What Happens When 1,000 Strangers Talk Race In L.A.?

LOS ANGELES, CA—As the seven diners passed the roast chicken and collards, Veronica Perez cleared her throat. “I have a tough question that’s a little bit hard for me to ask,” she said. “Do we know why it is that homeless people are disproportionately African American in this city?”

It was a tough question. Los Angeles is facing a historic homelessness crisis. And in many contexts, especially in the company of strangers, bringing up race can be uncomfortable. Yet race was the main course inside Perez’s ninth-floor apartment in the downtown Arts District on Tuesday night. It’s what these seven Angelenos, who had never previously met, had gathered to talk about over a catered meal of soul food.

In other dining rooms across the city this week, some 1,000 Angelenos are joining them, talking about how skin color shapes their lives in this city over 100 meals in private homes around town. It’s part of embRACE L.A., a city council initiative to open up civic and civil dialogues about race.

Anthony Foster, a coordinator at Community Coalition, a local nonprofit partnering with the city to facilitate the conversations, jumped in to field Perez’s question. Foster, who is black, cited L.A.’s growing unaffordability, which disproportionately affects people of color. Coupled with the rates of incarceration and low access to mental health care, “the system makes it hard for you to get on your feet, and stay on your feet,” he said.

That led Perez, a public affairs professional, to wonder if the city should look at homelessness as a civil rights issue. “If the demographics looked different, would there have been earlier calls to action?” she wondered.

“I think that’s why this is getting more attention now,” said Ernesto Hidalgo, who works in social-impact real-estate development and grew up in South Central L.A. “Yes, there are more homeless. But also the complexion of the folks we’re seeing now is a little bit different.”

Launched in 2016, the first of the embRACE L.A. dinners was piloted by city council president Herb Wesson at his own home last spring, echoing the work of the chef-artist (and CityLab contributor) Tunde Wey, whose work Blackness in America brought similar dialogue-driven meals to cities around the country. This year marks L.A.’s first round of municipally sponsored dinners. The events are free to residents, who applied via an online process in March. Demand turned out to be more than double the seats available, so guests were selected by lottery. Volunteer hosts offered up dining rooms in affluent and lower-income communities alike, from majority-black neighborhoods in South L.A. to the ranch-like compounds of Topanga Canyon, which is mostly white. “That signaled to us that there’s a real hunger to talk about race in this city,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, the communications director for Wesson’s office.

It was revealing, then, that the first of two hours of the conversation on Tuesday night did not focus on race explicitly, but on the record number of individuals living on L.A. streets. Perhaps that is the beauty of the “100 Dinners” concept: It is not meant to prod participants towards a particular lesson or policy idea. The goal is simply to create space for neighbors to talk frankly about race—and at this dinner, inequality, perhaps because so many participants lived in gentrifying areas downtown, where the issue of homelessness is hardest to ignore.

After all, even in one of the most liberal states in the country, in a city of kaleidoscopic diversity, L.A. is hardly inoculated against extremes of poverty, segregation, and racial conflict. On that last item, one event looms large in the city’s history—the L.A. riots, 26 years ago this month. Introducing himself to the table, Hidalgo spoke about how his memory of that violent uprising, in which the mixed-race neighborhood of Koreatown burned after the acquittal of police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King, still serves as a flashpoint for understanding the complexity of racial dynamics and economic access in L.A. “The problem back then was a lack of investment in the community,” said Hidalgo. “Fast forward to today, that still exists in a lot of L.A., with the added complexity of gentrification, displacement, and the housing crisis.”

That’s why Danny Hom, who works to bring solar energy to low-income communities and identified as Cantonese and Ashkenazi Jewish, said he thought L.A. needs to tackle housing affordability before cracking down on homelessness with police force—especially since people of color are disproportionately affected. “We need more compassion on this issue,” he said, as caterers served up hunks of cobbler for dessert.

But with a fraying social safety net, affordability doesn’t equal stability, said Emily Coldiron, a program manager at a nonprofit that works with children. Coldiron, who’s multiracial, drew on her experience being raised in Wichita, Kansas, by a single mother who faced multiple evictions. “I think the U.S. as a whole has this approach of, ‘Oh, you’re having a problem, this is your fault, you need to deal with this on your own,’” she said. “There’s just not a lot of support. We’re not all having dinners together.”

Coldiron’s point seemed to hit on a possible limitation of these dinners: At least for now, they’re self-selecting. A number of participants at Tuesday’s meal remarked on this, acknowledging that everyone at the table came with a range of generally progressive political views. Each participant also happened to identify as a person of color. That wasn’t on purpose, Rodriguez said, but “merely reflected L.A.’s diversity.” Most had professional backgrounds in nonprofits, mental health, medicine, and law.

In some ways, hosting a table of politically like-minded individuals was productive, Foster said when asked after the dinner ended. People tend to be open up more when they know they won’t be attacked or critiqued. On the other hand, he noted, there may have also been a benefit to having more conservative attendees, people who are less educated on racial issues, or indeed, more white people, at the table. “It would have been interesting to work through these issues with folks who aren’t already aligned with what we’re trying to do,” Foster said.

In the future, he thought that city council could do targeted outreach to bring even more diverse voices to break bread. Rodriguez said that this is a possibility for future series—and that this was just one of 100 dinners.

Still, a number of Tuesday night’s diners said afterward that they felt more empowered to talk about race with other people in their lives. Hom said that he had come to the dinner expecting to find more divisions than shared experiences. But he left feeling like he had more in common with his fellow Angelenos than not. With that knowledge, “tomorrow, I feel like I can start working on making things better,” he said. Participants had come up with many strategies for building a more cohesive, compassionate L.A.: visiting unfamiliar neighborhoods, voting in diverse political representation, speaking up when a fellow human is being harassed, volunteering for social causes, and even watching TV shows that subtly bridge social divides, like “Queer Eye.” (“That show is kind of mind-blowing,” said Tom Chang, a former mental health professional whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Thailand.)

As the night came to a close, caterers washed dishes as Perez packed up leftover cheese and crackers to send home with willing takers, and a few diners lingered to keep chewing over dangling threads of the conversation. No, the dinner did not produce radical solutions to move more people off the streets—nothing akin to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s declaration of a “shelter crisis” the same day. But Foster felt that the conversation might have nudged some hearts and minds by talking about the how people find themselves living in homelessness, and how structural racism may play a role. He expressed hope that these participants will now feel more empowered to spark their own conversations with other people in their lives.

The next night, Foster would guide a conversation among a much larger—and whiter—group near Malibu. But no matter the racial makeup of the participants, he said, “with issues that are so huge and institutionalized, people are going to shift their views on a one-by-one basis,” he said.

The key was to keep faith in dialogue. “Whether they’re like-minded or not,” he said, “just having a conversation begins many more like it.”

U.S. Homebuying Slows Down, But Not for Hispanics

There are more than 51 million Hispanics in the United States and their influence in the American real estate market is becoming increasingly significant. During 2017, the number of Hispanic homeowners reached 7,472,000. This figure is an increase of 167,000 homes owned since 2016. The increase largely has been driven by the purchase of new properties in areas where the Hispanic population has been growing rapidly, like Kansas, Iowa and Utah.

These findings were released earlier this year, in the 2017 State of Hispanic Homeownership Report, a project of the Hispanic Wealth Project in association with the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

The authors note that today, 46.2 percent of Hispanic households own their properties, returning to the levels registered in 2012 but not yet reaching the highs of 2005-2007.

Year   Hispanic Homeownership Rate Number of Hispanic-owned households Annual Change in the number of hispanic-owned households
2017 46.2% 7,472,000 +167,000
2016 46.0% 7,305,000 +213,000
2015 45.6% 7,092,000 +248,000
2014 45.4% 6,845,000 +68,000
2013 46.1% 6,777,000 +96,000
2012 46.1% 6,680,000 +352,000
2011 46.9% 6,328,000 +130,000
2010 47.5% 6,198,000 –56,000
2009 48.4% 6,253,000 –65,000
2008 49.1% 6,319,000 +15,000
2007 49.7% 6,303,000 208,000
2006 49.7% 6,095,000 +243,000
2005 49.5% 5,852,000 +404,000
2004 48.1% 5,448,000 +275,000
2003 46.7% 5,172,000 +261,000
2002 47.0% 4,912,000 +414,000
2001 47.3% 4,497,000 +256,000
2000 46.3% 4,242,000 N/A

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

According to the report, 15 percent of all homes sold in the U.S. during 2017 were bought by Hispanics. The purchasing power of this demographic group is most influential in traditionally Latino states such as Florida, Texas and California, but it is also significant in other states with Hispanic populations that have grown recently like Kansas, Iowa and Utah, as mentioned previously. In states like Wyoming, Oklahoma and Nebraska, Hispanics do not constitute a majority demographic group, but each shows a rise in the percentage of Hispanic homeowners, increasing in 2017 to 56 percent, 50.3 percent and 46.7 percent, respectively.

By 2024, Hispanics are expected to add 6,000,000 new homes owned to the national total, leading the growth of homeowners and stimulating the real estate market in the U.S. The report explains that this increase will be due to the fact that some Hispanics are leaving the states that have historically hosted them, and moving to other jurisdictions like Kansas, Iowa and Utah, lured by a job market in need of a labor force with and without college degrees, and where the housing is more affordable, enabling them to become homeowners.

For the most part, Hispanics who choose to move from California, Florida and Texas are millennials who have a higher educational level than their parents, and were born in the United States or are DACA recipients, says Sonja Díaz, director of the Latino Policy & Politics Initiative at UCLA. She explains that this internal Hispanic migration to other metropolitan areas such as Des Moines (Iowa) or McAllen (Texas), is because there is growing demand for Hispanic labor, as well as greater availability of homes priced under $300,000.

“It’s about where Latinos live, but also where they can afford to enter the mortgage market and own a home, or be on the path to owning one,” Diaz said.

The report also highlights that Latinos are the fastest-growing economic force in the country, reaching a purchasing power of more than $2.13 trillion. This would make Hispanics in the U.S. the seventh largest economy in the world, if they were counted as a single country.

How does the future look?

Although the increase of Hispanic homeowners in the U.S. is auspicious, the report indicates that there are still barriers that make it difficult for new owners to enter the market. During 2017, the report identified three major problems: the shortage of affordable housing nationwide, natural disasters in areas with a high concentration of Hispanic population such as Florida and Texas, and the uncertainty generated by President Trump’s immigration policies.

The shortage of affordable housing isn’t new. The United States has been experiencing a home price crisis for years: Property prices and rentals, along with the cost of living in coastal cities, have increased significantly. However, these price increases are even more noticeable in cities with a high concentration of Hispanics. Las Vegas is an example: the homeownership rate grew by 9 percent in 2017, but only 21 percent of the new homes available cost less than $300,000: In 2016 that figure was 42 percent. In San Diego, the picture did not change: most new homes cost at least $1 million; and in Houston, Tex., there was a significant increase in homeownership rate, but only in those homes priced at $300,000 or more. Similarly, states like Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Utah and California––all of which have growing Hispanic populations––were the states that saw the biggest increase in housing prices during 2017.

State Housing Price Increase 2016-2017 Hispanic population
Washington 12% 12.1%
Nevada 11% 27.8%
Idaho 10.7% 12%
Utah 10.7% 13.5%
California 8.2% 38.6%

Source: CoreLogic

“We are in a crisis, there are simply no affordable houses. Building new homes is so expensive, especially in highly regulated states like California and New York,” said Diaz. “Wages are not leveled with the prices of these houses. Many Hispanics and many Americans simply cannot afford a first home of 600,000 dollars, and that’s what we’re seeing in California, for example.”

In short, cities with large numbers of Hispanics do not have affordable housing that allows them to easily become owners. It is even harder given that Hispanics in the United States earn on average, $47,000 per year, while the income of non-Hispanic whites exceeds $70,000.

In addition, it is expected that the environmental disasters of 2017 will not help improve the real estate market for Hispanics. The California wildfires, together with hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida, directly affected the three states that currently have the largest Hispanic populations. Likewise, Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico with an unprecedented storm that, in addition to causing its own population to flee towards the mainland, also changed the supply of affordable housing on the island. Diaz argues that federal agencies do not adequately report the state of housing in Puerto Rico, and, according to her, the scenario does not look promising.

”Puerto Ricans who owned their homes on the island will have challenges and obstacles when rebuilding, and those who have already emigrated to the continent are at a disadvantage given the political and economic consequences of the disaster,” she said. ”I’m not sure if the prices of new homes that will be built in Puerto Rico will be affordable, but what I’m sure of is that housing will continue to be an issue there.”

The future of Hispanic housing will also be affected by the immigration policies coming from the White House. According to the report, this is the most sensitive and influential element affecting Hispanic homeownership growth. A total of 5,100,000 children—of which 79 percent are U.S. citizens––live in households where their parents’ immigration status is mixed. That is, where 1 of 2 parents is currently undocumented or has an irregular immigration status. The risk of deportation “influences their future, socioeconomic mobility and educational patterns,” according to the report.

The report explains that 31 percent of the more than 11,000,000 undocumented persons own their home and that hostile measures taken by the Trump administration could have significant consequences for the real estate industry. These policies would drastically reduce the Hispanic demand for housing, leading to a loss of billions of dollars in taxes, and decreasing a labor force that fuels the real estate market in the United States.

According to the report, this may be the most significant obstacle to Hispanics having greater and better access to housing. The ”volatility surrounding immigration reform is surely impeding the growth of Hispanic owners in the U.S., and is costing the U.S. economy billions of dollars in taxes and revenues,” the report states.

For Diaz, the question that is even more relevant: What happens to the owners who are deported from the country and what are their property rights? ”Given the way we approach our immigration system, one that is broken and dysfunctional, it is inevitable that some people will be affected by arbitrary decisions taken at the federal level,” she said.

However, the report predicts that despite the challenges and obstacles they may have to become owners, Hispanics will continue to lead growth. It affirms the importance of Hispanics to the real estate market and identifies patterns that indicate this will happen not only in the states where Hispanics have traditionally settled, but throughout the country.

This post originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site, CityLab Latino.

CityLab Daily: Don’t Be a Jerk

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What We’re Following

Scoot over: The perceived scooter scourge has been removed from San Francisco’s sidewalks, but the problems they caused were all too human. According to The Washington Post, there’s one big hurdle for electric scooter sharing to clear: jerks. The overlapping dilemmas of clutter and vandalism point to why we can’t have nice things. The Post even wrote handy PSAs for how to behave on a scooter. But the problem is probably best summed up by this kicker:

“People just need to be responsible and know the limits,” said Patrick Tao, 37, after taking his first ride on a Bird in San Francisco on Tuesday. He parked his scooter, which had a flat tire, next to a bike rack. He thinks the tech could have a future, but acknowledges, “There is always going to be some a–hole who ruins it.”

Bias training: The Philly Starbucks incident sparked a sweeping national conversation about being black in in public spaces. And today, Slate features an essential discussion with Slate writers Jamelle Bouie and Aisha Harris, NPR’S Gene Demby, and sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom about how society’s racism adds friction to the routine transactions of everyday life if you’re black, from getting coffee to attending a yoga class. CityLab context: Brentin Mock writes about how bias is part of Starbucks’s design.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Rise of the Rest (of the World)

American cities still have the edge when it comes to high-tech startups and venture capital, but other parts of the world are rapidly catching up.

Richard Florida

Three Years After His Death, Freddie Gray’s Neighborhood Faces a New Loss

Baltimore plans to partially demolish Gilmor Homes, the public housing complex that was once the focus of protests.

Michael Anft

Why Are Newspaper Websites So Horrible?

The pop-up ads! The autoplaying videos!

Andrew Zaleski

Puerto Rico Is Hit by a Total Blackout

Almost seven months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is experiencing a complete power outage. The island’s electricity provider said it will take from 24 to 36 hours to bring power back across the U.S. territory.

Martín Echenique

How ‘Evicted’ Became an Exhibit

The National Building Museum brings Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book—and the American housing crisis itself—to life.

Kriston Capps

Photo of the Day

Robin Hood Gardens, London. (Oliver Wainwright)

Beauty is in the eye of the destroyer. An exhibit at Boston’s pinkcomma gallery showcases the demolition of Brutalist buildings as a call to preserve this divisive architectural style. Curator Chris Grimley compares the modern distaste for béton brut to a similar wave of “venomous dislike” for Victorian buildings about 50 years after the style emerged, which led to many of them being destroyed. “Now, we’d be like, ‘that’s so short-sighted and narrow-minded,’” Grimley says. CityLab’s Teresa Mathew has the story, and the photos.

What We’re Reading

“Bicycle Day”—how the town where LSD was discovered celebrates the drug’s 75th anniversary (The Guardian)

Illustrations of the hidden masterpieces of the NYC Subway (Fast Company)

“They can’t be here for us”: Black men arrested at Starbucks tell their story (Washington Post)

America’s richest people live in one particular kind of neighborhood (Quartz)

Coachella, underground—how the Latino communities in the Valley have adjusted to life under the Trump administration (Longreads)

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 hello@citylab.com.

The Rise of the Rest (of the World)

We hear a lot these days about the so-called “rise of the rest”—the ascent of second-tier American cities such as Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Detroit, and Nashville as challengers to the established tech capitals of the Bay Area, New York, Boston, and Seattle. But the reality is that the rise of the rest is happening mainly in cities outside of the United States.

That’s the key takeaway from the 2018 edition of the Global Startup Ecosystem Report from Startup Genome. The report charts the rise of vibrant startup ecosystems in Europe, Canada, and especially China. It also describes which cities and countries are leading the way in the fastest-growing sub-sectors of the tech industry, including artificial intelligence, blockchain, and robotics. The report includes data on more than 1 million companies in nearly 100 ecosystems, and examines capitalization, founders’ biographies, and a company’s connectedness with the greater ecosystem, among other factors.

The graph from the report below shows the concentration of venture capital in startups across the major regions of the world: the U.S., Europe, Asia-Pacific, Canada and the Americas (excluding the U.S.), and Africa.

Venture capital funding by region (Startup Genome)

The U.S. remains the world’s leading center for venture capital investment in startups. But look at the trend from 2012-13 to 2016-17.  The U.S. share of total venture capital investment has declined from roughly 70 percent in 2012 to slightly more than 40 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific region has seen tremendous growth in VC funding, increasing its share from about 14 percent to nearly 40 percent. In fact, in 2017, the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific region were perfectly even on this metric, each accounting for 42 percent of the global share (the graph shows two-year intervals).

Much of the growth in venture capital investment in the Asia-Pacific region has taken place in China, which now has 35 percent of the globe’s “unicorns” (privately held startups worth a billion dollars or more), up from 14 percent in 2014. The U.S. share of such standout companies has decreased from roughly 60 percent to 40 percent over that period. It’s worth pointing out here that in my own research on global venture capital data from a few years back, I found that China has a sizable number of very large investments in excess of $500 million, which are hard to justify as traditional startup venture capital and skew its figures upward. (I excluded those investments from my data.)

Still, there’s no denying China’s increasing tech dominance. A recent analysis from the Wall Street Journal corroborates the findings of the Global Startup Ecosystem Report: In 2017, Asian investors (led by China) accounted for 40 percent of global venture capital funding, compared to just 5 percent 10 years ago. The growth of VC investment in China is driving unprecedented worldwide growth in tech startups. Global startup activity created $2.3 trillion in value between 2015 and 2017, up more than 25 percent from the period of 2014 to 2016. And while most Chinese venture capital flows to Chinese startups, investors are increasingly looking to fund companies abroad, particularly elsewhere in Asia, the Journal notes.  

All of this new money is not flowing to the same types of companies as it would have just a few years ago. We are entering a “third wave” of venture capital funding in tech companies, according to the Startup Ecosystem report. The first wave of tech startups were the original gateways to the internet, like AOL and Netscape; the second wave consisted of social media companies like Facebook and Twitter. The third wave, according to the report, will be defined by  sophisticated “deep tech” firms, specializing in fields such as artificial intelligence and blockchain, as well as companies that solve real-world problems like Uber and Airbnb. Increasingly, the city itself is becoming a platform for innovation and startup companies (something I’ll be writing more about in the future).

Growing, mature, and declining sub-sectors of the tech industry (Startup Genome)

The report digs into the geography of startup ecosystems across 13 major fields of technology, or sub-sectors, showing a wide range of growth. The most promising sectors are artificial intelligence and big data, blockchain, robotics and advanced manufacturing, and agricultural and food tech. Mature sectors like biotech, fintech (financial technology), edtech (educational technology), and clean tech have seen their growth remain steady. A set of declining sectors such as digital media, gaming, and ad tech (advertising technology) saw declines in venture capital funding growth.

The following maps from the report show the changing geography of startup ecosystems and venture capital investment across the top sub-sectors in the tech industry.

Artificial intelligence hubs (Startup Genome)

Take a look at the map for artificial intelligence, above, which many experts believe will reshape industry after industry and the economy as a whole. The Bay Area (which remains the leader), Seattle, Boston, Chicago, Houston, and Miami are all key centers of AI. But so are Toronto-Waterloo, Montreal, Ottawa, and Edmonton; London, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Moscow, and Helsinki; and Beijing, Shenzhen, Kuala Lumpur, and Taipei.

Blockchain hubs (Startup Genome)

There are fewer blockchain ecosystems, and the majority are concentrated in Europe—and in some rather surprising places, including Malta and Gibraltar. Financial centers including Beijing, Singapore, Tel Aviv, and New York are also major blockchain hubs.

Advanced manufacturing and robotics hubs (Startup Genome)

Traditional North American tech centers make up the biggest cluster of advanced manufacturing and robotics hubs. Many of these cities host leading research universities that are pioneering these new technologies. In addition to two major German cities, the rest of the hubs in this category are in Asia, where a great deal of the world’s manufacturing takes place. The report singles out Shenzhen as the “Silicon Valley of Hardware,” where many advanced manufacturing technologies are being developed.

While San Francisco and New York remain the world’s dominant startup ecosystems, and U.S. tech hubs like Boston and Seattle have significant advantages in two or more key technology fields, a large number of cities outside America host burgeoning startup ecosystems, such as Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver in Canada; London, Berlin, and Israel in Europe and the Middle East; and Beijing, Shenzhen, Singapore and Taipei in Asia.

The U.S. remains the world’s leading high-tech nation, but that increasingly rests on a narrow group of cities. There is little evidence of any rise in tech centers across the rest of America. But the rest is clearly rising in many other parts of the world, partly as a result of the exclusionary and anti-innovation polices of the Trump administration, and partly because of the conscious efforts of cities outside the U.S. to become more competitive as tech ecosystems. The rise of the rest of the world is the biggest challenge to America’s industrial dominance in decades.

Three Years After His Death, Freddie Gray’s Neighborhood Faces a New Loss

On a day that is mockingly cold and overcast, a wrecking crew is tearing down a block of rowhouses in West Baltimore—part of a massive citywide effort to demolish vacant properties. As the machines rip and churn, Sharon Parhan stands in her doorway, watching.

Parhan lives on the northern edge of Gilmor Homes, a 532-unit public housing development that sprawls over several blocks in Sandtown-Winchester, one of the city’s most chronically poor neighborhoods. Gilmor also faces a wrecking ball in its future: Several buildings in the complex have recently been targeted for demolition. If the city gets its way, six of the taller four-story structures will bite the dust. The remaining three-story townhouses and the apartments above them will remain intact, for now. Under the proposal, 123 families will be relocated.

Parhan’s gaze shifts to the east, where dozens of men huddle in a sheltered doorway. Drug runners yell out names—“John Wick!” John Wick!”—announcing the availability of free “testers” of heroin. “You see what’s going on out there,” says Parhan, 63, an Army vet who lives on a small disability check. Her arm traces a 360-degree circle. “They need to tear all this down too.”

Among the current residents and neighbors of Gilmor, feelings tend to be similarly unsentimental. But this is also a place of great local significance: The complex served as the set for the first act of a story that has defined Baltimore’s recent history.

One block west of Parham’s unit sits Bruce Court, where two more buildings have been tapped for removal. It was here on the morning of April 12, 2015, when city police caught up with a 25-year-old Gilmor resident named Freddie Gray, who had fled their approach a few blocks away. Bruce Court residents watched as Gray was wrestled into a police van; he died of the injuries he sustained in that van a week later, on April 19, touching off a wave of protests and unrest. In the days and weeks that followed, Gilmor Homes found itself at the center of a national debate over police brutality and urban poverty.

Today, three years later, Bruce Court residents have other problems to deal with. Monay Stewart uses her oven for heat, months after reporting broken units in her apartment. The former UPS worker keeps her 16-year-old daughter, Keyasia, close at hand, and closely monitors her two-month-old infant, Kamari, as he sleeps in a back room. “The baby’s room faces the back, where there’s drug dealing all night and day,” Stewart, 42, says. “They hide drugs in his windowsill. If they get arguing and shooting out there, who knows what will happen?”

Shootings happen regularly, Stewart says. She and Keyasia are familiar with the drill: Get flat on the floor. “There’s no community here—not really,” she says. “A lot of your neighbors are on drugs. They promote nothing but negativity. It’s not like people are looking out for your kids. There’s no supermarket near here. That’s not a good neighborhood.”

In the next building down, David Carlton works on the abstract painting and hammered-metal jewelry he sells at art markets around town. Like Stewart’s family, he rarely ventures out. “I have no friends in this neighborhood,” says the 68-year-old retired maintenance man. “I do that purposely. You can’t let the outside come to the inside, into your apartment. You’ll be victimized.”

Public safety was one of the reasons Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City targeted the project’s four-story buildings: Partial demolition would increase sightlines for police and ostensibly help rid the area of its drug redoubts. But it’s also one facet of a larger citywide effort to transform, redevelop, or simply eliminate its public housing, much of which dates back to the mid-20th century, and a different era’s social housing vision. Last month, the city announced an emerging plan that could result in the demolition of 1,300 public housing units on the city’s east side.

The current waiting list for receiving public housing in Baltimore is about 25,000, according to the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. A plan last year to move people from the poorest neighborhoods in the city to the suburbs stopped taking applications because it was flooded with them. Nevertheless, city officials say they will find places for everyone. “There will be a plan for relocating residents during demolition,” says Tania Baker, HABC spokesperson. “Residents of the [to-be-demolished] six walk-up buildings at Gilmor Homes will not be displaced.”

Much of the city’s most notorious public housing consisted of high-rise towers demolished two decades ago. A few of the remaining older projects are up for private development schemes. Even after wholesale redevelopment aimed at improving or eliminating public housing, Baltimore contains the fifth-highest public housing density in the nation, far outstripping its rank as 26th in population among U.S. cities overall. While many high-cost cities consider ramping up efforts to build more public housing, Baltimore continues going in the opposite direction.

A graffiti memorial to Freddie Gray marks a wall across from Gilmor Homes. (Tanvi Misra/CityLab)

Gilmor Homes, which took in its first tenant in 1942, embodies a problematic housing legacy. In the Jim Crow era, this city pioneered some of the most restrictive and explicitly racist residential regulations in the nation. The new complex was named after Harry W. Gilmor, a former Confederate cavalry officer and city police commissioner, and its construction filled a large portion of a housing map made by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), an agency formed by President Franklin Roosevelt to refinance failing mortgages during the Great Depression. The HOLC deemed some areas too “undesirable” for anyone but the poor—and usually, black—to live in. Sandtown-Winchester and some surrounding neighborhoods were included in a 1937 map made by an HOLC inspector who gave the region a “housing security” grade of “D,” and overlaid it in red—hence the term “redlining.”

Among the reasons for a “downward” forecast of livability there were “obsolescence” and “Negro concentration.” The home ownership rate in the area then was 15 to 20 percent. Many of the neighborhood’s brick rowhouses, then about 50 years old, were eliminated in a federal plan to improve housing stock; for decades afterward, federal housing policy made it nearly impossible for blacks to get mortgages in Baltimore—an issue that persists today.

Alethea Booze’s family was one of the few that managed to buy homes in Sandtown during the Depression. Now living around the corner from Sharon Parhan—and directly across the street from the house where she grew up—Booze remembers the opening of Gilmor Homes in September 1942.

“The soldiers were at war and the wives moved in,” says Booze, 74. Every one of them was black. “There was no welfare. People hung their clothes out to dry and kept things clean.”

As a child, Booze would play there with Gilmor kids—at a basketball court on Bruce Court, a little gym area on Spray Court (also to be demolished), and a playground. When the soldiers returned, families would move out, presumably to better places.

“Nowadays, if you walk through there, they’ll arrest you or give you a citation,” Booze says. “I used to know everybody in there. I only know a very few now.”

For her, the neighborhood seemed to turn in the 1980s, when city rules regarding Section 8 housing changed, and more low-income residents arrived: “People could live there and pay no rent. Then, the drugs came.”

In the 1990s, Sandtown-Winchester became the focus of an ambitious $130 million revitalization program masterminded by developer/philanthropist James Rouse—an effort now deemed largely ineffective. After Freddie Gray, the neighborhood and its ills earned a fresh wave of attention from researchers struggling to understand the roots of West Baltimore’s anger. Not long after his death, the city paid an $8 million settlement to women residents of Gilmor Homes who were told by city maintenance men they would receive repairs on their apartments if they performed sex acts.

Despite the chronic problems at the complex, some experts wonder if breaking it up could make things even worse. “We talk about communities in these areas in almost a saccharine way, but they do often run on these tight-knit social and economic webs,” says Nathan Connolly, an associate professor of history at Johns Hopkins, and a researcher and author on Jim Crow’s effects on housing policies. “If you break up these informal networks that congregate around housing projects, then you run the risk of breaking the bonds that underpin these communities, as we’ve seen in neighborhoods in Chicago and elsewhere. It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw crime increase around West Baltimore because the social fabric has been frayed.”

There’s abundant evidence in favor of that theory in local history. About 1,000 West Baltimore families faced wholesale relocation in the late 1960s to make room for a highway that was never completed, destabilizing the neighborhoods around it.

The city has pledged to work with Gilmor residents to get them into other projects or federally subsidized Section 8 rentals, including those outside the city. Connolly doesn’t think relocation is an answer. Enthusiasts of housing mobility programs that move low-income people to “better” neighborhoods tend to ignore the downsides, he says: In some cases, the poor tend to land in distant suburbs that lack the resources to handle them, where they may be more isolated from jobs and family. Then, they are forgotten. “Urban renewal has always promised improvement in the lives of poor black folks. But the fact is, once you move these people out, they’re out of sight,” he says.

In Sandtown-Winchester, some worry about an entirely different threat: gentrification. The idea might sound ludicrous to Baltimoreans generally—the neighborhood has a vacancy rate near 50 percent. Still, flyers touting tax breaks and availability in the neighborhood have been popping up on some bulletin boards; on the eastern edge of Gilmor Homes, private residences are being gussied up.

“On the periphery, you’ll see improved transportation systems and ads touting how close we are to downtown and the arts districts,” says Tolu Sosanya, who serves as youth organizing director at No Boundaries Coalition, a West Baltimore group that advocates for more opportunities for people there. She lives in a rowhouse that faces the north end of Bruce Court, and often invites Gilmor kids into her home to help them learn to read. “Property values are very low here—that’s good for developers.”

But in a city with a long list of people waiting for housing, tearing down all of Gilmor would be irresponsible, she says. Like Connolly, she worries about a dispersal of crime. “We need to do more for these young men on the corner, who have no idea about how to build a future. We need to invest in them, get them education and job training.”

The city still needs to receive approval from HUD and the city’s housing board before going ahead with demolition next year. On May 22, HABC will present the demolition plan at Gilmor before its board.

Given the neighborhood’s history and Baltimore’s longstanding inability to fix it, Gilmor residents like Sharon Parhan are hardly optimistic about what happens after that. Daily fear keeps expectations low, too. “It’s all this snitches-get-stitches business,
she says. “A lot of people are scared even to look at each other.”

Her voice rises, both in tone and volume: “To tear down these high-rises and just leave everyone else sitting here—that don’t sit right with me.”

Dead Brutalist Buildings

Sunlight dances across the exterior of a theater that looks half-eaten, its gaping holes and exposed wires open to the sky. Half-destroyed apartment buildings sit placidly, their glass windows not yet shattered. A church slowly gets chewed away by machinery.

Shoreline Apartments, Buffalo, New York (David Torke)

These images and others are part of “Brutalist Destruction,” a new exhibit that aims to make viewers think about the impact of destroying Postwar concrete buildings. The exhibit, curated by Chris Grimley, opened earlier this month at the pinkcomma gallery in Boston and will run through May 2018.

Over the last few years, Grimley noticed that an increasing number of Brutalist buildings around the country were being demolished and photographers were there to document them. “Eventually—unfortunately—there were enough of them to cull together into the show,” he said. Some of the photographers featured in “Brutalist Destruction” had worked with Grimley before, while others he reached out to after finding their work online.

Orange County Government Center, Goshen, New York (Harlan Erskine)

The show includes photos of Mechanic Theatre in Baltimore; Orange County Government Center in Goshen; Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo; Third Church of Christ in Washington, D.C.; and Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. Two U.K. buildings—London’s Robin Hood Gardens and Birmingham’s Public Library—are also in the show.

Such structures are seen by some as “monstrosities” but, Grimley noted, regardless of style, they are simply products of and testaments to their time. He pointed out that 50 years after the rise of Victorian architecture there was a wave of “venomous dislike” for such buildings, which led to many of them being destroyed. “Now, we’d be like, ‘that’s so short-sighted and narrow-minded,’” said Grimley. And yet, he added, critics of Brutalism and those who call for their demolition are following the same course.

Preservation is a matter of ecology as much as aesthetics. “There’s this phrase that’s bandied about a lot: the greenest structure is the one that’s already there,” Grimley said. “The amount of energy, whether it’s labor of the people that made it, the actual material energy of the building itself, or the embodied energy it takes to remove it—it’s wasteful on so many fronts.”  

Mechanic Theatre, Baltimore, Maryland (Matthew Carbone)

Grimley has a favorite monstrosity of his own: Boston City Hall. “It’s a perennial punching bag for critics, but for us it’s one of the most fascinating and complicated buildings for the 20th century,” said Grimley. He encourages those who dislike the building to re-think the façade and what it represents. “It’s a singular piece of work made at a time when there was a newfound civic investment in infrastructure in Boston,” he said. “It signaled that Boston wasn’t the crusty 1950s version of Beantown, but something that was aggressively trying to become involved in the future.”

Girmley said he hopes that visitors to the exhibit will confront their own biases about the polarizing architectural style as more and more of these buildings face the wrecking ball.

“Realize that just because something isn’t to your taste,” he added, “that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have the chance to age gracefully.”

“Brutalist Destruction” is on exhibit at pinkcomma gallery (46 Waltham Street, Boston) until May 3, 2018.

Why Are Newspaper Websites So Horrible?

When Emily Goligoski’s parents want to read their local newspaper, the two Ohioans load up the PDF version of the print newspaper on their iPad and scroll through, “turning” digitally pixelated pages instead of reading the stories from the paper’s website.

“My parents refuse to access the website because it’s just so painful to look at,” says Goligoski, a veteran of Mozilla and former user experience research lead for The New York Times.

These are criticisms Goligoski has heard before. As research director of the Membership Puzzle Project—a Knight Foundation-funded collaboration between New York University and Dutch newspaper De Correspondent that’s currently investigating the efficacy of membership models to sustain online news—she has heard time and again from news readers about how they’re increasingly turned off by the presentation they’re offered by local newspapers’ websites.

The torments of these sites are well known: clunky navigation, slow page-loading times, browser-freezing autoplaying videos, a siege of annoying pop-up ads, and especially those grids of bottom-of-the-page “related content” ads hawking belly fat cures and fake headlines (what’s known as Internet chum).

Put another way: Why must newspaper websites suck so damn much?

In particular, why is the online presence of local papers so much vividly worse than other fare on the web—especially when these outlets are engaged in a desperate fight for readers and subscribers nationwide? Perhaps you recall the (in)famous cartoon drawn by Brad Colbow in 2011. Entitled “This is Why Your Newspaper is Dying,” it offered a cheeky but precise summation of several crimes against digital decency, from “Your content takes up less than 20% of the page” to “Linking to a random story in the middle of an article.”

If anything, the situation may have somehow gotten worse in the years since, and the quality gap between local newspaper sites and more sophisticated content purveyors has become even more stark. We live in an age when even the lowliest of bagel shops can field a clean, elegant, and fairly slick-looking online storefront. Digital publishing has changed enormously since the advent of online news in the mid-1990s, as the initial iterations of news sites have given way to far more advanced offspring. So why has the online face many newspapers show the world grown uglier even as the need for advertising dollars from the web has grown more urgent?

According to the online newsmakers of yesteryear, it’s the pressure of online advertising that makes your favorite local news site, and many others, a fresh hell that even Dante himself couldn’t have imagined.

“I do believe that the clunkiness today is maybe more intrusive than ever before,” says Khoi Vinh, the former chief creative authority at The New York Times.

These aren’t so much questions of the online business of news so much as they are matters that speak to online news design—the look and feel of a newspaper’s website to the reader, or what a designer calls user interface and user experience. But the business and design of news are inextricably linked. As print ad revenue cratered, the need to squeeze revenue from digital sources grew. And that pushed news websites to their breaking point.

“Ads are just brutal for what they do to your browser and the sort of utter lack of regard they have for user experience,” says Ian Adelman, founding design director of Slate and current chief creative officer at New York Magazine.

If you’re an online news consumer of a certain age, you might recall that things used to be different. It’s not that the earliest versions of news websites were paragons of high design. (Though, in their simplicity, the mid-1990s incarnations of the Times and other papers were blessedly navigable and easy on the eyes.) Nor were newspapers’ websites free of advertising: even the earliest ones typically ran small banner ads at the tops and bottoms of pages. But in those pioneer days, online ads still ran through gatekeepers—direct sales teams sold advertising on the web, and even banner ads were placed on the page with the relatively careful consideration an advertisement in a print magazine is given.

“There was a really nice time before 2006 where we were making nice things but adtech wasn’t out of control yet,” Adelman says. “We have a situation now where ads, even on reputable sites, can be difficult to corral.”

What evolved over time was the means of delivery, what design professor Juliette Cezzar calls more of a technology change than an attitude change. As online advertising became increasingly automated—something that ramped up considerably after Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick in 2008—connecting eyeballs to web pages became predicated on algorithmic mojo rather than aesthetics. “Each of the ads is obviously not native to the page. They’re all being served up through code,” says Cezzar, assistant professor of communication design at the New School’s Parsons School of Design. “As soon as you had a piece of code you could put on a page that could suck in other ads on a carousel, that’s when things started getting bad.”

To avoid piling on to any specific offender, let’s consider a hypothetical local newspaper in a small- to medium-size market, one we’ll call The Huck Examiner (named after my Very Good miniature poodle, Huckleberry). Like many papers of its size, it’s not locally owned—it’s part of a giant conglomerate, like Tronc or Gannett or a similarly sized enterprise, that is keenly interested in cutting costs. The Examiner, like its equally made-up parent company, isn’t doing so great these days. Circulation is down and print advertising revenue is hurting, as the traditional means of propping up a financially sustainable publishing business has been subsumed more and more by the web. (Though the paper likes to boast that it’s actually reaching more readers than it ever did in the print-only era.)

With fewer dollars coming in, the staff is cut to the bone. Instead of having a  dedicated digital team to make things pretty and police the bad ads, the paper gets away with a skeleton crew to mind the website, and the paper’s content management system and site architecture is shared with dozens of other papers owned by the corporate parent. That publisher needs to maximize “high-impact” advertising—bring on the autoplaying mattress store ads!—and makes it a goal to deliver a certain number of impressions per web page per day. The central concern, in this situation, is how many advertisements are served. And how ads are served can be different across publications even owned by the same parent company: Consider this Poynter piece from 2014 about Gannett-owned properties, where multiple newspapers relied on an assortment of mismatched software to run their websites.

“You have multiple interests going on, and none of them are actually about delivering news to human beings,” Cezzar says.

No designer worth their salt is actively seeking to make a frustrating user experience for an online news reader. The free web, however, is a problem for all publishers, and an acute problem for smaller ones—the ones without the design expertise or robust sales teams needed to mitigate some of the online aesthetic shitshow that was created as the bottom fell out of the print classifieds and advertising market.

“The biggest mistake everybody made was they assumed they could move to the broadcast model: free content and make up the money in the advertising,” says Roger Black, the legendary design director who spent portions of the 1970s and 1980s with Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, and Newsweek. “This may have worked up to about 2000. Then Google started. And then Google, and now Facebook, scooped up all the news advertising dollars.”

Today, Google and Facebook command roughly three-quarters of the online advertising market. Extracting pennies from pageviews is currently the name of the game for many small news publishers, though that holds disastrous consequences from a user experience standpoint.

“News organizations were caught in a double bind, because not only did their ad revenue go away or get reduced—the kind of talent they need to [create good websites] are drawn to technology companies,” says Vinh, now principal designer at Adobe. “It’s part of the reason I’m not in the news business anymore, because there are no good answers for news.”

Not all publishers have allowed the economics of digital advertising to ride roughshod over the user experience. A few big media organizations like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post boast millions of digital subscribers nationwide, and they’ve managed to use their paywalls and big readerships to maintain readability. Indeed, many such publications entice subscribers with the ever-more-appealing prospect of an ad-free user experience, using the awfulness of the free version of the site for sales leverage—and stealing readers away from local dailies. Magazines, which still rely more on revenue from issue sales and print advertising, are typically able to field a less maddening digital experience. It’s the smaller news publications, the hard-luck dailies and weeklies that rely on local ads and local eyeballs, that seem trapped in a particular universe of suck.

“A small newsroom might have one person who’s managing the digital experiences across the entire site,” says Melissa DePuydt, technical architect for the Arc Publishing Professional Services Team, which is a part of The Washington Post. (The Post’s digital side runs on Arc.) “Fundamentally they do want to create enjoyable user experiences. But so much has changed, it makes it really hard for publications to keep up.”

So, what’s to be done? The reeling news industry does appear to be coming to the conclusion that larding sites with infinite ads will never supply enough meaningful revenue; paywalls and digital subscription models are ascendent. In February, Wired introduced its first paywall, and digital subscriptions to The New York Times are growing, although print revenue continues to decline. Smaller players like The Information, a technology news site, rely purely on subscriptions and maintain a sleek ad-free layout. And online-only local news sites like the nonprofit Texas Tribune use a membership model, plus the financial support of large philanthropic institutions such as the Knight Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (plus a few ads here and there). Other digital-news upstarts cobble together their budgets from a similar mix of revenue sources, allowing digital advertising to play a comparatively minor role.

Hopefully, if the Huck Examiner and its corporate kin can survive this latest newspaper die-off, they will find some combination of revenue-scrounging tactics that can tame their runaway user experience—while there are still enough users willing to endure the current one.

“To succeed in this business, you have to focus on the experience of the reader and user,” Black says. “Try to give them something that’s interesting that they’ll stay with and come back to, and if there are ads on it, they won’t mind them. We have to work on that.”

Why Small Businesses Matter for Workers

Small businesses are sometimes criticized as being bad for workers — but that idea is wrong. In this piece, we look at how small and large businesses compare on concrete metrics like wages, and find that in some industries, including retail, employees at small businesses earn more. There’s also a larger way in which the interests of small businesses and working people are aligned, we argue: Both groups benefit when public policy works to disperse economic power.… Read More

The post Why Small Businesses Matter for Workers appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

New ‘Mutant Enzymes’ Could Solve Earth’s Plastics Problem

You might call it a happy accident: As environmentalists urge the world to address the plastic pollution crisis, a team of researchers has unwittingly engineered an enzyme that may, one day, literally eat our troubles away.

Biologists at the U.K.’s University of Portsmouth were studying the structure of an enzyme that can break down polyester when they found a way to tweak it. The result, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, is a “mutant enzyme” that can degrade plastics 20 percent more efficiently than its original form.

The enzyme comes from a bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis 201-F6, which was discovered in 2016 by Japanese researchers, who subsequently found that it could completely break down a thin layer of low-quality plastic within six weeks. Structural biologist John McGeehan and his team have now taken that enzyme and genetically engineered it so that it can begin the process in a matter of days. That kind of discovery is cause for excitement: It takes centuries for polyester, scientifically known as polyethylene terephthalate or PET, to degrade naturally.

John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth was studying the structure of an plastic-eating enzyme, but ended up engineering it to be much more efficient. (Stuart McDill/Reuters)

All this is just the beginning, though. McGeehan told the Guardian that his team wants to speed up the process even more, and find ways to scale it for industrial use. More importantly, the team imagines that the research can help prevent more plastic from entering the market in the first place.

“What we are hoping to do is use this enzyme to turn this plastic back into its original components, so we can literally recycle it back to plastic,” McGeehan told the Guardian. To grasp what that would mean for the environment, just consider this startling statistic: 1 million plastic bottles are produced each minute. Roughly 10 percent of that gets recycled; the rest ends up in landfills, oceans, and parks.

What is recycled often gets used in textiles, like clothes and carpets. Very few actually become bottles again. So, in theory, if McGeehan’s accidental discovery proves successful, the world could see a future in which we no longer need to dig up more oil to make plastic bottles.

His team wouldn’t be the first to tackle plastic pollution with science. Mother nature, for one, has found her own way to respond… in the form of plastic-eating worms. Last year, researchers in Spain found a species of waxworm that has evolved to not just chew through the plastic bag containing them, but actually eat their way out. They confirmed their hunch by making worm paste, as Ed Yong explained in The Atlantic:

[Biologist Federica] Bertocchini mushed them up and applied the resulting paste to polyethylene. After half a day, around 13 percent of the plastic had disappeared. Even a waxworm smoothie can destroy polyethylene.

The secret was in the worms’ ability to break down beeswax, which contains some of the same chemical bonds found in polyethylene. Since then, researchers have been working to harness the enzymes found in their digestive system in hopes that it can degrade the millions of tons of plastic in our landfills and oceans. Exactly how remains hazy, though one idea that’s been floated is to spray the piles of trash in the ocean with the bacteria or the enzyme, and let them do their work.

Not all researchers see these discoveries, however revolutionary, as the answer to the global pollution crisis. First, there’s the question about practicality, said Susan Selke, the director of packaging at Michigan State University and an engineer who studies plastic recycling. ”Ideally you’d want a whole collection of PET together so you can effectively apply the enzyme—you’re not going to want to spray it over the whole planet,” she said. “And if you’re collecting the PET with the idea of degrading it, you’d be a whole lot better off recycling it instead.”

She added that PET generally has more value as a recycled material than it does broken down into water and carbon dioxide, which is generally the goal of biodegradation. The bacteria McGeehan worked with breaks plastic into its raw materials (ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid); if the goal is to use those materials to make new bottles, Selke said technology for that already exists.

“We have a substantial number of physical recycling processes that can recycle PET into a food-grade, or FDA-cleared, material, and that is used in producing clear plastic bottles,” she told CityLab. “And if we eliminate the direct food contact restriction, we’ve had technology to produce clear plastic bottles from clear plastic bottles for probably a couple of decades.”

In the grand scheme of things, Selke says, technological innovation is important, but the more fundamental issue is how waste is handled. Even in the United States, not all cities make recycling mandatory. For many, recycling is just too costly and perhaps not worth it. The calls for recycling are even more bleak outside the U.S., particularly in low-income countries where the task falls on informal waste collectors who are underpaid and under-appreciated

Of course, like nearly all environmental problems, plastic pollution has several dimensions and needs to be tackled from all angles. If the history of scientific breakthroughs is any indication, the accidental discoveries of super enzymes and plastic-eating worms may, at the very least, leave a footprint in our ongoing battle to save the Earth from waste.