The Shutdown Is Screwing With Cities and Mayors Are Not Pleased

The mayors are watching the clock—most of the time, helplessly—as the federal government’s partial shutdown finishes its fourth week, with consequences slowly mounting for their cities and residents.

Already, essential federal subsidies that help low-income people pay rent have expired, and if the shutdown crawls into a second month—which many think is likely—the impacts to federal food aid recipients could be catastrophic.

Thus far, many cities have been working to provide for their residents where the federal government isn’t.

“Our cities and counties are the safety net, and we’ll continue to have that safety net,” said Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio.

But soon, the longer-term impacts of prolonged federal government absence will start to trickle down to cities in far more dramatic ways.

On top of those impacts to their residents, mayors are grappling with halted, slowed, or imperiled federal funds for development, transportation, police, and other projects. “The lack of federal funds will affect public safety, road repair, housing, and other essential services,” Steve Benjamin, the mayor of Columbia, South Carolina, and the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, said in a statement.

Less funding for food assistance, escalating demand

In Dayton, Ohio, one of Mayor Whaley’s biggest concerns is food pantries. “In two weeks they won’t have any funding for the storage of food,” she said. While the Department of Agriculture will continue providing food to local food banks in the area, according to the Dayton Daily News, the department won’t be able to shoulder the transportation and storage fees.

A spokesperson for Dayton’s food pantry told the Daily News that storage costs typically run about $14,000 a month. “The community’s in the process of trying to fill that void, but it’s rather expensive,” Whaley said.

But food pantries across the country are bracing for an even bigger crisis. Furloughed workers without pay could mean a sudden and dramatic uptick in customers, straining supply and budgets even more, and if the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) loses funding, pantries’ supplies will dwindle as another rush of people come their way.

According to the Washington Post, USDA will provide SNAP benefits through February by moving up the distribution date to January 20—before its money is set to expire. If the shutdown continues long past that, another creative solution will be required to keep benefits flowing through March.

Counties may foot the bill to keep opioid services running

Local nonprofits rely on federal grant funding to provide support to victims of violence, drug abuse, and more. And the consequences of lapsed funding for some of them can be so dire that cities are anticipating trying to foot the bills themselves.

In Cincinnati, Hamilton County could be forced to step in and provide additional funding to keep anti-opioid centers open should the shutdown extend past 30 days.

“No matter what is debated on the top level, here at the street level it’s us trying to save people’s lives and make our communities better,” Newtown police Chief Tom Synan, who is also co-chair of the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition, told WCPO.

This is part and parcel with a common refrain from local community and nonprofit leaders who are grappling with ground-level consequences of a shutdown they have no control over. “Mayors and local government officials don’t get to indulge in the luxury of partisan politics,” said Benjamin.

When the government shut down, grants from the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) and Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) became inaccessible.

These grants are reimbursement-based: Nonprofits spend to support survivors and victims and then seek reimbursement from the government. And the longer the shutdown goes, the more likely they will run out of money waiting for federal reimbursements to start moving again.

“If no one’s there to process the applications or the requests for reimbursements, we are very concerned we won’t get funding,” Amanda Meyers, executive director of the Wichita Family Crisis Center, told the Wichita Eagle. “Without the funding we won’t be able to keep the doors open.”

Across the country, community-based nonprofits are struggling to keep doors open.

“You count on being able to submit that monthly reimbursement request because that’s what you’re making payroll,” North Carolina’s Carousel Center director Amy Feath told WWAY3. The center provides therapy for victims of assault.

The looming threat of home loss

Millions of Americans live in public housing or make ends meet with the help of government-sponsored rent subsidies that help keep them in their homes. As the shutdown churns forward, those renters increasingly face eviction and housing insecurity, as CityLab’s Kriston Capps reported last week.

Renters who receive Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance have seen their monthly payments end, and could face eviction at any point. The public housing operating fund and the housing choice voucher program received funding through February, but should the shutdown extend past that, local housing authorities that help connect low-income renters to stable housing would run out of money.

In response to this, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sent notices to landlords with federally subsidized tenants asking them to use their reserves rather than evict tenants, says the Washington Post. The Post also reported that the Office of Personnel Management released a letter urging renters to trade chores for rent from their landlords. (OPM later called this a mistake.)

And with so many residents facing issues, mayors and municipalities haven’t been able to figure out how or if they can even help, aside from “encourag(ing) our private-sector partners, our corporate citizens to be understanding,” said Benjamin.

But that doesn’t always work. In D.C., which has the most furloughed workers of any city, landlords were a mixed-bag on whether they would provide extensions or assistance to furloughed tenants. Some said they would “do the right thing” while others said “normal protocol will be followed,” according to a . “Grants are either waiting to be approved or have been approved, but there’s nobody to activate those funds. So agencies are experiencing cash-flow issues around that.”

Some transit agencies will have to tap reserves or take out loans should the shutdown continue.

For example, Moody’s highlights the New Jersey Transit System, for which federal funding covers all of its debt service and 43 percent of its capital improvements. Transit grants from the federal government are usually distributed in the early spring, so for now things are okay. That would change if the shutdown extends close to or past the normal distribution date.

According to the Department of Transportation’s shutdown report, the FTA won’t be able to distribute grant money or reimbursements, which usually help cover transit agencies operating expenses.

The report also says that FTA employees won’t be able to provide “environmental, legal, civil rights, and other reviews essential to advancing projects to the point of obligation,” meaning that new transit project plans will stall until the shutdown ends.

According to NASDAQ, New York’s MTA depends on funding from the federal government to help fund a quarter of its capital-improvement plan, and Los Angeles’ metro-expansion project has had funding interrupted as well.

Meanwhile, officials in Oklahoma announced that they would delay bids on transportation projects worth $137 million until they could be sure about federal funding.

The shutdown is nearing 30 full days, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called on the president to postpone his State of the Union address until the government reopens. But the impasse remains: Congressional Democrats won’t give the president his wall, and the president won’t accept anything less than it.

Municipal and local officials, frustrated and exasperated, are grappling with the results.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors released a statement last week pillorying the federal government for failing to solve this problem, and more action could be on the way from the nation’s mayors.

“The start of [the U.S. Conference of Mayors convening] is on January 22 in Washington. 250 mayors are gathering there, and prayerfully, this is resolved by then,” said Benjamin. “If it’s not, it will be the top of the agenda.”

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How Social Media Will Save Historic Lighthouses

The continental United States is bookended by lighthouses. In Maine, the West Quoddy Head Light sits at the country’s easternmost tip. The Cape Blanco Lighthouse in Oregon marks its westernmost point. “Lighthouses have a direct connection to the development of the United States,” says Jeff Gales, executive director of the United States Lighthouse Society (USLHS), enabling the country’s sprawl from sea to shining sea.

In the early 20th century, there were approximately 1,500 light stations in the United States. The first electric lighthouse in Dover, Kent, modified in 1875, thrust lighthouses and their keepers into modernity. However, soon the keepers themselves became obsolete—and, with the onset of GPS, vessels had little need for the beacons at all. Those 1,500 lighthouses now amount to 600 historical preservation sites—including adjacent places like light towers and and range lights. Their financial need is ongoing even if their functions are not.

USLHS, a private non-profit that advocates for lighthouses around the country, is well aware of the march of progress that turned active light stations into historical architecture. Now, USLHS is turning to social media to woo the next generation of lighthouse obsessives into visiting and hopefully donating toward their preservation.

When Gales was hired in 2004, the organization didn’t have a website or even an email address. (The board of eight is made up of Baby Boomers and non-digital natives.) In October 2018, Gales hired their first dedicated social media manager. “We’re on the precipice of something big,” says Gales, noting this is all relative given the organization’s slow embrace of technology.

As noted in this publication before, cities are increasingly experienced as Instagram playgrounds, sometimes through travel packages that come with Instagram photographers. Destinations like Machu Picchu have blamed Instagram for overcrowding and bad tourist behavior, while environmentalists have shown that Instagrammers are hurting National Parks—and in extreme cases, themselves.

USLHS’s enthusiasm for social media in this moment is indeed unique as other attractions feel cursed by Instagram hoards.

If the point of modern travel is to collect photographs, well, let them collect USLHS says. They are hoping to capitalize on the popularity of their passport program which encourages visitors to collect stamps as they visit lighthouses around the country. The passports cost $16 to purchase and a donation of $1 will get you a stamp at participating locations. A full passport book is worth $60, says Gale. (The National Parks have a similar program.)

USLHS has sold 15,000 passports a year for the past 5 years. The previous five years were steady at 10,000. Every month, dozens of full passports are mailed back to USLHS to be certified meaning that the program has brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. To underscore the popularity, the number of people in the passport program now far eclipses the annual membership of USLHS.

Nathan Wilson, a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University has collected twelve stamps in less than two years. Last summer, he did a self-guided lighthouse tour with his mother, earning a coveted stamp from the Cape Canaveral lighthouse which is only open by appointment. An accomplishment which he, of course, shared on Instagram. The caption? “You could say today was pretty lit.”

“Not a lot of people have been up on Cape Canaveral so it makes other lighthouse people jealous, it’s competitive and fun,” says Wilson, “ There’s no two stamps that look the same, it’s like artwork.” Wilson has other reasons for being passionate about preservation—his great grandfather was a lighthouse keeper in the Coast Guard. But Wilson is sure that the passport program will win over other young people, even ones with no prior connection to the history of lighthouses.

Skip Sherwood, the director of the Lighthouse Passport Program, says the most prolific collector he knows of has over 1,000 passport stamps. Because some lighthouses give out multiple stamps, or are attached to a museum or business related to the lighthouse with their own stamp, it’s possible to acquire more stamps than existing lighthouses—with persistence.

Sherwood explains that lighthouses will send you a stamp if you went and they weren’t open, or even visited years ago, as long as you send them a $1 donation. “We’re getting more and more people who traveled to lots of these lighthouses 15 years ago and didn’t even know the program existed,” he says. The program is up to 650 plus locations and 6,000 passport club members. New lighthouses are being added by word of mouth.

“People [go in] saying, ‘do you have a stamp?’” The California Lighthouse in Aruba was recently added to the program this way. (A quick perusal of the lighthouse’s geotag shows plenty of exuberant selfies as well as people ‘propping it up’ in the style of the Leaning Tower of Pisa’.) Periodically, USLHS will create stamps for lighthouses that are no longer in existence. This Lost Lights series is another way to incentivize collectors to send in donations. 

Starting this month, USLHS will make a full social media push around the passport program with the hashtag #lighthousepassport (to date, used over 250 times on Instagram) and a moderated Facebook group for passport society members. The hope is to set an example for the number of independently operated lighthouse preservation initiatives across the country, many of whom receive grants from USLHS.

“When people use our hashtag, they do it so that we can see their pictures and I just want to make sure that everyone is acknowledged,” says Maria Guevara who now manages the organization’s social media. These posts already have a signature stance: “There’s a really cool picture that people [are] posting a lot where they were holding their passport and they have the lighthouse in the background,” Guevara says.

There are fifteen volunteers around the country that make sure the USLHS website is up to date  with every stamp location—still, it’s no easy task. “I keep saying, ‘Jeff, there can’t be many more,’” Sherwood jokes. They get inquiries about stamps for abandoned lighthouses with no organization attached to them. Every once in a while, a new organization forms around such sites. “It’s happened in Michigan in a couple of places where a preservation society takes over the lighthouse and the next thing you know we’re hearing from them… It’s taken on a life of its own,” says Sherwood.

All are in agreement, this is a good problem to have.

Gales sees the passport program as a combination of adventure and philanthropy. “It allows us to create a sense of accomplishment for people. With social media, your sense of accomplishment can be much more immediate,” he says.

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The Verdict’s Still Out on Battery-Electric Buses

In the last decade, electric vehicles have become mainstream. Having captured is still uncertain about how well they will perform in the cold.

According to a Reuters story from last winter, similar problems have been found in other cities. Transit officials in Worcester and Springfield, Massachusetts, complained that BEB technology performed poorly in the cold and snow, while a report in Phoenix said that the buses did poorly in the summer heat, because of the demands of running cooling equipment. Similarly, the Minnesota source claimed that over the three-week trial, electricity consumption was 70 percent heating and only 30 percent motion.

Worcester Regional Transit Authority, however, told CityLab that its Proterra BEBs have not been problematic. (It did have to shut them down for a blizzard last winter, but the city’s entire bus system shut down.) Among cold-weather agencies, there is a spectrum from MVTA’s disappointment, through Metro Transit’s cautious interest, to WRTA’s support.

In-motion charging

There is an alternative, combining the best features of BEBs (flexibility) and trolleybuses (reliable power and range): in-motion charging, or IMC. A trolleybus with IMC has a small battery, with enough range for a few miles off-grid, and mechanisms for recharging while driving under the wire. It still requires some trolley-wire infrastructure, but not on 100 percent of the route: Italian manufacturer Iveco claims that 60 to 75 percent of the route needs wire. While this may still seem high, there are some places in the U.S. where buses could run on one wired trunk and then branch to many unwired streets (for example, in Roxbury and Dorchester, two Boston neighborhoods).

But this technology is virtually unknown in North America, where transit agencies treat the trolleybus as a dinosaur, even in cities with extensive networks such as San Francisco, Boston, and Vancouver. The California Air Resources Board’s regulations mandating electrification of the state’s bus network to curb pollution focus exclusively on BEBs and fuel cells: The mandates give agencies full credit for every BEB already in use, but only one-tenth of a credit for every trolleybus. The state’s analysis of its bus fleet in support of the new regulation ignores trolleybuses as well, never mind that San Francisco has about 300 of them, compared with 71 other zero-emissions buses statewide.

However, IMC is gaining currency in Europe. In Switzerland in particular, a very large proportion of public transit runs under wire, a legacy of cheap hydroelectric power and World War II-era shortages of fuel. The Swiss rail network is entirely electrified, and some cities, especially Zurich, have more ridership on their streetcar and trolleybus systems than on diesel buses.

So far, IMC is mostly restricted to Central Europe. German manufacturer Kiepe has sold IMC buses to nearly all the major cities of Switzerland, as well as to some secondary cities in surrounding countries, such as Parma, Linz, Esslingen, and Limoges. Seattle and San Francisco have bought IMC buses as well, but Kiepe claims only that these have enough battery to get around obstacles and complex junctions, whereas its main European product can travel 5 to 7 kilometers off-wire, or about 3 to 4.5 miles.

In tandem with IMC, Swiss cities are expanding their trolley-wire networks where it is warranted. The Swiss rail advocate and enthusiast Max Wyss has given some examples of recent extensions of trolleybus and streetcar systems. St. Gallen, a small city east of Zurich, is extending its trolleybus network, and the cost of the overhead wires is about $2.7 million per mile, and closer to $2 million after adjusting for the country’s high living costs.

By contrast, ART (the Albuquerque project for which ABQ RIDE intended to buy BEBs, but will debut as diesel BRT instead) cost $135 million over Central Avenue’s 16-mile stretch, or more than $8 million per mile. If ART were IMC, some of the costs could be avoided and some would remain necessary, but even taking the costs as a given, adding wire would only raise the price by about a quarter.

Is this technology ready?

BEBs are not really ready yet. The battery isn’t good enough if there’s any problem along the way, such as a climb or cold weather, and the extra infrastructure for midday charging is expensive.

Battery costs are going down, helping explain the growth of battery-electric propulsion in the passenger-car market. This should give transit advocates and city planners hope that in the future, BEBs may have a place. But the technology is not yet mature, and some of the most innovative cities in the world when it comes to public transit purchase trolleybuses with IMC instead.

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Smart Cities Predictions for 2019

While 2018 was filled with a number of successful smart city deployments, it also revealed significant challenges that will only intensify in years to come. The most pressing challenge to be addressed throughout 2019 is earning the public’s trust in smart city projects. Towards the end of 2018, we saw major data privacy concerns emerge from citizens. From these concerns a heated, but healthy discourse between citizens, local governments, and private sector companies rose to mainstream media prominence. Citizens’ expectations of privacy have begun to challenge the murky data privacy policies described by many in the private sector. 2019 will be the year of the smart city for the citizen.

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This Isn’t a Border Wall: It’s a Monument to White Supremacy

Not long ago, I sat on a panel to discuss monuments and memorials as civic infrastructure at the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference in San Francisco. Afterward, during a question-and-answer period, an older white man asked if there was any universe in which these existing monuments to the Confederacy should stand, given that the South won the war.

Yes, you read that correctly.

It was a bewildering statement, and the simple answer was no. The panel took issue with the premise, and as we challenged the questioner’s assertion, we came to realize that he viewed the war through the lens of its residual propaganda. And from his perspective, it seemed clear to him that the Confederacy must have prevailed—how else could so many monuments and markers honoring its generals and leaders stand in the streets of America’s cities?

This view of the world is the reason these symbols, lionized in civic space, are so incredibly dangerous: They validate a racist system of policies and practices designed to subjugate the powerless and operate continuously, independent of individual biases.

And, thanks to the growing movement to remove racist monuments around the world, many of these markers are in retreat. In the last few years we’ve watched Cecil Rhodes fall in South Africa, Lee and Beauregard leave New Orleans, Silent Sam knocked down in Raleigh-Durham, and John A. MacDonald packed up in Victoria, Canada. All of these monuments were bound by the common cause of white supremacy, entrenched in the ideology of dehumanization and brutality.

But today the president of the United States demands that we spend billions of dollars to build a new monument—a wall on the nation’s southern border—under the same cause.

The spatial justice movement is rooted in the larger struggle for freedom and liberation that has always required challenging the systems represented by those symbols. The abolitionist movement challenged the system of enslavement. The civil rights movement challenged the system of political and legal subjugation. The Black Power movement challenged all systems of racial disempowerment, and Black Lives Matter challenges the system of police brutality and criminal justice.

White supremacy, established long before the founding of the U.S., found its footing in this country post-Reconstruction through both policy and physical space, through Jim Crow and Confederate monuments. This strategy to make a national statement of values through the icons and ideas of white supremacy grounded itself throughout the South and conspicuously attached itself to institutions of power. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, of the 1,700-plus monuments and symbols built from the late-19th century to the mid-20th century, a significant percentage are on the grounds of courthouses, or are actual buildings that bear the names of Confederate leaders.

Racism is the coordinated system of oppression, a power dynamic premised on the superiority of one race over another. To act in support and maintenance of this system is to be complicit or, yes, a racist. One’s ignorance of it does not negate it. The explicit attempt to reify a devastating migration system through a useless wall would fall under the category of a racist monument.

Monuments at their most cynical are propaganda—symbols that occupy space in the name of an ideology. As the Trump administration conceives it, a border wall would be next-level propaganda: a racist monument designed to stretch across states, dividing humans, instilling fear in communities, and occupying land to promote a system that views migrants and refugees as an enemy to be subjugated through force.

America thrives off the symbolism in our actions far more than the outcomes associated with them. As we currently reside in a particularly intense moment of propagandizing, we face a daunting proposition.

Is the president racist? Yes. Of course.

But is the president of the United States leveraging the country’s well-being to build the largest monument to white supremacy ever constructed?

Also, yes.

Since he took office, Trump has taken every opportunity to vilify migrants and push for quantifiably harmful policies, and he’s used the notion of a wall as a political rallying call—one without merit or widespread public support. This should come as no surprise from a man who has made a living building monuments to himself. But to fully understand this pursuit by the administration, the shape and function of the wall are less important than the ideas it represents.

In the last month, we’ve seen the threat and subsequent shutdown of the federal government over the $5.7 billion ransom that the president has demanded from Congress for border wall construction. That would be just a fraction of the total cost of such a structure: Estimates vary widely, but the wall would cost $30 billion on the low end and up to $70 billion, according to a Democratic staff committee. On the campaign trail, Trump frequently insisted that Mexico would bear this cost. Former Mexican President Vicente Fox summarized that country’s position on this question best: “We’re not paying for the f**king wall.”

Real talk.

Americans, meanwhile, are already paying for the wall, with hundreds of thousands of federal jobs furloughed and immense economic pain inflicted. But beyond these costs, the social toll of the wall would be devastating. A few of the many consequences to this endeavor are laid out in the 2017 Brookings Institute report detailing the wall’s likelihood to split up indigenous lands, impose protracted eminent domain battles in border communities, and threaten water-sharing agreements vital to both Mexico and the United States.

As a candidate, Trump once boasted of a wall upwards of 65 feet high. But his administration has since settled on four prototypes topping out at 30 feet. The RFP for these prototype walls requested that “The wall design shall be reinforced concrete” and “shall be physically imposing in height.” To be clear, a wall at 30 feet high is five feet taller than nearly every conflict wall around the world—none of which have worked to stem migration. To be extra clear, we are not at conflict with migrants or refugees.

Of the many impracticalities surrounding the wall (cost, legality, environmental, political, etc.) the recent political decision to change the design of the wall from a concrete barrier to a steel post barrier reveals just how hollow this pursuit has always been. The assumption that any part of the opposition to the wall revolves around a matter of materiality and not the functional oppression of human beings shows a severe political and/or moral deficiency that should add to the chorus of synchronized alarm bells ringing in our heads.

The arguments against building this wall are clear, resounding and logical. But we are not having a conversation based in logic around border security; instead, we are wrestling over the metaphor of “border security” and bypassing all reasonable means of genuinely addressing the issue. The crisis we face is primarily of our own hand, and the price of human decency runs a bit more than we seem to be willing to pay.

We are the sum of our actions, and our actions reveal a nation, a party, and a president willing to adhere to and invest in the systems of white supremacy. The wall is merely a symbol of that allegiance, the propaganda that affirms it, and a monument to its vanity.

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Alabama Can’t Make Birmingham Display Confederate Monument

Long before Donald Trump proclaimed that there were some “very fine people, on both sides” of the alt-racist eruption in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, Alabama Lieutenant Governor R.M. Cunningham gave similar equivocations at the 1905 dedication ceremony for the Confederate Soldiers and Sailors Monument that was being installed in Birmingham’s Linn Park. Cunningham told the gathering that “the characterization of either side [of the Civil War] as rebels is false” because “both parties were loyalists and patriots.” The then-mayor of Birmingham Mel Drennen cosigned and said that his city’s new Confederate monument “memorialized … a cause that will ever remain fresh in the memories of our Southern people.”

The monument is a sandstone obelisk that stands 52-feet tall—higher than the average telephone pole—on a concrete foundation laid during an 1894 Confederate veterans reunion. Little did those vets know that in a few decades Birmingham would become the epicenter of a civil rights movement that explicitly disavowed the Confederate and Jim Crow causes the monument stood for.

In 2017, Birmingham would join a wave of cities that decided Confederate monuments were no longer welcome, largely in response to the Charlottesville debacle. Birmingham’s solution was to wall off the monument with large planks of plywood, obscuring it from public view. However, also that year Alabama lawmakers passed the Alabama Heritage Preservation Act, which forbade Birmingham or any city in the state from removing or altering Confederate monuments that had stood for more than 40 years.

The act will not be enforced. This week Alabama circuit court Judge Michael Graffeo not only ruled that Birmingham had the right to block off the monument, but also invalidated the Alabama Heritage Preservation Act by finding it unconstitutional. The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by Alabama’s Attorney General’s office that argued that the city’s barricading of the monument was a violation of the act. Judge Graffeo’s decision on the matter is itself monumental, as much for its dismantling of a pro-Confederate law as it is for what it says about the rights of cities in the face of states’ rights.

“Yesterday’s ruling is the first time a court has concluded that a state cannot force a city to maintain a Confederate monument that its citizens find abhorrent,” said Rhonda Brownstein, legal director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed a brief on Birmingham’s behalf. “The Circuit Court ruled that Birmingham has a constitutionally protected right to decide for itself what messages it wants to convey to its citizens and to the world. Alabama’s majority-white legislature cannot force Birmingham, a majority-black city, to maintain a monument to white supremacy.”

Birmingham first began exploring taking down the monument in 2015, when then-Mayor William Bell asked the city’s attorneys and its parks and recreation board to investigate a legal path towards removal. It seemed like a safe time to do this given that Alabama’s then-Governor Robert Bentley had taken down Confederate flags from the state’s capitol grounds. However, the state legislature immediately began crafting legislation to ensure that other Confederate symbols would not meet the same fate. In May 2017, Bentley’s successor as governor, Kay Ivey, signed the Heritage Preservation Act into law. The act’s supporters intended it to obstruct Birmingham’s plans to obstruct the view of the Confederate monument in one of the city’s public parks. The city built the wall around it anyway, triggering the state’s lawsuit against the city.   

During that case, the court put several questions before the parties, primarily concerning whether a city’s display or destruction of a monument on public grounds constitutes “government speech,” and whether cities enjoy an independent right of free “government speech.” The court also asked to settle the matter of whether cities enjoy a fundamental right of equal protection and due process, the way private individuals do.

The state of Alabama argued that the answers to all of these questions is no because cities fundamentally have no rights. In its legal brief, Alabama’s lawyers told the court that cities “lack standing to assert [that] state statutes violate their rights under the U.S. Constitution because they are creatures or instrumentalities of their states of origin.”

Alabama Judge Michael Graffeo disagreed in a 10-page ruling that he filed late Monday night, just before midnight. The next day he stepped down from the bench into retirement, taking down the Confederate monument protection law with him. The judge ruled not only that the “city has a right to speak for itself,” but also that by barring Birmingham’s ability to hide the Confederate monument, the state was essentially forcing a majority-black city to broadcast an explicitly anti-black message in a public setting. Reads the ruling:

The practical ramification of the STATE’S position is that the ACT renders pro-Confederate speech immune from a local political process that rejects a message of white supremacy. … the democratic process here flew into motion after the people of Birmingham witnessed race-based violence across the South and decided, through their elected officials, to reject a message of African American inferiority. Under the ACT, however, the people of Birmingham cannot win.   

Neither would it be enough for Birmingham to put up other monuments or signs that criticize the Confederate monument, which is an often suggested alternative to removal—”the CITY has the right to disassociate from a pro-Confederacy message entirely,” wrote Graffeo.  

The judge affirmed Birmingham’s right to craft its own city narrative, something that has lately proved challenging for the “cradle of civil rights” that currently has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. In 2016, when the city of Birmingham passed an ordinance to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, the Alabama legislature voted the following day to pre-empt and reverse the wage ordinance. (The city’s lawsuit against the state’s preemption is still pending). Meanwhile, Birmingham has been trying to futurize, or at least modernize its woeful public transit system in one of the few states that historically has not funded public transport. The state seems unwilling to allow the city to help its most oppressed residents, but a court has ruled that it must at least get out of the way of the city’s efforts to erase the symbols of that oppression.  

Alabama’s Attorney General Steve Marshall said he would appeal the ruling, which essentially continues the fight to affirm “both sides” of the Civil War as honor-worthy, even if that means dishonoring Birmingham’s black citizens and civil rights bonafides. Alabama has proudly touted “states’ rights” in defense of many policies that today stand as indefensible, from slavery to legal segregation. That defense is now yet another lost cause, at least for this week, as a city’s civil rights have been recognized.

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Remembering Atlantic City’s Black History and Segregated Past

Like much of the United States, Atlantic City, New Jersey, was both de facto and legally segregated throughout much of its history, until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act 10 years later mandated integration across the country.

But unlike many other segregated communities, Atlantic City has long been a tourist hub and beach town—and travelers, both black and white, have been vacationing in Atlantic City for more than a century.

After Atlantic City was incorporated in 1854, its economy flourished and its population grew quickly. African Americans moved to Atlantic City from the South during the Great Migration, in search of better-paying jobs. Other black people immigrated to Atlantic City from the West Indies and opened many of the town’s black-owned businesses.

Though no specific laws segregating the town existed at this time, discriminatory practices including redlining (where potential homeowners are denied access to particular neighborhoods based on race) sequestered African Americans to the Northside neighborhood of Atlantic City, according to Ralph Hunter, founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey.

“The 80-square-block Northside neighborhood was once a thriving community of businesses, entrepreneurs, and professionals including doctors, lawyers, dentists, and funeral directors,” Hunter said. “They could attend school, own property, and vote, but they had to go to a clinic at City Hall instead of Atlantic City Hospital [when they were sick].”

Most African Americans who lived in Atlantic City worked as laborers or in the service industry at white-owed hotels. In fact, black workers made up 95 percent of jobs at resorts and in tourism in Atlantic City during the Victorian era, according to a story on

“Atlantic City was built on the backs of African Americans,” Hunter explained.

The residential areas of Atlantic City may have been essentially segregated from the time of the city’s incorporation, but its beaches and hotels were not segregated until 1900, when white tourists visiting from the Jim Crow South started to complain about integration.

Only then did the City Council officially segregate Atlantic City. Throughout this period of segregation in the early 20th century, African Americans continued to work at white-owned hotels and businesses.

African Americans continued to travel to Atlantic City, but instead of visiting whites-only beaches, they traveled to the only beach open to black people in the area—Missouri Avenue Beach, which was located in front of Atlantic City’s convention center. And though whites-only hotels were now closed off to black travelers, black-owned hotels and residences provided an opportunity for travelers and African American entrepreneurs alike.

One of the premier hotels in the northern United States, Liberty Hotel, opened in the Northside in the 1930s. The six-story hotel was a safe haven for African American performers who were playing at local venues, as well as upper-class vacationers, including C. Marrs Kane, a black entrepreneur who developed the first YMCA in Atlantic City and the first housing project in New Jersey. The building still stands today and has been converted into apartments for seniors.

The Lincoln Hotel Apartments was seven stories high and included more than 200 rooms and apartments on the Northside. In addition to the efficiency-style apartments, the building included a dance studio, grocery store, and other businesses. Travelers and seasonal workers would often rent out rooms at the Lincoln for the entire summer.

Club Harlem was one of the most popular nightclubs in the northern United States, hosting performers from Billie Holiday to Sammy Davis Jr. (African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey)

Several other black-owned-and-operated hotels existed in Atlantic City during this time—including the Randall Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in Atlantic City; Wright’s Hotel, which played host to dignitaries visiting the Elks Lodge fraternal order; and the still-standing Apex Inn, owned by black haircare tycoon Madam Sara Spencer Washington.

But the majority of black travelers looking for a place to stay during their vacation would bunk at tourist homes, residential buildings owed by African Americans who opened their doors to people with nowhere else to safely stay.

These homes and black-owned hotels were listed in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for African Americans looking for safe passage through the country during a period of segregation and increased discrimination.

According to listings in the Green Book, somewhere between 20 and 50 cottages in the Northside were open to African Americans in the mid-20th century. Some residences were owned by families and travelers were welcome to stay in a single room. But individuals like Dick Austin, who immigrated to Atlantic City from the West Indies, owned several homes spanning an entire city block and provided housing for black travelers through their investment in real estate.

Austin’s Rose Garden, a restaurant owned by entrepreneur and real estate mogul Dick Austin. (African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey )

Hotels and tourist homes were not the only black-owned businesses in Atlantic City. In addition to his success in real estate, Austin also owned a restaurant and bar called Dick Austin’s Rose Garden. Several other black-owned restaurants and clubs existed at the time, but the most famous was Club Harlem, located near Liberty Hotel.

Founded in 1935 by Leroy “Pop” Williams and his brother, Clifton, the club hosted performers like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr., and Aretha Franklin, as well as their own in-house showgirls. “It was an amazing place,” said Hunter.

Atlantic City also boasted African American-owned garages, cab services, and other businesses necessary to support the infrastructure of any tourist hub. In response to segregation, the Northside neighborhood duplicated businesses that excluded African Americans in the white areas of Atlantic City. In the process, the Northside created a thriving culture where African Americans could feel safe and accepted in a community that fostered black entrepreneurship and achievement.

After Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights Act, Missouri Avenue Beach—and with it, many of the black-owned businesses on the Northside—faded out of existence. And when Atlantic City’s famous casinos were built in the 1970s and ‘80s, many of its historic places were either demolished or altered beyond recognition.

While some historic buildings in the Northside neighborhood remain, the majority have been converted into public housing. Hunter explained, “Black-owned businesses in Atlantic City are few and far between now. There were once 37 owned-and-operated black bars [on the Northside]. Today, there isn’t one liquor license held by an African American. And there’s just one cab license.”

While Atlantic City’s landscape has changed, historians are working to preserve aspects of some of its most significant African American places. Artifacts from Club Harlem were sent to the National Museum of African American Heritage and Culture in Washington, D.C., including a table and chair, sign advertising Sam Cooke, and several historic photographs.

The Missouri Avenue Beach was declared a historic landmark in 1997, and the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation (Chicken Bone Beach was its colloquial name) continues to promote the site’s heritage through annual summer jazz concerts.

The Atlantic City Free Public Library also collected hundreds of historic images depicting Atlantic City’s black history. The photos range from postcards to famous performers to families enjoying their time at the beach, as well as African Americans experiencing daily life in the Northside neighborhood. And the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey is working to educate future generations about African American contributions to the rich history of Atlantic City.

According to Hunter, though, historic markers, artifacts, and photographs aren’t enough to keep the memory of Atlantic City’s black history alive. “We have to save the buildings that are here and repurpose them into something that people will use,” he said. “Many good properties have stood the test of time, but we have to recognize their history.”

Special thanks to Ralph Hunter and the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey for their contributions to this story.

This article originally appeared on

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CityLab Daily: Why Detroiters Didn’t Trust the City’s Free Trees

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What We’re Following

Seeds of dissent: In 2014, a local environmental nonprofit called The Greening of Detroit partnered with the city to take on an ambitious task: reforesting the city by planting an additional 1,000 to 5,000 new trees per year. But volunteers met stiff resistance. Roughly a quarter of the 7,500 residents they approached declined offers to have new trees planted in front of their homes. That seemed strange, so University of Vermont researcher Christine E. Carmichael went to ask the people who had turned TGD down. She found out she was the first person to ask residents if they wanted the trees in the first place.

It’s not that the residents lacked awareness of how trees could benefit their neighborhood, it’s that they didn’t trust the city. Carmichael describes how these “no-tree requests” were rooted in a longer history of their lived experience in the city, what she calls “heritage narratives.” The stories that people from all walks of Detroit life tell themselves and each other about their city’s conditions differed from what the government and volunteers were telling each other. CityLab’s Brentin Mock has the story: Why Detroit Residents Pushed Back Against Tree-Planting

Andrew Small

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The Racial Wealth Gap Could Become a 2020 Litmus Test

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Quebec City’s Disappearing Agricultural Land

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Why Vegas Clubs Pay Uber Drivers to Drop People Off

For decades, Vegas night clubs have paid taxi drivers to bring in new customers. Now ride-sharing drivers find that a good hustle can really pay off.

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Quitter’s Day

Daily activity uploads to Strava in 2018 compared to the four-week rolling average of activities by day of week. (Strava)

We’re just over two weeks into 2019, and that means we’re in that sweet spot of remembering our New Year’s resolutions and realizing the ways life might get in the way of them. Fitness-related resolutions are by far the most common, and it turns out that location and fitness apps are a handy way to find out when, exactly, we collectively fall off the wagon. The chart above from Strava shows that the January gym spike is definitely a real thing, with activity on the fitness tracker spiking on New Year’s Day compared to a four-week rolling average. But on the third Thursday of January—that’s tomorrow!—analysts see a sign of overall activity dipping below the rolling average (marked in blue above).

Foursquare has a little more fun with its predictions: It expects February 9 to be this year’s “Fall Off the Wagon Day,” when users’ visits to fast food restaurants rise to meet (and eventually surpass) visits to gyms. CityLab’s Linda Poon got the cold, hard statistical truth about when our lofty workout ambitions turn down in the winter. Check out the Rise and Fall of New Year’s Fitness Resolutions, in 5 Charts

What We’re Reading

The myth of “We don’t build houses like we used to” (Curbed)

What happens when Banksy spray paints your wall? (The Guardian)

Support for a wonky transit tax is a great sign that cars are going out of style (Quartz)

WeWork’s CEO makes millions… as a landlord to WeWork (Wall Street Journal)

From a cell to a home: Ex-inmates find stability with innovative program (NPR)

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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In Las Vegas, Kickbacks Sweeten the Deal for Uber and Lyft Drivers

Harry Campbell and his friends were walking down a side street in Las Vegas last spring when a black Escalade pulled up beside them. The driver made an offer: He’d take them to a strip club and give each person—all ten of them—a $20 bill if they got in the SUV.

It sounds odd, but it made perfect sense, says Campbell, founder of The Rideshare Guy blog and podcast. The driver wanted to entice the group to go to the strip club because the club would pay him a kickback for each person he brought there. For any takers, that upfront cash could make a dent in the club’s cover charge. The driver, meanwhile, stood to make anywhere from $40 to $80 per person just for dropping them off.

Kickbacks are an old fixture of the Vegas taxi industry. They’re essentially a finder’s fee paid to drivers by any assortment of businesses, but especially ones dealing in vice, like strip clubs, gun ranges, liquor stores, and, more recently, cannabis dispensaries. It’s a practice that has persisted in Las Vegas for decades as a way for businesses to keep a leg up on the competition. And while these incentives have long been a way for taxi drivers to boost their earnings, they’ve also become an important source of income for many Uber and Lyft drivers—especially as those companies have cut rates since arriving in the city in 2015. Knowing how to play the game can really change a driver’s fortunes.

“My biggest objective is kickbacks,” says Derrick Smith, a Las Vegas ride-share driver and coach. “I’m spoiled now, but I can make anywhere between $50 to $700 [per week] in kickbacks. I would not still be doing this if it weren’t for kickbacks.”


For decades, the kickbacks ecosystem developed in something of a legal gray area. After arising in the 1950s, the practice was eventually challenged in court in the 1980s, when the Phillips Supper Club was sued by other local restaurants for its practice of tipping $3 per head to every taxi driver who dropped off customers, says Albert Marquis, a lawyer who has argued in court against kickbacks. The parties in that case settled, Marquis says, so the legal question of whether a business can take action against kickbacking competitors remained unsettled.

Then, in 2011, a federal judge dismissed a class-action suit that alleged racketeering between Vegas strip clubs and taxi drivers, effectively letting kickbacks stand unperturbed. The case stemmed from a 2009 suit in which a southern California man sued several Vegas taxi companies and strip clubs after he’d asked to be taken to one club but was instead taken to another. The judge in the case swatted down the racketeering claim, saying he couldn’t find anything illegal about kickbacks. Clubs could charge what they wanted, and pay whomever they wanted, as long as they deliver the product, the judge wrote. To underscore kickbacks’ current status, all drivers who receive them are legally required to file 1099 tax forms from each business that has paid them.

Still, there’s one key thing drivers can’t do: Divert passengers from their stated destination. Nevada law prohibits drivers from directly re-routing passengers to businesses that are paying out. That concern might be more easily avoided in ride-sharing services, where customers state their destinations before even getting matched with a driver. Still, the law doesn’t keep drivers from recommending a stop at kickback-paying locations along the way.

Jeff, a Vegas native and ride-share driver who asked not to use his full name for fear of negative consequences from ride-sharing companies, says he presents a kickback-paying opportunity as a simple suggestion before customers reach their destination.

“I’ll say, do you guys want to go to the dispensary [and] they’ll say yeah,” he says. “Then they’ll go in, and I’m on the clock, waiting, and then I go up and tell [the business] I’m a driver and I brought in a group. Then whatever the deal is we’ll go through the process, they’ll give me a W-9, [I] show them an ID, and they pay you out after. It doesn’t take very long. You try to get it done before the customer comes back out.”


With kickbacks’ legality on more stable ground, some see an opportunity to help ride-sharing drivers bolster their earnings from a gig that can be unpredictable and at the mercy of inscrutable algorithms and companies.

Several drivers who spoke with me for this story lamented that rates have fallen (the cost per mile dropped from $1.85 to $0.90) and worry that an oversaturation of drivers is cutting into their profitability. According to a study conducted by Campbell and The Rideshare Guy blog, the average hourly rate for a ride-share driver in Vegas, when adjusted for cost of living, is only $15.26, which is almost $3 less than what it takes to rent an average two-bedroom unit in Nevada.

A Philadelphia native, Ryan Antilla has driven taxis in Key West and Las Vegas, driven ride-share in Vegas, and run a magazine called Vegas Driver Magazine, which shared intel about kickbacks from local businesses. Today, he’s the founder of the Vegas Kickbacks app, which helps drivers track what businesses are offering drivers. When he moved to Vegas a decade ago, he encountered an industry that was already going downhill.

“I remember going to the application office and an old-timer guy was speaking to his friend about how bad last night was,” he says. In the heart of the recession, the city’s taxis took a beating: Nevada Taxicab Authority statistics show a 15.45 percent decline in monthly rides between 2008 and 2009, and a 6.15 percent drop between 2007 and 2008. But, Antilla says, taxi drivers saw kickbacks from strip clubs as a lifeline. He estimates that cabbies and limo drivers at this time could make anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per night off kickbacks alone. All they had to do was sit in line outside a hotel and wait.

But when Uber and Lyft arrived in 2015, they nearly gave businesses a break from kickbacks. Ride-share began eating into taxis’ rides and revenue (both have dropped in every month since 2015), and business operators expected that the amount they paid for kickbacks would drop with an influx of new drivers who didn’t know about the practice. Even those who did could be given less, since, in theory, they couldn’t divert riders.

“For some reason, the really high-end places that turn a lot business pay [taxis and limos] $80 per head,” Jeff says. “A ride-share guy brings in someone and now it’s $20 per head. They just fuck you. … They think it’s not worth it.”

Still, Brian Minter, operator of Sophia’s Gentlemen’s Club, felt the kickback reprieve was coming. Minter says his club currently pays out about 55 percent of its revenue to kickbacks, leaving Sophia’s with a razor-thin margin. That cost of kickbacks is passed on to the customer through higher drink prices and other fees. Minter says the early days of ride-sharing made it feel like their dependence on kickbacks was coming to an end, but an unexpected force turned things around: taxi drivers.

“Because Uber and Lyft have taken a big share out of the taxi industry, cab drivers have gone into becoming Uber and Lyft drivers,” Minter says. In the early days of ride-sharing, a lot of those new, nonprofessional drivers didn’t even know they could get their $20 kickback from the club. “Now that these drivers by trade are doing ride-share, they’re deferring [riders] to wherever is paying the most.”

The largest strip clubs were paying $50 per drop-off to ride-share drivers, and as more taxi drivers became ride-share drivers, other clubs felt pressure to boost their rates to ride-share drivers. Smith, the ride-share driver and coach, says taxi drivers are increasingly seen as allies when it comes to kickbacks.

“Cab drivers were only our enemy for the first three months,” Smith says. “And then they just woke up and just jumped into a car with us. Pretty much, we’re in the same brotherhood.”

Increasingly, that’s having an effect on businesses outside the strip club industry, too. Ron Reavis, director of operations at the Pisos marijuana dispensary, says both ride-share and cab drivers have been the ones helping him and his staff fine-tune their kickbacks program to ensure it runs as seamlessly as possible.

Some Las Vegas cannabis dispensaries rely on kickbacks to Uber and Lyft drivers to get customers in the door. (John Locher/AP)

Pisos pays $15 per drop-off to every ride-share and taxi driver, no matter how many people are in the car, even if the customers don’t buy anything. That setup helped build trust among drivers, Reavis says. He also received feedback from seasoned taxi drivers about how to best mask the process of paying the kickback, which involves in-the-know drivers walking their passengers into the store to ensure they’re properly taken care of—the “I know a guy” routine—before collecting a payout at the front desk. In a city like Las Vegas, it’s an inverted but incredibly important form of customer service.

“I have to remind my staff all of the time, while the consumer’s experience is important, that consumer I’ll see once or twice during their trip and then they’re gone,” Reavis says. “If I don’t treat [the drivers] right, it really does make an impact. We really do rely on them.”

As Antilla sees it, driving people around Vegas is often thankless work, and locals should be able to capitalize off their knowledge. He built his app because he saw how cutthroat cabbies could be and wanted to ensure that ride-share drivers got their cut, too, for recommending what the city has to offer.

If his app is to evolve beyond being a directory for kickbacks, he hopes it becomes a service where a driver can recommend any business in any industry, give a customer a code that includes a deal, and get a kickback automatically when the customer uses it. Whether or not it goes that way remains to be seen, but Antilla is optimistic about the prospect.

“You’re going to be that person that people ask, What should I do in Vegas? What should I do? Everything is going to this driver and he’s going to answer it 20 times per night. So if he’s going to plant those seeds, shouldn’t he at least get $5, $1—I don’t care what it is—if he’s giving these recommendations and these people actually convert?” he says. “You’re not just a driver. You become an ambassador.”

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