CityLab Daily: The Plight of the Public Servant

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What We’re Following

At your service: While private sector job growth has bounced back from the recession, public service work—once a foothold into the middle class for teachers, firefighters, bus drivers, or nurses—has eroded. Today, The New York Times visits Oklahoma to see how post-recession budget shortfalls have changed life for public-sector employees, who now account for their smallest share of the civilian workforce since 1967.

As teachers there and in other states protest for higher wages, this quote, from a career public servant, really stands out: “I was surprised to realize along the way I was no longer middle class.” Earlier this month, Oklahoma’s Republican governor approved the state’s first tax increase in 28 years in order to raise teachers’ pay. Later this week, Arizona teachers plan to walk out for more education funding.

CityLab context: Why America’s teachers haven’t been getting raises.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Geography of Health in America

A new county-by-county report finds that blacks and Native Americans have the most dire health statistics in the United States.

Alastair Boone

Does a Higher Building Elevation Lead to More Risk-Taking?

A new study suggests that being on a higher floor in a building increases a person’s willingness to take financial risks.  

Teresa Mathew

The Case for Preserving Mobile Homes

Preservationist and landscape architect Eduard Krakhmalnikov thinks these places are overlooked in the national conversation on affordable housing.

Carson Bear

You Cannot Win the War on Noise

For centuries, Western culture has been trying to find some peace and quiet. But the more people try to keep unwanted sound out, the more sensitive they become to it.

Matthew Jordan

Getting High is a Civil Right

James Foreman Jr.’s book Locking Up Our Own, which won a Pulitzer Prize, shows how plans to decriminalize cannabis to help black people were derailed in Washington, D.C. in 1975, by black people.

Brentin Mock

Video of the Day

On Friday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to make Central Park car-free starting in June. But the fight to make the park pedestrian-friendly goes way back. Streetsfilms shared a re-cut of its short 2004 advocacy video “The Case for a Car-Free Central Park,” featuring Ken Coughlin, the chairperson of the Car-Free Central Park Committee, who began organizing to ban cars back in 1995. It also features some retro New Yorkers jogging, biking, and even rollerblading through the park as Coughlin gets people to sign the car-free petition.

Central Park history on CityLab: When wealthy New Yorkers decided to build Central Park, they eliminated an egalitarian community known as Seneca Village.

What We’re Reading

Sean Hannity’s real estate portfolio includes housing insured by HUD loans (The Guardian)

This tiny-house village allows drugs in Seattle. Should it have been put in a high drug-traffic area? (Seattle Times)

To buy or to rent: The great homeownership debate (Curbed)

Why was California’s radical housing bill so unpopular? (Slate)

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Why Entrepreneurs of Color Are Struggling

For almost 40 years, the rate at which Americans have started new businesses has been in a steady decline. This is bad news, since new firms drive the high-wage jobs and market competition that our economy desperately needs. Racial and socioeconomic disparities in business ownership further stifle entrepreneurship and threaten the long-term economic health of our cities and our economy.

But a silver lining may have come in one of the most unexpected of places: the Trump administration’s tax overhaul. A little-known provision in the final version signed into law enables states to establish “opportunity zones” that encourage investors to defer capital gains, so long as they invest in existing or new businesses.

The bipartisan Economic Innovation Group, a key proponent of the provision, has estimated that there are $2.3 trillion in unrealized capital gains. This could be used to create a pool of capital for investment in areas designated as opportunity zones, or census tracts that have a poverty rate of at least 20 percent and median family income no greater than 80 percent of the median for the overall region.

This new source of investment could make a difference in addressing the nation’s steady decline in the rate of new business startups. But it will only be effective if the fastest-growing segments of our population—people of color—are able to become entrepreneurs at exponentially increasing rates.

It is well established that businesses owned by women and people of color disproportionately lack access to venture capital and small business loans, which limits their ability to launch, expand and grow. But access to capital is just one part of the problem: The systems in place for identifying, fostering and supporting entrepreneurs favor white males from the start. A recent study from Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at the Equality of Opportunity Project found that people of color, women, and children from low-income families become inventors at a fraction of the rate of white men, often despite demonstrating higher performance at a young age.

Recently, Living Cities, the nonprofit group in D.C. that I lead, looked into the entrepreneurial environments in New Orleans, San Francisco, and Albuquerque, in order to provide local leaders and opportunity zone investors with guidance on where these investment dollars should be deployed to increase business dynamism in their own backyards. We mapped the unique obstacles that people of color and lower-income and lower-wealth Americans face in launching and scaling new businesses, and looked at potential intervention points and strategies to overcome these barriers.

What we found was, in order to help new businesses thrive, cities need to have healthy local entrepreneurial ecosystems. Those are the policies, programs, organizations, products and services in a bounded geography that together shape the environment in which local business owners start, operate and grow. In the best cases, these factors interact to make a city a welcoming and easy-to-navigate place for aspiring entrepreneurs of all races and socio-economic backgrounds.

To build such an an ecosystem, leaders across sectors must proactively connect business owners of color with experts, networks, and resources in a seamless way. Based on the three cities we studied, here are four ways to make that happen.

1) Create new fund structures that replicate “friends and family” investments for lower-income and lower-wealth entrepreneurs. The majority of entrepreneurs draw on their savings to get off the ground, and one in five lean on funds from family members. Having sufficient capital at the outset is highly correlated with a business’ chance of survival. But the enormous racial wealth gap, coupled with the almost complete unavailability of venture and loan funding, means that capital is harder to come by for entrepreneurs of color.

A pilot fund in New Orleans launched by the Network for Economic Opportunity bridges this gap for small businesses bidding for public construction and infrastructure projects, providing much-needed capital to grow their capacity and take on larger city contracts with more stable revenue streams. During a recent evaluation of the pilot, one African-American business owner explained that he’d been denied a loan from three different banks, despite having a FICO credit score of 720. At the same time, a white colleague with a much lower score had walked away with a million-dollar line of credit.

2) Establish formal mechanisms that connect prominent entrepreneurs of color with emerging entrepreneurs of color and engage them as mentors. We know, based on rich research like Gallup’s Builder Profile, that the qualities that characterize successful entrepreneurs don’t discriminate by race. But from an early age, social networks shape perceptions of who can become a successful entrepreneur in the first place. Exposure to business owners in one’s own network is a powerful lever; it has been shown to boost the likelihood that someone will become an entrepreneur themselves, according to research from the Kauffman Foundation. Similarly, studies by Endeavor show that even a very small number of successful entrepreneurs in a single market serving as mentors to emerging businesses can stimulate an exponential amount of startup activity and growth.

3) Develop a coordinating mechanism to help navigate technical assistance services and the entire ecosystem. Each of the three cities we studied had an abundance of actors in their ecosystems. What they didn’t have was any rational way for entrepreneurs to navigate the different organizations and services. Often, if you entered the system through the wrong door—e.g. you went to an organization focusing on startups but you were a later-stage company—no one helped you get to the right place.

Places like Kansas City are intentionally working to solve that problem. With initial funding from the Kauffman Foundation, the city created a resource called KCSourceLink designed to help entrepreneurs connect the dots, via a searchable directory of more than 240 business-building organizations located in the metro area, plus other resources. KCSourceLink also runs a triage center for business owners to access the exact resources they need.

4) Intentionally identify and support existing companies with the potential to scale their business models. In every location, we saw entrepreneurs who simply didn’t have the expertise to recognize their own potential to be high-growth enterprises and then take the steps to grow. When they’re able to leverage opportunities to widen their customer base or shift into a new sector, entrepreneurs can transform their business from sustainable to thriving.

A local music store in Ohio, for example, had built up a business selling instruments, music scores, and lessons. With the support of a nonprofit startup accelerator, the owner identified a potential source of new online customers: saxophone players, who rapidly go through reeds. This pattern created an opportunity to develop an online subscription service for reeds that could not only serve existing local customers, but be available worldwide, online.

Similarly, a network of organizations dubbed the “Chicago Anchors for a Strong Economy,” or CASE, supports 15 local institutions in more intentionally using all of their assets, especially the money they spend on buying goods and services, to help grow local businesses and create more jobs for Chicagoans. A dedicated staff at CASE works to plays matchmaker, connecting institutions with the right local businesses to meet their needs. They also help participating small businesses navigate the procurement processes of larger institutions, and provide advisory and workforce development services out of the University of Chicago.

Investment of opportunity zone resources in these types of ecosystem-building activities could be transformational. By directly addressing barriers to inclusion and growth, they would help unleash extraordinary local business growth.

And these ecosystems are currently being built across the nation and ready for investment. Last June, the Kauffman Foundation convened the first-ever ESHIP Summit in Kansas City, bringing together more than 400 ecosystem builders from 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, plus nine countries. Their digital playbook captures the resulting ideas, insights, and solutions—and is currently open for feedback.

Can the new resources soon to be available through opportunity zones finally enable us to harness the long-dormant power of lower-income and lower-wealth Americans and get America back to leading the world in startups? The proof will be in the pudding.  

The Geography of Health in America

In 2016, a greater percentage of babies were born at low birthweight in Jackson County, Colorado, than anywhere else in the country.

That might not seem like such a big deal these days, with modern technology powerful enough to nurse babies who are born months premature back to health. But according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s annual County Health Rankings Report, we should think twice before dismissing the importance of underweight babies. Indeed, the 2018 Key Findings Report cautions that low birthweight (LBW) is an important signifier of long-lasting health discrepancies.

The context surrounding health problems like these is the focus of the 2018 annual County Health Rankings Report: After eight years of focusing largely on place-based health discrepancies, this year’s report seeks to highlight the disparities that exist between different communities in America. To do this, the researchers dig into the lines along which various health discrepancies fall, such as birth weight, child poverty, teen pregnancy, educational attainment, unemployment, and residential segregation. What they find is that these health measures are the worst in the Southwest, Southeast, Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, and the Plains regions. Within these places, communities of color are disproportionately affected across all measures.

“We need to understand those gaps in order to be able to present the whole story,” said Marjory Givens, an associate scientist at the University of Wisconsin’s County Health Rankings and Roadmaps Program. “Our intention is to call attention to the fact that not everyone has the opportunity to be healthy where they live, and that means having difficult conversations about segregation and structural inequities.”

So why is low birthweight so important? As Givens says: “When you start behind, you tend to stay behind.”

The annual report ranks the health of nearly every county in the nation, shedding light on the state of public health in America. Their rankings are based on a model that analyzes county-level data from all 50 states, which weighs over 30 health behaviors and outcomes (spanning housing and transit to drug and alcohol use, income, and access to clinical care). For some, the obstacles these measures define start at birth and persist throughout their lives.

According to the report, LBW babies—that is, those born at less than about 5.5 pounds—are at greater risk of developmental problems, cardiovascular disease, cognitive problems, and premature mortality, as well as other associated health issues. What makes this especially alarming is that, after about a decade of incremental decreases, the percentage of low birthweight babies grew 2 percent between 2014 and 2016.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps (2018 Key Findings Report)

Just as important, though, children are much more likely to be born underweight if their mothers are unhealthy. “The low birthweight measure gives us a sense not just of the experience of babies, it also provides an indication of maternal health,” Givens said. “We know that mothers who receive adequate and culturally competent prenatal care, and have equal access to economic opportunities, have more healthy birth outcomes.”

When it comes to birthweight, this means that being black has a strong impact on the likelihood that a baby will be born under 5.5 pounds. Across the country, the percentage of low birthweight babies born to black mothers in each state is higher than the average in the state’s bottom performing county. (And recently, The New York Times reported that the rate of maternal mortality for black women is three to four times higher than for white women, while black babies are more than twice as likely to die as infants than white babies are). However, there are complexities to this assessment: As mentioned, Jackson County, Colorado, in the Plains region, has the greatest percentage of low birthweight babies in the country—27. Its population is approximately 96 percent white. It’s also a county where 25 percent of children live in poverty.

In many counties, it’s not just race, but the combination of race, place, and income that makes an impact: While in some places the percentage of babies with LBW is lower for Hispanics and Asians than it is for whites, in other places, this is not the case. But in most counties, black and American Indian/Alaskan Native mothers give birth to LBW babies at a higher rate than do other racial and ethnic groups, and for blacks, the difference is sizable.

“We know that the social and economic opportunities are what help to determine quality of life, and LBW is one indicator of that,” Givens said. “When you add racism into the conversation, those opportunities become fewer and far between for certain people.”

Child Poverty

According to Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty, 21 percent of all children in the U.S. live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line. And according to the County Health Rankings report, the highest child poverty rates are in rural counties—which are home to 23.2 percent of children living in poverty—followed closely by large urban metros (21.2 percent), smaller metros (20.5 percent) and finally, suburban counties (14.5 percent). In the country as a whole, child poverty rates are the highest in Southwestern and Southeastern counties, as well as parts of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and the Plains.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, 2018 Key Findings Report

The report notes that children who grow up in poverty are less likely to attend good schools, have fewer chances to secure living wage jobs, and are less likely to be healthy later in life. Although by numbers, there are more white children living in poverty than any other race, the threat is greatest for black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaskan Native children: For these groups, child poverty percentages are twice as high as the rates for white children. In fact, for black and Hispanic children, poverty rates are higher in suburban counties than they are for white children in rural counties.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, 2018 Key Findings Report

Teen Birth Rate

There are strong ties between poverty and teen pregnancy, too. Though teen birth rates are currently at a record low—they’ve dropped 67 percent since 1991—these improvements have largely been confined to the East and West coasts. While the coasts have improved, the Southwest and Southeast, as well as parts of Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and the Plains regions have seen little change over the last decade, according to the report.  

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps (2018 Key Findings Report)

The raw number of teens giving birth is highest in urban areas, where the majority of teens live, but teen birth rates are actually highest in rural counties. Today, teens in rural counties have the highest birth rates (35.9 for every 1,000 teen girls), which is about twice the rate for suburban counties, (18.5 for every 1,000). These rates are the highest for American Indian/Alaskan Native, Hispanic, and black teens, whose birth rates are twice as high as those for white and Asian teens.

Furthermore, the low teen birthrate may not last for long. A full 41 percent of the drop since 1991 occurred between 2010 and 2016, after the Obama Administration instituted the Teen Pregnancy Prevention Program—a national program from the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) that funds community-based organizations working to prevent teen pregnancy. Yet, their funding will end in July: Last year, the Trump Administration made budget cuts that will force the OAH to end the program two years early.

One of the local programs that will be affected is Connect Spartanburg, an adolescent health organization that formed in 2007 after the South Carolina county learned that its teen birth rate had surpassed that of the state. By 2015, the county was able to lower its teen birth rate below the state’s, where it has remained since. But after they stop receiving OAH funding, Connect Spartanburg will have to cut some programs even though they say there is plenty of work left to be done.

“We really wanted to embrace a holistic model,” said Polly Edwards Padgett, the Adolescent Health Product Director for the Mary Black Foundation. “If I’m smoking weed every day after school because I live in a dangerous neighborhood, I’m not going to make good sexual health decisions.”

Residential Segregation

According to Givens, residential segregation plays a determining factor in the opportunity one has to be heathy. “In essence, residential segregation is opportunity segregation,” she said. “Healthcare has a role to play, but it needs to be complimented by similar and perhaps even greater investments in the social and economic factors.”

The researchers measured residential segregation only within small metro and large urban counties. It is defined using a dissimilarity index, in which higher values indicate greater levels of segregation. When breaking this down by racial and ethnic group, they found living in a segregated area has a greater impact on minority residents than white residents: They tend to experience greater rates of child poverty and lower high school graduation rates than those who live in less segregated areas. White residents, meanwhile, fare similarly in both segregated and integrated counties.

The chart below shows how this plays out for black residents, nation-wide. For example, while 43 percent of black children in highly segregated areas live in poverty, for white children living in places with similar levels of segregation, the number is just 14 percent.

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps (2018 Key Findings Report)

While the report does not include national segregation statistics for other racial and ethnic groups, minority groups across the country who live in highly segregated counties face the same struggle. Miami-Dade, Florida, for example—which is 68 percent Hispanic—is highly segregated, with a dissimilarity index of 57 for white/non-white residents. (Note: the figure provided by the report does not measure the residential segregation experienced by Hispanic people in particular, but because of the large Hispanic population in Miami, it is the best available measure of it.) In turn, 26 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty, compared to 12 percent for white children, and there are 17 births for every 1,000 Hispanic girls between the ages of 15 and 19, compared to 10 births for every 1,000 white teens in the area.

Although the black population in Miami is much smaller—at 16 percent—segregation between black and white residents is even greater. Here, the dissimilarity index reaches 70. This seems to have noticeable health impacts: 43 percent of black children in Miami live in poverty, and there are 38 births for every 1,000 black girls between the ages of 15 and 19.

In San Juan County, New Mexico, the picture looks similar. Twenty percent of the population in the county is Hispanic, while 37 percent is Alaskan Native/American Indian. Here, the dissimilarity index for white and non-white residents is 55. The results play out in kind: 28 percent of Hispanic children in San Juan live in poverty, compared to 12 percent of white children. And when it comes to teen births, there are 56 births for every 1,000 Hispanic teenagers, while the number is 32 for white girls. (The report does not provide these numbers for Alaskan natives or American Indians.)

Segregation patterns between white and black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaskan Native, and Asian children perpetuate bad health outcomes—such as low birthweight, infant mortality, child poverty, and low high school graduation rates—throughout the country. This holds up across racial and ethnic groups and affects nearly all the measures in the report.

“These differences in opportunities are the result of more than 100 years of the ways we have chosen to shape and govern our communities,” Givens said. “Redlining, unfair bank lending, all of these things have significantly affected opportunity.”

The report is positioned as an alarm and a call to action. It is the authors intent, they write, for leaders and community change makers to use the report to “better understand the local assets and challenges and implement strategies to address both place and racial gaps, creating communities where everyone has a fair and just chance to lead the healthiest life possible.”

Sinking Cities Saved by Resilient Regions

Sea rise and extreme climate are challenging urban planners to be regional planners; they confront civic leaders with the need to take a long view of time and see beyond city boundaries. We also see how global employers can lead in shifting jobs and relocating facilities.

The Case For Preserving Mobile Homes

Today, about 40,000 mobile home parks exist across the United States. They were critical to filling housing shortages during World War II and even more so after the end of the war. They have the potential to create opportunities for low-income housing, yet many mobile home parks are in danger of erasure from our cultural landscape.

Eduard Krakhmalnikov, a preservationist and landscape architect, has a passion for these often-overlooked places. His research on mobile home parks was featured in Landscape Architecture Magazine in 2013 and more recently in the Winter 2017-18 issue of Minnesota History. Below, Krakhmalnikov shines a light on the significant role mobile home parks played in United States history, and explains why they are endangered.

Tell us a little more about the history of mobile home parks in the United States.

Mobile homes really started out with the automobile in the 1920s. In this form, they were an attachment to the car, but you could take them with you and live more comfortably.

[Their rise in popularity] split the use of the “proto” mobile home, as it’s called, into two different functions: One was for vacations, and the other was for people who were using them as a more or less permanent home—but also as a place to move around and find new opportunities. It’s really American in that way, and it also created a sense of mobility.

Especially during and after World War II, workers lived in mobile homes near otherwise unoccupied agricultural spaces and railroads [where factories were built]. Mobile home parks were built by both private and government developers next to spaces of production, and they were able to quickly provide housing for war workers and the construction workers who built the factories. If it weren’t for mobile homes, I don’t believe we would have produced nearly as much [ammunitions and supplies] during the war. When the war ended, the country experienced a massive housing shortage, so more mobile homes sprung up. Much of the baby boomer generation’s early years were spent in mobile homes, and the homes became increasingly popular in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Today, mobile homes aren’t as visible, partly because the most vulnerable groups of people live there. Mobile home parks tend to house single women, people who have just moved to the country, retirees, and young families on a limited income. But, there are also a lot of people who have lived there for generations; they value the mobile home park as their community and a part of their identity.

(Eduard Krakhmalnikov)

Do you think that mobile home parks have a place in our current housing discussions?

We talk about affordable housing all the time, as we should, but we never talk about mobile homes or mobile home parks—even though they’re primarily used as affordable housing. When we talk about affordable housing and historic homes as preservationists, we really need to start including mobile home parks in those discussions. They fill a critical gap [in housing opportunities], but they’re also endangered.

Why are they endangered?

[Since most mobile home parks are privately owned], they become too expensive to maintain. To keep them affordable, their original infrastructure usually remains in place while their owners [find temporary solutions for repairs] until the entire mobile home park needs to be replaced. They’re sold off because it’s just too expensive to maintain and the owner is no longer making a profit; these are private places and businesses, and that is a legitimate concern.

Sometimes, mobile home parks are zoned out of their city or municipality because they aren’t wanted. That trend began in the 1950s and ‘60s, when suburbs were growing exponentially, and it continues today. When owners don’t want to own their mobile home park anymore, they sell them to developers who would rather build condos or other forms of housing that don’t have limited profit margins.

But on the other hand, some mobile homes parks are being turned into housing cooperatives [a membership-based housing corporation where each shareholder is given the right to occupy one housing unit], which I think is a great opportunity for the future.

In addition to creating cooperative housing, what are the best ways to preserve these places?

From the very get-go, we [as preservationists] have to acknowledge that mobile home parks are part of the landscape and that people are choosing to live there. These are communities, and many people move in because they’d rather own their home than live in an apartment. Maybe they can’t quite afford a house yet, or they’d rather save for their children’s education, or they’ve lived there for generations. Let’s start there.

In preservation circles, I think it’s particularly challenging because mobile home parks don’t meet any current measure of architectural integrity. They are very flexible spaces, and they could be upended at any time. It would be exceptionally difficult to put them in the National Register, the way it’s set up now, but that ultimately opens up opportunities for the future. I think we need to change the way we measure and create historic places.

Maybe it’s better to go down a grassroots route to try and preserve them—drumming up support in your community, rather than looking for a National Register listing, for example.

Right. Mobile home parks could become their own cities, just like two in the Twin Cities (where I conducted most of my research) have in the 1950s and ‘60s. Hilltop and Landfall [both privately owned] became their own municipalities to protect themselves from creeping annexation by neighboring cities. They’re still privately owned today. They have not only remained intact, but have actually grown over the last 60 years. They would’ve been destroyed otherwise.

What else should we do to ensure their longevity?

I think we should engage with the people who live there. 20 million people live in mobile homes, and about a quarter of them live in mobile home parks. If you put all mobile home parks together, that would create a city three times the size of Detroit. The more we can open people’s eyes to how important these places are, the more we can engage with the people who live there. Their voices should be heard just as much as any homeowner. It’s a massive opportunity.

This article originally appeared on

You Cannot Win the War on Noise

The new film “A Quiet Place” is an edge-of-your-seat tale about a family struggling to avoid being heard by monsters with hypersensitive ears. Conditioned by fear, they know the slightest noise will provoke a violent response—and almost certain death.

Audiences have come out in droves to dip their toes into its quiet terror, and they’re loving it: It’s raked in over $100 million at the box office and has a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Like fairy tales and fables that dramatize cultural phobias or anxieties, the movie may be resonating with audiences because something about it rings true. For hundreds of years, Western culture has been at war with noise.

Yet the history of this quest for quietness, which I’ve explored by digging through archives, reveals something of a paradox: The more time and money people spend trying to keep unwanted sound out, the more sensitive to it they become.

Be quiet—I’m thinking!

As long as people have lived in close quarters, they’ve been complaining about the noises other people make and yearning for quiet.

In the 1660s, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal speculated, “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” Pascal surely knew it was harder than it sounds.

But in modern times, the problem seems to have gotten exponentially worse. During the Industrial Revolution, people swarmed to cities roaring with factory furnaces and shrieking with train whistles. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called the cacophony “torture for intellectual people,” arguing that thinkers needed quietness in order to do good work. Only stupid people, he thought, could tolerate noise.

Charles Dickens described feeling “harassed, worried, wearied, driven nearly mad, by street musicians” in London. In 1856, The Times echoed his annoyance with the “noisy, dizzy, scatterbrain atmosphere” and called on Parliament to legislate “a little quiet.”

It seems the more people started to complain about noise, the more sensitive to it they became. Take the Scottish polemicist Thomas Carlyle. In 1831, he moved to London.

“I have been more annoyed with noises,” he wrote, “which get free access through my open windows.”

He became so triggered by noisy peddlers that he spent a fortune soundproofing the study in his Chelsea Row house. It didn’t work. His hypersensitive ears perceived the slightest sound as torture, and he was forced to retreat to the countryside.

The war on noise

By the 20th century, governments all over the world were engaged in an endless war on noisy people and things. After successfully silencing the tug boats whose tooting tormented her on the porch of her Riverside Avenue mansion, Mrs. Julia Barnett Rice, the wife of venture capitalist Isaac Rice, founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise in New York in order to combat what she called “one of the greatest banes of city life.”

Counting as members over 40 governors, and with Mark Twain as their spokesman, the group used its political clout to get “quiet zones” established around hospitals and schools. Violating a quiet zone was punishable by fine, imprisonment or both.

But focusing on noise only made her more sensitive to it. Like Carlyle, Rice turned to architects and built a quiet place deep under the ground, where her husband, Isaac, could work out his chess gambits in peace.

Inspired by Rice, anti-noise organizations sprang up around the globe. After World War I, with ears across Europe still ringing from explosions, the transnational culture war against noise really took off.

A promotion for the British Anti-Noise League, which was active in the 1930s. (Russell Davies)

Cities all over the world targeted noisy technologies, like the Klaxon automobile horn, which Paris, London, and Chicago banned by ordinance in the 1920s. In the 1930s, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia launched a “noiseless nights” campaign aided by sensitive noise-measuring devices stationed throughout the city. New York passed dozens of laws over the next several decades to muzzle the worst offenders, and cities throughout the world followed suit. By the 1970s, governments were treating noise as environmental pollution to be regulated like any industrial byproduct.

Planes were forced to fly higher and slower around populated areas, while factories were required to mitigate the noise they produced. In New York, the Department of Environmental Protection—aided by a van filled with sound-measuring devices and the words “noise makes you nervous & nasty” on the side—went after noisemakers as part of “Operation Soundtrap.”

After Mayor Michael Bloomberg instituted new noise codes in 2007 to ensure “well-deserved peace and quiet,” the city installed hypersensitive listening devices to monitor the soundscape and citizens were encouraged to call 311 to report violations.

Consuming quietness

Yet legislating against noisemakers rarely satisfied our growing desire for quietness, so products and technologies emerged to meet the demand of increasingly sensitive consumers. In the early 20th century, sound-muffling curtains, softer floor materials, room dividers and ventilators kept the noise from the outside from coming in, while preventing sounds from bothering neighbors or the police.

But as Carlyle, Rice, and the family in “A Quiet Place” found out, creating a sound-free lifeworld is nearly impossible. Certainly, as Hugo Gernsback learned with his 1925 invention the Isolator—a lead helmet with viewing holes connected to a breathing apparatus—it was impractical.

A drawing of Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Isolator’ appeared in a 1925 issue of the magazine Science and Invention. (Science and Invention)

No matter how thoughtful the design, unwanted sound continued to be a part of everyday life.

Unable to suppress noise, disquieted consumers started trying to mask it with wanted sound, buying gadgets like the Sleepmate white noise machine or by playing recorded sounds of nature, from breaking waves to rustling forests, on their stereos.

Today, the quietness industry is a booming international market. There are hundreds of digital apps and technologies created by psychoacoustic engineers for consumers, including noise cancellation products with adaptive algorithms that detect outside sounds and produce anti-phase sonic waves, rendering them inaudible.

Headphones like Beats by Dr. Dre promise a life “Above the Noise”; Cadillac’s “Quiet Cabin” claims it can protect people from “the silent horror film out there.”

The marketing efforts for these products aim to convince us that noise is intolerable and the only way to be happy is to shut out other people and their unwanted sounds. This same fantasy is mirrored in “A Quiet Place”: The only moment of relief in the whole “silent horror film” is when Evelyn and Lee are wired in together, swaying gently to their own music and silencing the world outside their earbuds.

In a Sony ad for their noise-canceling headphones, the company depicts a world in which the consumer exists in a sonic bubble in an eerily empty cityscape.

A 2011 ad for Sony’s noise cancellation headphones. (Ads of the World)

Content as some may feel in their ready-made acoustic cocoons, the more people accustom themselves to life without unwanted sounds from others, the more they become like the family in “A Quiet Place.” To hypersensitized ears, the world becomes noisy and hostile.

Maybe more than any alien species, it’s this intolerant quietism that’s the real monster.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Navigator: Code-switching

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“Hello?” she said on the phone.

I whipped my head around to look at the transgressor. The Amtrak quiet car had suddenly become not so quiet. How annoying, I thought, fighting the urge to shush the person. Instead, I vented on Twitter, as one does.

It dawned on me that I was becoming … that person—the enforcer of rules. That’s ironic, because when I first came to America, I didn’t know a lot of these rules. I’ve demonstrated bad escalator etiquette; I’ve texted in the movie theater. I know, I know—but it’s all true, I’m afraid.

The rules regulating one space often differ from those regulating another. That’s obvious, but easy to forget the longer you stay in a place. We all code-switch between contexts, but it may not always be a smooth transition. And even in the same space, the code—whatever it is—can sometimes be enforced differently for different people. (Just ask the two black guys at the Rittenhouse Square Starbucks in Philadelphia, who were arrested just minutes after they sat down.)

So tell me about how you’ve code-switched between different spaces. Did you have trouble transitioning? Did you commit any faux-pas? Drop me a line at

Reading List:

This week on CityLab: If you think Dutch cities are all about that weed, you’re so wrong. ¤ In L.A.? Grab dinner with a stranger and talk about race. ¤ Why does the online presence of local newspapers suck so damn much? ¤ The demise of “dese, dem, dose,” and other Midwestern linguistic quirks. ¤ Brutalism, interrupted. ¤ An art exhibition bringing America’s eviction crisis to life. ¤ Brazil’s favelas are sprouting community gardens. ¤ “By the time urban renewal arrived in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Memphis Lee’s diner was already done for.” ¤ Need Avocados, Kombucha, and Cheap Houses? Come live in the ‘burbs of Chicago! ¤

Here’s what else we’re reading, watching, and listening to:

Attack of the tumbleweeds! (New York Post) ¤ Artists and photographers are obsessed with Mumbai’s iconic black and yellow taxis. ( ¤ Why have restaurants become so unbearably loud?! (Vox) ¤ “The size and landscape of those salt gardens is just overwhelming.” (Atlas Obscura) ¤ Queer love and Christianity collide in Mizoram, India. (The Caravan) ¤ The robots are coming…to assemble your IKEA furniture. (New Yorker) ¤ Portraits from lower Alabama. (The Bitter Southerner) ¤

This weekend, also check out CityLab fellow Sarah Holder’s recommendation:

In New York in the ‘80s, “People lived louder and larger than they had just years before,” writes Frank Bruni. MTV launches. Hip Hop transforms the city. Madonna and Rupaul debut. Reagan takes office. Immigrant and avant-garde artists rise. AIDS runs rampant, and goes unaddressed. This month’s issue of NYT Style Magazine pays tribute to a decade that molded the city in ways that resonate today. What’s that word for feeling nostalgic for a time you didn’t even experience? Felt that.

OK, we have one more: Design/architecture nerd Mark Byrnes wants to shout out this photographer who has been documenting construction projects around the world that were aborted due to the financial crisis.

View from the ground:

@keithimus shot converging corners in Manhattan, @dariiuuu photographed the golden hour in Seville, @m_bracher shot the colorful homes of Nuremberg, and @enkrall captured the gritty architecture of Santo Domingo.

Tag us on Instagram with the hashtag #citylabontheground.

Over and out,



Getting High is a Civil Right

On April 7, Maryland’s legislature finally agreed, after months of haggling, on a cannabis bill that is designed to increase the diversity of companies licensed to grow, process, and sell medical cannabis. The state’s first round of cannabis licenses included not one African-American company, which caused Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus to protest. The African-American state legislators forced Gov. Larry Hogan to at least study racial disparities in the emerging cannabis market, to keep hope alive for a new bill that would help cannabis entrepreneurs of color into the pool of licensees. Ensuring minority ownership in the state’s medical cannabis market is one of the Black Caucus’s priority agendas this year.

“It’s a billion-dollar industry and we’re not going to allow that to start up and flourish in Maryland with no African-American participation,” said Black Caucus chair Del. Cheryl Glenn in The Washington Post. “Especially given the history of the incarceration of African Americans over the years because of marijuana. … That’s ludicrous, and it’s unacceptable.”

Washington, D.C.’s leaders, Mayor Muriel Bowser and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, both black women, have fought off Congress to secure the decriminalization of cannabis that residents voted into law in 2014. Holmes has said that a “vital reason” why this is a civil rights issue is that 91 percent of D.C.’s weed arrests are of African Americans. Sen. Cory Booker, an African American, currently has a bill pending that would officially lift federal cannabis prohibition laws.   

This is all a far cry from how black lawmakers in and around D.C. responded in the mid-1970s, when cannabis decriminalization was also up for debate. The War on Drugs was waged by powerful white conservatives from the White House down, but African Americans in D.C. did plenty to help roll that war out, as James Foreman Jr. reports in great detail in his book Locking Up Our Own, which won a Pulitzer prize for general nonfiction this week. It recounts the role of black politicians, civic leaders, judges, and lawyers in helping usher in the mass incarceration crisis among African Americans.

The first chapter relates the 1975 cannabis decriminalization attempts of David Clarke, a white D.C. city councilor who had worked for Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and graduated from Howard Law. Clarke was worried about the escalating arrests of black D.C. residents—334 in 1968 to 3,002 in 1975—and so he introduced a bill that would give fines instead of prison time for possession of less than two ounces of weed, and would have police issue citations instead of arrests for anything smaller.

Clarke, who is now deceased, had plenty of support from the medical community, some legal authorities, including judges, and the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He did not, however, have the support of  D.C.’s black leaders—at that time D.C. had a black mayor and a majority black city council. There was a huge inner-city heroin problem at the time, largely affecting African Americans—especially Vietnam War vets—and there wasn’t widespread public knowledge yet of the science that says cannabis is not a gateway to harder drugs. Civil rights leaders and black nationalists did not agree on much in 1975, but they seemed in harmony about getting rid of weed dealers by any means necessary (or, as D.C. would later learn, unnecessary).

Clarke’s fellow city councilman Douglas Moore, an African American, led a crusade against cannabis decriminalization. He believed that making weed readily available would only make people who were already disadvantaged and oppressed more vulnerable.

“It would seem to me to be a social crime to de-penalize marijuana so as to make it possible for more black children who cannot think already to keep them from thinking,” testified Moore at a hearing on the bill. The ordinance was also opposed by Marion Barry, the then-city councilor who would later become D.C.’s mayor. Black mayors in Detroit and Atlanta resisted cannabis decriminalization efforts as well.

Clarke’s bill in D.C. failed after African-American church leaders came out in full strength to flex on city council members, and it’s not clear it would have survived had it passed. Both Walter Washington, D.C.’s first black mayor, and Charles Diggs, founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and chair of the committee that had to approve all D.C. decisions, hinted they would veto the bill.

Writes Foreman:

We must start with the fact that decriminalization’s leading opponents—people like Judge Fauntleroy and Doug Moore—were among the black community’s most dogged defenders. They were committed race men, not Uncle Toms. During the formal political debates, and in their public lives more generally, these leaders regarded themselves as the guardians of the black community, and especially of its young people, whom they were determined to protect from the dangers of drug use.

The defeat of D.C.’s weed decriminalization bill helped set the tone for how drug penalization would operate in other cities over the next few decades, when the U.S.A. became by far the chief incarceration officer of the planet, locking up millions of African Americans and devastating millions of black families and communities in the process. A large chunk of that incarceration comes courtesy of weed-related arrests, even for non-violent offenders. These have helped fill local jails, state prisons, and federal penitentiaries alike.

The effects of this kind of over-criminalization of African Americans for a relatively benign substance is multiplied by the millions of African Americans who upon release become disenfranchised from: voting; getting many jobs; accessing public housing, college aid, and financial assistance. They are effectively disappeared from society.

It should be noted that Foreman’s book doesn’t pin the entire mass incarceration and drug prohibition issue on African-American lawmakers. His account is a nuanced examination of the tough decisions that black politicians had to make to address the crime plaguing their streets. Many of these black leaders in the 70s also pushed for solutions to the root causes leading to drug abuse—lack of jobs, police brutality, poverty, the stress of racism—but, white lawmakers were most receptive to the incarceration proposals.

“In short, because D.C.’s debate over marijuana decriminalization took place before the full-scale drug war was launched, decriminalization opponents could not foresee the eventual impact of their victory on the young blacks they were trying to save,” writes Forman.

It’s perhaps for these reasons that black D.C. leaders today are trying to undo some of that damage, by pushing for policies that will stop sending young black people to jail for petty weed offenses. The ballot referendum that decriminalized cannabis in 2014 allows people to grow and possess up to two ounces of weed in their private homes, but it stops short of allowing for the sale of cannabis except for medical purposes.

A congressional bill forbids D.C. from taking the next step to full legalization and regulation of cannabis for leisurely purposes. Yet Denver, Seattle, Portland, a bunch of cities in California, and all of Vermont, have voted to legalize recreational use of cannabis, some even on the grounds of correcting racial wrongs of the drug war. Many in D.C. would like to do the same, and see it as a civil rights issue for African Americans— an association black leaders would have thought you were high for making back in the 1970s.

However, today former NAACP CEO Ben Jealous is the keynote speaker at the National Cannabis Policy Summit in D.C. where he’ll be talking about why legalizing weed is a racial equity necessity. Jealous is also running for governor of Maryland and has made legalizing cannabis a cornerstone of his criminal justice platform. He began working on criminal justice reform when he was 18 years old and working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., opening mail sent from inmates.  

“Around that time, it began to become very clear to civil rights activists that there was a high price for the war on drugs, primarily on our communities—something wasn’t working,” said Jealous. “As leaders in our community began looking into what’s actually working and not working, folks had to confront the facts. The violence [in the illegal drug trade] was too high, the racial justice was too high, and the results were too low.”

As a candidate for governor, Jealous is also campaigning on strengthening diversity requirements for licenses in the marijuana industry. The fact that until now there have been no licenses awarded to minority-owned companies, he said, “looks intentional” given Maryland’s demographics.

“They pretended they could not find a company that was owned by a woman or person of color that was qualified, and that was simply a lie,” said Jealous. “It appears that they got the result that they wanted. I don’t know how in a state that is half-women and half-people of color you exclude every woman and person of color as a potential licensee but somehow they did it.”

And this time around, even black church leaders in the Washington, D.C. area are on board with cannabis legalization, in defiance of their predecessors who helped kill a decriminalization bill in D.C. in the 1970s.   

“Why don’t we take a portion of all the drug money confiscated in the community and put it in a fund. This way, African Americans who do not have access to capital can go and get the help that they need,” said Bruce Branch, of Maryland’s Business Clergy and Partnership in The Afro newspaper.

If only that wisdom had been more prevalent 43 years ago.

The U.S. Is Finally Getting a System to Warn When an Earthquake Is Coming

This story was originally published by Slate’s Future Tense and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Having grown up in Southern California, I’m well-versed in the telltale signs of an advancing earthquake: light fixtures starting to swing, the slight rumbling of furniture, the creaking of walls and door frames. Every year in school, in alternating months, we would run through reacting to an earthquake—learning how to get under our desks to duck, cover, and hold on. So I know what to do when the ground starts shaking. For me, the most nerve-wracking thing about an earthquake at this point is not knowing when one is coming.

Although there still is no way to predict a quake before it occurs, seismometers have gotten sensitive enough to detect one as it’s beginning, before the ceiling fan starts to sway. Countries sitting on some of the most earthquake-prone and dangerous faults on Earth have been using this technology to build early warning systems to alert residents as soon as possible—Mexico first implemented its system in the early 1990s, and Japan launched its own in 2007. These governments were prompted to act urgently after devastating quakes that hit their metropolitan areas—Mexico City in 1985, and Kobe in 1995, respectively—and left thousands dead.

The U.S. has taken longer because it has wanted to build a more robust system, but it’s now nearly ready for prime time. The U.S. Geological Survey is currently in stage one of its public rollout of ShakeAlert, an early earthquake warning system for California, Oregon, and Washington (the states most prone to quakes). ShakeAlert has been in the works since 2006, and it’s taken a while to implement partly because of a deficit of federal funding over the years, says Robert-Michael de Groot, a staff scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Even in places that already have alerts, they’re far from perfect. When an 8.2 magnitude quake hit off the southern coast of Mexico on Sept. 7, Mexico City residents got almost two minutes of warning. But when a 7.1 quake hit close to the much more highly populated Mexico City area on Sept. 19, residents didn’t receive the warning before the powerful shakes began.

ShakeAlert is divided into two parts. There’s the technical and scientific fragment, led by the USGS, which uses the nearly 860 seismometers all along the West Coast faults to detect earthquakes as they’re occurring.

Earthquakes happen when the earth is trying to release excess energy, which it can do by sending out waves through its faults. The first wave is a sound wave–like primary wave, or P-wave, moving at about four miles per second. These are followed by one or more secondary waves, or S-waves—the more dangerous ones that cause shaking—at about two miles per second.

When a seismometer detects the P-wave hitting the Earth’s surface, it sends this data to ShakeAlert’s three processing centers, which then use algorithms to generate alerts. The algorithms decide the threshold at which an alert needs to be sent. There are a few factors, but for the most part, nothing under a 4.5 magnitude quake would induce an alert, because quakes smaller than that usually don’t cause much damage.

Then ShakeAlert is ready to hand off its information to federal and private partners for distribution to the two types of end users: systems operators and individuals. The systems notifications go out to things like schools, hospitals, transportation, and utilities, and they automatically prompt alarms to sound, valves to close, firehouse doors to open, trains to slow and stop, and so on. Some private companies began implementation a few years ago, and USGS is going to be testing its own messaging this year.

Warning individuals is a bit trickier than alerting systems, though. De Groot says ShakeAlert is working with a number of mass distribution groups to get the messages out to as many eyes as possible, through federally regulated emergency systems, wireless networks, and TV and radio stations. They’re also partnering with private companies that can send out emails or mobile notifications.

Early Warning Labs, based in Santa Monica, California, is one such partner. The tech firm currently works on the systems processes side of alerting, but it’s also set to release its smartphone application QuakeAlert this summer. The app takes the data sent out by ShakeAlert and sends out an initial audible alert over users’ phones, along with a text notification with information on the estimated strength of the shaking and how soon the user might feel it.

Users can then open the app (presumably after they’re ducked and covered) to track updated information on the expected arrival time and intensity of the shaking, where the earthquake is centered, and any further safety instructions. The lag time between P-wave and mobile notification depends a lot on location, but Early Warning Labs is aiming for anywhere between 10 and 30 seconds, with a 90-second warning being ideal.

Some users had their first look at QuakeAlert’s capabilities when a 5.3 quake hit off the coast outside of Los Angeles on April 5.

But Early Warnings Lab founder Joshua Bashioum himself encountered one of the many issues with emergency alerting: When the quake hit earlier this month, his phone had been turned off, so he didn’t receive the notification from QuakeAlert. “There’s a lot of inherent problems with mobile alerting,” Bashioum says, including “bottlenecks with personal notifications, people moving and not changing their location settings, or not having location services on.” And, as he witnessed, people might not hear or see the notifications if their phones are off or silent.

“The really big challenge at this point is the delivery of those messages once they’re generated,” says the USGS’s de Groot. After all, “earthquake early warning is outrunning the earthquake,” says Bashioum, and earthquakes move fast. The Los Angeles–area quake started at about 10 miles beneath the surface and only took about one second before shaking began. QuakeAlert’s notifications seem to have gone out to people with sufficient time, about 30 seconds, but that’s primarily because the epicenter was far off the coast. If the quake had hit a more highly populated area—as in the case of the Sept. 19 Mexico City–area one—the notifications would probably have come too late, too.

“There is currently no technology that we have through any delivery method that will get the alerts to us at the rate that we want them to get to us,” de Groot says. That’s largely because none of these existing systems were built for speed. Rather, the USGS is more concerned with making sure the information they’re sending out for alerts is accurate and reliable.

“It’s not that the system’s not ready, it’s that we need to be careful and make sure people understand what they need to do,” Bashioum says.

The USGS knows how valuable this messaging can be for residents in earthquake areas. The agency plans to double its seismometer network by the end of the year and then to continue on refining its algorithms and getting the word out on ShakeAlert, thanks to the new funding it’s received. “We are working as quickly as we can on this,” says de Groot. “For me, it would be a big letdown if the big earthquake happened and our system wasn’t completely built out. It’s a race against time, but we don’t want to race so quickly that we make mistakes along the way.”

So in the meantime, keep your eyes on the light fixtures and make sure you know how to duck, cover, and hold on. And maybe keep your phone on, just in case.

CityLab Daily: ‘A Check Against Tyranny’

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

Taken for granted: Federal judges didn’t mince words Thursday when ruling against the Justice Department in its fight to withhold federal grant money from “sanctuary cities.” The ruling states that cities don’t have to provide federal immigration authorities with certain kinds of help—like notifying when an undocumented immigrant was in their custody or holding an inmate for 48 hours—to receive federal grant money, as BuzzFeed News reports. This deals a blow to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department, taking away a point of leverage in the cities-versus-feds immigration battle. The Republican-appointed judges, ruling from the 7th Circuit, said if Sessions had his way, “a check against tyranny is forsaken.” (Washington Post)

Marching for Columbine: Today’s National School Walkout for gun safety has high school students across the country marching to mark the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting. Vox has first-person accounts from 6 survivors of that massacre, and on CityLab, we have an update on the latest city-state preemption battle over gun control legislation: This time it’s in South Carolina.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Does Homeownership Really ‘Drive’ the Black-White Wealth Gap?

A new paper debunks various myths about the wealth gap between blacks and whites in the United States, and the methods for bridging it.

Tanvi Misra

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

Angelenos gathered at 100 dinners this week through a city-backed initiative to spark civic and civil dialogue.

Laura Bliss

The Weirdest Ways That U.S. Cities Are Celebrating Earth Day

From group oyster-shell bagging to a naked bike ride, some Earth Day events are more colorful than the standard festivals and tree plantings.

Alastair Boone

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

During 2017, more than 167,000 Latinos became homeowners, significantly contributing to the country’s economy. However, doubts around immigration issues make their future in the real estate market uncertain.

Martín Echenique

Lyft Delivers Carbon-Neutral Rides

The ride-hailing company announced on Thursday that it plans to become one of the largest voluntary purchasers of carbon offsets in the world.

Laura Bliss

History Lesson

Scotney Castle (Hannah Denski/Shutterstock)

Long before pre-faded jeans or wannabe dive bars, there were “ruin follies.” While ruins have always captured the imagination, these fake ones became a big hit among Europe’s 18th-century aristocracy. The prefabricated, dilapidated buildings popped up from scratch, or from existing buildings that were destroyed to create a dramatic Gothic effect. This is the history of the fake dilapidated buildings that Europe couldn’t get enough of.

What We’re Reading

The end of the architect profile (Curbed)

There’s no good alternative to building more homes in expensive cities (Vox)

Data systems can be the air traffic control tower of urban mobility (Fast Company)

The canary in the coal pond (ProPublica)

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