Saving Grand Central, 40 Years Later: a Cautionary Tale

Few public buildings grab you by the lapels quite like Grand Central Terminal—the blonde stone and marble, the light pouring in through vast windows, the starry night of constellations on the ceiling. Crowds surge and flow around the bulbous four-faced clock at the center of the cavernous main hall. It’s astonishing to think that the 1913 Beaux Arts building, lovingly restored and creatively re-invented in recent years, was almost destroyed.

As the Municipal Art Society of New York reminded us in a recent special exhibit, this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the right of cities to restrict development in the name of historic preservation. Then-Mayor Ed Koch called it a landmark decision in every sense, a triumph over the wrecking ball and bulldozers that had laid waste to so much else in the metropolis over the 20th century. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis famously helped lead the campaign against the redevelopment of the site, inspiring other cities to celebrate and renovate their historic structures.

But while the rescue of Grand Central seems like a clear-cut case of good over evil, the role of historic preservation in the 21st-century city can be more complex. In the years that followed the Supreme Court ruling, hundreds of buildings and neighborhoods have been given landmark status, protecting them not only from rapacious developers but from other, less ill-intentioned forces of change. Some argue that the preservation impulse can sometimes go too far, with unremarkable buildings, gas stations, and even vacant lots barred from any alteration: the city under glass. In the darkest view, historic preservation has become a front for NIMBYism—not in my backyard—curtailing affordable housing, green building, jobs, and economic development.

In his 2010 essay “Preservation Follies” in City Journal, Harvard’s Edward Glaeser pointed out that the growing amount of protected land in historic districts was rendering large tracts “unable to accommodate the thousands of people who would like to live in Manhattan but can’t afford to.” Preservation, he concluded, “turns the city into a preserve of the prosperous.”A 2013 report by the Real Estate Board of New York agreed, calling for a better balance between growth and preservation.

Is there really such a troubled flip side to this otherwise remarkable preservation sucess story? The full story of Grand Central holds many clues.

The original plans for Grand Central, from 1903, included a never-built structure over the terminal intended to be a hotel or offices. (AP Photo)

Few remember, but when it was constructed, Grand Central Terminal was itself a redevelopment project—it replaced a tangle of open-air railroad tracks for accident-prone steam engines. A design competition in 1903 led to the construction of the Beaux-Arts monument 10 years later, including all kinds of features that were extraordinary for the time, such as massive electric chandeliers. The south-facing façade was topped by Jules-Felix Coutan’s sculpture, The Glory of Commerce, featuring Greek gods and a stained-glass clock face by Tiffany.

But after World War II, the building’s heyday came to a close. The terminal’s owners—originally the railroad run by robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, New York Central, and later consolidated as Penn Central—sought to redevelop the site to raise revenue. In the 1950s, they considered several proposals, including a futuristic, swirly 80-story tower by I.M. Pei. In 1960, construction began on the Pan Am (now MetLife) building, perched atop the back of the station and providing the now-familiar termination of the vista down Park Avenue. Then Penn Central got truly feisty, with two proposals for skyscrapers designed by the 20th century modernist Marcel Breuer, plunked down on the roof of the main passenger hall.

The terminal’s iconic interior in 1954. (AP Photo)

New York City parried those plans, citing the fact that Grand Central had been designated a landmark in 1967, and the property owners sued. That’s when the Municipal Art Society launched its campaign, recruiting Onassis, celebrities like Tony Randall, Benny Goodman, Dick Cavett, and Bess Myerson, architect Philip Johnson, and other critics and politicians to the cause. They were all inspired by the demolition of Grand Central’s crosstown twin, Pennsylvania Station (McKim, Mead & White, 1910), which had been reduced to rubble in 1963 and ultimately replaced by a dreary subterranean station under the new Madison Square Garden.

In Penn Central Transportation Co. v. New York City (1978), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of New York’s landmarks law, effectively not only for that city but for all 50 states and 500 municipalities. The ruling has great significance in property rights jurisprudence and is relevant to this day. Preserving the building did not, the majority said, constitute a “taking” of the property, depriving the owners of the opportunity to build to such an extent that they should be compensated. A greater good—preserving history—was seen for the entire city. That has been an important theme in the continuing challenges to alleged regulatory takings, from preserving wetlands to creating more affordable housing.

What happened next sheds some light on how historic preservation and redevelopment can go hand in hand. The protected building didn’t just sit there; the much-celebrated restoration of Grand Central began in 1982, scrubbing the tobacco stains from the ceiling, adding a planned but unbuilt staircase, and introducing copious retail, dining, and arts programming. The transformation, completed in time for the building’s 100 birthday in 2013, has turned Grand Central into a much-visited destination by tourists and New Yorkers alike—and a center of gravity for new development all around. The city allowed the sale of air rights, under an arrangement known as the transfer of development rights, such that growth could be shifted from protected areas to more buildable land. The more recent Midtown East rezoning initiative further paves the way for tall towers in the area of 42nd Street, Grand Central’s address.

In that sense, far from restricting building, the preservation of Grand Central could be interpreted as “too much of a good thing,” according to Shelby D. Green, co-author with Nicholas A. Robinson of the recently published Historic Preservation: Law and Culture. The protection and restoration was so successful, it served as a catalyst for other development—which in turn casts shadows and otherwise substantially alters the historic character of the neighborhood. The modern city has Grand Central surrounded.

In 2016, the west side of Grand Central was exposed as construction began on a new 1,400-tall office tower next door. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

All the while, tensions continue between old and new. Traditionalists remain vigilant against proposed contemporary additions to established structures. One such drama is playing out right now at the Frick Museum on the Upper East Side, where a contemporary expansion threatens the exterior and two interior rooms, including a stately chamber music salon.

Compromises tend not to satisfy anyone. Some architects bemoan constraints on the reuse of older buildings, calling such gut jobs a “façade-omy”—a patina of authenticity, pretending to remain historic though 21st-century activity is going on inside. In Boston, for example, only the exterior of a two-century-old Charles Bulfinch building was landmarked, so that’s all that will remain as part of a new condo development. There’s a Facebook page dedicated to criticizing this practice, with many other examples from cities around the world.

In an additional twist, there is growing contention over the historic significance of mid-century modern projects—the very buildings the historic preservation movement once fought against. Marcel Breuer’s tower, had it been built, might itself be vying for landmark status now. The proposed demolition of other 20th-century office towers in Manhattan, including the JP Morgan building on Park Avenue and a since-tabled bid to raze and replace Kushner Co.’s 666 Fifth Avenue, has made it more complicated to understand where the recent past should be honored, and where history should end. Philip Johnson’s postmodern AT&T building in midtown—not universally loved by any means when it arose in 1984—became the city’s youngest landmark this summer, after plans for a re-do of the lobby alarmed preservationists.

Historic preservation, by definition, must be disciplined, if not ruthless; exceptions add up rapidly. But because so much of 21st-century city-building is about redevelopment, a marbling of old and new seems appropriate. And that requires some flexibility. I tend to agree with both Ed Glaeser and Jane Jacobs (it’s possible; he’s a fan): Cities must be allowed to evolve, even as the most cherished assets are protected.

There is no shortage of greater goods to be considered. If the East Side Access connection to the Long Island Railroad, which will vastly improve public transit for hundreds of thousands of commuters, requires some demolition in the bowels of Grand Central, that seems a suitable compromise. As many housing advocates have noted, historic preservation can indeed be just another tool to keep new—often lower-income—residents out of a neighborhood. Similarly, historic districts might reconsider bans on solar panels or triple-glazed glass. The larger goal of environmental sustainability must be considered; no Victorian cornice or copper drainpipe is going to be worth much in a city rendered uninhabitable by climate change.

At Grand Central, the victory lap is well earned. This building should not have been destroyed in the name of real-estate profits. Looking forward, though, more nuanced and creative approaches to land and building are surely warranted. Awareness of all the needs of the city may be the best way to honor the past.

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White House to Protesters: ‘Get Off My Lawn!’

From morning ‘til night, people assemble in President’s Park, the plaza between the White House and Lafayette Square. School groups in red MAGA caps cheese for photos. So do tourists, from every corner of the globe. Americans make long pilgrimages to the White House in order to stand outside and shout their piece at the office itself. Washingtonians jog across the pedestrian avenue in the evening. The so-called “Kremlin Annex” protest is still going strong, 12 weeks in and counting. One protester held her vigil there for 35 years.

The stretch of President’s Park running along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House is one of the best and most necessary public plazas in the country, a forum for American ideas (and selfies). But a new rule proposed by the National Park Service would all but prohibit civic gatherings outside the White House, spontaneous and planned alike—limiting the White House sidewalk so severely that it would cease to be a plaza at all.

The National Park Service aims to dial back the White House sidewalk from 25 feet to 5 feet, an 80 percent reduction. That’s one of a dozen proposed restrictions that would rethink civic space in federal D.C., from establishing quiet zones near memorials to charging groups for hosting demonstrations. Taken altogether, the proposal would fundamentally reshape the way that Americans exercise their rights to speech and assembly in the nation’s capital.

“The spaces around the White House and through the Washington, D.C., area have historically been places where people can express their views and places where people gather for very positive action,” says Leonard Hopper, professor at the City College of New York and a landscape architect for Weintraub Diaz. “I think we should feel threatened, in a way, if they [the administration] feel that it’s a security threat to let people gather.”  

The most visible of these changes would be eliminating public access to the White House sidewalk (which is really a pedestrian-only strip of Pennsylvania Avenue). As D.C. residents know, the Secret Service occasionally narrows this thoroughfare or closes it altogether under special circumstances, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit in April. The National Park Service aims to make this restriction permanent.

As the American Civil Liberties Union notes, the National Park Service offers no explanation for this change. In fact, the section of the proposal (as it appears in the Federal Register) that deals with President’s Park comments only on the south entrance, where restrictions are already in place. The closure proposed for the north side—where tourists, joggers, and protesters mix it up every day—only surfaces in the proposed language of the bill.

If risk is the reason for closing the White House sidewalk, then it’s redundant. The Secret Service already plans to build a new, taller fence along the north White House entrance, where pranksters or intruders have occasionally scaled the wall (including more than one person who was dressed as Pikachu). Closing the space to any and all pedestrians might in fact be doubly or triply redundant. After all, as Hopper explains, the fence itself is hardly the only security barrier in place to protect the White House.

“That might be the only visible perimeter security you see, but it’s not the only perimeter security there is,” he says. “If the security needs to be modified some way, I think that would be the approach to take, rather than limit the people’s ability to gather and express their views.”

Taken altogether, though, the National Park Service’s proposals are not entirely geared toward security theater. For example, the new codes would “[m]odify and establish restricted zones at memorials on the National Mall where special events and demonstrations would not be allowed in order to preserve an atmosphere of contemplation.” This is fairly straightforward, prescriptive language for how memorials should be used.

Demonstration-free zones already exist for the classics: the Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Washington Monument. At these memorials, the restricted areas are narrowly confined to the central memorial features: so no special events inside Honest Abe’s house. The new code would carve out restricted areas around more recent memorials—the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial—whose more modern features include significant landscape features. Closing off the public plaza that makes up much of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial would neutralize this space, giving it an assigned value and paternalistic purpose, in a way that is inconsistent with its present use (and with the values of the man it remembers).

Other wish-list items outlined by the National Park Service are more prosaic, such as charging demonstrators for services like removing trash and maintaining the green on the National Mall. Of course, the National Park Service does not currently charge any of the other 45 million people who visit the National Mall annually, so it would be tough to calculate speech-based activities as a special cost to the Mall when it was created to facilitate speech.

Elsewhere, the proposal seeks to eliminate the distinction between “special events” (things like parades or marathons) and “demonstrations,” creating a new category of “events” without spelling out the advantage to this approach. (Currently, special events always require permits, while many demonstrations do not.) The National Park Service also seeks to extend more-onerous regulations on protest signs and structures near the White House to other park areas, a measure to protect the historic viewshed of the National Mall’s historic grounds. (Despite the fact that these structures area always temporary.)

Cutting costs, streamlining regulations, and eliminating risk all seem to be motivating factors behind the National Park Service. But it’s not clear that promoting speech was considered with equal weight. Given the sweeping nature of the changes and the prospect for direct harm to the nation’s most important public plazas, it’s not clear that protecting speech was given any weight at all.

What’s more, it’s not clear who within the National Park Service is suggesting these far-reaching changes. As the ACLU notes, acting personnel currently hold several critical positions at the Department of the Interior, including director of the National Park Service. These changes are not modest, and if they are enacted, they will not go unnoticed. Closing the White House sidewalk would mean demolishing the country’s most vital public forum—and another norm shattered by the Trump administration.

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CityLab Daily: What’s Behind North Korea’s Building Boom?

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What We’re Following

Peter Pan’s Pyongyang: Kim Jong-un can’t fly, but he can build. Under his rule, the skyline of North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang, has undergone a building spree with the goal of becoming, as the blueprints call it, a “socialist fairyland.” As the leader of the desperately poor state inaugurates showy futurist apartment buildings, the rooms sit empty and even occupied buildings are often shabby, but at least it’s adding some color?

With North Korea’s small middle class growing for the first time in nearly a half century, it’s possible the wave of development has roots in liberalizing reforms—but it’s too soon to get your hopes up. Today on CityLab, Nolan Gray asks: What’s behind the Pyongyang building boom?

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

America’s Worsening Geographic Inequality

The economic gap between have and have-not places continues to widen.

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What’s America’s Most Dangerous City? It’s Hard to Know.

The way crimes are currently counted can easily confuse and mislead. It’s time for better crime reporting statistics.

Liberty Vittert

Leana Wen Takes Her Fight for Women’s Health National

Baltimore City’s health commissioner leaves her post Friday to become president of Planned Parenthood, and she’s bringing her relentless work ethic along with her.

LINDA POON

Preserving the Shotgun Homes of Miami’s 19th Century Immigrants

Many descendants of the original Coconut Grove community own property in the neighborhood today, but development is a serious concern and a large part of the community is fighting to protect their homes.

CARSON BEAR

A Nocturnal Facelift For Chicago’s Merchandise Mart

A new projected video art display on the 2.5 acre facade of theMART will bring light and color to the city’s skyline two hours a day, five days a week, 10 months a year.

KARIM DOUMAR


The Miseducation of Charlottesville

The New York Times has a remarkable investigation into how Charlottesville’s Jim Crow past transformed into “internal segregation” in its schools. The story details how even after redrawing school zones, bias in gifted programs and school discipline has steered white and black students into “separate and unequal tracks.” This quote from the city’s current mayor describes what’s behind the racial gulf:

Charlottesville is “beautiful physically and aesthetically pleasing, but a very ugly-in-the-soul place,” said Nikuyah Walker, who became its first black female mayor during the self-recrimination that swept the city after last year’s white nationalist rallies. “No one has ever attempted to undo that, and that affects whether our children can learn here.”

To accompany the story, ProPublica also mapped the data on racial disparities in educational opportunity and school discipline across the country. CityLab context: Charlottesville, one year later, and why southern schools are getting more segregated


What We’re Reading

Uber’s secret weapon: economists (Quartz)

Rural Americans are worried about drugs and jobs, but remain optimistic (NPR)

The town in Mexico that refused to become a smart city (The Guardian)

Housing market positioned for a “gentler slowdown” than 2007 (Wall Street Journal)


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.

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What’s Behind North Korea’s Building Boom?

On September 9, North Korea attributed to Kim Jong-un, in which the author calls for the construction of a “socialist fairyland.” That’s an apt description for the boom’s aesthetic, developed by Paektusan Academy of Architecture, the country’s architectural gatekeepers. Most new buildings combine and forbidden South Korean soap operas, this emerging consumer culture is also giving rise to nascent real-estate markets. Once strictly forbidden, desirable apartments are now openly traded on a black market, with state officials—themselves often involved in the trade—turning a blind eye. According to one estimate from Joung Eun-lee of the Korea Institute for National Unification, this has resulted in a tenfold increase in increase in housing prices since the 2000s.

Of course, North Korea’s future prosperity hinges on whether their unpredictable builder-president can play nice with our unpredictable builder-president. President Donald Trump has joked about building beachfront condos in the Hermit Kingdom, but the idea is not that improbable—investors in China and South Korea are exploring real estate investments in North Korea. But even if the diplomatic thaw continues, developers eyeing opportunities to do business in one of the world’s most reviled states will still have to contend with North Korea’s state-run economy and disastrous human rights record, which will continue to justify economic sanctions in the near future. Pyongyang’s striking new skyline is impressive. But like the colorful military parades on September 9, it may be mostly for show.

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America’s Worsening Geographic Inequality

It’s not just economic inequality—the gap between the rich and the poor—that is growing ever wider. Geographic inequality, the divide between rich and poor places, is too.

America’s growing geographic or spatial inequality is documented in great detail in recent studies from the Economic Innovation Group (EIG) and The Hamilton Project of Brookings Institution.

The EIG report, released earlier this week, uses data on income, jobs, business dynamism, educational attainment, unemployment, vacant housing, and poverty, to track the performance of thousands of zip codes across America over two periods, 2007 to 2011 (defined by the study as the recession) and 2012 to 2016 (recovery). They combine these key measures into a Distressed Communities Index (DCI).

Credit: Economic Innovation Group

Their analysis confirms the decline of America’s once-sturdy middle-class neighborhoods, and the splitting of the nation into areas of concentrated advantage, juxtaposed with areas of concentrated disadvantage.

Fewer than 40 percent of Americans, 120 million or so, live in middle-class neighborhoods which the study’s authors classify as “comfortable” and “mid-tier.” Another third, 106 million people, live in “at-risk” or “distressed” communities. An advantaged quarter or so of Americans, 86 million, live in affluent, “prosperous” neighborhoods. Furthermore, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged neighborhoods has increased in the past decade or so.

America’s rising neighborhood inequality is etched into its broader economic geography. The greatest concentrations of affluent neighborhoods were found in the North and East, especially around bicoastal superstar cities, with the South and East being home to the largest concentrations of distressed communities. Utah had the largest percentage of its population living in a prosperous neighborhood—about half—while California saw the greatest upward shift, with the number of residents in prosperous neighborhoods growing by more than three million.

Meanwhile, Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, and West Virginia, had the largest concentrations of distressed neighborhoods, with the latter three seeing the greatest rise in the share of their populations living in distressed communities.

Credit: Economic Innovation Group

The change in the prosperity of a zip code over the periods studied, also varied by whether the area was rural, suburban, or urban. Suburban neighborhoods were the most stable, with 61 percent of suburban zip codes experiencing no change in their DCI quintile over the two periods studied. Slightly fewer than a fifth of suburban neighborhoods moved downward, and 21 percent were upwardly mobile.

A slightly smaller share of urban neighborhoods had no change, with an even greater share being upwardly mobile (a reflection of the back-to-the-city movement and commensurate with gentrification) and an even smaller share was downwardly mobile. Rural areas were the most unstable or volatile: 30 percent experienced downward mobility, 27 percent experienced upward mobility, and just roughly 40 percent were stable. Here the study notes that, “the rungs on the ladder of community well-being are farther apart for city and suburban zip codes; for rural zip codes, they may be closer together—but they are also more slippery.”

Spatial inequality in American reflects its widening class and racial divides. Prosperous neighborhoods have larger concentrations of the creative class, while distressed neighborhoods have much larger concentrations of blue-collar workers. Distressed neighborhoods had much larger concentrations of racial minorities. As the study notes, non-white groups made up more than 55 percent of the population of distressed neighborhoods while making up less than 40 percent of the population as a whole. Whites, on the other hand, make up roughly three-quarters of the residents of prosperous neighborhoods.

A recent study from The Hamilton Project of Brookings Institution, sounds similar themes. It tracks spatial inequality over the years 1960 to 2016. To do so, it examines the performance of all 3,000-plus U.S. counties on indicators of income, poverty, life expectancy, vacant housing, and more, which it combines into an overall “Vitality Index” of its own.

Taking an even longer view, the study shows how the economic performance of different parts of the United States has diverged in recent years. In other words, after years of richer and poorer areas edging closer to each other in terms of economic performance, the trend has reversed since 1980. You can see the lines of the chart come together between 1960 to 1980 and then grow apart thereafter. This is true of each and every region of the country, east coast and west coast, Rust Belt and Sun Belt, and parts in between.

Credit: The Hamilton Project at Brookings

The result is a resurgence of geographic inequality. Today, median household income for the top 20 percent of America’s counties is more than twice as high as the median household income of the bottom 20 percent, while poverty rates are roughly three times greater in the poorest 20 percent of counties, compared to the most affluent 20 percent.

Credit: The Hamilton Project at Brookings

This economic divide can be clearly seen in their map which charts the changes in the overall Vitality Index over the past three-and-a-half decades. Blue indicates high levels of economic performance while orange reflects low levels of economic performance. The picture it shows is one of an economically divided nation, with areas high on the Vitality Index in and around the Boston-New York-Washington D.C. Corridor, in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles, and the Pacific Northwest, as well as places like Denver, Raleigh, Austin, and Atlanta in the Sun Belt. On the other side of the equation, huge areas of the Midwest, Southwest, and South, lag far behind economically

In some respects, economic vitality has simply compounded over this time. If a county was doing well 30 or 40 years ago, it tends to do well today. Almost 60 percent of counties that ranked in the top 20 percent on economic performance in 1980 did so in 2016, and nearly 90 percent of the top 40 percent of high-performing counties are the same today as they were back in 1980. If a county was doing poorly in 1980 then it also tends to perform poorly today.  More than 70 percent of counties in the bottom 20 percent on economic performance in 1980 remained there in 2016, and more than 90 percent of the poorest 40 percent of counties stayed there as well. And the counties that have done well have been those with more college grads and more highly educated populations, higher levels of density, higher rates of innovation, and less dependence on manufacturing back in 1980.

But economic performance has also varied significantly across the various regions of the country. In addition to increasing vitality in the big cities and knowledge hubs of the coasts, the energy-producing regions of Texas and the Dakotas saw significant improvements in economic vitality. The Rust Belt-particular counties in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Indiana, saw significant declines in economic vitality. Generally speaking, Rust Belt counties saw their economic performance fall from around the national average for vitality in 1980, to far below it by 2016.

The Brookings Institution research also reinforces the role of race in America’s growing spatial inequality. A second and related study uses data on economic mobility in U.S. counties from Raj Chetty and his colleagues to trace the connection between race and spatial inequality.

The study documents particularly low levels of economic mobility for black children who grow up in predominantly black communities. While black households tend to be located in low-income places, these places also have lower levels of economic mobility, which can intensify regional inequality from one generation to the next. This is in line with findings from a huge body of literature in sociology from scholars like William Julius Wilson, Robert Sampson, and Patrick Sharkey, that document the way in which many black children and families live in areas of concentrated poverty and disadvantage.

Credit: The Hamilton Project at Brookings

And these racial differences in inequality and mobility are compounded by significant differences in where black and white people live across the various regions of the country. Across the country, whites are over-represented in smaller metros and rural areas, while blacks are over-represented in the urban center of large cities and metro areas. But, these patterns differ markedly by region of the country. Metropolitan areas are home to 99 percent of blacks in the Northeast and 96 percent of blacks in Midwest. But in the South, white and black households are about equally likely to live in metropolitan areas. Furthermore, the disproportionate concentration of black households in the urbanized manufacturing areas of the Midwest and South, have disproportionately hurt their economic prospects.

Indeed, the connection between race and spatial inequality has long historical roots. The study points out that the same counties with high concentrations of the black population today are virtually the same counties that had large concentrations of the black population before the Civil War. Spatial inequality thus reflects the long history of racial subjugation running from slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, to the present.

America is not only economically unequal: Its inequality cuts sharply across geographic lines. We are becoming a country of have and have-nots that turns on where we were born or where we are able to live. And this worsening winner-take-all geography is bound up with, and reflects, our long running divides of race and class.  Increasingly, our neighborhood, and our zip code, is our economic destiny.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky provided research and editorial assistance for this article.

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Why the U.S. Needs Better Crime Reporting Statistics

President Donald Trump has long focused on Chicago as a hotbed for American crime. This came up yet again on Oct. 8, when he said that he had directed the Justice Department to work with local officials in Chicago to stem violence in a city overwhelmed by its high rate of violent crime.

With 24.1 homicides per 100,000 people—more than four times the overall U.S. rate—Chicago certainly suffers from serious problems. But, as of a September 25, St. Louis, my hometown, is called by the FBI the most dangerous city in America with over 6,461 violent crimes reported in the city limits in 2017. That’s an increase of more than 7 percent from the previous year.

St. Louis only ranks third for homicides in the U.S. by rate, but it’s the number one most dangerous city. So by what metric does the government measure “most dangerous”—and why is Trump’s focus concentrated on Chicago and not St. Louis? As a statistician studying how people can manipulate numbers, particularly crime data, it is clear to me that the way crimes are currently counted in the U.S. can easily confuse and mislead.

Crime statistics

Since 1929, the FBI has managed the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), a project that compiles official data on crime across the U.S., provided by smaller law enforcement agencies. For example, in Missouri, data is provided directly to the state by both the county police departments and the smaller municipalities. This information is then sent to the FBI.

With 18,000 different law enforcement agencies providing crime data to the FBI, there must be a standard metric of reporting. So all crimes are classified into only two categories: Part 1 and Part 2.

Part 1 crimes include murder, rape, robbery, larceny-theft and arson – the serious crimes. Part 2 crimes include simple assault, loitering, embezzlement, DUI’s, and prostitution—the less serious crimes.

Okay, makes sense. But here’s the catch: None of these crimes are weighted. When a “beautiful, innocent 9-year-old child who was laying on the bed doing her homework” is murdered in Ferguson as a retaliation killing, it counts just the same as when an individual is arrested for shoplifting $50 or more from the Dollar Store. This flawed metric allows for incredible confusion.

Take this example. You live in a nice neighborhood with a Kmart on the edge of it. “Serious” crime includes all the shoplifting from the Kmart; let’s say 150 incidents in a year. It also includes all the murders and rapes; call it 20 incidents in a year. The Kmart closes. All of a sudden, your crime rate has gone from 170 to 20: an 88 percent decrease in crime.

Chicago mayoral spokesman Matt McGrath criticized Trump’s comments to The Washington Post, saying, “Just last week, [the Chicago Police Department] reported there have been 100 fewer murders and 500 fewer shooting victims in Chicago this year, the second straight year of declines.” And really, I crunched the numbers; all serious crimes are only up 6.88 percent since 2014.

But it isn’t the serious crimes that make me look under my bed before I go to sleep at night. It’s the violent crimes. Those are up 24.27 percent in Chicago between 2014 and 2017. Murder is up 59.53 percent. (Researchers are still trying to figure out what’s caused the spike.)

This metric can be misleading. Former St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay touts “small gains” as overall crime numbers drop. Sure, the number of Part 1 crimes has actually dropped by 0.4 percent since 2014. But violent crimes in the city of St. Louis have increased 24.04 percent.

People can also get confused by the way crimes are sliced geographically. For example, in 2016, the city of St. Louis had a homicide rate of 59.8 per 100,000 people, while St. Louis County, which is separated from the city by a street, had a homicide rate of about 3.2 per 100,000. What combination of the two making up greater St. Louis gets reported in the news? Depends on the day.

New measures

Here’s what I know: The U.S. needs a better metric. How we measure crime has been contentious since the original FBI crime reporting document was released in 1929.

There are even issues with the counting itself. The FBI website removed data from Chicago’s crime statistics in 2013, because the FBI deemed it to be underreported.

Hopefully, a more accurate metric comes in with the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, scheduled to roll out in 2020. For example, if a criminal assaults someone in their home and steals jewelry as well, that’s only counted as an assault under the UCR system. Under NIBRS, both the assault and theft would be counted.

But this system doesn’t seem to address the key issue: weights. Murdering a child cannot possibly count the same as stealing from the Dollar Store. It is inconceivable that raping someone can count the same as illegal gambling. You serve different amounts of jail time based on the severity of the crime—why wouldn’t crimes also be weighted?

Cities like Chicago and St. Louis most certainly have issues with crime. But how the U.S. measures “dangerous” must be made clearer. It does a disservice to our police and our communities by allowing this misrepresentation of the facts. Until then, politicians will be able to use this confusion to confuse the public, intentionally or unintentionally.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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CityLab Daily: Voters, Unprotected

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What We’re Following

Spell it out: The November elections are nearly three weeks away, but roughly half of all states have already closed the books for voter registration. In fact, in the past decade, 24 different states have passed new restrictions on voting, the most common among them being voter ID laws. Now even people with driver’s licenses could face problems casting their ballots come November 6.

That’s certainly the case in Georgia this year. After the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the state reinstated its “exact match” program, which suspends a person’s voting status if their voter registration form doesn’t precisely match their state driver’s license and social security number. A potential mismatch could come from common nicknames, hyphens, or even a simple typo from a county election official inputting registration data. More than 51,000 people’s voting statuses have been left in limbo, and now civil rights organizations are suing the state. Today on CityLab, Brentin Mock explains how dismantling the Voting Rights Act helped Georgia discriminate again.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

Can We Go Electric Before It’s Too Late?

Plugging in cars and trucks will be critical to averting climate catastrophe, according to the IPCC. How far has the U.S. come?

Rebecca Bellan

How Manhattan Became a Rich Ghost Town

New York’s empty storefronts are a dark omen for the future of cities.

Derek Thompson

Is Sydney’s Opera House a Billboard?

After a horse race ad was projected onto the structure’s iconic roof earlier this week, protestors took to the streets in objection to the commodification of their beloved building.

Annette Lin

How a Booming City Can Be More Equitable

In Durham, North Carolina, abandoned factories are becoming tech hubs and microbreweries. But building a shared commitment to its most vulnerable citizens could be a trickier feat of redevelopment.

Barry Yeoman

San Francisco’s Scooter War Is Over, and the Scooters Won

Shared e-scooters have returned to the Bay Area. But is regulation enough to make them work in the long term?

Alexis C. Madrigal


After the Storm

Mexico Beach, Florida, before and after Hurricane Michael. (NOAA)

These photos from NOAA show the devastation that Hurricane Michael brought to the Florida Panhandle last week. Viewed from above, you can see how the storm ravaged entire neighborhoods and towns. But other parts of Florida benefitted from stringent building codes, constructed to better withstand the storm. Take a look at the storm’s brutal but uneven impact in these before-and-after photos of Michael’s destruction.


What We’re Reading

Uber and Lyft drivers fear getting “deactivated” (San Francisco Chronicle)

A record number of New York City students are experiencing homelessness (New York Times)

As e-scooters roll into American cities, so do safety concerns (NPR)

Welcome to the physical cloud: How robots and drones will change retail forever (Wall Street Journal)


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Can We Go Electric Before It’s Too Late?

According to a new report from the United Nations’ scientific panel, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), humanity has about 12 years to avoid the most dire consequences of climate change. To avert catastrophic sea level rise, food shortges, and widespread drought and wildfire, emissions must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels, and by 100 percent by 2050.

To accomplish this daunting feat, the global transportation sector will need a major overhaul. In the U.S., the world’s second-largest producer of greenhouse gases, transportation makes up the largest share of emissions. In cities, passenger vehicles and public transit fleets will have to move from fuel-burning engines to electrification, a “powerful measure to decarbonize short-distance vehicles,” according to the IPCC report.  

Advocates for electric vehicles have been saying this for decades. Where do U.S. cities stand in 2018 on electric vehicle adoption?

So far, progress has been wildly insufficient: In the U.S., close to 200,000 electric vehicles—both plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV) like the Chevy Volt and the Toyota Prius Prime and battery-electric vehicles (BEV) like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S—were sold in 2017, out of 17,340,700 vehicles. That’s only 1.15 percent of all cars sold in 2017. But, to put that in perspective, that’s a 26 percent increase from 2016, and the trend is expected to continue, according to environmental advocates and EV industry experts.

If we want a survivable world, it’ll have to. Here’s a look at the range of initiatives, regulations, and incentives that states and cities around the country are taking to embrace this future-critical technology.  

The leader of the pack

California remains the state leading the electrification charge. There, plug-in and battery electric vehicles made up 4.8 percent of total car sales in the first quarter of 2017. Earlier this year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order setting a goal of five million electric vehicles on the state’s roads by 2030. This $2.5 billion initiative will also help to bring 250,000 vehicle charging stations and 200 hydrogen fueling stations to the state by 2025. California also offers the most rebates and incentives of any state, including granting drivers of alternative-fuel cars HOV lane exemption and a Clean Vehicle Rebate Project that provides $1,500 to $2,500 to consumers who purchase light-duty zero emission vehicles and PHEVs.

Public infrastructure build-outs are in the works around the state. Los Angeles currently has a total of 1,800 EV charging stations, and hopes that this number will reach 25,000 by 2018,* according to Lauren Faber O’Connor, the city’s chief sustainability officer.

California’s work has been influential beyond its borders. Its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program has been successful in introducing EVs to the market by requiring automakers within the state to sell a certain percentage of electric cars and trucks. The same goes for the nine others that have adopted it: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. Those states represent about a third of the U.S. auto market, which should pressure automakers to expand their affordable EV offerings. “Collectively, they have a lot of purchasing power, and a lot of political power,” said Max Baumhefner, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Local efforts, nationwide

Cities from Sacramento to Austin to Burlington are undertaking efforts large and small, from electrifying bus fleets to increasing public accessibility to EVs through car-sharing programs. Last year, Atlanta passed a landmark ordinance that requires all new residential homes and public parking facilities to accommodate EVs and 20 percent of the spaces in all new commercial and multi-family parking structures to be plug-in ready. Similarly, Vermont’s energy building code requires commercial and residential projects over a certain size to include a percentage of EV supply equipment or EV-ready parking spaces.

In 2016, Columbus, Ohio won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. Fueled partly by $50 million in grant winnings, the city’s Smart Columbus public-private partnership aims to reinvent local mobility systems. According to Brendan Kelly of Drive Electric Ohio, an initiative of the statewide nonprofit Clean Fuels Ohio dedicated to improving air quality, Smart Columbus has a goal of increasing EV market penetration in the city by 500 percent by early 2020. To help the city meet this goal, Drive Electric Ohio offers a program where residents and local businesses can meet up to learn about and test drive EVs. “We’ve found that the most effective tactic for overcoming people’s misconceptions about EVs and opening them up to the possibility of buying one is to get them behind the wheel of an EV,” said Kelly.

In Texas, Austin is rapidly working on a plan to transition 330 municipally-owned vehicles into electric over the next three years. Orlando, Florida, is leveraging its status as one of the most-visited destinations in the U.S. through a program called Drive Electric Orlando in partnership with the Electrification Coalition, a nonprofit group of business leaders that aims to accelerate EV adoption for the benefit of national and economic security. “We saw an opportunity to get people into EVs as they rent cars,” said Christopher Castro, the city’s director of sustainability. “We’re working with hospitality partners, all of the theme parks, most of the hotels, all of which have charging stations.” Castro also said that Orlando has committed towards 100 percent of their fleet powered by alternative fuels by 2030. More broadly, the Florida Department of Transportation and Drive Electric Florida are working on a rollout of charging stations down the I-95 corridor on the east coast and on the I-4 from Tampa to Daytona.

Looking north, New York state offers a $2,000 rebate for the purchase or lease of a new PHEV. Earlier this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $250 million EV expansion initiative called EVolve NY in partnership with the New York Power Authority. This program will strive for public-private partnerships through the next seven years to come up with new business and ownership models, increase awareness about EVs and charging, and expand fast-charging infrastructure.

New York City’s goal is to reach 20 percent of cars sold for use in the city to be electric by 2025, up from less than 1 percent today. NYC also aims to convert its public bus system to an all-electric fleet by 2040. In Boston, 5 percent of parking citywide must be equipped with EV chargers, and 10 percent be EV-ready in new construction projects and all projects in South Boston and downtown parking freeze zones, according to the City of Boston’s EV policy. Additionally, the state of Massachusetts’ Department of Energy Resources offers EV rebates of up to $2,500.

Local governments are also working together to build influence, not unlike how states signed on to California’s ZEV program. Last month, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti launched the Climate Mayors’ Purchasing Collaborative, a online platform and resource portal that guides and encourages city leaders to obtain EVs for municipal fleets.

Collective vehicle purchases are designed to send a signal to the car market, Garcetti said. “If you build electric vehicles, we will buy them,” he told CityLab via email. “We will leverage our combined purchasing power to show that the demand for EVs is real and growing; that we want to ensure equal access at competitive prices to these vehicles; that we will build the charging infrastructure needed to make EVs the new normal.”

When the Collaborative launched last month, twenty mayors from around the U.S. committed that day to a more electric future. Austin, Aspen, Phoenix, Jersey City, and Fayetteville were among them, signing on to purchase light-duty EVs for their municipal fleets, which will be used by city employees across a range of departments, totaling 391 vehicles across all of the cities.

Thanks, Volkswagen?

Even in states that have been less welcoming to EVs, such as Wyoming, Idaho, and Kentucky, electric vehicles and charging infrastructure may soon become a part of daily life due to the 2016 Volkswagen settlement. To settle allegations of cheating emissions after the EPA and Federal Trade Commission filed claims, the automaker agreed to pay $14.7 billion. One of the U.S. Department of Justice requirements involves VW investing $2 billion ($800 million for California, $1.2 billion for the rest of the U.S.) to increase public awareness about EVs and support public charging infrastructure. States can use up to 15 percent of their allocation for infrastructure and the rest to develop programs to bolster EV access, such as Sacramento’s two new electric car-sharing models, Gig and Envoy.

Advocates say that increasing the amount of public Level 2 stations (which offer about 70 miles of range per hour of charge) and DC fast-charging stations (40 miles of range for every 10 minutes of charging) is vital to increased consumer adoption. Consumer research over the past four years shows the decision to buy an EV is directly related to the availability of this kind of infrastructure. According to a 2015-2016 study from the International Council on Clean Transportation, markets in several U.S. cities showed charging station growth of 30-80 percent which correlated with a doubling of their EV uptake.

“People feel more comfortable to buy or lease a car knowing they can charge it,” said Mary Lunetta, a representative for the Sierra Club’s Clean Transport for All campaign.  

Now, a reality check

But even in states and cities that have emphasized EV sales, however, major barriers exist.

For one thing, Americans really love to buy giant cars—crossover and SUV sales have more than doubled since 2010, and the “Big Three” American automakers keep doubling down on high-margin pickup truck offerings. So far, they have shown little interest in electrifying such large, heavy-duty vehicles. “In Texas you need a truck,” said Karl Popham, manager of EVs and emerging technologies at Utility Austin Energy. “If you don’t have an electric truck, we’re gonna continue to not see the pace needed for real growth.” And plug-in vehicles aren’t as climate-friendly in areas where the energy grid runs off coal. (Only 2 percent of the fuel mix in Florida’s energy grid, for example, is renewable.)

We’re going to need a lot more of these: A new Tesla Model 3 sits outside a showroom in Littleton, Colorado. (David Zalubowski/AP)

For EV adoption levels to reduce carbon emissions in a meaningful way, the EV market will need a massive push from every corner, from government initiatives to more affordable cars on the market to more public charging stations. Through the lens of the IPCC report, electrifying a small number of city fleets is small potatoes. Individual car owners need to make the switch, too, and fast, said Michelle Krebs, an executive analyst for Autotrader. Government “carrots” can help spur consumer adoption, she said, pointing to Norway, where EVs have a 22 percent market share due to strong incentives like no charges on toll roads or ferries, free municipal parking, and vehicle tax exemptions.

In the U.S., however, buyers are unlikely to see additional federal subsidies anytime soon. Currently, the IRS offers a tax credit of up to $7,500 for new EVs purchased for use in the U.S., but that will start to peter out once 200,000 qualified EVs have been sold by each manufacturer. Last quarter, Tesla hit the 200,000 mark, and the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Bolt are nearing it.

And EV car prices could soon be on the rise. On October 7, Senator John Barrasso, a Republican from Wyoming, introduced a bill to remove the tax credit early and instead tax EV owners more. Moves like this, in tandem with President Trump’s attempts to freeze fuel-efficiency requirements and devolve regulation of coal-fired power plants, are a hard push against meaningful efforts to combat climate change.

The new United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement, signed by President Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto last month, won’t help either. The update to the North Atlantic Trade Agreement calls for 75 percent of the content of a car or truck to be made from parts made in North America. Right now, the average conventional vehicle manufactured in the U.S. uses about 50 to 60 percent U.S.-Canadian content, but many electric vehicles are down in the 20 to 30 percent content range. Tariffs on that imported content will cause the average vehicle price to go up further, which may put downward pressure on adoption. Combined with the additional steel and aluminum tariffs, the new USMCA may mean widespread EV adoption is a pipe dream for the immediate future.

“What’s the future market for EVs? I wish I knew,” said Kristin Dziczek, a vice president of the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit market research group. “On the consumer side, it’s going to cost more, and right at the same time as incentives are pulling away and overall U.S. fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards appear to be relaxing.”

Tesla’s sleek and pricey vehicles may have helped make the company a poster child for the clean vehicle future, but it only makes up a tiny slice of the market share for all vehicles sold in the U.S., and its first mass-market offering, the $50,000-and-up Tesla Model 3, has been dogged by production and delivery delays. To make a significant dent in the internal-combustion vehicle market, major automakers would need to offer more affordable EVs in many different models to suit different lifestyles and needs. And many are working on it: Toyota, which helped popularize electric hybrid tech with the Prius, still has no battery-only EVs, but it’s aiming for 10 electrified models by 2020. Volkswagen plans to produce 50 fully electric models by 2025, and Hyundai/Kia is offering PHEV, EV, and hybrid models of their new cars.

If states and cities vigorously implemented their own incentives, rebates, and strategies to speed the EV transition, that could add up to something. Indeed, killing off internal combustion cars is one of the best shots the world has at rapid change in the transportation sector, said Seth Schultz, a special adviser on science and innovation to the Global Covenant of Mayors and a lead author on parts of the IPCC report. Cities will be critical. “The science is indicating it’s still possible scientifically and technologically, but just barely,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of time, but one of the major opportunities to have the transformation at the scale and speed we need is cities and urban development.”

That’s something that offers hope, said Garcetti. “Leadership on climate change has always started in our communities,” he said. After all, he added, “we understand on a personal level the costs of inaction and the consequences of delay.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Los Angeles hopes to build 250,000 EV charging stations by 2025. The correct number is 25,000.

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