Can This Chef Solve the Problem of School Lunch?

School lunch is a problem that, so far, no one has really solved. Is it possible to cook for hundreds or thousands of kids, with only about $1.25 per head (after labor and equipment costs), following guidelines that mandate exact proportions of protein, carbs, and sugar, and still make it taste good?

Usually, no. Hence the cliché of school lunch: a droopy piece of pizza or a gray hamburger patty on a Styrofoam tray, next to a mini-carton of milk and an apple.

Starting this week, a chef named Dan Giusti will try to transform school lunch in New York City, working from the Morris high-school campus in the Bronx. Giusti, 34, was born in New Jersey and raised in the Washington D.C. area. He attended the Culinary Institute of America. Not long ago, he was the chef de cuisine at Noma, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Copenhagen that has repeatedly been named the best restaurant in the world.

Then, in early 2016, Giusti quit. He was burned out on fine dining. He didn’t want to keep serving a small group of people at hundreds of dollars per head. “I started thinking, ‘How can I feed as many people as possible every day?’” he said. “Like, what about waking up and saying, ‘We fed several million people today.’” He considered opening a fast-food-style restaurant chain, but settled on school lunch—the Achilles heel of large-scale food service.

Dan Giusti (Courtesy of Brigaid)

Less than a year later, after emailing with Manuel Rivera—then the superintendent of schools for New London, Connecticut—Giusti started working in the kitchens of two public schools in New London. His team of chefs, called Brigaid, eventually moved into all six of New London’s schools, feeding 3,300 students every day.

At the time of Giusti’s arrival in New London, the district was struggling with lunch, Rivera said. Parents were complaining about the quality and nutritional value of the food. Giusti wanted first and foremost for real cooking to happen in schools’ kitchens. He put out drinking water, introduced a snack cart, and did away with Styrofoam trays in favor of plates. He overhauled menus so they’d be kid-friendly, cost-friendly, and adhere to nutritional standards.

Most important was taste. “Every [school-food] conference you go to,” he said, “[it’s] all they talk about: nutrition, nutrition, nutrition. The fact of the matter is, no one eats the food. So the food can’t be nutritious if no one eats the food.”

The chefs-in-schools model has been tried before, going back to Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, California, which melded a garden with classroom learning and helped spawn the slow-food movement. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver tried to overhaul school lunch in the U.K., a campaign chronicled in a reality TV show (and which he later admitted was a failure, blaming a culture in which healthy eating was seen as “posh”). Michelle Obama started a “Chefs Move to Schools” program to bring chefs into local schools in a volunteer capacity.

Brigaid says that because it doesn’t have school financial details from prior to its takeover, it can’t point to hard evidence that participation in school lunch in New London has risen—but the organization maintains that it has, and that food waste has declined. On Wednesday nights, Giusti hosts community meals in the cafeteria after-hours for $5 a head; he says people come from all over Connecticut for the fine-dining experience.

Dozens of school districts approached Giusti after he started in New London—including New York City’s. “The SchoolFood team was following Dan’s work in New London and was impressed by the innovative approach he was taking,” Eric Goldstein, chief executive of the Office of School Support Services for the New York City Department of Education, wrote in an email. Now Brigaid is expanding into the nation’s largest school system. On September 5, the first day of school, Giusti’s team will be at Morris High School, and he hopes that by Christmas Brigaid will be in five other schools in the Bronx.

The Department of Education selected the Bronx for the pilot. “As the largest school district in the nation serving 1.1 million students, it takes thoughtful planning to bring any new program to scale,” Goldstein said by email. “That’s why we’re starting small with a pilot program, from which we can evaluate its success and determine next steps.” The per-meal cost of working with Brigaid will be roughly equivalent to what it was with the previous provider, Goldstein added.

School lunch in New York City has long been maligned by union officials, parents, and kids. Across the U.S., despite the addition of new menu options and strides toward healthier food, a 2015 report found that districts were plagued by declining participation and food waste—in other words, kids were still throwing much of their lunch in the trash. New York school officials hope that tastier, from-scratch cooking will help reverse those trends. (In New York City, as of last year, all students eat for free, as they do in Boston, Chicago, and Dallas.)

“The schools I’ll be working in are primarily in communities of need, as they are in New London,” Giusti said. But it will still be a huge shift, for him and for the district: Giusti said raw meat hasn’t been cooked in New York public schools in decades.

A lunch served at J.F.K Elementary School in Kingston, N.Y. (Mary Esch/AP)

“I’m as busy as I’ve ever been in my life,” he told CityLab while driving between New London and the Bronx, a commute he’ll be doing more and more. “I think the biggest challenges are primarily the ones we’re facing now—the large systematic things to get the program up and running.”

Despite having to scale up, he’s approaching his task much as he approached it originally in New London: trying to make lunches that kids will like. This involves a series of detailed questions about how food will look, taste, and be served. For instance, will students eat off trays or plates? In New London, he introduced plates, but in New York, it will be trays: The district has spent years developing a compostable tray.

“I will say in retrospect, as much as plates are cool and I think it did make a huge impact on students and continues to, it adds so much labor,” Giusti acknowledged. “So I’m glad we’re going to try making something on trays, so we get used to that, and now we have to figure out: How do you make things look good on the tray?”

He has adjusted his philosophy since he started in New London. Originally, he said, he was determined to introduce kids to new flavors. The team took peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches off the menu because he was worried kids were using it as a crutch. Now, he questions whether that was the right call.

“Some of these kids have situations at home that they really shouldn’t have, and they’re dealing with things they really shouldn’t be dealing with,” he said. “And then when they come to lunch, you don’t want to add stress to their already difficult life by saying, ‘Try this new thing.’”

The first day, at least, Giusti and his colleagues are going to keep it simple. As of mid-August, they hadn’t set a final menu, but they were thinking meatloaf. “Meatloaf with mashed potatoes and kale chips, maybe.” They’ll take it from there.

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Cities Take Aim at the Spiraling Costs of Local Elections

It’s well known that a run for a big office needs big money backing it, but up and down the ballot, budgets have been swelling, and not only in the U.S.’s largest cities. Several localities—including Portland, Denver, and Baltimore—have initiatives in motion to overhaul the system either by driving down the dollar amounts each person can give or solicit, piloting public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further, or both. The overarching goal is to keep big money and its influence out of local politics, and to give all candidates a fair shot.

In Denver, voters will decide on an expansive reform package, including a contribution cap and a generous matching fund. Baltimore’s city council has unanimously passed a charter amendment that would create a similar small-dollar matching system, if Mayor Catherine Pugh approves it and passes it along to the fall ballot. And before Portland, Oregon, phases in its own public financing measure in 2020, voters will decide on a strict local contribution cap this November.

“The reason we’re doing this in the city of Portland right now is, one, we want to show political momentum—that this is something popular that different areas want to accomplish,” said Jason Kafoury, one of the leaders of the Honest Elections campaign, which is championing Portland’s “Fair Elections/Clean Governance” ballot initiative. “But beyond that we are interested in changing the local political culture, and forcing this to be a campaign issue that people have to address.”

Local political spending, he says, has gotten “out of control.”

And the factors behind its spiral are two-fold, says Ross Morales Rocketto, the co-founder of Run for Something, an organization that helps young progressive candidates run for office. He believes that it’s both that people are more willing to give, and that candidates are willing to ask for more.

Large political donors recognize that local races have national implications, and are willing to fund mayoral or city council candidates to build party power strategically. “At the state and local level, races historically have been far less expensive than federal races,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. But that also means, she says, “given the low cost of state and local races, a big expenditure by a deep-pocketed, special-interest spender has the potential to really overwhelm a candidate.”

And potential city leaders, in turn, are hiring national media consultants who recommend large budgets and high spending. Local campaigns have become more professional, with sleek campaign mailers and digital or TV ad spots.

I also think that there’s just the willingness to do more for a lot of these candidates,” said Rocketto. “They’re willing to go for broke.”

Capped campaigns

To most of the country, Portland, Oregon, isn’t exactly synonymous with lavish political spending. Mayors’ races there don’t make headlines for breaking donation records, like L.A.’s $33 million race did in 2013, or Michael Bloomberg’s jaw-dropping $109 million reelection campaign for mayor of New York City did in 2009.

But unlike most states, Oregon has no campaign contribution limits on individuals, nor corporations. And in cities like Portland, where they’re able, candidates have taken advantage of that fact: During Portland’s 2012 mayoral race, each of the three front-runners raised close to $1 million during the primary alone, amounting to a record-breaking $2.5 million between them. Portland’s current mayor Ted Wheeler also received over $1 million in combined donations in 2015 and 2016, including $15,000 from Nike and more than $30,000 from local unions after clinching victory in the primary.

The state got close to implementing campaign finance caps in 1994, after a state measure passed with the support of 72 percent of voters, but the Oregon Supreme Court struck down the reforms in 1997, ruling that the measure would have violated the free speech clause of Oregon’s constitution.

In 2016, Kafoury’s group, Honest Elections, tried again, this time putting a county-wide cap up for review. Voters in Multnomah County, which contains Portland, passed it with 89 percent of the vote. But after a challenge from local business interests and the Portland Realtor’s Association, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge struck it down once more, using the same 1997 argument.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that while limiting campaign contributions does burden free speech to an extent, the risk of corruption—or the appearance of corruption—posed by not limiting campaign contributions is worse: Caps serve to limit “the real or imagined coercive influence of large financial contributions on candidates’ positions and on their actions if elected to office.” (Campaign expenditures, meanwhile, cannot be limited according to the Supreme Court). Armed with that federal precedent, the county judge’s decision is being appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court.

But in the meantime, Honest Elections Portland is hoping that a local fix will tide the city over. If passed this November, the amendment to the city’s charter would, among other things, cap the amount of funding each candidate can receive from individuals and most political committees at $500; ban corporate donations; increase transparency around large donors’ identity; and “limit political committee independent expenditures to $10,000 per year,” according to the Portland Tribune.

“Traditional wisdom says that he who raises the most money wins,” said Jo Ann Hardesty, who is running for the Portland city council this November. “Usually in Portland that would be a white male, who has been invested in the community for years. That’s been the history in the city of Portland of who has had the privilege of running for public office.” Hardesty, who served as president of the Portland branch of the NAACP until stepping aside for the campaign, says the cap will increase access to non-traditional candidates mounting grassroots campaigns, like herself.

Denver’s cap goes even farther. It would lower maximum donations to local candidates to about a third of current levels—mayors, for example could receive a maximum of $1,000 from each individual—and prohibit them from accepting direct donations from businesses or unions, according to 5280 magazine.

State-level caps exist in 39 states, but even within them, many localities have long implemented their own, more stringent spending restrictions. And where caps have been pushed aside, spending has snapped back up. The Illinois campaign contribution restrictions will be lifted for Chicago’s 2019 mayoral election, according to the Chicago Tribune, because of an exemption for races in which “candidates donate $100,000 or more to their own campaign within a year of the election.” In April, the local businessman Willie Wilson self-financed that amount, thus dissolving the caps. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel has since taken advantage of the relaxed regulations to mount an aggressive fundraising campaign for reelection. Already, he’s raised $10.1 million—almost $2 million of it in one day. “I would be surprised if the Chicago race didn’t end up costing $30-$40 million total,” said Rocketto.

Matching money

Contribution limits are just one piece of the puzzle in campaign finance reform, says Zdanys. Caps lower the barrier to entry for local candidates—but matching funds ensure that those smaller contributions carry water. In 2020, Portland will introduce such a program: every $50 donated to eligible candidates will be matched at a 1:6 ratio by the city. “For community members, that changes the dynamic of who can run and win,” said Hardesty.

Portland’s program is modeled after New York City’s Matching Funds Program, which has sextupled eligible small-dollar donations in most local races for years. But Denver’s program, again, raises the stakes: Donations of $50 or less will be matched at a 1:9 ratio by the city—turning $50 into $500.

Baltimore’s public financing plan is less fleshed out. The charter amendment, which was unanimously passed this month by the city council, calls for the creation of a fair elections fund commission, and a matching program that would be implemented in 2024—inspired by record-breaking spending in Baltimore’s 2016 election, in which $9 million total was spent between the mayoral candidates. More than $2 million of it was spent by the winner, Mayor Pugh.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for folks to run competitive races,” Baltimore councilman Kristerfer Burnett, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the Baltimore Sun. “You don’t want money to be the barrier keeping people with good ideas out of a race.”

Baltimore and Denver’s consideration of these reform measures is indicative of the momentum around public financing in other cities and counties, says Zdanys. Already, Montgomery County, Maryland, near Baltimore, has implemented its own small donor public financing measure (which had a mixed affect in the July race).

Other cities are experimenting with “democracy vouchers,” which give eligible voters money to back a contender of their choice. Seattle rolled out $100 vouchers in 2017, and cities like Albuquerque and Austin have proposed similar initiatives, CityLab reported, in an effort to get more people engaged with local elections and their local leaders.

“It encourages politicians to engage with their constituents, instead of staying in their office dialing for dollars,” said Zdanys. “It’s empowering small donors, and allowing their voices to be heard; and it has helped lower barriers to entry both for candidates and for donors who have otherwise historically not been active in politics.”

An uncertain impact

Caps or restrictions on fundraising can be one way to level the playing field, ensuring that candidates woo the everyman, not just the rich; and that they’re not beholden to the dollars that put them over the finish line. But they can also disadvantage first-time candidates, especially those who don’t have personal finances to fall back on, says Lindsay Crete, who works on local campaigns with the pro-choice women-candidate advocacy organization, Emily’s List. “It depends on where the cap is, and who it’s really affecting,” she said. “Well-established incumbents who don’t need to raise a lot of money won’t be as impacted by the cap as someone who’s trying to get the name recognition.”

In Chicago, Wilson told the Chicago Tribune that he chose to negate campaign finance restrictions not to open Emmanuel’s fundraising floodgates, but to “level the playing field for some of the other candidates who may not be able to get as much money.”

“This lets them get $50,000 or $100,000 at a time if they can.” Wilson said. “Rahm is going to get all the money he is going to get.”

And when politicians can’t earn enough from small-dollar donations, some of the fundraising is punted to third-party groups that support but aren’t technically affiliated with candidates, called independent expenditure groups. (Emily’s List, for example, has an independent expenditure arm in addition to a political action committee.)

Some of these groups are notorious for running attack ads without oversight from candidates, said Zdanys. “Without accountability or disclosures behind the interests of a major spending campaign, it’s easy for spenders to hide behind unaccountable messages.”

Still, candidates—especially those running for the first time, against incumbents—are hopeful that the measures will level the playing field. Portland’s cap, coupled with the 2020 public finance matching measure, would be “a game changer,” said candidate Hardesty, who’s facing a runoff in November with an opponent who has already out-raised her by more than $100,000. Despite this, Hardesty still topped her with twice as many votes in the May primary. But Hardesty said that the reforms would help her and others focus on running, not campaigning: “It will force me not to spend so much time on the phone trying to raise money. And it means that regular people can run and serve.”

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An Inkmaker’s Guide to Urban Foraging

As much as anything, those little signs that identify plant species in city parks triggered the genesis of the Toronto Ink Company, a small Canadian business that creates natural inks from bits and pieces found in urban landscapes.

It all began after founder Jason Logan saw a sign reading “Black Walnut Tree” while strolling through Queen’s Park in Toronto. Years before, as an illustrator, he had used an ink made from black walnuts. Unlike more predictable, conventional inks, this one surprised Logan with each stroke, each layer shifting the color to a mahogany finish. It’s vegetal, earthy scent added more intrigue. But that ink bottle, with its handwritten label, was an anomaly in the art supply store. He could never find more.

Logan was at loss on how to procure art supplies that were non-toxic with knowable ingredients, especially for his two-year-old son. So what if he made is own ink? He took a few walnut shells back to his apartment and boiled them up, reducing the black-brown liquid. (Pro tip: soggy, gross shells produce better ink.)

“My experience with the black walnut was so easy that it inspired me to keep looking for other things that you could make color out of,” Logan says.

Fast forward about five years: The Toronto Ink Company now offers about 15 non-toxic ink colors, from the spicy color and scent of turmeric ink to wild grape, a deep purple with wafts of wine. Logan runs ingredient foraging tours around the city that end with an ink cook-up in his studio lab, which doubles as his home kitchen.

Roses, copper wire, willow, dock. (Jason Logan)

In September, Logan is releasing Make Ink: A Forager’s Guide to Natural Ink Making, a cookbook of ink recipes using ingredients from the world around us. In Logan’s world of ink, golden hues arise from tobacco salvaged from cigarette butts. A rich green began as buckthorn, an invasive shrub from Europe now found in North America. A matte white, reminiscent of fondant cake frosting, is the product of finely ground drywall.

“There are all kinds of things in a city that are just ignored unless you are looking at them with a kind of curious eye,” he says.

Despite the digital revolution, ink is still a mainstay of daily life, whether you’re thumbing through a magazine to scribbling down a shopping list. Early ink, like what endured for thousands of years on the Dead Sea Scrolls, was made from elements like lamp soot or charred bones mixed with a natural glue such as gum arabic. Up until the 19th century, ink was created in small batches by small outfits, says Ted Bishop, author of the Social Life of Ink: Culture Wonder and Our Relationship with the Written Word. Today, the ink industry—worth close to $20 billion—is shrouded in mystery. “No one will give you formulas or tell you precisely what is in it,” he says.

Jason Logan, making ink. (Lauren Kolyn)

Make Ink opens up about methods, providing an open source guide to DIY ink. Despite the prevalence of ink, Logan says we have become disconnected from it, much like we are from our food. In fact, he compares the ink revolution he hopes to inspire to the locally sourced food movement. “It’s like when you have a carrot and you learn about the farmer who grew it and all the soil conditions,” he says. “It tastes better, but it also has a depth of story, and I think all my inks have a little story with them.”

That story is often attached to a sense of place. Last year, during a walk in New York’s West Village, Logan came across an old bed with rusted springs on the sidewalk ready for trash collection. Acorns were also strewn along the pavement. Liberated electrons in rusted iron interact with the tannic acid found in coffee, oak, and acorn caps in a colorful chemical exchange, Logan says. He boiled the metal springs and acorn caps before straining the liquid through mesh and a coffee filter. Then, he added gum arabic as a binding agent. The result was a vibrant gray ink. “It’s really fun to pick a spot in your neighborhood and think about what ingredients, if you were to distill them, might be the essence of that place,” he says. The recipe appears in Make Ink as Silvery Acorn Cap Ink with the central ingredient being “a few rusty nails or other rusty street finds.”

In Make Ink, Logan instructs readers how to forage for suitable pigments to create their own ink. Two key points: Have patience, and bring gardening gloves. The book then provides recipes for 11 different colors, including Vine Black Ink (made from charcoal) and Safflower Pink Ink. There is also a base recipe for those who experiment with their own foraged pigments. “I can have thousands of people out there testing new ink recipes and pushing the making-ink-for-yourself revolution further,” he says.

Onion skin, espresso, copper oxide. (Jason Logan)

“Test,” the book’s final section, demonstrates the versatility and beautiful volatility of these DIY inks through the works of artists like Marcel Dzama and Ani Castillo. Artists who use products from the Toronto Ink Company say their unpredictable nature is a feature, not a bug. Inks made by Logan—he still makes them all himself—can be found among the regular lineup of supplies in artist Tucker Nichols’s studio. When Nichols uses the ink, he likes to imagine Logan foraging around Toronto for the ingredients. And colors like black walnut trigger memories of his father, a woodworker. But most of all, Nichols loves that he doesn’t always know what he is going to get when he dips into the ink pot. The color, texture, and density are unstable. “With these inks, there are always surprises,” Nichols says. “They have a life of their own.”

Make Ink’s chapter on foraging includes a few warnings: Watch out for toxic materials such as poison ivy, don’t experiment with unknown plants, and take special care with a recipe that calls for half a cup of copper scraps to make ink from copper oxide (it’s blue).

If more people join Logan in foraging for inks, they won’t be the only ones picking at what they find around the city. Urban food foraging has been a trend for at least a few years now—and in some cases, a problematic one. It became such an issue for New York that the city’s parks department asked residents to stop stripping public spaces of edibles like elderberries, ginger, and mushrooms, according to The New York Times. Logan does teach his budding ink chemists a forager’s code of ethics. Don’t pick the first instance of a plant you come across. Never forage more than 10 percent of a plant. And so on. In the end, who’s going to miss some soggy walnuts or a discarded bed spring?

Ink is a tool that humans have used for millennia. Our prehistoric ancestors used whatever pigments they could find to sketch out stories and warnings on rock walls. It’s also the overlooked partner in the Printing Revolution, the mass distribution of the written word famously ushered into civilization by Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1400s. Today, printer ink is considered one of the most expensive liquids in the world. Whatever the impact of foraging in our modern cities, the case for making inks more thoughtfully is deeply rooted in history.

“It would be cool to take back the power humans had to communicate through color,” Logan says. “[The ingredients] are literally dropping off bushes in our neighborhoods.”

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Why Cities Must Take the Lead on Upgrading Service Jobs

This Labor Day, with President Trump in office, it’s time to realize that the task of creating good jobs for more Americans rests with its cities. Just as cities have led on climate change and minimum wage, they should lead on creating secure, well-paying jobs.

The stock market continues its boom and unemployment is at a record low (3.9 percent), but far too many Americans still toil in insecure jobs that do not pay enough to support a family.

Almost 70 million American workers—amounting to nearly half of the entire workforce (48.3 percent)—toil in low-wage service jobs, taking home less than $35,000 a year, compared to the average wage of more than $50,000 for all workers and more than $80,000 for knowledge, professional, and creative workers.

Wages by Job Class

Annual Wage Wages Left After Paying for Housing
Service Class $34,979 $22,715
Working Class $41,776 $29,512
Creative Class $82,233 $69,969
All Workers $50,634 $38,370

Service-class workers have a meager $22,715 left over after paying for their housing, compared to nearly $40,000 for all workers and almost $70,000 for knowledge, professional, and creative workers. Indeed, when housing costs are subtracted, knowledge, creative, and professional workers have triple the amount of money left over compared to service workers. (My colleague at the University of Toronto, Karen King, crunched these numbers based on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics for 2017. The data cover large metropolitan areas with more than 1 million people.)

These service-class jobs are disproportionately held by women and minorities. Women hold more than six in 10 service-type jobs. And 58 percent of women do service-class work, compared to just 37 percent of men. More than half of black (56 percent) and Hispanic (50.3 percent) workers toil in service jobs, compared to 45 percent of whites and 40 percent of Asians.

Service jobs are overwhelmingly concentrated in America’s large metro areas. The 50 largest metros have well over half of all service-class workers; the top 20 are home to more than a quarter, and the top 10 nearly a fifth.

Metros With Most Service-Class Jobs

Metro Service-Class Jobs
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 4,744,850
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA 3,027,720
Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI 2,102,100
Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 1,704,880
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 1,403,110
Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 1,398,420
Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX 1,372,750
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 1,327,850
Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, GA 1,212,170
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA 1,082,790

Service-class jobs comprise well over the half the workforce in quite a few large metros. They make up more than 60 percent of employment in Las Vegas; roughly 55 percent in Orlando and Miami; and more than 50 percent in New York.

Large Metros With Highest Share of Service-Class Jobs

Metro Service-Class Share of Total Employment
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV 60.8%
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 55.9%
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL 54.8%
San Antonio-New Braunfels, TX 53.5%
Tucson, AZ 52.7%
Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 52.5%
Jacksonville, FL 52.2%
Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY 51.5%
New Orleans-Metairie, LA 51.2%
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA 51%

There is considerable variation in service-class wages across metros. Service workers take home considerably less that the national average in New Orleans, Orlando, Tucson, and the large metros listed in the table below. This compares to a high of more than $40,000 in metros such as San Jose, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Despite the relatively high wages paid in expensive cities, service workers are often worse off in them financially once the high housing prices of these places are taken into account. Service-class workers have less than $18,000 left over after paying for housing in San Jose, and less than $20,000 left over in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. By contrast, they have considerably more left over in the Rust Belt cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Cleveland, Detroit, and Pittsburgh, as well as in New York and Seattle.

Large Metros Where Service-Class Workers Have the Least Left Over

Metro Wages Left Over After Housing
Virginia Beach-Norfolk-Newport News, VA-NC $17,559
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $17,647
San Diego-Carlsbad, CA $17,723
New Orleans-Metairie, LA $18,075
Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL $18,663
Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA $18,991
Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV $19,266
Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, FL $19,511
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA $19,626
Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, NV $19,982

Large Metros Where Service-Class Workers Have the Most Left Over

Metro Wages Left Over After Housing
Buffalo-Cheektowaga-Niagara Falls, NY $25,012
Rochester, NY $24,583
Cleveland-Elyria, OH $24,446
Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI $23,962
Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA $23,645
Pittsburgh, PA $23,644
Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, MI $23,488
Grand Rapids-Wyoming, MI $23,321
New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA $23,316
Birmingham-Hoover, AL $23,213

More than 90 percent of service workers are currently trapped in dead-end jobs with little possibility of upgrading them. But these jobs can be upgraded. In fact, we’ve done it before with manufacturing jobs. During the New Deal and after, the private and public sectors forged a new compact to turn low-paying and insecure manufacturing jobs into high-paying, family-supporting ones that formed the backbone of the American Dream.

My own factory-worker father often reminded me that the very same low-paying factory job he held during the Great Depression—a time when it took the combined wages of him, his parents, and his six siblings to make ends meet—was transformed into a high-paying job that enabled him to get married, buy a home, and put my brother and me through college. Not only did the nation enact new labor legislation, but capitalists like Henry Ford understood that higher wages were needed to build a middle class and spur consumption and demand.

Of course, there is little likelihood of such a partnership between the federal government and the private sector happening today, with Trump in the White House and the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. The Trump administration has already pushed for and enacted policies that undermine workers.

The push in many cities for higher minimum wages is a good first step, but it is not enough. Just as cities stepped up on climate change and on immigration, it is time for them to do so on the crucial issue of good jobs.

There is much that cities can do to set such a change in motion. It’s not like service work is inevitably condemned to being bad. In Europe, for example, service-class work is much better-paying and higher-quality. A growing body of research shows that paying higher wages to service workers can result in increased productivity and profits for retail and service firms. Firms like Costco, Trader Joes, and Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts take the same approach as world-class manufacturing firms, paying their workers more, involving them more fully in quality and innovation efforts, and incentivizing them to provide better customer service.

Cities can help organized networks of service firms learn about, compare, and disseminate best practices. When America was still a farming nation, the Agricultural Extension Service brought best-practice technology and management to farmers and farms. Later, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership helped bolster and restore the competitiveness of U.S. factories. Now cities can do the same for service work.

Groups of cities and mayors could launch a national or even global initiative—similar to C40, which works on climate issues—to set targets and goals for upgrading service-class jobs. They could create awards programs to recognize leading-edge service firms, and they could even undertake badging efforts (similar to environmental quality standards) that identity service firms that pay their workers fairly and create good jobs.

It is time for cities to step up and help the millions upon millions who hold service jobs achieve a new version of the American Dream.

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Time for a Canadian Hockey Brawl Over Subway Art

Welcome to the last 2018 installation of “

Ballard, who had served time in jail on 47 counts of fraud, theft and tax evasion the previous decade, had a comically villainous persona; he embraced chaos in his workplace and proudly used racial slurs and sexist language in public. Leafs fans remember him for overseeing the historic franchise’s darkest days. Pachter’s piece was installed towards the end of the 1984-85 season, one in which the Maple Leafs held the worst record in the NHL. Said the artist to the CBC at the time, “The Leafs being in the condition they’re in, it’s good press for him.”

Ballard died in 1990 and in 1999 the team moved a few stops down the TTC’s Line 1 to Air Canada Centre. But Hockey Knights in Canada, Les Rois de l’Arène remains in its original place.

H/T CBC Archives

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It’s Time to Rewrite Fair Lending Rules. (Just Not Like This.)

In 1977, Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act, a powerful antidote to racial discrimination in lending. Where banks had divided maps into segregated areas that showed where they would and would not approve mortgages—a notorious practice known as redlining—the new law required them to demonstrate that they serve low-income households wherever they are located.

Forty years on, this regulatory approach—which was designed decades before the era of online banking—is showing its age. Millennial-friendly online-only Ally Bank, for example, doesn’t have any brick-and-mortar locations at all, so regulations predicated on the reach of bank branches don’t make sense for this 21st-century lending platform. The CRA is overdue for an upgrade, and this week, the Trump administration took a long-awaited first step toward revamping the rule.

But while the advance notice of proposed rulemaking, set forth by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (an agency under the Treasury Department) has prompted cheers among bankers, the direction that the administration seems to be heading has prompted concerns among civil rights watchdogs. Among the new standards teased by Treasury’s call for input is a numerical target for fair lending compliance—a dollar-value approach that could cement the damaging segregation patterns that the law was designed to upend.

“This is a case where making a better mousetrap doesn’t get around the fact that it’s a mousetrap,” says Jesse Van Tol, CEO for the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

As it currently stands, the Community Reinvestment Act sets different metrics for fair lending. Any individual bank’s mileage may vary, depending on its size and place in the lending world. The act sets performance standards, but not specific goals. That’s an important distinction: Banks are judged relative to one another in their efforts to ensure that they serve all the members of their communities equally. Small banks, large banks, intermediate small banks, limited-purpose banks, banks that mostly serve the military—they’re all regulated somewhat differently.

The Trump administration wants to go with hard targets that apply across the board. The notice issued by the Comptroller introduces the prospect of a metric-based framework. This measure might be a ratio of the bank’s qualifying fair-lending activity to its size. “For example, a bank with $1 billion in total assets that conducted $100 million of CRA-qualifying activities in the aggregate would achieve a 10-percent ratio, if total assets were used for the denominator,” reads the Comptroller’s notice.

For bankers, a metric-based compliance system would vastly simplify standards for compliance. The proposed change addresses a common complaint among banks: Under the status quo, it can take years for a performance evaluation to say for sure whether a specific loan or investment qualifies toward CRA obligations. A fixed target would be far easier for banks to meet. On the other hand, replacing the relative measure with an absolute score would enable banks to put together high-margin, low-risk investments that meet the bare-minimum standard and no more—to scratch it off the list. “In their minds, this supplies a lot of clarity,” Van Tol says. “The problem with that is, not every community has the same credit needs.”

Buzz Roberts, CEO for the National Association of Affordable Housing Lenders, echoes this concern. A Community Reinvestment Act rating, based on a fixed ratio of qualifying activity to bank size, would treat all banks the same, regardless of how much mortgage lending any specific bank actually does. It would also treat all housing markets the same; in reality, investments from one low-income community to another rarely match up.

“Let’s say you’re in Chicago, and the median home price is something over $200,000. That’s twice the median home price in, say, Toledo,” Roberts says. “If I’m just trying to get to a dollar volume target of lending, I would much rather be lending in Chicago than Toledo. So a bank in Chicago is going to be much more advantaged over a bank in Toledo, and communities in Toledo are going to be more disadvantaged, because it will be harder for them to attract the capital.”

Roberts draws that example out further, to a higher-priced community. “A gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn has them both beat, because it might be possible for a bank to make a loan on a condo there, in a low- and moderate-income neighborhood, of half a million dollars,” he says. “That’s a much faster way to get to the magic number.”

There are other factors associated with setting a specific target that cause critics to worry. The magic number for a 2018-level economy won’t work for banks in the face of a 2008-style recession. A target volume set too high might encourage banks to compromise their credit standards with unwise loans. And a numeric value set under Trump is practically an engraved invitation for the next administration to ratchet the figure up or down (or scrap it altogether)—not exactly the certainty craved by bankers.

Roberts nevertheless applauds the administration’s proposal to revise the Community Reinvestment Act rule. The last substantive revision came in 1995, he says, back when interstate banking was new and online banking didn’t exist. “There’s a lot in CRA that’s just not clear,” he says. “I’m confident that if banks had more clarity about what got CRA consideration, they would be lending more.”

The sentiment echoes many in the lending community, including the Consumer Bankers Association. The case for reform rests on one bedrock truth: Banking has fundamentally changed over the last 20 years. Some rural areas aren’t served by any physical bank branches, for example. Ally, the online-only bank, doesn’t get any credit for its lending in Detroit (where its holding company is based); instead, its compliance is measured entirely by its activity in Salt Lake City (where the bank is headquartered).

New financial institutions have found ways to game the fact that they aren’t held to the same standard as traditional banks. For example, of the 1,119 home mortgage loans issued by JPMorgan Chase in the Washington, D.C., metro area in 2015 and 2016, African American homebuyers received just 23 loans. That’s exactly the sort of discrimination that the Community Reinvestment Act was designed to stop. But because Chase doesn’t technically operate any bank branches in the D.C. area, it isn’t obligated to follow the law against redlining.

“We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build upon that legacy of community development and make the Community Reinvestment Act work better for everyone,” writes Comptroller Joseph Otting.

The ink on a new Community Reinvestment Act rule is very far from dry. Any practicable rule will likely need the buy-in of both the board of the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Otting’s office is doing it alone for now by asking for input on a new rule. As American Banker reports, these agencies usually act in unison, but occasionally one goes out on a limb with a reform proposal.

A small change to the way that regulators and banks interpret the Community Reinvestment Act could have sweeping effects for low-income communities as well as the broader economy. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition figures that the law has sparked $2 trillion in loans since 1996. But the Trump administration isn’t proposing a tweak. A brand new formula would represent a sea change in the way that banks look at low-income communities and minority borrowers.

Taken together with other federal rules changes, there is reason to worry about the future. The Trump administration appears to be fully revising how the government reads its rules on segregation and discrimination in housing and lending. Down the road from Treasury in D.C., the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has opened up two rules for review: a legal doctrine on implicit forms of discrimination (known as disparate impact) and a policy that requires communities to actively work toward desegregation (known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing).

“It’s trite to say that the devil’s in the details,” Van Tol says. “Here the devil’s in the concept.”

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The Kerala Floods: A Disastrous Consequence of Unchecked Urbanization

On Wednesday, Cochin International Airport reopened. For two weeks the airport in the city of Kochi had been closed after being inundated with waters from a flood that ravaged the Indian state, Kerala, killing more than 400 people. Bridges collapsed, forests fell, and homes were swept away in landslides. In addition to the devastating loss of life, the recovery and reconstruction cost is estimated to be billions of dollars.  

This was not the first, or even the second time, a flood has wreaked such havoc in India—and it is likely not the last. Every time a disaster like this hits, Indian politicians from opposing parties quibble about the relief efforts, but there is seldom a meaningful discussion about the fact that these disasters were, at least in part, man-made: a result of haphazard urbanization and badly planned water-management infrastructure.

Environmentalists point to Kochi’s airport as a prime example of a structure built without prior risk assessment. To show its issues, Samrat Basak, the director of the World Resource Institute’s Urban Water Program, conducted a quick satellite analysis. The first problem: The airport was built a few hundred meters away from the Periyar River, and to make space for it, natural water channels were realigned.

“It is too close to the river, that’s point number one,” Basak told CityLab, “and it’s not just the Kochi airport: Even the Mumbai and the Chennai airports are too close to the river, and they’ve experienced flooding in the past.”

The second issue was evident when WRI analyzed the elevation analysis. Not only is the airport at river level, it was lower than some of the areas in the North, which means it acted like a collection tray for runoff from the north when the downpour hit.

“So if there’s a flood, it will breach the airport boundaries—you don’t need to be a scientist or an architect to understand [that],” Basak said.

Basak’s analysis also mentions that urban areas like Palakkad, Chengannur, and Angamaly were also submerged because many of them have developed on flood plains. And Aluva, a suburb of Kochi that began sprouting in the 1990s, has been sprawling into the flood plain without a buffer to withstand overflow from the river.

A flood victim is buried in Paravur, in the state of Kerala on August 21. (Sivaram V/Reuters)

The other factor here, according to WRI, is that hydro-power dams that supply more than half of the electricity in Kerala are spread out across the state. These massive structures have been built without any plans for overflowing reservoirs, without emergency protocols for potential collapses, and without warning systems if any of these eventualities come to bear, a a 2017 government audit warned. It seems Kerala’s vulnerability is not an exception, but a rule, according to the audit. The consequence was that these reservoirs were brimming with water even before the monsoons hit, Basak noted, and so when it did, all of the water was released at the same time.

With recent research measuring a three-fold increase in extreme rain since the 1950s, a finding that is consistent with climate change forecasts, WRI emphasizes an urgent need to preempt these risks.

“That’s a chronic problem in India—that we’re more reactive than proactive,” Basak said.

This tendency may be because preemptive measures require significant investment, or just that urban development has been happening at such dizzying speed in India since the early 1990s that lawmakers can’t keep up. Climate change is also largely overlooked in discussions about urban planning.

”Most Indian cities are facing challenges around extreme events or lack of water because of these three reasons,” Basak said.

WRI recommends ways in which India and its cities can be proactive about the risk of floods from monsoons or extreme weather events: conservation of natural flood buffers such as tree cover, more sustainable urban development, and resilient infrastructure are some solutions. The bottom line is: the recourse requires a shift in mentality.

“Urban development and sustainability of cities should not be in a conflict—it should go hand in hand,” Basak said. “That’s where we need to work quite a lot, as policymakers and thought leaders.”

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CityLab Daily: How America Killed Transit

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(WMATA/Shutterstock/Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

Today, outside a few major urban centers, public transit is clinging to life support. The private automobile is usually blamed for this sharp decline in ridership, but, as Jonathan English argues, near-total collapse was not inevitable. Instead, the operators of these struggling U.S. systems have been ignoring one key lesson about what drove riders away: Service drives demand. Today on CityLab, here’s why America stopped building transit.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

John McCain’s Unlikely Legacy Project in Phoenix

In his final year, the senator worked to revitalize a long-abandoned riverfront project in central Arizona.

Karim Doumar

Work Habits Are Changing: Cities Need to Keep Up

What does work sprawl mean for urban planning?

Filipa Pajević and Richard Shearmur

Workers Rights, Silicon Valley-Style

In the technology industry, labor organizing can get tricky.

Tanvi Misra and Sarah Holder

Weirdly, Canals and Trains Made Pre-Civil-War Americans Smaller

Why a transportation revolution had some unanticipated side effects.  

Laura Bliss

Militarization of Local Police Isn’t Making Anyone Safer

Recent research shows that not only are militarized squads used disproportionately in communities of color, but contrary to claims, they reduce neither crime nor police injury or death.

Tanvi Misra

What We’re Reading

Why counting everyone in the census is hard (Vox)

The undocumented workers who built Silicon Valley (Washington Post)

How much hotter is your hometown than when you were born? (New York Times)

Why we should organize sidewalks as neatly as our homes (Curbed)

What if Houston’s survival depends on giving in to the flood? (Slate)

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

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John McCain’s Unlikely Legacy Project in Phoenix

In his Phoenix office, Senator John McCain kept a poster on the wall depicting Tempe Town Lake and the commercial developments that sprang up there after the man-made waterway opened in 1999. Wellington “Duke” Reiter, executive director of Arizona State University’s City Exchange Program, said that when he saw the picture, he knew McCain understood the power of the project.

Today, the lake is a bustling attraction in the middle of the Phoenix metro area. But it’s just a sliver of a massive project first proposed in the 1960s that envisioned new green space, recreational areas, commercial development, and walking corridors along a 40-mile stretch of the Rio Salado (Salt River) that snakes through the city.

That plan was devised in 1966, when students from Arizona State University* proposed an ambitious idea to breathe life back into the river. After dams were built upstream in the early 20th century, the riverbed mostly dried up throughout the Phoenix area, except in times of heavy rain. The students imagined its future as a commercial and tourist corridor that would unite a newly sprawling Phoenix region.

Ultimately, though, it never came to pass. There were too many stakeholders to get on the same page, and the challenge of securing funding proved insurmountable. (In 1987, voters throughout the county rejected a property tax increase to support it.) Not only would a proper Rio Salado development project involve working with multiple city governments, but also state, county, and tribal officials, as well as industrial giants, like mining companies, that had taken residence on certain banks of the river, Reiter said.

Two tourists paddle along Tempe Town Lake. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

But in 1988, Tempe Mayor Harry Mitchell forged ahead to complete Tempe’s own slice of the plan that was set out two decades earlier. According to current Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell (Harry’s son), Arizona’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., was instrumental to getting the help of the Army Corps of Engineers to construct the lake. Since then, office buildings, apartments, parks, and an arts center have sprung up around it, and more than 2 million people visit it each year. Meanwhile, the rest of the riverbed and its banks remained dry and bare.

That’s where John McCain comes in.

In April 2017, just before his glioblastoma diagnosis became public, McCain approached ASU to see what it would take to get the Rio Salado project moving again. Short answer: a lot.

The project, dubbed Rio Reimagined, went to Reiter, who leads the university’s efforts to strengthen relationships between ASU and the cities around it. The first step would be setting a project scope and convening the necessary civic, tribal, and industry leaders.

The Rio Reimagined project area. (Arizona State University)

This, of course, is where the things fell apart in the first attempt. With six municipalities and two Indian communities along the river, it’s not hard to see why. Reiter says he wouldn’t have pitched such a large project, but that’s what McCain wanted.

“I believe if we get this done, someday your kids and you will be walking along and you’ll be able to say, ‘I played a role in that. I was part of the effort that made this such a wonderful place to raise your kids,’” McCain told a group of ASU students in August 2017.

McCain’s imprimatur gave the project the credibility it needed, Reiter said, and his relationships with mayors and tribes along the Rio Salado helped bring everyone together. Shortly after the two first met, they convened a meeting of local civic leaders interested in the project to go over next steps.

“The implementation of Rio Reimagined in the way Senator McCain imagined is a really fitting legacy,” Mark Mitchell said.

But getting everybody on board is just the beginning. There’s still a long road ahead to plan, design, and secure funding for the project.

Beyond its ambition, the project is notable for another reason. If completed, it stands to be a rare local mark of McCain’s legacy. That’s partly because McCain focused so heavily on national and global affairs in his three-decade Senate career, and partly because his career in Congress was marked by his public aversion to earmarks and “pork-barrel spending” that bring federal funds to local infrastructure projects like this one.

“Senator McCain was essentially the pioneer senator who began pointing out pork-barrel spending in floor speeches,” said Pete Sepp, president of the anti-earmarks National Taxpayers Union Foundation. Unlike many members of Congress, McCain hasn’t left a trail of infrastructure projects that he secured funding for. While that might have pleased fiscal conservatives, that stance didn’t endear McCain to all Arizonans.

“Modern Arizona wouldn’t exist without immense amounts of federal largesse. Arizona’s great statesmen—Carl Hayden, Ernest McFarland, Barry Goldwater, Mo and Stuart Udall, and John Rhodes—understood this,” former Arizona Republic columnist Jon Talton said in an email. “The change in attitude tragically coincided with Phoenix becoming a huge metropolis, with huge urban needs, which received little help from the GOP delegation.”

McCain’s resistance to federal funding for civic projects was hardly limited to Arizona: He frequently voted against infrastructure spending bills, even those signed by Republican presidents. Notably, in 2008, he was one of 24 senators who opposed an Amtrak bill that’s credited with saving the system from financial ruin.

Congressman John McCain in 1985, a year before his first election to the senate. (Jim Bourdier/AP)

On the Rio Salado project, McCain’s name and influence have come in handy when making connections to federal agencies that could provide funding down the line, Reiter said.

“When an agency got a call from his office, people took the call and invited us in for meetings,” he said. “We hope that the senator’s legacy continues to be powerful enough to open those doors.”

Either way, it’s going to be a long time before Rio Reimagined has any design proposals or renderings on the table, Reiter says. “What we first need to do is socialize the idea that we can come together as a major metro area and get behind an idea that we all determine together.” He imagines that it will be decades before any project is agreed upon, designed, and built.

And if shining greenways, parks, recreational areas and commercial developments span the banks of the Rio Salado, people can thank McCain for bringing the players to the table.

“His real interest was seeing people rally around something that would bring them together,” Reiter said. “Whether you’re an urbanist or a stakeholder or a mayor or tribe president, he wanted to see if people could rally around a project.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly attributed the original Rio Salado plans to the University of Arizona.

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