Update: PPP Loan Data Continues to Show that Big Bank Consolidation has Hampered Small Business Relief

After Congress authorized a second round of PPP funding in May, news stories suggested that the big banks, like JP Morgan Chase and Bank of America, were picking up the pace and catching up to small banks. Yet data on total PPP lending through June 6 continue to show that a greater presence of big banks in a state correlates with fewer relief loans made to small businesses.… Read More

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Can Land Banks Get Us Out of This Mess?

The Great Recession of 2008 tore through small towns and industrial cities, leaving lasting damage throughout the Great Lakes region and other legacy cities. The devastation of the foreclosure crisis can still be felt in the form of hypervacancy and underwater mortgages, an inversion of the affordability crisis as it plays out on the coasts.

The Covid-19 recession may very well be broader. Already, small businesses and other commercial properties are feeling tremendous pressure, while the pandemic’s toll on homeowners is still unclear. Even though the driver of this economic downturn is much different from the last one, some lawmakers are betting that one of the tools that took off in the wake of the foreclosure crisis can be expanded to protect towns and cities from the havoc that the pandemic-fueled economic downtown stands to wreak.

That tool is land banking — a process for local governments to manage properties that are vacant, abandoned or foreclosed. Land banks are quasi-public agencies that are entitled to acquire and maintain distressed properties and return them to productive use. A new bill before Congress, the National Land Bank Network Act, would both expand and fortify the nation’s network of land banks in hopes of establishing the infrastructure for dealing with the fallout of the pandemic before it happens.

Supporters of the concept say that land banking could be an answer to two major crises playing out right now. Cities and counties that can marshal their vacant properties stand to avoid the permanent scars of the recession. They can also rebuild their communities fairly to benefit disadvantaged groups — and prevent the pandemic from exacerbating the social inequalities that helped set off the current wave of nationwide protests for racial justice.

“If you can’t control your landscape, you can’t control your future,” says Michigan Representative Dan Kildee, who introduced the National Land Bank Network Act on June 4.

Kildee has devoted much of his career to the issues of land use and disrepair. He founded the Genesee County Land Bank, the first of its kind, in 2002 to serve Flint, Michigan. Kildee, a Democrat, partnered on the new bill with Georgia Representative Drew Ferguson, a Republican; both congressmen serve as the chief deputy whip for their respective House conferences. The bipartisan backing for the bill reflects the fact that the economic fallout from the pandemic is unlikely to fall along neat partisan or geographic lines.

“This isn’t just going to be for the Ohios and Michigans and Illinoises of the world,” says Akilah Watkins-Butler, the president and CEO of the Center for Community Progress, a nonprofit devoted to property revitalization. “We may start to see land banking pop up in places like Miami or Houston.”

Such booming cities might not typically be associated with the kind of concentrated poverty and dilapidated homes that former industrial cities like Flint struggle with. But the coronavirus could deliver a punishing blow to once-thriving retail and restaurant districts, leading to fears of a longer-term slide into “blight” — a disputed term (similar to “Rust Belt) for vacant properties and their associated neighborhood disorder. Land banks can help arrest this physical deterioration of communities and property values. For little or no cost, land banks acquire abandoned properties with cloudy titles or steep back taxes, and hold them tax-free; then they can then lease or sell these properties, usually with an eye toward what a community needs rather than what the market will bear.

All told, there are some 200 land banks across 15 states. In four states — Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, and New York — local jurisdictions do enough land banking to support a state-level operation. In Flint, the Genesee County Land Bank has lured more than $100 million in economic development to the community through the redevelopment of thousands of homes. In under a decade, New York’s land banks have secured about $120 million in grants and private investment to address thousands of so-called “problem properties.”

If the number of communities that struggle with problem properties is likely to balloon, then the network of land banks should grow, too. That’s the thinking behind Kildee’s bill, which would authorize a modest $10 million to build out the national infrastructure (to be administered by a nonprofit group) and to fund grants for existing land banks. The bill also includes $5 million in annual funding to support the network.

The idea is to build out the network now, before the pandemic adds substantially to the nation’s afflicted inventory. A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Harvard Business School, and Harvard University found that more  than 100,000 U.S businesses had shuttered by early May, about 2% of all small businesses in the U.S. The numbers could get much bleaker: An April survey from Main Street America found that nearly 7.5 million small businesses are at risk of closing over the next few months.

Communities that can identify where property values are sliding and then take action can intervene before the bottom falls out. A tool that helps cities acquire land during a downturn can also help them to plan for longer-term community needs, like affordable housing. It’s not just Covid-19 that has leaders turning to land banks, either.

“We can’t forget that in light of what’s happening with Covid and what’s happening with the uprisings in American cities, we are also entering hurricane season, too,” Watkins-Butler says. “Another way that cities get inundated with vacant and dilapidated properties is through natural disasters. We’re on target to face one of our most turbulent hurricane seasons.”

Leaders such as Kildee and Ferguson hope that a national network of land banks can play a more preventative role in the response to this recession. Commercial and industrial properties look to be especially hard hit in this crisis, but residential properties could be in for another round of destabilization, too, if mortgage forbearance and other mitigation strategies aren’t enough to stave off a wave of mass foreclosures. Land banks could rescue these properties before they fall into disrepair — or in more prosperous communities, land banks could keep properties from falling into the hands of investors who are content to sit on them.

“Local officials are very wary of taking this on. This is why the network is so important,” Kildee says. “They are reluctant to form land banks because they don’t want to own property. But the fact is, they own the problem, whether they own the property or not.”

Most land banks came about as a response to rather dire emergency conditions. Because land banks played such a responsive role in the last crisis, they were not necessarily in the position always to think about race or historical patterns of land use. That’s not to say that land banks didn’t consider these factors, Watkins-Butler says, but just getting them up and running was a big lift. With some of the legal and technical challenges behind them, now land banks can foreground race and class as factors in community development.

The National Land Bank Network Act will help that effort, she says, by standardizing some of the work that land banks do. The bill is a boost to both the “tactical” and “visionary” challenges associated with distressed properties — “especially in communities historically left behind, disenfranchised, and racialized out of opportunities.”

The proposed legislation has already won the endorsement of a number of organizations who work in communities that suffer from hypervacancy, including the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, Habitat for Humanity International, and all four state-level land bank authorities. Kildee says that he and cosponsor Ferguson have seen how effective land banking can be, up close: Both are former mayors, of Flint and West Point, Georgia, respectively.

“It’s not just Dayton or Youngstown or Flint,” Kildee says. “It’s also really small places that are struggling due to changes in the economy. This set of tools is really intended to give those communities a fighting chance to at least control their own destiny.”

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Urban Living Might Just Survive Coronavirus

“How will cities survive the coronavirus?” a New York Times opinion writer recently asked. “Can New York avoid a coronavirus exodus?” the Financial Times chimed in. Since the beginning of the pandemic, many have predicted the demise of U.S. urban living — where physical proximity is the norm, social distancing complex, and lockdowns in sometimes cramped apartments decidedly uncomfortable.

A new report by City Observatory researcher Joe Cortright, made available as an interactive dashboard, suggests that such hand-wringing may be premature. Searches for urban properties on real estate website Zillow increased in 29 of the 35 largest U.S. metropolitan markets in April, compared with April of last year. Data from another website, Apartment List, show that more people were looking to live in New York City during that same month, the darkest one in terms of lives lost in New York, and much of the northeastern U.S.

”The broadest base, real-time indicator of what people are looking at indicates that they haven’t turned away from cities,” Cortright said, cautioning that the urban exodus some are predicting could still come to pass. “We’ll have a definite answer to this question several years from now,” when new census numbers are available, he said.

For the past two decades, cities have held increasing appeal to well-educated young adults, whom Cortright calls the “young and restless” in his research. They are between the ages of 25 and 34, have at least a bachelor’s degree, and are most likely to move across state lines. Not only are they the powerhouse of the U.S. economy, he writes, but they have increasingly become fans of city life.

“We found that 25-to-34-year-old college graduates were among the most likely to move of any demographic group, and that they were systematically moving toward some places and away from others,” states to the report, Youth Movement: America’s Accelerating Urban Renaissance. “To an apparently unprecedented degree, those moves seemed to be motivated by a desire for urban living.”

In the 52 largest U.S. urban centers, the population of well-educated young adults has increased by 32% since 2010, in close-in neighborhoods — within three miles of a central business district. The rate of growth in four out of five of those cities accelerated faster than during the previous decade, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

Cortright timed the release of the report to a moment when many have reported a flight from major cities during the pandemic. While some wealthier neighborhoods in New York City temporarily emptied out as the coronavirus swept into the city, Cortright predicts that pattern is unlikely to hold. He cited the resurgence in urban living that followed previous calamities, like the Spanish flu of 1918 and the 9/11 attacks.

“Cities adapt in ways that can make them better or stronger,” Cortright said. “I don’t think this challenge is different from the ones we’ve faced before. It’s the sort of thing that cities evolve and adapt to.”

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3 Ways Communities Can Bond with Residents in the Age of Covid & Beyond

there is a risk of further widening the gap between so-called ‘knowledge workers’ able to do their jobs remotely and afford to move, and those with place-based employment who cannot. Beyond that, retreating residents might take the very identity and uniqueness of the places they abandon with them.

Nurturing the community-resident bond could be an antidote to these dismaying departures, and new research sheds light on how. A recent report by the Urban Institute and commissioned by the Knight Foundation surveyed 11,000 residents of 26 U.S. metro areas to uncover what amenities created a “sense of attachment and connection to their city or community.” Three key recommendations emerged in Smart Cities Dive’s synopsis of the results:

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Breath & Body Work as Anti-Racism Practice

In reflecting on the power of breath work and body work as anti-racism practice, Living Cities staff member Lethy Liriano said, “I think that bringing meditation to white institutional cultures is a great step towards humanizing work spaces (which are microcosms of our society). Connecting to feelings and humanity is often considered unprofessional in the work environment, so modeling a connection to self during meetings begins to shift that belief and the culture of numbing staff (especially staff of color) emotions, experiences, and quite frankly, expertise. Breathing and meditation is a tangible manifestation of bringing the full person into the space. As folks are thinking about what actions they can take to support the Movement for Black Lives or the current racialized climate in our nation and globally, lifting up this practice in the work space can support those who historically have only experienced white institutional culture to reflect inwardly and deepen their own humanity, which can impact how they show up in the world, within and outside of the work space.

“Breathing collectively, normalizing this practice as an organization, and incorporating movement, art, or meditation, begin to affirm a practice alive and well outside of white institutions. In spaces where agendas, data, deadlines, and ‘professional’ distancing of humanity from the work environment are the norm, incorporating a connection to heart/spirit, and doing that collectively, begins to open a space for reimagination of what the work culture can include. It also acknowledges that staff across identity groups can experience feelings, acknowledge humanity, and connect in different ways. White people often lose culture and humanity in our racist system, and this connection can help them to heal and approach the work with more compassion and solidarity. It can also help Black people show up as more of their full selves in spaces where they have historically had to assimilate and navigate microaggressions to succeed, and not acknowledge the injustice, trauma, and grief they often hold simply because of their skin color at work and in the world.”

Our CORE (“Colleagues Operationalizing Racial Equity”) team couldn’t have said it better. This is why, when we made an intention to share how breath and body work have been incorporated into our racial equity practice, we made a decision to let our staff speak for themselves. Here are the testimonies of Living Cities staff in how this work has impacted them.

Cities

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Londoners Have Become Afraid of Public Transit

Seventy percent of Londoners no longer feel comfortable with the idea of commuting to work via public transport. So says a poll released this week, which also found that 35% of the surveyed U.K. residents said that going back to a traditional office environment would have a negative impact on their mental health.

The poll was compiled by the accountancy and consultancy firm Theta Financial Reporting, which surveyed 2,000 adults online last weekend. It’s a small sample of the city’s workforce, but it lays bare the concerns and anxieties many city-dwellers are feeling as they contemplate a return to pre-pandemic routines.

Right now, London is, with the rest of Britain, tentatively emerging from lockdown. Shops open on June 15, when schoolchildren between the ages of 14 and 18 will also start receiving some part-time in-person teaching again. Zoos and safari parks, of all places, are reopening, while socially distanced outdoor gatherings will be allowed for groups of up to six people. As some familiar patterns return, so are fears about crossing paths with contagion. But are those worries underpinned by actual risks in places such as the public transit network?

It’s still too early to provide a definitive answer. Figures for May from Japan and France found no coronavirus clusters emerging on public transit in those countries — although this result could reflect less a total absence of transmissions than the difficulty of linking multiple cases to transmission taking place in a particular vehicle at a specific time. The path the virus has taken in London, however, has created some alarming death rates among the city’s public transit workers: So far, at least 37 Transport for London employees have died from Covid-19, with 28 of those fatalities occurring among bus drivers.

At this stage it’s not possible to confirm precisely when and how these workers were infected, but the government’s initial failure to provide adequate PPE was likely a factor. Bus drivers may have especially high rates of illness because they come into close proximity with passengers on London’s front-boarding buses (and work in some vehicle models that are notorious for their poor ventilation). Across all transit modes on the network, mask-wearing by passengers has been patchy — perhaps understandably so, given that it only becomes compulsory across the U.K. on public transit on June 15.

On London’s trains, ventilation quality varies considerably across the network, as the map in the tweet below clarifies. The surface-level Overground network of trains feature doors that open to above-ground stations, so there is likely a good level of air exchange. London’s four “sub-surface” lines, created by cut-and-cover methods just beneath the path of pre-existing streets, also have airier single cars, plus tunnels wide enough to accommodate full air conditioning systems. Lines on the so-called “Deep Tube”— excavated far below surface level — are another story: Their tunnels are too narrow to be air conditioned, and have generally poor air circulation on platforms too.

This still doesn’t automatically mean London’s public transit poses a high coronavirius transmission risk for passengers. Unlike drivers, riders aren’t seated in the same vehicle for hours on end as a huge volume of potentially infected people file by. Indeed, French and Japanese public health data suggests — without explicitly confirming — that enclosed spaces such as health facilities, offices or bars, where people remain in close contact for hours at a time, often speaking, offer conditions far more conducive to contagion-spreading than vehicles in which people remain only for short periods, observe some social distancing and talk little.

But places such as London’s Tube still feel deeply unsafe for many Londoners, especially those with fresh memories of being packed tightly into rush-hour cars full of commuters every morning. In a sense, the coronavirus anxiety that lingers over public transit use is an extension of the broader disdain that many urbanites have for a mode of travel that (especially in the U.S.) is often dismissed and dirty and unpleasant. Hanging out in a bar might pose a worse risk, but it’s also fun — and drinkers know they can walk out the door at any moment if they feel things are getting too crowded. If you’re deep underground aboard a subway car, it isn’t necessarily easy or swift to remove yourself.

Those crowds are not returning anytime too soon, however. As things stand, regular commuting by public transit remains a distant prospect for many Londoners. As this hard-hit city gears up to resume its pre-pandemic habits, TfL’s action plan for restarting London rests substantially on encouraging people to walk and cycle for as many journeys as possible. As in several European cities, London has made many central streets car-free and created temporary cycle highways. The Tube, by contrast, will only be permitted to carry 10% to 15% of its pre-pandemic capacity during the recovery period.

In pre-pandemic times, half of all journeys in London were carried out by public transit — and roads are already too congested to absorb more cars, even if Londoners all owned private vehicles. In the weeks ahead, a substantial number of people will have to either cycle to work or stay working from home, even if they don’t want to. Those Londoners who remain anxious about commuting on public transit can thus take heart: There’s no room for them now anyway.

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When the Pandemic Sent You Back to Childhood

Even before coronavirus shuttered their colleges, disappeared their first jobs, or derailed burgeoning careers, millions of America’s “emerging adults” were stuck at home. Between 2000 and 2017, the number of 25-to-34-year-olds living with their parents doubled to reach 22%.

Blame the battering ram of a bad economy. Recessions in 2001 and 2008, along with wage gaps, growing college costs and the crushing weight of student debt, have left younger Americans late to reach traditional adulthood milestones like marriage, homebuying, and kids. The Washington Post reported that, compared to Boomers and Gen X’ers, Millennials — the “unluckiest generation” — have experienced the slowest economic growth. Members of Generation Z now emerging from college may face even tougher challenges.

Coronavirus isn’t helping. Facing down a locked-down spring and now, an aimless summer, young people have embarked on a mass migration back to the homes they once shared with their parents. It makes sense for recents grads and young Millennials to ride out economic uncertainty under a sturdy roof: They’re also the ones who are more likely to live in cities with hopped-up rents, and early unemployment statistics suggest they’re already faring worse after layoffs.

The pandemic also introduced other, more emotional, reasons to return. Stuck in small apartments with roommates whose risk-taking they can’t control, stripped of the mobility and fun that urban living advertises, untethered to a physical office and still learning basic adult survival skills, some young people are eager for the familiarity of family. Others have been lured back by anxious parents in need of care or company, or by the prospect of pandemic luxuries like a car, a backyard, and home-cooked meals. As death counts rise, many are anxious themselves — that they or their loved ones will suffer illness alone.

Whatever the reason for retreat, this Great Regression could end up leaving an enduring mark, experts suggest.

“There are a lot of factors that go into feeling like an adult: Some of that is living independently or being financially independent, or having a career or starting a family,” says Susan Anderer, a psychologist who focuses on young people in transitional phases. The coronavirus has put a lot of that on pause, and could set people up for longer-term inertia. “At any developmental stage there’s a push-pull,” she says. “There’s a push to want to move forward developmentally and also a tug backwards, because growing up is scary; it’s the unknown, you don’t know what it looks like on the other side.”

With bars and clubs closed and social lives on hold, the backward tug can feel stronger. “When the pull of being a grown-up is no longer there,” Anderer says, “why not be at home?” But risk-taking, exploring, and making mistakes out in the real world is part of identity formation: “It’s harder to envision who you want to become surrounded by your old self.”

It’s hardly a universal problem. Many young people lack the luxury of flying back to the nest, or don’t have a house (or their own bedroom) to go back to. Just as they increasingly live multi-generationally, more than a million Millennials support their parents financially; rather than becoming newly dependent, many are being thrust into expanding their caretaker roles themselves. And even if you’re not at your parents’ house, the coronavirus era wouldn’t be the time to take risks.

As weeks stretch into months, I spoke with a few just-out-of-college Gen Z-ers, and a few true Millennials (up to 39 years old) about how it feels to be back with their parents, and what they see coming next. Their reasons for returning vary widely, but many of them are experiencing the sensation — in turns terrifying and comforting — of interrupting their independent existence and plunging into limbo. Against familiar backdrops of high school posters and old photographs, they’re grieving, arguing and dreaming about their futures. What I found is that rather than a total regression, self-isolation at home has offered a different kind of personal growth: a pause for reflection before the race to adulthood resumes again.

Here are their stories, in their words — condensed and edited for clarity.

Not being at home for so long caused a lot of pressure on our relationship”

Ann Tran, 23

Hometown: Dorchester, Massachusetts

Pre-Covid location: Boston, Massachusetts

Moved back home: Mid-March

Ann and her mother, Tee, at a soup kitchen. (Courtesy Ann Tran)

I grew up in Boston and Dorchester, which is a neighborhood in greater Boston with a pretty strong Vietnamese community. I moved to Pennsylvania for college and then came back in 2018. I chose to live in Boston again to re-ground myself and stay at home for a little bit of time before exploring the unknown, I guess. I wanted to feel supported by, and also support, my mom and my grandfather, who I’m very close to. I moved in with my mom for probably six to eight months.

Our relationship really deteriorated in that time. I think it was hard for her to recognize me as an independent person. [She’s] a single mom in a small household, and we have an intense and unique relationship: We are really close friends. And there’s also an expectation of parental respect. Not being at home for so long and not really feeling interested in that kind of family structure caused a lot of pressure on our relationship.

I made the decision to move out in September, which was really hard for her. She’s very unhappy about that, and it was another point of contention in our relationship. I’m an only child; she has a lot of expectations. I feel like the idea of moving out, in an Asian household, is not as well received. I guess she would ideally want me to live with her forever.

I stayed in Boston, a couple miles away, living with friends, and found myself a lot happier. And I was able to manage our relationship better. Every week, we would have brunch together and do some sort of hobby or chores, and established a newfound rhythm to seeing each other and appreciating time spent with each other. I think it really healed our relationship to be farther apart, and to feel like I was making making decisions on my own.

And then Covid happened. My roommates moved back [with their parents], and I tried to stay at home with my mom. Moving back in has been has been hard in a lot of ways, but also more manageable, I think, from the lessons learned living apart. For example, just keeping distance except for errands or meals and understanding what I can control, which is my reaction to what she does. If she’s angry or if she’s upset, there’s not really much that I can do about that, even if I tried to calm the situation.

I think if I pushed, I could have stayed in my own apartment, but there’s a great luxury afforded to be able to live here and feel safe and to spend time with someone in person without being afraid. It feels like otherwise I’d just be alone. We’ve been taking a lot of walks on the beach; we’ve been volunteering every week for a soup kitchen. Our arguments come out of these unprompted situations where she feels almost threatened by the idea that I don’t really want to spend time with her. And so I’ve worked on making sure that our interactions and our time spent together are really well-treated, or appreciated.

I’ve been thinking a lot about growing up as an only child. The other week, I was doing a jigsaw puzzle, and it reminded me of when I was younger and would sit in the bathroom for hours just by myself, after a shower and just — I wear glasses and I’m pretty blind without them, so I’d just not really stare at anything. There’s this stillness, almost, that I think comes with being an only child — an acceptance of the stillness that I feel like I’ve felt very far away from before March. Every weekend was planned. I’d get a meal with someone for brunch and then do errands, then do something for dinner and go to some event at night, or a party. All of those things sound so exhausting now. It’s very hard to imagine re-entering society with that same kind of energy.

In the fall, I’ll be moving to London for grad school. The concerns before I got into school around Covid were really a fear of —  just kind of acknowledging the luxuries of my job and my home now. There are so many people who are unemployed out there, and struggling, and it just felt almost absurd for me to willfully opt out of this job and period that can be very comfortable. And I think my mindset changed over the last couple of weeks. It’s almost like, because life is so fragile I should be doing this, and pursuing an interest of mine, and trying to grow in unexpected ways. Not in spite of this.

“My old name is up everywhere”

Andrew*, 30

Hometown: Central Virginia

Pre-Covid location: Washington, D.C.

Moved back home: Early April

*Name changed to protect his identity.

Andrew, in his parents’ basement in Central Virginia. (Courtesy Andrew)

I recently broke up with my partner of many years, and so I had to get a new apartment. Right when all of this was starting, in March, I moved into a group house where I didn’t have a preexisting relationship with any of my roommates.

I’d been living in D.C. under lockdown for about two and a half weeks and I was getting into a really good groove. But then I found out that my roommate’s girlfriend is a health care worker, working with patients who are positive for Covid. I had asked if it was possible that, when the girlfriend was over, could they just hang out in my roommate’s room or outside instead of in the common spaces — and my roommate told me that I was being panicky and that my paranoia was bad for her mental health.

So after a few sleepless nights, I decided that the best bet was for me to move back in with my parents, which was a stressful decision. I’m a trans person, and we have had some pretty hard years together. My parents were very, very not on board with me transitioning; my dad didn’t call me the right name until I was 23. Pretty much every time I would come home during college, we would argue. It was just too much for me mentally. I haven’t lived here for a while — every summer after college, I stayed in my college town.

I came out to them when I was 18 — so, 12 years ago — and so I thought that maybe now it would be a little bit better: I am secure in my identity, and I have a really strong support system. And it hasn’t been quite as bad as I thought it was gonna be. But then in the past few weeks, it has just become clear that we as a team cannot live together anymore.

They’ve not been outright rude without anything. They’re not trying to be argumentative. They’re not trying to be anti-trans. But the ways in which they live are not great. For instance: I gave myself a buzz cut for quarantine, and my mom hasn’t been happy about it, and she keeps telling me I need to grow my hair out. It feels really trans-related to me. Because a lot of our relationship growing up was my mom telling me that what I was wearing wasn’t acceptable and that the decisions that I was making about my body that for me felt affirming, to her felt wrong.

Again, I’m 30 years old, and I came out 12 years ago. I realized last week that my dad still hadn’t changed my name in his phone. Which, of course, is his prerogative, but that tells me that he’s clearly not over it.

In some ways, being back in this physical space has been kind of dysphoria-inducing and stressful, and sort of at odds with the life that I’m living now. My old name is up everywhere, and there are a lot of old photos of me. And then I’m surrounded by all of these things from high school, which are reminding me of a time when I was feeling really sad and trapped and like I was never going to be able to look like how I wanted to look. But in other ways, it has also been kind of empowering to be able to be around my old name and not feel really stressed out about it; to notice it and be like, that’s silly, and keep going on with my day.

It’s also fun — this desk is where I realized that I was trans, in 2007. I was reading online forums and happened to read the experience of a trans man, and then I realized, “Oh my God, that’s me.” And so it’s really fun to be here with a beard and my new male-pattern baldness. There were times in high school when I felt like life was never going to go in the direction that I wanted it to. And it’s really strange to be at my house because of circumstances like Covid, where I have no control over it — yet at the same time, I am in that physical space from my childhood, having lived 10 years of autonomy and happiness, and realizing the contrast between where I was when I was 17, and where I am now that I’m 30. It’s just so different.

If I lived in my parents’ hometown [long-term], I was thinking, I’ll only be Zooming with my friends in the same way as if I was in D.C. So is there much of a difference? But then I thought more about it. A lot of my thinking about where I’m living right now is currently based upon where my queer community is. I don’t know any trans people in my hometown right now. As queer people whose families often reject us — whether or not they mean to — that community is such an important stand-in for family, that I don’t see how I could live in an area without a large population of queer and trans people that not only share my identity but also share more specific interests. I’m just not sure how I could do that.

“It feels like I’m living in the shell of my former life”

Ellis Hyman, 23

Hometown: Calabasas, California

Pre-Covid location: Crown Heights, Brooklyn

Moved back: March 17

(Courtesy Ellis Hyman)

I started working at a production company [in New York City] in the middle of February. By the beginning of March, they were like, yep, we’re shutting down everything. I thought, I probably should get out of New York at this point. I’m going to be stuck in a tiny little place where I’m going to run into a lot of people, versus be stuck in a place where I don’t want to be but I have more space, I have access to a car, and I can avoid people more.

I felt kind of cowardly because my friends were still in New York and they’re making do, and I went home to be more comfortable. But I’m glad I left: I would have probably been a bit less happy being stuck in one tiny room.

I have a good relationship by parents, but they’re in the middle of a separation from each other. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to leave L.A. in the first place — just to get out of the middle of all that drama. Now I’m right back in the middle of it. I was still talking to them a lot when I was not living in California, but now I’m living with just my mom; my dad’s in a different apartment.

I think it’s really good for my mom because she’s been alone the past 10 months or so, and just having company has been really nice, especially right now. You know, everyone is online making memes of “being quarantined with a significant other versus quarantine being single.” I can’t imagine how hard it is for her.

My room has not been physically touched since my high school graduation. Literally, the calendar on my wall says “June 2014,” the month and date I graduated high school. It is a complete time warp being back there. It’s not awful, but it just feels like I’m living in the shell of my former life. I think it’s making me really think about who I used to be, and who I’m becoming. All I have to do right now is think about the future, because I can’t do anything besides sit in my home. It’s making me very emotional and sentimental, and, like, stupid.

The short-term future is to get back to New York as soon as possible. But nobody really knows what it’s going to look like after this has subsided — people are saying that things are going to change permanently; the way we restructure society and interact with each other. And I’m kind of believing it, and also kind of not believing it. It might not be fun to live in a dense urban place, because things might really be different!

I’m receiving unemployment right now, so I’m able to pay for the basic necessities, but that will run out eventually. I didn’t really have a specifically steady career to go back to — working in production entertainment, that’s fully on pause right now. So there’s not really a reason to go back until it’s safe, and also until I can get a job. The future is very malleable at the moment, which is exciting and also scary.

“Every day is up in the air”

Isabel,* 22

Hometown: Dallas, Texas

Pre-Covid location: New York City

Moved back: March 12

*Isabel asked CityLab not to use her last name, because she didn’t want to jeopardize her future employment chances.

(Courtesy Isabel)

When my best friend first suggested that we should go home to Dallas, I thought that seemed a little dramatic. But in my group chat with friends from college, everyone was like, “Who’s planning on leaving this weekend?” My friends who are teachers, their schools were shutting down. It felt like everyone all at once was under the impression that we needed to leave. Within three hours, I’m like, “Whoa, I need to get out of the city.”

The thing I kept thinking was, New York is a city you want to be in because you’re always out and about, you’re never in your apartment — you’re in crowded spaces, whether that’s a subway ride or a restaurant, or out at a concert. For me, those are the reasons why I wanted to be in New York. I thought, if all of those privileges — because they are privileges — if all those are taken away, then I’ll get pretty lonely and isolated pretty quickly. I packed to be home for two weeks.

My friend — the one who moved back from NYC, too — lives within walking distance from me. It’s been really hot, so it feels like summer. We keep saying, walking in the heat from my house to your house to sit on your front swings feels like high school. Since college started I’ve had summer jobs away from home, so I really haven’t been home in the summer — especially with nothing to do — since high school. I don’t have anything on my schedule for the weekend or for the foreseeable future. That creates a feeling of carefreeness — every day is up in the air, you know?

I keep wanting to do big organizing sessions, and clean up my desk or the shelves or my closet, and then I realize I don’t need the bare minimum in my house here, like I do in New York. But also when I have done those little clean-ups, I keep finding old journals or old letters from friends, or disposable camera pictures. It’s weird having to address where you were at different phases of life. Sometimes I see things from when I was a senior in high school, and I’m like, I think I was a more thoughtful person then, and I wonder why.

Remnants of the past. (Courtesy Isabel)

For the first month, I kept having that weird feeling where you’re just walking and you’re hit with the most specific memory that makes you cringe really, really hard. Fortunately nothing traumatic, but things like: “Oh, I spilled a bunch of ketchup on my friend’s nice jacket in high school, and that was a really awkward and careless moment.” Or, “Oh, I turned in that assignment late in college for no reason, and I feel like now that professor — who probably doesn’t remember me — thinks that I’m a slacker.”

And I’ve been noticing a lot of times in my past where I failed to be very resilient, or perseverant. I don’t know if it’s just because I’m one year out of college, or it’s because of quarantine, but I feel like that’s something that I regret that keeps coming up. It’s moments where I disappointed someone just because I was being lazy or not working hard enough. And that’s why I’m eager for things to resume and eager to get my next job, so I can prove that wrong.

There’s also just been a lot of reflection on feeling really lucky to be in the situation I’m in, and the weirdness of recognizing that what’s happening right now is causing a lot of suffering to the majority of people in the U.S., but this will not fundamentally change my life — beyond having a little more time to think about what I want to do.

“We’re really feeling the isolation of the single-family detached home”

Allison Wattenbarger, 28

Hometown: Philadelphia area, Pennsylvania

Pre-Covid location: Jerusalem, Israel

Moved back: Mid-March

Allison’s parents’ dog in her childhood bedroom (Courtesy Allison Wattenbarger)

My siblings and I were homeschooled until high school, which I like to say prepared me very well for the pandemic. Then I went to high school in Philadelphia, and went to Penn for college, then spent a year in Canada, working there; then I did a three-year Master’s of Divinity at Duke University. After that, I had a volunteer fellowship in Jerusalem at an institute that’s run by the University of Notre Dame. It turned into a paid position, working with undergraduates studying abroad there.

In mid-March, all the students had to fly home, and the expat staff were given the choice to stay or go. The rumor was that the airport in Tel Aviv might close, and that we could then ended up being stuck in Israel for months. I’m starting a Ph.D. in the fall, so I didn’t want to be stuck in Israel.

I’ve been bouncing back and forth a lot because I have this kind of weird expat student life — I was back at my parents’ for about three months last spring getting a new visa. This isn’t the first time I’ve been back for an odd extended period since the end of college, but for me, there was a big question of: Would I rather stay in Israel where I have some friends but I can’t see them at all, or go back to Philadelphia? I haven’t lived there, I have friends and connections from high school and college but I don’t have a community. It’s just me and my parents, who I get along with, but do I want to live with them indefinitely? It’s been smooth — I’ve always gotten along with them pretty well. And since I’ve been in and out of the house in the past couple years, I kind of knew what to expect coming back, which is helpful.

I still have some structure in my life — I’m still doing some of my work. My parents both teach and they were teaching up until university semester finished, so we established some new routines that were not part of my childhood life. My mom and I have wine and cheese at 4 p.m. every day.

But it’s also weird, walking around the neighborhood and thinking, this is where I was when I found out that I didn’t get into the college I wanted to go to. A close friend from childhood died of an overdose, and I went to the socially distanced funeral. It was really sad. And it was odd to go to a funeral with all these people I hadn’t seen for 10 years while wearing masks and sunglasses. You can’t recognize who these people are that you saw every day when you were five when they have masks all over their face. It’s a funny old-and-new mash-up.

I had a great little apartment in Jerusalem where I was living on campus and most of the people I knew in Israel were right there across the courtyard. Everybody would hang out every night. Being there for two years really sold me on just living in a place where people to spend time with are just next door. Coming back to the U.S. where my parents live in the city limits, but not downtown, I’m just struck by how much I dislike being a young single person in the semi-suburbs.

That, plus the American response to the pandemic, makes me want to return to being an expat and spend more time outside of the U.S. once I finish school. I definitely have some reverse culture shock preference for more communal ways of living, now that we’re really feeling the isolation of the single-family detached home.

“I don’t think we ever had family dinner as much as we’re having now”

Mikayla Harris, 24

Hometown: Potomac, Maryland

Pre-Covid location: Washington, D.C.

Moved back: Mid-March

(Courtesy Mikayla Harris)

My roommate and I had always planned on ending our lease at the end of March, mainly because I was planning on taking time off work to travel before law school. (Obviously that’s not happening.) She was going to move to New York (that didn’t happen, either). Her parents are both doctors in St. Louis, so as Covid started ramping up in March, they were like, you have to get out of there. She panic-packed, and two days later I was panic-packing too.

My brother, who’s 21 and in college, had spring break, so he was going to be home anyway. He’s definitely reverted a lot more than I have. My mom wakes him up every morning and makes breakfast for him. But he’s 21, so I guess it’s slightly different.

We’ve stayed constant in terms of having family dinner every night, but it’s gotten to the point where, since we’re all at home all day, we don’t have any new information to share. Some nights we’re fairly quiet, and other nights we’ll reminisce about things, and sometimes we’ll talk about politics. But in high school, we all had such different schedules. Especially since both my parents worked, I don’t think we ever had family dinner as much as we’re having now. It’s been kind of special.

When I was deciding between law schools this spring, Covid definitely became a factor in a way I didn’t anticipate. In my mind, I was like, OK, if I’m in school across the country, it’s harder to get home. Whereas if I’m someplace driving distance and something like this happens again, it’s just nice to know that it’s close by.

“It’s going to be a really different world”

Maria Buczkowski, 26

Hometown: Detroit, Michigan

Pre-Covid location: San Francisco, California

Moved back: Mid-March

“My dad has been really bored during this crisis … he bought a cheap 3D printer and made a Spin scooter.” (Courtesy Maria Buczkowski)

I just moved to San Francisco from D.C. about a year ago in July, and I was living in my apartment by myself. I don’t have a car in San Francisco — I walked to work every day or I could use a scooter. My mom kept saying, it’ll be so much easier here. She was really adamant about me coming home, so I did.

At first I didn’t want to come home because I was afraid, if I was asymptomatic, I could get my parents sick; or that after going on the airplane I would potentially come down with Covid. My sister lives in Detroit, so I stayed with her for 14 days and quarantined myself.

I grew up with a family in the automotive industry — my dad has worked for Ford for over 40 years. I also work at Spin, which is owned by Ford, so we nonstop talk about our work, which probably annoys my mom so much. It’s funny because I haven’t owned a car since I was 18. Even though I grew up in a car-centric world, I’ve never really relied on a car. This pandemic has really changed how people are thinking about transportation in general.

I’ve been really lucky, because I’m able to work from home. I think it does make a lot of people reconsider — I mean, I’m paying X amount of money for a place that I’m currently not inhabiting. My lease ends in July, and I’m thinking about going month-to-month after that. I’m a little fearful about going back to San Francisco. It’s going to be a really different world.

“I didn’t expect the crushing feeling of loneliness”

Emily McPherson, 22

Hometown: Denton, Texas

Pre-Covid location: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where she works as a researcher for the State House of Representatives.

Moved back: Mid-April

Emily and her dog in her childhood bedroom. (Courtesy Emily McPherson)

They sent us home from work mid-March — we were all coming to work, and then all of a sudden someone in the building tested positive for Covid. I didn’t mind, at first: I’m pretty introverted so I was vibing, and I really value my independence.

My mom had already texted me saying, “if you want to drive down and be with us you can,” but at that point I wanted to be alone. Once mid-April hit, I was like, alright, I need to not be alone anymore.

It’s kind of weird, because I just graduated college, so for the past 4.5 years I’ve been living away but still financially dependent on my parents. Now I just became financially independent of them, I’m living on my own and paying my own bills. And even though it’s my choice, it’s still really weird to be back with them.

My parents’ house is pretty small — you can pretty much hear everything. My dad is in one room on his Zoom calls, my mom is in another room on her Zoom calls, and then I luckily do not have to participate in Zoom calls. But I have to watch a lot of meetings that are being live-streamed. We’re all in separate rooms, but we still hear each other. When I call my friends or I watch TV, I’m very aware that they can hear me — I don’t necessarily talk to my friends the way I normally would if I were alone; I don’t want to use bad words because my mom is a kindergarten teacher, and she’d kill me.

On the first [of May], my state opened up, and at first it looked like I was going to have to go back as well. So on [a recent] Saturday morning I went back fully expecting to have to stay there — literally as soon as I went home my boss emailed and said, yeah, you can continue working remotely if you want. I stayed the night in my apartment and then drove back down the next day.

I didn’t expect the crushing feeling of loneliness when I got back to my apartment. At first I was thinking, “I’m having a good time at my parents’ house, but pretty soon I’m going to get tired of it and want to go back,” but I’m very surprised because I have not gotten tired of it!

Being at my parents’ house has definitely showed me that when the lease of my apartment is up, I would love to rent a house. I’m nowhere near the stage of life where I can buy a house, but seeing how happy my dog is in the backyard and also how happy I am with a backyard — I’ve been hanging up my hammock and sometimes I work outside — I kind of feel guilty bringing my dog back home to my apartment.

“Both my mom and I keep saying it’s time for me to go”

Alexandra Hiniker, 39

Hometown: Prince George’s County, Maryland

Pre-Covid location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Moved back: March 17

Alex doing handstands in the living room. (Judy Hiniker)

I went to college in Chicago, then graduate school in Poland, studied in France, lived in D.C., Cambodia, Laos, Lebanon. In 2012, I decided to move back to the U.S. and thought New York seemed like the right place to be.

This December, I quit my job. I’d been planning for about 10 years to go back to Cambodia with my mom and dad; I saved up vacation days and asked for my three weeks off, and was denied. I said I have to go now or never, so I quit, with nothing else lined up.

I agreed with my parents that if I didn’t get a new job shortly that I would move home — even though that seemed wild and crazy, and I never wanted to do it. But then on my last day, as I turned in my things to HR, I got another job offer with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It was just funny because I was considering moving home as an option before all this happened.

So I moved to Pittsburgh in January. And then on March 16, my dad had a fatal heart attack.

I came down here to Annapolis, Maryland, on the 17th to be with my mom. It was really scary to come down — it was like, oh my gosh, am I going to bring coronavirus? But it was the right decision, and it’s been wonderful being here. My mom has gotten to Zoom into my life in Pittsburgh — she’s met my coworkers, and my yoga teacher.

I thought it would be for two weeks, but then there was no reason to go back. I’ve been pushing back leaving; every week I’m like, oh I’ll just stay another week, I’ll stay another week. You lose all sense of time. And who gets this opportunity, when they lose a parent, to spend an indefinite amount of time with their family? It’s amazing. I feel so lucky, really. But both my mom and I keep saying it’s time for me to go. I need to leave to understand what happened here. I’m just living in a weird limbo where I don’t — I honestly still think my dad is going to come home. And it’s such a strange feeling.

His birthday was April 4, and we had a Zoom celebration of life, because he was very clear that he wanted a big party. I’d been putting it off, but his brother said we have to do something. And that helped so much. You know, it’s like, “Oh, God, another Zoom,” but it was really great. We’ll have a big party next April.

In terms of deadline to move out, I finally decided. My family never celebrated Father’s Day as a special day. But it’s mid-June, a natural cutoff. That gives me time, and a deadline to go through all my dad’s stuff. I think that it’ll help me process that my dad is actually dead, and that I have to start my life in Pittsburgh and move on. I look forward to helping to build that part of my life.

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Tear the Confederate Memorials Down. Keep the Graffiti.

Virginia had a plan for dealing with its Confederate monuments. Back in 2017, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney formed an ad hoc advisory group to explore what to do with the city’s famed Monument Avenue, a picturesque historic boulevard lined with statues depicting Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart. Those monuments, sited in the former heart of the Confederacy, also serve as a bulwark of the revisionist Lost Cause effort to paint the Southern side of the Civil War as heroic and tragic.

The Monument Avenue Commission led the mayor to appoint a permanent nine-member History and Culture Commission in 2019 to carry out the suggestions laid out in the commission’s report — namely to remove some statues, provide historical context for the rest, and build other memorials to reflect the living history of Richmond.

But when Black Lives Matter protests spread nationwide, the question of what to do with these polarizing civic artifacts became more urgent. On June 4, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam ordered the removal of the Robert E. Lee Memorial, a 12-ton state monument that occupies pride of place on Monument Avenue. Then a Richmond judge issued an injunction barring the commonwealth from moving forward, on the grounds that removing it would result in “a likelihood of irreparable harm to the statue.” On July 1, however, a state law will take effect allowing city leaders to begin the process of removing the city’s generous stock of Confederate memorials by holding a public hearing and publishing notice in a local newspaper.

But many Virginians had their own ideas about what to do with Confederate statues, and they were not interested in waiting three more weeks to act on them. On Wednesday night, protesters toppled a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the third monument to come down since Saturday. For now, the city has reclaimed the Davis statue, as well as one honoring Confederate General Williams Carter Wickham, which protesters took out in Monroe Park, not far from Monument Avenue.

Another monument targeted by protests, of Christopher Columbus, now lives at the bottom of a pond after demonstrators decolonized Byrd Park.

None of this was in the History and Culture Commission’s script. “That horse left the barn. No one cares what the process looks like,” says Free Egunfemi Banguri, an independent historic strategist who chairs the commission. “At this point, I think the process needs to reflect the fact that the moral authority has been lost by the city to make these decisions. It certainly doesn’t need to have a whole lot of layers of bureaucracy that don’t include the people at this point.”

Demonstrators are making up for years of deferred action on the issue. Over the last century, the South and its sympathizers erected more than 1,700 memorials to the Confederacy to promote the Lost Cause agenda, including more than 700 monuments and statues. Most memorials arrived decades after the Civil War, built in waves when white reactionary political movements were ascendent. The statuary of Monument Avenue emerged between 1907 and 1919, after Virginia restored white supremacy to its state constitution —  a time when Southern states were adopting Jim Crow laws and lynching thousands of African Americans.

The Lost Cause collapsed in spectacular fashion on May 31, when mass protests erupted across the nation in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The night they drove Old Dixie down for a second time in Richmond, protesters torched the headquarters for the United Daughters of the Confederacy and defaced every statue along Monument Avenue. Since then, Black  Lives Matter protesters have marched in a steady beat along Richmond’s Confederate corridor, removing and defacing memorials to slavery one by one, advisory committee reports be damned.

“My mind went to that period of die Wende, of the turn in the dismantling of the Berlin Wall,” says Paul Farber, artistic director for Monument Lab, a public art and research studio based in Philadelphia. “I think of this as a Berlin Wall-like moment, where people utilized the very infrastructure that has enforced division and terror and used it as the most powerful platform for democratic vision, and in this case, racial justice.”  

Richmond isn’t undergoing this reckoning alone. The movement to remove white supremacist monuments, which has gained momentum over the last five years, accelerated over the last week. As protesters savaged the Davis statue in Richmond, their peers in Portsmouth removed the heads from four different Confederate statues and tore one down to boot. Columbus monuments were removed by American Indian Movement demonstrators in Minneapolis and beheaded by unknown protesters in Boston.

But Richmond’s relationship with its Confederate monuments may be the most difficult to fully unravel, because the ideology behind them occupies not just a pedestal but the city’s central City Beautiful–era corridor. “It’s like the Champs-Élysées of Lost Cause memory and white racism,” Farber says. As historian Kevin Levin writes in The Atlantic, the monuments are part of the city’s segregationist DNA: Developers tapped their symbolic power to lure white homebuyers to the neighborhood they occupied.

Right now, the five surviving Confederate statues are covered with graffiti. They might as well have targets painted on their heads. (Protesters didn’t touch the more recent monument to African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe; they also passed over artist Kehinde Wiley’s anti-Confederate monument.) Even as city leaders plead with demonstrators to leave the statue expedition process to the professionals, they are still trying to figure out what to do with the remaining memorials of Monument Avenue. “I’ve received tons of suggestions that vary from melting them down to displaying them in a museum,” says Richmond City Council member Kimberly Gray, who also served on the Monument Avenue Commission.

If the protesters would only wait a few weeks, some leaders have implored, the statues would be dealt with by state officialdom. But few seemed willing to allow the bureaucratic process to play out. “When [the mayor] said that thing on Twitter, ‘You guys need to wait for the HCC to have a community engagement session,’ people clapped back: ‘It’s too late! We don’t care about your community engagement session — we’re going to do what needs to be done,’” Bangura says. “Which is unfortunate, because these are the exact voices I’ve been saying all along we need to hear from.”

To be sure, Mayor Stoney has consistently said that the statues represent systemic racism and need to come down. And Bangura clarifies that it is in fact important to hold those community hearings to ensure that all Richmond residents have an opportunity to weigh in on the city’s next steps — and not the same kind of sessions that have excluded young, self-determined voices in the past. To that end, the commission recommends that those steps include removing every Confederate statue, defunding all the institutions that promote them, renaming every school or road that glorifies the Confederacy, and reviewing the city’s message on racism. (She adds another recommendation, following the last two weeks of protests: Leave the graffiti as it is. “Don’t power-wash it,” she says.)

Previously, the plan from the History and Culture Commission was to use $250,000 to erect a series of interpretive kiosks along Monument Avenue. Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, and the city zeroed out the commission’s purse over fears of a budget shortfall. In Philadelphia — where officials just removed a statue of Frank Rizzo, which Mayor Jim Kennedy described as a “deplorable monument to racism” —  the city has moved to eliminate funding for the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. Farber says that cities have invested more in the fate of the statues than in repairing the lasting harm of their message or building something new to take their place.

“For many years before this week, the emphasis that I’ve heard both on the record and off the record in Philadelphia is, ‘We’re looking for another place to put the [Frank Rizzo] statue,’ whether that would be another public park or a city-related museum,” Farber says. “It was all under the idea that there is some neutral space. There is no neutral space.”

Activists such as Zyahna Bryant, who as a teenager led the effort to rename a park named after Lee in Charlottesville, have been happy to move forward without any bullet-point agenda. Things are happening fast: NASCAR just banned the Confederate flag from its events, even though stock car racing is second only to SEC football in the South. By the time that Richmond secures the blessing of the state and the courts to deal with its monuments, they might all be sitting, decapitated, at the bottom of the James River.

Even among those statues that remain upright, their symbolic meaning as markers of the Lost Cause ideology is finished. Tagged from plinth to plume in graffiti affirming the value of black lives, the figures of Davis, Lee, and Stonewall Jackson now stand for something other than white supremacy. They serve as the poles around which the protesters are rallying. And they point to a generational handoff in who is making these decisions.

Bangura says she’s excited to see the younger protesters she’s worked with in the fields of tactical urbanism and commemorative justice use those ideas to frame the current demonstrations. “This is not the work of the elders,” says. “This is their response to the pain and the hurt.”

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