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Felipe Rose was just beginning high school in New York City when the Stonewall resistance kicked off in 1969.
A native New Yorker, he was living in Coney Island with his mother, and often took the subway with friends to hang out in Greenwich Village. In 1969, as he watched the riots unfold on television over five days, his mother told him, “I don’t want you to go there anymore.”
“But that didn’t work,” Rose says. “I started hearing a calling inside of me.”
The Village would quickly become a defining place in his life. Three years after Stonewall, he would come out as gay and move there after being kicked out of his home. And five years after that, Rose would meet a music producer in a popular gay club and become “The Indian” in the Village People (he’s the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Native American father—Mescalero Apache, Lakota, and Cherokee, he says).
Today, Rose still performs music and he serves as a media spokesperson for God’s Love We Deliver, a charity founded in the mid-1980s that delivers meals to people living with AIDS.
Rose spoke with CityLab about Stonewall, how it ignited the nascent gay liberation movement, and his part in the movement.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You were still a school kid in New York when Stonewall happened. Did it inspire you to come out?
Felipe Rose: I used to go to the Village while in junior high school. I had friends that would go to the Village and they would tell me, “Oh my God, there’s great clubs and all kinds of people. It’s very bohemian.” So I was attracted to that first because I was involved in the arts, and then I started to realize… (laughs)
When I graduated from high school in ’72, I went to a two-year business college and I hated it, and then in New York I auditioned for a scholarship for a dance company. So I ended up getting a job as a dancer. My mother was totally against the lifestyle I was choosing. And she found out somehow—I ended up having a boyfriend and I did come out in ’72. And then she really didn’t like it, so she tossed me out into the street like so many young men.
I assimilated into a whole new lifestyle and started living very short periods of time in one apartment with somebody else and then another, and then ended up in Provincetown in the Arthur Blake bicentennial revue. They needed an Indian. But they were always dressing me up like that in school anyway for the Christopher Columbus parade and celebration.
What was it like living in the Village for you at that time?
During that time I would walk into the Village wearing my vest and my moccasins and my cut-off shorts and long hair and head bandana: very sort of native hippyish. And being in the Village, I met Marsha P. Johnson—Marsha “Pay-it-no mind” Johnson—and Sylvia Rivera [ed note: Johnson and Rivera were prominent LGBT activists. Johnson is oft-credited with sparking the Stonewall resistance].
Marsha, she was wonderful. You know she was just strange and odd in her ways. She had plastic roses on her head and glitter on her face.
I had the dance company, but I ended up working at the Anvil, which was one of the most notorious after-hours sex bars in New York. On a fateful night there in ’76, I met this producer [Jacques Morali, who died of AIDS in 1991] who approached me with the concept and an idea of a group, a singing group which I thought was really stupid. But he was French and he saw the male stereotype image very clearly in his head. He said, “This is going to be different. I’m going to create something.”
The first album dropped the summer of 1977 in June, during the Anita Bryant revolt. The album became the soundtrack of that summer. The song “Village People” was a call to rally:
Now is the time, People
Your fight is mine, Let’s fight for the right, People
Your freedom’s in sight, People
We can’t be denied. The signs are on our side now.
[In January of 1977, the Dade County, Florida, commission passed an ordinance banning discrimination because of sexual orientation. Miami resident Anita Bryant, a moderately successful pop singer and orange juice spokeswoman, launched a campaign called “Save Our Children” to repeal it, warning that gays had to recruit since “they couldn’t reproduce.” In early June 1977, her campaign helped get the gay-rights ordinance repealed by a 2-1 margin. It wasn’t until two decades later that a version of it was passed again.]
So the Anita Bryant anti-gay rights campaign in 1977 was really a backlash after a period of moving forward.
It was the first backlash. And going into almost a decade after the [Stonewall] riot, where we thought, we’re safe now and we’re starting to celebrate. We’re now a family. We’re walking down the street and we had safe zones: San Francisco, the Village, Fort Lauderdale, Miami. There were certain communities in Dallas, where gay people would gather and would live and would work. And so when this backlash happened, we were totally shocked and angered.
She denounced the lifestyle and said that we were all just despicable and this and that. And so everyone just came out of the closet that summer: in San Francisco, Florida, and New York, predominantly, but also across the country.
That summer the Christopher Street parade was still not a parade. It was a rally and a cry for the fight. So it was a really scary time. The police weren’t trained for it. We were always on guard in case anything would happen, they would immediately would have attacked us.
That was the first backlash, and then of course the second one came with the epidemic and the plague. And that was a different kind of fight because that fight took it to city hall and to Washington. We weren’t equipped for that. We became adults at a very young age, in the prime of our lives burying our community.
Were you still living in the Village in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began?
I had left the Village and moved to New Jersey, because once the second album came out and then going into the third, it was too much. People were recognizing me everywhere I went, so I decided it would be better to move away and then concentrate on my life and concentrate on touring.
And then of course I would come home to friends to catch up, to find out what’s going on: “Oh, there’s a rally here. Here’s a candlelight vigil there.” And that’s pretty much what we did the entire 1980s into the ’90s. I believe I still have a couple of phone books where there’s so many people that I lost that I just had to put the book away.
There are so many people that I wish were here like me, and I’m blessed that I’m here. I used to go out with Freddie Mercury to clubs in New York like the Saint. He always wanted to stay until the next day. But I was one that never liked daylight. If I was out with you at night and 5 or 6 in the morning would come around, I didn’t care what we were doing. I was leaving.
So many people lost their lives to the AIDS crisis. How do you reflect on surviving that era?
Well, one man that I believe I owe my life to, his name is Federico Gonzalez. He used to work for the Board of Education and he hated the job, so when the group dropped the second album he said: “I’m gonna work for you. You need an assistant.” So I hired him and he did help me with my bills and my scheduling and this and that.
And then about four or five years later he said, “I’m quitting because I’m gonna go work for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.” I said: “What is that?” He said: “Well, that’s what we’re going to call it and I’m writing the proposal for funding because there was obviously something really wrong and I need for you to swear to me that you will always wear a condom, because there is a disease attacking gay men.” He was one of the people that didn’t make it because he ended up contracting the virus.
Did you feel that the Village People were ever particularly under attack from anyone for your representations and actions?
Well, we had our moments of defiance, not just from straight people but also from other gay men, that the group was a sellout. I wanted the rest of the group to think like me—a lot of them didn’t. Because again we were put together by a producer, so we were never friends like some other groups.
I used to have political activists say to me: “You were just on Merv Griffin. Why didn’t you stand up and put your fist in the air and say, ‘I’m gay’?” Because at the time it was show business and I had to separate my political view with what I was doing. But I was also young and not knowledgeable that it wouldn’t have hurt me. Maybe it wouldn’t have, maybe it would have.
How did the Native American community respond to you?
Well, we’re called two-spirited people. In tribes, two-spirited people are revered because it is said that you have the man and the woman’s spirit inside the body. And they have a role to play—they take care of the children and they take care of the elders. The culture just really, really accepts it and doesn’t shun and throw out the person into the streets or off their reservation. They embrace the lifestyle, whether a man is a gay man or is dressed like a woman or is transgender. They embrace it and that’s what I love about the Native lifestyle and Native community across the country. They hold that close to their hearts.
What are you doing for the 50th anniversary?
I’ll be on the float with God’s Love We Deliver. I’m passionate about them—supporting them for years, and now I’m their spokesperson. I found out about them through Joan Rivers, our lady, friend, and colleague, because we worked in Vegas together. Then I’m at the VIP concert for Grace Jones. We’re old friends.
Many people are saying, “oh my God, it’s going to be a great party.” Yes, it’s going to be a great party, but let’s remember and understand the history. Because by not knowing your history, you will not know what the future is going to be. The fact that I’ve survived and then here I am as a grown man at 65 to witness 50 years of Stonewall, it’s just a blessing to me. But there are many mixed feelings of sadness and then remembering happiness and joy, and being proud of all the steps that we’ve made. Yet, at the same time, things are being turned back, so once again we’re still not out of the woods.
So, on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, it’s a melancholy feeling, but also I’m filled with pride and joy.
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One month after Donald Trump took office, erstwhile presidential consigliere Steve Bannon remarked that an overriding goal of the White House was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
From the unprecedented amount of unfilled appointments in federal agencies to the elimination of rafts of regulatory directives, the Trump White House has made significant strides towards achieving this objective. If a Democrat defeats Trump and enters the White House on January 20, 2021, she or he will face an administrative challenge unprecedented for either major political party in recent history.
The deepening crisis of federal bureaucracy is a useful lens to see how policy and administration can more effectively repair the divides that characterize our politics. The United States is no longer a country of merely blue states and red states. It is a mosaic of blue cities and red prairies. Our fractured politics are the result of the geographic inequalities that produce these divisions.
The Green New Deal is the most ambitious proposal the Democratic Party is discussing to address these inequalities. But to implement it successfully, the agencies most likely to be involved should be reorganized by an incoming administration into one “super-ministry,” a department that would enable the federal government to administer the policies most effectively.
The Green New Deal is a framework of public investment to transform the United States’s infrastructure in order to halt climate change and support struggling communities. The need to address the stark inequalities between places is built into the Green New Deal’s policy DNA.
While the Green New Deal proposal is still mostly conceptual at this point, the basics are relatively clear: investments to shift the energy grid to renewable sources, research and development for new technologies, retrofitting existing buildings and underground infrastructure, and major investments in public housing and transportation. But in order to make this a reality, the devil is in the details of the “administrative state.” This means those same institutions and regulations that have been in the cross-hairs of the Trump administration.
Administrative overhauls can be vital for breaking through the inertia that infects bureaucracy over time, especially once many agencies have been gutted. My proposal is a reorganization of the agencies that are likely to be involved in planning and financing the Green New Deal: Interior, Energy, Housing & Urban Development, and Transportation. This super ministry—a Department of Cities and Regions—would strengthen the power of the federal government to undertake the institutional changes required.
A key policy plank of the Green New Deal is to achieve net-zero building standards. This can be realized through a program that finances municipal governments to build millions of new rental housing on the basis of these standards. Elizabeth Warren has filed a bill in the Senate that would provide public financing for building over 2.1 million new homes in 10 years. Progressive think tanks and academics have called for the building of up to 10 million homes in the same time period to help alleviate the well-documented affordable housing crisis, particularly for the growing number of renters. The last time this high a share (44 percent) of Americans were renting rather than owning homes was in the 1960s. This was also the last time the United States saw any kind of significant public investment in housing. Today, 38 percent of renters are rent-burdened, meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their monthly income on rent.
Scaling up investment in social housing within the Green New Deal framework has clear advantages for building an effective political coalition. First, it would strengthen the power and security of the growing share of Americans who are renters. Second, it would build popular support for perpetually underfunded municipal public housing authorities. And finally, it would appeal to building trades unions who are currently skeptical of the Green New Deal framework, fearing that it would put them out of work on fossil
A Department of Cities and Regions would be able to direct funding streams for housing, energy, and transportation infrastructure to be managed through municipal governments. Essentially, this would make available local-level finance tied to national goals. Municipalities are well-placed to prioritize new investments due to their knowledge of local needs and priorities. For those municipalities without effective planning capacity, the federal government could provide technical assistance. Furthermore, municipalities are more likely to avoid malign competition, for example, through tax breaks to multinational corporations like Amazon. They would be assured of sufficient federal financing for local priorities that are not generally funded by their own revenues.
These seemingly dry administrative reforms have the potential to stitch together the United States’s political social contract. Local government is where it should be easiest for Americans to make their voices heard. But the lack of meaningful federal funding for cities, since at least the early 1980s, has depoliticized local politics. Civic leaders of all political stripes pursue private investment with increasingly divisive social effects. Ordinary citizens often do not have clear choices on the distributional questions of local public goods, like housing, that make participation meaningful.
Financial and planning empowerment of municipalities through a Department of Cities and Regions would raise the stakes of local politics, unlocking a new era of local political participation and experimentation. Bold policies will need to be coupled with a commensurate vision for administering them.
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The number of Bengal tigers is dwindling. Orangutans and some African elephant populations are also at risk. Monarch butterflies are dropping out of the air, and may end up on the endangered list by 2020, too. Blame the encroachment of human footprints and human-driven development for their deaths—indeed, blame humans for much of the deforestation, overfishing, and climate change that are shrinking the variety of the natural world.
But a growing body of research suggests that human-dense cities and flourishing wildlife aren’t incompatible, after all. It’s in urban areas that animals like fishers and coyotes and bullfinches and peregrines are finding new life, and on patches of city terrain that birds and dragons and butterflies are perching as they complete their migratory paths. Partly because they tend to be in coastal and riparian areas with high biodiversity, cities are becoming crucial havens for many animal species as once-open lands are transformed by agriculture and development.
A pair of new articles by researchers at the Keller Science Action Center and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, suggests that cities could actually be integral in “help[ing] curb a potential ‘sixth mass extinction’”—but only if they act quickly, and smartly, to become sites of conservation.
The researchers suggest cities start by focusing on preserving monarch butterflies, whose numbers have fallen precipitously in the last two decades as the milkweed plant—where butterflies must lay their eggs—disappears. Because of their distinctive appearance and popularity, monarchs are the “ideal ambassadors” for the conservation movement, the researchers argue, although they’re part of a larger group of pollinators that include flower beetles, hoverflies, and mosquitoes, too.
“Beetles are incredible pollinators, but a campaign to ‘plant for beetles’ probably wouldn’t go anywhere,” Derby Lewis, a senior conservation ecologist at Chicago’s Field Museum and a co-author of both papers, said in a statement. “By helping Monarch butterflies, we’re helping other pollinators, which are on the decline.”
Together, pollinators are responsible for helping 80 percent of the world’s flowering plants, like avocados and apples, reproduce, and in turn, allowing many of the world’s animals to eat.
To help stabilize the monarch population, we need to plant more milkweed—North America needs as many as 1.8 million additional stems. How much of that could go in metropolitan areas?
To answer that, the researchers used satellite and spatial-resolution data to identify where milkweed already thrives in four metropolitan regions: St. Paul-Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, and Austin, all of which are along the monarchs’ migratory route.
They also analyzed how these cities’ “low-quality green space,” like grass lawns, could be transformed “into high-quality homes for these butterflies.” Turns out it’s residential single-family and multi-family land uses, right-of-way areas, and vacant lots that have the most potential for planting. The maps below take the dense streets of Chicago and strip them to their plantable space.
Strikingly, in three of the four metro areas, the plantable land that was both most readily available and best fit for growing milkweed was residential in nature, meaning it lies partly in people’s backyards. (Agricultural land, while technically most free for planting, is largely sullied with milkweed-killing pesticides, and already heavily farmed.)
Taking those four cities as regional ideals, the researchers predict that if all the land that’s fit for milkweed planting in the entire urbanized northern and northeastern U.S. was used, it could support 15 percent of the stems needed to stabilize the Eastern monarch population. And if the effort was expanded to include everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains, that number could account for 30 percent.
Cities have grown pollinator gardens, pollinator boulevards, and pollinator parks, but individuals have been slower to commit their own yards to the cause. ”Certainly, having the term ‘weed’ in the name of milkweed—which isn’t a weed—has not helped the reputation of these superstar native plants,” Lewis said. Changing that perception, and encouraging more green infrastructure projects (on rooftops and in parks and beyond), is a good place to start.
Urbanized areas make up only 3 percent of the country’s land mass but are home to 80 percent of its people. Those humans could reshape their habitats to better welcome pollinators, too.
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What We’re Following
Crank ranking: People love to comparison shop. That simple fact explains the popularity of lists that rank cities by “livability,” feeding the notion that life will be better if you just pack your bags and move to another, more idyllic place. If you follow these annual lists, the winners won’t shock you: For the most part, prosperous and modestly scaled Northern European cities like Vienna, Copenhagen, and Helsinki dominate the finalists.
But these clicky rankings may not be the objective, data-driven reports they appear to be. Crunching the numbers on crime, weather, and housing costs can lend a sense of neutrality, but the results still project the tastes of the listmakers—and there’s a curious anti-urban slant to their outcomes. After all, how can you truly judge a city like Zurich, the serene Swiss semi-metropolis that recently topped one list, against a megacity like Beijing or Tokyo? CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan takes a look at what these world’s “most livable” city rankings really mean. Read his take: Death to Livability!
More on CityLab
For the past few years, there’s been a subtle shift at New York City’s parks, as the city’s department of parks and recreation gradually rebranded itself through the signs at its properties. It wasn’t easy: Years of changing rules, warnings, and regulations resulted in a messy system of ad-hoc signage at more than 5,000 properties. But the design firm Pentagram reined them in, bringing a new typeface, logo, and structure that make it easier to communicate answers to the questions visitors may have at any given park. CityLab’s Kriston Capps spoke to Pentagram designer Paula Scher about what she learned the process. On CityLab: The Secrets to NYC Parks’ New Signs
What We’re Reading
The Green New Deal could change how America builds (Fast Company)
How vacant lots create financial strain for smaller cities (Curbed)
The unproven, invasive surveillance technology schools are using to monitor students (ProPublica)
How apartheid killed Johannesburg’s cycling culture (The Guardian)
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On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order to establish the White House Council on Eliminating Barriers to Affordable Housing Development. The new council, chaired by Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, will “address, reduce, and remove the multitude of overly burdensome regulatory barriers that artificially raise the cost of housing development and help to cause the lack of housing supply.”
In other words: The administration wants to loosen restrictive zoning and building regulations, increase the supply of housing, and bring housing costs down.
At first glance, this sounds like a call to adopt the upzoning prescription that progressive leaders and advocates of the “Yes In My Backyard” movement have been demanding in cities across America to address a deepening housing-supply problem. Minneapolis just eliminated single-family zoning within city limits as a means of increasing the supply of multifamily housing and combating the legacy of racial segregation. Seattle upzoned a few dozen neighborhoods to ease its tech-saturated affordability crisis; California has tried (and so far failed) to push a broad zoning reform bill, SB 50, statewide. Democratic 2020 candidates like Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren have all adopted different variations on the theme in their presidential campaign platforms.
In his Tuesday statement, Trump implied that the White House recognizes the same stressors as YIMBYs: America doesn’t have enough housing, and exclusionary zoning policies that limit denser construction are to blame. To cut through the red tape that hinders building, the administration and HUD’s new council will study federal, state, and local regulations; they’ll strip the ones they can, and push communities to do the same.
But housing advocates—including those who support upzoning—are not celebrating their powerful new ally. Many are concerned that the White House council won’t significantly alleviate the country’s affordability problem—and they fear it could make it worse.
“They want to be able to say they’re doing something on housing … because voters care a lot about it,” said Henry Kraemer, the housing fellow for the progressive strategy organization Data for Progress. “But they don’t want to do anything that’s going to actively help working people.”
Kraemer has his doubts that the task force will produce any tangible outcomes after its study period. “But if something did happen, my guess would be they’d look into packing a bunch of new density into already low-income communities, use the specter of density to influence [divestment], and call it ‘removing barriers,’” he said.
This gets at a fear shared by other housing advocates: That the way HUD will nudge cities and states to comply with deregulation is by threatening to defund their Community Block Development Grants, a strategy favored by some Republicans, as well as California Democratic Representative Maxine Waters. Since those grants generally support growth in lower-income housing tracts, a White House plan tying them to density could put lower-income neighborhoods on the hook to build faster than their more prosperous—and probably less dense—neighbors.
An early version of Booker’s housing plan leaned heavily on the CDBG grants as sticks, too, before he widened the cash pool to include other pressure points, like transportation and infrastructure funding.
Besides zoning restrictions, the Trump order mentions other regulatory barriers that could be targeted, a long list that is likely to cheer or alarm an ideologically diverse set of interest groups. Among them: “rent controls; cumbersome building and rehabilitation codes; excessive energy and water efficiency mandates; unreasonable maximum density allowances; historic preservation requirements; overly burdensome wetland or environmental regulations; …. tax policies that discourage investment or reinvestment; overly complex labor requirements; and inordinate impact or developer fees.”
The regulatory dismantling Carson has already accomplished in his role at HUD has done more harm than good, said Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, in a statement. In particular, last year Carson effectively gutted the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, an Obama-era rule meant to give “local communities tools and guidance to overcome restrictive local zoning” themselves, pushing them to combat the legacy of segregation.
“An effort by this administration to address restrictive local zoning would be welcomed if it weren’t belied by other actions to gut affordable and fair housing in America and by the council’s true intent, made clear by its design,” Yentel said. “Made up of representatives of the Departments of Treasury, Labor, Agriculture and the EPA, the council will likely assist the administration in removing important federal regulations that protect fair wages, fair housing, the environment, and more.”
Yentel also questioned the Trump administration’s motivations in her statement. “It’s an attempt to achieve large-scale deregulation while distracting from other efforts to exacerbate the housing crisis … and gut HUD’s existing rules that incentivize local governments to eliminate restrictive zoning.”
Jenny Schuetz, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, isn’t ready to dismiss the directive entirely, but also doubts the council will be able to do much. “Because the local politics around zoning is very sticky, bringing more federal influence to bear on exclusionary local governments is a promising development,” she said. “That said, because most regulatory barriers are adopted at the local level, the federal government has relatively few direct levers, especially on the most exclusionary places. It does have a big bully pulpit, which could be helpful.”
That’s assuming the administration is truly interested in bringing housing costs down. “There’s definitely some cognitive dissonance around an administration that has consistently tried to roll back federal housing assistance to the poorest, most vulnerable families for three years suddenly becoming committed to housing affordability,” she added.
As Kriston Capps recently wrote in CityLab, calls to change zoning restrictions haven’t fallen neatly across political lines. Local tenant groups, who swing progressive, opposed California’s SB 50, fearing it would fuel gentrification. Carson tipped his hand as a YIMBY back in August, telling the Wall Street Journal he intended to “tie HUD grants to less restrictive zoning.” And this month, Republican Senator Todd Young proposed his own YIMBY plan, which would again weaponize CDBG grants in heavily Democratic areas to direct deregulation.
Having Trump firmly in the YIMBY ring will complicate these already-tangled politics. NIMBYs who oppose upzoning can now “frame their opposition to density and change as resistance to Trumpzoning,” as Capps predicted last week. By allying himself with YIMBYs, Trump can effectively delegitimize them, says Kraemer. In another sense, however, in acknowledging the strength of the affordable housing movement, the president is cementing its role as a key 2020 issue.
“Smart Republicans see this as a way to throw a grenade into blue states and cities,” said Kraemer. “This is an opportunity for the Trump administration to sully the name of people trying to [upzone] together.”
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Pack your bags everyone: It’s time to move to Zurich. According to the 2019 Monocle Global Liveable Cities Index, published in the magazine’s July/August issue, the Swiss city is the most livable of any in the world, the 409,000-resident almost-metropolis beating off competition to rise to the top of a 25-city list. Last year, it was number four.
If you’re familiar with such rankings, the municipalities selected for this ranking will not shock you: Just under 50 percent are European cities north of the Alps. One, Vancouver, is in North America; none are in South America or Africa. All are no doubt largely prosperous, high-functioning places, but an overall feeling emerges from this cluster of familiar entries. These rankings provide less a universal assessment of livability—a word that comes with its own baggage—and more a snapshot of their compilers’ tastes and worldview.
Along with looking at crime, housing costs, and weather, Monocle has moved with the data-driven times, factoring in for the first time metrics on things like average working hours, resident age, and transit options for non-drivers. Their conclusion is moreover not far off city ranking consensus, with the consulting firm Mercer granting Zurich second place (after Vienna) in its own livability list published in March. The Economist Intelligence Unit, another well-known livability-lister, gave the Swiss city a score of 96.3 out of 100 (only good for a lowly 11th place) in their 2018 ranking, which also handed Vienna the top spot.
And yes, Zurich is certainly not a bad place. An internationally well-connected city sprawling along the banks of a beautiful sub-Alpine lake, this vast security deposit box for global capital has a reputation for being forward-looking while still retaining a core that’s a twist of ancient lanes. And while it boasts the kind of urban amenities that keep travel journalists busy (a once-industrial district now filling with the usual boutiques and cafes), Zurich is still clean enough to attract the occasional beaver.
But I’d never choose to live there, and I’d hazard a wild guess that you, whoever you are, might not either, if you got to know it. Trim, tidy, and functional, Zurich manages to be much less boring than you’d think, while still being boring, and a little stiff. It’s also the biggest city in a country that, while anything but bland, is not the smoothly functioning Swiss-watch-like machine many assume it to be.
Switzerland’s branding has never quite recovered from Orson Welles’ epic burn in The Third Man, the one where Harry Lime observes that, with 500 years of peace and democracy, all the Swiss managed to gave humanity was the cuckoo clock. That’s not really the case. Federalized, quadrilingual Switzerland has given us far more—chocolate, aluminum foil, Velcro, nostalgia, plastic wrap, Dicoflenac, and the Red Cross are all valuable Swiss inventions. And its past 500 years have been neither especially democratic or peaceful. Historically, its poverty made it a prime source for mercenaries, while Swiss territory itself has seen eight wars since 1500 (the last in 1847). As for democracy, the country’s expansion of the franchise may have started earlier than most—but its voters didn’t achieve universal suffrage both nationally and regionally until 1991.
And contemporary Switzerland can be a restricting place, though in ways that do not seem to get noticed by the livability arbiters. University education is free, but barely more than 20 percent of high schoolers make it there, based on a decision made by their teachers (partly along class and ethnic lines, it has been suggested), often when they are just 12 years old. Until 2017, even Swiss-born grandchildren of immigrants to the country had to go through a 12-year application process to become citizens. The result is a still-stratified society where high wages compensate for a degree of social stagnation, with migrants and Swiss from the wrong backgrounds enjoying good benefits and excellent tram links on the way to low-skilled jobs; meanwhile, the skills shortfalls they have not been given training to remedy are filled with workers from elsewhere, mainly other E.U. states. Zurich can certainly be defined as livable—but for whom does it genuinely offer the best conditions?
There’s also a curious anti-urban slant in these assessments of urban qualities. How can one judge a city of just 400,000 located in one of the world’s richest countries by the same metrics as places like Beijing, Bangkok, or Tokyo—a megacity of almost 10 million souls that is ranked right behind it on the Monocle list? Celebrating the enviable living conditions in Copenhagen (number four) or Helsinki (six) may offer inspiration to those trapped in less-prosperous places, but it’s hard not to wonder why these rankings tend to tap wealthy, smaller cities when larger, less wealthy ones may be making more radical, transformative improvements in life quality.
This brings us to the larger problem of city rankings in general, issues that reflects the problems of technocracy itself. By using data as a driver, such rankings present themselves as dispassionate and impartial, as if they are simply removing the lid on a machine to reveal objectively how the engine beneath is functioning. They nonetheless represent a worldview taken from a highly specific angle, one that is full of scarcely acknowledged assumptions about who the imaginary citizen they address is.
Issues such as housing affordability are taken into account, for example, but have to balance against more rarified qualities such as access to opera, high-end restaurants, and other amenities. This isn’t all bad—for those who can afford them, opera and restaurants are wonderful things. The result is still that rankings often end up assessing cities in terms of a small band of citizens for whom almost all of such metrics are relevant. They assess, broadly, how much potential a city possesses when seen from a privileged point of view: that of a straight, affluent, mobile, and probably white couple who works in something akin to upper management and has children. Remove even one of those characteristics from the equation and the results often seem way off the mark.
City rankings are thus a window onto the projected tastes of a highly specific elite—even if the cities that suit this elite would also suit other people well enough, should they manage to get there. Skills gaps have made in-migration a feature of Swiss life, but those who come find themselves in a climate increasingly hostile to migration, where right-wing populist politicians of the SVP (currently the largest party in the Canton overall, albeit not in the city) have proposed placing limits on people moving to the Canton of Zurich. Switzerland is by no means alone in Europe or the West in displaying such trends, nativism being one defining feature of this Brexit/Trump era. But it seems mistaken to present all cities as simple clusters of amenities, not when access to them is being subtly discouraged by broader social trends or actively denied to certain groups.
It might be good for Monocle’s staff to reflect on that—perhaps while sitting on a tram on the way to their recently opened continental European headquarters, in the city of Zurich.
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We found that EV owners are white (85%), male (75%), well educated, affluent (80% >$100,000 household income), older, urban/suburban oriented, and environmentally conscious; they charge at home and use the EV to commute to work (similar to findings in other areas of the country). “Environmental concerns” is the most important factor for purchasing and driving an EV; “price and status” is the second most important factor; “efficiency and performance” of the EV is the third most important. EV owners with lower household income (
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Over the last several years Living Cities has experimented with different ways to build racial equity and inclusion (REI) competencies as individual staff and as an organization. This work has been quarterbacked by a cross-cutting internal team—Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity (CORE)—that strategizes and implements ongoing interventions to build REI skills and help develop and sustain a culture where everyone can thrive. CORE’s work is grounded in the recognition that systems—from within our own organization to the complex systems in cities where we work—are made up of individual people in various roles.
In the first blog of this series on “Holding Staff Through Our REI Journey,” we expressed how shifting toward centering racial equity in our internal operations and external work is an “all hands on deck effort, with each staff member investing a tremendous amount of personal effort toward this ambitious but necessary goal.” One thing we know for sure—having tried and failed—is that we cannot fully support partners in closing racial income gaps if we aren’t doing our own work to build REI competencies. Otherwise, even with the best of intentions, we will likely recreate and/or uphold the very oppressive power dynamics and structures we are theoretically working against.
One of the many resources CORE supported over the last year was the opportunity for staff members to engage in individual coaching. We’ve received several inquiries from partners considering offering coaching to their own staff. In response, we want to share some of the background, intent and detail on why and how we pursued this coaching pilot.
Normalizing deep conversations about race and racism in America as a daily practice is not a muscle many people and/or organizations regularly exercise—especially not in a professional setting. At Living Cities, beginning to build this capacity has required dedicated effort, a variety of pathways, and a significant commitment of time and resources.
Three years ago, with CORE’s leadership and support, Living Cities laid a critical foundation for ongoing competency building by requiring all staff to go through trainings like the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s Undoing Racism Workshop, which every new staff member now completes as part of onboarding. Participation in these workshops was a critically important step in developing shared language, analysis, and sense of history as a staff and in grounding ourselves in some core accountability principles. And, as our work continued, we realized this was only the beginning of what was needed to continually deepen our tolerance for conversations and work that named racism, whiteness, white institutional culture, and anti-blackness. We had to acknowledge that this would not be accomplished through a one-off training (though they have been extraordinarily helpful) or a single all-staff conversation (also helpful). We needed to continue to push ourselves to engage through, not around conflict, to develop transformative relationships, and to move out of heady and intellectual spaces to create and support deeper connection and introspection.
So, in addition to the work we were doing at the organizational level at all-staff meetings, trainings, and retreats, we sought out additional options focused on helping individual staff members to lean into their personal “growing edge(s)” and to be supported through this very messy and often painful work. Coaching is often a luxury within an organizational context; an offering usually reserved for Executive/Senior staff. We intentionally wanted to disrupt that norm and make the opportunity available to all Living Cities staff.
“My coach helped me deeply explore how elements of white institutional culture manifest in me, and how the roots of those dynamics for me personally stem from fears, assumptions, values, etc. My coach introduced me to ways of interrogating those elements while still being kind to myself. This deeper understanding has helped me identify and navigate situations at work when my values are in conflict with one another and figure out what the root causes are when I’m feeling uneasy, unsatisfied or frustrated in my work. And, how to translate that awareness into my interactions with others in my role so that I’m better living my values.” -Ellen Ward, Chief of Staff
How did we roll out coaching at Living Cities?
Our coaching program was voluntary; staff members were not required but were encouraged to give it a try as they learned and applied new frameworks, language, and behavior change as part of their leadership practice. Five individual coaching hours were available to any interested staff member and they were advised to use the coaching sessions however they best saw fit. There was no mandate to focus on REI (particularly or exclusively), and those who took advantage of the opportunity had the freedom to figure out how the time could be used to meet their needs, advance their leadership journey, and live our organizational values through the practice of coaching. In the end, more than half of our staff took advantage of the opportunity.
We did, however, think it was important to develop a coaching pool that included coaches with competencies and experiences to discuss issues related to race and oppression, because building those competencies and exploring these conversations is front and center for many on staff. We built relationships with a variety of social justice-oriented coaches, many of whom are people of color. All of the coaches offered a wide variety of other skills and experiences. Once we had articulated our desired goals for the program, we developed a directory of potential coaches to share with staff. All of these coaches agreed to be part of the directory and to the terms and rates ahead of time.
To launch the effort, the CORE team outlined the process, the value proposition of coaching, and the goals at an all-staff meeting and then distributed the coaching directory to staff members with guidance for reviewing and contacting coaches to schedule introductory conversations. We suggested speaking with at least two to three different coaches throughout the matching process to help them get a sense of how they might be together in a coaching relationship. We recognized that coaching might seem abstract or uncomfortable to some people, so staff from CORE were also available to answer questions and to “de-mystify” the opportunity for anyone who had never engaged in coaching before.
What was the Impact?
Coaching is a real and substantial investment that we were privileged enough to be able to provide thanks to the core operating support we receive. But -as costly as this approach can be, coaching has proven itself to be tremendously valuable to our staff, our organization as a whole and, ultimately, to our impact potential in cities across the country. Indeed, since we launched the coaching opportunity, we’ve heard consistent positive feedback from staff that the coaching has helped them grow as people and in their day-to-day roles in numerous ways, deepening their practice and impact throughout our work.
“My coach helped me think through some accountability practices that I can start practicing individually and within my teams, because one of my objectives is to be able to look critically at existing power structures and understand power dynamics, interrogate my biases and continuously reflect on my identities, roles and interactions. We also were able to have conversations about addressing anti-Blackness and how that can show up in our work at Living Cities.” – Hafizah Omar, Senior Associate
We are continuing to analyze feedback as we consider how we support our staff moving forward and how such efforts contribute to our organizational results of closing racial income and wealth gaps. As we assess the impact of this coaching and other REI competency building investments, we are also encouraged by the data from our recent REI competency survey. The survey found that from 2017 to 2018, we saw a 14% increase in the number of staff who reported feeling more comfortable talking about race at work and another 20% increase in the number of staff reporting that they actively embed racial equity into their everyday work.
At Living Cities we are working to build and strengthen transformational – not transactional – relationships amongst staff and partners to establish the trust required to do this messy work. This is not a nice-to-have; this is THE work to be able to support closing the gaps and centering humanity. We’re also increasingly recognizing that some of the discomfort and conflict we experience as a staff and organization is that – as we work to disrupt the status quo – we have to intentionally work through these conflicts and growing pains, not around them. We’ve seen that coaching is a tool many staff have leaned on to support them through this conflict and discomfort.
This is just one of many ways to support staff through the process of operationalizing racial equity. If you’d like to share your equity journey or story with us, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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