For Weed Arrests in Baltimore, It’s Catch-and-Release Season

Back in January, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby announced that her office would stop prosecuting cannabis possession, regardless of the quantity or the arrestee’s criminal history. In her announcement, Mosby cited the “disproportionate impact that the war on drugs has had on communities of color,” and declared, “There is no public safety value in prosecuting marijuana possession.”

The announcement, coming from the city’s well-known top prosecutor, made national news. But Baltimore’s police still haven’t bought into the change: They say they’ll continue cuffing and bringing people in for having more than 10 grams of weed, even if prosecutors will drop the charges.

It’s a stalemate that’s created a “catch-and-release” situation, with police continuing to arrest people for pot, only to be almost immediately freed by prosecutors. And neither side seems happy about it.

“The prosecutor and the commissioner, the police department, they need to come together, they need to converge and be on the same page,” says Walker Gladden, youth coordinator for the Rose Street Community Center in East Baltimore.

Gladden is sitting with Clayton Guyton, the community center’s founder and director, in the front room of their offices, a rowhouse in the middle of a one-way street pocked with boarded-up homes in the city’s Madison-Eastend neighborhood. Guyton—known locally as “Mr. C”—has pushed to keep his community free of drug-related violence and resulting conflicts with police since co-founding the center in 1995. The center works with at-risk youth and provides transitional housing, mental health counseling, and other social services to residents.

After years on the front lines of managing the impact of the war on drugs on this community, Guyton and Gladden welcome any progress in the national movement to decriminalize cannabis. But they’re also worried that confusion about the rules around weed could present an entrapment risk for residents who believe they can now smoke openly in public. Then police show up. “They start making some arrests and now we’re dealing with that catch-and-release all over again,” Gladden says.

Guyton knows of two young men separately arrested for possession within the last month. Both were jailed, only to be released within 24 hours. “They are still in confusion mode—why did they lock me up and then turn around and release me?” Guyton says. “It does something to them … It makes them angry, confused. They just talk about how stupid it is.”

Mosby’s move added Baltimore to a growing list of cities where prosecutors are dropping cannabis offenses en masse and moving to purge thousands of conviction and charges. From New York to Philadelphia to Houston to St. Louis and elsewhere, these efforts share a common goal: Reduce enforcement of drug laws proven to largely target African Americans, and free up resources for prosecutors and cops to focus on more serious crimes.

In most cities, district and state’s attorneys are pursuing these reforms with the cooperation—albeit sometimes grudging—of police and city leaders. Even if they lack enthusiastic endorsements from police, they’re already working with officials and police departments that have instructed officers to hand out tickets or criminal summonses in lieu of arrests for possession (often of around an ounce).

But not in Baltimore. Here, police have pledged to keep following the letter of the law, which states that possessing anywhere from 10 grams to 50 pounds of cannabis is a misdemeanor statewide—and using cannabis arrests as a means to an end. “Arresting people for marijuana possession is an infrequently used, but sometimes important, law enforcement tool as we focus on violent crime and violent criminals in Baltimore,” BPD’s chief spokesman Matt Jablow said in an emailed statement.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh isn’t on board with the policy, either: She’s said that she supports the principle behind Mosby’s move, but that “those who deal illegal substances fuel criminality in our neighborhoods which leads to violence.” Pugh called on prosecutors and police to craft a singular approach to possession, but has been silent on advocates’ subsequent calls to push BPD to cease arrests.

All this is happening in a city whose struggles with corruption and violent crime have made it the focus of growing national attention. The city also has a new police commissioner, former New Orleans police superintendent Michael Harrison. He recently told city council members he’s met with Mosby about their conflicting policies and insisted that the BPD has been de-prioritizing possession arrests since decriminalization of up to 10 grams took effect in 2014. (Arrest data, however, shows hundreds are still being arrested annually, almost all of them black, and the same pattern goes for citations.)

“Our policies align with the law, and the law didn’t change,” Harrison told council members. And, he argued, even if possession is nonviolent in nature, “it doesn’t always mean that a person caught with simple possession of marijuana is a nonviolent offender.”

Like other prosecutors charting the cannabis-decriminalization course, including Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner and St. Louis’s Kim Gardner, Mosby has drawn varied criticism for the policy. Defense attorneys have argued that without BPD buy-in, the pledge amounts to “virtue signaling” by Mosby, whose prosecutors can elevate cases to possession with intent to distribute—a crime they’re still pursuing—at their discretion. Vacating and expunging the cases has already proven to be challenging for her office, given that many of them included charges other than possession. Dropping them could have unintended repercussions, as for someone who violated probation because of a weed arrest.

More broadly, Mosby’s policy risks exacerbating the rift that has grown between her and BPD since her high-profile decision to charge six officers in the killing of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old man who died in police custody in April 2015. Three of those officers were acquitted; charges were dropped for the rest. (Mosby’s office did not respond to requests for comment from CityLab.)

One critic of the policy is former Baltimore police officer Peter Moskos, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He believes that possession arrests can be a useful entry point for police to investigate other crimes—something he learned as a patrol cop from 1999 to 2001. “If there was a drug dealer who wouldn’t leave the corner, I would legally frisk him, find weed often. But he wasn’t actually selling—it was just for personal consumption. That was often the line: ‘It’s just for me.’” Yeah, I know, but I’m still arresting you for it because you’re a drug dealer and you didn’t do what I said. And that was a legal and, I think, short-term effective way of policing.”

Douglas Berman, a professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law who’s studied and advocated for drug sentencing reform, says both sides in this stalemate are likely trying to please the rank and file. “For the prosecutors that work for Mosby, this may be a way to empower them, or at least free them up to work on other matters that they think are much more important,” he says. “It may be exactly the flip for the police force. The rank-and-file police may think it’s important to be able to do further investigation based on some suspicion of marijuana activity.”

At a recent community talk, Mosby said prosecutors at Baltimore’s jail are now releasing people brought in on possession charges, usually without a night spent behind bars. But Guyton and Gladden note that even without court appearances or pre-trial detention, an arrest still carries consequences. A parolee or person on probation could face jail time if they’re re-arrested, or lose their jobs if they miss work. Baltimore defense attorney Tony Garcia says his client, a North Carolina man arrested with 16 pounds of weed in early February, was held without bail on distribution charges for 30 days before prosecutors downgraded and dropped his case. The man lost his job while he was detained, Garcia said.

Mosby’s office later said in a statement, “After further review and investigation, our prosecutors determined that the facts did not extend beyond mere possession.”

Other cities have also struggled to implement similar reforms seamlessly, Berman notes. In Philadelphia and New York, cannabis arrests have declined, but were still in the hundreds last year and overwhelmingly involved black people. In Houston, uniquely, police initially couldn’t locate boxes where they were instructed to deposit confiscated cannabis, an option intended to save them time normally spent logging it as evidence. “To make a real difference in the community and on the street” with such policy changes “requires constant work, constant monitoring, constant vigilance,” Berman says.

Miriam Krinsky, founder of the criminal justice reform nonprofit Fair and Just Prosecution, says it’s “an empty act” for cops to arrest people knowing prosecutors won’t charge them. And it could backfire for police aiming to leverage an arrest for a larger investigation by “eroding community trust,” says Krinsky, a former federal prosecutor who prosecuted drug crimes in the Mid-Atlantic region in the 1980s. “If communities don’t trust what law enforcement is doing, and don’t believe what they’re doing is right, we can’t effectively keep them safe because they’ll stop cooperating and viewing as legitimate our system of justice.”

Guyton and Gladden are still awaiting a compromise between prosecutors and police and asking for clarity. In the meantime, they’ve proposed a novel stopgap measure: community-run, police-monitored “weed-smoking zones.

Their idea: Neighborhood groups would designate areas for adults to consume cannabis without risking arrest or run-ins with police, and also avoid exposing children or neighbors to unwanted smoke. The neighborhood would appoint residents to supervise, and police would stop by and ensure it’s being used as promised—that is, for consumption, not for dealing or other criminal activity. “It’s a way to move the drugs in the city to a more controlled area,” Guyton said, as well as a “postponement method, if you will, until the state’s attorney and the [police] commissioner can come together.”

Guyton and Gladden attempted to demonstrate that idea in early February. While residents and media turned out for the demo-protest, police, unsurprisingly, weren’t fans, and suppressed it with a contingent of officers placed across the street.

Guyton says cops should have the tools necessary to investigate drug dealing and violent crime, without arresting users. “That catch-and-release has got to stop,” he says. “We want that game to end.”

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Why the Water Sector Needs More Women Leaders

When Meena Sankaran was growing up in Mumbai, her family had access to water for one hour per day via a water tank. Her mother would boil the same water many times over for cooking and drinking. They couldn’t afford a filtration system.

“Now I know it doesn’t do anything to keep boiling the same water,” said Sankaran, “but it’s a mental satisfaction that you’re making it somewhat purer for your children.”

By the end of Sankaran’s teenage years, she had suffered numerous illnesses: jaundice, typhoid fever, pneumonia, malaria, whooping cough, chicken pox, and measles. She lived through it and ultimately started a company called KETOS, which sells technology to monitor water quality in real time.

“I felt like if I’m going to pursue technology, it’s not going to be just to keep enhancing technology,” she said, “it’s going to be about technology making an impact. And for me, water was something that very closely resonated.”

In many countries around the globe, women tend to be the ones using and managing water in the home day to day. (As Sankaran put it, “Combine all the needs [in a household for] water and plan that in that one hour. That’s what my mom was, incredibly, capable of doing.”) According to a report UNICEF released in 2012, women in 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa spend a combined total of at least 16 million hours each day collecting drinking water, compared with 6 million hours for men and 4 million hours for children.

As the report explains, most households in these countries did not have water on their premises as of 2010. “In 71 percent of all households without water on the premises, women or girls are mainly responsible for water collection. In 29 percent of households, men or boys assume this task.”

An indigenous Ecuadorean woman marches to the National Assembly building in Quito in 2010 to protest against a controversial law that opponents claimed could lead to the privatization of water. (Guillermo Granja/Reuters)

Yet women largely aren’t represented when it comes to positions dealing with water, sanitation, and hygiene (which many international organizations abbreviate as WASH). Ayushi Trivedi, who researches gender and social equity at the World Resources Institute, looked at women’s participation internationally and found that it “is dismal, from community water groups … to the national policy level.” In 15 developing countries in particular, women accounted for less than 17 percent of the WASH labor force back in 2014.

Trivedi said that women’s contributions are often “limited to maybe a checkbox that is ticked … While it may be said [they are involved] on paper, it may not actually translate to action.”

That’s a problem, especially since researchers have found that water systems work better when women get involved in the decision-making. According to one study, published in the journal Waterlines, “global evidence indicates that women’s participation in Water User Committees (WUCs) has been limited,” but “their involvement in management has correlated with more effective water systems.” Another study looked at the economic and social roles of women in water-resources development projects in Egypt, and found that “the success of water projects is depending partially on the women [sic] role.”

Finally, a report from the UNDP, with case studies from throughout the Global South, reached a similar conclusion. When Brazil, for example, focused on fostering women’s leadership, “women involved led a successful process of environmental education and river and vegetation rehabilitation,” and in the process, “women’s political participation was strengthened and public perceptions regarding their leadership capability were changed.” There was also “increased community mobilization of people of all ages and backgrounds.”

Some research, such as a study done in Tanzania that Trivedi pointed out, has found that women tend to share water more equitably. The study sought to understand how gender and status affected the ways people would distribute water in common watersheds. Men and women with low social status distributed water equally when water was abundant, but kept larger portions when water was scarce. However, the study notes that low-status women “tried to be as fair as possible at the expense of their returns from irrigated agriculture.” The differences between genders were more stark when it came to Tanzanians of high status: Men kept more than half of the available water for themselves, both in abundance and scarcity. But women of high social status shared “altruistically” when water was abundant and equally when water was scarce.

Sankaran highlights the importance of women working to improve access to safe water, amid rising water stress and scarcity around the globe: “It’s going to take a lot of us to … make the world a place where future generations can have enough water.”

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Why Can’t We Close the Racial Wealth Gap?

If the college cheating scandal has reinforced anything, it’s that one of the primary advantages of being wealthy is that the wealthy can buy more advantages. This helps explain why African Americans, who’ve historically been denied wealth, lag in almost every category of society behind whites, who have long benefited from capital extracted from black labor and culture. It also helps explain why—despite a “booming” U.S. economy that is nearing full employment—a gigantic racial wealth gap remains. On average, white households have nearly 6.5 times the wealth of black households.

That gap can be ameliorated, though, by closing the earnings gulf between black and white workers, according to new research from two economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland. In a commentary recently published on the Cleveland Fed website, economists Dionissi Aliprantis and Daniel Carroll argue that racial differences in income drive the wealth gap more than any other factor, including differences in financial savings practices, rates of return on investments, or even intergenerational transfers of wealth.

This runs counter to loads of scholarship pointing to a different explanation of black-white wealth disparities in the U.S.: That narrative holds that white wealth accumulated from the trading and enslavement of Africans, and from the taking of black-owned property was passed down to white children and grandchildren. Government policies such as racial housing covenants, redlining, financial handouts for white war veterans, and highway expansions provided additional wealth expansion for white families while providing net-zero wealth opportunities for African Americans. Aliprantis and Carroll acknowledge this narrative as the initial conditions for how wealth began developing across divergent black and white paths.

But it only explains “snapshot(s) in time,” reads their commentary. For their current study, they examined the “dynamic nature of wealth accumulation” over time. Using these dynamics, they argue that starting in the 1960s, the initial conditions that birthed the black-white gap—slavery, redlining, etc.—began diminishing as the drivers of the wealth disparity. Reads their commentary:

What do we mean when we say that the labor income gap can account for the racial wealth gap? First, our model predicts that income and wealth will have a relationship in the future like the one we observe today. Our model predicts that, starting from 1962, it would take 259 years for the ratio of black and white mean wealth to reach 0.90.

Second, changing the labor income gap in the model changes the wealth gap dramatically. For example, when we remove the labor income gap in our model, meaning black and white households immediately earn the same income from their labor from 1962 onward, the black-to-white wealth ratio reaches 90 percent by 2007.

Third, other factors we might have suspected as playing major roles in maintaining the racial wealth gap pale in comparison to the role of the labor income gap. For example, when our model makes predictions under a gap in returns to investment as large as the gap in labor income, we find little change. The same is true for equalizing the inheritance process.

In other words, while all those initial conditions—from slavery to passing down slavery’s profits—may have created the wealth gap, it’s unequal income that has kept that gap alive from 1962 until today.

According to Aliprantis, focusing solely on the initial conditions of the racial wealth gap leaves unresolved a “puzzle” about the relationship between income and wealth: African Americans earned more and accumulated more wealth in the years since 1962 than ever before in history. But the black-white wealth gap has barely budged.

“When we started working on this research, the puzzle around income and wealth suggested to us very strongly that we should focus on dynamics, [meaning] changes over time,” said Aliprantis. “So the question we pose is: Assuming black and white households are the same, except that black households start out with way less wealth and have lower incomes, what kind of relationship would we expect to observe between income and wealth by race? Is it consistent with what we see in the data?”

Under the hypothetical scenario used in their model, wherein no income gap exists since 1962—meaning all things equal in payscale between blacks and whites—they claim that the wealth gap likely would have mostly been closed by 2007. That’s because their model predicts that by 1977 the labor income gap has become a stronger contributor to the wealth gap than the initial conditions, and then accounts for more than 80 percent of the wealth gap by 1990, as visualized in the chart below.

It can’t be under-emphasized that much of the scholarship on the racial wealth gap denies that income is a major factor. Instead, it insists that wealth inheritance and higher education fuel inequality. Less than four years ago, Federal Reserve economists were pointing to homeownership as the primary driver of the wealth gap.

What can’t be denied is that a wage gap exists, persists, and appears to be worsening. According to the 2018 State of Working America Wages report from the Economic Policy Institute, the wages for white workers grew much faster than wages for black and Hispanic (EPI’s term) workers since the year 2000, and this was true from the lowest- to the highest-earning workers. Other findings from the report:

  • At every level of the wage distribution, the gap between black and white wages was larger in 2018 than it was in 2000
  • Only black workers with college degrees earned higher wages in 2018 than they did in 2000, but their wage growth in that time was slower than that for white workers with college degrees
  • In 2000, median black wages were 79.2 percent of white wages; by 2018 they were 73.3 percent of white wages
  • White and Hispanic wage growth has grown four times faster than black wages, except at the very lowest and very highest levels of earners. That growth differential is not because of “some tremendous growth for white and Hispanic workers,” but rather because “there has been little to no wage growth for black workers.”

Valerie Wilson, director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy, says that while it’s important to close these wage and income gaps, she’s skeptical of how effective that could be in slaying the more racial wealth goliath.

“I don’t imagine a world where you could simply close the income gap and everything else just falls into place,” said Wilson. “Even when we look at dimensions of the wealth gap, such as looking at education levels: If we presume that education is closely tied to job and wages, then we should see narrower wealth gaps. But we don’t. In fact, it shows that African Americans with a college degree still have less wealth than white families where the head dropped out of high school. That challenges the idea that if we close the income gap then everything would be equal.”

Several economic policy proposals designed to enhance the incomes of modest earners—some that ostensibly target racial wealth gaps—have picked up considerable support in recent years. There’s the ongoing Fight for $15 campaign to boost minimum wages, as well as universal basic income pilots that provide monthly cash payments to a small number of residents in Stockton, California and Jackson, Mississippi. The Green New Deal also prioritizes jobs and union-level wages for historically underemployed populations—often code for African Americans.

Designs on a federal jobs guarantee are afloat while Senator Cory Booker, a U.S. presidential hopeful, has introduced legislation to create “opportunity accounts”—baby bonds of sorts where newborns would be provided savings accounts seeded with a $1,000 deposit that would grow with interest until they became adults. Senator Elizabeth Warren, also a presidential contender, has introduced a housing bill that would restore those who lost equity in the mortgage crisis and would correct past housing segregation and redlining sins. And there’s the looming specter of reparations, which several presidential contenders have been eager to discuss.

It’s another question whether any of these proposals alone (except maybe reparations) would go far enough to wipe out the huge gains in wealth that whites have claimed over 400 years compared to all of the potential wealth eliminated from African Americans in that time. Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development (ICCED), has pushed for the opportunity accounts idea that Booker is promoting for years. She says that, combined with Warren’s housing proposal, could go a long way toward putting a dent in the black-white wealth gap, at least at the median level. However, like Wilson, she finds the project of focusing on income gaps alone a dubious prospect.

“People are looking for that silver bullet to say it’s homeownership, it’s income, and then that will be the solution,” says Price. “That’s very misleading and a bit dangerous because it takes us off course from working on a number of solutions that are needed. The way we talk about the racial wealth gap has been very limiting. The issue is not just about how to help people build wealth. We have to also curtail how wealth is extracted in so many ways—we have to look at things like corporate power, mass incarceration, municipal fines and fees, and how they are directed at communities of color.”

Last year Price’s ICCED organization partnered with researchers at The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University to produce the report “What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap,” which dispels notions that issues such as the racial homeownership gap is the driver of wealth disparities. It also disabuses ideas that African Americans’ personal responsibilities and choices, or improving their financial literacy and entrepreneurship rates would narrow the wealth gap. Or, that black people can educate and work themselves out of the wealth crisis. The report’s analysis suggests that even if African Americans produced more income through opening businesses and buying properties, and then managed that income more astutely, they still would not reach the wealth levels of whites, chiefly because of deeply entrenched structural racism, and discrimination in the workforce and lending industries. Reads the report:

There are no actions that black Americans can take unilaterally that will have much of an effect on reducing the racial wealth gap. … Addressing racial wealth inequality will require a major redistributive effort or another major public policy intervention to build black American wealth. This could take the form of a direct race-specific initiative like a dramatic reparations program tied to compensation for the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow, and/or an initiative that addresses the perniciousness of wealth inequality for the entire American population, which could disproportionately benefit black Americans due to their exceptionally low levels of wealth.  

Price adds that even if only discussing the present-day causes and persistence of the black-white wealth gap, there are still critical factors to consider such as who will be considered white in the future. Race, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, has historically been a moving target since its beginnings, and not necessarily to African Americans’ advantage. There are some Latino populations that could end up being categorized as white. The EPI “State of American Wages” report is already showing that the wage gap between whites and Latinos has been narrowing over the last 18 years at a far faster clip than the black-white wage gap.

“Whiteness changes; blackness doesn’t change,” says Price. “So when we have these conversations looking 50 to 100 years from now—race is not static. That’s the problem of looking at this solely as an issue of a gap. We have to look at how power is shifting, how power is concentrated, and how a white identity advantages and how that may change over time. These are the questions we need to be asking and not be fixated on just data points that then become drivers for our energy and our solutions.”

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Photographing Istanbul’s Charming Painted Signs

Walking through an inner Istanbul neighborhood like Cihangir or Kurtuluş, a passer-by might not immediately pay attention to the hand painted signs on the entries to older apartment buildings. Look closely at the glass panels above the doors, however, and you’ll find a delightful variety of designs, often painted with some love and skill, that also provide a snapshot into the city’s recent history.

Now, these signs are the subject of a book by photographer and researcher C.M. Kösemen. The Disappearing City: Hand-Painted Apartment Signs and Architectural Details from 20th-Century Istanbul catalogs not just the signs themselves, but the often elegant 20thcentury vernacular architecture of which they formed a part. It’s an architecture, Kösemen notes, that, along with the signs themselves, is increasingly under threat as Istanbul redevelops and sweeps away the old.

(C. M. Kosemen)

The signs celebrated in the book come from a particular window in Istanbul’s history. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the city’s population skyrocketed. After a long period where development in the new capital of Ankara had been favored, large parts of Istanbul were freshly or redeveloped, including Taksim Square, one of the central hubs of the modern city. New apartment buildings mushroomed across the city—some well-built, while others were what Turks refer to as Gecekondu, rapidly constructed buildings often put up without due permissions or full attention to earthquake resilience.

(C. M. Kosemen)

Frequently, these new buildings were given proper names that in themselves are a pleasure for Turkish speakers. Many evoke natural images, such as deniz (the sea) or gül (rose), but others are more fanciful, with names such as the grand “divine voice” or direct “I like you.” The craftspeople who painted these signs were highly skilled, semi-specialized in the job and, in the 1950s, usually came from the city’s Greek, Armenian, or Jewish communities. As and outbreak of violence against the community in the 1950s saw much of the Greek population leave, these sign painters were replaced by skilled Turkish people, whose signs nonetheless retained much of their predecessors craftsmanship. From the 1960s onward, however, printed signs and brass plates became cheaper. Accordingly the level of skill employed in now less-fashionable painted signs started to fall.

(C. M. Kosemen)

Now the signs are increasingly disappearing, often because their host buildings themselves are facing the wrecking ball as Istanbul replaces twentieth century housing. This does mean that some relatively unstable buildings are being properly replaced with something more solid. It also means that some perfectly good, sound construction from the period is disappearing, because its redevelopment offers large revenues and even some opportunities for kickbacks, becoming what Kösemen calls “a fast moving gravy train.” Resistance to this has been somewhat halfhearted because it isn’t as yet seen as worth preserving.

“There is a move to preserve older buildings in the city” he told CityLab by phone, “but for most Turkish people currently ‘old’ means Ottoman, or made of wood, or something like that. People don’t the value in the Art Nouveau- and Art Deco-inspired concrete buildings from the 1930s, or later 1960s Brutalist apartment blocks. This means we are losing some valuable buildings of a type that are being preserved in, say, Tel Aviv.”

As the popularity of Instagram makes city photography more widespread, there is nonetheless a slowly growing appreciation of the charms of such signs. One local painter, for example, has made a specialism of recreating images in their style for coffee shops in what’s broadly recognized as the international hipster style. Until the book, however, celebration of this attractive part of Istanbul’s visual heritage has been piecemeal, and Kösemen says that many residents who discovered him photographing their signs said they’d never looked at them closely before. At times, some even suspected him of working for a landlord or developer intent on evicting them.

The best way to keep them alive, he says, is to pay attention to them. “I’d strongly recommend any visitor to Istanbul to make their own walking tour to discover this neglected aspect of the city.”

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Understanding the New Mormon Temple in Rome

There are more than 900 churches in Rome, many of them jaw-droppingly beautiful inside, like the Sistine Chapel and Santa Maria in Trastevere. The Eternal City’s newest religious structure doesn’t boast any medieval mosaics or Renaissance frescoes. But it’s sumptuous by 21st-century standards, with high, curved walls of white granite, two tall spires, inlaid marble floors, and a grand staircase surmounted by a huge crystal chandelier.

The temple’s grand staircase and foyer. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

The dedication last week of the new Mormon temple in Rome marked the arrival of Mormonism—a comparatively young denomination that still meets with bias and suspicion—in the global center of Catholicism. It is the 162nd operating Mormon temple in the world, thanks to a relentless building campaign over the past few decades by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS Church) to serve its growing ranks, which now number above 16 million.

The piazza of the Rome temple complex. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

Back in 2006, Mormon leaders petitioned for official religious status in Italy, and even hired a Washington lobbyist to advance their cause. Official status was granted in 2010, and construction on the 40,000-square-foot temple began that year.

Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia, said the opening of the temple has “enormous cultural significance” for Mormons. The church dispatched all 15 of its highest-ranking leaders to Rome for the dedication—which was unprecedented—and LDS President Russell Nelson had an audience with Pope Francis on March 9, the first-ever such meeting.

“This is a hinge point in the history of the church. Things are going to move forward at an accelerated pace, of which this is a part,” said the 94-year-old Nelson. Forty more temples are currently being either planned or constructed, from Phnom Penh to Pocatello, Idaho.

Temples are not, it should be noted, where Mormons—as members of the LDS Church are commonly known—attend regular services. (They have simpler, often mass-produced chapels for that.) Mormon temples are devoted to the highest sacraments of the faith, and following a public open-house period and dedication ceremonies, only church members who have shown themselves worthy are allowed to enter. This is why building them is a matter of such importance to LDS leaders.

“Temples aren’t used for ordinary worship, but for particular rituals—rituals for the living and the dead, by which church members make covenants and bonds that they believe will persist for eternity,” said John G. Turner, a historian of religion at George Mason University and author of a biography of Brigham Young.

Part of a complex covering 15 acres, the Rome temple (which is now closed to the public) faces a piazza whose other sides are flanked by supporting buildings. Its architect, Niels Valentiner of VCBO Architecture in Salt Lake City, has described Italian influences on his design. He credited the elliptical plan to the Baroque 17th-century church of San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane. Star patterns used on the temple’s floors derive from the paving in Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio.

But in truth, the style of the temple is more reminiscent of Art Deco—and, somehow, unmistakably Mormon. Why are Mormon temples so distinctive-looking?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830 in New York State by Joseph Smith. The church’s second temple, in Nauvoo, Illinois, begun in 1841, was a large Greek Revival hall with a tower topped by a weathervane. Inside, it had a full basement containing a baptismal font; lower and upper assembly rooms; and in the attic, a council room.

The Nauvoo temple anticipated later temples’ spires and statues of Moroni with its tower, topped by a Moroni-shaped weathervane. (Library of Congress)

This floor plan illustrates the key difference between Mormon temples and most other Christian churches: Instead of being dominated by a large sanctuary, the interior of the temple is divided into several rooms, which worshippers move through to perform specific rituals (or “ordinances”).

That’s why the interior of the Rome temple looks more like a four-star hotel than a vast Gothic cathedral, with its plush carpets, sofas and armchairs, and small tables. Temples have an intimate scale and domestic character that reflect the central place of the family in Mormon culture and theology.

The Rome temple’s celestial room. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844 at the hands of a mob, his followers, led by Brigham Young, migrated to the Great Salt Lake Valley and founded Salt Lake City in 1847. The early Utah temples of St. George, Logan, and Manti all have a sequence of ordinance rooms culminating in the celestial room, “a place of quiet peace, prayer, and reflection meant to symbolize heaven.” On the outside, these temples are castellated and fortress-like, suggesting security in a time of persecution and crackdowns by the federal government—which feared the rise of a theocratic kingdom in Utah.

The St. George temple has crenellations and gleaming white-plaster walls.  (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

The massive Salt Lake Temple, begun in 1853 but not finished for 40 years, was given a similar progression of spaces to St. George, but with special meeting rooms for the church leadership. Its outward architecture is highly symbolic. Brigham Young instructed its architect, Truman Angell:

There will be three towers on the east, representing the President [of the Church] and his two counselors; also three similar towers on the west representing the Presiding Bishop and his two counselors; the towers on the east the Melchisedek priesthood, those on the west the Aaronic preisthood. The center towers will be higher than those on the sides, and the west towers a little lower than those on the east end. The body of the building will be between these.

The upper priesthood in the church is the Melchizedek and the lower is the Aaronic, which is why the Salt Lake Temple’s western (Aaronic) towers are shorter than those on the east (Melchizedek).

The sun sets behind the Gothic Revival-style Salt Lake Temple, the centerpiece of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. (Douglas C. Pizac/AP)
A cutaway model of the Salt Lake Temple showing the ordinance rooms and upper assembly room.  (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

There isn’t one “Mormon style” of architecture—many styles have been used for temples over the years, with occasional nods to regional and pre-Columbian traditions. Instead, there are recurring features that transcend style. Temples are often tiered in form, like wedding cakes, and stand on prominent, well-buffered sites. They tend to have solid white or buff-colored walls with few (or small) windows, a tall tower or spire(s), and a statue of the Mormon angel Moroni.

After decades of conflict with the U.S. government, the LDS Church renounced polygamy in 1890, and the turn of the 20th century was a period of assimilation and striving for wider legitimacy. Temples were important symbols of Mormonism in the eyes of America, and increasingly, professional (Mormon) architects began to be hired to design them.

The Cardston Alberta temple (1913-23) by Hyrum Pope and Harold Burton was the first modern temple, showing the strong influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. It has horizontal massing, with no spire or Moroni statue, and is laid out in the shape of a cross, which is very unusual for a Mormon building. (The near absence of crosses in Mormon architecture reflects a theological focus on the resurrected Christ rather than the Crucifixion.)

The Prairie Style-inspired Cardston Alberta temple, a break with tradition. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

But this bold experiment, the result of a design competition, didn’t prompt a lasting shift, as Brooke Kathleen Brassard writes:

The key characteristics of Gothic Revival, such as towers, steeples, and Gothic windows, connote qualities of religion and faith for many Christians. … Church members criticized modern architecture for its “awkward” and “unchurchlike” style. It did not communicate the desired message.

According to the late Mormon architectural historian Paul L. Anderson, “a preference for traditional styles alternated with modern tendencies” in temple design for much of the 20th century. Among the various strains of Modernism, Art Deco was the favorite, since it lent itself to vertical designs and allowed for ornamentation. The Idaho Falls Temple (begun in the late 1930s) strongly resembles certain New York City skyscrapers of the era. By contrast, a rare LDS building in the International Style, the Glendale Ward in California, won a national design award from Architectural Forum magazine, but church leaders were so uncomfortable with the building that they never displayed the certificate.

The Idaho Falls temple, completed (after delays due to World War II) in 1945, with a skyscraper-esque crown. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

The church grew significantly from the 1940s through the 1980s, a period that coincided, of course, with suburbanization and the rise of car culture in the U.S. Unlike the Salt Lake Temple, which is in Temple Square—the geographic center of Salt Lake City—postwar temples such as Washington, D.C.’s and Oakland’s were located off major roads in the fringes of cities. They rise up shimmering in a driver’s windshield, otherworldly, like the Emerald City of Oz. The lead church architect during much of this period was Emil B. Fetzer, whose populist-modern style is reminiscent of Edward Durrell Stone.

Aerial view of the Washington, D.C. temple in Kensington, Maryland, just off the Capital Beltway. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

Practical considerations such as the high cost of central urban land and the need to build ancillary structures have no doubt pointed to suburban sites. But Mormon leaders and architects also understand the visual power of a gleaming edifice, taller than anything around it, seen by tens of thousands of passing motorists every day. Through their position, height, scale, and brilliant whiteness, Mormon temples express a sense of confident mystery as well as any buildings in the modern world.

And the Rome temple is no exception. In an ancient city where churches of every shape and century rub shoulders with their neighbors, it stands aloof on the city’s northeastern edge—clearly visible from the Grande Raccordo Anulare, Rome’s beltway.

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CityLab Daily: Housing Exploitation Is Rife in Poor Neighborhoods

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What We’re Following

Rent-sploitation: Do the poor pay more for housing? We already know that low-income households often have higher levels of rent burden, and a new paper by Princeton’s Matthew Desmond and Nathan Wilmers tracks how landlords profit more from properties rented to people in poorer neighborhoods. In fact, they argue, low-quality housing has long been a “prime moneymaker,” with land scarcity, racial segregation, and deferred maintenance offering a chance to profit.

Desmond and Wilmers find that renters in high-poverty neighborhoods experience levels of exploitation that are more than double those of renters in neighborhoods with lower levels of poverty. Essentially, lower-income renters pay more relative to the market value of their housing, handing over the actual value of their housing quicker than renters in more affluent areas. CityLab’s Richard Florida takes a look at the latest research: Why the Poor Effectively Pay More for Housing

Andrew Small


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Euro Files

Joachim Hermann/Reuters

The rent is too damn high on the other side of the pond, too, and European cities are showing an increasing will to do something about it. If you’ve been following CityLab contributor Feargus O’Sullivan’s reporting recently, you may have noticed something of a housing revolution taking shape as cities and housing advocates search for new ways to fight rising rents.

In Berlin, for example, large corporate landlords are in the crosshairs as the city considers banning anyone from owning more than 3,000 units. Barcelona, meanwhile, is levying fines on two investors who own buildings that have sat vacant for years during a housing shortage. And Amsterdam is proposing a new plan that would make sure newly built housing is only sold to owner-occupiers, blocking out purchasers who want to rent them out.

Feargus writes that two facts emerge when you consider these housing actions together: “The scope of Europe’s urban housing squeeze extends far beyond people on low incomes, and that as more people struggle to find affordable accommodations, cities’ mandate to intervene and regulate the market is likely to grow ever stronger.” Catch up with his reporting:


What We’re Reading

The Green New Deal aims to get buildings off fossil fuels. These 6 places have already started. (Vox)

There is no reason to cross the U.S. by train—but I did it anyway (New York Times Magazine)

How a San Diego YIMBY club changed city politics (Curbed)

Why would a Trump Tower in Moscow need the Kremlin’s help? Possibly zoning (ProPublica)

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

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How Poor Americans Get Exploited by Their Landlords

Do the poor pay more for housing?

That’s the question at the heart, and in the title, of a detailed paper published in the American Journal of Sociology on the actual housing costs paid by Americans in low-income urban neighborhoods. Its two authors, Princeton’s Matthew Desmond—who wrote the award-winning 2016 book Evictedand MIT’s Nathan Wilmers, track the rent burdens and levels of exploitation faced by those living in concentrated poverty. They also uncover the staggeringly high profit margins made by the landlords who own properties in these areas.

Desmond and Wilmers orient their research around the concept and reality of exploitation. Exploitation is something that is usually associated with workers and the workplace. Marx famously theorized that capitalists derived their profits by exploiting the working class. He encapsulated this in his notion of surplus value: Workers are paid for only a fraction of the value they actually generate, and the surplus is in effect handed over to the capitalists.

Desmond and Wilmers invoke the definition of exploitation by the brilliant late Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright, who updated Marx’s theory of class for modern knowledge economies. Wright defined exploitation as occurring when a dominant and more powerful group enriches itself by excluding a less powerful and more subordinate group from a key productive resource, like technology, machinery, or land.

Henry George theorized long ago that land was a key nexus of exploitation. Where Marx saw capitalists making off with the surplus, George saw all the surplus—that from workers and capitalists—ultimately making its way back to land. This was reflected in the high rents and land prices that were ultimately paid to landowners, real-estate developers, and landlords.

It is a mistake, Desmond and Wilmers argue, to see slums as a byproduct of the modern city, rundown areas that occur by accident. Instead, they contend that the slum has long been a “prime moneymaker” for those who profit from land scarcity, racial segregation, and deferred maintenance. “If labor exploitation is understood to be getting paid less than the market value of what one produces,” they write, “we can extend this definition to the housing market by operationalizing exploitation as being overcharged relative to the market value of what one purchases, paying more for less.”

They define housing exploitation as the amount of rent paid relative to the market value of that housing, and measure this exploitation as the ratio of annual rents from rental housing units over their combined property value. The level of exploitation rises as the ratio of rent to property value grows. (The study methodology accounts for the costs of upkeep and maintenance.) Desmond and Wilmers make use of two key sources of data: a large-scale national survey of rental properties, and a detailed set of surveys of renters and rental properties in Milwaukee.

Ultimately, they find consistent evidence that the poor, and especially the minority poor, experience the highest rates of housing exploitation. In their most basic formulations, they find that renters in high-poverty neighborhoods experience levels of exploitation that are more than double those of renters in neighborhoods with lower levels of poverty. Neighborhoods with a poverty rate of less than 15 percent have an exploitation rate of 10 percent—meaning that rents cover 10 percent of the actual cost of that housing. (In other words, the actual cost of that rental housing can be paid off in 10 years.) But in high-poverty neighborhoods, those where 50 to 60 percent of residents live in poverty, the exploitation rate is 25 percent, meaning that 25 percent of the value of the property is paid back in a single year of rent.

The housing-exploitation rate is also higher in majority-black neighborhoods (20 to 25 percent) compared to minority-black neighborhoods (10 to 15 percent). These results are backed up by the study’s more high-powered statistical models.

With the detailed Milwaukee data, the researchers find that an increase of 10 percentage points in neighborhood poverty increases the rate of housing exploitation by more than 2 percentage points overall, and that a 10-percentage-point increase in black residents increases the housing-exploitation rate by nearly 1 percent.

The story doesn’t end there. Landlords are making a bundle from poor renters. The poor pay a considerable amount of money in rent: Nationwide, median rents in poor neighborhoods are $511 per month, compared to $674 in non-poor neighborhoods. In Milwaukee, the gap is much narrower: $600 in poor areas versus $650 in non-poor areas. When Wilmers and Desmond control for regular expenses in the form of mortgage payments, property taxes, property insurance, utilities, and property management fees, they find the actual profits that landlords make to be significantly higher in poor neighborhoods.

Nationally, landlords in poor neighborhoods derive a median profit of $298 monthly, compared with $225 in middle-class neighborhoods and $250 in affluent ones. In Milwaukee, the profit differential is even greater, with landlords in poor neighborhoods raking in $319 per month, more than double the profit ($174 per month) of landlords with properties in non-poor neighborhoods.

And the same basic pattern holds when expenses including maintenance and repairs are factored in. Across the nation, landlords with units in poor neighborhoods average nearly $100 a month in net profit, compared to about $50 in affluent neighborhoods, and just $3 in middle-class areas. In Milwaukee, landlords again do even better, taking home about $150 per month, compared to roughly $20 a month in non-poor neighborhoods.

Those are whopping margins, and the reason for this discrepancy is that rental markets have very different dynamics in expensive cities like New York and San Francisco than less expensive cities like Milwaukee. In low-cost cities, landlord profit rates rise steeply alongside neighborhood poverty. But in expensive cities, the reverse is true. In expensive cities, landlords make money through appreciation and gentrification (which is bad enough for the poor). In lower-cost, more economically hard-hit cities, they make it on the backs of the poor.

“If exploitation relies on the exclusion of a disadvantaged group from a productive resource,” Desmond and Wilmers write, “that resource is housing located outside of poor neighborhoods.” They add, “Renters in poor neighborhoods are excluded from both home ownership and apartments in middle-class communities on account of their poverty, poor credit, eviction, or conviction history, or race (through discrimination).” Ultimately, they conclude, “renters are exposed to exploitation on account of their reliance on housing and their lack of options for securing it.”

When all is said and done, the poor suffer not only in the labor market. They suffer again in the rental housing market, paying more of their lower incomes for housing, and facing the double whammy of labor and housing exploitation.

CityLab editorial fellow Nicole Javorsky contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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Developing Resilient Communities within Cities

Progress needs to be made in the evaluation of approaches to developing resilient communities. The evidence base for the effectiveness of these approaches is currently lagging behind practice. Funding for evaluation is generally too short-term to offer scope for capturing the developmental nature of community resilience related activity and evaluations on wider outcomes are lacking.

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