A year of exceptions, mirrored by exceptionalism – in the world, the nation, our city and an aspiring media upstart called Urbānitūs

Urbānitūs runs on the exceptionalism of many but it would simply not exist if not for three exceptional young people. They are in three different cities, all with demanding day jobs, and who, in the style of an emergency bucket brigade, just appeared in 2020 and demanded to know where was the wheel to which they could best put a shoulder

Nearly 30,000 tiny flags for every COVID-19 victim in Texas cover the Central Austin front yard of Shane Reilly
Photo: Nermin Judson

All of us, no doubt, will remember the year just past for its great exceptions: a murderous pandemic, anti-racism protests that became history’s largest civil uprising, and a presidential election waged amid algorithm-driven fantasy. These are just the largest of the Great Exceptions of 2020.

But like intertwined strands of DNA that only together define the whole organism, the Great Exceptions must stand in our hearts, minds and memories along with what I’ll call the Great Exceptionalism. The exceptionalism, of course, found expression in the nurses, doctors, hospital workers, bus drivers, teachers, first responders, even prisoners who volunteered for the fire lines when there was simply no one left to call in the most exceptional year of wildfires on record.

Exceptions and exceptionalism. Inadvertently, it was into this duality that our modest digital experiment called Urbānitūs was founded just weeks before the world metamorphosed before our eyes. And as a magazine exploring the nation’s fastest growing city, in North America’s fastest emerging megaregion, in a fast urbanizing world, this global/local landscape of a plague and all that it unmasked became our mission.

For cities led much of the response – and Austin was among the first to act in many ways. This is not to dismiss the historic levels of federal spending that were critical, of course. “Operation Warp Speed” was, again using that word, truly exceptional: from the first lab experiment last February to a vaccine in a nurse’s arm on Dec. 14.

But it was cities that did – and are doing – so much of the work. Cities were the first to order life-saving lockdowns while senior levels of government dithered. In Austin, funds were set aside to help the musicians and artists who define the city, tech firms rushed laptops and tablets to students suddenly learning from home or even from public parks. The city created its own Austin Civilian Conservation Corps to create jobs for young people cast out of work by COVID-19, as university labs pumped out PPE and modeled viral spread for Austin, Texas and the nation. Shelter was found for many of the homeless as food pantries, local farms, food banks and the city mobilized to deliver at recent count nearly one million pounds of food directly to low income adults and others at high risk.

Austin has been very much part of the national reckoning sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, just a month after unarmed Mike Ramos died here too at the hands of police. Among the 550 American cities where Black Lives Matter protests erupted and endured, drawing 26 million to the streets, Austin was no outlier. The debate over police reform and funding has dominated local politics since – and no doubt will into 2021.

And broadly, let’s not forget the local and state officials, elected and otherwise, Democrat and Republican, the poll workers and the volunteers from the League of Woman Voters, who did more to save our democracy in 2020 than any lawmaker in Washington. In so many ways, the locus of the year’s exceptionalism has been local.

These exceptions to what we regarded as normalcy have been almost our exclusive focus in the past year. With an all-volunteer team, some 29 all-volunteer contributors and marketing confined to word of mouth and the odd guerilla tactic, we’ve reached more than 14,000 readers with more than 100 essays, analyses, commentaries, book reviews, and poems. This is due solely to the exceptional work of the exceptional cast that came almost magically together.

I struggle to find a pattern, some logic in the ways people come together in these instances of common cause. It’s the spirit of the Old West bucket brigade perhaps, a spontaneous assembly, organized hastily and selflessly for a larger purpose. This could describe the volunteer mask-makers, the retired nurses who have travelled across state lines to serve in crisis hotspots, or Shane Reilly, the artist who has turned his Central Austin yard into a memorial of nearly 30,000 tiny flags honoring all those in Texas who have died from COVID-19.

It would be hubris to compare ourselves at this modest journal to such heroes. But the bucket brigade impulse certainly describes all who have carried this audacious project we’ve dubbed Urbānitūs, Latin for “in the way of the city,” on their shoulders for the last year: From tech CEO Brett Hurt, who wrote about the renewing power of the Austin ethos, to East Austin civic activist Susana Almanza, who wrote of the building blocks needed to make resilience more than a buzzword. From Janet Miranda, who described so poignantly the experience of graduating into a pandemic of joblessness, to historian Peniel Joseph, who has written repeatedly for us on racial justice while delivering to the world his new book, The Sword and the Shield, which retells the story of the civil rights movement — and which has topped virtually every list of the year’s best books.

And the list goes on: From the co-founders who have encouraged, cajoled and inspired me throughout the year, to the informal cabal of advisors whose encouragement and constructive criticism has never flagged. It’s a group that includes the urban sage and consultant Chelsea Collier, the polymath Mark Hand, the scholar Brooke Shannon who just penned a seminal series on Austin’s “Progessive Paradox,” and the author, journalist and my comrade-in-arms for decades, Deborah Mathis.

Urbānitūs, however, would simply not exist if not for three exceptional young people, in three different cities, all with demanding day jobs, and who, in the style of the bucket brigade, just appeared and demanded to know where they could best put a shoulder. The circumstances under which I first got to know all of them, not to mention their willingness much later to help, are as improbable as Urbānitūs itself. So please indulge a few more words.

I’ve taken to calling them the “Troika,” or more formally the “Innovation Team,” and they have invested hundreds of hours on ideas, projects and simple hard work – again, entirely as volunteers.

The sojourner – Associate Editor Robert Brehm in Medellin, Colombia

The year has wrought many internal stories about the Troika, but the most illustrative of the spirit animating it all comes from last summer. It was the week after the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, where Robert Brehm, now associate editor, had just moved. With a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs newly under his belt, he was readying to earn a second master’s in public health from the University of Minnesota. Robert and I, along with ten of his academic colleagues, had met a year earlier in a graduate seminar at UT in which I was kind of a stowaway student for a semester. The list of Robert’s initiatives is as long as my arm, from digital evangelism to moderating online events. But most importantly, he’s become our public health writer throughout this pandemic, exploring many subjects led by the gaping health care divide between East and West Austin.

But on this day in June, Robert had to drive back to Austin to pick up a few remaining things — and his cats. This was also the day when BLM protests had erupted in Austin and protests had shut down Interstate-35. Historian Joseph, meanwhile, as part of our first collaboration, was analyzing it all ahead of a Zoom panel and discussion with his fellow professor and our co-founder, Jeremi Suri, under the auspices of UT’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. I  was editing the analysis, but we needed a photograph. And with few resources beyond our imagination, no budget for freelancers and certainly no camera person on the ground, I was stumped.

On the road, Robert sensed the dilemma. Did I tell him? If so, I don’t remember. But he pulled to a turnout in Bevington, Iowa. On his cell phone he combed social media for photos of the events unfolding in Austin. He found a group of photos he liked, by Austin photographer Charles Reagan. Still two days’ drive from Austin, Robert sent Reagan requests to use the photos on every platform on which he could find an address: Twitter, Email, Instagram and Facebook.

The archer – Webmaster Banu Paksoy takes aim

He then sent the photos – permission pending of course — to Banu Paksoy, now known as our webmaster, in New York. He also shared the bounty and the channels on which we were trying to reach Reagan with Alexandra Shaposhnikova, the third member of the Troika, our marketer, who lives in Moscow. And then Robert returned to the freeway.

Banu, I should mention, is a friend and colleague I met eons ago on a press junket aboard a converted hospital ship on the Black Sea. I was then running a newspaper in Istanbul, she was working for a financial news service. Banu’s time in journalism was brief and she quickly moved through a succession of academic posts culminating in a globe-trotting job as an international programs director for Fordham University in New York. A couple of years ago, she pivoted away from that to return to school to study digital design. A year ago, with a 10-month old daughter now occupying her, Banu offered to help with Urbānitūs when it was no more than a vague idea. Little did she know. Between feeding “Ada,” now almost two, Banu has built the entire site, writes much of the code for innovation and runs our daily operation and analytics.

She set to work getting the non-public area of the site ready with Reagan’s photos, got it prepped for a Zoom video to follow and Professor Joseph’s soon-to-arrive essay.

The digital believer – Marketer Alexandra Shaposhnikova in a Moscow moment

Alexandra, meanwhile, a native of Kazakhstan, is also a colleague from a decade or so ago. As she was finishing university in Almaty, a visiting professor, a childhood friend of mine, nominated Alexandra for an internship at my newspaper in Istanbul where she worked with the team for six months. She went on to join Siemens, the German multinational manufacturer in Central Asia. From there she joined a Finnish maker of mining equipment and she now covers a territory from Helsinki to Ulan Batur, Mongolia. She’s also a graduate of a high school in Dallas where she was an exchange student, which is how she came to know Austin once upon a time. Since I moved here in 2013, we’ve kept in touch with birthday emails and the like. And she offered to help in the early moments, which she’s been doing most every day since. Our newsletters are Alexandra’s work. So are our graphics, minimalist as they may be. And she keeps Urbānitūs alive on Instagram among many social media places.

Back to the scramble to get Professor Joseph’s work on site and find photographs, all the Troika’s work was waiting for me when I finally got my head up from editing. Robert had found the photos. Alexandra had found the photographer, despite the fact was it nearing midnight her time, and secured his thumbs up. Banu had it all loaded and locked.

I only learned after the fact of all they had done. And all I had to do was say, press the button. We pressed the button – just as we’ve done countless times before and since.

The thinker – Nermin Judson whose grace makes all possible

That’s the year of Urbānitūs in microcosm. The year of Great Exceptions. The responses, the coping, the improvisations of Great Exceptionalism – from exceptional people around the world, here in Austin, and in the virtual space of a tiny magazine trying to make sense of it all.

A deep bow from me to all the exceptional people around the world who have held society together in 2020. My warmest best wishes to our readers on this first day of 2021. My endless gratitude to the remarkable people in a remarkable year who have created all our work to understand the past, grasp the present and imagine a better future.

And a thanks like no other to Nermin, my partner on life’s journey, the documentarian whose photography has graced much of Urbānitūs this year, and who is the source of the love, inspiration and optimism that make all possible.

Happy New Year!


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