Yes, 311 Nuisance Calls Are Climbing in Gentrifying Neighborhoods

Over the last year or so, multiple videos of people calling the police on black men and women engaging in mundane activities—babysitting, eating lunch, going for a swim—have gone viral. The (usually, white) callers are often swiftly meme-ified: “Golf Cart Gail,” “Apartment Patty,” and “BBQ Becky” have become familiar characters in the Internet’s ever-expanding pageant of outrage.

But the popularity of this mini-genre raises other questions: Is there empirical data that sheds lights on whether such racially charged calls to authorities have, in fact, increased over the years? And if so, where exactly is this happening?

A new episode of the Science vs. podcast by Gimlet Media delivers some answers. The podcast looks at the science behind commonly held notions and explain away myths; its latest episode tackles the g-word: gentrification. Among the questions the team asks is whether it’s true that whiter, more well-off newcomers to a neighborhood call the authorities on older, less well-off residents of color.

One of the show’s producers, Meryl Horn, who has a Ph.D in neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco, ran the numbers on over 600,000 311 calls over 6 years. Using 311 data available on the city’s open data portal, she and her team mapped the per capita noise complaints in 41 census tracts in New York City—things like banging, loud music, and loud talking. Then, using the methodology employed by New York University’s Furman Center, the team identified the neighborhoods that gentrified between 2011 and 2016. (Think: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, Bushwick, and Flatbush.) After running their analysis through statistical tests, they found something significant: Per capita 311 calls increased in all neighborhoods, but they rose at a 70 percent faster rate in the gentrifying ones.

Specifically, the per capita volume of 311 calls in gentrifying neighborhoods rose two times as fast compared to high-income ones (that weren’t eligible to gentrify) over the six-year period; they rose 50 percent faster than low-income neighborhoods (that did not gentrify).

Per capita volume of 311 calls rose at faster rates in gentrifying neighborhoods than in low-income and high-income neighborhoods. (The difference in rates between the low-income and high-income neighborhoods were not statistically significant.) (Science vs.)

The Science vs. analysis isn’t peer reviewed, but some previous evidence supports its conclusions. A study from 2016 found that 311 noise complaints went up in areas where boundaries between two different, homogenous communities were blurred.

“Previous research has focused on diversity as an explanation for neighborhood conflict. Our findings are much more specific, and move away from the idea that diversity has negative consequences,” said author Joscha Legewie, an assistant professor of education and sociology at NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, at the time. “In fact, it’s not diversity in general that has this effect on neighborhood conflict; it’s only these particular areas between homogenous communities.”

Earlier in the year, Buzzfeed also conducted a 311 analysis. Their snapshot of New York census tracts showed per capita calls were higher in gentrifying tracts. They zoomed into the dynamic in one block in Harlem, finding that the rise in calls coincided with the influx of whiter, richer residents.

Of course, it’s not clear from any of these analyses who is actually making these calls, and whom the callers are complaining about. (Although Rory Kramer, a sociologist at Villanova University in Philadelphia who studies gentrified neighborhoods, told Science vs. host Wendy Zukerman that it is less likely that non-white, working-class folks would call 311 since they may perceive the police to be more aggressive towards them.)

But what all these analyses do is provide evidence that the erasing of deep-rooted color and class lines may cause tensions between neighbors. Perhaps newcomers call authorities because they do not know how to speak directly with existing residents. There may be language or culture barriers; they may see long-established neighborhood rituals—playing dominoes on the sidewalk, convening drum circles in the park, or playing music—not as ways the existing community members connect with each other, but as sources of nuisance.

As Legewie put it in an explanation of his research from 2016: “The 311 service requests give us a unique perspective on everyday forms of conflict, and indicate that tensions are not being resolved in a neighborly way, such as knocking on someone’s door.”

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Where Voters of Color Are Suppressed Hardest in Georgia

The nearly 53,000 people in Georgia whose voter registrations have been frozen, or are “pending,” under a controversial new election administration scheme mostly live in the urban parts of the state. About 98 percent of the names on that list hail from just ten counties, all of them connected to Georgia’s most urban areas:

  • Bibb County, where the city of Macon is. (933)
  • Dougherty County, where the city of Albany is. (1,287)
  • Richmond County, where the city of Augusta is. (1,557)
  • Chatham County, where the city of Savannah is. (2,827)
  • Muscogee County, where the city of Columbus is. (3,076)

The other five counties where the bulk of the voter registrations are frozen, are in Atlanta’s metro suburbs, and four of those have the highest total number of pending voter registrations in the state. In all but two of the ten counties, the percentage of pending voter registrations that belong to African Americans is larger than the black share of the population in those counties.

Gwinnett County, in Atlanta’s northeast suburbs, only has a black population of 25.4 percent, and yet 35.4 percent of the voter registrations challenged come from African Americans (Gwinnett also has a population that is 20 percent Latino, which is roughly the same percentage of Latino voter registrations that have been flagged). Fulton County has more voter registrations placed on hold by far than any other county—20,768 compared to DeKalb County, which is number two with 10,541. Roughly 44 percent of Fulton is black, but 75 percent of the voter registrations on hold come from African Americans.

SOURCE: Campaign Legal Center (David M. Montgomery/CityLab)

Civil rights organizations are suing Georgia and its Secretary of State Brian Kemp, to stop this program. Kemp is presiding over the state’s elections while running as the Republican nominee for governor. His opponent, the Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams, is running to be the first African-American woman governor of Georgia.

Gwinnett County is one place worth keeping an eye on in this race as it is the locus for several questionable election policies that sound a lot like voter suppression. It not only has the third highest number of suspended voter registrations among all counties, it also has the highest rate of rejected absentee ballots in the state. In fact, Gwinnett County alone, is responsible for 40 percent of the tally of rejected absentee ballots across Georgia. And just as with the frozen voter registrations, it’s voters of color who are disproportionately affected—8 percent of African Americans’ absentee ballots and nearly 15 percent of Asian Americans’ absentee ballots have been rejected compared to just 2.5 percent of whites’ absentee ballots that have been returned.

Source: Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

It is not clear why so many ballots are being rejected in Gwinnett County, but the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sent a notice letter to Gwinnett officials last week requesting the records kept on this matter to find out.

Gwinnett, the second most populous county in the state, is a political battleground in Georgia that Republicans are desperately trying to hold on to in the face of swiftly changing demographics. The county’s white population decreased from two-thirds white to 41 percent white between 2000 and 2013. George W. Bush won Gwinnett in 2000 with 63.62 percent of the county’s votes, and Republicans have held power there ever since. Or at least that was true until 2016, when Hillary Clinton won over Trump, 51 percent to 45 percent. Democrats won several other state legislative and county seats representing Gwinnett from Republicans during that 2016 election as well.

And the population shifts are surfacing racism in myriad ways. Gwinnett County commissioner Tommy Hunter, who is white, was recently reprimanded by the ethics board for calling U.S. House member and civil rights leader John Lewis a “racist pig” on Martin Luther King Day last year. More consequently, after Republican incumbents barely won the state House District 105 in 2012 and 2014, a once solid-red district that encompasses Gwinnett County, GOP lawmakers redrew the district’s boundaries by subtracting black voters and spreading them across neighboring districts, which effectively diluted their voting strength and protected the white Republican incumbent Joyce Chandler.

Last year, civil rights organizations sued the state, with Georgia Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kemp as the named defendant, over this redistricting move, arguing that it constituted an unlawful racial gerrymander, in violation of the Voting Rights Act. A judge who ruled earlier this year on the case said she found that the evidence for racial gerrymandering is “compelling.” The litigation is still pending.

It should be noted that this possible case of gerrymandering is the product of a third wave of redistricting conducted by Republicans in Georgia since 2010. The first two, drawn in 2011 and 2012, had to be pre-cleared—reviewed and approved—by the U.S. Department of Justice because Georgia was, at the time, subjected to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 was created to prevent states like Georgia, that have long histories of discrimination against voters of color, from continuing to pass racially discriminatory election policies. But the U.S. Supreme Court struck Section 5 from the Voting Right Act in 2013, which gave Georgia free reign to pass any kind of election policy it wanted to without federal review. And that is exactly what Georgia lawmakers did, by serving up yet another round of redistricting in 2015 that included the questionable redrawing of District 105 in Gwinnett County.

The muting of Section 5 in the Voting Rights Act also allowed Georgia to institute the controversial “exact-match” voter registration into law, after earlier versions of it were challenged and rejected on voting rights violation grounds. Had Section 5 still been in place, there would have been federal checks and balances to ensure that Georgia’s new election laws and policies would not discriminate, without the need for costly lawsuits to make these determinations. Between the frozen voter registrations, the rejected absentee ballots, and the gerrymandering, it’s clear which voters are being targeted, and it’s not the ones who will likely vote for Kemp in November.

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Why Global Talent Clusters Around Cities

Talent is the key factor in economic development and increasingly clusters in and around great cities. That’s the main message of the new book, The Gift of Global Talent: How Migration Shapes Business, Economy & Society, by the economist William Kerr of Harvard Business School. (I liked the book so much, I blurbed it.)

While the key to America’s innovation and economic growth has long rested on its ability to attract the best and the brightest, cities across the world have caught on and are catching up. I spoke to Kerr by phone recently about his research on global talent flows, and what it means for cities in the United States and around the world. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and flow.

Stanford University Press

Why is global talent a gift to the world?

Global talent is a gift because the more we can match people with the opportunities they’re passionate about, cultivate their creativity with education and training, and then put them to practice; the more opportunity there is for everybody.

Our capacity to place people where they can best utilize and harness their talents and work to develop them is very powerful. The more we’re able to enable people to cluster together, the more powerful their work overall can become. For the United States in particular, this has been a very powerful gift. The book documents the enormously lopsided nature of our country’s talent inflows and some of the economic and societal implications and consequences.

How do you define talent?

The book looks at everything from Nobel Prize winners, college educated workforces, to the students in classrooms. I can’t say that any one of those definitions is perfect.

You write that America’s preeminence in attracting talent is in jeopardy. Why is that?

U.S. immigration policy has not been an advantage for us. You don’t have to be an economist or a business executive to look at the H1-B lottery and say, “This is not the best way that we could do it.” We’ve had a policy environment that has been stuck for more than a decade in the existing structure—small changes here and there, but nothing to really enhance the system. It’s not that the United States has received this special gift of talent because of its immigration policy, it’s more in spite of it.

The second part is, we’ve often been a first choice for where people want to go, but a lot of other countries are catching up or offering opportunities surpassing those in the U.S. Not that global development is a bad thing, but it does mean that we shouldn’t take special positions for granted. The combination of both our difficult policy environment and the improvements of other countries means that we find ourselves in a position that’s much tighter than before.

Many blame the Trump administration for setting America back in the competition for global talent. How has it threatened incoming talent?

The bigger challenge that President Trump has brought in is just a lot of uncertainty as to what the future holds. When we think about investment, uncertainty is not your friend. A lot of migration is developed around people’s expectations of the future, like deciding which university they want to attend. My wife was H1-B and then got a green card, and then became a citizen. We’ve been through the various stages; U.S. immigration policy is definitely not user-friendly. Unfortunately, with the rhetoric and other actions of the administration, from the travel ban and similar, there’s been a lot of uncertainty. It makes me very worried that it will have an even bigger effect than whatever policy changes might’ve come about.

We hear about brain drain and brain gain. What about the concept of brain circulation?

It’s vitally important and becoming more so. The old story of brain drain meant when the best and brightest went abroad, which was a loss to the country that they were from. Brain gain is the notion of people staying in the United States. The concept of brain circulation has certainly come into the landscape, highlighted as when transportation costs decline and planes are faster—that’s how our business culture will become ever more integrated.

Why is talent the world’s most precious resource?

Some might argue for data as the world’s most precious resource, or some may say oil or water. I put talent at the frontier. The ability to have talented people who are able to absorb, learn new ideas, combine them in ways that are not expected, and figure out how to reshape business models and opportunities around that is vitally important.

What’s the connection between talent and cities?

In many traditional industries, you had to combine talented people with factories, land, machinery, and other resources. Today, you have global reach from a single place, allowing for a very powerful city-level phenomenon. Talent desires to be ever in closer proximity.

How important are universities in talent generation?

It’s very under-appreciated how enormously important universities are in the talent inflow that comes into America. Universities have a powerful effect on catalyzing local industries of opportunity and putting people at the frontier of those ideas. For older industries, it brings to life these ideas to help us think about things in new ways and new opportunities. The university really generates and sustains activity around it.

Cities across the country and the world offer up billions of dollars worth of incentives to try to attract high-tech companies, with the idea that it will bolster their talent base. Do these things work or not?

Any time you’re providing incentives to a firm, it’s a high-risk move to get that cost-benefit right. I’m not going to say that you should never provide incentives to help out or tip the scales, but at the same time you really need to think about the alternative uses of those resources. Will the company be the good corporate sponsor that you hope that they will be?

I’m a fan of thinking about how to better activate the local talent that places already have. In the United States, you are 10 percent more likely to be an entrepreneur in your hometown than if you migrate to another place. And, locally grown entrepreneurs run stronger, better businesses. Having a strong and vibrant business community and generating opportunities is a beacon to other people deciding where to move. If you’re able to catalyze the local entrepreneurial ecosystem and find ways to bring in local talent, that’s going to be a powerful magnet for other people.

Which are the big new players in the competitions for talent? What are the places that are getting it right?

Many places are getting things right: Canada, Chile, China, Paris. I often get asked if the U.S. is going to lose out to China. I always remind people that the United States has 330-something metropolitan areas. They’re as diverse as from Miami to Seattle. There’s no other country that can deploy global talent at that scale. Yes, China and India are going to become more competitive for our talent, but I don’t think there’s going to be a single country that could take or lure talent away.

At the end of the day, are you optimistic or pessimistic about America’s ability to compete for talent in the future?

I don’t know if I’d call it optimism or pessimism. The United States has some time to start getting things better, but it needs to do it quickly. My hope is, first, that we pull back from this damaging rhetoric surrounding immigration; and second, that we can find ways to start making these adjustments with a reasonable debate and figure out how to take a bigger step forward.

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CityLab Daily: In Silicon Valley, It’s NIMBYs vs. Teachers

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


What We’re Following

No way, Jose: Like many expensive cities, San Jose, California, is struggling to keep its teachers. Of the 1,400 classroom teachers employed by the San Jose Unified School District, one in seven have to be replaced each year. In the heart of Silicon Valley, the towering gap between housing prices and teacher salaries is now so extreme that the school district has considered another idea: building apartments for teachers on school grounds.

The idea is still in its earliest days, but it’s already being met with outrage that this housing might be located near some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. One superintendent told CityLab’s Sarah Holder how perplexed he was about the resistance: “I’m a person who works with your kid every day—you trust me with your student in my classroom, but I’m not good enough to be your neighbor?” Read Sarah’s story: Why Are So Many People in San Jose Fighting Housing for Teachers?

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

The Nerd That Ate Seattle

Paul Allen was the city’s preeminent philanthropist and real estate developer up until his death earlier this week. His legacy reveals something broader about the twinned nature of Seattle and its native software son.

Gregory Scruggs

When Your Block is Being Watched

In her new documentary, journalist Assia Boundaoui explores the effect of constant surveillance on her predominantly Muslim neighborhood in suburban Illinois.

Tanvi Misra

How New York City Benefits From an Experimental Music Scene

Music venues play an important role in the city’s culture, and nightlife advocates say that needs to be taken more seriously by officials.

Feargus O’Sullivan

To Prevent Loneliness, Start in the Classroom

Young people are among the loneliest of all Americans. Schools that teach kids how to deal with feelings of isolation could help put a dent in the epidemic.

Ashley Fetters

Netflix’s ‘Stay Here’ Is a Baffling Show About Renovating Airbnbs

Binge-watch it if you’re not sure what to do with your extra house.

Sarah Holder

Read All Over?


The era of the competitive two-newspaper town is long gone—half of the 3,143 U.S. counties have only one newspaper, as the map above shows. Since 2004, nearly one in five newspapers has disappeared, according to a new study on “news deserts” by the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. Many of the surviving papers have turned into “ghost papers” as they’ve cut staff back dramatically.

That’s left hundreds of rural towns entirely without a newspaper. But the decline of print has hit cities and suburbs the hardest: About 70 percent of the newspapers that closed or merged (1,300 news outlets) since 2004 were weeklies or dailies that once served metro areas. (h/t Poynter and NiemanLab) CityLab context: The hidden costs of losing your city’s newspaper

What We’re Reading

Why a landowner in Akron is fighting to keep the homeless on his property (New York Times)

Rent control is back (Slate)

Portland could make big businesses fund clean energy (Fast Company)

Podcast alert: The worst way to start a city (99 Percent Invisible)

Even in Philadelphia, one of the most determined sanctuary cities, refuge is elusive (ProPublica)

Tell your friends about the CityLab Daily! Forward this newsletter to someone who loves cities and encourage them to subscribe. Send your own comments, feedback, and tips to

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With Austin as Host, Will Formula 1 Finally Win the United States?

Formula 1 racing has finally found another U.S. home and it should not come as a surprise that its host is the city of perpetual development Austin, Texas, where new skyscrapers are sprouting like weeds, housing prices are soaring, and global high-tech businesses are beating a relocation path to the city’s door. On Friday, international racing fans will descend on the city for the 18th leg of the Formula 1 2018 World Championship.

F1 racing certainly seems a perfect fit for a town that has become a major draw: Austin’s job growth has been assessed as the fastest in the nation for the last decade and the city adds about 150 new residents each day, making it the number one city for population growth in the U.S. between 2010 and 2018.

The city has created an almost irresistible lure for entrepreneurs looking to anchor and showcase their wares, and Formula 1 investors happily took the bait in constructing the $400 million state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas (COTA) pastoral venue which opened in 2012.

As the centerpiece of a festive three-day weekend of motorsports and music, gentlemen will be starting their engines in Austin for the seventh race at COTA which is likely to close with another coronation of the United Kingdom’s Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team, as this year’s series champion.

Hamilton’s standing as arguably the best driver in the world has positioned him as the leading ambassador for Formula 1 racing and the effort to increase the sports’ following. However, his mission takes on another element: making the sport attractive to black audiences and potential black drivers.

Hamilton, the biracial progeny of a West Indian father and British mum, is the circuit’s only black driver. (Though in 1987, the American Willy T. Ribbs had a brief run as the first black driver of an F1 car.) At COTA, with its headlining music acts packaged around the races, Hamilton is the real show, a commanding force as a driver as well as a guiding influence in the challenge to increase the numbers of black F1 drivers. Inevitably, at his appearances in Austin, he fields questions about the lack of black drivers in his sport (and a paucity of American drivers overall; there are no Americans among the 20 drivers in this year’s competition.)

While that may speak more to the exorbitant costs and other resources necessary to enter the world of F1 racing, the sport has no real presence in black neighborhoods where young athletes are more immediately drawn to football and basketball, and the related heroes. In Austin, that means former UT superstars—of which there are many—like pro football Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell and NBA All-Star forward Kevin Durant.

Circuit of the Americas, on the southeastern edge of Austin city limits. (Luca Bruno/AP)

Hamilton does not shy away from the issue of being an anomaly in a big money sport that holds little interest for black sports fans, nor from his link to all black athletes. Last year he caused a flurry of speculation when he mused about perhaps taking a knee at the 2017 Austin race in solidarity with black athletes doing the same in the United States to protest racial and social injustice. He did not take a knee but Hamilton does not flinch in response to questions about the dearth of black F1 drivers. He fields the expected questions with enthusiasm, encouragement, and hope, as he did in 2015 in Austin after a competition with local Go-Kart racers:

“As you can see, I’m doing as much as I can, but I’m only one person. Yesterday, I went go-karting with some kids. There were two black kids with us. One passed me, the first time I’d ever been on a track with a black kid and, coming past, it was like seeing myself come by. It was kind of funny. It was good. But my goal is not just to inspire young black kids, it’s all kids—white, Asian—just to show them that it’s open to everyone. When I was growing up, it was like, ‘well, you can’t be a Formula 1 driver because there’s never been a black Formula 1 driver.’ Well, it doesn’t mean there can’t be.”

Formula 1 is working to build a dedicated allegiance of American fans, but it is hard-pressed to attract young athletes as drivers to the sport. Until COTA opened, there had not been a U.S. Grand Prix race since 2007—the last F1 race in Indianapolis. However, COTA may be poised for a long-term run in Austin with its 3.4-mile circuit—the first U.S. track specifically designed for Formula 1 cars—which has drivers and their teams enthused about competing at the 1,000-acre patch of undulating farmland 15 miles southeast of downtown. The course has viewing stands to accommodate 120,000 fans and so far, despite a few hardships, has defied the failure of other U.S. cities to find success with F1 racing. (Formula 1 cars have previously raced through the cities Detroit, Miami, and Long Beach.)

And now, for at least one week in October, Austin will host international racing fans. But, make no mistake, the Austin sports scene will forever be defined by the hometown University of Texas Longhorns football team and the year-round interest and intensity of its fans. Formula 1 racing will never have that kind of fervent following here. The question of whether it can at least build on the COTA race to increase its U.S. fan base and attract American drivers is the overriding issue facing F1 racing.

While the United States has NASCAR (valued at $3-5 billion), and Indy Car racing events, Formula 1 is a globe-hopping, multi-leg auto racing series that compels the rest of the world and in 2016 was valued at $8 billion when it was sold to Liberty Media Corporation.

Even though COTA has encountered a bump or two in the road, struggling in its early years and forced to rely on city and state incentives to thrive as attendance dropped, the COTA event has slowly created a hundred-million-dollar optimism in Austin, with plans to further develop the property (with luxury condos, a hotel and other entertainment attractions). Attendance for the last two events have been encouraging for the venue’s future.

That’s not dissimilar to the slow growth of soccer, another internationally popular sport, in the U.S. Yes, youth leagues and soccer moms are legion, but the lack of home-grown talent equitable to that of other countries still lags far behind on the international scale and only recently has the popular English Premier League developed a U.S. following. That hasn’t stopped Austin from moving forward with plans to bring an MLS team and stadium to the city.

But Formula 1 racing has finally found another U.S. home and all indications, so far, are that its relationship with Austin, Texas, is well into the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It would hardly be surprising if Austin emerges as the magnet for F1 racing fans and diverse drivers.

*An F1 novice? A brief primer: Formula 1 racing is sanctioned by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (translation, FIA, International Automobile Federation) which governs auto racing for single-seat, open-cockpit machines under a specific set of rules (formula) for how the cars are set up (type of chassis, engine, gearbox, etc.). The number “1” designates the highest class of racing for the fastest, most advanced cars.

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When Your Block is Being Watched

Late one night when she was 16, Assia Boundaoui woke up to a light flashing in her face. She got out of bed, walked to her window, and looked outside into the still streets of her hometown of Bridgeview, Illinois, a middle-class suburb of Chicago. That’s when she saw them: two men perched on the telephone pole, fiddling with the wires, with flashlights in hand.

Frightened, Boundaoui ran to her parents’ room and relayed the incident—but received little reaction.

“My mom was like, ’Calm down. It’s just the FBI—go back to sleep,’” she recounts in the opening scene of her new documentary The Feeling of Being Watched.

The film is full of unnerving anecdotes like this, told by Boundaoui, her family, and her neighbors: mysterious cars parked outside the driveway; strange men rummaging through trashcans; crackle on phone lines, suggesting they were tapped. Then there were the actual physical encounters with FBI agents, knocking on doors and seeking to interrogate the Muslim residents of Bridgeview.

It was not just a one-off incident, and it was not just paranoia. In the film, Boundaoui learns that over 33,000 pages of records exist on FBI’s “Operation Vulgar Betrayal”—a counterintelligence initiative through which her community was surveilled as far back as 1985. Via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, she obtains these documents, which are almost 70 percent redacted, but clearly support that the FBI secretly sought to collect information on her family and their neighbors.

These revelations fit cleanly into the history of disproportionate surveillance of communities of color—black civil rights leaders, LGBT populations, native activists, religious minorities, and immigrants. Since 9/11, in particular, law enforcement has explicitly monitored mosques, community centers, and schools in search of turning up connections to terrorism, often in vain.

But Boundaoui’s film, at the end of the day, isn’t just about the suspicious gaze that American society casts upon Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S.: It is also about how these communities see, and define, themselves.

CityLab caught up with Boundaoui to chat about her film, which is being screened across the country.

What did it feel like growing up in Bridgeview, Illinois, a community where the feeling of being watched was so pervasive?

I don’t ever remember a moment when it started, or a moment where someone told me, “Oh yeah, we’re under surveillance.” It was just something that we always felt had no beginning point.

It manifested itself in so many ways for us as children. We used to make a lot of jokes about it. The Wi-Fi networks in my neighborhood had tongue-in-cheek names like “FBIsurveillancevan2” and “theNSAiswatchingthisnetwork.”

You can trace a direct line between the tactics the FBI was using in our community and the negative effect. For example, the use of informants in the community really created distrust among people. You didn’t talk out loud about what was going on, because you didn’t know you know if your neighbors might suspect you of being an informant, or if they themselves may be informants. People censored themselves.

There were many other things—students not signing up to be a part of Muslim student associations, for example. They were afraid that they might open themselves up to more surveillance. There were small chilling effects, and then larger ones.

After a legal battle over delays over the release of FBI’s massive trove of documents on “Operation Vulgar Betrayal,” a judge ordered that 3,000 pages be processed every month. You’ve been getting a slow trickle of records you requested and you’re still fighting the lack of transparency in court. What you have learned so far? What do you still not know?

What we do know is that the FBI started this investigation in the ‘90s that resulted in the profiling of thousands of Americans—that secretly collected information on more than 600 American Muslim individuals, businesses, organizations, and schools.

We also know that the FBI field office in Chicago shared the records with dozens of other field offices in cities across the country. This investigation, Vulgar Betrayal, was the beginning of many other investigations that started after, similarly profiling American communities across the country.

The biggest thing that’s redacted in the records is why. And it’s the question I get all the time. I tell people, “You should ask the FBI.” It’s a question I don’t have an answer to yet.

I think the historical record sheds a lot of light, though. The most interesting information in the records from COINTELPRO, [the FBI’s 1960s operation targeting civil rights leaders, among others], is the why. It’s very explicit. It has nothing to do with looking for a specific crime but it’s actually about disrupting the political organizing of a movement that the FBI saw as a national security risk.

What’s your next step?

My next project is trying to understand what information has been redacted [from the records I’ve received]. I have a fellowship at the MIT Open Documentary Lab, where I’m using artificial intelligence to help guess what’s behind the redactions.

We have the COINTELPRO records that are fully un-redacted, and hundreds of thousands of pages of documents about the surveillance of other people of color that are fully readable. So we’re going to use that as the basis for a machine learning algorithm that will help us guess what’s behind the black holes in the Vulgar Betrayal files. The idea is, how can we use technology to compel a radical transparency, when you can’t get that from the government?

What I found interesting about your film is that it really zooms in into the effect of surveillance, not one person, but on an entire neighborhood. These stories are, of course, everywhere. Dearborn, Michigan, for example, which has a large Arab and Muslim population, also has the highest per capita residents on a controversial and opaque terror watchlist.

When it’s not about the individual—it’s about seeing an entire community being seen as a threat—it makes sense that they would create an architecture for surveillance on top of an entire community.

In our neighborhood, specifically, it’s not just the mosque that’s listed. It’s the two elementary schools; it’s a bunch of the businesses around it. What they did was look at this network of relationships as a network of criminality.

But this is what a community looks like! The FBI really preyed on these relationships to make a case of criminality, and actually this was an immigrant community relating to each other.

At one point in the movie, you talk this idea of “double consciousness”—that you’re simultaneously have to juggle how society sees you with how you see yourself. I feel like that was an approach you employed on a broader level in the film. You uncovered the way the government views your community, but also revealed how the community views that gaze, and how it defines itself, despite that gaze. What story did you want to tell about your own community here?

I wanted to create [something] that reflected nuances and the complexities of who we are and our multiple dimensions—something that looked at not just struggle and trauma, but also joy.

I understand what I’m doing here. This is a counter-narrative to a sea of narratives that depict Muslims in a really specific, monolithic, negative way. The idea was that I wanted to create something not to counter that image amongst other people, but to create an image that we—people of color—could see ourselves in and recognize those faces. For such a long time, specifically in our community, we’ve had to define ourselves in the negative: We’re not that, we’re not this, we’re not terrorists. And we’ve lost in that who we really are.

I was creating something not just to say we’re not this but to also create an affirmative definition or description of who it is we are.

What responses have you received from Bridgeview residents and others since the film came out?

I remember when we got the first batch of documents telling my mom like, “We found all the documents. This is really happening.” And she’s like, “Yeah I know. We knew all along.” So for some people, it wasn’t news at all.

I think it’s been more interesting to be able to present that to folks outside of the community—to say, “Here’s the effect it had on us personally. And here are the primary documents that speak to this widespread mass surveillance and mass profiling campaign that the FBI was doing.”

There’s an old-school leadership in the American Muslim community that has a way of approaching these issues that is very conciliatory—that doesn’t want to shake the boat and call out the government because they want to have an amicable relationship with them. And then there’s another younger generation that is really very unapologetic about who they are and insists on an honest, respectful, and transparent relationship with law enforcement.

The community is not monolithic. There are people with different approaches on how we should tackle this issue and how we should talk about it.

Do you plan to go to other cities where Muslim communities have experienced this?

Through our community impact campaign, we want to go to 12 predominately American cities to show the film and then host community town halls, where we have discussions about how this issue has affected that specific community. And we plan to have organizers in the room talking about how folks can engage with this.

Last week we did a guerrilla projection on the FBI Building in Washington, D.C.—the Hoover building. Inside that building are records with my family’s name, and my community’s name. On the outside, we projected the highly redacted FBI documents. In the black holes of these documents were home videos of my family from the ‘90s. The idea is to juxtapose this bureaucratic language the FBI used to cast suspicion on all of us with the really mundane things we were actually up to at the time.

This whole thing has been something people in my community have whispered about for such a long time. How do we create a conversation about how this has collectively affected our community? And what can we do about it?

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To Prevent Loneliness, Start in the Classroom

Starting in September of 2020, schoolchildren across the United Kingdom will learn from their teachers how to fend off loneliness.

In January, British Prime Minister Theresa May appointed the first “minister of loneliness.” This week, her administration released a 84-page plan detailing the specific actions it will take to curb loneliness across the country, including measures that will be enacted in schools. Starting in primary school, students will have mandatory lessons in “relationships education,” and such lessons will also be incorporated into sex-ed classes in high school.

The Brigham Young University psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad, one of the foremost scholars on loneliness in the United States, warns the U.S. has a significant, largely unaddressed loneliness problem of its own—and that schools desperately need to follow the U.K.’s lead and incorporate preventative measures into their lessons.

Indeed, according to a recent report by the healthcare company Cigna, nearly half of adults in the U.S. reported sometimes or always feeling alone. Marriage rates and religious-participation rates are also dropping, which are both risk factors for social isolation and loneliness. And the prevalence of loneliness seems to be especially acute among young adults: One study last year found that Americans between the ages of 21 and 30 reported feeling lonely for twice as many days as adults between ages 50 and 70, despite having larger social networks. The health consequences of loneliness can be severe: Studies suggest chronic loneliness is linked to a variety of health issues, like decreased immunity to viral infections, poor sleep, and cardiovascular issues like hypertension.

Loneliness and social isolation, it’s worth noting, are often used interchangeably, but they’re two distinct concepts. Loneliness is a feeling that may or may not depend on how many meaningful confidants they have in their life—some people feel lonely or suffer from chronic loneliness despite not being socially isolated. Still, social isolation is a leading contributor to loneliness.

The ideal school curriculum for teaching loneliness prevention, Holt-Lunstad says, would target social isolation as well as the cognitive processes that make people feel more lonely—while, of course, teaching students the health risks associated with loneliness. “Recognizing that it’s something that we need to take seriously for our health is a primary and critical step,” she says.

Holt-Lunstad advocates for a sort of “social education”—similar to schools’ efforts to provide, say, sex education and physical education—that would be integrated into existing health-education curricula to teach students how to build and maintain friendships and relationships. Learning how to provide the kind of help and support a friend or partner feels they need is an invaluable social skill that can be taught in the classroom, she adds. For example, when a broke friend asks for money but instead receives a lecture on financial management, she isn’t likely to feel she’s been supported in the way she needs.

Of course, Holt-Lunstad isn’t the first to wish students learned more social-support and empathy skills during the school day. Since as far back as 1976, researchers have recommended social education as a way to teach teens how to foster and maintain healthy relationships. In 2000, the academic E. Wayne Ross took a different approach when he wrote for Theory & Research in Social Education that individual teachers, particularly social-studies teachers, should take care to teach history and civics from the perspective of multiple perspectives to foster empathy and quell alienation among diverse groups of students. Social-skills training has also been implemented in many schools for special-needs students, and some schools have already taken measures outside of classrooms to encourage social support between students, like instituting a “buddy bench,” where kids can sit during recess or lunch to indicate that they could use a friend.

But Holt-Lunstad believes that loneliness-prevention education should not be limited to teaching students how to support others. She also believes that kids should learn early in life how to reframe their own negative responses to social situations. “We’ve all had a situation where you text someone and they don’t respond right away,” she says. “Instead of assuming they’re snubbing you, they’re blowing you off, all of these kinds of negative things that could in turn lead you to respond with nasty comments or become irritated, which is not going to elicit the sort of friendly response you want,” she says, “reframe it as, ‘Perhaps they’re driving.’ ‘Perhaps they’re in a meeting.’ If you’re interpreting others’ social signals as negative, how you behave towards them is more likely to mirror that.” The existing strategies for helping people repackage their thoughts in a more positive way could be easily adapted for a classroom setting.

One big critique of incorporating social education into the school day is that it could take away time and resources that are currently used for other prevention programs, like those that target substance abuse, suicide, and bullying. But, as Holt-Lunstad told me, loneliness is a risk factor for those behaviors. “Addressing social isolation, loneliness, social disconnection helps us to address those other issues, too,” she says.

What’s most crucial in the development of a school loneliness-prevention program, though, is taking the time to develop a curriculum that works. Some school programs implemented in recent decades haven’t been all that successful: Certain abstinence-only sex education programs have been linked to higher rates of teen pregnancy, while some drug-abuse prevention programs haven’t done much to curb drug use. “So this really does need to be evidence-based,” Holt-Lunstad says. “We have to be really, really careful about the kinds of interventions we do.”

As loneliness remains a troubling and pervasive problem in America and around the world, teaching preventative skills to students could help create future generations that are healthier and more socially connected. And just as schools have implemented exercise, substance-abuse, and nutrition programs into their curricula to help kids become active, healthy adults, Holt-Lunstad says, loneliness prevention courses could help ensure they grow into empathetic, socially connected ones, too.

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How New York City Benefits From an Experimental Music Scene

Nightlife can make great contributions to a city, so it’s bizarre how often decision-makers fail to understand it. While officials may have a profound knowledge of their city in the daylight hours, sunset can seem to dim their expertise to cliches of noise and criminality.

In New York, a report released last month aims to help change that. The Creative Footprint NYC Report is a unique audit of the city’s robust music scene. Compiled by VibeLab, a consultancy piloted by former Amsterdam night mayor Mirik Milan and Lutz Leichsenring of Berlin’s Club Commission, the report is also a step forward in the march of the “night mayor” concept, which advocates better communication between nighttime businesses, city officials, and the public.

The report’s approach is serious, even wonkish, in presenting an audit of New York’s music venues—a category that includes nightclubs, live music, and music bars—and in assessing the cultural offerings they provide. Among the important points that emerge is the assertion that music venues with more experimental, non-commercial programming play a special role in improving community cohesion and resilience. Additionally, the successes and failures of the music scene are bound up with the overall pattern of demographic and economic changes in the city.

There’s one question at the center of the report’s investigation: If New York acknowledges that variety is an essential element of its music scene, what can be done to foster that? The key recommendation is so fundamental that it’s poignant: The city (and others like it) needs to take music venues seriously.

Measuring the experimental

Because the nightlife sector rarely gets a systematic overview, musicians, music lovers, and promoters are often left without the tools or data at their disposal to open a meaningful dialogue with the city.

“For a community to successfully engage with the government, it needs to have its dimensions and values translated into some language that the government can understand and act upon,” report contributor, lecturer and musician Michael Fichman told CityLab via email. The goal with this survey, he said, is to measure things that are important to the music scene but unlikely to be surveyed by the government or economists.

Crucially, the report doesn’t only measure venue size and location; it also develops metrics that help to assess the cultural and community value of each site. It does this by creating an “experimental output” metric that appraises the extent to which a venue provides non-mainstream alternatives to commercial offerings, and thus to what extent it broadens the city’s cultural possibilities.

As the maps below show, that metric changes the geographic layout of New York’s music scene. Unsurprisingly, Manhattan is king when it comes to the sheer number of venues. The sections south of Central Park retain the most intense concentration of music venues, far outpacing even the stereotypically artist-filled areas of northwest Brooklyn.

(Creative Footprint NYC)

But when you look at where the experimental venues are, the map shifts markedly. The highest-scoring venues for experimentation tend to be around the Brooklyn/Queens border, mostly somewhat inland. Focus in more closely and the city’s most musically experimental venues cluster in Ridgewood, Queens, closely followed by neighboring Bushwick South.

(Creative Footprint NYC)

Musical displacement

These areas will no doubt be familiar to New York watchers: They’re on the frontline of Brooklyn’s and Queens’s ongoing gentrification. Indeed, across the city, the report finds that New York’s most experimental venues tend to be in areas similar to these: neighborhoods with good transit connections and large populations of minorities and young people.

Typically, these areas experience higher-than-average rent increases, and it’s interesting to reflect on the relation between rent increases and experimental music venues. There could be an argument, for example, that such venues are motors of gentrification rather than its victims, springing up in areas where rents are already rising and acting as magnets for developers and the affluent.

This is where the report’s focus on experimental content can shed some extra light. It shows that Williamsburg actually retains more music venues than the still cheaper, somewhat less gentrified areas to its west. The area’s collective experimental score is nonetheless perceptibly lower than Bushwick/Ridgewood. This suggests—but does not confirm—that while higher local costs may not necessarily expel music venues, they have a role in promoting a less diverse music ecosystem.  

And when less commercial venues are forced to close, a focal point for part of the local community is lost, as is a place where some social divides are bridged. When these venues are cultural beacons for minority communities, which themselves face the threat of displacement, the potential damage to community cohesion and neighborhood identity is even greater.  

Searching for solutions

So what can be done to make it more feasible for these kinds of venues to exist? Part of it, as mentioned before, is an attitude shift that sees venues as potential community anchors and incubators for creative industries.

Beyond that, the report advocates a broader understanding of the conditions that help a music scene thrive—what it calls “city center flexibility.” Inner districts do not thrive culturally or socially if they are treated as monolithic, mono-zoned spaces whose uses have long crystallized. Cities can make their public spaces more vibrant by investigating cultural uses for public spaces, especially if this enables establishments like music venues to engage with a wider public beyond just their physical location.

There are other ideas, too, like giving developers incentives to provide cultural spaces within their developments, or offer rent control for certain spaces that are identified as valuable. Red tape can stand in the way as well. Take, for example, New York’s policies around live music. Venues with a capacity of under 200 can normally get permission to operate in commercial or manufacturing areas, although they need a Place of Assembly Permit for any capacity over 75. If they charge cover and post a line-up, however, they immediately fall within a more heavily restricted set of venues, even if they abide by every other regulation. That means that city policy actually works against the creation of live music, without necessarily having set out with that intention.

In practice, the authorities sometimes turn a blind eye if this kind of venue keeps its nose clean. Too frequently, however, such venues are targeted by authorities and slapped with a series of minor violations until forced to close.

An appetite for change

Even where suggested solutions make sense, they’re not necessarily politically feasible—but New York does seem to have some momentum for change. The city already established its own partly independent Office for Nightlife, a local implementation of the Night Mayor/Club Commission that’s sprouted up in some European cities. City Councillor Rafael Espinal, who proposed the commission, is also proposing some further measures, such as a rule that places the responsibility for soundproofing on developers. If approved, that could help prevent a notorious kind of stand-off in which new residents move in near an existing venue, then campaign to close it because it’s loud.

Nightlife and music-friendly policies are nonetheless likely to be greeted with some suspicion, and understandably so. If residents have their sleep disturbed by thoughtlessly located, poorly run venues, they’re not likely to see the social cohesion happening there. It’s worth stating that night mayors and offices for nightlife advocate specifically for the avoidance—not the tolerance—of such unhappy neighborhood relationships.

Indeed, perhaps the best argument for a change of attitude lies in the condition of New York itself. As high real estate costs leave parts of Manhattan as glossy wastelands without stores, street life, or even permanent residents, New Yorkers see the costs of failing to protect space for bottom-up affordable cultural spaces, homes, and businesses in the city core. Something needs to be done to protect and nurture the city’s vitality, to prevent it from becoming a mere dormitory for the better off. That something could—indeed should—involve a more positive attitude to nightlife.

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IoT and Cities: Enhancing Parking, Traffic and More

IoT solutions allow drivers to make smart parking decisions based on facts rather than luck, ensuring less congestion – in regard to both the amount of cars backed up in a certain area and the emissions released into the air. It is essential for drivers to be able to rely on accurate real-time information about where to go, and more importantly, where not to go when all spaces are occupied.

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