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
Driver knows best: Bus drivers observe a city from a unique vantage point. They interact with riders more directly than train drivers, and constantly navigate the busy streets. So who better to ask about redesigning New York City’s buses than the people behind the wheel? A survey of 373 Brooklyn bus operators did exactly that, and the drivers have some ideas that could not only make their daily grind easier, but could also improve service and win back riders. Read the latest in CityLab’s Bus to the Future series:How Do You Fix the Bus? We Asked the Drivers.
The number of kids in foster care is climbing, and so are public costs. In search of efficiencies, many states have at least partially privatized their systems.
Nation of Immigrants
As the Trump administration’s detention and separation of immigrant families grabs headlines, it’s worth considering how immigration has changed in the United States. Conrad Hackett, a senior demographer at the Pew Research Center, shared this map over the weekend of which states received the most immigrants from particular countries from 1850 to 2013. When Pew reported on the source of America’s immigrants in 2015, about half of the 59 million immigrants to the United States from 1965 to the present had originated from a Latin American country. More on CityLab:How Immigration Raids Inflict Trauma on Communities
What We’re Reading
The coming crisis of coastal flooding: $1 trillion of real estate at risk by 2100 (Curbed)
During his time as an army engineer, Brandon Anderson handled intelligence sent back from field soldiers and base commanders, seeing firsthand the impact that data had on governmental decision-making. When he returned to civilian life, Anderson decided to use his knowledge of data gathering and dispersal to create a tool that could accomplish a goal close to his heart: protecting communities from police brutality.
That tool, an app called Raheem.Ai, hosted on Facebook Messenger, allows people to report their interactions with police officers. It has received funding from Google and Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative; and last week Anderson was named a 2018 Echoing Green Fellow.
The app prompts users to enter the time and location of the incident, how they felt about it, and demographic data about the officer and about themselves.
Some of the information is then shared on an interactive map. One red dot in Oakland states, “A 36-year-old Black genderqueer person was pulled over and felt disrespected.” Not all of the reports are negative; a green dot in San Francisco reads, “A 28-year-old intersex Asian gender nonconforming person got stopped on foot and felt relieved.”
While he was building the app, Anderson spoke with police departments—rank and file officers as well as police chiefs—and said the response he often got was that, given all the interactions that take place between police officers and members of the community, the percentage of people killed is relatively low.
“How, then are you measuring impact in the community?” Anderson asked. “Is it solely by the number of people we don’t kill? That’s probably not a good metric. I’ve had my own experiences with police—I’m alive, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t impact me in traumatic ways.” Anderson’s own partner was killed by police, a driving force behind Raheem.Ai’s creation.
The app gathers experiences that are already being told: “These stories are what every police chief hears,” said Chris Burbank, Director of Law Enforcement Engagement at The Center for Policing Equity and the former Chief of Police at the Salt Lake City Police Department. “When someone gets stopped you hear ‘My friend gets stopped, [or] my sister.’ The idea of having the data available, having more feedback on how the officers interact with people, I think is very significant.”
Anderson wants to bring those stories out of the shadows. He started digging to understand how people were experiencing policing in their neighborhoods and learned that most people didn’t report their experience with police officers—especially when they were negative.
“People don’t trust the system,” Anderson said, which ensures that they rarely give feedback about police encounters. Anderson wants Raheem.Ai to make it easier for people to document and share their experiences with the police, to create a data-driven way for communities and cities to measure the impact of policing.
The importance of the app, said Burbank, is that it takes the information one step further. “It’s more formalized, so it starts to take on a better tone and the richness of data because there’s some accountability in it—it’s not just the arbitrary re-telling of a story.”
Anderson has three goals for the app: to reduce underreporting, to use the data to advance policy solutions to end police violence, and to arm communities with tools to engage in participatory budgeting. That last aim may seem disconnected from the rest, but Anderson sees it as key to re-thinking the way policing is conceived and funded in cities. Money currently spent on the police force could be diverted to mental health services, he said.
“The reason that police in Ferguson had gas masks, tanks, Humveess—it’s because they had a program that invested in that gear, and that gear was kept because they said, ‘We’ll need this some day,’” said Anderson. “We need to find new ways—better ways—to invest that money, that will provide opportunities that will ultimately solve crime.”
In his book The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement, University of the District of Columbia law professor Andrew Ferguson, wrote that once police misconduct can be viewed as a system failure, rather than an individual problem, it becomes easier to address. “Normally, when you think about what police do and how they interact, it feels human: that every incident is its own unique incident,” said Ferguson. “But the more you quantify, you see police are doing similar things across the country. Once you see that repetition in data, you start seeing that these are systemic issues.”
“The reality of an app that can reveal these patterns is another data point to show that this is a structural problem, and needs a structural response,” he said. Ferguson likens the community-generated data to Yelp reviews: the strength in number of individual voices.
“We start trusting those things in part because the numbers support the intuition that there may be something going wrong there,” he said. “There’s a sense in many communities that there’s something broken in the police-community relationship, but it’s an extra validation if you can see over and over again citizens giving negative reviews to interactions with police.”
However, Ferguson did note that the more granular the data is, the more useful it becomes. The app only allows users on to see the age, gender, race, and location of those stopped, as well as how the interaction made them feel. They cannot see information about the police officer involved.
That data is available, just not to the general public—at least, not yet. While the app also records more detailed information, like the incident’s case number and officer’s badge number, such information is currently shared only with a city’s mayor’s office, for privacy and legal concerns.
Burbank does see the app’s potential to be a double-edged sword; the flip side, he said, is that you are potentially giving criminals a voice, and if an officer’s information is posted publicly he worries that they could be personally targeted—a concern voiced about some other community-sourced police accountability platforms.
But Burbank still said he would endorse the product if he were still a police chief. The key details the app can provide on the back end—location, time of day, officer involved, person involved, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity—are significant, he said, because departments can begin to look at how many people a given officer stops and searches, and what those demographics are.
Armed with that data, said Burbank, “I can make an informed decision about whether I want this officer representing me in public, and I can have a data set to back up that decision—and that’s what’s been lacking in policing.”
The facts are stark: Bus ridership in New York City is in a state of free fall. Ridership losses in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan are even more
Under the auspices of the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University, we are in the process of developing a bus redesign plan for Brooklyn’s bus network, in the hopes of influencing the transit reform process. Our plan will argue that combining technical and technological improvements with input from local bus operators and passengers who experience the network every day will make for a better system. Unlike trains, buses bring operators and passengers into direct contact with each another. Drivers answer passengers’ questions, help those with walkers and wheelchairs, and endure traffic on a daily basis; they have a unique perspective and intimate understanding of how the conditions on the road impact the bus rider experience.
Brooklyn is perhaps in greatest need of their contributions. It is the most populous borough, with the greatest number of bus riders, and it lacks the subway coverage of Manhattan. Its streets are not an orderly grid; running efficient transit is a challenge, and lessons learned here could be applied to other cities. And, as this chart shows, ridership in Brooklyn has been dropping dramatically over the last decade.
In our research, we sat down and spoke with 373 bus operators in Brooklyn. They described their experiences and helped us understand how to combine their observations and specialized knowledge with technical tweaks and improvements to tailor better solutions.
The top fix they’d like to see is off-board fare collection. Managing the farebox creates lots of opportunities for conflict with passengers. According to the Transport Workers Union Local 100, 75 Brooklyn bus operators were assaulted in 2017, in part because of disputes over payment. Relatedly, some 90 percent of the bus operators who responded to our survey said that all-door boarding, which would be made possible by off-board fare payment, would make them more effective at their jobs, the highest show of support for any change.
The second most important issue they highlighted was traffic and bus lane enforcement. The two issues that cause operators the most stress are double-parked vehicles (79 percent) and traffic (63 percent). In addition, 82 percent of operators said reduced congestion would make them more effective at their job. This finding is especially salient because New York has already rolled out camera-enforced bus lanes on some routes. Operators told us that these lanes don’t do enough to keep buses from getting trapped behind double-parked vehicles, taxis that are picking up or dropping off, and vehicles turning in front of them.
Many operators also expressed a frustration that road users such as bikers and pedestrians might be familiar with: They get no respect. “Bikes have dedicated lanes, so why not us?” said one. This wasn’t a complaint about cyclists, but a recognition of where buses seem to land in the hierarchy of road users. Over the last decade, New York’s streets and roadways have been redesigned to accommodate pedestrians, bicyclists, and even parking. Policy has been amended to make room for e-hail and green taxis. Even the oft-overlooked “dollar vans” that shuttle around outer-borough commuters have scored a few legislative victories in the last five years. Many of these changes have improved the city’s public realm, but what has been done for the bus? Relatively little. Select Bus Service—New York’s version of bus rapid transit—has rolled out slowly. As the bus operators reminded us, camera-enforcement isn’t doing enough to keep other types of traffic out of SBS lanes.
In addition to these issues, operators complained that unrealistic schedules prevent them from tending to basic needs such as going to the bathroom or grabbing a bite to eat in between trips. The human factor in bus scheduling is an ongoing challenge, and it’s currently addressed via the “personal”—a 20-minute rest break taken at the operator’s discretion, on an unlimited basis, to allow for some flexibility in an otherwise rigid schedule. By definition, the “personal” is not administered predictably or scheduled in advance. Some operators take multiple personals a day; others limit them to once or twice a month. While these breaks create time in the schedule for the operator, it defeats the purpose of having precisely timed schedules. Resolving schedule conflicts requires either increasing time between trips so that operators have a break between arriving and departing from a terminal, which costs money, or improving scheduling and dispatch. Dedicated bus lanes, signal priorities, and other driver-supported treatments that free the bus from car traffic could also help create greater certainty in schedules.
As the MTA overhauls local bus service, operators have their own experiences to contribute to the process. Reformers sometimes assume that labor is always hostile to efficiency and innovation, because of union opposition to measures that could reduce staffing. In the case of buses, such an assumption is unwarranted and counterproductive. The bus operators we spoke to were supportive of plans that would reduce the physical and psychological stress coming from hostile passengers, traffic, and unpredictable timetables, and they’re eager to contribute ideas toward these goals. The MTA is considering reforms that need to happen in virtually every city. Agencies should listen.
Edgar Miller was a virtuoso in any medium he chose: painting, sculpture, stained glass, architecture, interior design, printmaking, metalwork, cutlery, graphic design. He put those prodigious skills toward building a creative community on Chicago’s near-north side in the 1920s and beyond. Miller’s handful of architecture projects (a series of live-work lofts) stretched the boundaries of the city’s bohemian frontier, seeding a new hub for culture, art, and radical politics.
This output never earned Miller a place in Chicago’s pantheon of culture. But now a non-profit, Edgar Miller Legacy, is celebrating his legacy and offering new ways for people to connect through Miller’s work.
Miller was born 1899 in Idaho, just nine years after it became a state. He had the sort of free-range frontier childhood that’s both illegal and impossible today. As kids, he and his brother would go camping for days in complete wilderness, sketching animals and plants. (He recalled attending a bonfire with a local tribe of Native Americans.) He developed a deep reverence for nature, evident across his work.
One of Miller’s high-school teachers recognized his talent for art and arranged for him to attend the Art Institute of Chicago. He arrived in 1917 during city’s golden age. The fastest-growing city in the world, Chicago was run by barons of capital who were very interested in burnishing their image with the finely crafted art that Miller could provide.
Miller was a committed workaholic, churning out movie posters and children’s wallpaper. But he wasn’t just a commercial craftsman. He had philosophical aspirations for the role art should play in life. At the Art Institute, this caused him to mount a revolt with fellow students, including close friend Sol Kogen. Eventually, Miller dropped out.
It wasn’t much of a detriment. He learned many new skills at the shop of artist, sculptor, and industrial designer Alfonso Iannelli. And Miller became closely aligned with some of the city’s premier architecture firms, such as Holabird & Root, contributing murals and installations to their projects.
Less lucrative, but more influential, was a wild idea that Kogen dreamed up. After spending down his stash of family money living in Paris, Kogen returned to Chicago in 1927 and proposed that he and Miller build a bohemian live-work artist complex like those he’d seen in Montmartre. Kogen, whose family owned a textile business, had just a portion of Miller’s raw artistic talent, but compensated with a voluble and magnetic personality—a Gatsby-esque bon vivant to the quieter, more thoughtful Miller. Together, they had the connections and talent to pull together a new kind of artistic community in Chicago.
Their proto-hipster set was already being priced out of the Tower Town neighborhood just north of the Loop (named for the 1869 Water Tower, one of the few structures to survive the Great Chicago Fire), so they set their sights on the neighborhood that would become Old Town, then a working-class German and Armenian district. Zac Bleicher, executive director of Edgar Miller Legacy, calls the project “the brainchild of Sol Kogen, but with the artistic direction of Miller.”
For this first venture—the Carl Street Studios—Kogen purchased an old mansion and converted it slowly, scrapping and saving, paying piece by piece. (Miller maintained until his death that Carl Street was still a work in progress.) Kogen would often salvage building materials off the back of a truck, and this handmade sense of upcycling persists. Many of Miller’s stained-glass windows display scraps of glass with different patterns and textures, as if each had its own fingerprint. It’s a mode that has been taken up again in Chicago by Theaster Gates, the contemporary multimedia artist, who uses the broken and discarded to create places for community within art.
With the Carl Street Studios and later projects, Miller sought to create an environment of total art—and he, uniquely, had the skills to do this himself. He was decidedly a maximalist, painting antelopes on the plates you ate from, carving frolicking weasels into ceiling beams, and slicing Edenic figures out of metal silhouettes on windows. He wanted art to be an all-encompassing “social adventure.”
Around this time, avant-garde Modernists in Europe were paring back architecture to a utilitarian and egalitarian ideal. This meant unadorned buildings of raw, abstract geometry. Miller, by contrast, craved representation his entire career. To him, a shared and definite understanding of the things around us was what bound people together.
Miller’s highest expression of his ambitions was the Glasner Studio (part of the Kogen-Miller Complex), which now hosts Edgar Miller Legacy’s headquarters. For arts patron and manufacturing magnate Rudolph Glasner, Miller built an art refuge topped by a third-story “ballroom” that, with its graceful ceiling beams, is equal parts stick-built chapel and medieval mead hall. It’s hard to imagine a better place for a ripping good dinner party with fringy artists and outcasts.
Lots of artist-studio conversions popped up in Old Town in Miller’s wake, and a sense of countercultural community pervaded the entire neighborhood. It was a constant presence at the Glasner Studio, no matter how many clumsy renovations it suffered. Through the late 1960s, it was something of a lefty and revolutionary hangout, often at the behest of reformed socialite Lucy Hassell Montgomery, who used her second husband’s Post Cereals company fortune to fund the Civil Rights Movement. Fred Hampton hid from the police here two months before he was assassinated. George McGovern and Jane Fonda stopped by; free jazz explorers Sun Ra and the AACM played private shows.
From 1927 to 1937, Miller lived mostly at the Carl Street Studios. He remained in Chicago and supported himself by his art until the late 1960s, when he went into semi-retirement and moved to Florida to buy and operate a hotel. After his wife died, he moved to San Francisco to live with his children. He largely faded from view until several artists familiar with his work sought him out in California. They celebrated his eventual homecoming in 1986, when Miller came back to Chicago, moved into one of his old buildings, and started working again. He died in 1993. Edgar Miller Legacy was founded in 2014, after Bleicher’s uncle Mark Mamolen restored the Glasner Studio.
Miller’s low historical profile is a result of temperament, geography, and the ascendance of Modernism everywhere. Unlike the Chicago luminaries Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe, Miller didn’t teach; he had no acolytes to perpetuate his legend. His few buildings are difficult-to-access private residences. The Glasner Studio “is his greatest work,” said Bleicher as we sat in it, “and we are [two] of thousands—two thousand, maybe—that have ever seen it.”Also, Miller never had access to the New York City public-relations machine that boosted the fortunes of many artists of his era. Edgar Miller Legacy does occasionally open up his buildings for tours. Miller’s Fisher Apartments are now a Chicago landmark, and the Carl Street Studios are part of The West Burton Place Historic District.
Miller was never a card-carrying member of the Modernist revolution, but he always saw himself as a progressive. Like the Modernists, he was enamored with machine-age construction and fabrication techniques, but he didn’t approve of perpetuating uniform space. He craved idiosyncrasy and diversity. He was more aligned with the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. He distrusted Abstract Expressionism as being hopelessly self-obsessed: What could be derived from Jackson Pollock’s splatters of paint beyond the artist’s own peculiar mindset?
Miller largely failed to get his work into the galleries that would have earned him wider exposure and a more durable legacy. He was an artist’s artist and an architect’s architect. Being shut out by cultural arbiters was a source of some bitterness and cynicism.
He preferred animals and children to adults, and put animals on everything: stairway bannisters, bas-relief sculptures, and stained glass. His depictions of ibex, horses, wolves, goats, and owls are playful and abstracted, but there’s a sense of ancient history to them. They could adorn a Viking map of the New World, and would look at home on a totem pole.
Miller illustrated books for his own children, and kids, Bleicher said, “so easily connect with [Miller] in a way that adults don’t, because they’re trying to intellectualize it too much. Miller’s aesthetic philosophy is about trying new things and pushing boundaries, so it’s a great story for kids.”
That’s a summation that Charlie Branda agrees with. She’s the president and founder of Art on Sedgwick, which offers art classes and programming to kids and adults in the Old Town neighborhood, serving its many affluent neighbors (if Miller was gentrifier, his work is long since done) and the sizable minority of subsidized-housing residents at the Marshall Field Garden Apartments. “When you’re doing something creative, you’re starting to imagine possibilities that you wouldn’t have thought of, especially if it’s groups of people who are largely separated,” Branda said.
Working with local public and private schools, Art on Sedgwick and Edgar Miller Legacy have hosted tours of the Glasner Studio and walked kids through workshops on some of Miller’s preferred mediums: stained glass (rendered for kids in transparent plastic and paper), clay, and print-making. The children’s Miller-inspired artworks were collected and displayed at Art on Sedgwick’s annual art show earlier this month.
Sharon Bladholm, the artist-in-residence leading some of the workshops, knew Miller after his return to Chicago. “Like Edgar, I work with a whole bunch of different materials,” she said, and she is also largely self-taught. “I was inspired by Edgar at a really young age. To me, it was really cool to be passing along this legacy.”
In ultra-segregated Chicago, it often seems that pride in the city is the only thing held in common across racial and class boundaries. The quiet legacy of Edgar Miller seems like a perfect shared secret—although it may not be a secret much longer.
The City Accelerator cohort on Urban Infrastructure Finance focused on innovative tools, models and revenue sources that can help cities across the country address their infrastructure challenges while promoting equity for diverse communities and incorporating the realities of climate change. This is the first installment of a three-part series exploring some of the ways in which cities can allocate infrastructure project risks to the private sector through innovative use of public-private partnerships (P3s). Part 1 focused on the evaluation process cities can employ when deciding whether to pursue a P3 project. Here in Part 2, we explain some common (and less-common) P3 models.
The central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library stands majestically at the intersection of some of the busiest avenues in New York City. The Art Deco building, which opened to the public in 1941, is notable for its sweeping entry portico, bronze sculptures of American literary figures, and gilded depictions of the evolution of knowledge. The grand entrance is also framed by an inscription lauding “the joining of municipal enterprise and private generosity.”
“Private generosity” may have been enough to build great cultural institutions in years past, but cities today must find new ways of supporting massive infrastructure projects that engage the private sector as partners, not merely donors. Public-private partnerships (P3s) are an opportunity for cities to leverage their “municipal enterprise” in innovative ways that can have lasting impact for low-income people and communities.
There are many types of P3s, with varying degrees of complexity and risk allocation. The broadest distinction among P3 project types is whether they’re being used for major capital improvements (building something new, or upgrading an existing asset) or for operations or maintenance services.
Let’s take a look at some of the various sorts of P3 models, and which projects they may make the most sense for.
P3s for Capital Improvements
In the most straightforward example of a public-private partnership, a local government might simply pay a private contractor to design and build (DB) a new asset. The private sector can assume some of the risk involved with the project by agreeing to maintain and/or operate the asset for a period of time in exchange for performance-based payments.
In a design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) structure, the private contractor staffs the facility, performs routine maintenance and delivers needed technology upgrades during the life of the contract. Government can also partner with the private sector for operation (DBO) or maintenance (DBM) functions on their own. In these examples, commonly called publicly financed P3 concessions, government is responsible for securing long-term financing for the project.
On the other hand, the private sector can assume more risk (and generally higher potential returns) by financing the project directly, in addition to taking on any, or all, of the previously discussed functions. These privately financed P3 concessions are known as design-build-finance-maintain (DBFM) arrangements or Design-Build-Finance-operate (DBFOM).
Private partners who assume financial risk for a P3 project can be compensated in several ways. Sometimes, a private entity will collect a portion of revenues generated by users of the new facility – for example, the tolls collected on a bridge, or the fares paid by passengers on a new light rail system. In this revenue-risk (RR P3) model, government grants the private partner the authority to collect these charges from users directly, but the private partner is wholly responsible for achieving the demand (and revenue) levels needed to make the project financially sustainable. In other words, the private sector takes the risk that user fees will be sufficient to pay for the project. This risk might be mitigated if government offers a guaranteed minimum level of revenue or an extension on the concession if certain demand targets are not met. On the flip side, governments can negotiate for a share of the profits if revenues are higher than expected.
Another model places the long-term financial liability on the public sector. In the availability payment (AP P3) model, the government agrees to make fixed payments to the private partner in exchange for making the facility “available” at a specified standard of performance. These standards might include quality of construction, cleanliness or response times to maintenance requests. Since the payments can be reduced or eliminated if standards are not met, governments can hold the private partner to a high level of performance. In this model, the public sector needs to identify a revenue source for these ongoing payments, since they are not tied to usage or demand.
In some cases, government can choose to combine elements of the AP and RR models for a hybrid approach.
In all of these models so far, government continues to own the underlying asset.
But there’s another approach, in which the private sector may actually take ownership – either for a fixed period or indefinitely – under various types of “franchise-based” P3 agreements. The private sector might build the asset and operate it for a period of time, transferring it to the public sector later (build-operate-transfer, or BOT). Private contractors can also build the asset, sell it to the government and then lease it back to operate it for a period of time (BLT or BLOT). In still other examples, the private partner may buy and own the project indefinitely (build-own-operate, BOO, or buy-build-operate, BBO). This is essentially asset privatization, and tends to work best when there are no major political concerns about private sector ownership.
P3s for Operations and Maintenance
Governments can also partner with the private sector to provide operation and maintenance (O&M) services only. Municipal services, like trash collection or snow removal, might be outsourced to a private vendor through a long-term contract. In these cases, the private sector might make investments in O&M efficiencies, taking on a greater share of the financial risk but increasing the potential for cost savings and a higher return on investment. O&M agreements can help maximize the efficiency of existing assets, without needing to build new ones. These types of P3s are especially useful where government lacks the ability or resources to effectively operate or maintain the core services associated with an asset.
Other types of P3s might generate revenue or savings for government, while offering incentives for private sector investment and risk-sharing. A private company might design, build and finance a portion of a new mass transit hub as part of a new corporate office campus. A marketing agreement might create a new revenue stream through naming rights or advertising on a new or existing public asset. A private technology company might develop a mobile app or payment system that makes it easier for government to collect revenue, with the tech firm keeping a cut.
Which (If Any) P3 Works for You?
Ultimately, any local government infrastructure project involves considerable risks.
In a traditional procurement set-up, government bears almost all of those risks, from engineering failures and major cost overruns to traffic delays and irate taxpayers. Choosing a P3 model for a project boils down to a strategic decision to shift some of those risks to the private sector. Far from simple “private generosity,” this risk transfer typically doesn’t come cheap.
Terms like “concession,” “franchise” and “lease” are sometimes used interchangeably to refer to very different P3 structures, and state laws may govern the type of agreements possible. Cities may find that multiple P3 structures could be appropriate for a project given its type, scale and objectives.
Taking the P3 plunge requires cities’ thoughtful decision-making about which risks to keep, which ones to allocate to the private sector, and which ones to share.
In our final installment, we’ll explore how Washington, D.C.’s Office of Public-Private Partnerships is developing a citywide strategy for evaluating, prioritizing and selecting P3 vehicles for its most pressing infrastructure needs.
This week, I wanted to shout out Nina Hälker from Hamburg, Germany, who responded to my call-out in the ) ¤ The origin story of Big Chicks, Chicago’s iconic Northside gay bar. (Bon Appétit) ¤ “On a literal level, that’s all the two were fighting about: just 20 feet of gravelly beach.” (Outside) ¤ Japanese family life, stuffed into a one-room apartment in Kobe. (New Yorker)¤The Casteless Collective: a band of radical musicians making waves in Chennai, and taking on centuries-old oppression. (Scroll India) ¤
Finally, we were swept off our feet by this New York TimesMagazine project documenting love and intimacy around the city, over a single day: A members-only sex party in Clinton Hill at 1:04 a.m.; a familiar dance at 3:30 a.m.; a stroll down Nostrand Avenue at 8:05 a.m.; subway romances at 1:04 p.m.; at 5:31 p.m., a visit with a dear one at Rikers; love on both sides of the “Muslim ban” at 7:54 p.m. These and other stories of sometimes short-lived, sometimes enduring connections, come together in a collage-like portrait of the city.
Pssst…Do you have any juicy anecdotes about serendipitous encounters or a tale of love and loss in your city? Send them over to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The cover art for the new Nas album Nasir, released today, is a throwback to the image he used for his classic 1994 debut album Illmatic, featuring his own boyhood portrait transposed against a backdrop of the infamous Queensbridge housing projects he grew up in.
Throughout his long career, Nas has invested himself in training a justice-minded lens on the various ills of society: For the Nasir cover, he uses a photo that shows five black youth standing small in front of a brick wall, some facing it while some face the camera, all with their hands raised high. Two of the kids are holding guns—maybe toy, maybe not—while one is holding up a robot. Not one of them looks older than ten years, but they all seem to have learned the position that police officers regularly and historically have commanded black people to assume: up against the wall. In the top right corner hangs a “NO TRESPASSING” sign that also reads “no drinking, loitering, or standing on these premises.”
The photo was taken by photographer Mary Ellen Mark for a news feature in the November 1988 issue of Texas Monthly magazine. The article, “The War Zone,” is a field report from a neighborhood in Dallas where the crack drug trade had taken hold. It was the kind of story that became standard among magazine and alt-weekly journalists in the 1980s, styled after Barry Michael Cooper’s seminal 1986 SPIN magazine feature on the birth of a crack-cocaine nation, in New York City. Less than two years later, the crack epidemic had metastasized well beyond the Big Apple, devouring cities in places as distant as Texas. Journalist Jim Atkinson ventured into the fog of this new drug war zone in Dallas to explain how it got this far for his Texas Monthly piece.
However, like most news stories of the crack era, few fair explanations were offered. The “war zone” Atkinson wrote about is one of the “South Dallas” districts of the city that was historically segregated for black and poor families. The story details how the communities have fallen into hopelessness and disrepair, and ponders—as one police officer says in the piece—whether “poverty creates drugs” or “it’s the drugs that create poverty.” The people addicted to crack are referred to as “candy faces,” and there’s a meaty police-constructed narrative about how Jamaican and Cuban drug dealers came in and besieged the neighborhood by turning its residents into crack pushers, users, or abusers, when not killing them off.
“But the siege wasn’t complete until the Dallas economy busted, sending the neighborhood even more deeply into despair,” reads the story—this one sentence serving as the only try at providing any semblance of a socio-economic context for why this civic tragedy was unfolding. Today, journalists examine and interrogate the “opioid crisis” rampaging through white suburbs and Appalachia, going to great lengths to humanize the faces of the victims, to explicate the economic malaise that drove them to heroin and pills, and to indict the structural market forces dictated by the pharmaceutical industry that made it all possible.
Reading the 1988 “War Zone” article, one might only take away that crack just kinda happened to this part of town and the people were defenseless against the plague. You would never know that African Americans were trapped in “South Dallas” for decades because they weren’t allowed to live anywhere else. Those who did get a little money and try to move to another neighborhood were house-bombed, car-bombed, and fire-bombed back into the southern traps of the city, where poverty and racial despair were contained. There is an entire policy war happening right now within the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development around affirmatively furthering fair housing—de-clustering subsidized housing so that it’s not packed in historically segregated zones— that began with a lawsuit filed from Dallas.
The photos taken by Mary Ellen Mark for “War Zone” tell a different story than the words on the page. The black youth in most of her images are not “candy-faced” and “zombie-eyed,” as Atkinson wrote. Rather, their faces beam with pride while wearing birthday cone hats, while donning stylish bootleg-name brand shirts, and while embracing loved ones. These images capture dignity as defined by the subjects and in their own elements, much like the work of contemporary photographer Deana Lawson. Nas’ use of Mark’s image acts as a homage to that much more authentic lenson the inner-city landscape.
“The Tube That Jean Built” aired on Montreal station TV-12 on the day of the transit system’s long-anticipated debut (longtime CityLab readers may also recall it from a previous story). In this clip, Canadian actor and TV host Jack Curran belts out a tribute to the mayor (in his tuneless spoken-word delivery) over the melody to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”:
This tube is your tube, this tube is my tube
Henri-Bourassa to Place d’Armes station
From Papineau street down to Old Atwater
This tube was made for you and me
For 50 years now we’ve known a subway
was sorely needed in this fair city
Our city fathers kept fit explaining
‘We’ll build it soon just wait and see’
This tube is your tube, this tube is my tube
Ripped through the city by hard rock miners
Costing $213 million, no raise in tax for you and me
Now I can ramble beneath the city
Soon to Longueuil, Saint Helen’s Island
I get around where underground there
is rapid transit now for you and me
This tube is your tube, this tube is my tube
I fight no crowds now or traffic tie-ups
And all around me, Montrealers shouting
This tube was built by Jean Drapeau!
Drapeau was indeed a larger-than-life political figure. He dreamed big during his 29 years in office, landing the 1967 World’s Fair and a Major League Baseball franchise. He also helped the city win the 1976 Summer Olympics, which went spectacularly over budget and left the city in debt for decades (A commission eventually determined that Drapeau was to blame for much of the cost overruns.)
The former mayor definitely had a propensity for bread and circuses; he also historically opposed public housing and showed little support for local artists. But the creation of Métro de Montréal remains something worth singing about. The Métro station at Saint Helen’s Island—mentioned by Curran in the song—was renamed in honor of Drapeau in 2001.
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
Tipping point: Next week, D.C. voters will head to the polls to decide if the minimum wage should rise for workers who earn tips. Initiative 77 is perhaps the most fraught issue in the District’s election cycle, turning the town into a proxy war between two national restaurant groups. But the lines aren’t drawn neatly: Across the city, you’ll find bosses and workers alike fighting the gradual increase in wages.
Whatever happens here, it’s just the start. With national advocacy organizations leading the charge, you can expect this battle to make its way to cities and states around the country in short order. And with limited research on tipped wages, there’s little clear evidence for voters to digest. CityLab’s Kriston Capps unpacks the lingering questions and bedrock truths in D.C.’s war over restaurant tips that will soon go national.
The transformation of Albuquerque’s Sundowner Motor Lodge appears to be part of an emerging trend where non-profit developers are seizing opportunities in old motels to create decent housing for those living on the fringes and most in need.
Gotham on the Go
Mark 2017 as the year ride-hailing overtook the taxi in New York City. For the first time, services such as Uber and Lyft made up the majority of for-hire vehicle trips in the city—with 158 million ride-hailing trips compared to 110 million traditional taxi trips. But the chart above from the NYC Department of Transportation’s 2018 Mobility Report shows that, of the New Yorkers who have used ride hailing, 50 percent say they would have otherwise taken public transit for some of those trips.
In 2012, when Alexandria Hill was a year old, Texas’s child welfare agency found her parents unfit to care for her. The baby’s biological mother was prone to seizures, officials said, and
The lessons of such an investigation are perhaps even more important today, as more children are entering foster care because of the impact of the widening opioid crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children and Families, the number of children in foster care rose almost 7 percent from 2013 to 2015, nearing 430,000. In 32 percent of all foster placements parental substance abuse was cited as a factor—an increase of 10 percent compared to 2005.
When a state privatizes foster care, it uses federal, state, and local funds to contract out services, such as locating and monitoring foster parents, to private agencies. In most cases, public agencies still manage children’s long-term outcomes, such as reunification or adoption—but more jurisdictions are shifting even that responsibility to the private sector.
These private agencies are usually nonprofit, making MENTOR, as a for-profit corporation, an extreme example of privatization. Yet nonprofits can subcontract their work to for-profit companies; in states that forbid for-profit entities from administering foster care, MENTOR used this loophole as a workaround. And even in more straightforward nonprofit arrangements, privatization has negatively impacted children.
Over the past three decades, many states have privatized at least part of their foster care systems; some, like Kansas and Florida, have privatized theirs completely. Despite high-profile cases like Alexandria’s—which helped prompt a 2015 Senate Finance Committee investigation that resulted in proposed legislation to strengthen government oversight of foster care—some states and officials continue to see privatization as an antidote to a bloated and inefficient public sector.
Kentucky, for instance, recently pledged to investigate whether it should fully privatize its foster care system; private agencies currently provide services for around half of the children in the state’s care. In Texas, a pilot program that privatizes the monitoring of homes identified as at risk for child abuse or neglect is moving forward, despite some lawmakers’ concerns.
Proponents of privatization often claim that private entities are more efficient than government agencies, and calls for the privatization of foster care have been no different. Yet Tracey Feild, director of the Child Welfare Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, questions that idea. Private agencies, she said, have “certainly not done the work for a lower cost.”
Feild, whose Child Welfare Strategy Group provides consulting to child welfare agencies, said that the private sector has in fact brought more resources to the foster care system through, for example, successfully lobbying politicians for funds. Though this might be a positive development, she said the argument can also be made that if those additional resources had gone to the public sector to begin with, it could have solved the problems that spurred calls for privatization. For instance, new resources could be used for services such as more and better substance abuse treatment to keep families intact rather than rely on foster care.
And while public agencies still conduct the initial investigations into abuse or neglect, once a system is privatized legislators often assume they no longer need to give them money. This leaves the public agencies chronically underfunded, making it difficult to monitor their private contractors. “A public agency can be handing out tens of millions of dollars to private providers with very little oversight,” said Feild.
Private agencies can be effective in providing foster care services, Feild says. But they often face a steep learning curve. “If you’ve got the patience and good providers, you can make a go of privatization,” she said. “But it’s not going to take two to three years to improve outcomes. It’s more like 10 years.” Kansas’ privatized system, for example, is quite strong, she noted, as it’s been in operation for over 20 years. (Still, the state is struggling to keep up with cases due to the opioid epidemic and funding cuts.)
In less established systems, the private agencies can get overwhelmed with their new responsibilities—and kids can suffer, languishing in foster care or shelters. “Child welfare workers get crisis focused; they’re worried about getting a child a bed for that night,” said Feild. “So the initial priority for the new privatization provider isn’t the child who may be able to return to his family because the provider has been doing work with the parents. It’s who is coming through the provider’s front door, which results in kids staying longer than necessary.”
Jessalyn Schwartz, a Boston attorney focusing on child welfare and mental health law, added that in these circumstances children are usually placed in what is available rather than what is needed. “And they often don’t get much say in where they end up or how often they move,” she said. “Though privatized foster care is often labeled as a corrective, it’s imperative to better understand it before declaring it as such.”