You Are What You Eat – Reclaiming my South Indian Heritage

Food is an important part of culture, and for me, like many people, food is a part of my identity. Our tastes and preferences are often shaped by our lived experiences – for example, I love spicy food because most things I ate growing up had a healthy splash of chili peppers. And for immigrants, food can be a way of preserving culture and maintaining a connection to home in a foreign place, as was the case in my family. As a first generation Indian-American, the food of my childhood consisted largely of curry, rice and lentils – the staples of South Indian cuisine. While I ate my fair share of pizza and chicken nuggets too, the food that I most deeply associate with home are dishes like dosa, rice, sambar, masala and chettinad chicken.

For me, food has also been the one consistent connection I’ve felt to my South Asian roots. Growing up first generation, I just wanted to assimilate, particularly during my teenage years – I felt like being white was cool, and being Indian wasn’t. In my efforts to be like everyone else, I put most elements of my heritage on the backburner, whether it was language, traditions, or clothing. But I never lost my love for the food. There’s something special about recipes and dishes that have been passed down, prepared and eaten generation after generation – it evokes warmth, and an irreplaceable sense of belonging and connection, even if I’ve grown up thousands of miles away from the land my family comes from.

I’ve spent my twenties reclaiming my heritage, and one of my favorite ways of doing that has been to make the recipes my family has passed down to me for my friends – it’s an opportunity to open a window into my culture from by sharing the memories I associate with different dishes and explaining the preparation and traditions. In honor of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I share the recipe for my comfort food of choice – a heaping serving of my mom’s chicken biriyani, a fragrant rice dish made with spices, saffron and a meat such as chicken, goat or lamb – in the hopes that you’ll get to experience some of the joy I do each time I have it.


Dry roast powder ingredients: (you can also pick up a pre-mixed spice mix from your local Indian store)

1 tsp of cumin powder
1 tsp of coriander powder
1 tsp of turmeric powder
2 ½ tsp of chili powder
3-4 tsp of Shan Bombay Biriyani mix
3 bay leaves
2 small cinnamon sticks
1 star anise
3 cardamom pods
3 cloves

Directions for dry roast powder: dry roast all of the powder ingredients in a pan on low heat until you get a nice aroma. Turn off stove and let it cool.


Marinate the chicken (or protein of choice)

Chicken/protein ingredients:

2 lbs of chicken with bone (my mom typically asks the butcher to cut a small whole chicken for her)
1 cup yogurt
1 small bunch of fresh cilantro leaves (save a ¼ of the bunch for garnish)
½ cup fresh mint leaves
1 tsp of garlic paste
1 tsp of ginger paste
Juice of 1 fresh lemon
Dry roast powder

Directions for marinating chicken/protein:

  1. Add fresh lemon to the chicken
  2. Add the yogurt, dry roasted powder, ginger/garlic paste, salt, fresh mint + cilantro leaves.
  3. Mix and let the chicken marinate for 30 minutes or overnight in the fridge.


Ingredients for rice:

2 ½ cups basmati rice
2 1/8 cups water
Big pinch of saffron
3 tsp milk
1 tsp salt
3 tsp oil

Cook the rice:

  1. Wash the rice 2-3 times and soak in the water
  2. Warm the milk + saffron in a microwave for 10-15 seconds add to the rice
  3. Add salt and oil and cook in a rice cooker
  4. Once the rice cooker has turned to “keep warm” disconnect and open the lid to cool

Ingredients for fried onions – optional (you can also buy these)

1 red onion (julienned)
4 tbsps chickpea flour
1 tbsp rice flour
Salt to taste


Mix all of the above ingredients and deep or shallow fry according to your taste.

Putting it all together:

  1. In a wide pan, heat 5 tbsp of oil
  2. Once warm, turn the heat down to medium and add chicken, a layer of fried onions, cilantro and then the rice
  3. Top off with more fried onions and cilantro
  4. Reduce heat to low
  5. Wet a cheese cloth and wrap the lid of the wide pan and cover the dish
  6. Cook the biriyani over low heat for 40-45 minutes
  7. Open the lid and mix the layers before serving

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CityLab Daily: In a Town Shaped by Water, the River Is Winning

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What We’re Following

“Everything went down that river. ” It was like watching a disaster movie: A river of muddy water barrels down Main Street and bursts through the storefront windows, rising to eight-foot-high rapids at the bottom of the hill. Sirens blare as the water throws cars, dumpsters, and fences downstream. In a 911 call, a woman begs the dispatcher to save them. “Are we going to die?” she asks.

But the videos were real. They were of my hometown—Ellicott City, Maryland—being wrecked by flooding over Memorial Day weekend in 2018. This kind of storm is said to happen once every 1,000 years, but this was the second one in two years. Now, many of the antique stores and funky coffee shops I frequented as a teenager are boarded up and slated to be torn down. Main Street looks like a war zone today as the county grapples with its new climate reality. The next flood could come any day.

The thing is, Ellicott City may be unique in character—much of its buildings and architecture are rooted in its past—but its dilemma is all too familiar. Small towns and big cities around the globe face the same challenge as extreme weather becomes more frequent and the world becomes warmer and wetter. And that poses an existential question: Should the town be saved? When does retreating rather than rebuilding become the only rational choice? Read my story today on CityLab: In a Town Shaped by Water, the River Is Winning

Linda Poon

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In a Town Shaped by Water, the River Is Winning

ELLICOTT CITY, Md.—The floor beneath Sally Tennant’s feet was thumping, as if it had a heartbeat—an irregular one, with each thud getting louder and more violent. When she looked out the window of her store, she discovered why: A river of muddy water was gushing down the street, and it was sending tree branches, rocks, pieces of fencing—anything the water swept up—crashing into the side of the building.

It’s happening again.

Tennant opened the front door of her craft and jewelry store, Discoveries, and did what safety officials say you should never do during a flash flood: She went into the water. It was nearly knee deep, flowing down Main Street and rising quickly. The rain was unrelenting: a ferocious, sustained downpour.

But the water in the street had not reached the Forget-Me-Not Factory yet. The gift shop across the street occupied a four-story building faced in sturdy granite, and Tennant decided to head there rather than risk getting trapped in her two-story brick and wood structure.

The refuge Tennant found in her neighbors’ shop didn’t last long. Soon, owners Barry and Nancy Gibson were trying to stop water from rushing in through both the front and back of their store. Runoff from the steep hillside behind the building poured into multiple floors at once. And as the water levels rose, those trapped inside realized that their best escape route was to climb up the hill.

The Gibsons led the group, including one shop employee, up the muddy hillside. The rain was so intense that Tennant couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of her. Sheets of water cascaded down the hill. With each labored step, she felt herself sink deeper into the mud. It ate her shoes, but she kept climbing. “I thought I was going to die of a damn heart attack,” Tennant recalls.

Beneath her, lower Main Street had become a raging river that engulfed the first floor of most buildings. About 50 people inside Tea on the Tiber, a Victorian tea house that sits over a branch of the stream that courses beneath the town, now huddled on the second floor, listening to the river tear the dining room apart beneath them. A woman named Jane called 911 on her cellphone.

“Are we going to die?” she asked the dispatcher.


The Memorial Day weekend downpour that struck Ellicott City, Maryland, on May 27, 2018 was a “1,000-year storm”—a rain event so intense that, in any given year, it has a 1-in-1,000 (or 0.1 percent) chance of happening. On that day, back-to-back thunderstorms dumped more than eight inches of rain in just three hours, overwhelming the three streams that converge on the town’s Main Street and sending water crashing down the hill. By evening, according to rain gauges to the north, as much as 15 inches had fallen. The resulting flash flood devastated the historic downtown and killed Eddison “Eddie” Hermond, an Air Force veteran and Maryland Army National Guardsman who was swept away trying to rescue a woman trapped by the floodwaters.

Flooding in Ellicott City is hardly new—the mill town has had at least 18 major floods since it started recording them in 1789. This one, however, was different: It was the second such 1,000-year storm in less than two years. On a Saturday night in July 2016, thunderstorms dropped six inches of rain on the city, triggering flash flooding that killed two people and caused an estimated $22 million in damages, plus $42 million in lost economic activity. In 2011, Tropical Storm Lee generated yet another serious flood. Collectively, the trio of disasters finally forced Ellicott City to take an anguished look at just what its future is likely to look like.

The warming world is a wetter one: For every 1° F increase in temperatures, the atmosphere holds about 4 percent more water vapor. That means heavier and more frequent rain in some places. Already, flooding is the most common natural disaster in the U.S., accounting for nearly three-quarters of presidential disaster declarations over the last decade. One recent report estimates that 41 million people live in 100-year flood plains across the U.S., more than triple the number the Federal Emergency Management Agency predicted in their most current flood maps.

The rising oceans that imperil cities like Miami and New York may grab more headlines, but urban and inland flooding happens almost daily in the U.S., according to the first-ever national assessment of such events. From Texas and Louisiana to the upper Midwest, river towns and cities now find themselves reshaped by chronic inundation; the waters that were once their economic lifeblood are now threats to life and limb.

But it wasn’t just climate change that made both the 2016 and 2018 Ellicott City floods so lethal, many locals believe: Some blame the decades of suburban development patterns in the hills above the historic town, which replaced forested slopes with impervious surfaces that sluiced stormwater into town.

After the 2016 flood, county leaders debated a range of costly mitigation strategies, which involved constructing more stormwater ponds, building stream walls, widening the culverts beneath the streets, and building parking garages engineered to catch stormwater. A moratorium on new development was proposed, but didn’t pass.

That debate took on a fresh urgency after the Memorial Day disaster, which emphasized how fundamentally vulnerable the town was. In its third century, a picturesque mill town faces a profound reckoning, one that mirrors the challenge so many human settlements worldwide are confronting: When does retreating rather than rebuilding become the only rational choice?


On a dreary morning in March, I meet Jim Caldwell, who was then Howard County’s director of community sustainability, at Jax Edwin—a men’s boutique, coffeeshop, and barbershop all loaded into a three-story building on Main Street. He starts our conversation the same way he starts all his flood presentations, with the three Ellicott brothers: Joseph, Andrew, and John.

“They settled here,” he says, pointing to a map of the Tiber-Hudson watershed, “because they needed the water.”

Ellicott City in the early 20th century. (Library of Congress)

The town sits at the bottom of a steep valley, where four river branches—Tiber, Hudson, Autumn Hill, and New Cut—feed into the larger Patapsco River. In 1772, this was the right spot to harness the power of water and build a mill, so the enterprising Ellicotts constructed roads and houses right on top of the streams. If you look at the map, the waterways snake back and forth underneath Main Street.

As a result, the town has always been at the mercy of the river. The deadliest incident was in July 1868, when a 20-foot wall of water was said to have crashed into the heart of Ellicott City. Vivid illustrations of rescues made via boats and of houses getting washed away accompanied a dramatic description of the disaster in Harper’s Weekly. Between 40 and 50 people were killed, and the entire flour mill industry was destroyed.

But the first “top-down” flood, in which floodwaters rushed in from the top of the watershed rather than rose from the streambeds, came in 1952. That’s the same kind that hit Ellicott City in both 2016 and 2018. “You get a little bit of a snowball up here,” Caldwell says, pointing to the top of Main Street, which is about 140 feet higher than the lower end. “By the time it gets down, it’s a huge snowball because everything is running down the hill to get to the Patapsco.”

That geography makes avoiding flooding entirely all but impossible. “Ellicott City was completely built in the 100-year floodplain,” says Caldwell. “If this was an open stream today and somebody said, ‘I want to build a city here,’ they couldn’t do it.”

Flood City, USA: Ellicott City is no stranger to inundation. In 1972, Hurricane Agnes left hundreds homeless.  (Howard County Historical Society)

Historically, after every major flood—they came about every 10 years, as in 1901, 1917, and 1923—the town rebuilt. Twin blows from hurricanes Agnes (in 1972) and Eloise (1975) convinced many residents and shopkeepers to move away, but new ones moved in, and Ellicott City was reborn as a tourist town. It enjoys a strikingly beautiful setting—a postcard-pretty 19th-century Main Street of tidy homes and shops built of local granite, threaded amid a rugged woody landscape just miles from Baltimore. The historic district, only accessible via a handful of narrow winding roads, has been spared new development, and its economy is increasingly based on serving the needs of visitors, with ghost tours, a railroad museum, and an aggressively whimsical stock of antique and trinket shops.

The little town served as a funky respite from the generic shopping strips that saturate the surrounding suburbs. I grew up just 10 minutes away, in a neighborhood of cookie-cutter single-family homes called Taylor Village. To Howard County teens of the early 2000s, EC was a good place to hang out: We’d gossip over chai lattes at Bean Hollow, rummage through racks of dresses at vintage stores, and wander through all four floors of the Forget-Me-Not Factory, the dragon-and-fairy-filled gift emporium at the foot of Main Street. There, fancifully attired owner Barry Gibson—aka Barry the Bubble Man—held court on weekends, blowing giant bubbles for the crowds of visitors.

Ellicott City was growing in those years: From 1980 to 1990, the number of town residents doubled from nearly 22,000 to over 40,000. Today, there are more 76,000 residents living in the unincorporated community. As the hills above and around the town suburbanized, the area’s delicate hydrology was quietly changing. Today, nearly one-third of Tiber-Hudson watershed’s once-forested landmass has been replaced with impervious surfaces, mostly from housing development.

Most Howard County development was built to withstand 10-year storms, as required by the state. “Everything has to be designed so that these new developments can handle four inches of rain in 24 hours,” Caldwell says. “That’s very different from six inches of rain in two hours.” In the mid-1990s, in response to concerns about the impact of development on the Chesapeake Bay, the county tightened stormwater regulations within the watershed, requiring all new developments to be capable of controlling the runoff from 100-year storms, or 8 inches in 24 hours. Building a system capable of handling a 1,000-year storm, he says, was never an option.

Those regulations were also focused on a specific problem: limiting the flow of chemicals, nutrients, and sediments into the Chesapeake Bay, not preventing floods. “All the stormwater management design, and the money for those designs, has been to improve the quality of the water,” he says. “The situation we have here is that this is a water quantity problem. And we don’t have the money to [address] it.”


The Sunday of the storm was humid and overcast—another hot, wet day in what would prove to be the rainiest year on record in the Baltimore-Washington area. There was a slight drizzle; at one point, the sun peeked out. Tennant was expecting a busy day at her store, even with thunderstorms in the forecast for the afternoon.

Old Ellicott City is a popular holiday weekend destination; on that day, the coffeeshops and bars were full of tourists and regulars. Almost two years after the 2016 flood, only a few storefronts remained vacant, and several new establishments, like a comic book store and and a Syrian café, had opened up, helping to freshen up Main Street’s appeal.

Around 4 o’clock, Eddie Hermond burst through the doors of La Palapa Grill and Cantina to meet up with his pal Joseph Lopez and his wife, Sara. He was soaking wet. Rain was falling in earnest by late afternoon. The 39-year-old National Guardsman and Air Force veteran had tried to wait out the rain in his car, but eventually gave up. The rain didn’t look like it was stopping any time soon.

One look at his face and Lopez could tell his buddy was hungover from the cookout they’d both attended Saturday night.

“You look like you need a drink,” Lopez said.

“Yeah, I feel like crap,” Hermond said.

“You look like crap.”

Lopez got Eddie a shot of tequila—not his favorite drink. When offered a second round, Eddie ordered an Old Grand-Dad instead.​​​​

The friends had met in the Air Force more than 20 years ago, but they hadn’t talked in months. Still, they easily fell back into their old routine. Eddie talked about the surprise visit from his mom and his aunt as they picked over their appetizers.

Eddison “Eddie” Hermond (far right) and Joseph Lopez (middle) met in the Air Force over 20 years ago. (Courtesy of Sara Lopez)

They’d been part of a rambunctious group of friends Eddie had gathered around him from various parts of his life—some from the Guard or the Air Force, others were colleagues from the restaurants he worked in when he wasn’t on active duty. Still others were just folks he met along the way. Eddie had that bartender’s knack for getting people of different backgrounds together. “You’d run into Eddie at some point,” says Lopez. “Then he’d introduce you to his friends, and then you’d have new friends.”

They’d stay up late playing games like Taboo and Cards Against Humanity, or they’d meet up at Main Street watering holes like La Palapa and Phoenix Emporium, to talk sports over beers. Eddie was originally from New York; he loved the Giants and the Knicks and would fervently defend them. Six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a wide smile that revealed killer dimples, Eddie was a smooth talker and a jokester, with a touch of mischief.  

“Eddie had everything set up for him to be an elitist jerk,” says Stephanie Williams, who met him more than 10 years ago through her husband, Tariq. But instead, Eddie was more like a father figure for his friends: protective and always doling out life lessons when no one asked for them. They called him Ward Cleaver, the stern-but-loving dad from the 1950s sitcom Leave It to Beaver. Some had another nickname for him: Superman, his favorite superhero.

A few miles away over at Taylor Village, Jon Weinstein was at a neighbor’s house party, watching the weather with growing anxiety.

Weinstein was the Howard County councilman representing Ellicott City, and when these summer downpours came, he had a routine. He’d start from the bottom of Main Street, where the street meets the Patapsco River, and head up to the top, stopping at the spots that he knew from experience were most likely to flood. He’d check the stream below Tiber Alley, then make his way up to the back of another narrow passageway, where he could see if anything was coming down from the New Cut branch. He’d peek into residents’ backyards, then move on to the two main public parking lots. One was located behind La Palapa, atop the branch of the Tiber River. The other was sat above the Hudson branch.

But before he could excuse himself and get to his car, his phone buzzed: At 4:26 p.m., the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning, saying that flooding was imminent. The rain was starting to overwhelm the streams that converge on town, and a torrent of water was racing downhill toward Main Street.


There was something surreal about that day, the way the ordinariness of a Sunday afternoon gave way to catastrophe—slowly at first, and then, as the rain intensified, with a terrifying speed.

Meteorologists call the persistent downpours that hit Ellicott City that day “training thunderstorms”—they moved like train cars, with new storms developing right in the path of an existing one. With levels of atmospheric moisture at a near record high that day, there was plenty of fuel to burn.

The first round of storms hit between 2:46 p.m. and 4:26 p.m. Flooding was initially minor, until heavier rain overwhelmed the stream channels that converge on Main Street. (National Weather Service)

Weinstein had just been down on Main Street an hour earlier, shopping and walking around in what he says was “pretty nice weather.” Now he was in his car, trying to get to the county’s office of emergency management. The streets of Taylor Village were starting to flood; he quickly came across a family trapped inside a car with floodwaters up to the windows. Next thing he knew, Weinstein had waded in to pull them out. Meanwhile, his phone trembled with calls and texts from colleagues and residents telling him what he already knew: It was happening again.

The floodwater came barreling down the road by 4:30 p.m., and within 10 minutes, the river burst through the window displays at the front of the former Caplan’s Department Store, a longtime downtown landmark, and several surrounding stores. The water funneled down Main Street, rising to eight-foot-high rapids near Discoveries at the bottom of the hill. The force of the surge ripped up sidewalks, scouring pavement and bricks and earth from building foundations. Debris carried downstream blocked the culverts underneath the roads, diverting even more water to Main Street.

Behind La Palapa, the parking lot began flooding. From the back porch of the restaurant, Eddie Hermond and his two friends joined a group of people watching in awe as the current lifted cars and shoved them aside. A massive dumpster caterwauled down the street. “It was the first time I’d seen what water could actually do,” says Lopez. “That was the moment that we went from having a good time to—I was scared for our lives.”

At about 5 p.m., the rain eased, and the waters began to recede. But the respite was brief: Within 15 minutes another intense band of precipitation moved in, as powerful as the first. Joseph retreated back into the restaurant to help the staff try to keep water from rushing in. They wedged towels underneath the front door, barricading it with tables and chairs to counter the force of the water outside. According to the 911 call La Palapa owner Simon Cortes made just before 5 p.m., about 250 people were trapped inside the restaurant, many from a wedding party downstairs.

Next door, in the pet shop Clipper’s Canine Cafe, owner Kate Bowman was screaming for help. When her store flooded, she crated her cat, Chubbs, and jumped out the window into the waist-high water in the parking lot. That’s when Eddie saw her, with her cat carrier held above her head. Between them was an overflowing creek that coursed through the parking lot. He yelled for her to stay calm and to stay put: He was coming to get her.

There’s a fuzzy video recorded by a bystander at 5:20 p.m. that shows what happened next. Hermond carefully wades through the moving water toward Bowman. When he reaches the wooden fence that separated him from the stream, he climbs over it. Perhaps he thought the water on the other side would be only waist high, and if he held on to the railing, he could walk on the grassy patch along the creek’s edge to get to Bowman. Maybe he thought he could swim across it, since Bowman was able to remain standing on the other side. But the power of the waterway was deceptive: It had swollen into a fierce river, and when Eddie took a step down from the fence, it picked him up and swept him off his feet.


Lieutenant Jeff Carl of Howard County’s fire department arrived with his water rescue team at the top of Main Street at about 7:30 p.m., but it wasn’t clear who or what they were looking for. He’d received reports of as many as three people missing in the wake of the rains, which finally tapered off around 7. “Nobody could give us hard facts,” he says.

The search began at the parking lot and would take the rescue team all the way down to the Patapsco River, beyond the line that separated Ellicott City from Baltimore County.

Police cars block access to Ellicott City after the Memorial Day weekend flood. (Alex Edelman/Getty)

A little after midnight, as the team searched along the creeks in the sticky summer heat, Eddie Hermond was officially declared missing. But the search process was complicated by the massive amount of debris swept up as the river blasted through the downtown shops, leaving clothing, shoes, and all manner of objects along the flood’s course. “The amount of debris down there was so much. To figure out what was relevant was a time-consuming and a very tedious kind of process,” Carl says.

Ellicott City’s disaster-prone reputation was well known, thanks to the 2016 storm, and news of the repeat flood spread quickly. Those stories were soon accompanied by photos of a missing National Guardsman. Eddie’s friends were not surprised: He was always the first to offer to get people out of trouble. And whatever trouble he got himself into, he always seemed to come out unscathed. Lopez liked to joke that Eddie should have been dead 20 times already.

When Lopez first told Stephanie and Tariq—who live in Seattle—that Eddie had disappeared, they found it hard not to brush it off as a false alarm. For a long time, the friends held on to the hope that Eddie was sitting somewhere along the Patapsco River after the storm—hurt, perhaps, but still alive.

“We’re all going to be so mad at him when he shows up,” Stephanie remembers thinking.  


It was different in 2016.

Few in Ellicott City questioned the wisdom of rebuilding after that storm. Instead, they rallied: Business owners like Tennant put in long days raking out mud and fixing damaged shops in the summer heat. Neighbors, volunteers, and county officials like Weinstein and then-county executive Alan Kittleman all pitched in. “EC Strong” became their battle cry.

The aftermath of the 2016 flood, which left Main Street caked in mud. (mpi34/MediaPunch/IPX)

Most didn’t have flood insurance, because of high premiums. Tennant was forced to empty her savings to rebuild. Angie and Michel Tersiguel, owners of the French restaurant Tersiguel’s, considered closing the 42-year-old restaurant that Michel’s father, Fernand, had founded. They faced $250,000 in damages—the wine cellar alone was worth about $40,000. For Angie, it was the emotional damage that drained her; she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says, and started seeing a therapist.

But on October 26, 2016, just three months after the flood, the restaurant reopened. So did many others, and that November, hundreds came out to celebrate the restoration of more than 70 old and new businesses. “Although we may have come through a storm, we rise to be better,” Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings said in his speech.

Sally Tennant celebrates the reopening of her store Discoveries in November 2016, after the first “1,000-year” storm ravaged Main Street in Ellicott City. She won’t be able to rebuild a second time following the 2018 flood. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The aftermath of the 2018 flood was far bleaker. Again, Main Street was coated in mud; again, dozens of stores and buildings were torn up by the water and debris. Cars that had slammed into poles and buildings piled on top of each other at the foot of the street, and massive tree roots protruded from broken window displays. But this time, few had any stirring words about rebuilding.

Authorities restricted access to the town on Monday as rescue officials continued searching for Eddie Hermond along the banks of the Patapsco. Joseph and Sara Lopez’s house in the nearby suburb of Columbia became a command post for their friends, who were frustrated by the lack of progress. “But we didn’t know what to do, or how we could help,” says Sara. Some would eventually go out looking on their own; soon, Hermond’s National Guard unit began its own search.

Finally, at noon on Tuesday, the Guard crew found the body in the river a mile from the Main Street bridge. Even in his death, Eddie brought strangers together, Lopez says: That’s when he met many of Eddie’s Guard buddies. Together, they gave their comrade a final salute along the side of the road as police escorted his body away.

That same day, officials let residents and business owners return to their property on Main Street to see the damage and salvage what they could. In Discoveries, Tennant found her shop in ruins, even worse than 2016: The debris hammering against her building had broken through her floor, leaving a gaping hole. The river had entered and swallowed nearly everything inside. “Every fixture. Every huge case. Everything went down that river,” she says.

Tennant didn’t know if she had the will to rebuild a second time, and she certainly didn’t have the funds. But as she soon learned, for her, rebuilding would not even be an option.


The notion of “flood-proofing” a place like Ellicott City, where regular inundation has been all but engineered into the town’s foundation, involves setting reasonable expectations for success. Over the years, the town had added countermeasures like flood alerts. But when the 2016 disaster was repeated less than two years later, finding a way to bring water levels down became an existential priority. “We had come so far so quickly,” Weinstein says, referring to how swiftly the town recovered in 2016. “But, now, unless we do something huge, this town is never coming back.”

After poring through the details of both the new flood and the hydrology studies the county had commissioned since 2011, in August 2018 then-County Executive Alan Kittleman announced a five-year, $50 million master plan to protect the town from flash flooding. That plan called for the complete demolition of 10 buildings on the lower east end, the heart of the historic district. Another seven homes would come down on the west end, and two new culverts would be built along the Tiber Branch. The overall idea: Retain more water farther north in the watershed and widen the channel through which the floodwater could flow, easing the catastrophic funnel effect. That, according to the county, would bring the level of potential flooding down to four or six feet.

Many residents and fans of the town, however, were horrified by the prospect of destroying the character of old Ellicott City. “The architecture, the building, and the fabric is rooted in its past,” says Nick Redding, president of the advocacy group Preservation Maryland, which strongly opposed Kittleman’s plan. “It hasn’t been changed or glossed over and turned into sort of a cleaned-up version of the past.”

Saving the town’s historic character isn’t just about aesthetics, Redding insists: In a town that lives on tourism dollars, demolishing its old buildings means diminishing its visitor appeal and damaging its economic viability. There had to be a better way.

But others in the community saw it differently. Angie Tersiguel was one of 30 business and building owners who signed letters in support of the plan. “[The buildings] are not the culprit, but they do cause complications and I think keeping them is unethical,” she says. “That doesn’t make it any less painful or worth protecting, but the risk they cause is just so big.”

By October 2, the county council approved a budget of nearly $17 million to begin the mitigation. Mark Hemmis, whose Phoenix Emporium bar is in one of the condemned buildings, declined to speak with CityLab, but Tersiguel says the two had spoken about accepting the painful truth about the city’s future. “I can’t speak for him,” she says. “But we talked about how when the next flood comes, do we want to be in charge of keeping some 40 people safe?”

Tennant’s building is also among the condemned, but she’s unconvinced that the only option to save the town is to sacrifice her building. “What do we gain just by demolishing the building, and is it worth what you lose tearing down the whole half of that side [of the street]?” she says. “Because that’s a heck of a price.”

In the November 2018 election, however, incumbent Kittleman was unseated by Democratic challenger Calvin Ball, one of the two council members who’d voted against the spending bills. The new county executive halted Kittleman’s plan and, in December, released his own, dubbed “EC Safe and Sound.” In it, he directed the public works department to explore options outside of demolition. “It’s important not to use a sledgehammer when only a scalpel is necessary,” he said in his announcement.

Several streams converge beneath historic Ellicott City, and heavy development in the watershed has complicated flood mitigation. Older construction (in dark green) was not subject to stormwater management regulations. (Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning)

The effort to save historic buildings in Ellicott City was accompanied by another push, this one aimed at stopping development in the hills surrounding the town. In July, the county council passed a one-year moratorium on development in the watershed, so the county can do more extensive studies on land use and stormwater management. The bill, proposed by Weinstein while he was still in office, halted an estimated 600 housing units for which developers were seeking permit approval. Ball’s administration and Councilwoman Liz Walsh—who defeated Weinstein in the 2018 election—are proposing to extend the moratorium by three months.

Jim Caldwell, the county’s former community chief of sustainability, thinks such legislation would be a futile gesture at this stage. The impermeable suburb-scape of Howard County is a done deal: He calculates that 90 percent of the land in the Ellicott City watershed is already developed, and 65 percent of that was completed before 1984, when Maryland began requiring developers to include drainage ponds and infiltration systems.

Even after that, enforcement was spotty. According to a 1988 state evaluation of Howard County’s program, inspection duties were scattered amid public works staff with little to no knowledge of stormwater management, and the county generously gave out waivers, rationalizing that detaining stormwater and then quickly releasing it would increase flood peaks. It wasn’t until 1998 that a follow-up review declared that the county sufficiently improved their practices.

To figure out the role unconstrained development may have played in modern floods, Caldwell commissioned engineers to model the 2016 storm—which meteorologists say was less intense than the 2018 one—on the 1850s landscape of Ellicott City, when only Main Street was developed and the rest was forest. They found that the height of the flooding in the model was two feet lower than what was actually recorded in 2016. In a storm of that magnitude, the difference in destruction was negligible.

“If you get six feet of water, it’s not different from having eight feet of water. You’ve lost,” Caldwell says. “Obviously development has an issue here, but it’s really about the amount of water that came down so quickly. That’s the challenge.”

But Weinstein believes the real value in the development moratorium is to prevent other parts of Howard County from suffering the kind of damage Ellicott City is already experiencing. “The point I was focused on was creating a new zoning overlay, which says that there are certain areas sprinkled throughout the county that are sensitive watersheds,” he says. “They may not be affected at this point by regular flooding, like in the Tiber-Hudson watershed. But why wait?”


For nearly a year, the town remained in limbo as debates wore on among local leaders over what caused the floods and how to save it. Residents grew increasingly frustrated over the uncertainty of their future, and the fading urgency to address it. “I have been living in a state of annoyance since May 27,” says Angie Tersiguel.“We’re getting ready to cross this [one-year] threshold. Have we made any significant changes?”

Tersiguel’s restaurant re-opened a few months after the storm, but many others haven’t. Several storefronts remain empty. One commercial real estate site lists at least eight units for lease. On the lower end, a row of about a dozen buildings are boarded up, their fate undetermined. Posters reading “Believe in OEC”—for Old Ellicott City—do little to mask the barrenness of the strip. Believing in the little town, Tersiguel fears, isn’t going to be enough: It needs outside help. “We have history, we have character, and we have memories,” she says. “But is that enough?”

In May, with the one-year anniversary looming, Ball put five new flood mitigation options on the table as part of his EC Safe and Sound plan, with price tags ranging from $91.5 million to $175 million. On May 12, Ball announced that the county would go with the second-costliest option. Four buildings will be knocked down, to open up the area for water to flow through. The scheme also includes boring a tunnel further up the hill that engineers say will divert water away from Main Street, and building several retention ponds within the Hudson-Tiber watershed. With a storm as powerful as 2016, the county estimates it can bring down the flooding on lower Main Street to about three feet.

The plan is ambitious, by the county’s own admission, and is expected to take at least five years. To come up with the $140 million price tag, the county will have to work with state and federal partners. “We know that while our plan costs more, it does a better job of actually addressing the problem,” Ball tells CityLab. “And our plan costs less than rebuilding every time we have a major storm.”

But Ron Peters, a property owner on Main Street and a member of the county’s Flood Work Group, is skeptical. In a letter to the county, he questioned the accuracy of the flood levels. Their models, he wrote, were based on “clean” water—free of debris like cars and logs that tended to clog drainage systems and culverts during a storm. He also disputed the cost and timeline, anticipating that obtaining the licenses and approval for the demolitions will take longer than the county expects. But he’s waiting on the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an evaluation—needed for the project to move forward—before making his final judgement.

“At least we have a plan now,” he says with a wry smile.

Meanwhile, the county is still negotiating with some property owners about acquiring their buildings, one of which is Tennant’s. Since last May, Tennant has been living nearby with her younger son. She’s also set up a temporary shop across the street from where her boarded-up building sits. A generous landlord, hoping to give Main Street’s economy a boost, is renting the space to her for $1 a month. But a new tenant has already signed the lease for her spot. “It’s hard not to be angry when somebody can be so careless with my life, with this town,” she says. “We didn’t matter enough.”

She acknowledges that storms are getting more intense, but isn’t convinced that’s the biggest threat facing Ellicott City: “The perpetrators of the problem are the decisions that the government made,” she says. “Stop telling me it’s climate change.”


On a recent Sunday morning, I meet up with Joseph and Sara Lopez for brunch at Victoria Gastro Pub, a restaurant in Howard County where Eddie Hermond had worked as a bartender. In the area’s restaurant worker community, Eddie is well remembered: The Maryland Restaurant Association now has a memorial scholarship in his name.

With the anniversary of the flood approaching, Joseph tells me he’s been thinking a lot about that day. The funny thing is how ordinary it was: It started with a text from Eddie asking to hang out, and then swiftly snowballed into something else. He thinks about how different things might be if he hadn’t answered.

This year, the couple plan to return to La Palapa for Memorial Day with a bunch of Eddie’s friends, to swap stories and get some drinks. That’s the thing, he says; everyone has stories.

As we talk, a server pours a shot of Jameson’s whiskey and sets it high up on a shelf behind the counter. Sara tells me that it’s a shot for Eddie—that was his favorite drink. The whiskey will sit up there behind the bar until it evaporates, and then they’ll fill it back up again.  

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How Redlining Causes Asthma

In the 1930s, a New Deal agency produced notorious maps to signal the credit worthiness of neighborhoods for mortgage lenders looking to refinance homes. These redlining maps color-coded predominantly African American neighborhoods as “hazardous,” indicating a high credit risk. Decades later, the “hazardous” warnings appear to be literally true.  

A new study finds that people who live in historically redlined neighborhoods are more than twice as likely as others to go to the emergency room for asthma. The new research from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco, links decades of residential segregation to new findings of environmental racism. Disparities in housing contribute to disparities in the morbidity of asthma—one of the most common chronic diseases afflicting children.

The study examined historic redlining maps produced by the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation for eight cities in California (San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Diego). Researchers led by Anthony Nardone, a medical student from the universities’ Joint Medical Program, compared the risk ratings with the number of emergency room visits for asthma for corresponding census tracts. Residents of redlined “high-risk” neighborhoods were 2.4 times more likely to go to the ER for asthma than residents of green “low-risk” areas.

Left: HOLC redlining maps for San Francisco and Oakland. Right: Emergency room visits for asthma complaints per 10,000 residents per census tract. (Anthony Nardone/University of California, Berkeley)

Historically redlined neighborhoods also exhibited much higher amounts of diesel particulate matter in the air, according to the study. The researchers compared air quality ratings for each census tract in these eight California cities using a state data mapping tool.

Last year, the researchers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment concluded that people of color are far more likely to breathe polluted air than their white counterparts. Majority-black neighborhoods are more likely to be located near sources of pollution, according to a study that examined living patterns at “national, state, and county scales.”

Racial segregation is linked to disparities in education, safety, and wealth. The persistence of these effects over many decades—the Fair Housing Act banning discrimination in lending was passed more than 50 years ago—leads to generational gaps in outcomes.

But this new research shows that segregation means more than opportunities deferred or denied. Environmental racism is a present danger for communities of color. As a chronic disease that affects more children than adults, asthma is an especially pernicious symptom of racial segregation—a threat to health and wellbeing, but also an impediment to growth, education, and development.

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CityLab Daily: Consider the Trash Can

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“Mangetsu-man” (Mr. Full Moon), a costumed mascot with a full moon for a head, cleans Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Bridge in 2014. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

The bins are starting to return, though, partly to accommodate tourists. Residents of Japan produce half as much domestic waste per-capita as Americans, and they’ve found ways to dispose of paper towels, cigarette butts, and yes, dog poop. As trash cans return, they’re being designed with security in mind—and if you’re walking the streets of Tokyo, you might even spot Mangetsu-man, an anti-litter superhero who’s dispatched to keep things clean. Today on CityLab: Carefully, Japan Reconsiders the Trash Can

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Great Upzoning Debate

Controversial new research has kicked off a war of words among urban scholars over the push for upzoning to increase cities’ housing supply.

Richard Florida

The One Thing That’s on Mayors’ Priority Lists Nationwide

At the National League of Cities conference, parks and recreation was the priority for mayors. And for mayors in most of the U.S., housing is key, too.

Brooks Rainwater and Anita Yadavalli

What if More People Could Issue Parking Tickets?

Washington, D.C., considers training a group of residents to give tickets for some parking violations. Would it make streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists?

Andrew Small

Bringing New Life to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Lost Designs

“I would love to model all of Wright’s work, but it is immense,” says architect David Romero. “I do not know if during all my life I will have time.”

Nicole Javorsky

A New Way of Seeing the Global Migration Crisis

A book on global migrants and refugees by novelist Teju Cole and photographer Fazal Sheikh explores the agency and humanity of the displaced and dispossessed.

Tanvi Misra

What We’re Reading

HUD moves to roll back protections for homeless transgender people (Politico)

New York has a supervillain pulling emergency brakes and ruining commutes (Jalopnik)

The Boring Company has found its first customer: Las Vegas (The Verge)

How industrial design became a model for the modern home (Curbed)

Opinion: America’s cities are unlivable. Blame wealthy liberals. (New York Times)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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What if More People Could Issue Parking Tickets?

In Washington, D.C.’s quest for safer streets, one local lawmaker wants to allow some residents to issue tickets themselves when they see a parking violation.

The “citizen safety enforcement” pilot program would train 80 residents—10 people in each of D.C.’s eight wards—to identify and report specific parking offenses via a mobile phone app. From there, the drivers would get a notice with the ability to pay or contest the ticket, much like the process used for photo-enforced red-light cameras.

The proposal comes from D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen as part of a sweeping bill to improve the city’s efforts toward Vision Zero, a commitment to eliminate traffic-related deaths and serious injuries.

The parking infractions might seem minor, like parking in bike lanes or edging into crosswalks or bus lanes. But these actions can put pedestrians, cyclists, and bus riders in danger, forcing them to step or ride into another lane of traffic. Often these violations happen for just a few minutes at a time, leaving little chance for law enforcement to notice, and doing little to prevent drivers from repeating their behavior.

The reaction in Washington has been a bit hyperbolic. In a Washington Post article, critics compared the idea to “citizen cops” and called it “a recipe for disaster.” Another columnist in the paper called it “D.C.’s worst idea ever,” imagining an Orwellian troop leading a parking war.

But the idea of citizen enforcement of road laws has been tried elsewhere. In New York City, citizens can file Citizen’s Air Complaints against idling trucks and buses, and even earn a 25 percent cut of the fine. (Vice News Tonight recently documented the story of an activist who earned $9,000 by filing 120 different complaints.)

Other cities have had local groups tackle parking enforcement in specific spaces. In Malibu, California, a Volunteers on Patrol group had 18 volunteers issue 9,000 tickets last year, the organization told the Post. In Memphis, a local judge recently ruled against the ability of the Blue Suede Brigade, a local tourism and safety organization, to issue parking tickets. Managing street safety might not even have to escalate to issuing citations, though. Since 2003, a citizen radar program in Eugene, Oregon, has sent letters to drivers who exceed speed limits.

The proposal in D.C. comes after there were 36 traffic fatalities in the city last year, a number that has increased each year since 2015, when the District declared its commitment to Vision Zero. The city has already seen 12 traffic-related deaths this year, which is a lower number than it had seen at this point last year.

“We should be acting with a greater sense of urgency and we should be willing to try new things, because what we have been doing hasn’t stopped people from dying,” Allen told The Washington Post. Allen did not respond to CityLab’s requests for comment.

Even without the bill, though, District residents can already track road violations through an app called How’s My Driving. The app, still in beta-testing mode, can be used to flag violations to government agencies like the Department of For-Hire Vehicles, Department of Public Works, or DC 311. Last week, a group of more than 60 people reported nearly 700 violations of blocked bike lanes in just one day as part of their Data-Protected Bike Lane project. It’s up to the agencies if they take any action based on reported violations.

Mark Sussman, a co-creator of the app and one of Allen’s constituents, says digital tools like his could encourage the city to get serious about changing drivers’ mindsets. The two most common excuses Sussman says that the bikers, the most enthusiastic users of the app, hear from parking violators are “just a minute” and “can’t you go around?” Those behaviors put people in danger on the street, he says, and they’re also the most difficult to deter.

“About 30 percent of the submissions are for taxis, Ubers, and Lyfts,” Sussman says. “They might stop for 10 seconds in a bike lane or bus stop, which is impossible for 311 to respond and write a ticket. But if it’s a repeat problem, the [Department of For-Hire Vehicles] could do something about it.”

Sussman says he agrees that the debate should give careful consideration to road confrontations and the surveillance questions that the citizens safety enforcement effort raises. It’s just one part of a bill that’s focused more broadly on road safety.

“It’s not even that we want more people to get citations. We want to be a deterrent to bad behavior that’s putting people in danger,” Sussman says. “These drivers know they’re doing something wrong and even when it’s just a photo, we’ve seen people stop what they’re doing as soon as someone pulls out their phone.”

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The One Thing That’s on Mayors’ Priority Lists Nationwide

The state of America’s cities is not uniform, but rather reflects the patchwork quilt of innovation and excitement that makes our country succeed. Cities large and small, from coast to coast, care about building better places for people—places with thriving economies, clean environments, and safe streets. However, the prioritization and the allocation of resources are dependent on a range of factors.

Every year, mayors across the nation communicate achievements, discuss challenges, and provide a vision for the future through their state of the city addresses. The National League of Cities’s annual “State of the Cities” report analyzes these speeches, providing an in-depth analysis on what is happening in cities.

Economic development continues to be the number one issue for city leaders. It has maintained top billing for the entire six-year history of the report, with infrastructure and health and human services rounding out the top three. Not only has economic development maintained its dominance, but the level of focus has actually increased year over year, with 74 percent of speeches covering it in 2019 compared to 58 percent in 2018.

In order to ascertain how and where these differences show up, it’s worth taking a journey across America to spatially discover these local priorities.

While the top-line issues are important, what we find even more valuable are the subtopics within larger issues. These include economic development, infrastructure, health, budget, energy, and housing. Dissecting these subtopics regionally creates a clear perspective of what matters most, where.

In 2019, parks and recreation was the number one subtopic across the country, with nearly 63 percent of mayors discussing it. No matter the region, mayors provided an increased focus on expanding parks, and recreation-related facilities and activities this year. But that’s where regional similarities mostly end and issues specific to geographic location begin to emerge:


In the northeast, roads edged out downtown development as the number two issue. The ever-problematic pothole surfaced in state of the city speeches given by the mayors of Hartford and Syracuse.

Housing was also popular in this region, with three of the top ten subtopics—blight, housing supply, and zoning—clocking in as critical issues.

Infrastructure is another clear priority for mayors across the country. In this region, water, sewer, and waste rose to the top, with mayors identifying needs critical needs like schools and better storm drainage to prepare their communities both for flood events. And many cities also discussed the installation of new streetlights, four-way stops, and roundabouts.

These cities are additionally focused on technology to keep officers and residents safe, as well as to map out crime and crash scenes. Cities like Albany and Amsterdam in New York, are deploying new systems to help keep community members safe.

Top 10 subtopics for mayors in the Northeast 2019 (National League of Cities)


Southern mayors also spoke most about parks and recreation issues as well as roads, streets, and signs. However, that’s where similarities between their and other mayors’ priorities end.

Unlike their northern counterparts, southern mayors are prioritizing increasing their police forces to improve response times and accommodate population growth. Some cities, like Huntington, West Virginia, are raising the starting salaries of new recruits. Police and community relations are also important for these cities, which are engaging residents in active shooter programs, suicide prevention plans, and neighborhood watches.

Unlike mayors in other regions of the country, for mayors in the South, housing doesn’t appear as a top ten issue. This year, for them, pedestrian infrastructure was a top 10 issue, with many focused on enhancing their city sidewalks.

  Top 10 subtopics for mayors in the South, 2019 (National League of Cities)


As the breadbasket of the country, the importance of the Midwest can’t be overstated. However, many midwestern cities are experiencing declining populations. This year, their priorities reflect this.

Mayors in the Midwest prioritized downtown development over roads. Policing ranks higher in this region than in many others as well. While midwestern mayors prioritized housing, it ranks lower than in the northeast and west. Meanwhile, new business and business expansion made it into the top ten only in the Midwest.

Additionally, Midwest mayors prioritized infrastructure funding and passionately discussed the need to work with federal partners to rebuild and reimagine our nation’s streets, bridges, and tunnels.

Top 10 subtopics for mayors in the Midwest 2019 (National League of Cities)


With some of the highest housing costs in the country, as well as the strongest job growth, it’s no surprise that housing is such a primary focal point for western mayors.

Housing supply and development is a critical issue for cities across the country, but western cities appear to prioritize these issues more than most with housing showing up as the third, fifth, and sixth most important issues. Cities are working to construct new housing units that include workforce housing and renovating neglected properties to accommodate mixed-income households.

Western cities like Fremont, California; Beaverton, Oregon; and Kirkland, Washington, are developing transit- and job-oriented housing options. Additionally, many of these cities are prioritizing providing improved mental health services to the homeless.

Out west, the top 10 subtopics in 2019 are:

Top 10 subtopics for mayors in the West 2019 (National League of Cities)

Ultimately, America is a collection of cities, but where those cities are located on the map in this vast country can create significant variance in what matters most. Regardless of whether communities are focused on housing, public health and safety, infrastructure or recycling, America’s mayors are providing real leadership, and getting the job done for the people in our nation’s cities.

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How Housing Supply Became the Most Controversial Issue in Urbanism

For a long time, I thought gentrification was the hottest of urbanism’s hot-button issues. That may still be true. But it has a new (and related) challenger—upzoning, or changing the zoning of an area to allow for higher density.

For years, some urban economists and market urbanists have been making the case that the key challenge facing cities—especially pricey superstar cities and tech hubs—is a lack of housing supply.  There are many culprits in this shortage. They include strict land-use regulations and building codes, politically connected NIMBYs, and other factors, but the end result is the same. A lack of housing supply results not only in higher housing prices, but in increased sorting and displacement, which sharpens inequality and segregation. It even limits innovation and productivity—not just in the affected cities, but across the U.S. economy as a whole.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a new paper by two economic geographers, Michael Storper and Andrés Rodríguez-Pose, who question some of the theoretical and empirical claims made from this YIMBY perspective (or what they call the “housing as opportunity” school of thought). Specifically, Storper and Rodríguez-Pose argue that simply increasing the supply of housing through upzoning is likely to add more housing for high earners with no evidence that it would “filter” down as cheaper housing for less advantaged residents. That in turn would only exacerbate the ongoing sorting process that draws more educated and advantaged people to affluent cities and pushes the less advantaged out of them. The ultimate result would be even worse spatial inequality between leading and lagging places.

My article on Rodríguez-Pose and Storper’s paper resulted in a near-immediate barrage of critiques on the internet. David Schleicher of Yale Law School and many others laid into the paper on Twitter. Over at City Observatory, Joe Cortright questioned both the theory and the evidence underlying Storper and Rodríguez-Pose’s findings (and, in a side shot, my decision to write about them):

Rodríguez-Pose and Storper sidestep these nuts and bolts issues of how to fix zoning so that it isn’t exclusionary, in favor of a knocking down a straw man claim that upzoning is somehow a cure for inequality, (an argument that no one seems to be making). In the process, they (and by extension, Florida) lend credence to the NIMBY-denialism about the central need to build more housing in our nation’s cities if we’re to do anything to meaningfully address affordability.

(For the record, I have long been a critic of restrictive zoning and building regulations and NIMBYism, going so far as to dub the latter “the New Urban Luddism.”)

On Friday evening, I received an email from three of Storper’s colleagues at UCLA, Michael Manville, Michael Lens, and Paavo Monkkonen. They wrote a detailed essay replying to key claims in the Storper–Rodríguez-Pose paper, and they shared it with numerous scholars and journalists, which sparked another round of discussion online.

Their response begins by saying that although Storper and Rodríguez-Pose are esteemed geographers, their paper “badly misses the mark.” Furthermore: “It ignores much of the research on the topic, misstates or misunderstands the research it does cite, presents misleading and oversimplified analyses, and advances an argument that is internally inconsistent.” Like Cortright, the authors accuse Storper and Rodríguez-Pose of setting up a strawman argument:

For the record, we agree with [Storper and Rodríguez-Pose] that building market rate housing will not by itself eradicate inequality, or revive declining regions. We also agree that building market rate housing will not, by itself, get everyone in expensive regions properly sheltered. But as far as we can tell everyone agrees with that. Many people (us included) think that more housing in expensive places in necessary for fighting inequality and increasing affordability, but no one we are aware of thinks it is sufficient, i.e. that all we need to do is build more housing.

Manville, Lens, and Monkkonen light into the data and methodology that Storper and Rodríguez-Pose used to make their argument. For example, they used the percent change in developed land area in a region as a proxy for regulatory stringency. But Manville, Lens, and Monkkonen note that this metric “cannot discern between an overall regime of light regulation and lots of development, and a regime of heavy regulation that limits development while pushing it outward.”

It also ends up putting cities like San Francisco and Detroit in the same bucket. Detroit didn’t add much new developed land between 1990 and 2010, which is a sign of stagnation. San Francisco also didn’t add much new developed land, but the interpretation is very different: “San Francisco is strictly zoned, but it is also bounded by mountains and ocean—there just isn’t much undeveloped land to build on.” Manville, Lens, and Monkkonen conclude that this measure of regulatory stringency is actually worse than the (admittedly imperfect) alternatives that Rodríguez-Pose and Storper criticize.

They also invoke a number of studies which show that adding housing supply does lead to filtering and better affordability. Although upzoning may have its risks, they write, given the reality of exorbitant housing prices in many cities, it is time to move forward with policies to upzone and add housing, because “the consequences of inaction also matter.”

This is largely a debate about what kind of a good housing is. On the market-urbanist side, there is an idea that a house is basically like a refrigerator (although harder to manufacture), in that there is one basic market. As Manville, Lens, and Monkkonen write:

Rich people also buy refrigerators and groceries and televisions, but these are not noticeably more expensive in Los Angeles or San Francisco than in the rest of the country. One might counter that these goods are easier than housing to produce. But that’s not a counterargument: it is our point. It is the difficulty of producing housing, not the incomes of the people buying it, that makes housing so expensive.

For Rodríguez-Pose and Storper, though, housing in prime neighborhoods in expensive cities is like a special type of fridge that you need a college degree to operate. It’s not just that skilled workers can better afford housing in prime urban locations; the amenity also means more to them.

Storper and Rodríguez-Pose (who declined to comment for this article) suggest that the housing market is more segmented than other markets, and that the crucial issue is really the inequality of labor and wages. Knowledge workers capture a large urban wage premium, while blue-collar manufacturing and service workers fall further behind economically. “In 1950, denser urban areas offered higher wages for both educated and less educated workers,” they write. “Today, when wages are adjusted for density, workers without a college degree have very little advantage from locating in large cities.” So adding more housing in expensive cities, in these scholars’ view, is wholly insufficient to solving the underlying problem of a split labor market and highly unequal wages.

Over on Twitter, Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution and Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center picked up on this. Building more housing in superstar cities and tech hubs will not increase migration to thriving cities across the board, but simply cause more knowledge and professional workers to move in, resulting in an even broader gulf between have and have-not regions.

In fact, in 2017 I wrote about a study by Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Morretti which showed that liberalizing land-use restrictions in pricey cities like New York and San Francisco would lead to substantial increases in employment in these cities with significant productivity gains for the economy as a whole, but significant job losses in Rust Belt metros such as Binghamton, New York, and Muncie, Indiana.

All in all, this is a good and productive debate. I actually think there is more agreement than disagreement among market urbanists and Storper and Rodríguez-Pose. (I often say that urbanism suffers from the narcissism of small differences on steroids.) All agree that more housing has to be built. All agree that adding supply alone will not solve the housing-affordability problem, and that building more must be complemented with more affordable housing. As Yonah Freemark puts it:

Of course, we must recognize — as most YIMBY groups do — that upzoning can only be “one part of the answer,” as Richard Florida argues. When Michael Storper warns that with upzoning, “the market will naturally respond best in areas with the greatest returns on upzoning — mostly places with dense, white-collar employment where high-income people will want to live to be closer to their jobs,” he’s right. Upzoning is a strategy that relies on the market to produce housing. The market is ultimately going to build units that are profitable to a select class of individuals.

Solving the affordable-housing problem is not an either/ or proposition, it is both/and: better jobs, higher wages, more transit, place-based policies to assist lagging cities, and a more robust social-safety net. That’s the inclusive-prosperity agenda we have to work harder to achieve.

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