CityLab Daily: A Chance for Rail Diplomacy

Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter here.

***

What We’re Following

Peace train: As the U.S. prepares for talks with North Korea, nuclear weapons are getting all the headlines. But the key to lasting peace could be all about infrastructure. Last month, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in handed North Korea’s Kim Jong Un a plan to re-link their railways—and it’s pretty politically savvy. This olive branch, if it came to pass, would connect North Korea’s cities to the global economy, and maybe even be a precursor to a Trans-Eurasian train ride from Tokyo to London. With benefits for both countries and their neighbors, the plan could make President Donald Trump’s upcoming meeting with the isolated dictator a lot easier. Today on CityLab: Trains could be the real game-changer in the North Korea peace talks.

HBD, Jane: May the Fourth, Cinco De Mayo, the Kentucky Derby—whatever you’re celebrating this weekend, don’t forget the real urbanist holiday this May: It’s Jane Jacobs’ birthday! Here’s a present from the archives: CityLab’s Laura Bliss revisits Jacobs, in her own words.

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

What Arizona Teachers Are Still Fighting For

The six-day walkout of the state’s public school teachers wasn’t just about paychecks, says one Glendale teacher.

Sarah Holder

Critics Take Aim at Mexico City’s Wild New Airport

It will become the biggest airport in the Western Hemisphere by 2020. But not without overcoming some heavy turbulence.

Martín Echenique

Wakanda, New Davonhaime: The Yearning for a New Black City

A roving installation by artist Azikiwe Mohammed stops at the Contemporary African Art Fair in Brooklyn to offer a “safe space” for black bodies.

Teresa Mathew

How Gentrification Affected Philadelphia’s Homeowners

Tax delinquency rates rose with jumps in tax burdens, but relief programs for some owners helped mitigate the effect.

Tanvi Misra

In the Netflix Era, a Video Store Becomes a Cultural Asset

When streaming upended the industry, Seattle’s Scarecrow Video reimagined itself as a community hub and keeper of an archive that can’t be matched online.

Hallie Golden


Grow on Trees

Lyft announced last month that it will buy carbon offsets for its 2 million daily rides. That news yielded a curious chart from our colleagues over at Quartz: How many trees would need to be planted to offset different modes of transportation each year?

Biking and walking, of course, require no trees, but the numbers climb quickly after that. The case to be made about cars (using data supplied by Uber, mind you) is that single-occupancy vehicles are worse than carpooling. Just compare three people sharing a car (26 trees) to a single person driving their car all year (81 trees). But don’t be a deadhead: Ride hailing isn’t eco-friendly yet.


What We’re Reading

What kids and seniors understand about scooters (Curbed)

A third of European cities still don’t care about climate change (Quartz)

Should supply and demand determine the price for a fast commute? (Wall Street Journal)

The classic British pub is trying to survive challenging times (TIME)

How California’s housing crisis might lead to an economic one (Curbed)


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.

What Arizona Teachers Are Still Fighting For

Sarah Rittenhouse has taught English at Challenger Middle School in Glendale, Arizona, for seven years. She loves her students, she loves her community, and, at the end of the day, she loves her job. But she’s tired.

The building in which she works is crumbling. Teacher turnover is high. Class sizes are huge. Counselors are spread too thin to adequately address the trauma experienced by many of her students, who come from refugee populations and low-income neighborhoods.

Rittenhouse is also angry.

A statewide walkout of some 75,000 Arizona teachers, including Rittenhouse, ended on Thursday, after six days of closed schools and a 13-hour debate over the state budget. The educators were demanding many of the same things teachers from West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma have been seeking this year through protests of their own: higher pay, better benefits, and most of all, more funding for public schools. The deal Governor Doug Ducey struck promises teachers a 20 percent raise by 2020; he also agreed to allocate $138 million more in public school funding.

Teachers had said they’d end their walkout once the budget was finalized, and they followed through. As of Friday morning, they are back in their classrooms in most districts. “When we started this movement, Arizona educators pledged to keep fighting for the schools their students deserve until the end, and we were true to our word,” wrote Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas and National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García in a joint statement. “We will return to our schools, classrooms, and students knowing that we have achieved something truly historic.”

But their victory comes with a host of unresolved questions. The teacher wage raise doesn’t kick in until 2020, when Ducey may no longer be in office. The $138 million in increased school funding might result in a smaller pool of funding for other services like school support staff, who were not granted raises. Legislators failed to even come close to the $1 billion teachers asked for to fill the gaps opened by cuts. On Thursday evening, teachers held a rally at the state capitol, and are planning on releasing further action items in the coming days to let lawmakers know that their concerns are not going away.

Rittenhouse and her colleagues at the Arizona Senate on Wednesday night. (Courtesy of Sarah Rittenhouse)

Rittenhouse stayed in the Senate gallery until 3 a.m. Thursday. “When I awoke this morning to hear that none of our amendments passed (including smaller class sizes, smaller student-to-counselor ratios) but the Governor signed the deal he made with himself that is so woefully inadequate, I did not feel resigned as I had expected to,” she wrote in an email to CityLab on Thursday evening. “I felt, as many of my peers felt, fired up and ready to continue this fight. … [I]f our senators aren’t willing to do it, Arizona educators have shown that they are.”

On Wednesday, one day before the walk-out ended, CityLab spoke with Rittenhouse about what Arizona’s teachers are fighting for, and what’s next for public education in Arizona and beyond. Below is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Why did you go into teaching?

I was thinking about becoming a teacher even in high school. But my mother also became a teacher, and I watched her first couple of years teaching and just thought, who would be willing to do that much work for so little pay and so little appreciation? You have to be either insane or a saint or something to do this job. So in college I actually did not pursue teaching at all. The problem is that then, I started volunteering in my mother’s classroom, and I loved it. And I knew that I could be good at it.

Part of the reason I went into public school teaching specifically was because I had seen some of the ways that our public schools were struggling, and I wanted to be a part of the solution. I know our governor talks a lot about school choice, but my kids can’t choose where they go to school. Most of my students speak English as a second language. We have a pretty high refugee population, and our population is also very highly transitory: In any given year, about a third of our students leave and are replaced between August and May. Even if they got a school voucher, that wouldn’t make enough of a difference in the price of private school.

Arizona teachers are paid some of the lowest wages in the country, ranked 43rd by the National Education Association. Budget cuts have slashed per-pupil funding by 37 percent between 2008 and 2015. But can you give us a sense of what conditions are like in your school?

In my seven years at Challenger Middle School we’ve just kind of been watching things crumble, literally.

My classroom has flooded three times. Our foundations are sinking: In some of the classrooms you can drop a tennis ball at the front of the room and it will roll to the other side. We’re seeing actual cracks in the wall.

We’ve had faulty air conditioning that has since been mostly fixed, but they’ve also had to restrict the amount of AC we can use. I have anywhere between 28 and 38 students in my room—more, sometimes. And they’re all 13 to 14 years old. So you can imagine that in the summer when it’s 110 outside and the kids come in and the AC doesn’t kick on until it’s 80-plus degrees in there, it can be pretty hot.

In 2016, we found out our school, which was built in the ‘80s, was deemed not structurally sound. The walls were no longer connected to the foundation, which meant that if there were a significant storm or something the walls could literally cave in on our kids. And so it was obviously upsetting and unprecedented. It was unsafe for students and staff to be in the building, the administration told us, and the school was closed immediately.

All the teachers got an hour to pack up their things, and were gradually distributed into other campuses, other districts, and other buildings. Some students sat on the floor or on folding chairs in the new classrooms; some used clipboards as desks. They’d have to wait for all the other students in the district to get bused to school before a second round came back for them, and they’d get home even later. That went on for about a month.

And so when you ask me what the situation is for our kids, that’s the physical situation, right? My kids—kids that already have the odds stacked against them—are literally having their education displaced in that way.

But their education is also displaced in many other ways. We have extremely high teacher turnover in our district and in our area. I haven’t been teaching for even a decade, and already the faculty has turned over about four times. When my kids come back to visit they’re like, “Oh my gosh, you’re still here. You’re the only one left.”

That’s partly because it’s a very challenging population—our kids come with a lot of trauma to school—and teachers don’t have a lot of support. Teachers are largely underprepared; sometimes they’re coming in cold from programs like Teach for America, and have no teaching background.

Rittenhouse’s classroom has flooded three times. Here, the remnants of a September 2014 flood leave their mark. (Courtesy of Sarah Rittenhouse).

But it’s also so much because of the lack of compensation. I know teachers with master’s degrees who get paid $750 per paycheck. I know teachers who are single parents who are trying to make ends meet by taking second or third jobs. I know multiple teachers who have gone multiple Arizona summers without air conditioning in their cars because they can’t afford to fix them.

Still, we look out for each other. When teachers’ cars break down, a coworker’s mechanic husband sometimes fixes them for free. Once, when teachers were freaking out on payday because they didn’t have enough money to pay for rent and childcare and groceries, other teachers went out and purchased groceries for them. We all try so hard not to take days off, because if I do, I only get a sub maybe half the time. So I’m leaving my co-teachers to teach for longer periods with 40 to 45 kids in the room.

But it’s just gotten to the point where we’re so barebones that we’re just completely exhausted—you’re working multiple jobs, and you’re putting 60 hours a week in with your kids, and you’re living with a roommate or depending on your parents.

It’s not just that people leave. It’s terrifying that people are retiring faster than they’re coming into the profession. We posted for an art teacher this year, and we still don’t have one. We posted for an 8th-grade teacher, and in seven months, only one person had applied. And when you can’t just fill positions, the burden increases on all the other teachers, and you end up with much larger class sizes.

I feel guilty when I convince someone to stay another year or even when I’m hiring people. The most incredible teacher started at our school this year, but she’s a single mom and I am so worried. I asked her, “Are you sure you know what you’re getting into?”

To me, that’s part of the devastation: You see these teachers leave who love our kids and our community. They’re absolutely incredible at what they do. And they leave, because they cannot continue to choose their students over their families.

Why have those who have stayed, stayed?

So many of us feel like this is our calling and that, regardless of what our legislature is doing, regardless of what the governor’s doing, our kids are still sitting in our classrooms and they still need us.

It’s hard to turn away from that need. I spend at least $1,000 on my classroom every single year of my own money, and I’ve applied for between 10 and 15 grants a year for my kids to afford new technology and books.

Kids are kids no matter where they go to school, and it’s not OK that my kid in Glendale at a Title 1 school cannot be getting the same opportunities, and the same technology, and the same curriculum, and the same level of support from their teachers because they’re in that school or in this state.

I believe in my kids. I see what they are able to do when the odds are so stacked against them—and I’m so angry that they are this stacked against them because they don’t have to be. Why is it that public education is another thing that we’re shortchanging them on?

Critics of the these recent teacher strikes have framed them as politically motivated attacks on Republican-led states, or as demands solely for bigger paychecks. But you’re talking more about the actual conditions on the ground in your schools. Do you think teachers’ motivations have been fairly characterized?

I think for us the frustration is that the governor has tried to twist this into the narrative that it’s about teacher pay and that’s it. And I can tell you that there are not very many teachers who would have caused this disruption and engaged in this level of civil disobedience if it was just about teacher pay. We have been dealing with this for more than 10 years. We have already been living paycheck-to-paycheck and struggling and buying things for our kids out of our own money. We’re here now because our buildings are really crumbling, because our kids are not getting a fair chance at success. In a school like mine, we should have more resources than anywhere else.

The governor has also been saying that this is just a political thing. But I feel like he’s made it even more political because of his refusal to speak with teachers and the rhetoric of all this. Governor Ducey can come to my classroom and sit there with my 15 kids who are still trying to learn English while the other 13 kids are learning how to write a five-paragraph essay. Have him spend one day as a teacher in my classroom and then look me in the face and say that this is political.

We are here to advocate for our children; we don’t want him to give us a raise only to have our buildings further crumble or to not have money for our support staff that are so essential, or for counselors or for our school resource officers. That doesn’t solve anything.

By granting increases in flex funding, he’s putting the pressure on the districts to determine whether they need to repair our schools and fix that AC and purchase this desperately needed technology, or do they pay their support staff. And that means that either way they fail. And the teacher raise that he’s talking about? It’s only for teachers that have a roster—so not our special education teacher who has been teaching in our district for almost at 25 years. Not the art teacher. Not the counselor who sees 700 students, all alone. I could keep going.

If you could talk directly to the governor, what would you say to him?

I think the biggest thing that we’re trying to communicate is you’re not fooling us: You’re not doing right by our kids. There’s a difference between doing what is right and doing what is easy and you right now are choosing easy. You are trying to brush this under the carpet in your election year. You’re trying to save face and you’re trying to get this done as quickly as you can.

Thee fact of the matter is it’s not going to be easy. You’re not going find money out of nowhere. But I believe in this so strongly that I spend more than $1,000 of my money every year on kids who are not my own. I mean they are my students, but they’re not my blood.

And I do this every year because they matter and they’re our future. And so if I’m willing to spend a grand—which, by the way, is one of my paychecks after two master’s degrees—and I’m willing to do that, then figure out a way. Raise some taxes somewhere, or at the very least, stop cutting taxes. Find a new revenue source and really work at it, because I see my 150 faces in front of me as I’m walking out. And he has more than my 150 on his conscience.

How do you, as a teacher, also acknowledge the fact that walking out and closing the schools may only further disrupt your students’ lives?

I can tell you that our biggest concerns going into this was the impact on our kids, when 100 percent of our students get free breakfast and lunch. I know teachers who were calling up their spouses and families and neighbors and saying, “Here’s the situation—we need resources for our kids.” And so many people answered that call.

We had spouses that were going to Costco and getting bread and peanut butter and jelly to make PB&Js. And we had neighbors dropping off cases of chocolate milk and breakfast bars and things like that. We packed bagged lunches and handed them out at schools. We went out into a community apartment building where many of the refugee families of our students live. Groups of kids come up to us like it was Christmas morning because we had bags of food.

Another issue is that our classified staff—our staff that is hourly— can’t clock in if the district is closed. And they, of course, are also living paycheck-to-paycheck. I know some teachers who were buying gift cards or giving money and trying to give a little extra essentially out of their paycheck for their co-workers.

So the general mood on Wednesday [the day before the walkout started] was extremely heartbreaking and exhausting, because we thought that we weren’t doing right by our kids, or that they were going to suffer more than than they should because of this.

But a lot of us were at this point where we’ve been trying to do things through the correct channels. We’ve been putting up with stuff and making it work and making it work and seeing that that just isn’t doing anything—that our government isn’t listening. So the general feeling was: Our kids might have to struggle, or our community or families might have to struggle for a week, but if we can guarantee anything better than this, it will be worth it.

What happens next in Arizona, and in the rest of the country? Where does public education in America go from here?

I think it will be very hard to undo the progress this movement has inspired. Teachers have always had a voice—we’re very good at being loud. But I think now that we’ve built this statewide community, and we have seen that it’s such an issue across the board, I think it will be very hard for us to go back.

If there’s another rallying call, we’re going to rise to meet it. I hope never again to walk out, because this is absolutely insane and it’s so difficult for our communities. But depending on what happens in November, I think we’re going to see a lot of teachers get a lot more political.

I also want to say that I really believe in public education. I myself received a public education, and it was a really good one. I had some of the most remarkable teachers. And now, I teach with some of the most incredible people that you will ever meet.

A Genius Plan to Modernize North Korea’s Trains

When the North and South Korean leaders had their historic meeting in April, South Korean president Moon Jae-in told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that he would like to travel through North Korea to hike up Mt. Baekdu. In response, Kim made a surprising admission: he would be “embarrassed” to have Moon travel through North Korea, as “our transportation, honestly, would be uncomfortable.” Kim also noted how North Korea’s Olympians who participated in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics praised South Korea’s high-speed railroad.

That statement, going against the grain of the North Korean regime’s steadfast propaganda, was likely Kim’s signal that he wants to improve his country’s railways. Moon, for his part, handed Kim a thumb drive containing his plan to do just that. At the center of Moon’s “New Economic Map of the Korean Peninsula” is a railway modernization plan that’s much more than an infrastructure project. It’s a key piece in the geopolitical puzzle to connect North Korea to the world—and entice the regime to keep its promises. When it comes to the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s denuclearization always gets top billing. The international press barely noted the importance of the other points included in the Panmunjom Declaration for peace. But the agreement to re-link the railways between the two countries has the potential to be even more transformative than the promise of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

South Korea’s proposed economic map for the Korean Peninsula, showing the logistical flow through North Korea and how they would connect both countries to global trade patterns.

As a first step, the rail project outlined in the Panmunjom Declaration would connect the railway from Seoul to Pyongyang, passing through Kaeseong in the North. Ultimately, it would end in Shinuiju, North Korea, linking up at the border with Dandong, China. But the ultimate plan drawn up by the South Korean government is much more ambitious. It envisions an additional high-speed line from Seoul to Shinuiju via Pyongyang, along with the modernization of six other railways traversing North Korea. Currently the rails there are so decrepit that trains can only average 50 kilometers an hour, and the rails would break under heavy loads. Retrofitting would allow speeds of 100 kilometers an hour and enable heavier loads. The entire project is estimated to cost approximately US$35 billion.

South Korea’s proposal is a savvy one, crafted with geopolitical implications in mind. Most significantly, the plan would connect North Korea to China and Russia, allowing North Korea to ultimately become a crucial connector between East Asia and Europe. The Shinuiju-Dandong crossing is the hub of North Korea’s commerce with China; adding a high-speed train line would go a long way toward facilitating even more trade, in which South Korea could also participate. The renovated Manpo Line, connecting to Jian, China, would open another logistical connection between North Korea and China in addition to Dandong-Shinuiju. The improved Pyongra Line would connect to Russia’s Trans-Siberian Railroad, allowing overland freight transport from South Korea all the way to Europe, while giving Russia a piece of the action for North Korea’s economic development.

Taken together, these new connections raise the stakes that China and Russia have in North Korea—and that would incentivize them to ensure that North Korea remains stable and keeps the trains running. North Korea would share in these benefits, as its cities on these trade routes likely develop along the way. The Pyongra Line, for example, would connect South Korea’s two largest cities (Seoul and Busan) to North Korea’s third largest city (Chongjin) and its industrial zone with the highest GDP per capita (Rajin). A plan that boosts the economic power of these cities could have a welcome knock-on effect: reducing the influence of the dictatorial decision-makers in Pyongyang.

Of course, with anything concerning North Korea, grand hopes must be accompanied by maximal caution. North Korea is where the best-laid plans go to wither and die. A version of the inter-Korean railway plan has existed for a while; the two Koreas even had a test run for the rail link in May 2007, having two trains cross the demilitarized zone on two spots. Further development stalled, however, because of the overall deterioration of the relationship between the two nations.

Yet there are reasons to be cautiously optimistic this time around. For starters, both South and North Korea specifically want this project. It’s also consistent with what their neighboring countries want as well. China is raring to begin the One Belt One Road Initiative, a massive infrastructure project that would enhance the physical connection between Europe and Asia. The inter-Korean railway could serve as the eastern extension, creating the overland connection between South Korea and the prosperous Chinese cities across the Yellow Sea from the Korean Peninsula, including Beijing and Shanghai.

A stable inter-Korean railway may also motivate Japan to finally begin working on the Korea-Japan undersea tunnel, a project that had been under discussion since the 1980s. If built, it would be the longest undersea tunnel in the world, more than four times the length of the Channel Tunnel between France and the United Kingdom.  According to the South Korean government, the inter-Korean railway plan caught the attention of both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Asian Development Bank—respectively led by China and Japan, with many other member nations—indicating international support for the inter-Korean railway plan.

As wild as it sounds, we may see within our lifetime a Trans-Eurasian train ride from Tokyo to London—with a pit stop in Pyongyang for its delicious cold noodles.

How Gentrification Affected Philadelphia’s Homeowners

When a neighborhood gentrifies, and housing values go up, incumbent renters in that neighborhood are at risk of being priced out. We all know that story. But what’s the effect on homeowners?  

That is the question a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia seeks to answer. In it, authors Lei Ding and Jackelyn Hwang examine the effect of gentrification—defined here as “the influx of investment and higher-income households in previously low-income neighborhoods”—on the property tax burdens of homeowners, particularly low-income ones.

As housing prices rise, so could the tax burdens of these residents.  The authors were curious about whether that resulted in a higher rate of tax delinquencies. If so, were vulnerable homeowners being forced to sell their homes or face foreclosure? And did protections for some populations that Philadelphia instituted with the tax increases make a difference?

Philadelphia is a unique case in which to study these questions. In 2013, the city made a sweeping overhaul of its property tax system after criticism that the previous system was based on assessments that were lower than many homes’ market value. The new taxes, through the Actual Value Initiative (AVI), went into effect in 2014 and were derived from what the property assessment office  considered to be the actual market value of the properties. That meant that many homeowners who had been seeing only their housing values rise as their neighborhood gentrified, also saw a sharp rise in property taxes in 2014.

This created circumstances ripe for a natural experiment, the study authors say: By comparing delinquency rates and residential mobility of homeowners in gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods before and after 2014, the researchers could isolate the effects of these tax hikes.

Their top line finding: the more intense the gentrification, the higher the likelihood of delinquency. Generally, gentrifying neighborhoods in Philadelphia saw a 4.2 percentage point increase in their tax delinquency rate after the property tax overhaul. The ones undergoing the most intense gentrification saw up to a 5.4 percent point increase. Still, the researchers did not see elderly or low-income homeowners selling off their homes and leaving as a result. In fact, the elderly in gentrifying neighborhoods were actually less likely to move, per the study.

One reason, they found, was that the demand for homes in these areas had been dampened by the sharp increases in property taxes, so even if some people were willing to sell, not many were buying. The other reason—perhaps more pertinent to other cities hoping to safeguard homeowners in gentrifying areas—Philadelphia put into place safety nets to ease the tax burden for eligible homeowners in gentrifying areas. However, not all homeowners who qualified applied for these relief programs. That means while property assessments generally increased, not everyone paid the same amount of taxes.

This study found that the city’s Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP) was pretty effective in providing relief. LOOP is a tax abatement initiative started post-AVI for those below a certain income threshold who have lived in their homes for 10 years or more, and experienced at least a three-fold increase in assessed home values within a year. It decreased delinquency rates for homeowners who ended up claiming it in gentrifying neighborhoods.

“By freezing or lowering tax amounts, programs that provide greater relief for long-term residents lower the delinquency risk for homeowners,” the authors of the Philly Fed study write. Philly seems to have realized the necessity of continuing measures like this: A recent amendment passed by the city council lifts the expiration date on this benefit—previously, 10 years—for eligible low-income applicants. The city also recently passed a tax foreclosure diversion bill, so that Philadelphians who are unable to pay their property taxes can defer or come to another arrangement with the city.

Yet the city is still fine-tuning its measuring of actual market value, and has been adjusting resident’s tax bills even after the initial 2014 increases. Not surprisingly, the city has received a record number of appeals, which means people are probably not paying while they contest their assessments. So the high jump in delinquency rates may be the by-product of that and thus a temporary distortion.

The study acknowledges that other factors might come into play and potentially worsen delinquency rates in the long term, eventually succeeding in squeezing homeowners out. But if that happens, tax abatement safety nets like the ones Philly has in place may still be the right answer.

In the Netflix Era, a Video Store Lives On as a Cultural Asset

Four years ago, the owners of Scarecrow Video brought all their staff members together to deliver some bad news. Like video stores across the country, the business was struggling. Its rentals and purchases had decreased dramatically as customers flocked to online streaming services. The owners were writing their own checks just to keep the business running, but they couldn’t do it anymore. It looked like they might have to part with their collection of over 130,000 videos—one of the largest publicly available video archives on earth.

For the staff, the news was devastating. The business had grown from a few hundred tapes in the back of a record store in 1988 into a Seattle icon, or a “movie Mecca,” as one customer called it. In fact, just in the last 15 years, its titles had doubled. “If this collection gets broken up or sold off, a lot of stuff’s going to vanish. It’s going to go into the pockets of collectors. It’s going to wind up in a library basement somewhere,” said Matt Lynch, Scarecrow Video’s marketing coordinator. “We wanted to make sure that it stayed available to people.”

So the staff came together to pitch their own proposal. The idea was simple: They would keep the collection together, in the same space and open to the public, but transform the business into a nonprofit. After some back and forth over details, the owners agreed to donate everything in the store—the films and the shelves they were stored on—to Scarecrow Video, the nonprofit.

The result is something like a museum mixed with a video store. A team of 20 volunteers devotes hours each week to collect movie returns and restock the shelves. Most evenings, they hold one of their many community outreach programs for the public, such as the Children’s Hour, an event with the public library across the street that features a series of stories, videos, and activities for kids that center on a specific theme.

(Hallie Golden/CityLab)

And Scarecrow’s work as a nonprofit has helped to highlight just what could be lost if movie stores were swept away in favor of more convenient technology. Its collection includes films dating back to 1893, representing 129 countries and more than 126 languages. “These are our cultural assets,” said Kate Barr, president of Scarecrow Video. To put in perspective just how many titles they have, consider the fact that the total number of titles available on Netflix and Amazon only total about one-fifth of Scarecrow’s collection.

“It’s a movie-lovers’ paradise,” said Alex Williams, 48, who worked at the store from 1998 to 2000, and said he has shopped there at least once a week ever since. “Pretty much anything you can think of, they have. And that’s not true online.”

It has become increasingly apparent over the past decade that movie businesses can’t compete with the offerings, instant gratification, and automated recommendations of online streaming services. “It would be an understatement to say brick-and-mortar stores are in a state of decline,” said Brett Danaher, assistant professor of Economics and Management Science at Chapman University. The shops that have survived tend to be in remote regions without reliable internet or mail (Blockbuster is still alive in Alaska), serve a community of aging or non-digitally savvy people, or be frequented by customers who patron the shops because of their novelty.

Scarecrow has taken a different path. It exchanged its for-profit business for 501(c)(3) status to keep its diverse collection together and available to the public, leaving it reliant on both rental revenue and support from people all over the world who—whether they’ve been to the store or not—want to see the collection preserved.

Four years later, Scarecrow Video hasn’t just survived, it’s done quite well. It took the staff less than a week to raise the $100,000 they needed to get the nonprofit off the ground, with donations coming from as far away as Australia, Japan, and Bulgaria. And each year when they ask for more money, they’ve been able to get it from a band of loyal patrons.

“People who love movies, whether they’re cinefiles on the one end or just regular old movie lovers, I think people had that feeling of, ‘I want this place to be there when I’m ready to come to it; when I need it,’” Barr said. In honor of the store’s 30th anniversary, the organization just launched a new fundraising campaign on GoFundMe. It’s working to raise $100,000 “to lay the foundation for our next 30 years,” according to its website.

(Hallie Golden/CityLab)

But while this format seems to be working for Scarecrow, the chances of it being some kind of business-saving blueprint for movie stores across the country is unlikely. “You don’t need nearly as many museums as you do stores selling the products when there was actually a lot of demand for them,” Danaher said.

There are other groups that have launched smaller nonprofit video stores in recent years in the U.S., including Facets, in Chicago, and a group in Baltimore plans to open Beyond Video in the spring. But some of these nonprofit ventures have already had to close shop, including Video Fan, in Virginia, and Vidiots, in Los Angeles, which is working to re-open in a new location with cheaper operation costs.

The transition to becoming a nonprofit was not as simple as filing a collection of government paperwork, Barr said. They actually had to re-educate the public about what they were. “There is no precedent in our culture to say, ‘Well this type of video collection is a nonprofit, but this type is a for-profit business,’” she said.

That harsh reality set in when they submitted an application for a grant with Washington’s King County. When Scarecrow didn’t get it, they requested feedback from the peer panel that reviewed the application. They discovered an array of reviewers confused about how Scarecrow Video was able to apply when they’re a “video store.”

The re-education process is slow and cumbersome. And while they’ve made some progress, there’s still more to do. But many in the community are supporting them along the way. In fact, last year, Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold and Director of the Office of Film and Music, Kate Becker wrote a guest editorial in a local paper about why Scarecrow Video is a Seattle icon.

“No other city in America can boast having such a unique and important collection fully accessible to their residents,” they wrote. “They are truly caretakers of our shared culture, history, and film arts, and undeniably a Seattle institution.”

Operationalizing Racial Equity & Inclusion: Shifting Systems of Power

We recently released a report titled “What Does it Take to Embed a Racial Equity & Inclusion Lens?” that captures themes from internal interviews, a field scan, and learnings from our grantmaking and investments in cities across the country. In the third piece in this four-part series, we share the next three themes that emerged from our research. To read the previous post, click here


8. Addressing systemic racism requires talking about white supremacy and white institutional culture.

White supremacy is not just about Nazis marching with tiki torches. It is a force that is engrained in our culture and operating modes. Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. Paying attention to how white supremacy manifests in our lives helps us to push against it.
The characteristics of white supremacist culture listed in this document are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture.

Our Recommendations:

Engage in an honest, facilitated, conversation about how white supremacy culture currently manifests at Living Cities and potential antidotes.
Develop/refine/continuously revisit and lift up our working norms with a racial equity and inclusion lens.
Ensure that senior leadership receive coaching such that they can consider how to counter white supremacy culture in their work.

Tools and Resources:

9. To talk about race, we have to talk about inherent power dynamics.

In America, we often talk about racism in a hate vs. love frame, but if we are truly to address racial inequity, we must understand it in terms of power. This is necessary because racism is, at its core, a tool to establish and maintain power structures that are centered around whiteness. When we don’t talk about power and power dynamics at all levels (interpersonal, institutional, and systemic), we perpetuate inequity.

Our Recommendations:

Take truthful stock of power dynamics within our own institution: Start paying attention to who speaks at meetings, in conversations, etc. What are the racial and in some cases gender dynamics? How is the idea of “appropriateness” used; and when and by whom? How do people disengage from conversations about race? Who is disengaging? How does that disengagement relate to power?

Consider power dynamics in our work: Do community members and people of color have decision-making control in efforts we support? What are the narratives we use to explain why or why not? How are these narratives related to power?
Use a power analysis in our communications about racial equity and in our programmatic work.

Tools and Resources:

10. We cannot advance racial equity until we focus on anti-black racism and intersectionality.

“Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates

It is important for those working on economic inequality and other social issues to focus on anti-Black racism because it is the root cause for the inequity we see today. Indeed, it is clear that we will not achieve economic equity for all people without addressing it. In other words, in America, Anti-Black racism is the foundational architecture for the strategies, tactics, tools, and cultural worldviews that created and maintain racial oppression, repression, and exclusion. It is also true that these same strategies, tactics, tools, and cultural worldviews are being used against other communities, including Latinx communities, Asian and Pacific Islander communities, LGBTQ communities, and women. So, it is important to start with an understanding of anti-Blackness, and to then apply an intersectional analysis and lens to ensure that the unique experiences of other communities, and of individuals all of us whom necessarily sit at the intersection of ,multiple identities, are not being erased.

Our Recommendations:

Include in its racial equity and inclusion learning curriculum, readings, speakers, and media about why considering anti-Black racism is fundamental to achieving racial equity and inclusion, and about intersectionality.
Engage in conversation with our sites, such as New Orleans, San Francisco and Baltimore, that are centering anti-Black racism in their work to understand what that looks like in local efforts.
Invest in Black-led social change efforts and partner with Black-led organizations.

Tools and Resources:

[[big-button “Read the Full Racial Equity & Inclusion Report” “https://www.livingcities.org/resources/342-report-what-does-it-take-to-embed-a-racial-equity-inclusion-lens”]]


All artwork from this series comes from CultureStrike’s”Until We Are All Free“ project.

Supporting Affordable Residential Access to Community Solar in Minnesota

In April, ILSR submitted comments in support of affordable residential access to community solar for review by Minnesota’s Public Utilities Commission. These comments concerned a proposed residential adder framework outlined as part of the state’s community solar program and Minnesota Department of Commerce Value of Solar calculation. We argue that, in a recent analysis submitted to the Commission by Xcel Energy, the utility exaggerated costs likely to be incurred under this new framework. Our comments support those made by allies such as Cooperative Energy Futures and advocate for adder calculations that ensure financeability and broad participation among residential subscribers to the state’s community solar program.… Read More

The post Supporting Affordable Residential Access to Community Solar in Minnesota appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.