The Captain Hindsight Award

53 thoughts on “The Captain Hindsight Award”

  1. I give you the Captain the past is prologue award, along with the captain we learn from our mistakes award.

  2. Johnny, when you said this…

    “One problem with infill development in a lot of jurisdictions is the financial incentive for tax revenue generating businesses and temporary visitors rather than permanent residents who cost the town money in required services.”

    It made me realize that part of the problem is the natural instinct of our society to divorce everything instead of unite it. In this situation, why is it the case that permanent residents simply cost a town money? Why are they nothing more than red ink on the ledger? I submit it’s because we don’t let them produce anything. Businesses are for producing (plus) and homes are for consuming (minus) and never the two shall meet.

    In fact let’s make sure of that. Let’s make sure you live way over here being a minus and work way over there being a plus. All the accountant is concerned about in this scenario is that at the end of the day the pluses and minuses balance out.

    But this scheme really only works in the world of financial theory. It neglects things like ecology, psychology, sociology, architecture and so on. Though it’s less sexy, the more natural mode of being is to have everything thing together: work, play, services, resources, nature, entertainment, production, etc. If you can get those pieces together, you have it good. Let the home maker sell things. Let businesses have homes on their second floor. And so on.

    1. You’re preaching to the choir here. What I hear from officials is their hands are tied.
      They have no control over most of the levers of power. So given their few remaining tools they do what they can. It’s best to have a car dealership in your jurisdiction so you can skim the sales tax instead of the town next door. That creates an environment in which every town offers incentives to lure the car dealers over. The car dealers know this and use their leverage to extract favors.

      On the other hand residential builders pay up front impact fees that can be substantial on larger projects. So a really big subdivision or apartment/condo building can plug a hole in a town’s budget gap for a year. Messy business…

      Meanwhile, a dinky little shop with an apartment upstairs is seen as entirely irrelevant since it doesn’t solve anyone’s problems.

      1. Your last sentence says a lot. Ironically the officials are thinking too large. Though their domain is the whole city/county, a lot of issues would be solved by first taking care of the essential building blocks – the individual dweller. Give them the power and leeway to build/grow/live and they will end up doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Guidance by authorities is still important for the 30,000 ft view, but the details of daily life would be much more likely to work themselves out.

  3. Enjoy the blog, but whomever posted the criticism wasn’t helpful because they didn’t provide an accompanying set of suggestions. Part of why the blog is interesting is that it gives me a contemporary hint of the works of Jane Jacobs and Gaston Bachelard. Even Jane Jacobs’ works became arguably redundant near the end of her career. What is going on but the interconnected cyclical dynamics of spacial and personal growth and decay? If it is so simple, why not use a word like “entropy” instead of a hyperbolic metaphor like “time bomb.” Please keep doing what you are doing – it is great – but so as not the suffer the Wayne Newton syndrome please look for repetitions in your analysis as demonstrated by redundant ambiguous phrases such as “larger structural forces at work.” Personally, it would seem constructive to consistently integrate some map images if possible. The earlier write-up on Memphis street design was constructive. It seems like a bit more analysis on boundaries and infrastructure would help maintain your high standards for content. Kudos for taking a criticism and making a visually appealing post rather than taking the snarky comment to heart.

  4. Tech revolutions succeed each other but are hard to see until they’ve already started to happen. No one saw the mobile phone coming but it changed a lot in terms of social relations. The uber style driverless car, like the railroad or the private car will change geography and it’s related economics. There will be no need for parking. Parking lots will be built upon creating denser more walkable neighborhoods, parking related height limitations will dissapear. Transportation will be cheaper and more convenient. Demand for the cheap neighborhoods near the center will rise as infill makes these places increasingly attractive. Zoning will be radically altered to accommodate. Financing will follow. It sounds unlikely, but so did the railroad in its day.

    1. I hear lovers of suburbia make exactly the opposite argument. Autonomous vehicles will make it even more convenient for everyone to live really far apart from each other out in nature. Your hour+ commute will be productive as you do work or nap while the car drives itself.

      One problem with infill development in a lot of jurisdictions is the financial incentive for tax revenue generating businesses and temporary visitors rather than permanent residents who cost the town money in required services. So the infill that’s approved is often for hotels, premium outlet malls, casinos, and technology parks – all of which are essentially “shopping mall” structures at the end of the day.

      And since every town is attempting to induce the same kinds of cash cow silver bullet developments there’s a massive glut and many of these projects are destined to fail. The empty husks of defunct casinos and festival market halls are already making their way down the food chain.

      1. So what all these contradicting clairvoyant voices are really saying is that the future is unpredictable and no one actually knows what will happen. Is not one point of this blog to say ‘we don’t know, all we can do is make reasonable plans for the ups & downs.’?

        But seriously, the idea of spending 2-4 hours commuting in my mobile office, going to a few hours of meetings in a building, then the same thing back home; well that future image sounds like hell to me. Maybe I’ll quit everything and become a subsistence farmer. Or maybe (probably), I won’t. I’ll suck it up with the rest of society, and I’ll quietly hope for institutional collapse.

        1. Or, commute the day or two per week where face to face meetings are really needed, and work from a home office or a nearby coworking space (in a dead 60s strip mall).

  5. I must say, however, that I have been impressed with how fast the commercial real estate industry is pivoting from the single use exclusion model, which probably wasn’t such a good idea to begin with, to something else.

    The first recent examples of introducing residential and other non-retail into a shopping center was Rick Caruso’s Americana at Brand out in metro LA. He saw the millennials wanted a mixed use downtown. OK, he said, I’ll give you one. Then the Natick Mall over in metro Boston did it. Now it’s everywhere. Now they are converting to office space, parks, gyms, whatever.

    New ideas have a hard time getting approved/financed/etc. and break through the institutional inertia. But once something makes money, they keep doing it until long after it becomes stupid.

    1. Yes and no. Turning a half dead shopping mall into a mixed use development works in a high demand relatively high priced market with the right demographics. LA. Boston. Try the same thing in a lesser location and it will fail.

  6. Dear Johnny,
    Excellent post. As a long time reader of your blog, I was in no way surprised by anything you said here, but it was so well articulated that I read it twice– the second time aloud to share it with a friend.

    For me, the essence of it is this, to quote you:

    “If I sound negative for pointing this reality out to people it’s not because I’m a doomer. I’m simply describing how things work rather than how people inaccurately interpret things. Your town didn’t decline because the “wrong element” moved in and ruined it. It wasn’t waste, fraud, and abuse by incompetent government officials. It wasn’t corporate greed. No. Your town was a time bomb from the get go. But the fuse was so long that no one noticed until the detonation hit.”

    Sincerely,
    ML

    1. The more compelling question for me is how ordinary people use this information to guide their own personal decisions in life. One option is to acknowledge that we have a slash and burn system and the sensible thing to do is buy a new home out on the edge of the metroplex and keep moving every ten or fifteen years to keep ahead of the decay.

      Another option is to realize that many of the older run down towns eventually get rediscovered and become fashionable and valuable again. In my experience this is just another version of greenfield development. The same kinds of subsidies and inducements that extend infrastructure out to the far edge are often used to reinvent older places. Tax credits for historical preservation, tax holidays for new construction in “enterprise zones,” state and federal grants for infrastructure upgrades in blighted areas, government loan guaranties…

      The trick is to guess correctly which places will revive and which will continue to decline and become the new slums. The old recipes may or may not hold up as circumstances shift.

  7. Your straightforward analysis of which buildings can be built, and where, and why has been of great value to me, though the details are too tedious to share here.

    Without hindsight, how would we ever develop foresight? Somehow, I doubt that you’re going to feel sad and lonely for having failed to please one of your readers.

  8. Contra your other reader, I happen to find your blog illuminating. I don’t think there’s another writer with quite your perspective. And one of the ways that I think it shines is by focusing people’s consciousness on the everyday realities that people just do not see as they go about their routines because they consider what’s around them to be “normal.” (David Foster Wallace made that point in a graduation speech years ago.) Keep up the good work.

  9. Fairfield was founded as an agricultural and transportation hub. Agriculture has changed and transportation has changed. It’s not clear that Fairfield has an economic use anymore, and cities are economic entities. Even if we changed the zoning laws and banking system to allow for sensible, dense urban development, who would want to live there and what businesses would locate there?

    1. Agreed. Fairfield transitioned to a company town 75 years ago when Travis Air Force Base was built. If Travis goes away Fairfield will wither and die. But Fairfield isn’t unique. Most towns have no particular reason to exist these days.

  10. Nice synopsis of blog. Curious whether your commentator’s complaint was for something specific, or overarching theme. Don’t forget some complained about the blandness, tackiness, and alienation of suburbia as far back as the 1950’s. As well as the financial and logistical drawbacks to such sprawl. Isn’t much historical research hindsight? And the point of such to hopefully generate some foresight? Even if you can’t personally affect outcomes, understanding why is still vital.

    1. The Captain Hindsight criticism was focused on my observations about Memphis. My understanding is people want solutions if someone points out a problem. My point is that there is no solution to the current situation since every element of all our institutions conspire to tirelessly maintain the status quo. In order to correct the situation we need to change everything about everything. And I don’t see that happening anytime soon. That’s not a message that sells well, although it happens to be the truth.

  11. Having grown up in the area, it seems that the Fairfield City leaders are doubling down on the suburban commuter model. If they ever close Travis AFB, Fairfield will turn into Vallejo, and mirror its everlasting recovery.

    1. Yes, I’ve been mulling the High Speed Rail situation. It really comes down to culture and political will. When Cal DOT and the feds spent $1.1 billion on off ramp improvements to a tiny stretch of the 405 freeway in the San Fernando Valley no one in LA seemed to mind the expenditure.

      I have a friend in city government in the Antelope Valley who was present during the endless negotiations with the HSR project. His town didn’t get a rail station so it arm wrestled concessions to mitigate the impact of having rail lines without the benefit of a station. The town next door that did get the station arm wrestled HSR for concessions for getting the station. That process played all up and down the state with every town that did and didn’t get a piece of the pie.

      In the end I think geography played a big role in killing (or greatly diminishing) the train system. The mountains around Tehachapi are brutal from an engineering perspective.

      1. I’m aghast that so much money would be thrown at such a boondoggle, while vital intracity mass transit that people need every day withers away.

        There is an interesting TV show called ‘Mysteries of the Abandoned’ about ruins of every type all over the world. Military and civilian projects, including proverbial roads, bridges, trains to nowhere. So not just America throwing gobs of money down the drain.

  12. Johnny, you talk of larger forces but it’s sometimes difficult to understand how they work at the local level. Reading you it seems clear that the root cause of the decline of these cities is not so much the mania of new new new than the mania of building always farther out, which leeches the life out of existing districts. Why can’t a developer who wants to build something new raze an outmoded and now amortized building in an older district and build his new thing on the same spot instead of in a brand new, never before built-out location farther out?

    I understand that this is unappealing to individual developers because nobody wants to be the guy saddled with the lone, spanking new building in an otherwise decaying district but what if zoning laws left all developers with no other choice? You have documented before how city bureaucrats make a myriad regulation and generally speaking exist to lay eggs (excuse me, make regulations). So why can’t they make the one reg that would actually help? Surely this ever expanding acreage of zombieland is not in the interest of the city or county, so why don’t they rein it in?

    And I don’t buy that “the fuse is too long”. For one thing it’s literally written in the landscape for those with eyes to see. For another, with a depreciation period of 15 years the career of the average bureaucrat will cover two cycles, possibly even three, so they might be blind the first time but what’s their excuse the second or third time?

    1. Sooooo…. Let’s say – hypothetically – I wanted to take a one story 2,000 square foot building from the 1920s and make it a two or three story building. That was exactly what used to happen when land values and market demand increased on any Main Street in the country before WWII. Back then this was seen as progress, because the new building was understood to be better than the old one.

      But today you’d have some serious problems. First, off street parking minimums mean most (or all) of the 2,000 square feet of land would need to be used for parking and there wouldn’t be space for an actual building. Next there’s mandatory on site storm water management which translates to the entire lot needing to be a retention pond. Then there’s the Americans With Disabilities Act that requires all buildings more than one story tall to have an elevator. An elevator costs about $100,000 so that kills the budget for a small building. Then there’s the banks who finance such construction projects that are used to single family homes, garden apartment complexes, strip malls, and office parks. A small traditional mixed use building with a shop downstairs and an apartment or two upstairs is an alien creature. They can’t process the paperwork since it’s non-conforming and can’t be bundled in with 20,000 similar properties and sold off to the pension funds. Then there’s the fire marshal who insists that the world’s largest fire engine be able to drive around the entire perimeter of the building at all times for safety reasons. “The fire code is written in the blood of dead fire fighters.” Then there’s Mrs. Rabinowitz and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade who show up at city council meetings screaming “Think of the children!” I could go on…

      In order to build infill projects that meet all the minimum code requirements, pencil out financially, and are large and expensive enough to overcome local resistance from protesters, you’re looking at a 200 unit building. So that’s what we see all over the country. They’re called Texas Donuts.

      1. You forgot “and the city will demand the developer fix the neglected sidewalk between the site and the nearest bus stop”.

      2. So your thesis is that developers migrate outwards because of the forces that push towards gigantism and lots in older districts are too small? But lots could in theory be combined.

        And if the district was well on its downward slope already, which was my working hypothesis, would Ms Rabinowitz really care what somebody builds there?

        1. Small lots and entire blocks are routinely combined in order to build a single large structure. This often occures with the assistance of local government.

          Local resistance exists almost everywhere at all price points. Middle and upper class residents protest for different reasons than lower income people. But everyone objects to everything everywhere.

      3. Furthermore your reasoning seems to assume a district zoned for industrial or commercial use. What of residential suburbs?

        In theory and assuming a stable population you could have just two districts — to simplify — that keep leapfrogging each other (one being on the ascendant when the other is in decline, until it reverses) rather than an endless growing count of concentric rings. That is how it works in cities where geography limits expansion.

      4. The good thing about texas donuts is that at least something now exists that can check all boxes for on-site parking, less than 25% commercial, accessibility, all while maintaining a somewhat coherent urban form that could aggregate eventually into a normal city neighborhood.

        It’s the American-equivalent the euroblock, just instead of being graceful with an interior courtyard space while paying a little more each year in taxes for quality transit; the Texas Donut is overmassed and the interior space has been turned into parking garage for automobile convenience while those cost are capitalized into everyone’s mortgage/rent payment. It’s an apt metaphor for the difference between Euro & American sensibilities.

        1. Texas Donuts? It depends. In an area that has respectable urban bones they can effectively fill in the missing teeth of a neighborhood. But what I see mostly are Texas Donuts that are built in places that were always auto dependent and decidedly suburban.

          Plop down a 200 unit apartment or condo building on the side of an eight lane arterial lined with Burger Kings and Jiffy Lubes (I see this all the time) and you don’t really get an improved suburb or an improved “urban” environment. It’s just a garden apartment complex on steroids. Perhaps these places solve specific problems, but it doesn’t add up to a place I want to live. Of course, the people who live in these places don’t want to live in my preferred habitat either.

          See examples here https://granolashotgun.com/2015/09/21/the-mccity/ here https://granolashotgun.com/2015/11/23/the-frankenburb/ and here https://granolashotgun.com/2018/01/24/the-platypus/

          1. Before the texas donut, we had a building type that I call the “Koreatown.” It aggregates like this from above.
            https://www.google.com/maps/@34.0664269,-118.302915,1195m/data=!3m1!1e3

            Individually, the buildings are “blah,” but they checked the bock for on-site parking, accessibility, etc. In aggregation, they are okay.
            https://www.google.com/maps/@34.0664511,-118.3053795,3a,60y,199.96h,83.66t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sn4CzF5Gpruvlxp9WlxL6kQ!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

            The neighborhood has vibrancy because it’s population dense, but the obvious flaw of the Koreatown is that it has no ground floor uses. That’s solved by the Texas Donut, at the expense of being overmassed. In the cores of growing sunbelt cities, I think we will probably build enough texas donuts to actually make decent urban neighborhoods. But I agree that the texas donuts in the middle of sprawl won’t ever reach a critical mass.

            1. I spent the early years of my life in a series of K-Town style beige stucco box apartment complexes in LA – mostly in the less prosperous parts of the Valley like Canoga Park. They were always just Density Without Urbanism. Even the more expensive better maintained versions in Sherman Oaks were always lifeless by design.

              The little strip of lawn and shrubbery along the edges, the secure parking on the lower level, the tiny kidney shaped pool in the central courtyard (or more accurately, the tiny kidney shaped patch of concrete where the pool used to be) all say suburbia. You step outside for a walk and there’s a whole lot of nothing going on. The commercial corridors were dominated by cars and parking lots.

              Do these places house people? Yes. Do they add up to a place I want to live? No.

              1. I’ve lived in a wide variety of apartments over the years, mostly of the once grand, now (relatively) cheap, early 1900s variety. However, most recently, I lived in an in-fill “Minneapolis 4-over-1” in a so-called emerging neighborhood as part of a work relocation. It was built on a slab, structured parking on the ground level, wood-frame construction above. Every unit has a balcony for some reason (I don’t get the point). But, it was perfectly adequate.
                https://www.google.com/maps/@43.0202261,-87.9126579,3a,75y,36.41h,94.45t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sFYGMV6YOWyLtt1KXqQvwqw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

                Life was sucked out of these neighborhoods by the vacuum of rust belt de-industrialization. In its place came the thrift stores, artist lofts, jam band space, biker bars. Then trendy restaurants & art galleries followed. Now, there’s actually a fair amount of amenities. A cheap car with a parking spot directly below the unit makes the neighborhood a viable option. There’s been 6 of these things built in the last 2 years within a stone’s throw, with 3 more going up this summer. I actually think it’s working out.

  13. People ask what can be done to revitalize these areas. I really like the Dan S comment from your Memphis Bluff post:

    “Cities and towns that have long-term vitality and resilience are ultimately built around some sort of unique physical asset, like a port, a river convergence, a major railway intersection, and then those things draw in people who build a cultural hub, which then increases the city’s human “gravity” further. A builder can’t create the process that generates that gravity. They might play a part, but if the physical and social context isn’t right, it probably won’t happen.”

    In other words a gatherings of population that have the best chance of longterm survival are those which are actually gathered around something unique or special. A new suburbs and malls are a dime a dozen and money can replicate them anywhere. Why should Fairfield or any other place continue to exist? For that to happen the inhabitants have to keep pouring love into it – and for THAT to happen there needs to be something unique and special about it to love.

    1. I see two contradictory forces that will determine the long term fate of Fairfield.

      On the one hand the town was founded on a port near rich agricultural land. It was small, but in an era of steam ships for regional and global transportation the towns along the estuaries of the Sacramento Delta make sense. Water transport for cargo and passenger service is always by far the most fuel efficient and cost effective option. If the future is constrained by energy limits these towns would have a competitive advantage relative to inland settlements (places like Phoenix or Las Vegas) that are permanently dependent on road and air transport.

      On the other hand, Fairfield is right at sea level in an earthquake liquefaction zone. That could go pear shaped in all sorts of ways in the not-too-distant future. San Francisco could be hit with the same natural disasters and mitigate/recover since there’s enough money here to justify the construction costs. Fairfield? Not so much.

  14. Great summary of the larger, historical context. The local context matters too, kind of like a counter eddy to the main current. In the context of the Bay Area, the counter eddy is quite strong, pushing and pulling people in different directions.

    In that sense, Fairfield is a middle child between rougher Vallejo and the slightly nicer suburb of Vacaville. Fairfield and Vacaville are about the same price, so many people just keep driving, leaving the zombie strip malls in Fairfield. Fairfield arguably has better bones, but Vacaville has a cute downtown too. In any case, few people in the area care about “bones.” They would probably rather live in a nice suburb closer to work like Pleasant Hill, but simply can’t afford it.

    Moving south a bit, wealthier suburbs like Walnut Creek, San Ramon, Dublin, & Pleasanton, are bursting at the seams with retail and residential demand. Any vestigial downtown these cities had is thriving, but the old strip malls are too. Some of the best sushi I’ve had in recent memory was in a bustling 60s era strip mall on the outskirts of Dublin.

  15. And yet, even though Fairfield is quite cheap by Bay Area standards, house prices are still well above construction costs. All those vast deteriorating commercial areas could be replaced by reasonably affordable medium density walkable neighborhoods if the city would just allow it.

    It’s like the Zen koan about the monk who meditates on being an ox until he can’t leave his cell because his horns won’t fit through the door.

    1. Agreed, Curtis. The empty commercial sites need to be redeveloped for residential and maybe they can keep a smidge of commercial space in the corner. This is a simple solution that is obvious. I safely say simple because I have enough professional experience and have read and thought about this idea almost everyday for the last 17 years. But someone that is innocuously ignorant about this possibility, but overthinks the concern of “impact” that change will have. Fortunately, these commercial corridors are always built out, are on a major or secondary arterial and have more than sufficient roadway capacity to handle the ‘traffic’ generation of the switch from commercial traffic patterns to residential traffic patterns.

  16. Also, when a City builds to “attract” suburbanites, tourists, frequent fliers, reverse-commuting city residents. Whoever. Those same exact investments (the wide roads, parking garages, frequent direct flights, etc) are what enable their own city’s upwardly mobile to leave.

    There’s a ring of small towns with pretty good main streets along the periphery of my metro, but they’ve all gone ahead and built the 70 MPH highways & big free parking lots for the convenience of city folks like me coming out for Saturday afternoon apple picking. You walk the couple main streets on a half-dozen weekends per year & think “wow, I could really live here.” Then get back in your car and drive 35 minutes back to where there’s more job opportunities, walk-to-work, marquee amenities.

    https://www.google.com/maps/@43.1125392,-88.4995027,3a,75y,175.87h,86.41t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1scbYeiPouQlXdmpvsMeTaLw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

  17. This cycle is something that isn’t new and isn’t going to just stop itself – what are places doing to successfully reverse the trends? What are they trying that almost worked?

    1. The harsh reality is most places are failing and there isn’t much that can be done to reverse the trend at the moment. All our national policies need to change first. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. The places that are managing to thrive are high cost. The institutional friction is managed by throwing money at the system. That works in places with plenty of cash on hand. Fairfield? Not so much.

  18. Well, I think the “Captain Obvious Award” missed the point entirely. Your self-summary of “I’m simply describing how things work rather than how people inaccurately interpret things.” is much more accurate.

    The issue, and it is a society-wide issue, is that people simply cannot see the trees for the forest. People no longer really know how to step back and view things from a different perspective. As a society, we have bought into the “these are the facts and, if you don’t regurgitate them, you are dead wrong and anathema” mantra. It is a lie from top to bottom, not because there aren’t facts but because the facts simply don’t fit into the illusory ideology of the modern world. Hence the need for “bigger and better” distractions (or, in the case of infrastructure, “bigger and better and newer” buildings and projects).

    Contentment has been lost and, with it, the wisdom to step back and view things outside of the dominant paradigm of “bigger, better, newer, PROGRESS!”. Just my thoughts.

  19. I went there once for a root canal back on the 70s when the area was basically a community of military families. I vowed to never return to Fairfield.

  20. Everybody always puts down tribalism. These people want our country to be one homogenous and agreeable mass so that we can continue to engage in imperial policies both at home and abroad.

    Tribalism is the solution to these places. There will be no “consensus” on how to fix a crashing complex system.

    Tribes build their own systems of meaning and adapt them to their environment in ad hoc ways that out-compete the imperial armies.

  21. Oh dear, Fairfield areas look worse than ever before. Having lived in the Bay Area since the early 70s Fairfield was considered the has been wannabe town. Unless you were with military family community, it was best to pass and keep straight ahead to San Francisco.

  22. Question for you — if you could be King For A Day in communities like this, what sort of changes/policies would you implement? Would you try and “shrink” the town to disfavor the further out developments?

    1. I would never accept a position of authority as you suggest. I don’t have the temperament to be king. Given the mandates from higher levels of government and powerful private players like banks I’m not sure locals have the wiggle room to do much. That’s my point. We need all our national institutions to change in order to shift the development pattern at the municipal level. I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

  23. Johnny, I think waste, fraud, abuse, and greed do come into it when the whole system is set up to support these practices. You’re much more chill about these things than I am. I see the gov’t subsidizing big businesses who treat everything and everyone as disposable, while ignoring infrastructure and ecological concerns and squeezing people half to death with taxes. and I’m pretty much furious.

    1. I think Johnny’s point is: We have found the enemy and he is us. Government and big business are the obvious front men to serve as our bad guys, but we as a whole society have committed to and supported this kind of temporary infrastructure with our current lifestyles since probably the 1950s.

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