Planners, engineers, and public health professionals all speak different languages. They may even use different terms to express similar ideas: for example, a planner may recommend tactical urbanism to improve neighborhood walkability, whereas an engineer may ascribe experimental countermeasure terminology to the same scenario, and a public health professional may view the solution in terms of an intervention. And community members may find all these terms unintelligible. In our focus groups, we heard that practitioners need to “get people on the same page” because of the differences we carry in our heads about transportation concepts.
General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, one of only two auto plants remaining in the Motor City, takes its official name from its location straddling the border between Detroit and the enclave city of Hamtramck. But to GM’s eternal annoyance, neighbors, the media, and employees have always called the plant “GM Poletown,” after the Detroit neighborhood—1,500 homes, 144 businesses, 16 churches—that was bulldozed to build it.
It’s a legacy that the automaker, which in 1980 persuaded Detroit and Hamtramck to use eminent domain to seize the land on its behalf, might be happy to forget—especially last month when it announced the plant’s impending shutdown. The news has local officials agonizing over the potential loss of some 1,500 jobs and millions of dollars in property taxes. Meanwhile, Detroiters old enough to remember are asking once again whether the destruction of Poletown was worth it.
“You don’t have to have had family or connections,” says Karen Majewski, the current mayor of Hamtramck, which was once a Polish-majority city culturally contiguous with Detroit’s vanished Poletown. “What happened is still on people’s minds. There’s a general feeling of resentment, a sense of unfairness and a raw deal.”
In 1980, General Motors approached Detroit Mayor Coleman Young, whose city was struggling to compete with its suburbs and facing declining population and tax revenues. GM hoped to build a new plant in Detroit, the first in decades—but the automaker noted that it could easily go elsewhere if Detroit didn’t make things easy. It’s unclear to this day whether it was the city or the corporation that identified Poletown as the best site, but according to journalist Jeanie Wylie’s 1989 postmortem, Poletown: Community Betrayed, when the arrangement was announced as a done deal in June of 1980 it came as a surprise to the neighborhood. (Wylie also worked on the documentary Poletown Lives!)
Poletown had been a destination for Polish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it was also home to African-Americans and more recent immigrants from Albania, Yugoslavia, Yemen, and the Philippines. By all accounts everyone got along surprisingly well, and Poletown had largely escaped damage during the 1967 unrest. But the neighborhood was poor, and the housing stock had become shabby. Consistent with a city-wide trend, those who could had already moved to the suburbs, and some whose homes were to be seized welcomed the opportunity to follow. Many others, however, were angry.
“This is America, not Russia,” raged retiree Josephine Jakubowski at a public meeting the city held to explain how the neighborhood’s 4,200 residents were to be relocated. “We’re not going to let you do this. We’re going to fight like hell.”
Recalling the neighborhood’s experience with labor actions in the 1930s, Poletown residents staged demonstrations outside City Hall, organized postcard campaigns and appealed to their elected representatives. Consumer advocate (and GM’s nemesis) Ralph Nader showed up, helping the protesters appeal to the national media.
But their efforts were stymied by a Michigan law that had gone into effect just two months before the plant was announced. The Uniform Condemnation Procedures Act, which ostensibly aimed to help cities clear blight, allowed for the use of eminent domain not only for public projects, but to encourage commercial growth. Worse, it allowed municipalities to seize and destroy property before legal challenges were settled.
A group of Poletown residents won a temporary injunction when they challenged the law’s constitutionality, but the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in March 1981 that the “quick take” provision was valid. Meanwhile, some residents had already taken the city’s relocation money—averaging about $13,000 for each house, plus moving expenses—and left. Arson fires became epidemic, and looters stripped fixtures from vacant buildings. Demolition crews did their work. The police ignored a surging crime wave. The United Automobile Workers, city council, local press and even the Archdiocese of Detroit sided with GM.
As the neighborhood emptied out, protesters focused on saving the historic Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which sat at the edge of GM’s future parking lot. But a 29-day sit-in ended early the morning of July 14, 1981, when SWAT teams raided the church and arrested twelve people, including elderly women and a journalist. Two days later, Immaculate Conception was razed and the fight for Poletown was over.
When the plant went online in 1985, it represented the state-of-the-art in automotive assembly, a robot-heavy operation designed to compete with nimbler Japanese automakers. But the automation meant that the plant would employ just 3,000 people, half what GM originally promised. The plant itself, with 4.1 million square feet of floor space, was surrounded by a sea of surface parking and extensive landscaping. All that remained of the old neighborhood was a historic Jewish cemetery on the Hamtramck side, which it turned out was easier for GM to envelope than to move.
In 2004, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed its 1981 decision, invalidating the “quick take” law that had allowed the city to bulldoze Poletown in just over a year (and to seize land in 1987 for Chrysler’s Jefferson North Assembly Plant, the only other auto plant still standing in Detroit today). But while the decision means the specifics of Poletown’s demise are unlikely to recur, the saga offers a larger lesson for cities about sacrifice on the altar of economic development (indeed, some Detroiters have recently expressed relief that the city was not able to woo Amazon’s second headquarters with a generous corporate welfare package). In exchange for what amounted to a few thousand jobs, which may have gone mostly to suburbanites, Detroit, Hamtramck, and the federal government wound up spending some $300 million to lure GM with tax breaks and to prepare the “greenfield” site GM had demanded. And that’s in addition to the intangibles—history, culture, community—lost with the razing of Poletown.
Marian Krzyzowski, a retired University of Michigan history lecturer, lived on Lyman Place in Poletown after his family immigrated from war-torn Poland in 1951. (The location of his boyhood home is “part of GM’s parking lot now,” he notes.) Krzyzowski, who led the assembly of a thorough oral history of the area during his time at U-M, recalls a vibrant business district with hardware stores, restaurants and theaters, where his family shopped even after they moved out of the neighborhood a few years later.
As late as the 1990s, several of the old businesses remained along the portion of once bustling Chene Street that GM had left untouched. Krzyzowski had a particular fondness for People’s Bookstore, where alongside socialist political tracts you could find Polish greeting cards and opłatek, traditional Christmas wafers. The store had been in the same family for generations, but it eventually closed and then burned down, twice.
“Part of the problem when the plant went in was that it cut the connection between Detroit and Hamtramck, and everything south of it dried up,” Krzyzowski says.
Today, the area is little more than a grid of streets laid over a barren landscape that on some blocks feels almost rural. A few holdouts include the Raven Lounge, which still hosts live jazz on weekend nights, and Ivanhoe Cafe, known to locals as the “Polish Yacht Club,” which has been owned by the same family since it opened in 1909 and serves lunch to a packed house four days a week, plus dinner on Fridays.
“We’re the only building left in a two-block radius,” notes Bill Galen, who runs the Joseph Campau Avenue restaurant with his wife, Patti. He chalks up the business’s survival to its fine food (“We challenge anyone to try our fish—it’s the best in the city”) but admits that things have changed. “I wasn’t here in the heyday, but I’ve been told that back then people were three deep on a Friday.”
Hamtramck fared better in the original deal than Detroit. The land it contributed to the GM plant was occupied not by homes and shops but by a smaller, shuttered Chrysler factory which Majewski, the mayor, says would have cost millions to tear down. Since then, the city has thrived thanks largely to new waves of immigration from Yemen and Bangladesh. But if GM does close Detroit-Hamtramck, it could mean the loss of $1 million in property taxes, a sixteenth of the city’s annual budget.
“We’re holding our breath and waiting to see what happens,” Majewski says. “We want to make sure Hamtramck doesn’t get left out in the cold.”
Meanwhile, she has been talking with constituents about what they envision for plant’s site. Adaptive reuse seems plausible—after all, the plant is only 33 years old, and GM spent $121 million to renovate it less than five years ago. But some residents would prefer to right a long ago wrong.
“I posted on Facebook about it, and one of the most common suggestions was, ‘Put back the neighborhood. Re-grid the streets,’” Majewski says. Reconnecting Hamtramck with downtown Detroit via a resurrected Poletown could help the entire area share in a renaissance that is already spreading through some of Detroit’s other old neighborhoods, she says. “I think it makes a lot of sense.”
In 1981, Detroit lawyer and activist George Corsetti decided he would capture the demise of Poletown on video, directing the documentary film, Poletown Lives!
“They were up against the giants,” Corsetti told One Detroit last week, “General Motors, the city of Detroit, the Archdiocese, the UAW, probably Wall Street too and my sense was that they weren’t going to do too well.”
Poletown Lives!captured efforts by some Detroit east side residents to keep their homes as General Motors and the City of Detroit used eminent domain to take their property and build what would become the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant.
Thirty-seven years ago Corsetti followed residents as they searched for ways to stop their removal and displacement. Thousands were displaced along with more than one hundred businesses, several churches and a hospital.
Poletown Lives! shows the wrecking ball leveling the Immaculate Conception Church, the centerpiece of Poletown’s Polish Catholic community.
“These people responsible for this are worse than the communists in Poland,” Father Joseph Karasiewicz said in the film. Someone asked him, “Including the Archdiocese, Father?”
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” Karasiewicz said, “because it’s a criminal act. You go down to a very basic definition of stealing, that’s simply taking somebody else’s property against their will, that’s all it is.”
“It was clearly over when the church went down.” Corsetti recalled.
Karasiewicz would die of a heart attack six months after his church was leveled.
This post originally appeared on DetroitPBS.org. This week, One Detroit tells the Poletown story through filmmaker George Corsetti’s eyes, airing Thursday at 7:30pm on Detroit Public Television.
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What We’re Following
Grand ole swap-me: Over the last decade, few U.S. cities have transformed as profoundly as fast-growing Nashville. Amidst glittering new condo towers, average monthly rents jumped by more than 60 percent metro-wide from 2011 to 2017. As housing costs squeeze out residents with fewer means, homelessness has also shot up.
Now, a controversial land-swap proposal is demanding some soul-searching on the part of city leaders. A prominent developer wants to build condos on top of Church Street Park, a public space in the heart of downtown that’s the subject of frequent complaints among the general population, partly due to its popularity among homeless individuals. In exchange for the land, the developer would give the city an equally sized parcel on the edge of downtown, plus roughly $7 million in green space investments and an offer to build the city’s planned homeless service center, with 100 units of permanent housing, at cost.
Supporters say it’s a win-win for parks and shelter. But detractors say the deal-sweeteners distract from what’s really at stake: the city’s sense of public life, and a stance on homelessness that tends to push needy people out. Read my story on CityLab: The Big Stakes in a Fight Over a Little Park in Nashville
A new report analyzes the complicated labor market impact of a radical proposal that’s gaining traction on the left.
Taco the town
Does your city’s transit system live más? Do taco trucks rule the streets? Last week, Carter Rubin, a mobility and climate advocate at the National Resources Defense Council, posed an all-important question to Twitter: How does your city rank on tacos and transit? With emoji-based crowdsourcing, Rubin got a sampling of answers ranging from Baltimore to Barcelona. But we wanted to add a dash of data to cook up our own results and find out what, if anything, the two might have to do with one another.
So CityLab data reporter David Montgomery put out a poll and we’ve received over 700 responses so far. Now it’s your turn, readers. We want to know: Where does your city fall on the tacos vs. transit scale? Take our fast three-question poll and CityLab will plot the results!
What We’re Reading
Your apps know where you were last night, and they’re not keeping it secret (New York Times)
How Santa Monica, the birthplace of dockless electric scooters, is shaping the multibillion dollar industry (Curbed)
Inside the Philadelphia DA’s side hustle: selling seized homes to speculators and cops (PlanPhilly)
The housing boom is already gigantic. How long can it last? (New York Times)
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The unemployment rate in the U.S. has now dropped to 3.7 percent—lower than it has been in 50 years. But that glowing report card obscures a complicated reality: Real wages are still stagnant; inequality is sky-high; racial gaps persist in the labor market, with unemployment for black workers almost double that of white counterparts; and many parts of the country are still locked out of prosperity. Many older, disabled, less educated, and formerly incarcerated people are not able to participate in the labor force at all. And for many employed at the lower end of the income distribution, wages are abysmally low and working conditions, very unstable.
In other words, many people around the country still desperately need good jobs. And among the fixes gaining traction at the moment, particularly on the left, is the idea of a federal jobs guarantee: that the government could provide work to every American who needs it, either in the public sector or by subsidizing it in private sector.
It’s a big idea with several logistical and conceptual hurdles in its path. But a number of proposals are already injecting some specifics. Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, for example, has introduced legislation that seeks to offer $15]per-hour jobs in 15 chosen pilot districts across the country. Various left-leaning think tanks have alsooutlinedtheir own iterations of a federal plan that are geared towards staffing infrastructure and public works projects as well as child and elder care positions.
But what would be the effect of a national jobs guarantee? A new analysis out of the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project takes a stab at the answer. It finds that if such a plan offers $15 an hour, it could affect up to 44 million already-employed workers, a maximum of 5.9 million unemployed workers, as well as a portion of the tens of millions of working-age people currently outside the labor force. Although such a “sweeping” program would cost a lot of money—hundreds of billions a year—it could improve employment rates by 2 to 4 percent, depending on how it’s received, the report finds.
“A full national job guarantee at a relatively high wage would be a radical transformation of today’s labor market,” said Jay Shambaugh, director of the Hamilton Project at Brookings. “So it it would not just be something affecting today’s unemployed, it would be affecting a much wider swath of today’s labor market.”
What jumps out in the report is the incredible uncertainty. A federal jobs program could have dramatic effects not just for unemployed individuals but across the U.S. economy—for better and for worse. Much of the impact of this proposal depends on how exactly it is implemented and how it is seen by workers and private companies.
Take the unemployed population, for example, which is the target group of a national jobs guarantee. At 5.9 million, it will likely make up a small share of the total population of workers attracted by a job guarantee. But even then, not all unemployed people will be chomping at the bit to sign up. The ones who were at the mid- to high-range of the income spectrum before they lost their jobs may want to keep looking for a comparable opportunity, instead of downgrading to a $15 government job. Those who are in very long spells of unemployment, however, may not have a choice.
How employed workers react to such a program depends, in large part, on the kind of economic ripples a federal jobs guarantee creates. Currently, 27.9 million full-time workers earn below $15 in the country, and would clearly benefit from switching over to a government job. So would 15.9 million part-time workers.
But one potential impact of a jobs guarantee, often hailed by proponents, is that it may compel private companies to raise their wages so they can compete for workers. If that happens, many workers may stay put at their now-higher-paying jobs, lowering the overall dependency on the government jobs program. It’s also possible, however, that this upward pressure on wages could adversely affect some smaller private employers, meaning they won’t be able to afford workers and might even close up shop, leading to job losses in some cases.
There could be many other spillovers. A positive one: More money in the pockets of people who didn’t have it before could mean more spending in the economy. That, in turn, could mean more jobs. On the flip side: More jobs could mean more people start dropping out of high school and college to work.This decrease in what economists call “human capital investments”could impact long-term economic growth.
If there’s a stigma attached to a federal jobs program, workers who take up these jobs may have difficulty reentering the private market. Would that create a permanent class of government-reliant workers? It’s not entirely clear. And what would a jobs guarantee mean for efficiency? Steering workers towards jobs which they’re not necessarily best suited to may turn out to be wasteful (although it’s “totally fair to question whether the market [currently] allocates optimally,”—especially at the bottom end of the spectrum right now, Shambaugh says.)
Then, there’s also the fact that workers are humans—not perfect economic actors. They may not always go for the option that earns them maximum wages. Part-time workers would trade off lower wages for more flexible hours, for example, if they have to take care of a child or an elderly relative. Full-time workers may forgo a higher wage if they enjoy their current job.
In other words, a national jobs proposal could trigger a number of economic effects in opposite directions, and those effects may intersect with the economic realities and preferences of Americans in ways that are not currently certain. What is abundantly certain from this analysis is that the wage offered by the job guarantee program matters. A lot. A government job at around $10 an hour would affect only about 5 million workers,dramatically fewer than a program offering $5 more per hour.
“What it comes down to is: The lower the wage you set the more it is affecting people who are currently out of a job as opposed to affecting how the labor market works, and really depends on what you’re trying to do. Are you trying to deal with the fact that some people aren’t employed or are you trying to actually really truly reshape the low end of the wage market in the United States?” Shambaugh said. “That second one is a much bigger task and a much more uncertain task. The first one is a little bit more narrow and targeted in scope … and effect.”
Some plans out there try to address certain concerns. Shambaugh cites the recent jobs guarantee proposal by his colleague David Neumark, for example, in which skills development is a central tenet. The goal of this proposal—apart from giving good jobs to those who need them—is to mitigate the losses in human capital investment that may happen as a result of creating additional jobs, and ease the transition of workers back to private industry. In the first phase of his proposal, Neumark recommends a 100 percent subsidy for positions with non-profits that create public goods in depressed areas. In the second phase, the workers would be given jobs in the private sector, subsidized at 50 percent by the government.Both phases focus explicitly on skills-building, so workers are ultimately independent of the government.
It’s a good sign that policymakers and academics are considering what a federal jobs guarantee could look like now—before the effects of automation kick in. But the key is to gather more data, and hone in on a plan that minimizes the side effects and maximizes the benefits.
“I think learning and experimentation are really important aspects of this,” Shambaugh said, “and highly targeted pilot programs might be a very sensible way to start thinking about what can we do to help people at the bottom edges of the labor market.”
This week, diplomats from about 130 countries are gathered in Katowice, Poland, for COP 24, the latest in the annual series of climate change meetings convened under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. At the heart of the discussions this year is a grim report released in October by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (SR1.5).
The product of more than 90 scientists working from thousands of peer-reviewed studies, SR1.5 laid out the catastrophic effects of exceeding 1.5°C warming over the coming decades. Much of the global news coverage that followed the report’s release focused on a chilling projection in the form of 12-year deadline the IPCC established to limit the most disastrous impacts of planetary warming. “It’s a line in the sand,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of Working Group II of SR1.5.
But the report wasn’t just a grave warning: It was also a roadmap to solutions. These solutions were organized around four areas, or systems—energy, land use and ecosystems, cities and infrastructure, and industry. And while urban issues comprise one of those four areas, actions in cities are integral to each system transformation. Put another way: There is no way to save the planet without serious changes in how city-dwellers live, work, and move. That’s a point stressed in this summary of the IPCC report aimed at urban policymakers, which was released at COPS 24. (I was one of the 21 co-authors of this report.) The necessary changes to limit warming must be made not only by national governments and the private sector, but also by city leaders and the residents of urban areas.
As a co-chair of the working group on impacts, Roberts led the world’s top climate scientists through the assessment, drafting, and approval process. A scientist herself, Roberts is the head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit, eThekwini Municipality, Durban, South Africa. In other words, she is a rare climate expert who’s familiar with the scientific, diplomatic, and urban policy issues that this unparalleled global challenge represents.
CityLab asked Roberts to talk about the role city residents can play in delivering climate action, the critical importance of local political decisions, and the responsibility we all have to talk about—and act on—climate change with our neighbors.
What should city residents, far removed from these diplomatic processes, take away from the current climate negotiations and SR1.5 in particular?
There are two really important sets of messages. First, we are probably facing a serious existential threat as a species. Along with that very serious message is a second key message about the need for rapid and ambitious action. We are probably living in the most important period of our species’ history. But when you face such a big call to action, such an historic moment, the individual can really feel lost.
What is profoundly important to me about the 1.5 report is that it points to lines of response to this big challenge that we face as a species by identifying four systems that need to go through rapid, unprecedented transformations: energy, land use and ecosystems, urban, and industry. While the public and private sectors certainly have input, the report also calls out that the individual has a role to play to.
If you think about the energy system, the report tells me is that every element of action is important—all the way from the international to the national, to what I do in my life. Think about energy systems. I should be able to make choices about what energy I use in my home. Am I able to go off-grid, generate my own electricity, and if I generate excess, put it back in the grid? And if those choices aren’t there, then I need to reflect on why I don’t have those options. If I don’t have leadership which is making it easy for me to make these choices, then I need to change leadership. It’s a real call to action on personal choices, and that we need to be more cognizant of the leaders we put in place at all spheres of government.
The possible impacts outlined in SR1.5 can make the individual feel irrelevant. But there’s this line that I found really striking: “Humans are at the center of global climate change: Their actions cause anthropogenic climate change, and social change is key to effectively respond to climate change.” How do you put the human back in a story that was once so focused on nation-states and climate regimes?
The scientific literature puts people back. That’s why those four systems transitions are so important. When it comes to urban systems, yes we can choose what kind of transport we use. When it comes to land systems, by changing our diets we change the pressures on land. When you think about industry, we are consumers. We are very powerful in terms of our ability to purchase, and we can be more critical of the things we choose to consume. Those four systems are in the real world. They define many of the ways we live our lives, and they give us the power to influence the outcome.
Every level of activity counts, all the way from changing your lightbulbs to the other end of the spectrum at the climate negotiations. So it’s empowering but it also involves a strong responsibility. The science is very clear: There is no physical or chemical law which will stop us from limiting warming to 1.5°C. There is nothing that stands in our way. In fact, the key element is the political and societal will to make these changes.
In the U.S. recently, there’s talk about a “Green New Deal” for climate change. Huge, society-spanning transformation is needed, in other words. But when you look through SR1.5 at the things that every individual in a city can do, they’re things like riding a bike or line-drying of laundry. It all sounds so far from this sweeping historical mission.
What you and I do, literally in our day-to-day boring lives, is an important element in saving the world. This is a global project. Everybody has to be in on it. You cannot leave a single person out. Before, as you indicated, the scientific debate tended to alienate the person on the street with formulas and graphs and international negotiations that no one really understood. This report is clear: Hanging out your laundry counts. This change is possible, and we can all contribute to that change.
How do you encourage the tougher choices that are tied to larger, structural issues—what are frequently referred to in climate science as enabling conditions—that are often determined at the regional and national levels?
We need multi-level governance structures that enable us to make choices well beyond the laundry. When I go to work, I must be able to take a public transport system or access a shared car. And if I’m driving that car, that car must be electrified. Those are the important things. Those are choices I do not have control over. I have control over the laundry I put out on the line. I don’t have a choice around bigger systems of transport, energy production systems, and so on. But the onus is still on me in terms of how democracies work—in calls to action, at the voting booth, in talking to my neighbors and talking to local leadership about this.
That requires more of you than the hanging of the washing. Those enabling conditions—which involve changing policies, promoting effective governance, deployment of technologies in the right kinds of spaces—require us to be active.
In a previous conversation I did here with Michael Ignatieff, we talked about the roles that neighbors must play in making cities work. It’s an interesting frame in the climate space, when people sometimes feel helpless: Have they spoken with their neighbors?
Everyone has to be in, but it’s hard for me to imagine how I’m in a process with somebody sitting in Thailand. I’ve got a much better sense of the community I live in. I can say to my neighbors, “OK, where are your solar geysers [a kind of solar water heater]?” That puts it at a scale that is about human action, and I think that’s what this report does. It humanizes not only the impacts—look at how we are already impacted, and how the poor and vulnerable are already disadvantaged—but it put the humans back in the solution space again.
You work in a city and in the international diplomatic arena. What is the status of urban expertise when you’re starting to develop a report like this?
The IPCC started out largely focused on the natural and physical sciences. But as it became clear that you weren’t going to be able to solve climate change through some mysterious new technology, or entirely mitigate your way out of it because of lack of political ambition, the social sciences have become a more prominent voice in the process. We have drawn in as many practitioners as we could as authors of the report, who have the ability to assess knowledge so that the report speaks to things that are important in the real world.
I, as a local government practitioner, can pick up the report and can see they’ve looked at the literature on things that are important to me. If you look to chapter 4, you’ll see a huge amount of work on the feasibility assessment. That’s what I need to know as a practitioner. I need to know if an action is likely to work, and what its enabling conditions are. There’s a drive to use the science to fulfill the original IPCC mandate of providing objective information on the causes of climate change, but we’re also becoming clearer and smarter around the solutions. The moment you talk about solutions, people must be in that space.
The document has a unique place in diplomatic history, but is also part of a developing story where practitioners and urban perspectives are gaining prominence. But of course, if nation-states don’t step up, cities won’t have the enabling conditions they need to take action. You operate at both the municipal and international levels. How do you think about that landscape?
The practitioner community is a particularly important community. What do I do in my day job as a local government practitioner? I speak to local leadership and local communities about these issues. But I am sometimes limited by national laws and policies, then I have to go talk to the national government. Local government can become a force for change. We’ve experienced that throughout our own work at the city level. Often cities will lead best. People don’t phone the president if their house washes away. They phone the mayor. We’re most aware of where the challenges lie. Local government has an important role to knock on national government’s door and say, “Those policies work; those do not,” and explain how you might enable us to do our work better.
To me, the nation-state is not a hallowed thing. It must be in service of the people. And where it disconnects, we as local government bear that responsibility for refocusing their attention and resources where they need to be. The report underscores the importance of local government. It’s really where a lot of this action is going to happen.
Local government possesses expertise, and, depending on the tax structure where you are, some resources. But you’re really talking about local government as advocate. A bit like the individual with his or her neighbor, the city must advocate with the nation-state.
I suppose that’s what we’re saying as a principle. To the individual, deal with your neighbor. As a local government, the national government is a neighbor of sorts. We need to pop our heads over the wall and say, look, we need things to change. This is not a time for complacency.
In the heart of downtown Nashville, Church Street Park fits like a coin pocket. At just a quarter of an acre, it’s dwarfed by the central library building that looms across the street. Nearby stand soaring new condo towers, home to the white-collar workers who are fueling the city’s massive recent growth.
The park has never been a great public space. First built as part of a 1996 master plan to revitalize Church Street, downtown’s by-then nearly abandoned historic shopping corridor, the little park has narrow sidewalks and curious landscaping that, locals say, leaves little breathing room and too much cover. It’s known as a place where drug deals go down. Homeless individuals sometimes park their shopping carts there before entering the library. Before a hepatitis breakout earlier this year, some used its small central fountain to bathe. (It was drained due to health concerns.)
“There’s been this sense that the park has not succeeded,” said Freddie O’Connell, the metro council member representing much of downtown. The space is also perceived as unsafe, he added, pointing to a handful of recent assaults that allegedly took place nearby. Residents and tourists—of which there are many in downtown Music City—are afraid to enter, O’Connell and others told me. In a city effort to improve it, Church Street Park was bulldozed and rearranged in 2007, but the changes didn’t seem to help; now, two police cruisers are stationed there every day.
But Church Street Park appears to be in line for the ultimate “fix”: The city wants to let a new owner build over it. Developer Tony Giarratana has proposed to take over the land in order to build the tallest condo tower Nashville has seen yet. In exchange, he’s offering the city a different parcel downtown of equal size—currently a parking lot—that could be converted into public parkland. To sweeten the deal, he’s throwing in $7 million in green space investments, and an offer to build the city a homeless service center at cost.
The mayor praises the deal as an equal swap that would be also an investment in public space and housing. The city’s parks board voted 4-3 to back the proposal last month. Now it’s awaiting approval by zoning officials and the metro council. O’Connell, for his part, is ready to bid good riddance to a failed park.
But other elected leaders, architects, homeless advocates, and neighbors have objected to plan. “This is a calculating and persuasive land deal,” Kem Hinton, a prominent local architect, told a packed room at a public meeting in late October, where members of the city’s board of parks and recreation considered the park’s future. “I think you should think about public space for everyone. Not just the rich.”
In a way, this unloved patch of grass has become a tiny front in a wider conflict—a struggle over the soul of a city that’s undergoing a supercharged economic boom. As affluent newcomers surge into town, who gets to decide who the city is for?
Giarratana has reportedly long coveted Church Street Park. It more than doubled in value between 2013 and 2017, according to county records, and that’s partly thanks to the work of his group. A block away is 505 Nashville, a glass-clad tower that became the city’s second-tallest building when Giarratana Nashville LLC opened it last year. Three of the other residential towers that have popped up along narrow Church Street in recent years bear his fingerprints, totaling more than 1,200 units, the Nashville Business Journal reported in August. On the park site, Giarratana would like to add another 200 condos in a $240 million tower called the Paramount that would soar 50 to 60 stories. “Church Street is our sandbox,” he told the parks board in October.
Giarratana, who did not respond to requests for an interview, showed renderings of his vision for a few of the many properties involved in his proposed swap. Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard, which runs alongside the current Church Street Park, looked vibrant with planters and cafe seating; part of the deal by now is that the city would let Giarratana beautify this corridor, where he would spend $5 million to spruce it up in the style of Houston’s Klyde Warren Park. On top of that, he said, he’d give a parking lot on James Robertson Parkway to the city to redevelop and program as green space, with an additional $2 million that he would pay.
Finally, Giarratana talked up his drawings of a new, $24 million homeless service center, to be located on a separate piece of city-owned property which would include 100 or so units of permanent housing downtown. He’d waive the usual developer’s fee if the city goes through with the deal, which he called “innovative.”
“It’s important for a city like Nashville that’s growing entrepreneurially to encourage people to bring forward new creative ideas and say, we’re going to proceed,” Giarratana said.
The last piece of the proposal—the new shelter—seems to be central to Mayor David Briley’s enthusiasm about it. “We felt like this was an opportunity both to address the quality-of-life issues associated with the park and, at the same time, address some of the underlying concerns that have created the issue with the park,” Briley told the Tennessean in July.
But that’s part of what’s troubling about this situation, if you hear it from opponents. The city was already planning to build that service center in some shape or form. The previous mayor, Megan Barry, who resigned in March amid controversy, got $25 million in general obligation bonds approved by metro council to build affordable housing and other facilities for the city’s growing homeless population. (The deal with Giarratana also began under her tenure.) Now that those dollars have been mixed into this condo deal, the discussion about the land swap has been muddied, critics say. “There are a lot of people who believe we have to give away this park so that we can get a homeless service center,” said Angie Henderson, a metro council member representing southwestern Davison County. “But that’s just not true.”
When those factors are separated, the stakes of the park-swap decision become clearer. First, the parking lot Giarratana would offer as a replacement park may be about the same size as the patch on Church Street, but the location is much less desirable, critics said—it’s squeezed up alongside a major four-lane arterial. It’s also not far from the existing Public Square Park. So, while the total amount of parkland under city ownership would stay the same (or even grow, given Giarratana’s plans for Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard), it would appear to condense access for downtown park users. “It’s a redundancy,” said Henderson. “You’re not serving other people by swapping for this.”
Second, opponents charge, razing a park that’s known as a congregation space for the homeless would neither solve the design flaws that have long repelled other users, nor serve those who do rely on it. “Are we just going to ship the problem from Church Street to James Robertson Parkway?” wondered one parks board member in October.
Homeless advocates say that this wouldn’t be the first time the city has tried to push out vulnerable people rather than help them. Public benches have been removed around downtown over the last few years. A large homeless encampment in another metro park was bulldozed in 2016. This summer, the district attorney’s office took the unusual step of funneling all cases that occur in the downtown area to a single attorney, which advocates say would essentially create a separate criminal docket for those living on the streets.
It’s also hard not to notice that, if the new homeless service center is built according to the Church Street Park proposal, it would be across from the new county jail.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of rising homelessness in Nashville, which was highlighted by a major report in the Washington Post earlier this year. The city’s annual street census—an imperfect and likely conservative estimate—found that the number of unsheltered individuals jumped 10 percent to 2,300 between 2015 and 2016, and it has hovered around that number since. One big factor in this surge is the city’s economic boom: The Post reported that average Nashville rents rose from $882 in 2013 to $1,148 in 2018. In the city’s core, according to the Greater Nashville Apartment Association, that figure jumps to $1,700.
O’Connell, who sits on the city’s Homelessness Commission, says that the city is working to address the issue. He points to administrative changes that the city has made over the past year to streamline and coordinate action in response to the crisis. And of course, there’s that $25 million for affordable housing the council approved last year. Now the lion’s share of that money has been wrapped, confusingly, into Giarratana’s bundle.
In this light, maybe it’s not so surprising that the city would go for a proposal that looks like a win on homelessness. But that’s not how many individuals living on the street or their supporters view the Church Street Park deal.
A group of local homeless advocates wrote a stern open letter in the Tennessean earlier this year, decrying the deal. “[W]e are deeply troubled by the trend we’ve seen in Metro’s willingness to hand over public land and parks to luxury developers who do not invest a percentage of the profits they gain into projects that benefit those struggling most in our city,” they wrote.
Howard Allen, Jr., a native Nashvillian and social activist who is homeless, told me that few of the unsheltered people who use the park space during the day were asked for their opinion by city officials about the swap, which he opposes. “They’re always talking for us, but never talking to us,” he said. “And while they’re talking, we’re dying.”
Even some supporters seem concerned about how some of the city’s thorniest issues are coming to a head in one small space. “I think the fundamental questions is: Is this board OK with giving up green space for a high-rise building?’” said Sharon Gentry, a parks board member, before casting her vote to back the deal in November. “I hope we’re not voting on this as a solution for homelessness.”
The parks board was initially split, but ultimately, the majority of members swayed to approve the swap. George Anderson, the board’s chair, told me that was because it added more public green space on balance, between the possible improvements to Anne Dallas Dudley Boulevard and the renovations to Giarratana’s parking lot.
But members of the city’s architecture and design community think there’s a better approach, one that doesn’t threaten Nashville’s larger sense of public life. “Rather than admit defeat and say that the only option for this public space is a 60-story building with 200 luxury units, we could show people that there are other ways to make this place successful,” said Gary Gaston, the chief executive officer of the Nashville Civic Design Center, a local nonprofit focused on urbanism. Even when everyone agrees that the park’s current form is unsuccessful—maybe especially then—public space should stay public, he said.
In 2006, just before the city renovated Church Street Park the last time, the Design Center conducted a survey of park users about what could be improved. Based on their feedback, the organization made a number of design recommendations, including installing movable seats and pulling out the central fountain. (Notably, a nearly equal share of respondents said they felt the area was “unsafe” as those who said it felt “safe.”) But the ideas weren’t adopted when the city re-landscaped the following year, Gaston said.
In January, the Design Center plans to present city leaders with a new alternative vision for renovating and programming Church Street Park, based on the organization’s earlier work and other downtown parks around the world. At the hearing in October, parks board members said it would require an “infusion of resources” to reactivate the space. But for Gaston and other skeptics of the Giarratana deal, a downtown park is too valuable to lose, especially considering the trajectory of Nashville’s future. The mega-retailer Amazon recently announced its intentions to plant another 5,000 workers in a new operations hub half a mile from where Church Street Park sits today. “You’re adding a lot of people who can afford the most expensive apartments that exist in Nashville,” a real estate analyst told the Nashville Business Journallast week. That concentration of jobs and wealth is likely to drive rents up further, and tighten the city’s housing crunch.
Nashville is not alone in this dilemma. West Coast cities like Seattle and San Francisco have struggled, with very mixed results, to balance economic booms with preserving housing and public resources for longtime residents and maintaining the essential character of the city. New York City is the the poster child for the privatization of public space, for better or worse. Conflicting interests often butt heads on sidewalks, which are some of the last shreds of safe, free-to-use space in sought-after cities all over the world.
In Nashville, the needs of the homeless are colliding with development pressure in an unusually visible setting. What comes next at Church Street Park may be a watershed for the city’s future.
Locals like Allen lament what’s happening. “My city—Music City, U.S.A.—has turned from something that was known as a good place to live to a police city. A Millennial city. A tourist city,” he said. “And they don’t give a damn about people living in poverty.”
Three small mounds of fruit are on display at 90-year-old Maria Juárez’s stand in one of Mexico City’s many itinerant street markets. Her stall consists of wooden planks set on a metal frame, topped by a plastic tarp in a city government-approved shade of pink.
“When I arrived here from Veracruz at the age of 14, I sold the same products,” says the white-haired fruit seller while picking up crates directing her great-grandchild. Juárez is one of the founders of the Mercado Sobre Ruedas’ (“Market on Wheels”) Ruta 6 market, which opened in 1969.
The mounds of fruit from the mountains of Veracruz are a reminder that Mexico City has been a center of regional commerce since Pre-Hispanic times, parlaying the logistical advantages of the Aztec island cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco into great markets in the lake.
Today’s largest street markets are in Tepito, La Lagunilla, and La Merced in the city center, as well as El Salado in Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl and San Felipe in the Gustavo A. Madero district. They have an almost mythical status, covering vast swathes of greater Mexico City under colored tarp. Aside from these giants, more than 2,000 smaller street markets called tianguis follow routes through the city, stopping each day in a different neighborhood. According to the most recent government statistics, 2,339 were active in the Mexico City metropolitan area as of 2013.
These smaller, roving street markets—such as Ruta 6—have usually been set up under different permitting regimes and agreements with various local and state governments over the years. “In the last ten years it has become increasingly difficult to open newtianguis because neighborhood complaints are taken more seriously by the government now,” says Manuel Gutierrez, 48, representative of Ruta 6. “This is why most street markets are quite old.”
Rutas 1 through 10 were born out of a city government program in 1969. Ruta 6 consists of 172 stands with six different staging points throughout the city and is closed on Wednesdays. The stands are given by concession to an owner and this concession can only be transferred, never sold. The stalls tend to stay in the same families or be kept among friends. According to Gutierrez about 50 percent of the stands at Ruta 6 are still in the hands of the original founding families. “Many people hope that their children will become professionals,” says Gutierrez. “But some choose to keep working in the market. It is quite a comfortable existence. You can make a living and though the hours are long they seem to go by very quickly.”
Raymundo Jimenez, 61, has spent 35 years working as a butcher in the market. “Before this I was a laborer and I much prefer this. You are outside, you have contact with the people, there is a lot of kidding around,” says Jimenez. He adds that the stall used to sell much more—now half a beef carcass a day instead of the one-and-half sold ten years ago. People used to buy for the whole week but now only buy for a few days. He currently makes between 200 to 300 pesos a day.
All the stallholders agree that the key to a successful market is customer service and good atmosphere. Gutierrez takes WhatsApp messages so that he can advise his clients which fruit is best and package it for them. One of Gutierrez’s main functions is a representative for the market who makes sure the streets are left behind clean so that neighbors don’t get upset. “Walmart has a complaints department, so do we,” he says, smiling. The costs of cleaning and other services tend to amount to between 100 and 200 pesos per stall.
Adelina Carrera, 27, learned to make green tortillas with nopal by hand in a farm outside of Huatla in the state of Oaxaca as a girl. She came to the city four years ago with three friends, all of whom work in the street markets making tortillas by hand. “Many people from my village work in tianguis,” said Carrera. “I like this work making tortillas and expect to continue here while I can.”
Ruta 6 has two communal events each year, a pilgrimage to the shrine of the virgin of Guadalupe and a yearly fiesta in the market itself—though the latter has been gradually toned down in deference to the neighbors. These events demonstrate the market’s resemblance to a traveling circus with its long relationships and family ties more than a typical modern supermarket. Some decisions are taken communally like the choice to have all the tarps in Government Pink.
Juan Vargas, 21, is the owner of a quesadilla stand. He says one stand can typically make a daily 1,500 to 2,000 peso profit. Stands cannot be sold but according to him, the informal value of one, is between 100,000 and 200,000 pesos. Usually the stalls are supplied from Mexico City’s Central de Abastos wholesale market, often claimed to be the largest in the world. “We are in direct competition in quality and price with the supermarkets,” says Vargas, adding that the competitive advantages of the street market are freshness of product and friendliness.
Street market clients have varying opinions on the prices. Some say they have seen cheaper prices in shops, but Joannelly Martínez, 32, and her boyfriend Hector Flores, 38, claim that they save about 20 to 30 percent compared to supermarkets. They live in in the gentrifying Doctores neighborhood where the market closes on Sundays, and say it’s not the prices that keep the couple—who spend between 200 and 300 pesos an outing—coming back to the market. “We prefer street markets because of the atmosphere and the kind of people. It feels more alive.”
Oahu’s neighborhoods are known for their plantation-style houses, most of which date back to the early 20th century. Hawaii’s year-round tropical climate and its rich, unique history birthed this characteristic “old Hawaii” architecture, featuring wrap-around lanais and wide-hipped or swooping bell-cast roofs. But for the past few years, residents of Oahu, the island that is home to the state capital, Honolulu, have been gawking at a different style home: Proliferating like an invasive species of insects, large, boxy structures that max out property lines have been popping up in neighborhoods like Kalihi, Manoa, and Kaimuki.
Officially known as “large-detached dwellings,” these “monster” homes are built on residential properties with single-family dwelling permits, yet they have numerous bedrooms and bathrooms. Kathy Sokugawa, acting director for the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) considers eight bedrooms a minimum for a single-family home to qualify as a “monster” home—one in Kalihi reportedly has 29 bedrooms and 17 bathrooms. According to Sokugawa, they are believed to serve as illegal short- and long-term rentals, including illegal vacation rentals. The “monster” homes are upsetting some of the people in Oahu communities and the city is struggling to find a solution.
Under current law, these homes are legal as long as the house doesn’t cover more than half of the land and everyone living in the home is related. “Existing ordinances have been extended to their maximum limits and applications for these types of structures that build to the limits of setback requirements and height restrictions are routinely being submitted,” City Council member Trevor Ozawa said. “These applications are being approved because we don’t regulate the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and wet bars.”
Critics say these homes serve as illegal short- and long-term rentals. According to Ozawa, owners and developers make a large profit renting out the units. In 2017, KITV4 reported that city records show that most “monster” homes are built by foreign entities from China.
“I’ve been a builder here for over 20 years and I’ve never had anyone approach me about designing or building one of these types of homes,” said Marshall Hickox, president of Homeworks Construction on Oahu and president-elect for the Building Industry Association of Hawaii (BIA), a nonprofit that touts itself as the voice of the local construction industry.
Oahu suffers from a lack of affordable housing. A local contractor, Jimmy Wu of local building firm Prowork Pacific, spoke out against a bill to restrict these homes at a meeting of the Land and Zoning committee of the Honolulu City Council in November 2017. Wu said that immigrant families of limited income pool their money to afford a home and then live together in a multigenerational home. “This is something that we cannot avoid because today if one single family … saved to afford a $800,000 to $900,000 teardown-condition house and spent another $500,000 to build a new house and support by [themselves], that’s unrealistic,” Wu said, adding that it was difficult for one family to afford a home and that his cousin, brother, and sister put money together to build together and live in one place.
The BIA finds that about 11 percent of Hawaii’s homes are multigenerational due to housing costs and cultural traditions of caring for your elders, but some argue that there are apartment-intended “monster” homes that are a totally different beast from legitimate multigenerational homes for families.
“People used to build what they needed,” Ozawa said. “Now we see investors building structures in residential neighborhoods to make money.”
Opponents claim the added density costs the neighborhood; that it puts stress on infrastructure like the sewage system. Local residents complain of constant construction noise, excessive trash, parking issues, blocked views, and rising assessment values that affect their own property taxes. At the November 2017 Land and Zoning committee meeting, a Palolo Valley resident called the addition of one of these large homes to her neighborhood a “nightmare.” “Monster homes have changed the character of our residential districts,” Ozawa said.
However, most of these effects are “largely anecdotal,” according to Sokugawa. “We have not yet conducted a full-blown investigation [of the effects] once the homes are completed.”
Over the past year the city has passed laws that created a stricter building code, and it has instituted harsh penalties for those who work without permit: a civil fine 10 times the amount of the permit fee or $10,000—whichever is more—for each day of the violation. Perhaps the most aggressive attempt at stopping these homes is the two-year restrictive ordinance, Bill 110, CD2, FD1, that was signed into law by Mayor Kirk Caldwell in March 2018. The law is effectively a moratorium on these types of homes, setting bathroom and wet bar limitations and prohibiting the construction of any house that wants to occupy more than 70 percent of the land plot. Since the moratorium, the number of building permit applications for these large homes went from 57 in 2017 to eight between January and June of 2018.
But some people believe this kind of regulation will actually do more harm than good for those trying to build “normal” homes. “Restricting the size of the home will negatively impact families who need to build a larger home to fit their household needs,” Gladys Marrone, CEO of the BIA said. “Restricting the size of a home does not prevent a ‘monster’ home.”
For instance, those with smaller parcels of land might be unable to increase the size of their house. If someone wants to add a guest unit to their home, they might have to add two more parking spaces, which can double someone’s renovation costs depending on their lot.
Local contractors have noticed the new regulations causing delays of up to nine months in getting permits for what they consider normal renovations. To fight back, on October 18, the BIA held a rally in front of Honolulu Hale—the official government seat of the city—asking City Council members to support Bill 64, which expedited the process for building permits for one or two-family dwellings. It passed in early November.
On the horizon is coming up with a plan for when the moratorium ends. According to Ozawa, the City Council is working on Bill 80, which he says will amend current Land Use Ordinance to better development standards for large homes. Similar to the moratorium, the bill seeks “to preserve the intent of Residential Districts and protect the character of existing neighborhoods” through regulating currently unregulated large detached dwelling elements: bedrooms (as an application can show a closet, but in actuality, it’s converted into a bedroom), wet bars, laundry rooms, and bathrooms. Bill 80 will also require yards “for light and air access.”
“Time is the challenge,” Ozawa said. “Amending the LUO is a lengthy process and we are now just getting the bill back from the DPP and the Planning Commission.”
Instead of continuing to come up with new “band-aid blanket revisions that don’t take into account all sorts of anomalies,” Hickox says he would prefer existing laws be better enforced: “Nothing needs to happen other than you need to put in a better system of enforcement. What’s the use of passing laws if there’s no way to enforce them?”
According to the DPP, limited resources and a competitive job market have made it difficult for the agency to hire and also keep employees. “There’s a huge chasm between what we’re paying them and the responsibility we’re giving them,” Sokugawa said, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
It seems like the road to finding a solution that makes everyone happy is going to be a long one. “Yes, they [the very large homes] clearly look different, and they may be occupied in a different way, legally or illegally,” Sokugawa said. “But is there any legitimate reason for them? Clearly some landowners see value in them. Balance can only be achieved if we know what the underlying opposition is and whether this opposition is based on facts or not.”
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