Instead of the Big Apple, NYC Could Have Been La Grosse Pomme

How would it have been if America’s most populous city had not been called New York, but something completely different? Such is the question explored by a new documentary being screened in the city itself this month.

While many people are aware of NYC’s earlier incarnation as New Amsterdam, few know that New York City’s future site was, in the early 1500s, already given a previous European title by the explorer Giovanni Da Verrazzano—the French name Nouvelle-Angoulême (“New Angoulême”). Screening November 12 in New York’s French Cinema Week, the film If New York Was Called Angoulême featuring historian Florent Gaillard, glances briefly at this tantalizing, largely forgotten connection between France and New York. It invites the viewer to think a bit about how things could have been, if both the French name and the French themselves had just tried to linger a little longer.

This early French encounter with New York was brief, but striking. Verrazzano became the first recorded European to enter the Upper New York Harbor in 1524, on an exploratory voyage up the East Coast from Cape Fear. Anchoring somewhere within the Narrows that separate Staten Island from Brooklyn on his 50-man ship La Dauphine, Verrazzano told of how he was greeted by Lenape people, and described their territory as the “most pleasant that can be told, suitable for all kinds of crops: wheat, wine, oil.” As for the Lenape themselves, Verrazzano found them beautiful people “[who were] very generous and give everything they have. We have made a great friendship with them. … they live a long time and are rarely sick.”

These words—poignant with little hint of what would be Native Americans’ subsequent experience of conquest, warfare, expulsion, and death by epidemic related to European colonists—were addressed to the French King Francois I. For while Verrazzano was from Tuscany, La Dauphine was a French ship, sent across the Atlantic with funds from the city of Lyon. Sailing under French colors, the explorer thus baptized Manhattan “Angoulême” in honor of Francois, whose title before his coronation was Count of Angoulême, the name of a small city in Western France that still retains a good measure of historic beauty.

While such dedications were common at the time—New York also got its later name in honor of an English duke and later king—it still seems like a bit of a slap in the face to the deep-pocketed burghers of Lyon. Francois himself probably never read the letter, anyway, because when Verrazzano dispatched the news to France, Francois was busy languishing in prison in Madrid after being beaten in battle by his arch-rival, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

After this flurry of activity, the newly named land of Angoulême largely falls from history, with later chronicles of New York tending to prioritize Henry Hudson as a proto-founder. The English explorer sailing under Dutch colors tends to get star billing mainly because his 1609 voyage up the Hudson was actually followed by Dutch settlement in New York State five years later—though in days gone by, the fact that he was a WASP may also have helped promote his official recognition over a Catholic Italian. Indeed, it’s arguable that, until the naming of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in 1964, Verrazzano’s great contribution to global geography was a mistake—namely his mis-recognition of North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound as the mouth of the Pacific Ocean, a misconception that endured in Europe for over a century. His imprint on New York is certainly slight to non-existent: the documentary has to make do with the carved stone fleurs-de-lys and salamanders—symbol of Francois I—that cover the front of Seventh Avenue’s Beaux Arts-style Alwyn Court.

Still, New York’s earliest European name lingers on somehow, as a tantalizing “What if?” What if Verrazzano had not just planted a flag, but actually founded a French outpost? What if the name he affixed to it had stuck? As French power in America’s northeast was extinguished in the mid 18th century, imagining a Francophone Grosse Pomme continuing up to today might be a bit of a stretch. But what if the French had chosen to settle and had held on to territorial control in the city for as long as the Dutch did? When they relinquished power in 1674, the colony of New Netherland had scarcely 4000 Dutch people in it. New York nonetheless ended up with a substantially Dutch-descended elite, a heavy scattering of Dutch place names, and the spoken language lingered on in greater New York City as late as the 1920s. If the French had been in place for as long a time, they might have likewise left the city with a distinct Gallic tinge, at least among its upper crust.

For the sanity of Americans living elsewhere in the U.S., it may be no bad thing that they didn’t—and that America’s Angoulême faded from memory. In the country that coined the term “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” to describe the French and invented the Freedom Fry, imagine how much more New Yorkers would be resented if they were not just considered pushy and brash, but also a little bit French.

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Who Decides What Happens Next at D.C.’s RFK Stadium?

Back in June, international soccer star Wayne Rooney joined a ribbon-cutting opening for a suite of new multipurpose recreation fields in Washington, D.C. He was an awfully big get for the event, given that these fields won’t be used by D.C. United, his (soon-to-be-former) team, or any other professional sports outfit. The Fields at RFK Campus is a venue for locals and amateurs, available for league play and pickup games.

For more than 20 years, D.C. United played at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, but the soccer team moved across town, to Audi Field in southwest D.C., in 2018. The Washington Nationals also called RFK home for its first three seasons in D.C. after the franchise moved from Montreal in 2005. Those aren’t even the only professional baseball and soccer teams that have held the fort at RFK, which is best known anyway for its three decades of service as the rumbly home of D.C.’s pro football franchise, which played its last game there in 1996. The city’s NFL games are now played at a built-to-order stadium in suburban Maryland.

Now, for the first time in its long and checkered history, RFK Stadium sits vacant, a placeholder for intramural sports at the nearby fields. Officials have given notice: The nearly 60-year-old stadium will be demolished within the next two years. It’s just too expensive to keep the facility standing.

The RFK Stadium campus totals 190 acres right along the Anacostia River—an enormous tract of land for the geographically challenged District of Columbia. It isn’t destined to serve as flag-football grounds. Investors, leaders, and residents are lining up with ideas for what to do next with the plot. The current master plan offers three concepts. A new NFL stadium (possibly with a windsurf-able moat) would bring the city’s NFL franchise back inside the District border. Another plan could see the Capital One Arena, home to the Wizards and Capitals, move here from its current home downtown. A final possibility shows a vast reach of indeterminate sports fields and rec centers without any one anchor tenant.

Many neighbors and residents would like to see a fourth option: more housing. The moat might be more likely.

With a booming local economy and several recent championships to its name, the District has changed since football moved to the suburbs. A stadium that only hosts NFL games and hapless classic rock revivals no longer makes the same sense in an expensive and desirable city, where housing is rare and displacement is a worry. But D.C. is prevented from even considering using RFK’s expanse of empty parking lots to build housing, thanks to the nature of the city’s weird relationship to the federal government. And the only way that’s going to change is if the District’s local leaders unite on this issue, either for or against the urban stadium.

Nobody agrees about what to do next. That’s normal. What’s more unusual is the fact that no one knows exactly how to proceed with any development. It’s a peculiarity of D.C.’s unique city status: The land belongs to the federal government, and the District leases it from the feds, so to change the lease requires action from Congress. The current lease requires the campus to be used for sports and recreation, and it expires in 2038—too soon for the city to put into motion any long-term plans. To do anything with the site requires putting a plan in front of Congress, and that process has already opened a rift between the council and the mayor’s office.

“I certainly think that the District should be in control of the land and the site,” says Charles Allen, council member for Ward 6, where RFK Stadium is located. “I think that’s probably about the last place of agreement that we have with the mayor in terms of what should be done with it.”

In order to move forward, city leaders must sort out several thorny problems at once. They need to purchase or take ownership over a mile-long parcel of dozens of acres of land stretching along the Anacostia River. They need to strike an agreement that gives the city a greater hand over the development of the site. And they need to decide whether the idea of an urban stadium in this location still makes sense in the D.C. of 2019.

A rendering of the RFK campus that shows some of the short-term changes and amenities in the works. (OMA)

The city is already pursuing the land itself. D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced a bill earlier this year that would authorize the National Park Service to sell the land to the District at fair market value. Gregory O’Dell, the president and CEO for Events DC, the city’s official sports authority and the agency with the lease, says that the sale could also take the form of a fee-simple transfer or a long extension. A 99-year lease for $1 would be a straightforward answer for the disposition of unused federal land that only the city can realistically occupy.

Yet powerful members of Congress won’t take the city up on its offer unless the city promises not to build another stadium for the Washington professional football team, which is exactly what some local leaders hope to do at RFK. Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum, who leads the House Appropriations subcommittee on the interior and co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus, has said she firmly opposes a new stadium and considers the team name to be a racial slur. New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, shared similar objections after a failed effort by local and federal officials to slip a stadium provision into a GOP spending bill in 2018.

Distant lawmakers are happy to hold up the lease in order to thwart Washington football team owner Dan Snyder from building a new stadium for a team with a controversial name. So why not just change the name? That would certainly ease the path to building a stadium at RFK, but Snyder is firmly opposed to changing the name. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser isn’t forcing the issue, either. NFL team owners have leverage over these demands, since they can move the team elsewhere, and D.C.’s suburbs in Virginia and Maryland are even more accommodating.

“The mayor has signaled her desire to bring the team back to Washington, D.C.,” says John Falcicchio, interim deputy mayor for planning and economic development. “In terms of what that would look like, we don’t have anything further that we’ve mapped out, other than RFK would be the only site where it would be feasible.”

The return of Washington football is a divisive subject in the District. Some on the D.C. Council, including Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, want to bring the NFL team back from suburban Maryland, where its lease for FedEx Field—a boring but serviceable stadium in a residential area—expires in 2027. More than half of D.C. respondents said they would like to see a new stadium for the team at RFK in a 2016 poll, although support fell when the question turned to public funding.

On this point, the District’s RFK dilemma resembles other stadium conflicts around the country. Team owners in the NFL have turned to localities for public funding for stadiums that now routinely cost $1 billion. Owners frequently threaten to withdraw their teams and move to a different market when cities raise objections to their stadium demands. And not just in the NFL: Cities are now chasing professional soccer franchises by promising them top-dollar, publicly funded arenas.  

Sometimes the city has no say. The Minnesota Vikings were able to land a new billion-dollar home in Minneapolis without local consent, despite a public referendum requirement. In D.C., Bowser arguably disregarded home rule by working with Snyder and Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration for a federal back-door solution to RFK last year.

Lisa Delpy Neirotti, professor of sport management at George Washington University, says she supports a new NFL stadium at RFK as a boon to the surrounding neighborhood and another source of revenue for the city. She recalls speaking at 11:30 at night before the D.C. Council to voice her support for public financing for Nationals Park, which won a vote for public funding by the very narrowest of margins. Growth in the Navy Yard neighborhood around the ballpark area is so explosive today that it makes up a significant and rising share of city revenues, and the city has gone on to approve public financing for a dedicated soccer arena.

“[The financing] wasn’t taking away from schools. It wasn’t taking away from libraries,” Neirotti says. “The money is being generated when the stadium is built.”

Tax-increment financing, the instrument used to finance Nationals Park, leaves the city on the hook if revenues can’t pay off the capital investment. Not a chance at Nationals Park: Navy Yard’s households have quadrupled, area median incomes have more than doubled, and residential and commercial real estate value has shot up from $1.15 billion to $2.65 billion over a decade, according to The Washington Post.

Bowser has taken to calling the city the “District of Champions,” a reference to recent titles bagged by the NHL’s Capitals, WNBA’s Mystics, and the MLB’s Nationals. The city may well be on a 3–0 winning streak in public investment in their respective arenas, too. But pro football will be different, Allen says, because a gridiron-only stadium sees so little use: only eight home games per season, plus a pair of preseason contests. He also argues that strong parks, infrastructure, a rising economy, and the waterfront all contribute to the explosion of growth at Navy Yard.

It’s a rare success story: Stadiums and arenas never deliver on their promises, on average, according to Dennis Coates at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He began tracking stadium growth in 1995, when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens, bringing pledges of jobs and growth. Looking at 35 cities that gained or lost sports stadiums and teams over 35 years, Coates found that job growth was minimal and income gains were negative.

Coates’s research contributes to a large body of academic research that shows that sports taxes aren’t worth it. But the near-consensus among academics has rarely mattered much when the local team’s owner shows up hat in hand. The arguments for stadiums have cycled over the years, Coates says, between claims of direct economic impact and support for a more intangible boost in a city’s image.

Yet the actual split in costs and revenue has tilted over time in favor of owners. Revenues for parking and concessions, which used to be governed mostly by the city, now tend to favor the owner. Publicly funded stadiums are more privatized than they used to be. That’s clear just from looking at RFK Stadium: A no-frills multipurpose facility built in 1961, its lack of luxury sky boxes and other premium amenities aimed at affluent fans make it look like a relic.

“Even on the cost side, in the past, it was unusual for the contract between the club and the city or the club and management group to not involve the club covering game-day costs,” Coates says. “A lot of those operating costs are now being picked up by the city.”

One possible future for RFK. (OMA)

McCollum, the Minnesota representative, has said that she supports statehood and home rule for the District, but that Congress has no business subsidizing a billionaire NFL team owner by giving him federal land for a stadium, even if that’s what the city wants to do. By that logic, a new basketball and hockey arena for billionaire Ted Leonsis might not be any easier to build. Under the current lease, the city can only use the land for sports and recreational uses—and in the current era, sports stadiums only get built with public subsidies. If members of Congress hold to a no-stadium-boondoggle rule, then that might totally rule out sports.

In regular quarterly community hearings on the subject, area residents have said that they want to see more parks and affordable housing. But many could sour on the idea if it were to become a reality: The city faces opposition to building housing almost everywhere else, and neighbors might find that they prefer the current low-impact blend of recreation fields and centers.

In the near term, Events DC will continue to pursue amenities at RFK, including pedestrian bridges to connect the recreation areas to communities east of the river, a food and beverage hall, and a suitable memorial to former U.S. attorney general and senator Robert F. Kennedy, who will be left without one when the stadium meets the wrecking ball.

Keeping the stadium isn’t an option: It costs millions just to keep the increasingly tattered structure standing empty. Digging up its many surface parking lots, which shuttle stormwater runoff into the river, is the best thing the city can do with the site. For now, a long-term plan is out of reach.

“With something of that magnitude, it would really have to be a citywide conversation, about the elements that folks wanted to see,” Falcicchio says.

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Where Tech Companies Spent Millions in Municipal Elections—and Lost

How much political power does $1.5 million buy?

That’s how much Amazon donated to a Seattle Political Action Committee that aims to swing the city council towards a more pro-business agenda. The company, which is headquartered downtown, has influenced the council successfully before, donating $25,000 to a campaign to kill a per-employee head tax that would have gone towards funding homelessness initiatives in the city.

This time, according to early voting results, Amazon didn’t win.

To be fair, it didn’t quite lose, either. Out of the seven city council candidates Amazon supported, four appear poised to win their elections. (One of the four, Jim Pugel, is only leading by a tiny margin.) That’s not quite enough to secure a majority on Seattle’s nine-member council, but enough to move the needle.

Another of the pro-business candidates, Egan Orion, struck a key blow, likely defeating Kshama Sawant, a pro-labor city council member in the Socialist Alternative Party who’s long been a thorn in the side of Amazon and other large corporations. She branded the head tax the “Amazon tax,” and called this week’s election a fight over the “soul of Seattle.” (Supporters note that Sawant came back from a more than seven-point deficit during her last election, and that her fate won’t be assured until all the votes are tallied at the end of this week.)

Framing the stakes of the election, Sawant told the New York Times recently: “The question is: Is Seattle going to become a playground for only the very wealthy, or is it going to be a city that serves the needs of ordinary people?”

Amazon wasn’t the only business that spent big on city campaigns. From San Francisco to Jersey City, tech companies poured money into nudging the outcome of ballot questions on whether to regulate, tax, or expand their power, in some cases contributing to new spending records at the city level. And despite million-dollar campaigns launched by companies like Juul and Airbnb, Amazon wasn’t the only one to see voters defy them.

In San Francisco, a measure that would have overturned the city’s e-cigarette sales ban lost by an overwhelming margin, meaning the moratorium will hold. Initially, venture-backed vape pen company Juul spent $11 million on a campaign to overturn the ban, but it pulled its support before the vote amid public health concerns.

In Jersey City, a bill to regulate the 3,000 Airbnb rentals that locals complain are flooding the city with unruly tourism passed, despite a $4.2 million campaign by the short-term rental platform to defeat it. Airbnb blamed the hotel lobby, which spent only $1 million.

And also in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft took a different strategy: They both supported a small tax of 3.25 percent on most Uber and Lyft rides, introduced as an alternative to a more punitive tax that could have been levied without voter approval. The ride-hailing companies contributed comparatively modest amounts—according to campaign finance records, Lyft donated $400,000 and Uber $300,000—and the initiative was leading slightly as of publication.

Tech-money-fueled campaigns aren’t new in San Francisco. Last year, a tax on businesses to support affordable housing and homelessness not unlike Seattle’s was on the ballot, inspiring entities like Lyft, Stripe, Square, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey to donate hundreds of thousands each to the effort to defeat it. But in that case, Salesforce and its CEO Mark Benioff also dropped almost $5 billion to pass it. Though the measure was approved by voters, it won by less than a two-thirds margin, and is currently tied up in court.

Amazon’s spending in Seattle was part of a particularly notable phenomenon: The council race was the most expensive in the city’s history, even as it tested the strength of a new initiative intended to curb big money in politics.

Under a “democracy voucher” program that came into effect this year, all registered voters in the city were sent four $25 vouchers to spend on any candidates they wanted to support—but only those who agreed to spend less than $150,000 on their general election campaigns. When business interests in the city banded together with the Chamber of Commerce to start a PAC called Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy (CASE), and the cash started pouring in, candidates who had initially opted into the program asked to opt out, worried they wouldn’t be able to compete without hustling for more money.

By Election Day, the New York Times reported that “11 of the 12 general election candidates who participated in the voucher program had been released from the limits.” CASE pulled in more than $4 million, with a quarter coming from Amazon, and the rest from other companies with Seattle-area offices, like Google, Expedia, Starbucks and Microsoft.

M. Lorena González, one of two council members who represents the entire city and wasn’t up for reelection this year, is sponsoring a bill that would tighten campaign finance restrictions even more, limiting the amount corporations can donate to PACs, and effectively abolishing super PACs like the Chamber of Commerce’s CASE.

“We operate in an environment where corporations like Amazon can make unlimited contributions, because there are no regulations,” she told CityLab. “As a result you saw them put a fistful of cash on the scales of democracy to tip the city council in their favor.”

Even presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren condemned Amazon’s spending. “In a city struggling with homelessness, Amazon is dropping an outrageous amount of money to defeat progressive candidates fighting for working people,” Sanders tweeted.

CASE argues that the candidates it endorsed will not only be good for business, but for the city: Its website says they all “demonstrate a strong commitment to improving the quality of life and economic opportunities for all Seattleites,” particularly when it comes to easing traffic congestion and improving transit, instituting systemic reforms around homelessness, and supporting local business growth. Polls conducted by the Chamber and local newspapers showed that residents were disappointed with the current council, and ready for change.

González noted that what aligns several of the CASE-endorsed candidates is also an emphasis on maintaining Seattle’s “regressive tax system,” “using punitive criminal justice system tools to address homelessness,” and “not tackling criminal justice reform as a whole.” (CASE didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

With Amazon achieving less than a majority hold on the council, the takeaway some Seattle progressives left with Wednesday was that it could have been worse. “Imagine the Chamber and Amazon honchos this morning looking at City Council strategy for next year,” Seattle’s former Democratic mayor, Mike McGinn, tweeted. “Those business honchos are not sitting there clapping each other on the back saying ‘We killed it last night!’ They’re saying ‘crap—how the hell do we get to five votes on anything—we have completely lost control of the council.’” He added that during his term as mayor from 2010 to 2013, the Chamber of Commerce held seven of the nine seats, giving it a stronger pro-business bent.

But Amazon’s intervention shows that its interest in—and impact on—politics is only growing in the wake of the struggle over the head tax. On city council candidates, Amazon only spent $130,000 in 2015, according to campaign finance records, meaning their spending increased by more than 650 percent this year. (According to WUSA9, Amazon also spent almost $300,000 on Republican and Democratic house and senate races in Virginia, the state where it’s planning another large campus.)

And its spending is not always in opposition to funding public initiatives. This year, the company contributed $400,000 at the state level to join progressives in opposing a cut to car registration fees that would slash transit funding precipitously (Microsoft spent $650,000). Despite their opposition, it looks like the measure is going to pass.

This spring, the power of big spending will likely be tested again. California’s bill reclassifying gig workers as employees—which could pose an existential threat to sharing-economy companies like Uber and Lyft—could be challenged in a ballot measure funded by the two ride-hailing companies and Postmates, a fooddelivery app. Together, they’ve already contributed $90 million to the effort. That’s 60 Seattle city councils worth.

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CityLab Daily: The Empty Promise of a Clear Backpack

What We’re Following

Clear-eyed: Since the 1990s, requiring see-through backpacks has become a common method for securing public spaces. But for the students in Parkland, Florida, returning after the deadly 2018 shootings, a new school rule requiring clear book bags was a bridge too far. They used the bags as a forum for protest.

The teens aren’t the first to question whether the clear bags do much more than invade personal privacy. Transparent bags have streamlined efforts to screen for firearms and other dangers in stadiums, music festivals, and even public transit. But critics say the policies serve as another example of security theater that undermines public trust, whether or not they prevent the next tragedy. CityLab’s Sarah Holder has the story: The Empty Promise of a Clear Backpack

Andrew Small


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On November 8 and 9, costumed black people with guns will be marching across Louisiana reenacting one of the largest slave rebellions in United States history.

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In Virginia, the Suburbs Decided the Democratic Sweep

Votes in Virginia, Kentucky, and Mississippi all show how the suburbs are getting more Democratic, while rural areas get Republican.

David Montgomery

Inside the Controversy Over Rebuilding an Iconic Berlin Store

The Karstadt department store in Kreuzberg was once an architectural marvel. Local officials say a new plan to bring it back would worsen gentrification.

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Imagine All the People

Bay Area readers, have we got an event for you. With San Francisco’s move to ban cars from Market Street, the time is ripe to talk about reimagining the region’s streets as safer, greener, and more efficient. On Monday, November 18, CityLab’s Laura Bliss and Sarah Holder will host “Imagining More People-First Streets,” a discussion with our co-host SPUR and Oakland transportation leaders.

Come meet your fellow urban enthusiasts and your favorite urban thinkers, and don’t forget to bring your questions. Tickets are free, but advance registration is required. More information available on our Eventbrite page.


What We’re Reading

After the water: Flash floods pose an existential threat to towns across the U.S. (NPR)

Los Angeles asks residents to design their own parks (Next City)

A dream of homeownership, undermined (New Republic)

After a statewide ballot initiative, Seattle is suing to keep its car tabs (Streetsblog)

Why protests around the world often involve public transportation (Vox)


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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Inside the Controversy Over Rebuilding an Iconic Berlin Store

For city-watchers, there’s something very familiar about the current development debate going on around Berlin’s Hermannplatz. The square, a busy shopping and transit hub in a fast-gentrifying working-class neighborhood, has caught the eye of developers. The Austrian real-estate group Signa Holdings—which also co-bought New York’s Chrysler Building earlier this year—wants to expand a long-established department store it owns there into a shopping mall, creating the usual burst of jobs and economic activity. Many locals are skeptical about the project, fearing it will increase already-rocketing residential rents nearby and cause congestion.

These conditions may ring a bell from other development fights, but the one currently taking place in Hermannplatz has a unique twist. The mall would not be, strictly speaking, an entirely new building. It would in fact be a recreation of a lost building—a Modernist icon of interwar Berlin, last seen intact in 1945.

That lost building was a branch of the (still-trading) Karstadt department-store chain. One of the most unusual and striking retail buildings constructed in early-20th-century Europe, the store might now be resurrected to a new design by David Chipperfield Architects that very closely resembles the original.

Berlin is no stranger to major historic-reconstruction projects. Right now, it is midway through a rebuilding of its vast, war-damaged City Palace, the former seat of Germany’s Kaisers. Karstadt Hermannplatz nonetheless stands out because it is not some old baroque pile, but a less-than-100-year-old work of Modernism. An ostentatious, unapologetically commercial Modernism at that.

Currently, the plan is in deadlock, albeit far from dead. The local  borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, controlled by a left-leaning coalition headed by the Green Party, has said no to the initial proposal, but the developer is going on a charm offensive, promising to adapt the project to better suit official advice and to deliver not just the usual retail chains, but a genuine mixed-use space with local social assets. And with millions of euros to invest, Signa may ultimately prove difficult for the borough to resist. But is the plan a good idea?

Aesthetically, the building would certainly be a reminder of the forward-looking glamour of Weimar-era Berlin, a period that features heavily in the city’s self-mythology but whose landmarks were largely swept away by the war. Completed in 1929 to a design by Philipp Schaefer, the original Karstadt Hermannplatz was a wonderfully ornate building. Capped by stepped, bunny-ear towers and grooved with proportion-stretching vertical limestone ribs, the store was less reminiscent of Bauhaus influence than of the glossy American Art Deco stylings of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon. Uniquely for Berlin at the time, the store had a direct entry from the subway (something the current building on the site retains), plus 21 escalators and 20 elevators to whisk customers up to its panoramic roof garden.

Looming above an area of grimy proletarian tenements, this condensed skyscraper must have seemed dazzling, almost hallucinatory, when it first appeared. When the SS dynamited the building’s cellar in April 1945, to prevent its supplies falling to the swiftly approaching Red Army, Berlin lost something unique. After this destruction, just one façade of the gutted hulk remained. It was substantially rebuilt on fewer floors, but still as a Karstadt store, in the 1950s and 1970s, and became essentially unrecognizable.

If someone is to resurrect this old monument, then Britain’s David Chipperfield might be the best person to do so. His practice has made a specialty out of the skillful rethinking of historic landmarks, including the new James Simon Gallery, which provides an austerely beautiful entrance for Berlin’s neoclassical Museum Island without any hint of architectural cosplay. Sure enough, Chipperfield’s preliminary renderings of the new Karstadt Hermannplatz look both faithful to the original and rather delightful.

There is, however, a major “but.” The new store’s site isn’t just anywhere in Berlin. It is in the neighborhood at the heart of the most intense gentrification spurt in the city, whose influence has spread to pretty much everything. Lying on the boundary of the boroughs of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Hermannplatz’s backyard is an ultra-dense district of pre-World War One tenements that was a former stronghold of Berlin’s working class. Now highly desirable, its rents have been galloping ever higher, making it the site of numerous public fights over displacement, both of people and of businesses.

How Karstadt Hermannplatz’s roof terrace might appear after construction. (Courtesy of David Chipperfield Architects)

Much of the pushback has come from the borough itself (Berlin is divided into 12 boroughs). To maintain some level of affordability in the area, the borough is employing discretionary powers to cool the market down and keep existing residents in place, buying up buildings at risk of steep rent increases to become public housing and making new landlords sign no-rent-hike agreements on many other tenements.

This backdrop is relevant to the Karstadt project because the borough worries it will spur further displacement. This is, after all, the same neighborhood where Google withdrew plans for a campus after a local backlash. In an area heavily marketed to international real-estate investors, any major plans are eyed with justified suspicion.

The Chipperfield-designed building might be spectacular, but since renovation costs would be high, the rents for the commercial units inside would be as well, fear borough leaders. Not only does that imply the development would be of limited use to lower-income locals, it also risks making the building a honeypot for businesses catering to wealthy incomers. This would perhaps give them more reason than before to move to the area, adding pressure to rents the borough is striving to keep under control. Add to that the added congestion caused by a retail cluster the size of which the area hasn’t seen for over 75 years, and some of the shine comes off it.

Given the project’s support from Berlin Mayor Michael Müller, and the developer’s promises to be flexible, the reconstruction may well see the light of day in some altered form. Turning down this level of investment might seem insane when viewed from the outside, but the borough may be right to block the plan now, if only to get something with more obvious social utility. Cities aren’t just backdrops for arresting architectural set pieces. They are living, breathing organisms whose balance needs to be maintained if residents’ needs are going to be met. For now, it’s understandable that the borough of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg doesn’t see this magnificent but potentially disbalancing development as the kind of oxygen its citizens need.

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The Slave Revolt Reenactment Taking Over New Orleans

A recent report on attitudes toward racism in the South found that many white and even some Latino and African Americans in New Orleans said they were uninterested in dredging up the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial segregation. Nonetheless, that history will be confronting them this weekend, when hundreds of African Americans band together to reenact the German Coast Uprising of 1811, considered the largest slave revolt in U.S. history.

Under the direction of performance artist Dread Scott, the actors will walk the exact same route as the revolters of 1811, a 26-mile trek along the Mississippi River that will begin near LaPlace, Louisiana, in an area that was known as the “German Coast,” named for the German colonists who settled it in the 1700s. They will cross through parts of “Cancer Alley” and end in Congo Square in New Orleans. The actors will be costumed in 19th-century garb and armed with period-era machetes, muskets, and drums, like the enslaved revolters they’re emulating.

(Slave-Revolt.com/Dread Scott)

The optics will be “jarringly out of place,” reads the website slave-revolt.com, explaining their journey through the strip malls and oil refineries that stand in the places where sugar plantations and slave-labor camps existed in the 1800s.

The performance will disrupt current discussion of the South’s history of racism, which is usually detailed in terms of black oppression, Confederate monuments, and other symbols of white supremacy spread across the region. Instead, Scott’s slave rebellion reenactment commemorates African resistance and liberation, showing how the enslaved employed agency to bring down white supremacy on their own terms. The performance will take place on November 8 and 9.

CityLab spoke with Scott about what he hopes to stir up with the performance and how it might reshape the Southern landscape.

CityLab: Why did you choose to take this performance directly to  public spaces and roads, as opposed to a more dedicated theater or performance space?

Dread Scott: I think it’s important for people to have access to contemporary art. But the main reason is that this is a community-engaged performance. There’s this history that’s there and it’s important for people to see freedom fighters from the past, or people in outdated clothing, but embodying the spirit of freedom and emancipation in the spaces that have this particular history.

Is part of the mission for this performance to engage the new landscape of strip malls, oil refineries, and corporate spaces that once were labor camps for the enslaved?  

Visually, yes, and with audio, yes, but not directly. It’s not a demonstration. We’re not going to be saying, ‘Well, this is Shell Oil, and it plowed under graves of black people,’ or anything like that. It’s not going to be confronting it that way. But there will be a jarring disconnect seeing hundreds of black people with machetes and muskets dressed in 19th-century clothing with a backdrop of a grain elevator, or with a backdrop of Bayou Steel, or with a backdrop of modern homes. People could do just the minimal amount of research and find that in the early 1800s, that this was all sugar plantations. In all of these towns, they reflect the fact that they were all plantations that needed access to the river. So the history of enslavement is very prevalent even in the landscape. And we are walking across it.

Why is it just as important to celebrate historical moments of African resistance as it is bringing down Confederate statues?

It’s a very good thing that activists in this city have shined a light on. These racist monuments that litter the South, and in some cases even the North, and the fact that people fought for years to get these monuments taken down, and launched a whole movement around that is great. TakeEmDownNOLA changed and re-centered a debate that wasn’t happening broadly, and then made it front and center.

This project is looking at black resistance. In 1811, the most radical ideas of freedom and emancipation existed in the heads of enslaved people, and they launched this rebellion to try and seize Orleans territory to try and create an African Republic in the new world, where slavery would have been eliminated. It would’ve been a sanctuary for Africans and people of African descent. That is very radical and bold and should be not only known about, but celebrated.

These people are heroes, and this artwork is highlighting and bringing that past back to life. It is also a project about the present. This project has taken place at a time when 1.1 million black people are in prison, where police, even on a welfare call, walk up to a black woman’s house in Texas and murder her. This is not directly responding to any of that, but it’s actually highlighting the spirit of resistance that existed in 1811 that many people could learn from and apply today in various ways.

The city of New Orleans has one of the highest incarceration rates in a state that has had the highest incarceration rate in the world [Although by some counts, in 2018, Oklahoma unseated Louisiana as world incarceration capital]. Do you think there’s a direct connection between that and the 1811 revolt, the largest slave rebellion in the nation’s history?

You don’t get a modern-day America without slavery. And one of the legacies of slavery is how it both criminalized black people and also literally built a prison system to to warehouse us. A lot of the carceral controls were set up around the time of slavery and after slavery was legally abolished. Here, Angola in particular, is a place where 75 percent, I believe, of the people that are incarcerated there will die there. And it also had some really important resistance fighters, like the Angola Three: Herman Wallace, Albert Woodfox, and Robert King were symbols of the resistance to the new Jim Crow.

And so this project does actually talk about people fighting to get free from enslavement. It’s not about mass incarceration, but mass incarceration is part of a society that for hundreds of years profited off extracting the labor of Africans and people of African descent.

A recent report found that many people throughout the South aren’t interested in dredging up these historical events concerning racism. What do you hope this performance conveys to them?

Well, I think how people see the past affects how they see themselves in the present and how they look into the future. I think it’s important for people to know the history of slavery, but this is actually not a project about slavery. This is a project about freedom and emancipation. People should look back at people like Harriet Tubman or Toussaint L’Overture who fought slavery in different ways. People should be like Charles Deslondes who was one of the key leaders of this rebellion. There’s a lot to learn from that as opposed to just learning from the horrors and brutality of slavery— how people actually had a vision of getting free from it.

In 1811, people had a vision for abolishing, not just escaping, but actually abolishing enslavement by setting up an African Republic. That’s something that should be celebrated. And then how people move in the present, you know, how do people look at ending mass incarceration? How do they look at ending murder by police? Or how do they look at changing the profound disparities in wealth and thinking about the reparations of extracted labor.

Those are important questions. How do people get to a world where people are not held down and degraded from the time they were born, or a situation where now one in three black men will spend some time of their life in prison? How can we get to a world where that’s not the defining nature of existence for millions and millions of people. And how people look at this past has a lot to do with how people think about that question.

Explain the connection between these rebellions and Second Line culture in New Orleans today.

Well, I mean, as far as Second Line culture, this is a very different, dynamic, exciting type of Second Line. It is like a parade and it will be kind of amazing for people to rethink what Second Lines and what parades are in that context, and how people follow along them. We are ending in Congo Square, and without Congo Square, and a couple of places like it, you don’t get modern American culture. You don’t get modern American music. You don’t get jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, bounce, R&B, trap, trance disco, funk.

This is the reason why we’re ending there. In 1811, there was an advanced detachment of enslaved people who were trying to seize Fort St. Charles, which is where the U.S. Mint was, or I mean, where the U.S. Mint is. And so that’s why we’re sort of coming to the city, almost as if the rebellion was victorious. But then we’re ending up in Congo Square to both lift up the name of the rebels that participated, as well as to celebrate the culture that is preserved in places like Congo Square. And we hope that that connection to the history of both Africans and resistance is something that is brought out in this reenactment, so that people can flip the military campaign into a cultural celebration, and place this culture in the context of people who were trying to be free.

When the Lee Circle Confederate monument was being taken down, people—both black and white—lined up and armed up around it in defense, to uphold it. How do you think your performance will be received, especially given it will feature hundreds of armed black people?

Well, I think that we’re using the specter of violence to take on real violence. There is real violence being done to the black community. The weapons that we’re using are prop machetes and prop muskets, and it is not actual violence. But I do think that the vision of black people armed in a military sort of campaign, for some people that will be really inspiring and liberating, and for other people that would be challenging.

For those who are challenged by this, why is it that they don’t raise these questions when there are white Civil War re-enactors who do this all the time? Why is that not threatening? Why is it that the Proud Boys or the Oath Keepers or the people who were in New Orleans walking around with their guns out, intimidating people trying to take down racist monuments—why aren’t people challenging that? This should be inspiring because it is about people who were fighting to abolish enslavement. Why shouldn’t that be something that people view as amazing?

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How Communities Can Build Psychological Resilience to Disaster

The Red River runs north, up along the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, before spilling into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. Its water flows slowly through a 10,000-year-old glacial lakebed, in one of the flattest stretches of land in the United States, and because it points north, it’s sometimes blocked by ice jams—all of which makes the river prone to flooding.

In March 2009, one such flood threatened the city of Fargo. Residents watched for a week as the National Weather Service continually updated its predictions, and as forecasts for the river’s crest climbed higher and higher. At the time, the medical director of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services was psychiatrist Andy McLean, who also lived in the city. “I was trying to protect my home, and trying to protect the community,” he says.

Leadership in Fargo readied sandbags, led the construction of barricades, and planned for evacuations. But McLean had a key role, too. “Every day, I was the psychiatrist at the table, talking about the mental health of the community and of individuals,” he says.

That’s one reason why, despite record flooding, the city was able to escape major consequences: not only because of its infrastructural and physical preparations, but also because of its social and psychological readiness.

As climate change makes natural disasters more common and more extreme, cities and communities are working to improve their resilience—their ability to withstand disaster, and bounce back quickly when it occurs. But disasters don’t just cause physical damage; they can leave communities struggling mentally and emotionally, as well. Working to shore up physical structures only tackles part of the problem, says Gerald Galloway, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in the Center for Disaster Resilience at the University of Maryland. “If a community can’t stand on its own two feet psychologically, all the work on having stronger buildings isn’t going to get you anywhere.”

Post-disaster trauma

Research on communities affected by natural disasters shows that they often lead to spikes in mental-health challenges, particularly for people who face the most adverse impacts from the disaster or are already vulnerable in other ways. “It’s a mistake to just focus on the disaster itself,” says Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology studying climate change and psychological wellbeing at the College of Wooster in Ohio.

Studies done in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina found that rates of mental-health conditions like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) increased in the aftermath of the storm. Those findings have been echoed in research on how people responded in the weeks, months, and years after other major disasters over the past decade. One survey of just under 700 people in the New York City area affected by Hurricane Sandy found that 33 percent likely had depression, 46 percent likely had anxiety, and 21 percent likely had PTSD. Preliminary data on people affected by Hurricane Harvey in Houston also found high rates of mental-health symptoms.

People with pre-existing mental-health conditions, other health conditions, and those closest to the center of the damage are more at risk for developing mental-health problems, as are older adults, who are twice as likely to have symptoms of PTSD than younger adults. But children are particularly affected by disasters: in one set of kids who evacuated during Hurricane Katrina, for example, over half exhibited mental-health symptoms, and more than 30 percent had clinically significant PTSD or depression. Children affected by bushfires in Australia had worse academic progress over the next few years than those who weren’t affected, one study of nearly 25,000 children found.

Many people, Clayton notes, will be just fine after a disaster, “even if they experience a traumatic event.” And for some people, living through a disaster can even spur what’s called post-traumatic growth: Individuals and communities come through stronger, mentally and emotionally, than they were before.

The goal in advance of a disaster is to take steps to mitigate some of the potential harms, and help more people experience long-term boosts, says Sonny Patel, NIH Fogarty Global Health Scholar at Harvard University. “How do we build communities to prevent some of these consequences? We know that there’s a psychological toll from these disasters—we want to find ways to create resilience to prevent some of that.”

Building resilient communities

Before the 2009 flood hit, the North Dakota team organized its work around a few principles of community resilience. It structured its messaging with the goal of communicating “hopeful realism”: recognizing that there was danger ahead, but stressing confidence in preparations. That helped build public trust in the civic groups making decisions. “Feeling like they are looking out for the best interests of the community is key [for confidence from the public],” McLean says.

Daily televised briefings kept citizens updated on preparations, and behavioral health professionals like McLean gave advice in those briefings on how people could prepare emotionally. Citizens got involved in mitigation efforts by filling sandbags, which allowed them to “act with purpose”: A study conducted after the flood showed that people who spent time volunteering had fewer risk factors for suicide, as it made residents feel like they belonged and were less of a burden to the community.

Fargo organizations, including nonprofit agencies, schools, and religious groups, also worked to strengthen connections between citizens, leaderships, and disaster-response groups. Inter-community connectedness is a critical element of resilience, McLean says. “One of the most protective factors is social connectedness, both for individuals and for communities. When people feel isolated, it’s a significant concern for having more psychological problems down the road.” In research on characteristics of resilient individuals, social support tops the list—people who fall into this category tend to have many people in their lives with whom they interact regularly, and who provide comfort and guidance, all of which protects against overwhelming stress. “Having a strong, supportive social network is one of the best things you can do,” Clayton says.

Resilient individuals and families, in turn, likely help shore up resilient communities, which provide the social networks that in turn encourage individual resilience, McLean says.

Taking practical steps to prepare for disasters has psychological benefits for individuals, Clayton says. “Informing yourself makes you feel a bit less overwhelmed. Having a concrete sense of what impacts you could see in your area does, as well.”

Amy Ellwein (left), a licensed veterinary technician, checks a calico cat held by Leah Nicholas, a veterinarian student at North Dakota State University. During the 2009 flood in Fargo, pets including dogs horses, mules, and pot-bellied pigs were looked after by volunteers until their owners could care for them again. (Allen Fredrickson/Reuters)

The U.S. outpost of the organization Save the Children runs a program called Prep Rally that helps build resilience in kids by teaching them about what it might be like to live through any type of disaster. “It pulls from a lot of research on adverse childhood experiences,” says Sarah Thompson, director of U.S. emergencies at the organization. “We’re giving kids a basic understanding of what could happen, and what safe places and people are. Even without knowing the nitty-gritty, it helps them feel like they’re more in control. It helps them feel like they can be safe.”

The program teaches them to recognize the risks they might face in their community, as well as practical skills, like how to talk with their families about evacuation plans and what should be in a disaster kit. By working with kids, the program also reaches the whole family, Thompson says. “Kids are great message-bearers.”

One key challenge in building a resilient community is ensuring that efforts are distributed equitably. “Individuals in poverty or who are more isolated are at more risk of psychological harm,” McLean says. People of lower socioeconomic status are already less likely to make preparations ahead of a disaster, are less likely or unable to respond to emergency communications, and are more likely to face major consequences from a disaster. Working closely with and directing support services for vulnerable groups, then, is an important element of resilience work.

Many organizations incorporate mental health into their conversations around disaster response: the American Psychological Association runs a disaster response network in partnership with the American Red Cross, which mobilizes psychologists to help victims and first responders after disasters. In addition, communities under a presidentially declared disaster can get funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to offer mental-health services.

In a few places, mental health is discussed as a component of disaster preparedness: In North Carolina, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services plans to measure social and emotional health in children as part of its strategic plan, which will be incorporated into preparations for future disasters. However, preventative discussions are less common, Patel says, and if it’s low on the list of priorities, funding can be limited. “It’s not the first thing people think about,” he says. “But it’s improved, and it’s getting attention.”

As the climate continues to change, research into the factors that contribute to resilience—and the things that prevent it—will become even more critical. It’s still not clear how anxiety around climate-related events might affect emotional recovery after a disaster, or how people’s attachments to a particular place might skew their response, Clayton says. Those efforts are ongoing, spearheaded by researchers who have infrastructure in place to start collecting data immediately after a storm—like teams at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, who started on projects after Hurricane Harvey.

After the 2009 flood, McLean helped develop a group focused on building resilience in North Dakota. It was fairly active for a few years, he said, and then work tapered off. But this past spring, there were concerns that another flood could occur, and the conversations were able to quickly ramp back up—with mental health included. “We’re prepared,” McLean says. “We’ve had enough practice that we’re able to be.”

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The Changing Demographics of America’s Suburbs

A great deal of attention has been paid to the revitalization of cities and urban areas, and the decline of rural communities. In fact, the very idea of a growing divide between urban and rural America has become a defining narrative of our time. But what about the suburbs? A majority of Americans live in them, after all.

The suburbs are in the midst of dramatic transformation, too, as they are buffeted by the very same forces—globalization, technology, deindustrialization, and the rise of the clustered knowledge economy—that are transforming urban and rural areas.

Not so long ago, tens of millions of middle- and working-class families headed to the suburbs to fulfill the American dream. But the past couple of decades have brought substantial changes to the suburbs. Some term it the “end of the suburbs” as the affluent and the educated head back to cities. Others call it a great inversion as the older pattern of rich suburbs surrounding poor cities is reversed with poor suburbs now surrounding rich cities. One writer for The New York Times described a decline so deep his observations were titled Slumburbia.

Not so fast. Just as urban America is defined by an increasingly winner-take-all geography, with a defined group of winners and losers, so too is suburbia.

There is no doubt that many suburbs are increasingly economically challenged and suburban poverty is rising. Now, more poor people live in suburbs than in urban centers, though this is partly a function of the fact that more people in general live in suburbs. And concentrated poverty has grown faster in suburbs than in cities, as well.

But, the suburbs remain the most affluent economic aggregates in America. Consider places like Greenwich, Connecticut; Rye, New York; Potomac and Bethesda, Maryland; MacLean, Virginia; and Newport Beach California, as I wrote in CityLab. And all but one of the ten priciest ZIP codes in America are in the suburbs—the elite Silicon Valley suburbs of Atherton, Los Altos, and Palo Alto; Beverly Hills and Santa Monica outside Los Angeles; and the exclusive enclave of Fisher Island, off the coast of Miami Beach.

The aforementioned combination of globalization, the decline of the old manufacturing economy, and the re-urbanization of the knowledge economy, is redefining the role and function of the suburbs.

Many suburbs are seeing their historic functions as bedroom communities or as homes to industrial or office parks being challenged. Bur others with particular characteristics—more urbanized and closer-in, walkable; connected to vibrant urban centers by public transit; home to knowledge institutions like universities, colleges, or major R&D labs; surrounded by unique amenities like coastlines, mountains, or parks; or those that have developed new economic functions and connections to the knowledge economy like the Silicon Valley suburbs I mentioned—continue to thrive.

These changes are so profound that Karyn Lacy of the University of Michigan has called for a new sociology of the suburbs similar to the original urban sociology pioneered by Robert Park and the Chicago School of urban sociologists of the early 20th century. Political scientists see the sweeping economic transformation of the suburbs, and in particular the rise of economically distressed suburbs, as defining the new fault-line of American politics.

In addition to these fundamental economic transformations, there are two key demographic trends that are acting to reshape suburbia today.

The first is the suburbanization of immigration. This is a reversal of the earlier 20th century pattern where immigrants packed themselves into inner-city neighborhoods, like my own grandparents who resided in the Italian district of Newark, New Jersey.

Today, immigration is increasingly suburban, a key characteristic of what Brookings demographer William Frey dubs 21st century immigration. As of 2010, more than half of all immigrants (51 percent) resided in the suburbs. Today’s suburban immigrants are also more highly educated than those of the past. One reason they choose suburbs is for access to their schools.

The second trend is the racial and ethnic transformation of suburbia. Part of this is due to immigration, but another part is the suburbanization of African Americans. Between 1970 and 2000, the share of African Americans living in suburban Atlanta increased from 27 percent to 78 percent; while in greater Washington D.C it rose from 25 percent in 1970 to 82 percent. Those trends have continued to accelerate, according to the Lacy’s research. There are two parts to this African-American suburbanization. On the one hand, it is the result of low-income African Americans being pushed out of gentrifying parts of cities. And on the other, it involves the black middle class choosing to move to more upscale suburbs. Taken together, they add up to considerable shift.

But it is not just African Americans who are headed to the suburbs: other minority groups are, too. Demographer William Frey of the Brookings Institution has documented the dramatic growth of “melting pot suburbs,” where minorities constitute 35 percent or more of the population. As result, today’s suburbs no longer look much like the lily-white places portrayed on 1950s and 1960s sitcoms. Whites comprised less than ten percent of growth of the suburban population in America’s 100 largest metros between the years 2000 and 2010.

This all adds up to a thorough transformation of suburbia. No longer are the suburbs homogenous bedroom communities; they are far more demographically diverse. At the same time, their economic functions are being jostled and realigned.

The ongoing transformation of the suburbs, like the transformation of urban America, is multidimensional. Just as some cities are thriving as others struggle, some suburbs remain among the most successful, fastest growing, and most affluent areas in America even as others face growing poverty, mounting economic dislocation, and in some cases, even economic decline.

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Density Increasingly Decides State Elections, Too

Tuesday’s election results show how America is continuing to polarize along an urban-rural continuum. But it’s not playing out the same everywhere.

Voters on Tuesday gave Democrats a resounding victory in races for Virginia’s general assembly, a narrow victory in Kentucky’s gubernatorial election, and a defeat in Mississippi’s gubernatorial race. All three states show signs of ongoing polarization, in which rural areas are becoming more Republican and suburban areas are becoming more Democratic.

In Virginia, for example, the same suburban surge that powered Democrats to victory in 2018’s congressional races was also evident a year later at the state level. Based on a density index devised by CityLab to analyze elections, Democrats on Tuesday won an average of 73 percent of the vote in districts that CityLab categorizes as “dense suburban,” and 53 percent in “sparse suburban” districts.1 But eight years ago, Democrats averaged just 46 percent of the vote in “dense suburban” districts, and were blown out with an average of 22 percent of the vote in “sparse suburban” districts.

Likewise,  rural districts saw a hard turn toward Republicans. In 2011, Democrats averaged 32 percent of the vote in predominantly rural districts—roughly in line with their overall 34 percent of the vote. In 2019, Democrats did much better overall, winning nearly 53 percent of the total vote. But their share in rural districts fell to 27 percent.

Virginia is a fast-growing state with large shares of its population living in dense urban and especially suburban neighborhoods, and is overall much less rural than either Kentucky or Mississippi.

That means that Kentucky’s Democratic governor-elect Andy Beshear had to assemble a very different coalition to win there than Virginia’s Democrats did. Like them, he ran up big margins in the state’s cities and suburbs, and lost big in rural areas (though he lost by less in the country).

But whereas Virginia Democrats tended to do worse in districts where more people live in low-density communities like exurbs or rural towns, those areas were a strength for Beshear in his race against incumbent Republican Governor Matt Bevin. They had to be in order for him to win—Kentucky doesn’t have enough people living in dense communities for a candidate to lose in both rural and exurban areas and still pull off a victory, whereas Virginia does.

Despite these differences, though, Kentucky showed the same patterns as Virginia. Compared to Bevin’s victory over Democrat Jack Conway four years ago, Beshear did worse in counties with lots of rural residents, but better in counties with more people living in towns, suburbs, and cities.2 The differences are even more dramatic when compared to 2011, when Beshear’s father Steve was re-elected governor. Steve Beshear had only a minor disadvantage in Kentucky’s rural areas then, and smaller advantages than his son would produce in its denser communities.

In Mississippi, where Attorney General Jim Hood came up well short in his race against Republican Tate Reeves, demographics posed an even graver problem. Mississippi is one of the most rural and least suburban states in the country, and is the only state without a single neighborhood that CityLab classifies as “high density.”3 In every respect it’s less urban than Kentucky, where Beshear only squeaked out a victory on Tuesday by virtue of his opponent’s extremely low approval ratings.

Any election that follows this decade’s patterns of polarization, with Republican rural areas and Democratic suburbs and cities, is going to go poorly for a Democrat in Mississippi because it just doesn’t have enough suburbs and cities. And so Hood fell with 46.6 percent of the vote to Hood’s 52.1 percent.

There’s no guarantee that this trend will continue to accelerate in 2020 or other future elections. Just a decade ago, Democrats did well in rural, suburban, and urban congressional districts. But if Americans continue to polarize by density, then Democratic wins in rural places like Kentucky may get even rarer—as will Republican wins in suburban places like Virginia.

  1. Using a similar methodology to last year’s CityLab Congressional Density Index, we used a machine learning algorithm to classify districts based on the different types of high-, low-, and medium-density neighborhoods that make them up. A district that’s predominantly medium-density neighborhoods, for example, would be “dense suburban,” while “sparse suburban” districts tend to be mostly low-density neighborhoods with a substantial minority of medium-density.
  2. Bevin underperformed other Republicans on the ticket, who won the rest of Kentucky’s statewide offices. But even those down-ballot races showed similar patterns, just slightly less extreme. Attorney General-elect Daniel Cameron, a Republican, did better in counties with lots of rural residents and worse in counties where lots of people live in denser areas than Republican attorney general candidates in 2015 and 2011. He outperformed Bevin in suburban counties but did a little worse than him in rural counties.
  3. CityLab classifies neighborhoods with fewer than 102 households per square mile as “Very low density.” Neighborhoods with 102 to 800 households per square mile are “Low density,” while those with 800 to 2,213 households per square mile are “Medium density.” Anything above 2,213 households per square mile is “High density.” These numbers are derived from survey research conducted by Jed Kolko.

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3 Cities Using Capital to Build More Inclusive Ecosystems

Coaching Cities to Build Inclusive Ecosystems

In order to lead these cities in developing their ecosystems to create the new capital structures that they require, they needed an investor and ecosystem builder who understands the capital challenges faced by entrepreneurs of color in their earliest fundraising rounds and how to create new models to help remove structural bias.

I’m a San Francisco-based venture capital investor who invests in early stage companies and has built startup ecosystems in the US and internationally. More than 60% of my investments have been in companies with one or more underrepresented founders.

The same coaching I give to founders can be extended to cities, and for 18 months, I became ‘the VC in their corner’ who would advise the (SU)3 cities on the business models and capital structures that would create sustainable pathways to support the building of these entrepreneurial ecosystems.

I have invested in all types of founders, but without equitable participation in the innovation economy from people of color – this nation’s fastest growing demographic – we rob ourselves of the full spectrum of innovation and we create an inevitable future where America’s persistent wealth gap will become even wider.

For (SU)3, we focused exclusively on high-growth entrepreneurs building the companies that can deliver innovation and opportunity at scale. Main Street and small business entrepreneurship are still incredibly important to local economies, but high-growth entrepreneurship transforms cities, allows companies to hire dozens if not hundreds of employees, and creates anchor institutions from which new entrepreneurs and companies will be created. Activating the relationships that make it possible for these high-growth entrepreneurs to succeed will increase the capacity of each city to build the entrepreneurial ecosystems necessary to meet the needs of founders of color, from small to large businesses.

These cities were selected for their unique cultures, economies, and the position that they all sit relative to high-growth entrepreneurs of color. In each city, we identified an institutional lead and I provided them with my coaching on venture capital and ecosystem building to carry this work forward:

  • Albuquerque Community Foundation
  • New Orleans Business Alliance
  • 42Phi Ventures (San Francisco Bay Area)

Three Cities Putting Inclusion in Focus

The strategies deployed locally by each (SU)3 team were focused on increasing investment, particularly private equity and venture capital, in entrepreneurs of color who want to scale their companies. “Key to this work,” as our team leads in New Orleans note, “is the identification of bias where it exists in capital allocation and eliminating the perception of race as representing risk.”

Not only is there an undersupply of capital that fits the needs of founders of high-growth businesses, but these founders are at best, largely ignored; and at worst, excluded from existing entrepreneurial support systems.

New Orleans represents a Southern city with a long tradition of entrepreneurship among people of color. Today, Black-owned businesses account for 40% of all businesses in the city, but these businesses receive less than 2% of all business receipts — a margin that has remained constant since 1997. New Orleans has a 60% majority Black population but where Black entrepreneurs have been underrepresented in the city’s emerging entrepreneur community of local accelerators, incubators, and angel investor networks. Of the $41 million of local angel investment in entrepreneurs, only $1.3 million was invested in entrepreneurs of color.

Team Lead: New Orleans Business Alliance

  • Create Capital from Customers
    A council of New Orleans’ private corporations and industry associations have committed to spending $232 million on contracts with entrepreneurs procurement needs of the participants. Raised a $6M Mobilization Fund to provide capital to companies granted contracts in order to give companies the capacity to fulfill larger commitments.

  • Entrepreneur Education Partnership
    Partnered with Tulane and Xavier universities to develop an education program for entrepreneurs who need additional training on sales and financial management. The first cohort of entrepreneurs are currently in the program.

  • CDFI Capital Consortium
    Worked with CDFIs (Community Development Financial Institutions) to create an innovative growth capital product with underwriting criteria and a loan-loss reserve that reduces risk and allows them to provide debt capital to entrepreneurs previously ineligible for CDFI loans. NOLA is also working on an equity capital product for high potential startups.

Albuquerque has a very nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem, but where frontier and space technology thrive around the region’s federal labs like Sandia and private space companies like Virgin Galactic. Despite a rich cultural landscape of Native and Latinx people, these sectors rarely see participation from entrepreneurs of color.

New Mexico is a state where there are more people of color than there are white people — a coming reality for the rest of the nation. Over 62% of New Mexico’s population is non-white and approximately 48% of the population is Latinx.

The rest of America is not far behind. If we can figure out how to support entrepreneurial growth in one of the first New Majority states, then we can begin to understand how to support inclusive entrepreneurial growth in an entire nation where people of color will soon be the majority.

Team Lead: Albuquerque Community Foundation

  • Entrepreneur Landscaping
    In Albuquerque’s young ecosystem, we first started by identifying founders and debunking the outsider’s myth of ‘no high-growth entrepreneurs of color in the ecosystem’. The team’s 1:1 outreach to founders discovered entrepreneurs of color leading businesses from pre-revenue startups to companies with millions of dollars in yearly revenue. Over half of those founders are Latinx and 20% are of Native or indigenous background.

  • E3
    On the back of this pipeline undertaking, ABQ then launched E3 – a quarterly event series that has been connecting entrepreneurs of color with the broader Albuquerque ecosystem and encouraging peer-led resource sharing among the region’s growing startups.

  • Loan & Equity Capital Vehicles
    ABQ challenged traditional methods of lending with the Nusenda Co-op Capital product that allowed member organizations to issue micro-loans to business partners. The pilot program made over $400,000 in loans with a delinquency rate of less than 1%. The Albuquerque team is continuing to create new capital products and has developed the structure for a new equity funding vehicle. Earlier sourcing will provide a deal flow pipeline for this capital product that invests in entrepreneurs of color.

San Francisco Bay Area is the mature startup ecosystem that others model themselves after and look toward for innovation. It is the place that birthed Uber, Google, and Salesforce, but it still hasn’t grocked how to create an ecosystem where entrepreneurs of color – specifically Black and Latinx entrepreneurs – have the same access to networks and capital that others do.

Today, you can build a great company anywhere. Many cities like New Orleans and Albuquerque will benefit from the expansion of opportunity beyond the coastal hubs of San Francisco/Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York City, but they still face an undersupply of capital that fits the needs of the high growth businesses that want to start there.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs of color are fleeing San Francisco and other Bay Area cities as a result of being priced out of both residential and commercial real estate markets and because the area often doesn’t meet their cultural needs.

Team Lead: 42Phi Ventures (San Francisco Bay Area)

  • Crowdfunding & Angel Investor Education
    In San Francisco, we wanted to go beyond venture capital, which has a long history of being inaccessible to Black and Latinx founders — especially at the earliest stages. We focused on educating professionals of color to create more angel investors and leveraging crowdfunding for people who have the capacity and interest in investing in entrepreneurs of color.

  • Housing Policy
    The skyrocketing cost of housing is the Bay Area’s biggest threat to its position as the nation’s innovation center and one of the biggest barriers to entrepreneurship for those who do not have a financial safety net. In the Bay Area, we are continuing to engage civic leaders on housing policy changes that will give qualifying entrepreneurs a financial buffer and access to more affordable housing supply.

  • General Contractor Education
    Related to San Francisco Bay Area’s technology and population boom, there has also been a tremendous increase in large-scale development projects. The development and construction industries also see disparities in firms owned by people of color having less access to high value (multi-million dollar) development projects either as prime or sub-prime contractors. We worked to address this with an education series that helped Black and LatinX construction firm owners navigate the complexities of public and private contracting opportunities and connect to more prime contract opportunities.

Philanthropy Working Together: Living Cities, Rockefeller, Surdna Partnership

Philanthropy isn’t always thought of as having a seat at the table of capital innovation, but it has an important role to play in lowering the barriers to economic opportunity.

Foundations and their endowments fund the venture and private equity funds that serve as the growth engine for innovation and new company development. As limited partners, this seat of influence can be both the carrot and the stick in encouraging and requiring the funds in which they invest to actively create a more inclusive table in both their investment partnership and the founders they invest in.

The collaborative efforts of philanthropic organizations can catalyze the creation of inclusive ecosystems and ensure that everyone has access to the resources to start and scale businesses that drive our nation’s innovation engine.

For (SU)3, three national philanthropic organizations came together to support these cities in laying the groundwork to evolve their entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Living Cities is a 28-year old collaborative of 18 foundations and financial institutions. Together, they are working to ensure that all people in U.S. cities are economically secure and can build wealth. To achieve this result, it is imperative that they address racial gaps in income and wealth and work with urgency to close them. Their institutions are committed to marshalling their resources to put racial equity and inclusion at the center of our entrepreneurial ecosystem-building efforts in (SU)3 cities in order to achieve greater results in income and wealth creation than is possible through our organizations’ separate efforts in these cities. There isn’t a blueprint to follow to create an entrepreneurial ecosystem that puts founders of color at the center. But by leveraging existing relationships and networks, knowledge from grant programs and investments, communications platforms, and thought leadership from partners, they aim to provide a roadmap that leads to a national infrastructure that supports the start and growth people of color-founded businesses.

Rockefeller Foundation The Rockefeller Foundation’s mission — unchanged since 1913 — is to promote the well-being of humanity throughout the world. Today the Foundation advances new frontiers of science, data, policy, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health, food, power, and economic mobility. As a science-driven philanthropy focused on building collaborative relationships with partners and grantees, The Rockefeller Foundation seeks to inspire and foster large-scale human impact that promotes the well-being of humanity by identifying and accelerating breakthrough solutions, ideas and conversations.

Surdna Foundation seeks to foster the creation of an inclusive and equitable economy in which people of color can maximize their potential as leaders, creators and innovators across sectors. Surdna believes that everyone’s economic well-being improves when all communities are empowered to participate on equal footing, and seeks an economy that truly works the same for everyone. Through strategic grantmaking, program-related investments, partnerships and field building, Surdna hopes to elevate communities of color across income and class.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Many cities are failing to benefit from the success and exponential impact on local innovation and wealth creation that high-growth founders of color can stimulate. Activating the relationships that make it possible for these entrepreneurs to succeed will increase the capacity of each city to build the entrepreneurial ecosystems necessary to meet the needs of founders of color and the ecosystem at large.

While we’ve wrapped up the (SU)3 cohort period, the work started in these three cities continues. They will continue supporting entrepreneurs, creating new capital structures that stand in the friends and family gap, and widening the path to early capital that allows local and national investors like me to discover and back the best entrepreneurs of color from their cities.

(SU)3’s successes and lessons learned around breaking down the barriers to capital, strengthening public policy, and expanding networks and technical assistance by this cohort will provide cities around the country with tested and adaptable approaches they can adopt to increase business dynamism, inclusion, and innovation in their own ecosystems.

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