Amazon’s HQ2 Fiasco Will Cost the Company More Than It Costs New York

In an economic development Valentine’s Day from hell, Amazon broke up with New York City today. As Amazon dropped Long Island City, Queens, as part of its second headquarters, the company showed its true colors.

Despite being a trillion-dollar enterprise, Amazon has refused to pay for its freight in communities, including Seattle. Instead of reacting reasonably to opposition to the HQ2 deal from state Senator Michael Gianaris, city council members, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and neighborhood activists, Amazon decided it only wants to play its game on its own terms.

But how big companies enter communities shouldn’t be handled like a ploy directed at gaming the system and extracting maximum incentives from cities. Amazon should not treat cities with tactics of exploitation and abuse.

The right thing for Amazon to do would have been to be a true partner for New York City: stay, make it work, and hire people in support of New Yorkers. Instead, Amazon has decided to leave New York City behind in favor of other regions it considers to be more hospitable. (Amazon has announced that it will not re-open the search process and will proceed only with northern Virginia and Nashville.)

As I have written before and will say again, it’s past time for city leaders across the country to stand up to Amazon, demand much-needed tax revenues instead shying away from taxing big businesses, and show support for the people in their neighborhoods. In New York, this movement has started in earnest. In a new proposal this week, state lawmakers are asking their fellow states to join them in an interstate compact to oppose incentives races like the one for Amazon. I would add to that call an ask for the mayors and former mayors considering running for president to stand up against incentives.

For such an analytically-minded company, which did such an extensive selection process, Amazon should have been able to predict that the incentives would generate a backlash. Even during the selection process, the signs of resistance movements across the U.S. were evident, from new legislative proposals, to protests and rallies. New York City in particular, a region with an already-robust economy, was well positioned to resist Amazon. And yet, the company turned a blind eye. New York Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio drank the Kool-Aid they sold to Amazon. The Amazon HQ2 process has created a PR fiasco that has damaged the potential for cities and tech companies to work together effectively and to communities’ benefit. It will almost certainly hurt Amazon more than losing the HQ2 will hurt New York.

And that PR fiasco may just be getting started. To assume that everything is rosy in Crystal City, Arlington, and nothing like “activist NYC” is flawed. The mega-company shouldn’t expect zero backlash from the greater D.C. area. In fact, Amazon’s departure from New York City might embolden activists in the D.C. area, which has a large activist community as well. It would be perfectly reasonable to anticipate backlash left to come, especially after the news of an Amazon exit from New York City.

This is far from over.

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

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New York’s Ejection of Amazon Is the Start of a Movement

Amazon has pulled out of plans to build an office in Long Island City, Queens, the company announced Thursday. The decision comes after months of opposition from city council members, state legislators, and local activists who condemned the $3 billion in tax incentives the company would have received from New York.

Not everyone is happy with the company’s decision to retreat, rather than negotiate. But some members of the coalition that led the movement to resist the incentive package are declaring victory for having achieved what seemed like a last-ditch effort just months ago. “We’re glad that it looks like our efforts as a movement were successful, but we’re ready to keep fighting if something changes.” said Michael Carter, a spokesperson for State Senator Julia Salazar.

And Salazar and her colleagues are just getting started. On Tuesday, she and New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim pitched a plan to make future deals like Amazon’s more difficult to broker again. They proposed standing together with other states against the practice of competing for corporations by offering tax incentives. They also introduced legislation that would ban New York state from swaying any company’s location decision by giving away company-specific, taxpayer-funded subsidies.

The intent of these proposals is not to keep out new companies, but to limit the power of tax breaks in influencing their location decisions. And while some see Amazon’s departure as the only way to achieve this outcome, other New Yorkers are frustrated that the company’s abrupt exit means a lost employment opportunity.

“Rather than addressing the legitimate concerns that have been raised by many New Yorkers Amazon says you do it our way or not at all, we will not even consider the concerns of New Yorkers – that’s not what a responsible business would do, said Chelsea Connor, Director of Communications for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), in a statement.

The path to Amazon’s departure

Despite Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s excitement over attracting Amazon to Queens, a coalition of powerful New York lawmakers—city council members Brad Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer, council speaker Corey Johnson, and State Senator Michael Gianaris, in addition to Salazar and Kim—fought to inject resistance into every part of the Amazon approval process; along with local advocacy organizations like Make the Road New York, who staged protests and canvassed in Queens.

Sometime in February, a third city council hearing on the Amazon deal was scheduled. Past meetings have led to fiery debates over Amazon’s stance on unions (Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said the company would not agree to neutrality if Amazon workers wanted to unionize); the status of Jeff Bezos’ helipad; and the company’s involvement with ICE.

Kim also introduced legislation on January 30 that would create an Office of Financial Freedom, tasked with phasing out “corporate welfare funds” over five years, and diverting those funds into mitigating student loan debt. It’s co-sponsored by Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi, and on the senate side by State Senator Jessica Ramos. Though it alone wouldn’t have stopped Amazon from receiving funds, it did include clawback measures.

But perhaps the strongest sign that the deal was in trouble came when Gianaris, who represents Long Island City, was appointed to serve on the Public Authorities Control Board, which must approve all but a $500 million capital grant from the state. If Cuomo confirmed Gianaris’ nomination—not doing so would be “a declaration of war against his colleagues in the Democratic party,” says Kim—he would have had the authority to effectively veto the project.

And Gianaris has indicated that he would have: “I’m not looking to negotiate a better deal,” Gianaris told the New York Times. “I am against the deal that has been proposed and don’t believe that it can form the foundation of a negotiation.”

A bold plan to resist incentives

As this coalition of lawmakers looks to the future, they are focused instead on fighting incentives—not fighting corporate locations wholesale.

“Let’s be clear: we want companies to set up shop in New York City and grow the job base here,” said councilmember Lander in a statement. “That will present real challenges, like the need to improve our infrastructure, create and preserve affordable housing, protect residential and commercial tenants from displacement, and share the benefits of growth widely.” New York is up to that challenge, he said—“but only if we have the democratic capacity and tax base to allow us to do it.”

Despite research indicating that talent and culture attract businesses more than economic incentives do, Kim says, cities and states feel pressure to offer ever-higher sums in “corporate welfare” to companies. Because some local governments offered Amazon millions or billions in property tax abatements or performance-based write-offs, for example, most of the rest felt they had to join them, just to stay eligible for the final prize of hosting an HQ2.

“Governor [Cuomo] kept saying over and over, ‘I didn’t have a choice, this is how the game is set up.’ He had to compete, and he won, and he was so proud of the fact that we won,” said Kim. “But the fact is, the game is rigged. And it takes leadership to call that out and figure out how to un-rig this game, and hold these mega-corporations accountable.”

Economic experts and politicians have long argued that absent federal intervention, cross-country collective action is the best way to stop states and cities from participating in this once-obscure but common economic incentive process. The economic incentive system that exists now—designed to push “footloose companies” to the jurisdiction that pays them the most—is broken, says Joe Parilla, a fellow in the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Already, Kim says, 12 legislators from states from Texas to Florida, and Connecticut to Illinois have committed to introducing anti-tax incentive bills of their own.

Before Amazon, perhaps the highest-profile example of a state using tax incentives to woo a company was Wisconsin’s courtship of technology company Foxconn: For its commitment to create 13,000 local jobs, former Governor Scott Walker promised Foxconn a $4 billion tax break. Last month, the deal started unraveling, with Reuters reporting that, even as Wisconsin invested heavily in infrastructure in anticipation of the company’s move, Foxconn was reconsidering the nature of its expansion. Instead of employing 5,200 people by the end of 2020, a company source said that “that figure now looks likely to be closer to 1,000 workers.” And instead of hiring mostly manufacturing staff, the company said it was pivoting to engineers and researchers.

That deal’s demise, along with Amazon’s November announcement that it would split its 50,000-job HQ2 into two—and now, the company’s about-face—has rattled legislators’ faith in these kinds of projects. “You had the perfect media storm,” said Parilla.

And it’s reenergized a movement that started among city leaders last year. In January, Richard Florida, the co-founder of CityLab, advocated for a similar agreement, which he called a “mutual non-aggression pact.” In a petition, he urged elected officials within the 238 jurisdictions that submitted bids for HQ2 to reject “such egregious tax giveaways and direct monetary incentives for the Amazon headquarters.” Some 16,000 economists, politicians, urbanists, professors, and citizens signed it, including four city councilors from Austin, Indianapolis, Dallas, and New York City. Besides increased exposure, however, there were few concrete legislative outcomes.

In a letter released Wednesday by the advocacy organization Local Progress, representatives from New York City, Chicago, Columbus, Austin, Dallas, Indiana, Somerville, D.C., Philadelphia, and Dallas city councils—including some who signed the original non-aggression pact—stated that they’d “do all we can to prevent our cities from participating in Amazon’s rigged game.”

Though the Amazon deal’s implosion may give these city councilors, and Kim and Salazar’s compact, more momentum, reaching any kind of voluntary agreement could still be a long-shot. Indeed, “most states will not do it unless there’s a unilateral agreement to adopt [legislation] at the same time,” said Amy Liu, the vice president and director of the Brookings Intitute’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

“It’s a complicated process to have the different states drop the same legislation and to go through the same process,” admitted Kim, who’s also part of the crowded slate running for New York City’s public advocate seat. Still, he says, “it could be done. Because of what’s happening with Amazon … there’s an appetite for a number of states and stakeholders to identify the core problem.”

And while the spirit of the compact—to reduce competition and therefore, subsidies—is commendable, Liu worries the language of New York’s legislation overreaches. “I agree that we need to reduce helping companies [lower] their bottom line,” she said. But “the fact that it is a blanket limit on all incentives, I think is extreme. Some incentives are not redundant or exorbitant by nature, she says, like those that encourage research and development, or those that fund job training and local hiring. “There is room for tax policy that rewards good corporate behavior through incentives, and we should find a way to structure them in a way that genuinely supports the public benefit.”

Kim says it may take two to three years for a critical mass of states to sign on to the compact. In this session alone, Kim expects six to eight states to introduce legislation; and another “eight or so” to put it on their priority list next year. Illinois Senator Toi W. Hutchinson, Florida House Representative Anna V. Eskamani, and Connecticut State Representative Josh Elliot endorsed the measure on Tuesday.

“By working together, states can ensure that we aren’t fighting each other, when we could be lifting each other up,” said Elliot in a statement. But right now, he told CityLab, it’s just a “general idea.” Hearings, and committee approvals, and votes await. “This could be 10, 20 years down the line.”

Challenges ahead

The same appetite for anti-corporate rebellion doesn’t seem to have caught on in places like Virginia, where Amazon plans to build its second satellite campus. Last week, Governor Ralph Northam—embroiled in a scandal over his racist medical school yearbook photo—quietly signed away up to $750 million in tax incentives to Amazon, with the final sum contingent on the jobs the company creates. “We always welcome more great jobs to the commonwealth,” Stephen Moret, chief executive of the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, told the Washington Post. One factor that might have made Virginia more open to the deal, says Liu, is that the tax incentive package was capped, and “more tilted towards community investments” in skills training and public schools.

And though mayors may condemn the use of incentives publicly, the annual Menino survey of 110 U.S. mayors conducted by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities showed that 84 percent think business incentives are “good policy,” and more than half believe cities gain long-term benefits for offering them—even as 61 percent say other cities give away too much. At least that’s what they thought at the time the survey was conducted in the summer of 2018.

Even among New York residents, opinions on the deal varied. One Quinnipiac survey of 1,000 registered New York City voters in December showed that a full 57 percent approved of its expansion into Long Island City, and 46 percent approved of the subsidies offered. That may make it harder to institute a retroactive, state-level blanket ban. Another poll of 778 registered voters, conducted by the Sienna College Research Institute this February, seemed to confirm those findings: 56 percent of them, too, approved.

But killing the Amazon deal was about more than just subsidies, said Van Bramer, a member of the New York City council. “When our community fights together, anything is possible, even when we’re up against the biggest corporation in the world,” he said in a statement. “Defeating an anti-union corporation that mistreats workers and assists ICE in terrorizing immigrant communities is a victory.”

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CityLab Daily: Amazon Pulls HQ2 From New York City

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What We’re Following

Cancel order: Breaking things off on Valentine’s Day is a move. Amazon just announced that it will not build its HQ2 campus in New York City after all. The online retailer said in a statement that opposition from state and local politicians, who criticized the nearly $3 billion in incentives promised for the project, “made it clear” that they could not “build the type of relationships that are required to go forward” on the campus in Long Island City, Queens. The company also said it does not have plans to reopen its HQ2 search, and will focus only on its other planned locations in Northern Virginia and Nashville.

That may be wise: Already, legislators in New York and beyond are doubling down on plans to make future deals like Amazon’s more difficult to broker again. On Tuesday, New York State Senator Julia Salazar and New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim pitched a plan to stand together with other states against the practice of competing for corporations with tax incentives. They also introduced legislation that would ban New York state from any future such tax giveaways. A spokesperson from Salazar’s office tells CityLab’s Sarah Holder, “We’re glad that it looks like our efforts as a movement were successful, but we’re ready to keep fighting if something changes.” Look for her story later today on CityLab.

Andrew Small and Sarah Holder

More on CityLab

The Cities With the Most Singles

Where you live can have a big impact on your Valentine’s Day by changing the odds of meeting potential mates.

Richard Florida

The Swinging Singles Bar That Changed Toronto’s Nightlife

After the fern bar craze had swept the U.S., the Coal Bin arrived in the growing, but still-conservative Canadian city.

Chris Bateman

There’s a Rural-Urban Divide in the Opiate Crisis

As deaths from heroin, fentanyl, and prescription opioids soar in the U.S., a new study looks at the geographic factors driving the drug overdose epidemic.

Tanvi Misra

Aboard Jerusalem’s Light Rail, a Divided City Rides Together

Part cultural tour, part social activism, a project called Dissolving Boundaries uses public transportation as a stage for examining relations between Israeli and Palestinian residents.

Keshia Naurana Badalge

How Urban Agriculture Can Improve Food Security

U.S. cities could learn a thing or two from Cuba and Argentina when it comes to urban farming.

Miguel Altieri

Hearts in San Francisco

If you’re looking for love this Valentine’s Day you might do well to go to San Francisco. According to data from the online dating site OkCupid, residents of the Bay Area may be among the most romantic in the country, based on answers to profile questions in nine major American cities. San Francisco-area users were most likely to call themselves romantics or to embrace stereotypically romantic activities like long walks on the beach.

Austin, Denver, and Los Angeles aren’t far behind on romance, either. By contrast, Washington, D.C., appears to have a different idea of how these things work: This chart of OkCupid users shows Washingtonians were far less likely to find hopeless, unrequited love to be “romantic.” (Just to humor the District, maybe try asking how they feel about long walks on the swamp.) CityLab data reporter David Montgomery gets to the heart of the story: Which Cities Are for Lovers? Here’s the Data

Bonus: Valentines for Urban Planning Nerds

What We’re Reading

When Baltimore said “I love you” with potholes on Valentine’s Day (Baltimore Sun)

Amazon is taking over suburbia (Quartz)

Highway infrastructure isn’t “crumbling,” actually—it’s just congested (Streetsblog)

Chicago introduces a bird-friendly building ordinance (Next City)

In the year after Parkland, there was nearly one mass shooting a day (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

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Why the Rural Opioid Crisis Is Different From the Urban One

In 2017, opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. reached a record high. And mayors and local leaders across the country have been scrambling to figure out what’s driving this precipitous rise of opioid mortality in the last two decades. Several theories have been aired, from aggressive Big Pharma marketing to anxiety among Baby Boomers. Unfortunately, no one-size-fits-all answer exist—how and why this public health problem manifests locally varies greatly across the U.S..

That’s according to a new working paper by Syracuse University sociologist Shannon Monnat and the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET). It finds that one narrative that gained steam after the 2016 election—the notion of the modern opioid crisis as a disproportionately rural phenomenon that emerged outside of the cities where the “War on Drugs” has been raging for more than three decades—doesn’t hold up. Instead, in both rural and urban communities, two key factors—economic distress and supply of opioids—predict the rate of opioid deaths.

“I really do want to push back against this cliche that addiction does not discriminate,” Monnat said. “The physiological processes that underlie addiction themselves may not discriminate, but the factors that put people in communities at higher risk are are not spatially random.”

In the paper, Monnat examines county-level drug mortality rates. Two-thirds of these deaths involve heroin, fentanyl, and various prescription opiates. She focuses on non-Hispanic whites—a racial group that, as of 2016, has the highest drug mortality rate. After controlling for demographics, she finds that the average drug mortality rates are highest in large metro counties, and increased most since 2000. The rates decline the further one moves away from urban areas. (In an additional analysis, she crunches the numbers on all racial groups and finds similar results.)

Compared to urban counties, the average rate for most rural ones was 6.2 fewer deaths per 100,000 people in the 2014 to 2016 time period. But rural counties had a larger degree of variability amongst themselves. Southwest Pennsylvania, Central Appalachia, Central Florida, and the Mountain Northwest suffered higher-than-average rates of drug mortality; New York, Virginia, Texas, and the Mississippi Delta saw below-average rates.

So what predicted this variation? Monnat’s analysis found that both economic conditions and drug supply were related to higher mortality rates. With respect to economics, characteristics like family distress, population loss, and heavy reliance on mining and service industries seemed to drive up mortality rates. And on the supply side, Monnat looked at the government data on legal opioid prescriptions in each county. She also measured exposure to fentanyl—a powerful painkiller that has been manufactured illegally and is often mixed with heroin or other types of opiates; it’s been linked to many overdose deaths in recent years. For this metric, she used state level data on law enforcement encounters in which the person tested positive for this drug.

While both economic conditions and drug supply are factors determining drug mortality, Monnat points out that economic conditions continued to be important, even after controlling for the supply side factors. This is where Monnat’s findings contradict some previous studies and support others.

“What that means is that drug mortality rates aren’t higher in economically distressed places simply because they’ve had a greater supply of opioid prescribing there,” she said. “There’s something about economic distress in and of itself that helps to explain the variation that we’re seeing across the country and the magnitude of the drug crisis.”

How important these factors were also varied: Generally, economic distress seemed to be a stronger determinant in rural areas, whereas in urban areas, it was the supply of drugs. But the effect of these factors was not observed just within county lines. Local economies are interconnected, which means that economic downturn has ripple effects beyond county lines, and drugs travel; that mean drug mortality may also spill over.

“A lot of what’s going on here are regional effects,” she said. “You get regional levels of despair and distress that seemed to reinforce and exacerbate the problem.”

The study has limitations, of course: It gives a snapshot of the crisis over a relatively short period of time, and it can’t say much about how important these predictors are for predicting geographical disparities in opioid overdose among different racial groups. But its findings nevertheless have widespread implications for policymakers grappling with this stubborn problem. Limiting opioid prescriptions and cracking down on illicit fentanyl might be of limited effectiveness when local economic conditions are struggling. Any successful approach would have to to be multifaceted and tailored to the specific region. It would also have to focus on the correct underlying factors that make certain communities more susceptible to this epidemic.

“It’s no coincidence that widespread opioid prescribing first started in the most economically vulnerable places of the country—there was vulnerability there,” Monnat said. “These places had been primed to be vulnerable to opioids, which are drugs that numb both physical and mental pain, through decades of economic and social decline.”

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The Singles Bar That Shook Up 1970s Toronto

There was no place quite like the Coal Bin for Toronto’s young singles in the early ‘70s.

Located in the heart of the city’s booming downtown, surrounded by gleaming new office towers, the crowded 300-seat basement room was one of the first bars in Toronto specifically targeted at swinging singles.

It was a place where unattached young men and women could dance, drink cheap beer, and maybe, just maybe, hit it off. “If I had a dollar for every romance that started here, I’d be rich,” the owner of the bar, Roel Bramer, told the Toronto Star in August 1970. “This place really attracts the girls—nice girls. We get some real groovy looking chicks. Any bachelor who’s a bit of a swinger can meet a girl here,” he said.

Just a few years earlier a bar like the Coal Bin couldn’t have existed in Toronto.

Perfume salesman Alan Stillman is widely credited with opening the first drinking establishment for singles on New York City’s Upper East Side in 1965.  His bar, T.G.I. Friday’s (yes, that T.G.I. Friday’s), tapped into a rich cluster of eligible young women (particularly airline stewardesses) living between 30th and 90th Streets. According to the New Yorker, one residential building located opposite the first Friday’s was so densely packed with stewardesses it was known as the “Stew Zoo.”

The first Friday’s was fresh, clean, and decorated with homely ornaments like Tiffany lamps and potted plants. Soon, single young women were lining up to get inside—and the single men inevitably followed. The success of the bar quickly inspired imitators and soon a new genre of drinking establishment—the fern bar—was spreading to cities across America.

Still, by 1968, the trend had yet to make jump over the border into conservative Ontario. The city’s “swinglers” (to use the nomenclature of the day) mostly went elsewhere to meet and mingle. “I do most of my swingling out of Toronto,” bachelor Jim Kirch, a sales manager, told the Toronto Star in 1968. “Nassau, New York, Montreal are my favorite spots.”

In 1960s Toronto, people usually struck up romances at private parties, in coffeehouses, or on trips organized by singles clubs. Social expectations meant men were often the ones required to initiate contact. Women openly courting men was generally frowned upon in wider society. It around this time Dutch-born economics graduate Roel Bramer and his business partner Rick McGraw founded the International Swingles Club, which organized parties for the city’s eligible men and women aged 21 to 35 in venues around the city. “It didn’t have a location,” says Bramer, who is now 79. “It just had a theme, it had a club membership, and every now and then we would throw a party somewhere.”

“We organized trips… it always sounds good to call something ‘international,’” he laughs. “We went to Puerto Rico and Aspen.”

Bramer came to Canada from Amsterdam in 1960 to study at McGill University in Montreal. Tuition in the U.S. was too expensive, he says, so he cut a deal with his parents to study north of the border. “I had a small apartment and my bedroom was immediately next door to a disco called La Rouge,” he says. “Their cash register was immediately on the other side of the wall of my bed. And I loved the sound. It kept me awake but I knew that I had to get some of that cash.”

Later, a job at DuPont brought him to Toronto, where he opened his first establishment, the Boiler Room, in 1967. He found the skills he picked up operating the swingles club transferred well into running brick-and-mortar locations. However, Ontario’s strict liquor laws initially stymied Bramer’s efforts to create a true party atmosphere. In 1968, the Liquor License Board of Ontario required pubs to be split into two rooms: one for men, and one for men accompanied by a female escort. Conservative limits on the number of people per square foot prevented the “squeezed-in friendliness” of bars in other cities, drinks had to be served alongside food, and service ended at 11:30 sharp.

Those and other restrictions gradually eased under Ontario Premier John Robarts: In 1969, bar service was extended to 1:00 a.m. and in 1970 the rules around men and women drinking together in pubs were removed. In 1971, the drinking age was reduced from 21 to 18.

Bramer opened the 300-seat Coal Bin in January 1970 in a basement next to the Boiler Room. It was directly across the street from TD Centre, the headquarters of TD Bank, and a short walk from the office towers of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the Bank of Montreal, and the Bank of Nova Scotia. Playing on its low-ceilinged, downstairs location, the walls were painted charcoal grey and decorated with pickaxes, shovels, and large pictures of sooty miners. The waitresses walked around in hard hats serving 10-cent glasses of beer. Pitchers were a $1. It was an immediate success. “The Coal Bin… is where you’ll find the kid from the mailroom and that new file clerk from the sales office,” wrote Toronto Star nightlife reporter Charles Oberdorf. Every night of the week the dance floor was packed with swinging young men and women.

It was such a phenomenon that it generated full-page stories in the city’s newspapers and in 1971 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation sent a TV reporter inside to explore. In the five-minute segment, the camera shows crowded tables strewn with beer glasses while the crowded dance floor twists to the sound of a rock band. “I think things are changing now,” 21-year-old Lorna McCaw told the CBC. “This is one of the first places in Toronto that I’ve ever come to that I find a girl can [meet men] and not feel ill at ease. It’s made for this purpose.”

Bramer’s Coal Bin was the one of the biggest, but there were others like it. There was Abbey Road on Queen Street, Malloney’s on Grenville Street, and Julie’s Bombay Bicycle Club in a converted mansion on Jarvis Street. ”Not long ago if a chick hitchhiked from here to Vancouver, the women on the block figured she was the next thing to a hooker,” said Gordon Wensley,  the 29-year-old manager of Abbey Road. “But not any more. The whole attitude has changed. It’s the same with stag girls in bars.”

Despite its success, the Coal Bin and the Boiler Room were forced to close after only a few years to make way for the new headquarters of the Royal Bank of Canada. However, in its short life, the Coal Bin made a lasting impact on the city’s nightlife culture. “I don’t want to sound like Marx or Trotsky, but it was a mini revolution that most people in the world wouldn’t read or write about,” says Bramer.

Later, he parlayed the popularity of the Coal Bin into a new bar, the Gasworks, then the Generator, and in 1986 Bramwe co-founded the Amsterdam Brewing Company, one of Toronto’s first brewpubs, which remains in business under different ownership.

“[Bramer has] become the master purveyor of the Playboy dream to the office-clerk crowd,” wrote journalist Marci McDonald in the Star in July 1972. “[The] peddler of hipness and happiness for the price of a 70-cent mug of beer.”

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Can a Light Rail Train Link a Divided City?

JERUSALEM­—If there’s a neutral zone for the residents of Jerusalem, it’s on rails. In a city where real estate is highly contested, where walls divide neighborhoods based on faith, and the clothes you wear are code for where you should be seen, the city’s modern light rail system––whether by virtue of peace or necessity––glides above the divide.

That’s why a team of Palestinians and Israelis from Mekudeshet, an arts and cultural initiative, are using the city’s public transit as a platform for documentary and observation. Every summer, the group stages a program of original light-rail-based tours called Dissolving Boundaries—“docu-theatrical journeys” designed to distance you a little from your personal paradigms.

Dissolving Boundaries is part cultural tour, part social activism. Run by the citywide festival and nonprofit Jerusalem Season of Culture, the tours last from five to seven hours, and are open to locals and tourists alike. Apart from the choice of day, time and language (Arabic, Hebrew, English, or trilingual), no itinerary or additional information is posted. The organizers only promise to bring participants to places in Jerusalem they didn’t know existed, from a rehabilitation center for people with disabilities to an ultra-Orthodox Jewish nightclub. There, they will encounter “boundary dissolvers”—Jerusalem residents who cannot be easily corralled into a box based on their dress or faith.

One sweltering Thursday afternoon in August, I joined up with a small Dissolving Boundaries tour group of locals and tourists at Mahane Yehuda market. There I met Karen Brunwasser, deputy director of Jerusalem Season of Culture. A small, sprightly woman dressed in a sleeveless top (“In Jerusalem, this is code that I’m liberal”), Brunwasser calls herself as a “weaver” for her ability to stitch the pieces of the Jerusalem experience together into a coherent whole.

As we walked through the market, Brunwasser pointed out the sights—an ex-army brothel turned into a bar, an Arab family from Iraq selling challah, a modern coffee shop with Jewish mothers drinking espresso and nursing their babies in the open air. Here, where many different cultures intersect, Brunwasser said, “I feel at home.”

Then we were handed a small black audio transmitters and headsets and instructed to wait for the light rail train to arrive. Under the shade, I stood with an assortment of fellow passengers—elderly locals with shopping bags, Orthodox men, IDF soldiers, tourists in t-shirts. In minutes, a sleek tram cut through the street: We all boarded; I pressed play, and my audio tour began.

Over my headset, I heard Brunwasser’s warm, friendly voice. “Try to imagine me as a friend who picked up the phone to call you, to help you make sense of something that’s been on your mind,” she said.

In a city full of contested spaces, Jerusalem’s light rail can function as a neutral ground. (Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

The 14-kilometer Red Line, which opened in 2011, makes a natural site for social activism. The train weaves through both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods, connecting Mount Herzl in the south to Pisgat Ze’ev in the east; the 140,000 passengers a day it carries are a cross-section of Jerusalem society. Indeed, the tracks on which the train lurches forward are themselves a boundary line: Part of the light rail’s route follows the seam that, before 1967, served as the border between Israel and Jordan—a “barricaded no man’s land,” in Brunwasser’s words.

On the audio tour, Brunwasser identified various Arab, Christian, and Jewish landmarks as the train passed: Damascus Gate, Paulus House, Zion Square. “It was here that I first fell in love with Jerusalem, as a 16-year-old, looking out at the square overflowing with young people, having fun with a freedom and an abandon that didn’t exist for teenagers in major American cities,” she told us over headphones as we rolled by the public plaza.

Interspersed with her comments were narrations from “boundary dissolvers” who had strong ties to the landmarks. One such character was Sarah Weil, a Northern Californian who found Judaism as a young adult, came out as lesbian at age 14, and then “went back in,” said Brunwasser, in order to confirm to the requirements of the faith with which she’d fallen in love. Weil recounted how she would march in Zion Square with a rainbow flag. “Cars honked at me, people shouted curses, called me a pervert, said I was repulsive,” Weil said over the headset. She explained that rabbis don’t allow such public discourse, so she must hold her own, and people from all religions and secular groups have come to the square to engage.

As the train entered East Jerusalem, where the majority of Palestinians—38 percent of Jerusalem’s residents—live, the sensation of crossing a border was palpable; the crowd started to thin, shop names morphed from Hebrew to Arabic.

At Beit Hanin, an Arab neighborhood and the site of Israeli-Palestinian clashes in 2014, the group was instructed to disembark to meet our next boundary dissolver, Riman Barakat, a Palestinian activist. As we followed Barakat along the separation wall of concrete, graffiti, and barbed wire that snakes around the territory, I noticed the jarring difference in the built environment. Where carefully landscaped gardens and fruit trees shade residents of West Jerusalem, buildings here are unfinished and naked, roads are pocked from potholes, and naked cables hang over streets.

Art displayed along the separation barrier in East Jerusalem. (Keshia Baldage/CityLab)

Barakat explained the contrast: Palestinians residents may pay taxes, but support for infrastructure on the city’s east side is sorely lacking, as there is no Palestinian representation in city government to push for it.

The conflict doesn’t just manifest in the form of buildings; it has also affected freedom of movement. When Israel assumed control over the predominantly Arab eastern half of Jerusalem from Jordan after the Six-Day War of 1967, the Israeli government expanded the borders of the city, annexing Palestinian villages and offering residents Israeli citizenship. Most Palestinians refused, Barakat said, believing that having citizenship would only legitimize Israeli occupation. “People are always surprised that we don’t have an Israeli passport,” she said. “We’re stuck in the middle. Paying taxes, but getting no support. Not being able to leave Israel, but not Israeli either.”

Barakat’s organization, Experience Palestine, puts together tours for Israeli lawmakers and students to hear the Palestinian narrative. She also works as the East Jerusalem director of Mekudeshet in a bid to make the citywide festival incorporate more Palestinian characters and experiences.

(Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)

Each Dissolving Boundaries tour features a unique cast of boundary-dissolving locals like Barakat. Other participants might meet Omer Schuster, who married a Muslim woman and follows Islamic rules, or artist Yotvat Freizen-Weil, who makes art for Syrian refugee camps. One of Brunwasser’s personal inspirations is boundary dissolver Nadav Schwartz, an Orthodox LBGTQ activist. “He’s a boundary dissolver who’s making change by staying in his community and holding a mirror up to it,” she said.

Organizing these tours is an ongoing challenge for Brunwasser and her team in a country where identity and faith are powerfully divisive forces. (Sample dilemma: Should the catered meals served on the tour be kosher or halal?) There have been difficult conversations, uncomfortable situations, and internal conflicts within Mekudeshet on how to engage more participants from all parts of the city. “We’re still trying to engage the ultra-Orthodox and Arab community,” Barakat said.

At the end of the day, though, Brunwasser said, “It’s Jerusalem. And you don’t want to give up, because it’s Jerusalem.”

This year, a new, loosely formed Dissolving Boundaries Institute plans to prepare similar tours aimed at nonprofit organizations, and it’s also planning to make the audio guides available to the public, so light-rail riders can take their own self-guided versions of the tour. The hope is that this model can be replicated outside of Jerusalem as well: While much about the city’s situation is unique, it’s certainly not the only place with starkly defined barriers between neighborhoods and communities.

“Jerusalem is facing the issues that so many parts of the world are facing now with respect to race, religion, segregation, and income inequality,” Barakat says. “We think that Jerusalem could be the blueprint for how to negotiate boundaries in the future.”  

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The Cities With the Most Singles

Cities are not just labor markets: They’re mating markets. Single people don’t just move to cities for jobs or amenities, but for access to potential mates. Back in 2007, National Geographic published its infamous “Singles Map,” which showed which cities and metros had more single men or single women. It did so with a broad brush, looking at all singles ages 20 to 64. But women outlive men and the odds can shift in favor over time. More than a decade later, has the singles scene—and the odds of meeting that special someone—changed?

With the help of my colleague Karen King, a demographer at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, we crunched the numbers for metros where men outnumber women and where women outnumber men, based on data from the 2017 American Community Survey. We looked into more than 380 metros and examined single adults—including those who have never been married, and those who are divorced, separated, or widowed. We looked at the broad ratio of single men to women for singles between 20 and 64 years of age. (We stopped at age 64 because the fact that women outlive men would badly skew the ratios.) Finally, we looked at ratios for three age groups: 20 to 34 years old, 35 to 44 years old, and 45 to 64 years old.

My CityLab colleague David Montgomery produced the graphics and maps. On the maps, the blue shading shows metros where there are more single men than women, and orange indicates metros where there are more single women than men.

In absolute numbers, heterosexual men have a considerable dating advantage in metros across the East Coast and South. New York City  has more than 200,000 more single women than men; Atlanta 95,000 more; Washington, D.C. 63,000 more; Philadelphia nearly 60,000 more. The pattern continues for Baltimore and Miami. Meanwhile, the opposite is true out West, where the absolute numbers favor heterosexual single women. San Diego has more than 50,000 more single men than women; Seattle has 46,000 more; San Jose has 37,000 more; Phoenix 32,000 more. The pattern is similar for Denver and San Francisco.

Source: American Community Survey (David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

But, these large numbers simply reflect the large size of these metros. The picture becomes more accurate when we look at the ratio of single women to men (we do so per 1,000 single men). As the map shows, orange indicates metros where there are more single women, mostly across the East Coast, down the coast into the South, and in parts of the Rust Belt. And note the blue areas on the map which show metros that are mostly male, especially prevalent out West.

Overall, more than 60 percent of metros (234 metros) lean male, and about a third (136) lean female. There are a dozen metros where the odds are more or less even.

Among large metros (with more than one million people), tech-driven San Jose has the smallest ratio of single women to men (868 per 1,000). But across all metros, the geography is more varied. Jacksonville, North Carolina; Hanford-Corcoran, California; The Villages, Florida (a retirement community); and the Watertown-Fort Drum, New York all have ratios of 500-600 single women to 1,000 single men.

The large metros that have more single women than men sit in the South: Memphis, Atlanta, and Birmingham all have slightly more than 1,100 single women to 1,000 single men. When we consider all metros, Southern metros still rank at the top, but the towns are much smaller. Places like Florence, South Carolina; Greenville, North Carolina; and Laredo, Texas are where single women outnumber single men by 1,200 to 1,000.

Source: American Community Survey (David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

The pattern becomes even more interesting when we chart the geography of singles in different age groups.

The map above charts the ratios for those 20 to 34 years old—key years for dating—searching for long-term partners, and starting a family. The map is a veritable sea of blue. Now, the odds favor of heterosexual single women almost everywhere across the country. The tides have quickly shifted in places like New York City: When considering all age groups, there are more single women—but when looking at just those 20 to 34, there are more single men. In fact, 95 percent of metros (362) across the country have more young single men than young single women.

There are only 13 metros across the entire country where the ratio of single women in the 20-to-34 age group exceeds that of men; and in just seven more they are roughly even. All of the metros where there are more young single women are small metros in the South, like Greenville, North Carolina; Florence, South Carolina; Macon-Bibb County, Georgia; Burlington, North Carolina; and Brunswick, Georgia, all of which have no more than 1,100 young single women for 1,000 young single men.  

Source: American Community Survey (David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

The odds start to change as we age. As the map above shows, the odds start to tilt back in favor of men when we look at singles between the ages of 35 and 44. In this age group, there are more single women in more than 40 percent of metros (164). Among large metros, Raleigh, Atlanta, and Birmingham are particularly attractive for heterosexual men, with between 1,100 and 1,200 single women to 1,000 single men. And there are more single men of this age group in just over half (54 percent) of metros (206). The large metros are San Jose, Seattle, and Las Vegas, which all have around 900 single women per 1,000 single men.

Source: American Community Survey (David H. Montgomery/CityLab)

The map for singles aged 45 to 64 shows the odds shifting sharply, simply because women tend to outlive men. The map is almost entirely orange: By this age, single men have the advantage in most metros across the country.

Across the nation, almost 90 percent of metros (340) are majority single women in this age group. In absolute numbers, New York City has more than 300,000 more single women than men between the ages of 45 and 64; Los Angeles has 140,000 or so; Chicago more than 90,000; and Washington, D.C., 85,000. There are just 37 metros across the entire country where there are more single men in this age group, and another five where the odds are more or less even.

The last graph summarizes the overall pattern. For young singles ages 20 to 34, there are more metros with more single men than women. But as we age, single life starts to skew more toward men. By ages 35 to 44, the odds for men and women across metros are essentially even. But, by the time we reach 45 to 64 years of age, many more metros have a greater share of single women than single men.

Of course, this analysis does not account for factors that often influence our mating life. We don’t know the sexual orientation of these singles—a huge factor—nor does our analysis account for education, race, or ethnicity; or those people who are in relationships but not yet married.

Still, our analysis and maps provide a broad look across the country where sheer the odds ratios favor single men or women—something that might just come in handy for those looking for love this Valentine’s Day.

CityLab editorial fellow Claire Tran contributed research and editorial assistance to this article.

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Our Algorithms are Biased

For almost a year, our team has been working on a toolkit to help readers navigate the nuanced, complicated conversations that surround algorithms and the data that they consume. The project came about after a small workshop held in the city of San Francisco in February of 2018. The conversation around data science and transparency for laypeople brought us to the idea that a new resource was needed to bridge the gap between data scientists and non-data scientists.

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