough question. I think it’s a good place in the sense that there is a lot going on in the city and region. Philadelphia is one of the largest major cities in the country, and it has an amazing history and a great downtown. It is experiencing exciting growth and newfound real estate development, and yet faces serious challenges related to poverty, inequity, gentrification, and the ongoing effects of decades of disinvestment. These are challenges that are interesting yet daunting from a planning perspective. But as for the job market for planning-related work in the Philadelphia area, that might be a different story! I think the job pool is somewhat constrained for planners.
I might tend to agree with your latter statement, though hopefully things loosen up as all that development keeps happening. Pivoting, you mentioned gentrification and that's often a major issue planners have to address both publicly and privately. In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now?
I think the biggest challenge facing the planning field right now is the ability to affect change. To be not just planers but doers. To take what are often complex concepts and analyses and make them digestible for constituents and policymakers so that smart city and community building can occur. And to do this in a way that is mutually beneficial to the diverse populations that make up our cities and communities, not just to the benefit of the wealthiest or most influential among us.
How do you mean? And how do you suggest planners be better at being doers?
I think the planning stereotype of "plans sitting on the shelf collecting dust" exists for a reason. Too often it actually happens. So, for example, if you're a planning consulting firm that does neighborhood plans, how are you sticking with an organization or neighborhood to make sure aspects of the plan actually get implemented? Could you alter your business model or fee structure to actually build in some ongoing technical assistance after the plan itself is completed? I think another specific example I see in Philadelphia is around zoning, where so much effort has been made in the last decade to revise the zoning code and rezone swaths of the city, and yet so little planning support is offered to the everyday residents who deal with zoning variance requests from developers under the "Registered Community Organization" system that came with the new zoning code. The Citizens Planning Institute is a great program, but I'd argue it doesn't have the bandwidth to really empower community members all over the city to more effectively shape their own neighborhoods, from a planning and development perspective.
Unfortunately in Philadelphia, like many other cities, planners are hamstrung by the local political processes, resulting in barriers to implement these seemingly smart plans and policies. I think one thing the planning field could do though (at least based on my experience) is to do a better job of integrating the study of politics and policy into the planning school curriculum, so that professional planners are prepared not just to conduct analyses, design sites, make maps, and run proformas, but also to navigate political systems and influence policymaking.
And that last bit, about navigating political systems and influencing policy ties back neatly to your earlier point about the importance of relationships in planning. Final question, and it's an easy one – what was the best thing you did in Philadelphia in 2017?
That’s easy – the best thing I did in Philadelphia in 2017 was get married! I met my wife in planning school and that’s by far the best thing I got out of it.
Now THAT'S an important relationship. John Landis take note! Thanks Jesse and all the best to you and your lovely wife.
Like what you read? Know someone who should be next? Leave a note in the comment section below!
General thoughts and musings about the work SSC Solutions does and other things happening in and around Philadelphia