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I live down the street from a Metro PCS store at the corner of 7th and Florida in Washington D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, and every weekend, when I’m crossing the road at that intersection, I bop. The small, nondescript-looking cellphone retailer blasts go-go music from outdoor speakers most days, and it’s really hard to ignore the conga drum beat.
The store is, in many ways, an embodiment of Old D.C.—the District as it was in the 1970s and ‘80s, when rents in this once-predominantly African-American part of town were a lot cheaper and go-go was the made-in-D.C. funk soundtrack of the day. But a lot has changed in this neighborhood, which has experienced dramatic demographic shifts since the 1990s.
Gentrification in Shaw is a hot topic in D.C., especially now thanks to a dispute over Metro PCS and its go-go music that blew up last week. A resident of The Shay, a luxury apartment building across the street, regarded that insistent go-go beat as a nuisance. As DCist’s Rachel Kurzius first reported on April 8, complaints coming from the building forced T-Mobile, the store’s parent company, to ask the owner to turn down the music. (The Shay management distanced itself from the complaint.)
But D.C. wouldn’t let that happen. A Howard student named Julien Broomfield coined the hashtag #DontMuteDC, which started trending locally. Longtime D.C. activist Ronald Moten assembled a protest and confronted the resident who had complained. The music was turned up outside. Videos starring kids from a local community organization, passers-by, and old regulars jiving started circulating on the internet. The evening the news broke, a crowd of activists, artists, musicians, and concerned citizens had gathered in the parking lot next to The Shay; one by one, they came up to an open mic to speak about their experiences with gentrification in D.C., and their memories about the days when go-go was heard on every corner.
“Every time I heard that music, I knew I was home,” said one man—a native Washingtonian who remembered hearing the music play at this corner back in the 1990s. “In this city, there are a lot of rules that don’t pertain to all of us that make this home, but one thing that makes this home is the music. I can hear the beat, I can hear the rototoms, I can hear the congas, I can hear the basses. And I know I belong.”
The protest cranked all the way up in the week that followed. D.C. rapper Wale weighed in on Twitter—and joined a block party on 14th and U streets, where veteran go-go bands like ABM performed. Elected officials picked up the cause. Moten’s internet petition in support of the store gained more than 70,000 signatures. Two days after the controversy erupted, the CEO of T-Mobile, John Legere, weighed in: “The music will go on,” he tweeted, “and our dealer will work with the neighbors to compromise volume.”
On Sunday, the block hosted a victory concert. The day was full of remarkable moments, but the most poignant, perhaps, was the image of the older black folks who hang out on the corner dancing with a gaggle of joyous little kids in the shadow of the new development creeping down a street—one named, not so incidentally, after the late go-go pioneer Chuck Brown.
The drama of gentrification has a powerful hold on the urban imagination. Seeing neighborhoods erupt in defiance of the economic forces that are reshaping them—as in the whitewashing of murals on a community center in Chicago’s Latino Pilsen neighborhood, the march of art galleries in L.A.’s Boyle Heights, or the attempted rebranding of South Harlem in New York City as “SoHa”—feels like an irresistible illustration of how inequality and opportunity are divvied up in American cities. Such protests are cries for self-determination by groups who feel excluded from the community’s growth and trajectory, despite being central to their identity.
But the phenomenon itself is not as widespread as one might think, researchers tell us. Per two recent studies, extreme gentrification—the kind that involves a dramatic increase in higher-income residents into neighborhoods—has been limited to a handful of big cities in the past decade or so. And within those cities, gentrification often involves just a few areas.
Of course, economic development in neighborhoods that have not seen much historically should be a good thing. Some urban experts argue that fears over the looming “threat”of gentrification and displacement make little sense in low-income areas that are desperate for investment—places where structural forces like housing discrimination, targeted disinvestment (or “benign neglect”), and exclusionary zoning have disproportionately trapped people of color.
In Shaw, though, gentrification isn’t some false boogieman sowing anxieties among native Washingtonians. It’s a very real thing. Those two studies measure gentrification differently, but both singled out Washington, D.C., as ground zero: The city has undergone one of the most starkly visible demographic transformations in the country. And where gentrification has hit hard, populations of color have bled out. The D.C. Policy Center found the white population in Shaw grew tenfold since 1970, as its overall population doubled. The share of non-Hispanic whites went from 11 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 2015.
D.C., then, offers a way to examine what this kind of gentrification actually means, and why it causes such anxiety. Why did this store—at the edge of a neighborhood that’s already on the far side of gentrification—touch such a nerve? And what does the reaction tell us about the way we talk (and don’t talk) about gentrification, in D.C. and around the country?
For Travis Houze, a 28-year-old photographer who grew up on D.C.’s Georgia Avenue, go-go was the way he came to understand popular music.
“I remember Rare Essence’s ‘Pieces of Me,’” he told me, invoking the the hit from the pioneering D.C. funk outfit. “That was like a really popular song I used to get on all the radio channels. Then when I heard Ashlee Simpson’s version of ‘Pieces of Me,’ I was like, ‘Why is Ashlee Simpson covering a go-go song?’”
The Metro PCS store was a staple, Houze said—immediately recognizable by native Washingtonians, a constant in a sea of change. “It’s the understanding that this is the one place … that will always will play this music,” he said.
The store’s owner is himself an institution, as the Washington Post’s Marissa J. Lang explains. In the 1990s, Donald Campbell owned a club in the neighborhood that hosted go-go bands; eventually, he traded the venue for an electronics store that sold pagers, beepers, and go-go recordings. The store was a safe space for members of the community back then, and the music he blasted from the speakers out front was like a bat-signal broadcasting that message. “Yeah, I guess we’re kind of unique—a different kind of cellphone store,” Campbell told Lang. (He’s now using the momentum from the protest to start a GoFundMe to create an online streaming service for his go-go collection.)
Today, too, this corner store retains the air of a community anchor. When I was in there the other day, regulars popped in and out, buoyed by the support and attention the store had seen in recent days. From time to time, one of them sang along to the song playing in the background. A homeless man from the neighborhood came inside and quickly nodded off next to the gumball machine. Later, an elderly veteran rolled up in a wheelchair and parked outside on the sidewalk. Hillerie Rodriguez, who works the desk, came out to greet him with a smile of recognition.“They know me,” he later told me.
This Metro PCS is a landmark in D.C.’s Shaw-U Street neighborhood, which was the epicenter of black arts and culture in the District in the 20th century. Segregated during Jim Crow, U was a “Black Broadway” that hosted Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Cab Calloway. The store is an extension of that history, which helps explain why the complaint about the music struck such a chord in this neighborhood.
“It’s like defacing tribal ground in a way,” Storm Stevenson, a D.C. native who grew up in the area, told me. “Once you sound off the music, you sound off the culture.”
In his book, Race, Class, Politics in the Cappuccino City, American University sociologist Derek Hyra focuses on the cultural and political transformation of Shaw. While the current iteration of the neighborhood advertises its cultural diversity—there’s an apartment complex named after Langston Hughes and a cocktail bar named after Marvin Gaye—that diversity is largely superficial, he writes. Newcomers, often more affluent than existing residents, often don’t understand the culture, rituals, needs, and background of the community they are joining, stoking resentment.
“Why are you coming here and complaining about what we got going on?” said Stevenson. “It feels like a flex of power in a way.”
Gentrification evokes such strong emotions in part because it exposes something that’s often otherwise hidden: who enjoys choices and who doesn’t. It demonstrates which parts of a community are hoarding opportunity with respect to housing, transit, public education, and other urban amenities. But what that process actually is, the way it unfolds, and what consequences it has is not always clear.
Gentrification is marked by an uptick in wealthier, often whiter residents, new development, and commerce. Researchers don’t see eye-to-eye on the relationship between gentrification and displacement because the latter can be measured in a number of (imperfect) ways. One of the most comprehensive definitions of displacement, in my opinion, comes from the UCLA-UC Berkeley’s Urban Displacement Project:
Displacement can be physical (as building conditions deteriorate) or economic (as costs rise). It might push households out, or it might prohibit them from moving in, called exclusionary displacement. It can result from reinvestment in the neighborhood—planned or actual, private or public—or disinvestment.
Importantly, the researchers mention the cultural facet of these changes on existing residents: that they can “lead to a reduced sense of belonging, or feeling out of place in one’s own home.” This rings true with what Natalie Hopkinson, a culture and media studies professor at Howard University and author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City wrote in in Slate following last week’s events—that they “reflect the ways that urban markets amplify the cultural erasure that gentrification brings to cities.”
When a neighborhood starts turning, some existing residents may see their home values and credit scores improve. But if no safeguards are in place, new development can push out—and then keep out—the most vulnerable residents through direct and indirect mechanisms. Over time, gentrification-related displacement looks a lot like resegregation.
Sometimes, the less-tangible changes accompanying the process get lost in the conversation among urbanists. Depending on the kind of demographic shift, the sense of community in a neighborhood can take a blow; the existing residents of color can feel more stress; and the identity of the area—if not redefined completely—can be commodified. There’s also some evidence that calls to police go up in tandem with the demographic shifts, and police stops multiply with the renewed law enforcement attention to these areas. Where gentrification goes, the police follow, research shows. (The dynamics of intra-racial gentrification—black gentrification or Latinx “gentefiction”—can be different.)
At the end of the day, though, it’s not one luxury condo or one oblivious gentrifier, but larger structural and historical systems that trigger gentrification. In the process, all of us who move to the city, to a neighborhood like Shaw, are implicated in the process.
In cities like D.C., where a widespread rise in housing prices has accompanied intense pockets of gentrification, the demand to build more housing at all price points is often touted as the solution to both issues. But Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) activists often dismiss working-class residents who resist new construction, fearing that development will feed future displacement. Those fears are well earned. While research shows that even building market-rate housing can ease the rent burden writ large, there’s also plenty of research showing that this type of development hikes home prices in the vicinity in the short term. Low-income residents may also not see the affordability from building new units reflect on their monthly rent bill—and if they do, it may take a while.
The desire to have more of a say in what gets built is natural in communities that have long been been ignored or railroaded. And yet, this kind of community resistance is often clumsily clubbed together with classic NIMBYism—the tendency of rich, often white neighborhoods to reject new development and moves to densify for fear of “loss of character.” To make this even more difficult: In California, as Miriam Zuk of the Urban Displacement Project points out, privileged residents have used gentrification “as a smokescreen” to justify their resistance to pro-housing legislation, even though they themselves are not at risk for displacement. The first step is to disentangle the two contexts. And the second: If rich NIMBY neighborhoods have created—and continue to exacerbate—the unequal conditions we see in cities, why shouldn’t they assume more of a burden of fixing it?
“We know ‘we’ did not underbuild for decades,” writes Fernando Marti, the co-director of the San Francisco-based Council of Community Housing Organizations, in Shelterforce. “It is we, in fact, who built these cities; we who stayed in these neighborhoods while their grandparents fled to racially exclusive suburbs.”
In some urban policy and planning circles, there’s also a poor understanding about the cultural and psychological effects that coincide with gentrification—and how they interact with issues like policing. D.C.’s newly released cultural plan, as my colleague Kriston Capps recently wrote, doesn’t dwell much on go-go or recognize the broader structural challenges that are driving it into extinction:
The city merely needs to formally recognize that the rights of longtime black cultural consumers, cultural producers, and cultural spaces outweigh the interests of new residents who move to this high-decibel nightlife strip and then demand that it change.
Policy-wise, a toolbox of solutions to the negative consequences of gentrification does exist—but it needs to be more comprehensive and intersectional. Building and preserving affordable housing needs to go hand in hand with transit equity, public health, cultural preservation, and steps that help rectify historical wrongs. On that last front, a good start is to center voices from communities that have got the short end of the stick. In D.C., Moten and Hopkinson, the go-go scholar, are forging ahead with their elevate black-owned businesses in the district, create a go-go museum, and research the cultural effects of displacement.
“To me, the movement is huger than this one location,” Moten told local radio host Angie Ange, citing a long list of now-vanished D.C. music venues that didn’t survive in the city’s glitzy new era. “And down in Anacostia, our businesses are fighting to stay alive—they’re being bought out. This is about people coming together to do the right thing about the D.C. citizens and new citizens who come here.”
The move, for the rest of us, is to listen.
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At the same time, there are reasons for concern. Nearly 800 American cyclists died in 2017 after being hit by cars or trucks. Those fatalities were up 25 percent from 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
I’ve learned two things from accidentally becoming a bike lane expert through my research on community engagement. Transportation experts and bike enthusiasts agree that building more protected bike lanes, which physically separate motorized vehicle and bike traffic with planters, curbs, parked cars, or posts, is a good way to reduce some of these risks. And it looks like crowdfunding, raising money collectively and online, helps ensure that local communities will welcome this infrastructure.
There are nearly 550 U.S. protected bike lanes, most of them built since 2013. Not everyone is cheering, though. Many communities have rejected the new lanes, due to hostility toward cycling and cyclists known as “bikelash.”
Consider what occurred with the four-block-long Folsom Street protected bicycle lane in Boulder, Colorado. Even though the city of more than 100,000 people is among the nation’s most bike-friendly, residents objected to the project over the heavier traffic it caused and shortcomings in the public comment process.
The opposition grew so strong that the authorities felt compelled to dismantle it only 11 weeks after it was built.
The Folsom protected bike lane’s demise was no anomaly. Since 2015, similar objections have also toppled protected bike lanes in San Rafael, California; Portland, Oregon; and Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.
I’ve found that many places that have avoided bikelash as they roll out new protected bike lanes have something in common: a creative approach to cultivating public support. Instead of encouraging residents to attend public meetings, city officials and local civic groups are meeting community members where they live and work.
Civic crowdfunding has become a popular approach for engaging communities affected by local infrastructure projects, including protected bike lanes. It’s a good way for local governments to choose where relatively low-cost but potentially controversial infrastructure belongs. Going this route means that the authorities can back projects that have already attracted some dollars and public support.
Also known as community-focused crowdfunding or hyperlocal crowdfunding, it allows community organizations to raise funds for local infrastructure projects from residents and community members. This approach has helped to build neighborhood parks, community centers, and protected bike lanes for the past decade.
The practice took off when ioby.org—the first civic crowdfunding platform—launched in 2009. Since then, the thousands of civic crowdfunding campaigns launched around the world on that platform and similar ones like Patronicity.com and Spacehive.com have raised over U.S. $50 million, according to my calculations.
During a four-year study of civic crowdfunding, I found that this collective fundraising technique has been used to support projects like protected bike lanes in non-monetary ways, such as building consensus. This is often a primary motivation for starting the campaign. The buy-in that crowdfunding brings about often proves far more valuable than any help paying the tab.
This happens because community organizations engage community members around the project. They convene discussions about the project in public spaces and at local businesses. During these events, nearby residents become acquainted with the proposed plans and voice their concerns before it’s too late to change course.
This strategy worked well in Denver. Colorado’s biggest city, 30 miles southeast of Boulder, built its Arapahoe Street protected bike lane after the Folsom Street debacle—heeding what it saw happen there.
Instead of holding a short public comment period, community organizations engaged residents and business owners early in the design process. This made a huge difference. The Downtown Denver Partnership, a local business group, initiated the project based on what it had heard from business leaders. To build on this public support, it launched a crowdfunding campaign to cover $35,000 of the design costs.
“Our mission wasn’t just to raise money for this bike lane,” explained the Partnership’s Aylene McCallum. “Our mission was to build a community that supported this. Our mission was to build advocates in the business community and in the larger community.”
As part of this effort, the group engaged local businesses and residents about the Arapahoe protected bike lane. This allowed the community to debate the project’s design and impacts. The group worked with city officials to redesign parts of the project to address the concerns that surfaced, such as parking spot removals and access routes. This consensus-building exercise seems to have staved off bikelash so far.
People who live nearby have championed Denver’s protected bike lanes, often alerting city officials to any issues that arise, such as parked cars intruding into the lanes or damaged posts.
Similar civic crowdfunding strategies have worked in various Michigan locales and Los Angeles. In these cases, government officials have themselves launched these initiatives to rally support for local infrastructure projects.
Role of wealth
But does this strategy have built-in equity issues?
After all, you might assume that only rich people can crowdfund infrastructure or that these projects will only take off in wealthy areas. So far, that does not appear to be the case. Civic crowdfunding tends to pay for only a small portion of what’s needed, raising less than 5 percent of the budget for projects like protected bicycle lanes.
In Memphis, for example, crowdfunding raised nearly $70,000 for a protected bike lane. That covered only 1 percent of total project costs of the 2013 project, which served one of the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods. The crowdfunded dollars helped rally community support and attracted even more money for the project.
Letting communities vote with their dollars isn’t just about budgets. It is much more about letting local residents and businesses know early on about the project and allowing them to participate in a meaningful way.
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Keep up with the most pressing, interesting, and important city stories of the day. Sign up for the CityLab Daily newsletter Martinez isn’t the country’s only street-safety hero: There’s also a masked wrestler, Peatónito, or the Little Pedestrian, who fights cars with lucha libre moves. “The cars are the emperors of the streets, a dictatorship of motorists. They always have the right of way,” says the caped traffic-safety crusader. As humorous as these antics may be, they highlight a serious crisis for the country: Roughly 40 people die in traffic each day in Mexico, and road fatalities are the leading cause of death for Mexicans ages 5 to 29. Now, after the death of a prominent bike activist last November, the calls for calmer roads have been reignited. Today on CityLab: The Street Theater Behind Mexico’s Landmark Road Safety Law I don’t know when the myth of landscape architects as climate saviors began, but I know it’s time to kill it. In an essay in Places Journal, Billy Fleming, the director of the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, argues there’s a gap between landscape architecture’s rhetoric and reality as the profession considers its place in shaping the Green New Deal. With mega-projects making the profession much more apolitical than when Frederick Law Olmsted first set the template for planning, designing, or managing built and natural environments, Fleming writes we should remember Olmsted’s “eagerness to enter the political arena and challenge the status quo.” CityLab context: Read about Olmsted in CityLab University: Who’s Who of Urbanism How Trump’s border crisis is driven by climate change (Washington Post) The Japanese town that outlawed sprawl (The Guardian) Is Brooklyn’s gun court getting weapons off the street—or just locking up more young black men? (Slate) Why is Bill de Blasio’s presidential dream a sad joke? (The New Republic)
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Martinez isn’t the country’s only street-safety hero: There’s also a masked wrestler, Peatónito, or the Little Pedestrian, who fights cars with lucha libre moves. “The cars are the emperors of the streets, a dictatorship of motorists. They always have the right of way,” says the caped traffic-safety crusader. As humorous as these antics may be, they highlight a serious crisis for the country: Roughly 40 people die in traffic each day in Mexico, and road fatalities are the leading cause of death for Mexicans ages 5 to 29. Now, after the death of a prominent bike activist last November, the calls for calmer roads have been reignited. Today on CityLab: The Street Theater Behind Mexico’s Landmark Road Safety Law
I don’t know when the myth of landscape architects as climate saviors began, but I know it’s time to kill it.
In an essay in Places Journal, Billy Fleming, the director of the McHarg Center at the University of Pennsylvania, argues there’s a gap between landscape architecture’s rhetoric and reality as the profession considers its place in shaping the Green New Deal. With mega-projects making the profession much more apolitical than when Frederick Law Olmsted first set the template for planning, designing, or managing built and natural environments, Fleming writes we should remember Olmsted’s “eagerness to enter the political arena and challenge the status quo.”
CityLab context: Read about Olmsted in CityLab University: Who’s Who of Urbanism
How Trump’s border crisis is driven by climate change (Washington Post)
The Japanese town that outlawed sprawl (The Guardian)
Is Brooklyn’s gun court getting weapons off the street—or just locking up more young black men? (Slate)
Why is Bill de Blasio’s presidential dream a sad joke? (The New Republic)
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Two years ago, families that were relying on food assistance in Washington, D.C., , a nonprofit newspaper on homelessness, at the time. The Washington City Paper also reported on these glitches.
“It’s unclear if [the D.C. government is] going to do anything differently to guarantee that they’ll test it in some way to make sure that it doesn’t fall over when it launches again,” Ni says.
Transaction Denied is the second collaboration for Ruskin and Ni, making them veterans of the gov-tech-art circuit. Along with Eric Chiu, they joined forces for a piece for “Data X Design,” a March exhibition at Brooklyn’s New Lab featuring alternative cartography projects that make use of New York City’s Open Data initiative.
Amy Morse, one of the curators involved with “Umbrella,” asked Ni to cook something up for the show in D.C.—which is how the artists came to be hanging receipts at the former home of Martha’s Table, a charitable organization that focuses on food access. Martha’s Table decided in 2017 to move on from its home of 37 years; the building will be razed to make room for a mixed-use development. As a last hurrah, an arts group called the No Kings Collective booked the vacant space for a block-long art party celebrating D.C. culture. The show spotlighted more than a few pieces that point to ways that the city’s culture is changing.
Transaction Denied enjoyed a special context in the “Umbrella” show. The Obamas made it a point to stop by Martha’s Table on Thanksgiving Day to hand out food. The piece is timely: Earlier this month, Ocasio-Cortez joined dozens of House colleagues in a letter to Sonny Perdue, secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, protesting a new federal rule that would tighten work requirements for recipients of SNAP aid by nixing certain exemptions issued by states. Work requirements for the social safety net are a priority for the Trump administration.
For the people who attended “Umbrella,” Transaction Denied served as a teaching moment about both the singular experience for SNAP recipients in D.C. as well as broader issues about food insecurity in America. In addition to the receipts and the scores of earnest testimonials from viewers that came to cover the walls, the piece included three telephones booths, through which the audience could listen to different perspectives.
One booth featured a person reading from the tedious text of an application for the SNAP program. People who picked up a telephone receiver at another station could hear excerpts from the SNAP lawsuit against the District. A third booth offered six first-person narratives about food stamps pulled together by Code for America. Several that I listened to shared the feelings of shame that the users felt about needing food assistance.
The piece highlights how, even in a progressive city, decisions about process, execution, and administration can leave thousands of people behind. Civic tech plays a role in facilitating aid—and in increasing the feelings of inconvenience and indignity.
“Every version of this problem, which exists in a similar flavor across the country, has troubling, specific issues,” Ruskin says. “One of the things that stuck with me is that, in D.C., you have to bring your application in. Which is unusual. Usually you can submit it online. It’s usually online, even if it’s terrible.”
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Pat Ulrich can’t make water-cooler talk about The Handmaid’s Tale or Shrill. “I can’t get Hulu or anything like that,” she says. If it’s on a streaming service, she probably hasn’t seen it.
Her home, in Arkansas, has no broadband internet connection. A cable company once quoted her $44,000 to install one, so she and her husband get mediocre Wi-Fi through a satellite provider. “It’s 20 gigabytes” per month, she says, “no different from using your phone.”
Connectivity isn’t just a problem for the state’s sizable rural population. Ulrich lives in a suburb of Little Rock and commutes into the city each day to work as a web developer for the Arkansas Arts Center. Needless to say, she never works from home.
Arkansas is the least connected of the 50 states, according to BroadbandNow, a group that tracks consumer options. Since 2011, the state has banned cities and towns from building their own networks, outlawing a local solution that has been hailed as an effective way for communities to connect themselves when they don’t have internet providers.
This year, however, Arkansas appears to be having a change of heart. Under the weight of constituent complaints about lousy internet—and after years of waiting for subsidies to goad telecom giants into expanding the infrastructure—the state legislature in February passed a bill to repeal its ban. Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson said he will sign it.
That this is happening at all is significant. That it’s happening in a deep-red state is perhaps monumental.
Arkansas outlawed municipal broadband in 2011 as a wave of other states passed similar laws. It was, in part, a factor of the Tea Party movement, which ushered small-government Republicans into state capitols. By 2018, 21 states had some law banning or restricting municipal broadband; many were cut-and-paste “model legislation” from the American Legislative and Exchange Council, backed by telecom giants. They sought to kill municipal broadband under the belief that “such services should not be offered by government in competition with private-sector providers.”
In Arkansas, Republicans outnumber Democrats 3-to-1 in the state house and 2-to-1 in the senate. Still, the bill passed unanimously.
State Senator Breanne Davis, a Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the state saw the poor results of its previous policy. “We were one of the five states that had the most restrictive laws [on municipal broadband] in the nation,” she says, “and almost last in broadband.”
Only 75 percent of Arkansas homes have access to broadband. Even that statistic is overselling it, says BroadbandNow’s technical product manager Jameson Zimmer. Some of that data was compiled from reports from service providers, who might exaggerate their capacity, and rural lines classified as broadband are often sluggish by city standards. Despite billions in federal subsidies to get them up to speed, the cost to extend broadband lines (which can be thousands per house) has left swaths of the U.S. with 1990s-grade internet.
Davis says the state has been underwhelmed by the promise of the Connect America Fund, an FCC program meant to subsidize broadband in underserved areas.
“The top three companies got millions to bring broadband to Arkansas,” says Davis. “They’ve had that money so many years, and providers are not willing to use that to go into new areas.”
According to the Institute for Self-Reliance, the FCC committed $250 million from the Connect America Fund’s first phase of funding, doled out in 2011, to AT&T, Windstream, and CenturyLink for the purpose of spreading broadband in Arkansas.
After years of waiting for results, Davis says Arkansans are losing out on jobs. Employers are looking for remote workers who need access to broadband, for example.
“If someone with a degree in coding gets a remote job here, they can’t stay,” she says. Arkansans who want to take online classes face the same roadblock. “I’ve had people tell me they can’t pull up emails at their house,” Davis says. “They have to go to McDonalds and use the internet.”
It has caused other problems for constituents, too. Ulrich’s subdivision was built just 15 years ago, when broadband was the Cadillac of internet connections, not the standard. “Now people can’t sell their houses because there’s no broadband access,” she says. And when Arkansas imposed work requirements on Medicaid last year, recipients were required to find an internet connection to log work hours in order to keep their health care coverage. (A federal judge rejected the state’s work requirements in March)
Still, the new law won’t give towns and cities a full license to set up their own networks. A last-minute amendment stipulated they need a grant or loan from a second party. Davis hopes the changes will allow farming towns to access some of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s $600 million fund to build broadband networks in rural areas.
Christopher Mitchell, the director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has campaigned against municipal broadband bans since they started sprouting up.
“For years, we couldn’t make a dent in them,” Mitchell says.
He sees the change in Arkansas as a milestone: It’s a red state, and constituent concerns overrode telecommunication interests and ideology.
North Carolina’s Republican legislature is also considering modifying its 2011 ban on municipal broadband. HB 431, called “the FIBER NC Act,” would allow local counties and cities to build infrastructure for broadband networks. Lawmakers are driven by similar constituent frustrations and fear of being technologically left behind. In January, Mississippi passed a law allowing rural electric cooperatives to offer broadband internet services.
Mitchell says he expects dominos will fall on statewide municipal broadband prohibitions as long people face what Americans increasingly can’t tolerate: not being able to get online.
“I do think you will see more changes as long as people have such bad internet,” he says, “and people are being so frustrated by it all the time.”
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Here’s a pop quiz. What do each of these have in common? The New York Yankees winning the 1977 World Series. A public art project in Enid, Oklahoma. The “bush-clad hills” around Canberra, Australia. The Champions League final in Spain. “Hyper-gentrification” in New York City.
Each one of these things is a “battle for the soul” of its city.
Once you notice it, you’ll see the phrase everywhere—from alt-weeklies to the New York Times. Often, it’s old European cities, besieged by tourists or real estate speculators or ugly new buildings, that are said to be engaged in such spiritual struggles; Paris and London and Venice are frequent soul-battlegrounds. In the United States, you’ll find battles for the souls of the Hamptons, Brooklyn, the Six Corners neighborhood of Chicago, Ann Arbor, the Minneapolis park board, New Orleans, Dallas, Austin, the Heights neighborhood in Houston, Seattle, Portland, Portland, Portland, Berkeley, Mountain View, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco, San Francisco’s Chinatown, San Francisco’s Mission District, San Francisco’s Tenderloin District, and San Francisco.
Since I live in the Bay Area, a region whose soul seems to be under constant threat, I’ve become very familiar with the expression. But it still strikes me as odd. Americans live in a more-or-less secular society; lots of us don’t particularly believe that humans have souls. Why would cities have them—even metaphorically? Is it some premodern affectation, a relic of the era when trees and mountains were imbued with watchful spirits? Or does reflect something else entirely—the lure of nostalgia and the anxieties of longtime residents facing demographic and economic change?
The city-with-a-soul metaphor goes way, way back: In the Republic, Plato famously analogized the souls of people to the soul of cities. But I didn’t really start seeing it tossed around San Francisco in earnest until the beginning of the decade, as locals began fretting about how the most recent tech industry boom could reshape the city’s culture. David Talbot, founder of the online magazine Salon, warned of this phenomenon in 2012. “That first San Francisco tech bubble popped more than a decade ago,” he wrote. “But the new one, despite the recent dips of Facebook and Zynga shares, promises to be even fatter—and potentially more damaging to the soul of the city.”
Talbot is unusually fond of the phrase. In his 2012 history of San Francisco, he wrote that “cities, like people, have souls.” But he doesn’t explain what that means. Do cities get judged after death? Do they contain some invisible force that organizes their growth? Maybe. It’s not clear. But he does say that the soul of San Francisco has something to do with the music of the 1960s, the 49ers’ 1989 Super Bowl championship, and the opposition to a plan to extend a freeway through the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The city’s soul is also invoked in articles advocating for local politicians, bitching about Stanford, and defending sanctuary city policies.
Talbot is only one of many Bay Area writers who have reflected on this question. Rebecca Solnit told SF Weekly that when the Sierra Club moved its office from San Francisco to Oakland, “it was really a big piece of the city’s soul that decamped.” (It’s not clear what the move did for the soul of Oakland, where I live.) Tim Redmond, editor of the now-defunct San Francisco Bay Guardian, often used the phrase, as he did when the Guardian called the candidates they endorsed in the 2016 elections “our best hope for the first round in the next fight for the soul of the city.”
San Francisco’s elected officials use it a lot, too—often to fend off desperately-needed new housing. One argued for a moratorium on new construction in the neighborhood he represented by saying, “We’re fighting for the soul of San Francisco.” Another, running for mayor, said, “You can’t take the soul of the city away from the city by just building all over the place.” A third ran a campaign ad that proclaimed, “it’s a fight for the soul of the city.” Apparently, the city’s immortal essence is imperiled by market-rate housing.
Typically, whatever a person claims the soul of a city is, it coincides with that person’s political or aesthetic preferences. It’s a synecdoche that picks out some element of urban life, something of emotional importance that is seen as under threat, and inflates it to become the city as a whole. This is important to me, therefore it is the soul.
There’s a strain of populism at work in the Bay Area’s version of this. On one side are tech workers, plutocrats, developers, corporate drones, gentrifiers, and bankers—the much-despised shock troops of San Francisco’s modern boom. On the other side is what Talbot calls “its artistic ferment, its social diversity, its trailblazing progressive consciousness.” The battle between these two forces is one between good and evil, or as Uri Friedman wrote in his Atlantic dissection of populism, “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other”
That’s the thing about struggles for souls: They aren’t disagreements that can be negotiated among stakeholders, each of whom can claim legitimacy. They’re holy wars, zero-sum games that one side must utterly lose. Plato was no populist, but his version of the just city also followed this model. He didn’t want political parties and interest groups jockeying for power and hashing out deals. Instead, the ideal city was ruled harmoniously, rationally, and absolutely, without conflict or compromises.
But that’s not at all how real cities function. They’re dense with human friction, from the neighborhood level on up. And that pluralism is as it should be. Justice can’t be found in harmony, but rather in the institutions and procedures that normalize conflict. “Neither in a social order nor in the experience of an individual is a state of conflict the sign of a vice, or a defect, or a malfunctioning,” as the Oxford philosopher Stuart Hampshire pointed out. “It is not a deviation from the normal state of a city.”
Is there a way for us to save something here? Could we talk about a more pluralist soul of the city? I think so.
In 1905, the English novelist and poet Ford Madox Ford, broke and needing a hit, penned a slim book titled The Soul of London, an impressionistic tour of his native city. Forget a bird’s eyes view of the place, he writes, as if you could fly above it and see it all at once. Instead, take the view of “a bird that is close to the ground.” Hop over here and see one thing. Hop over there and see something else. Each perspective differs; each is true. There’s no beginning to the soul of London, no end. No plan. No harmony. The houses, built in different centuries, don’t fit together. The people, drawn from all over the world, don’t either. That’s OK. It doesn’t have to.
And don’t worry about those weird new buildings taking away London’s soul, said Ford. Give them some time:
Tall blocks of office buildings are crushing out the associations of the Westminster courts, alleys, and squares. We see terracotta ornamental excrescences, meaning nothing to us; heavy masses that, to those of us who care about architectural proportions, are repulsive, because, for us, they have no associations. The Memoirists have not yet written them up. But to our great grandchildren these excrescences will have meanings and associations, these heavinesses will be suggestive, because we, their ancestors, lived amongst these things our pathetic, petty, and futile lives.
Good news—those great grandchildren are us.
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You may not hear much about electric trucks and buses, but they’re here and growing. We have to put the policies and actions in place now so that we can leverage the clean air and economic benefits of this technology to fight environmental injustice and give an economic boost to people most in need.
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Last month, members of San Francisco’s waterfront Embarcadero neighborhood launched an online crowdfunding campaign to stop the city from building a 24-hour support center for homeless residents nearby. Opponents of the facility said that, while they supported addressing homelessness, they feared that the navigation center would usher drug users and crime into the affluent area. Many live in a condo with a rooftop pool overlooking the proposed site. On Nextdoor, one commenter likened the center to a cancer on the community.
The backlash to this NIMBY backlash was swift. “The optics around very wealthy condo owners opposing a place for the very poorest most destitute people to sleep at night … was pretty disgusting,” Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told CityLab. Almost 2,000 people—including tech magnates Mark Benioff and Jack Dorsey—donated to a rival GoFundMe launched in support of building the navigation center, which has now exceeded its fundraising goal of $175,000.
But the battle over the issue is hardly over. The anti-navigation center GoFundMe has now surpassed its more modest goal of $100,000, netting $2,500 from an anonymous donor just this weekend, and they’re planning on using the money to finance what they expect could be a long legal fight with the city. At a public meeting in early April, San Francisco Mayor London Breed promised to hear the Embarcadero community’s concerns over her plan to construct the center by this summer, but was met with jeers and shouts. This week, Breed proposed a compromise: Rather than installing 200 beds, the center would start with 130 and grow from there. And rather than signing a four-year lease, it would start with a two-year trial.
Now, a proposal introduced by District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney this week is designed to stop decisions like this over who gets shelter—and where—from devolving into endless angry debate. The proposed legislation, called Navigating Homelessness Together, would mandate that every San Francisco district without a navigation center build one within 30 months.
“It is critical that we step up and say we are going to all be part of the solution,” Haney, whose district would host the contested navigation center, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is not just talk. This is action. This is commitment.”
The legislation wouldn’t just be a check on communities like the Embarcadero, but on supervisors themselves. “A couple of years ago, many supervisors felt comfortable outrightly saying they would not accept a nav center in their district, whereas now there would be discomfort about saying that publicly,” said Hillary Ronen, the supervisor for District 9 and one of the co-sponsors of the bill. “But even though there’s the professed will to have that happen, it hasn’t happened yet.”
Navigation centers are temporary shelters for unhoused people that, in addition to beds, offer support like substance-abuse treatment and job training. They’re also more permissive than traditional homeless shelters, says Friedenbach: They welcome partners and pets, provide property storage, and allow folks to come and go without curfews.
The legislation wouldn’t entirely eliminate public engagement, nor would it be likely to silence all community pushback over homeless shelters and affordable housing, which can be fierce in San Francisco. At least three community meetings will have to be held before each site is approved, and Haney has not yet outlined enforcement measures for districts that don’t comply.
The law also doesn’t yet address funding for the new shelters, which can cost between $2 and $3 million, or finding ample space for them. Though Breed has been scouring the city for potential navigation center sites as she pursues her plan to build 1,000 new shelter beds by the end of 2020 (including 500 by this summer), she’s found it difficult to secure them, the Chronicle reports.
While it’s designed to short-circuit the kind of community pushback that’s swept the Embarcadero, the legislation also addresses one root of their complaints: that District 6 already bears a disproportionate burden in hosting services supporting the city’s homeless, and that Breed should consider other districts with fewer such resources.
“At this moment, District 6 delivers 75 percent of all the shelter beds in San Francisco, which clearly makes i[t] the most welcoming and responsible district in all of San Francisco, far from being the NIMBYs we’ve been vilified as,” Wallace Lee, one of the self-identified “grassroots organizers” of the GoFundMe movement, told CityLab over email. “The other districts must share in the responsibility of solving the homelessness problem in San Francisco.”
Ronen says she heard a similar argument from constituents when trying to build a navigation center in District 9. “They fought it and said we already provide so many services, why doesn’t some other neighborhood and district take up some of this responsibility?” she said. “I kind of didn’t have a response to that.”
All eight of the navigation centers currently in operation are in Districts 6, 9, and 10. That’s where San Francisco’s homeless population is most heavily concentrated. But there are unhoused and unsheltered residents throughout the city.
“Finally there’s some force behind this rhetoric that everybody has to take responsibility … for helping protect the most vulnerable among us, and working together to make these centers safe for any neighborhood,” said Ronen. “We can’t keep saying that unless we’re really doing that—unless the responsibility is truly shared.”
Embarcadero resident Lee disagrees that a political mandate is the solution, however. “[W]e do not wish on any residential area to go through what we have gone through and see a shelter built without meaningful public consultation.”
Other support for the legislation has trickled in since Haney proposed it: Three district supervisors, including Ronen, have signed on to co-sponsor the measure, and this week, the Chronicle’s editorial board penned an op-ed in support. “This is truly a citywide issue that requires the participation of every district,” they wrote. “Mayor London Breed could make things easier by asking the other supervisors to support this measure.” (Her office did not respond to a request for comment.)
The law won’t be a cure-all. Navigation centers may be vital resources for the city’s homeless residents, but they don’t break cycles of displacement in the community, says Jack Rice, the Coalition on Homelessness’ development director. “Our angle at the Coalition is much more about permanent exits from homelessness than it is about shelter,” he said. According to San Francisco’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, 46 percent of navigation center guests “end[ed] their experience of homelessness” after a stay.
While the rules inside nav centers are more permissive than other shelters, they are also not open to all of the city’s unhoused population: Residents are selected by the city’s Homeless Outreach Team (SFHOT), who work primarily with those who have severe illnesses. “That leaves out a lot of communities and a lot of people with high needs,” said Friedenbach.
But Haney’s legislation fits into a broader push by the city to both support the currently unhoused and address long-term homelessness—and it could help fill in the gaps if other measures are clawed back. Just last week, opponents of Proposition C, a tax on businesses to fund affordable housing and homelessness services, filed court documents to strike it down. Though the measure passed with more than 60 percent of the vote in November—defying criticism both from the mayor and the tech industry—its simple majority wasn’t enough to insulate it from a reversal attempt.
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