American Success Features

Rhonda Sciortino: Empowering Survivors

I went from homeless to millionaire, but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t overnight. Here’s my story.

I was homeless when I was 8 years old as a result of an uninsured fire in the little shack where I lived with my mentally ill grandfather and alcoholic and addicted grandmother. My parents were both long gone.

That time of being homeless made a powerful impression on me. When I think about it now, decades later, I can still feel the emotions of being scared, dirty, and hungry. I went to school every day for months, through fall and into winter, wearing the same filthy little dress and dime store flip-flops that I was wearing on the day of the fire. We slept in the back of our old pickup truck usually at a nearby lake. We fished and we dug around in trash cans for something to eat. When someone gave us a box of used clothes, some of which almost fit me, I was so excited. For me, it was like someone had handed me a million dollars. I didn’t know it then, but I can see clearly now that there was dignity in that box.

When I was 15 years old, I read that I could become an emancipated minor. Wow! No more living in filth (or staying with people who didn’t want us there), being screamed at, or being hit for any reason or no reason at all. I got a ride down to the courthouse, and I asked anyone who would speak to me how to get emancipated. I didn’t know that you were supposed to go with a lawyer or a social worker. My social worker had closed my case years prior, labeling me “unadoptable” because, she said, “no one wants to adopt school-aged children.”

After hours of hanging around the courthouse pestering people, a bailiff had mercy on me and escorted me back to a judge’s chambers. I stood outside the door while the man in the uniform went in and spoke to the judge. When he came out to get me, he said, “You’ve got 5 minutes.”

I told the judge that my parents had been gone for years, and that I wanted to be emancipated. “I can do it, your honor. I know how to take care of myself.” To my surprise, the judge didn’t summarily dismiss me and have the bailiff escort me out. Instead, he said, “OK, if you want to be emancipated, here’s what you’ll need. You might want to write this down. You’ll need to bring me a paycheck stub showing that you have a steady job, a lease for an apartment and a utility bill in your name showing me that you have a place to live, the registration for a vehicle to prove that you have a way to get to school and work, and passbooks for both checking and savings accounts.” I think he thought he’d never see me again.

I left there so excited! I went back to the ROP (Regional Occupational Program) office at the high school where I attended and asked them to help me find a job. They sent me on two job interviews—one at a bank and one in a little insurance office. I didn’t get the bank job, but the insurance agent hired me on the spot. Of course he did, because every time he asked me if I knew how to do something, I told him I was an expert at that! Most of what he asked about was a complete mystery to me, but I figured that I would learn and work hard and have a good attitude, and that all those things would make up for what I didn’t know how to do.

When that insurance agent taught me about homeowners insurance, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was stunned to hear that this thing called “insurance” existed, which would have rebuilt our little shack, replaced our clothes and furniture, and put us up in a house while they were rebuilding our place after it had been destroyed by fire. It was like this man had lit an unquenchable fire in me. I became passionate about selling homeowner insurance because I never wanted anyone to go through what we had gone through. The only problem was that I was 16 years old and unlicensed.

I filed my application for an insurance license and was turned down. The rules were that applicants had to be at least 18 years old before they could take the test. I was completely dejected. I had taken everything the judge required for emancipation down to the courthouse, and had been declared an emancipated minor. I felt like I could do anything! But the Department of Insurance burst my bubble. My boss, the man who had lit the fire in me, prompted me to appeal. After all, as an emancipated minor, I could be tried as an adult if I committed a crime! So I appealed. I was declined. I appealed again. I was declined again. On the sixth appeal, my boss suggested I write a letter to the then sitting Insurance Commissioner saying that I was going to be at his office every morning when he arrived until he allowed me to take the test. I was approved.

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

Successful Survivors

I passed that test, and I spent the next 40 years in insurance. Most of that time I was in my own business, Child Welfare Insurance Services, an organization that was founded solely to protect and defend the good people and organizations that care for children who have been abused. In that business, we educated the insurance industry on how to properly rate premiums for child welfare organizations that had previously been charged premiums as though they were hospitals or insane asylums. As a result, we put millions of dollars back into the budgets of the organizations we served. That was money that was spent on children rather than insurance.

I sold my company and decided to spend the rest of my life helping other people succeed because of what they’ve been through. That was exactly what I had experienced.

I realized that the most painful experiences of my life became the stepping stones to personal and professional success. The abandonment I experienced when my parents left taught me self-reliance. The poverty I experienced taught me how to manage money and how to appreciate even the simplest things like warm running water, clean sheets, and food in the pantry. Child abuse gave me an empathy for victims of abuse that can be acquired only through lived experience. Being homeless as a result of an uninsured fire gave me a passion for the very thing that would be the vehicle through which I could help hundreds of nonprofit organizations, and indirectly, thousands of wounded children.

I founded an educational nonprofit, Successful Survivors Foundation, for the purpose of helping others create their own successful lives. We launched the Love Is Action Community Initiative to encourage people in neighborhoods to come together to help to eradicate social isolation and the societal ills that emanate from it, including child abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, substance abuse, suicide, and all the others.

In this second half of my life, I’m trying to help as many people as possible. Because I can only be one place at a time, I began to write. And I launched a podcast called Empowering Resilience. I’ve written 14 books, the most recent of which, “30 Days to Love,” is scheduled for release in November 2021. I’m working on turning my Your Real Success curriculum into a series of micro-learning courses, in the wild aspiration of helping millions of people to find and fulfill the purpose for which they were born and perfectly matched.

And the most recent fun I’m having is doing the interviews for the American Success segment of American Essence Magazine. There are so many truly remarkable people throughout our great country who live quiet and peaceful lives of service to others. In their own unique way, each one is making the world a better place. It’s such a privilege to be able to tell their stories. I hope you’ll check in with me monthly for the next story. And who knows, maybe one of these days, the story will be about you.

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

What challenges or hardships have you faced and overcome?

“I’ve overcome abandonment, abuse, poverty, and many other adversities. The most important aspect of facing challenges and hardships is discovering the truth that despite how difficult or painful it may be in the moment, suffering is optional. We can choose to be positive, be good to others as best we can, and expect good things to happen. This is my formula, if you will, for turning our adversities into our advantages. Adversities give us priceless opportunities to develop character traits, such as empathy, and learned abilities that we cannot acquire any other way.”

Tell us about the life that you live now.

“I am happily married to my husband of 30 years, Nick Sciortino. When I married him, I got a great, big Italian family as part of the package. Their acceptance of me helped to love me into wholeness when I was still rough around the edges. I used to be skeptical of people, almost expecting them to hurt me. But I understand now that when people don’t behave well, it’s because all is not well for them. Now, instead of being skeptical and defensive, I try to approach people with kindness, mercy, and love.

I have a wonderful daughter and son-in-love and amazing grandchildren. I can honestly say that I now have what I call Real Success, which is a balance of five separate facets, including good relationships, good health, peace, joy, and financial provision. That’s what I want for everyone.”

(Jennifer Schneider for American Essence)

What are three things that you do for others?

“Through my writing, speaking, podcast, and media, I do my best to share the wisdom that I’ve acquired along the way. I’ve tried to learn from everyone I know. (Sometimes I’ve learned how NOT to behave—still, it’s all valuable.) So I pass along tips so that others can build on what I know and go farther than I ever will. On a personal level, I share my faith and values. In my journey from homeless to millionaire, I’ve learned what works to move us toward fulfillment of our purpose and the real success that accompanies it. I’ve also learned what doesn’t work. Those things that do not work distract us from the good life we were born and fully equipped to live. I share what I know to help others save the precious time of their lives that can never be retrieved.”

Some favorite quotes: 

“You can have anything in life that you want, if you’ll help enough other people get what they want.” —Zig Ziglar

“Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” —Teddy Roosevelt

“The harder you work, the luckier you get.” —Samuel Goldwyn

A book that inspired you:

“The Body Keeps The Score” by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk

“Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl

“Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis

Best advice:

“Forgive those who have hurt you. Be kind to everyone. Show love to others every opportunity you have. When you do those things, your life will be filled with kindness, love, and mercy. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

Rhonda Sciortino is the author of “Acts of Kindness,” “The Kindness Quotient,” and “Love Is Action,” among many other books. She hopes to nudge people toward Love.


Legendary Civil Rights Leader Writes the (Last) Book on Suffering 

John Perkins’s hands move with a passion that still fuels him at 91, as he tells his story of suffering and redemption. Like most black families in Mississippi in the 1930s, life was an all-consuming effort to survive. No one can remember Perkins’ exact birthday, but the significance of one early memory has become very clear.

(Courtesy of John Perkins)

John was living with his grandmother, a woman who had birthed 19 children of her own before taking in John and his five siblings. Pellagra, a vitamin B3 deficiency, had taken his mother’s life when she was still nursing 7-month-old John. Already-full beds grew fuller. John’s grandmother was supplementing their sharecropping income with bootlegging.

Mississippi had banned alcohol statewide in 1908, a decade before the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited it throughout the nation. Then, Mississippi became the last state to repeal its state prohibition in 1966, three decade after the 21st Amendment had repealed Prohibition nationally.

One day, the sheriff came into the house and claimed he found alcohol. John’s grandmother knew the sheriff had planted it there. When he told her he was going to haul her to jail, her response traveled deep into John’s soul. She said, “If I was a man, I would kick your a__ for thinking that I would go with you and leave these little ones.” Her defense fueled a sense of dignity in John: his grandmother loved him; she had stood up for him against the white sheriff. He knew then that he was worth as much as any other child.

This incident helped counter the reflection of himself that John saw in the eyes of many others: like when he was 12 and had worked hard all day for a white farmer. Instead of the dollar or two he expected to receive at the end of the day, the man dropped just 15 cents into his hand. John knew what would happen, to both himself and his family, if he did what he wanted to do at the time: throw the money on the floor in front of the man. “We would get the reputation of being ‘Uppity Niggers,’ or worse, ‘Smart Niggers,’” Perkins said. But the incident had made him think and ask questions, and he had made a decision. This man, John realized, had the capital, and could make evil decisions about what to do with it; one day, John decided that he, too, would be in a position to make decisions about his own capital.

Perkins left Mississippi in 1947, after his older brother, Clyde—home from serving in World War II—was shot by the police. He died in John’s arms. Perkins found work in a California foundry where, while still a teenager, he helped to form a union. It gave him a taste of the success that united action could bring.

After he was drafted into the Korean War and served two years, John and his bride, Vera Mae, a hometown girl who was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, settled in Monrovia, California. They’d already had five of their eight kids, and were enjoying a lifestyle better than either of them had known growing up.

(Courtesy of John Perkins)

Perkins’ life would change drastically, however, when his oldest son, Spencer, was invited to a local Good News Club. Spencer, still in preschool, then invited his dad to church. John went and started reading the Bible for the first time. One Sunday, he heard Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” He said that verse spoke to his whole life experience. He knew about wages: it was a dime and a buffalo nickel from a white man. And sin—that was oppression. But what about his own sin? 

(Courtesy of John Perkins)

That morning was the culmination of much searching. John said yes to Jesus, had inner peace for the first time, and didn’t look back. “I moved into my new life like I did everything else: as hard as I could,” Perkins said. Soon he felt God calling him back to Mississippi, where he started teaching Bible classes in schools. He and Vera Mae started Mendenhall Ministries, to help break the cycle of poverty and facilitate reconciliation.

The Paradox of Suffering 

In 1964, civil rights issues were heating up in Mississippi. Everyone, black and white, had to take a stand, Perkins said. He led a voter registration drive, and a few years later, organized a boycott.

In 1970, after several Tougaloo College students had been imprisoned for protesting, Perkins went to the jail in Brandon, Mississippi, to bail them out. When he arrived, Mississippi patrolmen had other plans for him. They tortured and beat him and made him mop up his own blood. It’s not something John can talk about easily. During almost two years of unjust court proceedings, he suffered from heart problems, and had much of his stomach removed because of ulcers.

(Courtesy of John Perkins)
(Courtesy of John Perkins)

This led to a faith crisis, which was eventually overcome by individual acts of kindness and love, coming from both God and man: like the white doctor who sat by his bed reading and caring for him and wouldn’t leave until John was asleep. Years later, the arms of a white chaplain would hold him together after hearing the news that Spencer, not yet 50, hadn’t survived a heart attack. “We wash one another’s wounds,” John says quietly.

Perkins has since written 17 books, but not alone. “I’ve been so blessed in my life to have so many people who have given me the help I need. This whole lifetime of ministry has been with friends God has put into my life. It’s a teamwork.”  He calls his last three books, his manifesto: the truths he has learned in his 90-plus years, and what he hopes will live on after him.

His first book, “One Blood: Parting Words to the Church on Race and Love,” was published when he was 88. “We are one blood; science has already proven that.” And when we are born again into the family of God, he added, we are also brothers and sisters in the faith.

Book two came after Perkins was asked by a college student how he could make a difference in the world. “Become friends with God, and be friends with each other,” John answered, and then unpacked this response in “He Calls Me Friend: The Healing Power of Friendship in a Lonely World.”

In September 2021, Perkins’ last book was released: “Count it All Joy: The Ridiculous Paradox of Suffering.” This book describes his journey through months of mysterious pain, morphine, and two hospital stays, until the source of the problem was finally found. Behind layers of scar tissue that had grown where doctors had operated following his attack in the Brandon jail, cancer was growing.

(Courtesy of John Perkins)

Perkins had already beaten cancer twice before he reached 90. The incredible pain of this third journey, however, was different, he wrote. He’d had words for the other pain. But with this one, came the unexpected, and John asked the Lord to give him a little more time. There were things he hadn’t been able to say before: like the value of lamentation. “Lament is an old word that has been given a fresh new meaning in this generation,” Perkins said. “We need to let people know that God allows us to lament. We don’t have to act like we’re strong when we’re falling apart. Life is hard. And it becomes harder when we don’t have safe places to share our grief and our struggles without being made to feel like we’re not strong enough.”

And the paradox in this last book: Perkins makes the case that suffering is good, and it is sometimes God’s way of getting our attention and preparing us for His purposes. He speaks with authority after a journey that has borne the pain of breaking down barriers. His conclusion is a surprising closing hymn: True joy is formed in the crucible of suffering. It isn’t experienced alone. “When I cry out to Him, He meets me right there in the place of my pain. And He feels what I feel. He hurts when I hurt. I believe that,” Perkins declared.

John and Vera Mae, with the support of friends, have started many ministries that focus on Christian community development, multiethnic church planting, health care, education, legal assistance, low-income housing development, and more. It’s clear that John hasn’t let his third-grade education hold him back.

In 1969, his testimony before the McGovern Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs led to The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), a government program that helps feed millions of low-income women, infants and children each month. He has served in an advisory role under several U.S. presidents. He is an international speaker on reconciliation, leadership, and community development. Sixteen colleges have recognized his life and work with honorary doctorate degrees. Three colleges have established John Perkins Centers.

(Courtesy of John Perkins)

John, now Dr. Perkins, still has hope for the future. “The Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution are the greatest statements on human dignity,” he often says. While America hasn’t always lived up to it, for the first time, Perkins now sees “a generation that values differences. One of the greatest statements in the world” he says, “is ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’”

Although he’s quick to clarify that he’s still alive, and “still listening,” Perkins has imagined what it’s going to be like when he meets his mother on the other side. He will borrow the words of Thurgood Marshall. “I’m going to say, ‘Momma, I tried. I did what I could with what I had.’” Her response will likely be the second “Well done” that John hears.

(Courtesy of John Perkins)

For more information about John Perkins, and his free video class on living with purpose and passion, visit

Features History

Service in the Time of JFK’s Camelot

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the start of President John F. Kennedy’s administration. When he took office in January 1961, he ushered in a new sentiment for the country. That sentiment was all about youth.

At 43, JFK was the nation’s second-youngest president, and he was good-looking to boot. The First Lady was also young and good-looking, and their two young children were adorable. It was all about youth.

JFK succeeded President Dwight D. Eisenhower. While both had served in the military during World War II, they were from opposite ends of the age spectrum. Eisenhower, known as Ike, was a career soldier, and had reached the rank of five-star general in the U.S. Army by the end of his military career. JFK, while an officer in the Navy, was far younger, and only rose to lieutenant during the war.

“What had happened in 1960 was that the junior ranks of the military in World War II replaced the generals,” said James Piereson, a historian and fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “That was part of the generational change that happened. Kennedy was, of course, quite pro-military,” he said. “JFK gave luster to military service,” he added, having “very much campaigned on his war record” in 1960.

So, what was it like being young and in the service during the Kennedy administration?

Bob Hogan was a gunnery officer and lieutenant junior grade on active duty in the Navy from 1960 to 1963, essentially the entire duration of JFK’s time in office. He was commissioned at age 22. “I was blown away by JFK’s Navy war record, his charisma, style, and wit,” he said. “I was immensely energized by his call to service, and really believed in it. His seeming idealism, his patriotic values—I was completely taken in.”

Tom Fryer had the thrill of a lifetime when JFK handed him his diploma and commission. They shook hands at Fryer’s graduation ceremony from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1963. “I felt so honored, so humbled,” said Fryer, who was also 22 at the time.

The American president is also commander-in-chief of the nation’s military. In October 1962, JFK had to make some difficult decisions in that role. The United States and the USSR were fighting the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev was JFK’s counterpart in communist Russia. A U-2 reconnaissance photo of Cuba confirmed that Khrushchev had placed nuclear missiles on the island, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

JFK responded by ordering a naval blockade around Cuba, and essentially told Khrushchev that the missiles had to go. If they didn’t, there would be war. A nuclear war.

This period, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, was essentially a naval operation. But the entire military, worldwide, was ready for deployment, including a possible invasion of Cuba.

Harry Moritz was at Morse Intercept School at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, at the time. “One day, we marched back to our barracks and were held for an announcement. We were asked if anyone spoke Spanish. Several guys raised their hands. They were pulled to one side, told to pack their gear, and they were sent on a ‘special assignment’ TDY (temporary duty station). They disappeared and were never seen again,” he said. “We non-Spanish folks stayed in Morse school, and in the dark, like the rest of the USA, crapping our pants.”

Gary Mahone was a Morse interceptor, stationed in Hakata, Japan. “During that time, we were on red alert and worked 12-hour shifts, 24/7,” he said. “All leaves and terminations were canceled. Very tense times.”

The Air Force Academy that Fryer attended was in Colorado, not far from the North American Aerospace Defense Command (called NORAD), which conducts aerospace warning and control for the United States. “If the Russians would have come after us, that was a prime target,” said Fryer.

However, according to Fryer, Soviet missiles weren’t all that accurate at the time, so if they fell 15 miles short of their target, the academy could easily be hit. “In preparation for that, we held some drills,” he said. The academy was built with underground tunnels that distributed its utilities. Top brass decided the safest place for the cadets was in these tunnels, which no one really knew about.

Hogan was on a destroyer, which was part of the task force that was going to invade Cuba. His ship was the submarine screen and would provide shore bombardment should the invasion happen.

Hogan spotted a Russian submarine tailing them. “I heard his torpedo doors open,” he said. That meant the Soviets were preparing to attack. Hogan had his hand on the trigger, let his captain know he had positive identification, and requested permission to fire.

Had permission been granted, this very action would have kicked off a nuclear war. However, he was “in a system” and “the system has its rules; you follow the rules.” He would have obeyed the order to fire if it had been given.

“I was (expletive) my pants,” Hogan recalled. “There was a long pause, and the captain said, ‘Classify your contact as a whale,’” instead of an enemy submarine. “I was really glad when the captain chickened out.”

With a nuclear war between the two superpowers looming, Khrushchev eventually gave in and agreed to remove the missiles.

Veteran Joe Schmidt of N.Y. (Dave Paone)

Joe Schmidt was a 21-year-old signalman on a destroyer in the blockade. His job was to directly communicate with the Russian merchant ships as they removed the missiles from Cuba. “With a flashing light, we would send a message to them, and we had to ask them, ‘What is your cargo?’” he said. The expected reply was, “Missiles.” Schmidt would relay that message to the captain, who would relay it to the naval air station in Key West, Florida.

It was understood by everyone involved that the Soviet merchant ships were carrying the missiles and nothing else. “Anything coming out of Cuba at that point was only coming out with missiles on it. They weren’t bringing cigars,” said Schmidt with a laugh.

Key West would then dispatch a P2V Neptune anti-submarine aircraft to fly over the Russian ship to photograph its cargo. The only time Schmidt was in contact with a Soviet ship, it was after midnight and completely dark.

“They had these huge searchlights on the wingtips,” he said. “And they lit that ship up—that plane lit it up—it looked like it was 12 o’clock in the afternoon with those lights.” Even though the two sides spoke entirely different languages—ones that don’t even share the same alphabet—there was a code that both understood, which made communication possible.

JFK’s presidency is fondly referred to as “Camelot,” and the consensus among those who served in the military during his administration is that, for different reasons, it was an exciting time. As Hogan put it, “Best and worst experience of my life.”

Dave Paone is a Long Island-based reporter and photographer who has won journalism awards for articles, photographs, and headlines. When he’s not writing and photographing, he’s catering to every demand of his cat, Gigi.

Arts & Letters

A Conversation With Charles Marohn: ‘Honor the Struggle!’

Walking six blocks to work each morning gives Charles Marohn a unique insight into the vitality of his town, and into his own well-being. Aware of the benefits of exercise in his life, he quickly draws an analogy between personal discipline and the discipline that makes for a strong town. Wisdom literature often draws a comparison when it calls the human body one’s temple or place of habitation, cautioning us to make good choices in the care thereof. Marohn sees the same discipline necessary for personal health as being necessary for our communities—the shared places of our habitation. In a recent conversation, we talked a bit about his faith. He’s a practicing Catholic who values the discipline of self-denial. “Fasting is an intentional deprivation that actually makes your body work better—a lot like exercise,” he said.

As the founder of Strong Towns, Marohn is on a mission to help communities of all sizes gain the discipline that will give them the strength and resiliency to not only survive challenges but also to use them as catalysts to grow and prosper. Surveying his town as he walks, Marohn sees the human struggle as well as the opportunities. Little things—the trees planted, the fresh paint, a hand-painted crosswalk, the cleaned-up empty lot; these are the signs of a healthy community. Thousands of individuals, each of them adding a small piece to the fabric of the whole, together cause a community to grow and prosper.

And Marohn has been forced to search for these components that make communities strong. He grew up on a small farm in Baxter, Minnesota, studied civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, and received a master’s degree in planning. “An engineer sees everything in equations,” he says. Working for the small town of Remer, Minnesota, Marohn set out to obtain funding for a small sewer system repair. Government agencies couldn’t be bothered with his small grant request, so Marohn got creative, turning a $300,000 repair into a $2.5-million sewer expansion project. He was a hero—or was he? Even with grants and sweet loan deals, the project actually failed to generate enough revenue to cover repaying the loans. So Marohn began to see the bigger picture.

His latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Engineer,” is scheduled for release in the fall of 2021. In it, he questions the planning and procurement mentality that favors building bigger instead of using a more organic and locally empowered process. His critics love to call him “anti-growth” or “anti-suburbs,” but in really dialoguing with him, one finds a man with a truly positive vision for the places of our habitation—and he’s a visionary with a keen sense of history.

History and Planning

Marohn’s hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, began as a collection of hastily constructed wooden buildings along a simple main street. Following a pattern they had seen before, they used local lumber, milled and planed, to develop a street—Front Street. “This is how every city in human history up to this point had begun: a series of pop-up shacks, some hopes, and some dreams. The great cities of North America—San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and Manhattan—all began in this way. London, Paris, Milan, and the cities of Europe, likewise. Even ancient cities, where urban DNA was in a more infantile phase—places like Alexandria, Thebes, Beirut, and Damascus—were founded in this same manner.” Was it a smooth process? Not exactly, as there was chaos and failure along the way, too. But as the town grew, the mistakes could give way to other uses.

A town would grow incrementally and organically, evolving slowly as its inhabitants continually sought to meet their needs and express their dreams. Its fine school, its Beaux-Arts courthouse, and the presence they both conveyed—none of these came first; rather, they emerged gradually as the process unfolded. They were more often than not a second or third version of the same edifice—often on the very same spot. This process of gradual renewal served us well, and we tend to forget that it came to us, sometimes quite literally, through the fire. Some of our great cities burned to the ground, and lessons learned in disaster informed the rebuilding.

Marohn’s bookshelf at his office based in his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. (Jen Kalenberg)

However, sometime during the early to mid-20th century, this natural evolution of towns changed. After the Great Depression and World War II, we felt that we could do a better job by controlling the process from the top down. The United States had emerged from that great conflict relatively unscathed, and we found new prosperity that would allow us to build our environment on a grand scale. Old neighborhoods that had evolved over the years, often home to ethnic communities nurturing their unique cultures, suddenly stood in the way of progress. Flattened to make way for highway interchanges or housing projects, mid-20th-century planners went large when building upon their ruins—and they built their projects all at once.

Whereas entropy and renewal were constant in the old community fabric, a project’s new structures would initially be shiny and pristine, but in no way immune to decay. Also, because they were all constructed at the same time, they would later begin to break down together—and there would be no gradual renewal, only the endless demands of maintenance as they aged. The battle then became an ever-increasing effort to counter the wholesale deterioration of the project. Additionally, novelty and public funding had led cities to underestimate the true cost of maintenance. With abundant sources for project funding, old buildings were left to decay while their occupants simply moved into newer versions across town.

“This idea that there should be some kind of overarching plan that lays it all together gives us a certain degree of comfort—that is really false comfort,” Marohn says. “The postwar development pattern has really forced us into a Sisyphus kind of relationship with the world. Our only struggle now is to resist decline—not to improve, make better, evolve, reach higher states of being and greatness, but to just simply resist the rock falling back down the hill.

“Instead, you need to respect the organic nature of it, the idea that cities do need to evolve and adapt and change and be reborn—cities and neighborhoods need to reinvent themselves regularly. You need to add the capacity to respond to stress and opportunity. If you don’t embrace that, then wherever you are today is the high water mark for everything in the future—and the question is then, ‘How long can you keep from decline?’ Can you put it off for one generation or two generations—10 or 50 years?”

A Change for the Better

“If you look at the way we build places now, the vast majority of them are abandoned, not rejuvenated. Credentialism has led to a lack of experimentation—that stifles innovation,” Marohn says. “The innovator will not necessarily be the smartest person in the room; rather, it will be the result of 1,000 experiments going on simultaneously. Today, we see inventiveness as the realm of people like Elon Musk. And so it goes: The expert will lay out a solution, it will be built, and when it fails to deliver, we’ll do a charrette—we’ll bring in the people and listen to them—and then the expert will pronounce the solution. Jane Jacobs, with no planning experience, saw the value of places like Greenwich Village, and ultimately inspired their renewal. … It is time for a new generation of her ilk to rise up and begin the renewal of their communities from the bottom up. In the end, it really isn’t about new urbanism or suburbs versus city, but a vision for a healthy community—one that lives within its means and allows for its members to contribute to its vitality—much like any healthy family. This is about people more than projects.”

Marohn on his usual route to the Strong Towns office. (Jen Kalenberg)

An example of where this is happening today is the Broad Avenue neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. Broad Avenue was a wasteland of vacant stores and had become a place to simply “drive through.” Then an army of local citizens equipped with brooms, brushes, and cheap hardware-store paint started a revolution. The citizens painted in crosswalks and bicycle lanes, and earnestly worked to make the streets as clean and inviting as their limited resources would allow. They invited merchants into the vacant stores—and the merchants came. When Memphis city officials realized what was happening (with no permits having been requested), did they step in and shut it down? Marohn points out that they did quite the opposite: “In many cases, where it was appropriate, they came in and replaced the hardware store paint with permanent crosswalks and bicycle lanes. They followed the template laid down by the citizens in most cases. Then they looked at the fact that the area had almost 100 percent occupancy of the commercial spaces, and used it as a model for surrounding streets and communities.”

In his work with Strong Towns, Marohn strives to empower many such communities. While the media shows us the decline of Detroit, he can point to neighborhoods where local initiatives are keeping people in their homes—keeping neighborhoods alive. After the difficulties of the pandemic, Marohn sees real lessons to be learned from citizens joining together to revitalize their communities. Psychologists have similarly documented that Americans were actually happier during the Great Depression of the 1930s; as they worked together to overcome all sorts of real obstacles, they experienced real and lasting personal satisfaction. Hopefully, our communities have emerged from the isolation of the past year with renewed respect for our shared places of human habitation. Most importantly, we should move forward as shapers—not merely consumers—of these places, gaining the deep satisfaction that comes from doing so.

Bob Kirchman is an architectural illustrator who lives in Augusta County, Virginia, with his wife, Pam. He teaches studio art (with a good deal of art history thrown in) to students in the Augusta Christian Educators Homeschool Coop. Kirchman is an avid hiker and loves exploring the hidden wonders of the Blue Ridge Mountains.