How Dismantling the Voting Rights Act Helped Georgia Discriminate Again

Less than a month before Election Day, civil rights organizations are suing the state of Georgia for its controversial “exact match” system. The program suspends a person’s voting status if the information they enter on their voter registration form doesn’t precisely match state driver’s license and social security records.

This means that if a person lists his first name as “Tom” on his voter registration form, but his driver’s license record shows his first name as “Thomas” then his file is placed in “pending” status until it is corrected. The same goes for someone who might omit a hyphen in their last name. As of July 4, there were just over 51,000 such people whose voting status is currently in pending mode as a result of this “exact match” system, with 80 percent of those being African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. The bulk of those on that list are African Americans. What’s disturbing about this is that a section of the Voting Rights Act that was notoriously eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 could have prevented this potential tragedy.

If the voters on that pending list don’t correct their information in time, then the state can cancel their registrations—something that Georgia Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, did for nearly 670,000 voter registration forms in 2017 alone, according to the Associated Press. This is a devastating prospect given Georgia has the opportunity in November to elect its first African-American governor, Stacey Abrams, the Democratic Party’s candidate. Unfortunately, Abrams is running against Kemp, the Republican candidate, and the person who happens to be presiding over the state’s election system. The race is close enough that those 50,000-plus pending voter registrations could make a difference in the outcome, particularly if even a fraction of people of color are unable to vote.

This is not the first time Kemp attempted to tinker with voter registrations in ways that disproportionately affected people of color. Kemp introduced an “exact-match” voter registration program in 2008, when Georgia’s election administration was under federal supervision due to the now-defunct Section 5 clause of the Voting Rights Act, that was applied to states and counties with racist election histories.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated it in 2013, Section 5 required states like Georgia to submit election changes like this to the U.S. Department of Justice for review and “preclearance” before implementation. Kemp’s 2008 program failed that review because, as the Justice Department’s rejection letter read, the “flawed system frequently subjects a disproportionate number of African-American, Asian, and/or Hispanic voters to additional and, more importantly, erroneous burdens on the right to register to vote.”

Kemp’s program later passed federal muster in 2010 after he modified the program with a few new safeguards—though “it is not apparent that the Secretary of State ever followed the safeguards,” according to the lawsuit against Kemp’s current “exact match” program. Civil rights organizations sued Kemp in 2016 over this program as they discovered that his administration rejected nearly 35,000 voter registrations between July 2013 and July 2015—76.3 percent of which were for black, Asian, and Latino voters. Kemp agreed to suspend the program as part of the settlement of that suit.

“In 2016, we helped stop Georgia’s ‘exact match’ protocol that kicked thousands of voters off the voter rolls—some of them simply because they have uncommon Asian or Latino names that others commonly misspell,” said Phi Nguyễn, litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta in a press statement.

Despite that suspension, Georgia lawmakers decided to pass a law in 2017 that re-installed yet another “exact-match” program, only slightly different than the one Kemp had just suspended. Civil rights organizations warned Kemp in July of 2018 that the program was still a violation of voting rights protections, such as the National Voter Registration Act. But the state moved forward with it anyway, despite the thousands of people caught up in “pending” status for trivial reasons.

In fact, a federal Inspector General investigation found back in 2009 that verifying voter registrations through social security-matching schemes is a bad bet given that “the high no-match response rate and inconsistent verification responses could hinder the States’ ability to determine whether applicants should be allowed to vote.”

One of the biggest flaws of Georgia’s current “exact-match” program is that it relies on the work of county election officials who input voter registration data into the match system. This means that errors in the system could happen not just by the person filling out the form, but also by the election officials themselves. There are few safeguards against that kind of human fallibility. Several other states, including Virginia and Wisconsin, have since scrapped or scaled back similar “exact-match” programs after realizing the disenfranchising consequences.

Reads the legal complaint filed last week over Georgia’s current controversial “exact-match” program:

Neither Secretary Kemp, nor the Georgia Legislature, appear concerned about the disproportionate impact this “exact match” protocol is having on the ability of African-American, Latino and Asian-American applicants to complete the voter registration process. While other states have abandoned or reformed similar registration verification processes to limit the burden on their citizens, Defendant Kemp has failed to take any steps to ameliorate HB 268’s disproportionate burden on minority applicants.

It should be noted that while much attention has been placed on the high level of African-American voters caught in the crosshairs of this program—they constitute 70 percent of the currently pending voter registrations despite having only 31.6 percent of the state’s voting-age population—new citizens caught in this system might fare even worse.

According to the lawsuit, a person can be flagged not only for non-matching information, but also for potentially not being a citizen. Recently naturalized voter registrants could get pinged if they weren’t fully citizens at the time that they received their driver’s license, even if their naturalization certificates or other documented proof of citizenship is included with their voter registration form.

“For naturalized citizens, this failure is particularly onerous because a citizenship status issue will not always be resolvable at the polls. Therefore, eligible naturalized citizens that submit valid and accurate voter registrations, including proof of citizenship, are at risk of having their right to vote denied on election day,” reads the lawsuit.

For all people in pending status, election officials sends out notification letters to inform them about this. But those letters are sent only in English in all but one of Georgia’s 159 counties. While people on the pending list still have a chance to vote on election day if they show photo ID, that is not the case for people flagged as being non-citizens. Those people have to visit a deputy registrar to prove their citizenship, but most deputy registrars are not at the polling locations. They are usually at the county’s central elections office, which could be difficult to access if you live in a different city.

It should probably be a conflict of interest that one of the gubernatorial candidates, Kemp, is also in charge of supervising an election system that could potentially disenfranchise thousands of voters (Abrams has requested that Kemp resign from his secretary of state post). It’s convenient that the people most threatened by disenfranchisement under this system are the kind of voters who typically don’t vote Republican—meaning non-white voters. But this is just the latest in a long line of attempts in the former Confederate-Jim Crow state of Georgia to make voting more difficult for people of color, some of which happened under Kemp.

Besides the lawsuit of the “exact-match” program, Kemp is also being sued in two other cases alleging racial gerrymandering that threw partisan advantage to Republicans. The D.C.-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law lists nine different lawsuits it has filed against Georgia over the past 15 years accusing the state of employing policies that violate voter registration laws, dilute minorities’ votes, and that curtail election day and early voting access. The Lawyer’s Committee is also one of the plaintiffs in the current lawsuit against Kemp’s “exact match” program. Advancing Justice-Atlanta, a civil rights organizations that represents Asian Americans, is another plaintiff on this lawsuit after having just sued Kemp in 2017 for shrinking the voter registration deadline for federal runoff elections.

Many of these lawsuits could have been prevented had the U.S. Supreme Court not gotten rid of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but now we know exactly why it was needed .

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How Manhattan Became a Rich Ghost Town

These days, walking through parts of Manhattan feels like occupying two worlds at the same time. In a theoretical universe, you are standing in the nation’s capital of business, commerce, and culture. In the physical universe, the stores are closed, the lights are off, and the windows are plastered with for-lease signs. Long stretches of famous thoroughfares—like Bleecker Street in the West Village and Fifth Avenue in the East 40s—are filled with vacant storefronts. Their dark windows serve as daytime mirrors for rich pedestrians. It’s like the actualization of a Yogi Berra joke: Nobody shops there anymore—it’s too desirable.

A rich ghost town sounds like a capitalist paradox. So what the heck is going on? Behind the darkened windows, there’s a deeper story about money and land, with implications for the future of cities and the rest of the United States.

Let’s start with the data. Separate surveys by Douglas Elliman, a real-estate company, and Morgan Stanley determined that at least 20 percent of Manhattan’s street retail is vacant or about to become vacant. (The city government’s estimate is lower.) The number of retail workers in Manhattan has fallen for three straight years by more than 10,000. That sector has lost more jobs since 2014, during a period of strong and steady economic growth, than during the Great Recession.

There are at least three interlinked causes. First, the rent, as you may have heard, is too damn high. It’s no coincidence that retail vacancies are highest in some of the most expensive parts of the city, like the West Village and near Times Square. From 2010 to 2014, commercial rents in the most-trafficked Manhattan shopping corridors soared by 89 percent, according to ­CBRE Group, a large real-estate and investment firm. But retail sales rose by just 32 percent. In other words, commercial rents have ascended to an altitude where small businesses cannot breathe. Some of the city’s richest zip codes have become victims of their own affluence.

Second, the pain of soaring rents is exacerbated by the growth of online shopping. It’s typically simplistic to point at a problem in the U.S. and say, “Well, because Amazon.” But it is no coincidence that New York storefront vacancy is climbing just as warehousing vacancy in the U.S. has officially reached an all-century low: A lot of goods are moving from storefronts to warehouses, where they are placed in little brown boxes rather than big brown bags.

Walking around the Upper East Side, where I live, I find it striking how many of the establishments still standing among the many darkened windows are hair salons, nail salons, facial salons, eyebrow places, and restaurants. What’s the one thing they have in common? You won’t find their services on Amazon. The internet won’t cut my hair, and not even the most homesick midwesterner goes online to order a deep dish to be delivered from Chicago to New York. Online shopping has digitized a particular kind of business—mostly durable, nonperishable, and tradable goods—that one used to seek out in department stores or similar establishments. Their disappearance has opened up huge swaths of real estate.

One might expect that new companies would fill the vacuum, particularly given the evidence that e-commerce companies can boost online sales by opening physical locations. But that brings us to the third problem: Many landlords don’t want to offer short-term leases to pop-up stores if they think a richer, longer-term deal is forthcoming from a national brand with money to burn, like a bank branch or retail chain. The upshot is a stubborn market imbalance: The fastest-growing online retailers are looking to experiment with short-term leases, but the landlords are holding out for long-term tenants.

New York’s problems today are an omen for the future of cities. Most people don’t live downtown because they love drifting off to the endearing sounds of honking cars and hollering investment bankers. Rather, they want access to urban activity, diversity, and charm—the quirky bars, the curious antique shops, the family restaurant that’s been there for generations—and the best way to buy that access is to own a bedroom in the heart of the city.

What happens when cities become too expensive to afford any semblance of that boisterous diversity? The author E. B. White called New York an assembly of “tiny neighborhood units.” But the 2018 landlord waiting game is denuding New York of its particularity and turning the city into a high-density simulacrum of the American suburb. The West Village landlords hoping to lease their spaces to national chains are turning one of America’s most famous neighborhoods into a labyrinthine strip mall. Their strategy bodes the disappearance of those quirky restaurants, curious antique shops, and any coffee shops that aren’t publicly traded on the NYSE.

In Jane Jacobs’s famous vision of New York, the city ideally served as a playful laboratory, which nursed new firms and ideas and exported its blessedly strange culture to the world. Today’s New York is the opposite: a net importer of the un-weird, so desperate to bring in national chains to pay exorbitant leases that landlords are willing to sit on barren blocks.

Economics assures us that, in the long run, prices and strategies move toward an equilibrium; macroeconomics abhors a vacuum even more than physics (but apparently less than Fifth Avenue landlords). As vacancies pile up, one would think that desperate property owners would lower the rent to make room for a new generation of unique shops. In this vision, today’s vacancies are a necessary torment, the grassland fire whose ashes will nourish new native species and bring forth a better ecosystem. And, jeez, how many Wells Fargos and Duane Reades can one city block take?

But in the past five years, the problem of rising vacancies and monotony has actually gotten worse. It would be one thing if New York were simply trading eccentricity for accessibility—that is, knocking down fusty establishments to build new apartments with affordable housing. But the median home value in Manhattan is still over $1 million. For both middle-class families and emerging companies looking for a foothold in the city, it’s the same dispiriting picture: rising returns to incumbent businesses and legacy wealth, with fewer chances for the upstarts, the strivers, the rest.

“America has only three cities,” Tennessee Williams purportedly said. “New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” That may have been true once. But New York’s evolution suggests that the future of cities is an experiment in mass commodification—the Clevelandification of urban America, where the city becomes the very uniform species that Williams abhorred. Paying seven figures to buy a place in Manhattan or San Francisco might have always been dubious. But what’s the point of paying New York prices to live in a neighborhood that’s just biding its time to become “everywhere else”?

This article originally appeared in The Atlantic.

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How a Booming City Can Be More Equitable

The area code for Durham, North Carolina is 919. And so, at 9:19 on a Friday night in June, about twenty teens, mostly African American, converge on the city’s main square. Known as CCB Plaza for the bank that once stood here, it’s a square block surrounded by hotels and safeguarded by a one-ton anatomically correct bronze bull named Major.

The kids look uncertain; it has started to rain. They turn to one of their leaders, 34-year-old Pierce Freelon, who looks at the sky and shrugs his assent. A laptop comes out, followed by a speaker, and a bassy beat spreads over the square. A circle forms. Then come the words that initiate every Friday night here.

“Say ‘Cypher, cypher!’” a voice calls out.

“Cypher, cypher!” 20 voices respond.

In the language of hip-hop, a cypher is a gathering for freestyle rap. This one is organized by Blackspace, a project that Freelon runs inside a downtown tech hub. Durham’s weekly event showcases the kids who take Blackspace’s hip-hop class, but it’s also open to all who want to test their poetic chops. “Everyone’s our friend,” says 17-year-old Khamisi Jackson. “You don’t even have to be a rapper. We’re open for anyone to come in and basically do whatever they want.”

Ray Lansing is a regular at Blackspace’s cypher in downtown Durham. “The cypher, for me, is like a throwback to Congo Square in New Orleans,” says Blackspace founder Pierce Freelon.  “The cypher is part of that ancestral legacy. We are communal, we are loud, and we are creating that lifeblood that has defined the city.” (Alex Boerner)

The themes jump from Jesus to gentrification to sunflowers to black youth leadership. “You be the voice of your generation,” one poet says. “You be the difference.”

Strangers wander over. The circle widens. “Y’all come in,” someone calls. “Don’t be scared.” Families with toddlers and dogs appear, along with a middle-aged county official and her husband. The rain picks up; the kids cover the laptop with extra layers of plastic. Within an hour, the circle has widened to 100—a racial and generational cross-section of the city. The weather has driven almost no one away.


The memory of that night sticks with me. For months, I’ve been thinking about the craft of building a community: how to stoke economic vitality in a city without leaving cultural vitality, in a form that’s shared with everyone, behind. If community means anything, it seems, it should create a shared sense of belonging.

Durham, a city of 260,000 where I’ve lived for more than 30 years, seems like a place that has figured out this formula. Civic life is an obsession here. We elect social justice activists to City Council; our local institutions push back against the national animus toward immigrants, Muslims, and those under the LGBTQ umbrella (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer). We support small businesses, particularly ones that pay a living wage. On the streets, people say hello to each other.

But building community, I’ve found, is not like building a house. Or, more accurately, it’s like building a house with a bunch of partners using different blueprints, while others are disassembling the foundation and yet others have confiscated some of the tools.

When I arrived in the city as a reporter in 1985, I couldn’t find a welcoming pub, and I had to drive five miles into the suburbs for a decent pizza. Hearing live music meant leaving town. Without a vibrant streetscape, people didn’t walk. Economically, the city was hurting, too. The tobacco and textile factories that defined Durham’s economy were shutting down. In the 1960s, an expressway cleaved the city center in two, wiping out a neighborhood called Hayti, once known as the “Mecca of Black Capitalism.” Even after 20 years, downtown had not yet recovered: Many of its buildings were vacant, and its streets emptied at 5.

American Tobacco’s Lucky Strike factory shut down in 1987—the most visible symbol of Durham’s industrial decline. It sat vacant for 17 years before reopening as a mixed-use complex with restaurants, offices, apartments, and an artificial river. (Alex Boerner)

Today, Durham is enjoying a headline-grabbing renaissance. Downtown pulses with microbreweries and international dining. A once-empty tobacco factory now boasts apartments, a public-radio studio, and an artificial river. (“The mark of a successful city,” The Atlantic’s James Fallows writes in his new book, Our Towns, “is having a river walk, whether or not there’s a river.”) Another old cigarette factory has become a biotech incubator. Jazz and R&B pour from clubs. Cocktail bars sling $16 coladas.

By one survey, Durham is now the South’s fifth-most diverse mid-sized city. But its economic resurgence is not being distributed equitably. In a city with no majority race, the patrons of these businesses are disproportionately white. Likewise, white professionals are buying up houses in central-city neighborhoods, driving up prices and making it harder for people of color to remain.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the story of urban America in the 21st century. “People have fallen back in love with cities,” says Gustavo Velasquez, an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration and now a program director at the Urban Institute. “You have a complete reversal of what we saw back in the ’70s and early ’80s. Now the place to be is as close to the major job centers as possible.”

That in-migration has costs, though. In Washington, D.C., where Velasquez focuses his energies, “we are losing more minorities and more low-income people than gaining.”

That’s why I keep thinking about the cypher in the rain. On the surface, it was an explosion of pure egalitarian joy: the coming together of Durhamites of different races and ages to make poetry together. But it was also a deliberate effort to reclaim the commons—and a commitment to black youth that they are essential to city life, and worth whatever effort it takes to keep them here.

Pierce Freelon, the Durham-born founder of Blackspace, told me that 20th-century highway-building and 21st-century gentrification are, to him, flip sides of the same phenomenon: the pushing of a city’s most vulnerable to the periphery by free-market forces that open an increasingly wide chasm of racial and economic inequality. “Community,” he said, “is about thwarting that trajectory.”

Maslow’s heirarchy of needs: level one

One way to think about the ingredients for a solid, well-rounded community is to use psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs,” which start with basic survival requirements like food and shelter. While food security is a serious concern, shelter—a home you can afford—has been the primary battle in Durham.

I’m hesitant to overuse the term “gentrification” because it is so loaded, so overworked, and so vague. But whatever you want to call at it, the housing problem is getting worse. In 2015, Governing looked at low-wealth neighborhoods in the United States’ 50 largest cities and found that 20 percent had experienced sharp spikes in home values since 2000. That compared to just 9 percent in the 1990s.

The trend is taking a wider and wider toll: A 2017 study by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene showed that people displaced from their neighborhoods were twice as likely to be hospitalized for mental illnesses. One cause is “root shock”—the distress that comes from being torn away from one’s social networks.

“In nearly every other industrialized nation besides the United States, there is near-consensus that purely private land markets will not meet the needs of the poor,” wrote Peter Moskowitz in the 2017 book How to Kill a City, “and so measures have been taken to ensure that at least some land remains off the market or subject to regulations that make it affordable.” But local governments in the U.S. tend to encourage high-end residential and commercial growth. That might augment the tax base, Moskowitz writes, “but it also reshapes what cities are, turning them into explicit supporters of inequality.”

Durham isn’t as expensive as San Francisco and New York. But three-figure rents here are disappearing, and the median home is now listed for sale at $283,000. And Durham’s local officials have limited options to offset the trend, thanks to North Carolina state law. “We have a legislature that is using its power to clamp down on cities,” says Durham Mayor Steve Schewel. “There are many things we’d like to do in Durham that we can’t.”

For example, municipalities here are barred from practicing inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to set aside a percentage of their units for lower-income families. Should cities go rogue, the state legislature can yank funding for essential needs like public transit, or bully a city, as it did when lawmakers ordered Durham to extend water and sewer into an environmentally sensitive area.

I’ve watched the housing crisis play out in my own neighborhood, which is sandwiched between downtown and Duke University and mirrors the city’s demographics. For much of my 30 years here, I was calling in gunshots nightly. Now century-old bungalows and Craftsman-style houses are being renovated and flipped for ten times what I paid in 1987. Crime has gone down, for which I’m grateful. But in today’s free market, older residents, artists, activists, and working-class families, all of whom gave this neighborhood its texture, are often priced out.

There is one thing, however, that has helped our neighborhood remain economically diverse: Around the time I moved here, my neighbors welcomed a nonprofit with an innovative homeownership model. The Durham Community Land Trust fixes up houses and resells them to families earning below a certain income. (Land Trust families own their buildings, but not the land underneath; instead, they sign a renewable 99-year lease.)

Nationwide, there are about 300 community land trusts, according to the National Community Land Trust Network, and they have deep historical roots: 19th-century utopian thinkers, Israel kibbutzim, and India’s gramdan system of private land donated back to the village. Families buy the houses at below market prices; when they sell, it must be to another qualified buyer, at a modest mark-up limited by a formula. This keeps the houses permanently affordable. The trust has also provided credit counseling to help prevent foreclosures and worked with residents to advocate for better policing and infrastructure. “We consider ourselves to be in the trenches with people in this community,” says executive director Selina Mack.

On a summer weekend, I visited one of my newest neighbors. Laura Friederich is a forensic chemist who, even with a professional salary, wasn’t making enough to buy a house on the open market. She’d been renting a mother-in-law unit on the periphery of town when she found a three-bedroom Land Trust house with a screened-in front porch for $141,000. “A miracle,” she says.

Laura Friederich stands outside the house she bought with the help of the Durham Community Land Trustees. (Alex Boerner)

We sat on that porch and watched the street, which is narrow and enlivened by neighbors with long histories together. “I love how much on top of each other everybody is,” she said. “People are noisy; they’re happy; they’re partying. I really like the mess of humanity.” She also likes the land trust model: “You’re choosing solidarity or community over increasing wealth.”

But this is a complicated trade-off, as I learned from my friend Alisa Johnson, an English professor who has lived in a Land Trust house since the 1990s. “In the African-American community, homeownership is always tied to wealth development,” Johnson said. (She and her husband, like many Land Trust owners, are black; Friederich is white.) “Love the house. Love the neighborhood. Honor the commitment that I made. But when we sell, we’re going to be more deeply under water than most of our neighbors.” In other words, they won’t have the equity required for a market-rate home.

There are nonprofit models that allow homeowners to build more wealth, but here’s the rub: Once a house is sold at market rate, it’s removed from the low-cost pool. Unless and until we change the rules and incentives of today’s free market, there’s no perfect way to craft affordable community. There is only a series of possibilities, all of them compromises, creeping collectively toward a solution.

Maslow’s middle levels: work and belonging

Two years ago, I visited the port city of Cádiz, in Spain. A friend asked me to join him as he picked his up daughter from school. Our destination was less than a half-mile away, yet it took almost two hours to walk there through the old city’s winding 18th-century streets, because he had a neighbor to greet every 50 feet. There were faces to kiss and hair to tousle, an impromptu beer at a neighborhood bar, and a visit with the men in my friend’s social club.

Whenever I travel overseas, I am reminded how rarely we see this kind of community life playing out in U.S. cities. That’s why lively public spaces like Durham’s CCB Plaza are essential to a city’s self-definition—to the feeling that this is a place to live in rather than drive through.

“The square is a gathering place where all kinds of things happen,” says Fred Kent, founder of Project for Public Spaces, a New York-based nonprofit. To Kent, the ideal square “is one you can improvise.” When spontaneous activities bring diverse people together, he says, the result is magic. “If there’s a Wednesday night market and you have dancing, you’ve hit a home run.”

That’s why I keep thinking about Blackspace’s Friday night cypher. It is the moment each week when the city center feels most alive with creative energy that crosses class lines. These events are a mix of the conscious and the spontaneous. But they don’t emerge from the ether: Their occurrence is the result of collaboration between Durham’s business and creative sectors.

Like many cities, Durham boasts a technology incubator that has attracted young entrepreneurial energy downtown. It’s called American Underground (AU) because it began in the basement of American Tobacco, the renovated factory with the faux river. Then, like a plant with a rhizome system, AU spread across the railroad tracks and popped up in two Main Street buildings. It markets itself as a “counter-story to Silicon Valley” for both its urban location and its efforts to nurture women- and minority-owned businesses. “We had goals of being the most diverse tech hub in the world,” says Jes Averhart, AU’s former director of corporate and community partnerships.

From left: Melissa Anderson, Taylor Fisher, Maya Cooke and Heather Russell work on software integration in their third-floor office in the American Underground in Durham, North Carolina. (Alex Boerner)

History suggests that Durham should be an ideal place for such a hub: The city has a long legacy of African-American entrepreneurship. In 1911, Booker T. Washington visited Durham and met “prosperous doctors, lawyers, [and] preachers” living in homes with “electric lights and steam heat and baths and all the modern equipments,” he wrote. “This was the city of cities to look for prosperity of the Negroes and the greatest amount of friendly feeling between the two races of the South.”

Blackspace opened in 2016, moving into this downtown space rent-free, and began offering classes in hip-hop, poetry, videography, coding, game design, and puppetry. Blackspace founder Freelon, a hip-hop and jazz musician, immediately recognized what this could mean for the teens in his charge: “access to downtown prime real estate” and “skin in the game at AU.”

One recent Thursday night, 10 teens squeezed into Blackspace’s suite. Kevin Joshua “Rowdy” Rowsey II, a musician and emcee who runs the hip-hop program, was assigning an exercise. “I want you to be a news reporter,” he said. “I want you to write from the voice of the community. If you can’t think of anything, just start to scribble.”

Seven minutes later, the kids were performing their poems, many of them about police shootings of young black men. This process, and this material, would fuel subsequent cyphers. “I was never bold enough to perform in front of people,” said 19-year-old Alyssa Gurnell, who had been writing poems for years. After taking Blackspace classes, she now raps at CCB Plaza.

Maslow’s final level: creativity

Compared to housing, the arts might seem like a trifle. But Jeremy Liu, a senior fellow at the nonprofit PolicyLink in Oakland, California, insists that integrating arts and culture is essential to developing equitable communities. “There’s a whole realm of epidemiology now that looks at social factors as determinants of health for individuals and populations,” he said. “How much agency you feel over your life actually is a huge determinant.”

Just as political engagement and protest help build autonomy, “the role of arts and culture and other creative practices in supporting folks who feel they have agency is immeasurable. It’s tremendous.”

In a report last year, PolicyLink cited several examples: When a light-rail line was built in Minneapolis, the city developed a walkable district celebrating Native American culture; in New York City’s East Harlem, local officials turned an abandoned school into affordable live-work spaces for artists and their families; North Philadelphia created the Village of Arts and Humanities, a cluster of art parks that provides jobs for youth of color.

But in the U.S., government arts funding is minuscule compared to what’s spent in Canada and Western Europe. (Per capita, Germany spends 40 times more on the arts than the U.S.) “The public often views the profession of ‘artist’ as not serious,” a team from the Urban Institute wrote in 2003. As a result, “many artists struggle to make ends meet. They often lack adequate resources for health care coverage, housing, and for space to make their work.”

This was on my mind one night last summer, as I drove to a Durham gallery called The Carrack. It was opening night for a show by a half-dozen artists called The Baghdad Battery. It looked like a magical-realist archeology museum: A concrete urn covered in chainmail sat on a Plexiglas pedestal that housed a fog machine; another dangled from a tapestry of a jet flying over Baghdad during the U.S. invasion.

The Carrack looks like a conventional professional gallery, but it’s a nonprofit, funded by the community: Artists who show their work there keep all the revenue from the sales. This turns out to be a game changer, particularly for newer artists and those without access to capital.

The Carrack’s mission has evolved over time, says Laura Ritchie, the gallery’s first director. In 2011, she and sculptor John Wendelbo started inviting friends to exhibit in a downtown loft they were renting. They couldn’t afford to pay the artists. “But we could say there’s no application fee. There’s not even a requirement to have a full body of work complete. We just want you to have a great idea, and we want to see enough of your work to believe that you can pull it off.”

I went to a lot of The Carrack’s early shows, which sometimes featured live music, short films, and theater performances. The artists literally had possession of the gallery keys, and that sparked a sense of possibility. The downtown renaissance was just taking off, and the gallery was the kind of DIY space that comported with the city’s scrappy self-image.

But just as downtown’s comeback shifted its racial dynamic, the Carrack started to feel a bit monochromatic. “The first couple of years, we were not thinking critically about that,” says Ritchie, who is white. Applications from people of color were low, “and we weren’t asking why. We were just thinking, ‘It’s free to apply. It’s zero commission. There are no barriers.’”

Carrack Gallery director Saba Taj watches a performance at The Fruit in Durham, North Carolina. The Fruit was once a refrigerated warehouse for fruits and vegetables; it’s now a 22,000-square-foot art space. (Alex Boerner)

Just lowering the barriers, however, wasn’t enough: The Carrack needed to reach out. Richie and her volunteer team and advisory board began talking with minority artists and visiting other organizations and events. “It was not at all hard to find an incredible wealth of talent,” she says. Last year, for the first time, Ritchie says, more than half the exhibits and programs were led by, or featured, people of color.

Then Durham’s downtown renaissance forced the gallery to move—not uncommon in neglected neighborhoods that artists help revive. The Carrack relocated to a historically black neighborhood; in a further twist, now that community is feeling real-estate pressures of its own. “How do we exist as art spaces, which also end up becoming gentrifying forces?” asks Saba Taj, The Carrack’s new director. “That’s something we have to actively work against.”

Tying it all together

Reading the post-World War II history of American cities, I’m struck by the central role that political organizing played against efforts to destroy communities in the name of what developers and planners called progress. In the 1950s, New York’s “master builder,” Robert Moses, wanted to ram a four-lane highway through Washington Square Park. Greenwich Village residents banded together to stop him. Moses famously dismissed the opposition as “a bunch of mothers.” But in 1959 the mothers prevailed.

“Highway revolts” like these were soon brewing nationwide. In San Francisco, folksinger Malvina Reynolds entertained a 1964 rally with her anti-freeway song, “The Golden Octopus.” In Washington, D.C., activists distributed handbill in 1967 saying, “No more white highways through black bedrooms.”

Durham had its own highway revolt in the 1970s, when African Americans and white liberals formed an alliance to fight an extension of the expressway that obliterated the Hayti neighborhood a decade earlier. In the end, they scored a partial victory: The expressway went forward, but it was realigned enough so the Crest Street neighborhood could be rebuilt around a church that was spared.

That expressway battle helped launch a political coalition in Durham that took over local government by putting together biracial electoral tickets. The original alliance has since crumbled, but the tradition of multiracial government persists, and some of the Crest Street activists—including Mayor Schewel—are still around.

Such grassroots organizing plays a newly critical role in gentrifying cities, says the Urban Institute’s Velasquez—as a counterweight to newcomers who might not understand the need for a sense of commonweal. “Demographically and economically, cities are shifting,” he says. “You have more high-income people coming in, year after year after year, and their mindset is not in this strong mobilizing, advocacy network.”

To see how grassroots advocacy plays out in 21st-century Durham, I headed down to City Hall, where about 75 people, representing a dozen organizations, had gathered outside for a press conference. These activists were calling on the city to use the site of a soon-to-be-decommissioned police headquarters into affordable housing. Among the speakers were a retired teacher assistant, an ex-prisoner, and a woman who was left homeless after a house fire. Many held mirrors. The Rev. Heather Rodrigues of Duke Memorial United Methodist Church explained why: “What we do with the land around us reflects who we are, and what we believe, as a community.”

“I believe it’s important to blend Pentecostalism with social justice,” says the Rev. Herbert Davis. He has become one of the city’s most visible advocates for affordable housing and respectful policing. (Alex Boerner)

The event’s key sponsor was Durham Congregations Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), a multifaith organization that works on issues involving low- and moderate-income residents. The Rev. Herbert Davis, who co-chairs CAN’s strategy team, calls it a platform for translating religious conviction into community-building—“so that you’re reading Scripture in a way that you feel called to address injustice.”

After the City Hall press conference, I had coffee with CAN’s lead organizer, Ivan Parra. He explained that the organization’s priorities are bottom-up and come from intensive listening sessions, with literally thousands of people, which the leaders of CAN’s member institutions are trained to conduct. “People are invited to talk in very personal terms,” he said.

CAN then hashes out options for smarter policies. “If affordable housing is the big problem, and we can’t get inclusionary zoning, what is the most strategic path?” Parra said. They decided to focus on one power the City Council retains, even in the face of state preemption: determining what happens to city-owned land.

Still, CAN knew the fight to build inexpensive housing on the police site would meet resistance: Some city staffers wanted to sell it to the highest bidder and use the proceeds for affordable housing elsewhere. To overcome those objections, “we’d really need to push hard, in a very public way,” Parra said.

After the outdoor event disbanded, the crowd moved into City Hall, where the council was meeting. They took almost every available seat and deputized a spokesman to address the council formally. That afternoon, following a long discussion, council members agreed to list affordable housing as their top priority in the site’s redevelopment.

Afterward, Parra sent me a text. “The craft of building community,” he wrote, “requires 1) relational face to face meetings, 2) training of leaders, 3) collective planning/analysis of power situation, 4) collective action.”

Yes, and more. It also requires a willingness to confront difficult truths about inequality and poverty. These are principles that are baked, albeit imperfectly, into this city’s value system. “Durham has a tradition of fixing problems in public,” said Parra.

If Durham’s history is proof of anything, it stands for the idea that building community is an all-hands effort that requires buy-in from everybody—elected officials, civic organizations, religious leaders, artists, and businesses. And it can only be built by lowering barriers—to owning a home, to exhibiting your paintings, to launching a startup, to gaining a voice in public policy, to feeling like you belong in the town square.

This story was adapted from “The Soul of Community,” published in the Fall 2018 issue of Craftsmanship Quarterly. Go here to sign up for the free Craftsmanship newsletter.

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Resilience calls for Smart Planning and Great Leadership

Fear can spurn action but it can often be paralyzing. When it comes to “acts of God,” leaders can take a fatalistic or resigned approach. We can’t prevent earthquakes or hurricanes, so if the big one hits, what really can we do about it? The fallacy in this approach is an all or nothing perspective. The belief that if I cannot solve the entire problem, then why bother?

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A Nocturnal Facelift For Chicago’s Merchandise Mart

After 80 years, theMART—Chicago’s 1930s-era market and office building that dominates the skyline—is getting a makeover. But it won’t require any major construction or renovations. Instead, the building’s massive riverside facade will be awash in color and light, as high-tech projectors from across the river display moving artwork on its face.

Here’s how it works: Obscura Digital, a company specializing in architectural projections, set up a total of 34 projectors, shooting over 1 million lumens (a typical household lightbulb displays roughly 800 lumens). Sixteen projectors shoot the display on the left side of the building, and 16 on the right side. Two more handle the middle tower. It’s no easy task—they need multiple projectors so that the show is bright enough, but keeping them calibrated can prove difficult, especially since they all must work to project a two dimensional image reasonably onto a jagged surface, all while avoiding the windows so as to not disturb people inside.

Obscura Digital

But that’s not even the hardest part. “The biggest technical challenges were to build a long-term sustainable, weatherproof, secure, stable (vibration-resistant), and serviceable system,” said Matthew Ragan, Obsura Digital’s lead software engineer on the project in an email. Valerio Dewalt Train Associates, a Chicago-based architecture and design firm, helped with the projection placement and construction.

Obscura Digital

Art on theMART debuted September 29. Thousands of viewers lined the river to watch the initial two-hour long show as different visual projections danced across the 4-million square foot building. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel called the show, “a visionary project that brings Chicago’s legacy of public art and iconic architecture into the future.”

Obscura Digital

The artists for the first show, Diana Thater, Zheng Chongbin, Jason Salavon, and Jan Tichy, were chosen by Art on theMART executive directory Cynthia Noble and a Curatorial Advisory Board, which is made up of curators and contemporary art leaders in Chicago.

Obscura Digital

These artists’ work will stay on display every Sunday through Wednesday for two hours after dusk until the end of the year. Then, the city of Chicago and theMART will collaborate to choose the next batch of artists, who will debut in March, 2019. “Right now Cynthia Noble and theMART team are thinking about the programs seasonally, but have an open mind as they explore the limitless possibilities for this public art platform,” Ragan said.  

Obscura Digital

Most projection shows in large public spaces become not just a spot for public art, but for advertising. In fact, a recent horse racing promotion projected onto the Sydney Opera House recently came under fire for monetizing a world heritage site. That won’t happen here. Funded by Vornado Realty Trust as a gift to the City of Chicago, all of the partners have said they’ll keep the space exclusively for large-scale public artwork, and not advertisements.   

“And as an ever-changing installation,” Ragan said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the curatorial approach evolves over time.”

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Before-and-After Photos of Michael’s Destruction

On Wednesday, Hurricane Michael became the strongest-ever storm on record to make landfall in the Florida Panhandle, pummeling coastal towns with winds of up to 129 miles per hour and a storm surge of several feet. The Category 4 hurricane blasted the windows out of buildings, ripped off roofs, and knocked down trees and power lines by the hundred.

Even after it was downgraded to a tropical storm, Michael spawned tornadoes as it tracked north and triggered flash flooding from Georgia up to New Jersey. The storm’s death toll currently stands at 13 and may rise.

The devastation the storm wreaked is clear in stark before-and-after imagery from NOAA. Toggling back and forth between different layers of the online satellite map, you see that neighborhoods that were once verdant and orderly now have far fewer trees and are strewn with the debris of flattened structures.

Here are before-and-after images of the same section of the worst-hit town, Mexico Beach:

In a more zoomed-out view, the whole town appears to have been decimated. “The mother of all bombs could not have done all this,” one local resident said.

But Michael did not mete out the same pain to everyone along this stretch of coastline. Other places in the NOAA images appear to be more or less intact. Florida has among the nation’s most stringent building codes, and buildings constructed to its standard have better odds of withstanding a storm of this ferocity.

Take Seaside, the beach town that’s famous as a paragon of New Urbanism and was Jim Carrey’s pastel-hued dystopia in the movie The Truman Show. Seaside is 30 miles west of hard-hit Panama City and 90 miles west of Mexico Beach. Yet it emerged from Michael relatively unscathed:

Seaside was developed starting in the 1980s. Mexico Beach, on the other hand, is “Old Florida,” and many of its buildings predate the stricter requirements.

Mobile homes are very common in the Panhandle, and their residents were especially vulnerable to Michael’s wrath. The storm ruined a trailer park in Panama City, Florida. In Seminole County, Georgia, near the Florida state line, an 11-year-old girl died after strong winds hurled a metal carport into her trailer.

There is something else the NOAA imagery reveals: ongoing beachfront construction. Despite climate scientists’ predictions that rising seas will encroach on the Panhandle’s beaches and more violent storms will pound them, people are still building homes by the water, undaunted.

An empty lot on the beach in a “before” image of unknown date…
…has two new houses on it by the time of the “after” image.

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Is Sydney’s Opera House a Billboard?

If you had been in Sydney on Tuesday night wandering by the Harbour Bridge, you would have looked across Circular Quay and noticed something unusual about the Opera House: its white sails were… not white.

Instead, they were covered by a light projection of the barrier draw for the Everest Cup, one of Sydney’s biggest horse races and the world’s “richest turf horse race,” according to their website. Cloaked in checkered jockey’s colors that were interspersed with the logo of the Cup, the internationally-admired landmark looked like a court jester’s uniform.

While Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised Racing NSW, the company behind the exercise, for taking advantage of Sydney’s “biggest billboard,” protestors shone their flashlights and torches along the structure’s façade, objecting to the commodification of their beloved building. Online, #SailsNotSales began trending, and more than 300,000 people signed a petition against the landmark’s transformation into a commercial platform after Opera House CEO Louise Herron, who had originally turned down the request to broadcast the draw, was ordered by the New South Wales (NSW) State Government to go ahead with the projection. According to a government spokesperson, while the Opera House is an important national icon, the priority was to promote a major event that contributed to the state’s economy.

Was the visual pollution worth it? There is no data showing the Everest Cup’s direct economic contribution to the city of Sydney and state of NSW but even without advertising, the Opera House contributes $552 million to the Australian economy each year and has an estimated “cultural and iconic value” at $3.3 billion, according to figures calculated by Deloitte in 2014.

The push and pull between civic beauty and urban commerce is not unique to Sydney or the 21st century. In 1893, the City Beautiful movement emerged out of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago that year, advocating for the city not just as a site of economic activity, but also of aesthetic inspiration, manifesting in the development of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as part of the McMillan Plan; the Cleveland Mall in Ohio; and the 1900-1915 redevelopment of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The movement’s emphasis on monumental architecture and pleasant landscaping influenced much of Australia’s own Federation-era planning in the early 20th century, paving the way for the beautification of inner city Perth as well as Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin’s urban plan for the new capital city of Canberra. It also influenced leading planners in Sydney to embrace the city’s natural harbor setting. Eventually, this would lay the groundwork for a striking Opera House to adorn the tip of Bennelong Point.

The Opera House is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of only three in Australia to qualify under the “Cultural” category as a “a great architectural work of the 20th century.” In an open letter, the Heritage Council of NSW pointed out that “commercial advertisement conflicts with the framework of heritage significance…, which may impact UNESCO expectations of management of this unique World Heritage site.” Australia’s Federal Department of the Environment and Energy, which manages World Heritage listings, declined to comment. In a statement to The Guardian, a spokesperson from UNESCO said: “The World Heritage Center is looking into this and will not comment before it finds out all the details.”

The Opera House has hosted immersive light projections on its facade in the past, so when Herron originally turned down Racing NSW’s request to broadcast the draw, she was only enforcing the Opera House’s guidelines that forbids slogans, corporate identities, or text on its sails “unless for a specific artistic purpose in relation to Sydney Opera House.” However, when she appeared on a radio show on Monday to express her rationale, she was told by conservative shock jock Alan Jones, “Who the hell do you think you are? You don’t own the Opera House, we own it . . . you manage it.” The highly influential presenter and host of Australia’s most popular morning talk radio show, has since apologized for his comments, which included a call for Herron to be fired from her role. However, his support for the Opera House’s independence is an interesting U-turn from a man who only two years ago complained to the NSW State Government, UNESCO, and the Heritage Council about noise from outdoor concerts at the Opera House.

Sydneysiders feel particularly possessive of the venue, which is far more than an intriguing blank canvas. Built over 14 years starting in 1959, it was one of the first pieces of architecture to signal a new era of modernity and culture for the antipodean city. Each year, the NSW Department of Education brings students from schools in the local area to perform there, making it a place many children in Sydney grow up not only performing in, but also playing in, as they scamper across its pebbly, granite-aggregate steps. On Tuesday night, the protestors staked their claim as they chanted, “Our house.” 

Racing NSW say they were surprised by the backlash to the one-off promotion, and are unlikely to do it again. However, the petition turned the issue political, with the Opposition Leader in federal politics, Bill Shorten, telling the Sydney Morning Herald that if his party came into power, he would not allow the Opera House to be used as a billboard, and that he would revise any guidelines governing the use of World Heritage Sites in Australia.

Jørn Utzon, the Opera House’s architect, originally conceived of it as a vision of concrete, granite and ceramics, both echoing and standing out against the languorous, azure backdrop of Sydney Harbor. The winning entry in an international design competition of more than 200 entries, Utzon’s proposal was originally discarded, but Eero Saarinen, one of the judges, whisked it back from the reject pile—only for it to become one of the world’s most over-budget construction projects, with Utzon quitting halfway. When the Opera House finally opened in 1973, it was panned for its terrible acoustics. But when he was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 2003, Frank Gehry, one of the judges said: “Utzon made a building well ahead of its time[…] that changed the image of an entire country.”

Revisiting his work as a consultant in 2001, Utzon, who died in 2008, compared the building the Opera House to “an oil painting by one of the Masters where every time you add a brush stroke, it should enhance the total painting.” He added, “As soon as you put something wrong in this painting, a wrong color, a wrong shape, then the total image is of a lesser value.”

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Leana Wen Takes Her Fight for Women’s Health National

The incoming president of Planned Parenthood sounds more like a boxer than a doctor. “I am so ready for this fight,” Dr. Leana Wen tells CityLab.

Wen, a former emergency room physician who has spent the last four years as Baltimore City’s health commissioner, is poised to begin her new job in a month. She’ll be the first physician in nearly 50 years to lead Planned Parenthood, and she’s arriving at a challenging time not only for the organization, but for women’s health in general. In a statement released last month, Wen called the threat to women’s health “the single biggest public health catastrophe of our time.”

Wen doesn’t back away from challenges, however, as her record in Baltimore demonstrates. She rattles off a list of public health achievements, such as the standing order she issued in 2015 for a blanket prescription of the anti-overdose drug naloxone at all pharmacies—that’s saved 3,000 lives, she says. Wen also gushes about the B’more for Healthy Babies program, how in the last seven years, it’s cut the infant mortality rate by almost 40 percent, down to a record low. Then there’s the recent success of the Baltimore Billion Steps challenge, which encouraged residents to be more active.

“I’m really proud of all of this work, but there is much more work ahead of us,” she says. Baltimore still struggles not only with poverty and violent crime but with some of the nation’s most stark income and health disparities. Life expectancy varies up to 20 years between neighborhoods, according to a 2017 white paper on the state of the city’s health.

That’s partly why she describes her move to Planned Parenthood as “bittersweet.” But leading this organization will surely offer a fresh set of challenges. Anti-abortion activists and conservative lawmakers have long targeted Planned Parenthood, and the GOP’s current political dominance raises the very real and imminent threat of being defunded. Bearing the brunt of the consequences will be lower-income women, for whom getting access to things like family planning services, birth control, and cancer screening is already hard given the national shortage of women’s health clinics.

Yet Wen is no stranger to tangling with the highest levels of government. Earlier this year she helped lead a lawsuit against the federal government for abruptly cutting funding to two of the city’s teen pregnancy prevention programs. Spoiler alert: She won. And when the Trump administration proposed regulation changes to Title X, the federal grant program that funds Planned Parenthood’s contraceptive services, she was an outspoken critic, penning a fiery op-ed in the Baltimore Sun.

CityLab recently caught up with Wen as she was tidying up loose ends in preparation for her departure. She reflected on her time in Baltimore, and how it’s prepared her to be a voice for women’s health. And she assured us she will bring her famously relentless work ethic and passion for public health to this national arena. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you see women’s health as the single biggest public health issue today?

Look at what’s happened in the last week as a result of the [nomination hearing for the] Supreme Court. Right now, there are 13 cases that are one step away from the Supreme Court that deal with women’s health. We are facing the very real probability that Roe v. Wade can be overturned or further eroded in the next year. That means dozens of states could be affected. More than 25 million women of reproductive age could face no access to abortion at all in their state. That’s more than a third of women of reproductive age in this country.

The other cases involve exclusion from Medicaid reimbursement for services like cancer screening and birth control—basic health services. And this is what is at stake right now, it is literally about people’s lives.

Baltimore’s public health challenges are so multifaceted. What’s one takeaway from your time as the city health commissioner?

In Baltimore, the areas that we provide services in are by no means equal when it comes to people’s access to anything, whether it’s health care, medication, food. We’ve specifically said improving health is not enough if we’re not also directly reducing disparity. That’s why in our Healthy Baltimore 2020 plan, for every health outcome, the metric of success is not only improving that [specific] health outcome but also cutting disparities.

There are huge areas in this country where women have to drive dozens, hundreds of miles, in order to access basic health care services. Our moral imperative in public health—whether in the local Baltimore City health department or in Planned Parenthood—is to be there for all those who need our care. So I will always be focused on expanding our impact [at Planned Parenthood], and our reach, because we know there are huge unmet needs out there.

Can you paint us a picture of what the health disparity among women looks like?

I’ve seen what happens when women don’t have access to basic health care services. I’ve treated a woman who waited more than a year before she got a lump in her breast examined, because she didn’t have access to health care. And by the time she ended up getting seen, she had [developed] metastatic cancer; she died not long after I saw her, leaving behind three children. That’s what happens when safety-net clinics close. This is what the Title X change would directly cause.

So several months ago, the Trump administration came out with proposed changes to Title X regulations, which would, first of all, stop funding to clinics that provide the full range of reproductive health services. It also has a gag rule, which would force doctors and nurses to censor what we say to our patients. This is the government telling us that we cannot provide evidence-based medical information for our patient. Imagine that happening for anything else. Imagine this was diabetes and now doctors can’t tell patients anything about insulin. It just wouldn’t happen.

And the crazy part of it—first of all, this whole thing is crazy because it directly compromises our ethic as doctors and health professionals—is that this applies only for those women who depend on safety-net clinics. If you’re wealthy, insured, and can pay, you can get evidence-based information. You can get the best quality health care. But if you depend on government assistance, if you are a person with low income, then you will be deprived of the comprehensive medical services that all of us are entitled to. To me, it’s a public health issue but it’s also profoundly a civil rights and social justice issue. That’s why there is so much right now that is on the line.

You’ll be pivoting from overseeing the health of a city to overseeing the health of women nationwide. What changes or stays the same?

I am a front-line provider. I’ve worked in the ER, which is the front line of health care and of our hospital. A core part of my identity will always be being a physician. I continued to practice medicine as the health commissioner of Baltimore, and I intend to continue doing so as the president of Planned Parenthood. It’s what informs my work and my advocacy. So that’s number one.

Number two: In Baltimore, I am out there every day—at community meetings, in churches, in neighborhood associations, in our clinics, doing home visits. This is why the job of public health is so rewarding, because I can see the impact on the people I serve every day. At Planned Parenthood, the care that we provide is national, but our health centers are like local health departments. There are over 600 health centers around the country with care provided by our 55 affiliates. In the next year and in coming years, I’ll be going out to visit all of our affiliates in every one of our 50 states.

Some of our health centers provide prenatal care and do home visits for pregnant women, as I do in Baltimore. There are others that have community outreach workers who do education in beauty salons and migrant farms. I mean, there’s really interesting and innovative work that’s being done around the country, and I am so excited to learn about them, and specifically to go in person to visit all of our health centers in support of our frontline staff.

Planned Parenthood’s ex-CEO Cecile Richards has essentially turned the organization into a political powerhouse—for better or worse. In the last four years, what have you learned about the politics of public health and how will it inform how you will take on this new role?

As the health commissioner, it is my job to provide services but it’s also my job to fight and advocate to ensure that we have access to these services. That includes [dealing with] legislation. I’ve successfully gotten legislation passed, for example to ensure that kids’ meals have, as their default drink, a healthy drink instead of a soda. I’ve gotten legislation passed in the state around good-Samaritan laws, and funding for anti-opioid [initiatives] and for other programs, including our Safe Street anti-violence programs and our B’more for Healthy Babies.

What do you have planned for the coming month?

I will be getting up to speed on everything that Planned Parenthood is doing. I will also be spending time with my family, including my husband and our 13-month-old son.

Actually, being a mother has really clarified for me what it is that I should be fighting for, in particular who I should be fighting for. I think about my son and the world that I want him to have. It’s a world where women and men have equal rights, including over their own bodies and their own futures, where our society trusts women, where health is understood to be a fundamental human right. And where women’s health and reproductive health are seen as mainstream health care—because that’s what it is.

People have been asking me about what lessons [I have] for my successor. I have learned that if I don’t fight for public health, nobody else will. That’s why I feel incredibly privileged to be selected for this role; I know it’s a huge challenge ahead but I am so ready for this fight.

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CityLab Daily: Where It’s Legal to Reverse the Vote of the People

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.


What We’re Following

Democracy how? City officials are used to getting overruled on matters of policy by state and federal lawmakers. But there’s another trend on the horizon: City councils overruling their own residents on ballot initiatives that voters approved.

This played out dramatically in a recent Washington, D.C. incident. Just a few months after D.C. residents passed a referendum to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, the city council voted to repeal it. That reversal may seem unfathomable, but it’s legal almost anywhere these kinds of ballot measures give U.S. voters a direct voice on policy. Many lawmakers defend the process as a necessary check on bad decisions, but the risk is clear: Those same constituents can boot them out of office. CityLab’s Sarah Holder reports on where it’s legal to reverse the vote of the people.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Europe’s Capital Cities Keep Getting Richer and Younger

Other areas, not so much.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Is Transit Doomed in the U.S.? Discuss.

Two rival pundits face off over federal funding, the transit “death spiral,” and where all the riders have gone.

Andrew Small

Climate Change Might Be Bad for Your Mental Health, Too

Average monthly highs above 86 degrees Fahrenheit increase the probability of mental-health issues, a new study finds.

Nicole Javorsky

The Concrete of Hong Kong

What happens when you take the paint and neon out of the megacity? Pascal Greco’s stark photos reveal a harshly built environment.

Karim Doumar

The ‘Cafes’ Where Women Go to Breastfeed

Come for the free lactation consultation. Stay for the fellow moms.

Rebecca Bellan

Make Like a Tree

(Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

For us CityLab staffers in the Northeast U.S., today felt like the first day of fall. It’s a great time bust out the flannel, drink some warm apple cider, and take a brisk walk in the breezy streets. But just as the city quiets down, a whirring, noxious drone that sounds to be part-dirt bike, part-vacuum cleaner, and might as well be part-bagpipe disrupts any notion of peace. What fresh hell is this? It’s your neighbor’s leaf blower.

In this classic take, CityLab’s David Dudley details why you have every reason to be angry about these obsolete noise- and air- polluting blowhards. How many times must we tell you to buy a rake? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind: Here’s The Case Against Leaf Blowers.

What We’re Reading

A map of every building in the United States—and what these cityscapes can show us (New York Times)

London is kicking cars off half its roads (Fast Company)

Amazon ponies up more for warehouse workers after blowback (Bloomberg)

New York pilots a program that turns scaffoldings into art canvases (Next City)

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Climate Change Might Be Bad for Your Mental Health, Too

Scientists have predicted many troubling consequences of global warming for Earth’s ecosystems and human health and welfare. Among them is an increased risk to our mental health. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that short-term exposure to extreme weather, multiyear warming, and tropical-cyclone exposure are all associated with worse mental health.

“The environmental stressors that are likely to be produced by climate change—added exposure to heat, natural disasters—we have evidence that links those environmental stressors to worsened mental-health states,” Nick Obradovich, one of the researchers, told CityLab.

In the study, researchers examined meteorological and climatic data in combination with the responses of almost 2 million randomly sampled U.S. residents from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a long-running health survey. Between 2002 and 2012, survey respondents answered the question: “Now thinking about your mental health, which includes stress, depression, and problems with emotions, for how many days during the past 30 was your mental health not good?” The question does not measure the incidence of psychiatric disorders, but mental-health status more broadly, including that of individuals who experience “subclinical” distress.

Compared with temperatures of 10 to 15 degrees Celsius (50 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit), average monthly maximum temperatures higher than 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) increase the probability of mental-health issues by about 1 percent. That might seem tiny without context, but a shift from monthly average high temperatures between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius (77 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit) to averages above 30 degrees Celsius would result in nearly 2 million additional individuals reporting mental-health difficulties over a 30-day period, extrapolated to current U.S. population numbers. The study also finds that higher precipitation increases the risk of mental-health problems.

It’s unclear what mechanism or mechanisms are at work. Obradovich noted a number of possibilities: Heat can disrupt sleep; climate-change-fueled weather is less pleasant to experience; warmer temperatures can be a physiological stressor. The study determined correlations, but more research is needed to understand exact causes.

“One of the hardest things with studies like this is really narrowing down precisely why we observe what we do,” said Obradovich. “There are a variety of reasons why this could be happening. And I think one of the ones that we know relatively the least about is how much sleep is playing a role in this. But we don’t know very well exactly how that works—how much, in terms of hours per night, sleep is disrupted by higher temperatures, [and] how people can adapt to that.”

Obradovich and his fellow researchers also found that exposure to Hurricane Katrina increased reports of mental-health issues by approximately 4 percent, which they determined by comparing reported mental health in federal disaster areas to non-disaster areas, before and after Katrina.

The study does not imply that a general mental-health crisis is inevitable. The researchers note that adaptation is possible, and will depend on what factors are driving the trends. For example, if heat’s detriment to sleep is the culprit, better and more widespread cooling might help us adapt to higher temperatures. Or we might go out at different times of the day. “There are a variety of small-scale behavioral adaptations,” said Obradovich, that could allow us to better cope with climate change.

Although he was hesitant to suggest targeted approaches to mitigate the effects of climate change on mental health because of the need for more research on the cause(s), Obradovich noted that in general, more resources for dealing with mental-health problems will improve society’s resilience.

“It’s not going to be a bad thing for governments and NGOs to put added resources toward doing a better job with … improving the mental health status of the citizens of the U.S. and around the world, as well,” he said. “We’re not going to go wrong with that approach.”

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