The Indigenous Voice of Mexico City

Fifty-five indigenous languages are spoken in Mexico City today, yet this population remains largely invisible.

Though Mexico City’s celebrated National Museum of Anthropology is dedicated to native Mesoamerican culture, living indigenous culture is banished to its margins. Even the most basic institutions of communal identity are absent in the city. There is not so much as a single community center in Mexico City for its 785,000 indigenous inhabitants. “I would like to build a Wixáritari temple,” says Hilario López Bautista, a Wixáritari artisan from the mountains of the state of Jalisco. “How can it be that all these foreign religions have temples and we who are from here don’t have a single church?”

Hilario López Bautista, a Wixáritari artisan from Jalisco (Gustavo Graf)

Nonetheless, native Mexican culture seems to be emerging slowly from the shadows. In politics, the opinion of indigenous communities is increasingly relevant due to consultation requirements for things like infrastructure projects. The quality of indigenous handcrafts and art is increasingly appreciated, too. The spectacular colors and designs of Wixáritari art are increasingly appropriated in mainstream projects, a potential source of income and exploitation for artisans such as López. In the culinary scene, a new Mexican gourmet cuisine, impelled by chefs such as Enrique Olvera, is developing around staples of indigenous cooking such as tortillas and tamales.

Juan Sant, a Totonaco MC from Veracruz (Gustavo Graf)

Juan Santiago Tellez, also known as Juan Sant, came to Mexico City in 2000 at the age of 15. He had already lived alone for several years while his parents worked the fields far up in the mountains. A native Totonaco speaker, he learned Spanish as he put himself through school. He came to Mexico City for work, but between discrimination and difficulty in adapting to the urban economy he found it hard to hold down a job. Finally, he ended up in a carpenter’s workshop manned by gang members. Now he raps in Totonaco and Spanish.

According to Tellez there are at least twenty MCs who rap in their own language. “For some, speaking in their own language is a joyous thing because it is an act of community—if there are many speakers,” says Tellez. “But if there are very few speakers it is an act of resistance, an attempt to maintain the language alive.”

Many indigenous people believe it is better not to be heard speaking their language in Mexico, according to Tellez. Sometimes parents can feel they are protecting their children by not teaching them one of Mexico’s 68 native languages. “We are basically the same,” says the Totonaca rapper of the variety of indigenous cultures. “Though we speak different languages, we have the same attitude and share the fact that we are all discriminated against.”

Alejo Juárez Cabrera, a Mixe from Oaxaca (Gustavo Graf)

Many communities of indigenous communities develop in the megacity’s periphery, drawn by cheap land, informal settlement practices and space. The municipality of Valle de Chalco on the edge of the city boasts 38 languages, largely due to the influx of migrants from the highly diverse state of Oaxaca where there are 16 ethnolinguistic groups. “When we are in our village we have a tradition called la gozera in which we would build a house for somebody in a communal manner,” says Alejo Juárez Cabrera, a Mixe from Santiago Yaveo in Tuxtepec, Oaxaca. “This is not something folkloric, but a way of doing things.”

Such practices often do not survive translation to the city, according to Juárez. Mutual assistance is much more limited in the city, and sometimes older hands will even discriminate against newcomers. “It [as if] we come here only to learn malice,” says the 55-year-old Mixe.

Historically, adults from Albino Lopez’s village would find work in the sugarcane plantations of Veracruz. But in the 1950s, word got around that better employment was to be found in Mexico City. That’s when 14-year-old López went alone from the Mazateco indigenous village of Mazatlan de las Flores in the mountains of the state of Oaxaca to work in the capital. After living in different parts of the city, cheap land drew him to Valle de Chalco.

Maria Sara Guzman was 11 when she came to Mexico City from an island in the lake of Pátzcuaro (Gustavo Graf)

Maria Sara Guzman, now 60, was 11 when she came to Mexico City in 1979. She was living on an island in the lake of Pátzcuaro where her Purépecha family lived. A visiting couple from Mexico City needed a household servant, spoke to her parents, and brought her back with them. She spent the next four years working in a house in Xochimilco and only saw her parents when they came to collect her pay.

According López, indigenous women—who often are the first to migrate because of the ease of finding work as a housekeeper—suffer the pervasive machismo in indigenous culture. “Sometimes people see us as if we are all good and noble,” notes Tellez. “But there are good and bad people among us, too.”

Silvia Miranda, a street vendor from Guerrero (Gustavo Graf)

Silvia Miranda, a speaker of Nahuatl from San Agustín Oapan in Guerrero came to city at the age of 15 to sell handcrafts. She marveled at all the people and things as she entered Mexico City by bus. She did not speak Spanish and could not write when she arrived at the city. Now her children cannot speak Nahuatl. “People would make fun of us when we spoke Nahuatl and make faces,” says the street vendor. “Now it happens less and less. People have even sought us out and asked us to teach them the language. Things are gradually getting better.”

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CityLab Daily: Who’s Afraid of the Self-Driving Car?

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***

What We’re Following

What, me worry? Most Americans expect to see driverless cars on the roads within 15 years. But they don’t expect to own one, and they don’t want to get near one while walking or biking. That’s the takeaway from three recent surveys about the future of autonomous vehicles, according to The Washington Post. A majority of people, ranging from 55 percent to 75 percent across the three surveys, responded that they wouldn’t ride in a driverless vehicle, suggesting that recent crashes have influenced public opinion.

It’s especially interesting to see the mixed feelings among younger people. Last month, 64 percent of people between 20 and 37 told AAA that they’re unwilling to ride in a driverless car, up from 49 percent at the end of 2017. But another survey found that a majority of adults under 34 believe that driverless cars are safer and would make roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Given how many deaths regular car crashes already cause, the question remains the same for the driverless future: Are we programming for a world that’s built for humans, or a world that’s built for cars?

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

My Town Is Getting Washed Away, and We’re Angry

In just a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, the residents of Ellicott City, Maryland, became climate refugees. Here’s what that feels like.

Max Robinson

More Routes = More Riders

Why is transit ridership dropping across North American cities? Blame declining bus service.

Laura Bliss

Fortress ‘Black in America’: Closed to Africans?

In a real-life Killmonger-T’Challa story, a writer of Kenyan origin reflects on her experience as an immigrant in America and her struggle to find bonds with black Americans.

Mkawasi Mcharo Hall

We Need to Talk About the Far-Out Future of Cities

How do we shift our mindsets? How do we think about our urban historical past? Mayors, thought leaders, and practitioners weigh in.

CityLab Roundtable and Longpath

One Year After Trump Left the Paris Agreement, Who’s Still In?

City and state coalitions just announced they’ll be setting their own climate goals.

Sarah Holder


Construction Paper

(Pierre Schwartz ADAGP; courtesy Musée International des Arts Modestes)

Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez made impossibly intricate sculptures of buildings and urban spaces using paper, paint, and glue. Now, an exhibit at MoMa features his city dreams and architectural imaginings, revealing a bold and direct vision of what Kingelez wished the world could contain: vivid, colorful, and sturdy structures. CityLab’s Teresa Mathew has the story on these fantastical cities made of dreams and paper.


What We’re Reading

Gay Americans have little to fear from the Supreme Court’s compromise in the case over wedding cake baker (Slate)

The high cost of abandoned property (Curbed)

Seattle is trying to make access to soccer fields more equitable (The Guardian)

How claiming queer urban enclaves were shaped by sexuality, race, class, and real estate (Urban Omnibus)


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

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Building a Community in Brooklyn’s Backyards

In the regular patterns of Brooklyn’s street grid, there’s a slight deformity near Prospect Park that makes one block slightly larger than the ones around it. On this block of brownstones in Park Slope, the streets give the houses a little more breathing room for their backyards. And for more than three decades, the community here has gone one step further, turning that space into a sprawling private park of their own creation.

The result is a communal yard, divided only by unlocked fence gates. Playing here as a kid, it felt like magic—my own little corner of a city that’s not known for quiet spaces. With no streets or strangers to pose a threat, parents blessed their children with free rein of the space. It remains beloved today, especially in the warmer months, with the children lucky enough to live on the block running around in the yards—just as its creators hoped.

Back in 1983, Timothy and Sealy Gilles wanted a quicker way for their daughter to get to her friend’s house around the corner. “It was a pain in the neck to walk around the block to connect the kids’ playdates,” Timothy Gilles told me. The backyards were close, but divided by fences, which, as they do in most Brooklyn yards, serve to divide land and discourage entry. That’s why his family and another sought permission from their neighbors to connect the yards.

An overhead view of the oddly shaped block, as seen on Google Maps.

They faced few naysayers—only one person said no initially—and the process of making the space accessible was pretty straightforward. “It didn’t take much,” Gilles said, “[Putting up] several chain-link fences, some wood—it took two or three weekends.” Neighborly communication, two or three runs to Lowe’s, and a few weekends of work resulted in a backyard collective set to last for generations.

“When we were doing this, it was a different era,” he said. Park Slope wasn’t so tony then, not as lawyered up then as it is now; they didn’t seek legal advice before connecting the yards.

But the decades don’t make much difference when it comes to the most vital element of the operation’s success: being neighborly. “If someone were to want to do this [in their own community], then I would say, just reach out to your neighbors one by one,” Gilles advised. “Start with the houses next to you, then to the houses immediately behind you, and see how far you get in terms of getting people to agree.” Once you’ve got a small group in agreement over a backyard adjustment, go for it—others will see the project’s success and volunteer to join, he said. “People saw what was going on,” Gilles recalled of the yards’ early days, before all neighbors were included. “People like looking out their back windows and seeing all these kids having a great time.”

The shared space was made possible by a confluence of other factors beyond the control of most homeowners: The slight rotation of the grid at Garfield Street, which creates the wedge shape of the yards between it and Carroll Street; the density of children in the area, earning Park Slope the only partially endearing nickname of “Park Stroller”; the relatively high rate of homeowners; the neighborhood’s flavor of communal care at once aligned with and distinct from Brooklyn’s more general old-school neighborly energy. In my own backyard a few blocks away, the street grid is not on our side. I can walk halfway down the block from my roof, but the gardens don’t sync up, and it would take a far more permanent adjustment than the installation of a few gates to unite them.

My own experience in the yards came through my friend Alice Markham-Cantor. She lived on Carroll Street, across from our elementary school. After class in the early 2000s, we were allowed to walk home by ourselves: up the block, through the door beneath her stoop, across the bottom floor of the house, and out into the garden. Sometimes Alice’s neighbors were already outside, and we would wait for the round of hide and seek to end before joining in. Other times she had to assemble them, and we’d use a special call—more like a scream—to rally our playmates. “It’s made to sound like when you whistle with your fingers in your mouth, but it’s not, because none of us could do that,” said Maeve Kinney, Markham-Cantor’s neighbor. “It involves that roiling noise in the back of your throat. When I got my tonsils out at 12 I couldn’t do it for years.”

The neighbors set up a swing set in the backyards in the 1980s. (Courtesy of Tim and Sealy Gilles)

In the treehouse and among the laundry poles, we’d adventure, the children of the special stretch between Garfield Place and Carroll Street. “There was a whole secret area,” Kinney said of a corner of one yard, “it had nothing in it but weeds.” Then there was the crotchety old man who owned the treehouse. “He’d yell at us whenever we crossed the invisible border between his yard and Alice’s,” Kinney recalled, noting his unfriendliness was an exception among the neighbors. Kinney’s yard had a fig tree, still very much alive; the previous homeowner said it was brought over generations earlier on a boat from Sicily. “We’d have capture the flag tournaments that would last days,” said Markham-Cantor, who describes her memories of growing up in the space as “the childhood endless summer.” Thinking of her youth in the yards makes her smell honeysuckle and raspberries, she says, “and the sense of having the whole summer night stretching out. The sense of possibility—it’s a magical place.”

There were rules in the yards, which must’ve been spoken at some point, but were silently understood and obeyed by all when I began playing there. Wait for the raspberries to get ripe, and pick them together. Two people in the treehouse at a time. Don’t tread on the delicate flower beds. Certain yards were accessible, but off limits. The atmosphere was one of a commons for children, and at the end of the day, so long as those deemed responsible babysat the youngest kids, the parents let us be. “This is a little slice of how every child should be able to grow up—with freedom to roam in nature, and easily accessible playmates,” said Markham-Cantor’s mother, Laura Markham.

Some of the lower fences gates used to open up the yards. (Hannah Frishberg/CityLab)

Kinney credits the yards’ magic to the way they were brought together. “It was mostly just the fact that the backyards were built the way they were, with the fences. Two full rows of yards on Carroll Street and Garfield that magically connected.” She said the yards hit a peak during our youth, due to what Markham-Cantor described as a “critical mass of kids.” Both Timothy and Sealy Gilles, however, say today they see roughly as many children out in the yards during the warmer months as there were then, same as it ever was.

Today, the Carroll Street and Garfield Place backyards are still there, still accessible, but some physical highlights are gone. The treehouse is no more. It seems some of the magic has been stripped by the broader changes in the neighborhood. At the beginning of the millennium, Park Slope was nice, but property values have since skyrocketed along with the rest of Brooklyn. In 1982, a year before the yards’ birth, The New York Times reported that Park Slope newcomers were driving up the price of area brownstones “past the $200,000 mark.” Today, the only Park Slope properties among the Times’ sale listings within $100,000 of that are parking spots.

For many homeowners on the block today, the opportunity for rental income is difficult to pass up, and one house has become something of a rotating door for wealthier international tenants who’ve tended to keep their distance. Markham-Cantor and Kinney, who’s families both still live on the block, believe the magic is alive and well—but the quick turnover of residents, some with children and some without, depletes it.

Revisiting the yards to write this article, it was difficult to gauge how the soul of the space had evolved. The Gilles and I were alone in the back on the day I visited. They pointed out the small things that had changed since I’d been there last: a tree had died, a chicken coop had been installed, some extensions and renovations had been made to the homes. It all looked small compared to my memories, but there was a certain glory in it still being here at all. Just up the block, on 7th Avenue, I’d watched helplessly as the cluttered shoe shops and Italian bakeries of my youth slowly gave way to more high-end establishments far less prone to the atmosphere of discovery I’d enjoyed in their predecessors. But this protected garden space lived on. In as ever-changing a borough as Brooklyn, knowing a place that brought me so much childhood joy remains cherished, protected, and in little danger of development is something of a miracle.

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We Need to Talk About the Far-Out Future of Cities

It has become almost cliché to recite the fact that for the first time in the history of our species, the majority of people live in cities. Rarely, however, do we fully investigate the challenges and opportunities emerging from this profound shift. In this critical moment in urban history, how do we envision the far-out futures of our cities? And how do we use our most affirmative visions to catalyze action, taking the steps needed to shape the futures that we believe in?

It is time to surface the questions that enable us to fundamentally reimagine the urbanist space. To that end, Longpath, an initiative focused on fostering long-term thinking and behavior, has convened some of today’s leading urbanists to broaden the aperture through which we explore city futures, examining the many rich historical narratives and possible scenarios that inform urban discourse.

Below are excerpts from Longpaths’ interviews with these mayors, thought leaders, and practitioners.


Longpath: Albert Einstein famously said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” What are some shifts in mindset that are needed to achieve your vision for the future of cities?


Set a goal of sustainable happiness

Gil Penalosa, founder of 880 cities

I think that we need to realize that the United States is going to grow by around a hundred million people in the next 50 years, and almost all of them are going to go to cities. So we are urban, and we need to create cities that are good for people. And I think the most important mindset shift would be for leaders in cities to become like guardian angels of the gentle majority: the children, the older adults, the poor.

Leaders should also think about how to have sustainable happiness. By sustainable happiness I don’t mean the happiness of the having more cars or more highways or bigger homes. At no time in history has the U.S. had as much wealth, but the index of happiness has not been very high. Countries like South Korea that have increased a lot of their per capita income are not seeing gains in the levels of happiness.

Reinject pragmatism into government

Sam Liccardo, mayor, San Jose

In the current political climate, we are so excessively polarized and everyone is constantly turning [to] ideological battles and we’re forgetting about the facts. The overwhelming majority of our residents just want buses to run on time, and they want schools that work for their kids. So we need to reinject pragmatism in governance. You generally don’t have masses of thousands of people marching in city hall saying “We’re moderates. We want political change…at a moderate pace.” But this is a period that critically calls for us to elevate our political discourse to moderate what we say and how we say it. And to start you have to recognize the importance of human relationships even with those who disagree.

A mindset that needs to change is what I call temporal myopia: the excessive focus on today at the expense of tomorrow. You know I mean I’m certainly not immune from those pressures. We all face election cycles, certainly, but I think it’s just important for all of us just to remind ourselves when we got into politics for. We’re all part of this common project of legacy-building. It’s really about those impacts you have in community that you may not see for a generation because we started a program to get, you know, a thousand low income teens in gang-impacted neighborhoods to jobs and a generation from now we might really see the benefit of that. But those are seeds you have to sow and water for a while before you’re going to see them bloom.

Diversify leadership

Toni Griffin, professor in practice of urban planning, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

The tables are not diverse enough to be quite honest. There are not enough people in leadership that are representative of their constituents, who are oftentimes least benefiting from the current growth some cities are having. And I just find that to be problematic because it limits the full understanding and scope of the challenge that we have.

Bridge the gap between “technologists” and “urbanists”

Dan Doctoroff, chairman and CEO, Sidewalk Labs

There are two camps who have to come together to integrate technology into the urban environment. One the one hand there are the urbanists, the people who plan cities, manage cities, think about cities. And on the other hand there are the technologists, the people who understand technology and who are capable of building new products and services. There’s a massive cultural divide between the two. They literally speak completely different languages. They operate in very different time cycle. For urbanists, the expectation is for things to take longer to get done, whereas the technologist is about the fast iterations, prototyping, getting things out in the market, testing very quickly. And getting those two camps to understand each other is a meaningful barrier to the integration of innovation into the urban environment.

Concentrate on the basics and don’t look for silver bullets

George Abbott, director, external Affairs, Memphis River Parks Partnership

We have to embrace the fact that there is no silver bullet solution. There can be a tendency to look at these big things like Amazon HQ, and think that it will solve all of our problems. But in reality I think you’re much better served by concentrating on the basics, figuring out how to use small-scale interventions that don’t need a huge amount of money to make your city a place that is more pleasant to live in. Focus on providing spaces where people like to be, providing a variety of housing options, providing good education, and good ways for folks to increase their economic opportunity. There are many small things we can be looking [to], but we go for a 10-year multimillion-dollar transformational development opportunity that may or may not exist. The resources you spend chasing that would be better expended doing little things well and having a vision that extends beyond your period of elected office.

Build stronger community institutions to counter corporate interests

Shelley Poticia, managing director, Healthy People and Thriving Communities program at the Natural Resource Defense Council

I think the corporatization of real estate [the prominence of large-scale developers concerned first and foremost with a strict adherence to the bottom line] has really contributed to some good things but it’s also contributed to people feeling left out of the economy. It also doesn’t reward long-term thinking. So we’re not really seeing the incorporation of the effects of climate change into corporate real estate. Instead of focusing so much on whether a project can pencil out for the banks, I think we need to also ask, ‘Will the people who live and work in these places thrive?’

I think that we need stronger community institutions that can really engage and demand that their viewpoint be taken into account in decisions about how neighborhoods change. We need new tools so that there’s more community ownership, particularly in the housing sector. And I think we need the public sector to really step up and have a stronger backbone to think about the long term benefits to the community rather than what I often see is cities scrambling for tax base.

Invest in people, not just infrastructure

Michael Tubbs, mayor, Stockton, California

Our mindset needs to shift from investing just in infrastructure and building, to really investing in people and improving their social capital. I always say the most pointed investment you can make is in our communities. That means especially investing in those who are the hardest to invest in: folks who may have criminal records, folks who may not have money, folks who have immigrated from another country.


LongPath: What do you see as the critical inflection point in the past 100 years of urban history—a historical moment or an event that has had lasting ramifications for the cities of today?

[Note: Almost all interviewees referenced the introduction of the automobile and auto-centric planning as the critical inflection point of the past century. Many also noted the power of federal legislation that impacted population flow and diversity in American cities.]


Jane Jacobs’ influence on optimizing policies for people

Michael Berkowitz, president, 100 Resilient Cities

Jane Jacobs and her opposition to development in New York, and her victory over traffic engineers was definitely significant and continues to be inspirational. She’s become sort of an emblem to the new urban thinkers now. Her work moved us beyond the thinking of the early 20th century where the industrial revolution was about creating silos for efficiency. The government took an engineering mindset that optimized for efficiency, but because of Jane’s work we view cities more holistically.  Now you have departments of transportation that are moving away from optimizing for car drivers to optimizing for people. The value of walkability has certainly changed.

When cars were given priority over pedestrians

George Abbot

The proliferation of the automobile in the 20s and 30s. I was at the NACTO Conference and they described the first moment when cars were given priority over pedestrians. For a long time these new automobiles and pedestrians shared the street. It was actually the car lobby that came up with the concept of traffic lights so that the flow of automobile traffic could be sped up. And that was kind of the first moment where the car took priority over the pedestrian. It just kind of spiraled from there. Those laws were adopted by other cities and then we see the legacy of that today. And you can even trace that to the proliferation of highways and the way the federal highway building program destroyed much of the urban fabric.

The Immigration Act, and the rise of cities

Bruce Katz, author of The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism

One critical inflection point was the Immigration Act of 1965 which basically opened up America’s borders again. That had a rejuvenating effect on cities because it brought a whole new group of residents into many parts of U.S. cities and metropolitan areas that were starting to depopulate.

Globally, the the most important thing that’s happened in the last 100 years is simply the rise of cities. The organizing geography of civilization is shifting. It’s ubiquitous. The question is how do you manage that, how do you enable cities to be more livable and higher quality? The United States is essentially a metropolitan nation. You know half of people who live in rural America actually live within metropolitan areas because our metropolitan areas have sprawl and have decentralized in such a profound way. So when we talk about the urban and rural division, we almost never mention the word metropolitan, which is odd. The divide is not as pronounced as people think. What we need to do, I think, is create a new narrative to enhance the linkages between the core the peripheral.

The U.S. in particular tends to focus on a singular policy fix. Or perhaps the charismatic almost celebrity political leader. And what I focus a lot on in my work are institutional structures that are able to unlock capital, large amounts of capital for investments in the future. We need different kinds of 21st century institutions.

Longer life expectancies

Gil Penalosa

About a hundred years ago, people were dying because there was no clean water and sewage and vaccination. All of a sudden we’re living much longer. That has had many many ramifications and implications. About a hundred and fifty years ago we didn’t have any country in the world that had a life expectancy above 45. Today we don’t have any with a life expectancy below 45. So it has been totally transformational.

The invention of the car and redlining

Carol Coletta, senior fellow of American Cities Practice, Kresge Foundation

I think the invention of the automobile allowed us to spread out in ways that I think in hindsight have proven to be not very smart from a convenience or delight standpoint, not very smart from a climate standpoint, not very smart from a resource standpoint. Also, not very smart from a trust standpoint. There are lots of reasons why that ended up being a really unfortunate development. I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before cars, but I also don’t think we adjusted to that technology appropriately.

Another major moment for cities, was redlining. This was the institutionalization of inequality and separation. The way it reinforced inequality and reinforced separation was a really bad thing. We’re a society that needs everybody contributing, and we need no waste whatsoever, including in terms of people and their talent. So redlining was just stupid. Now we’re in a place where we’re trying to rectify it.

The decline of urban public school systems

Jonathan Rose

First the advent of rail and streetcars and then the advent of the automobile. Then post-World War II the growth of the suburbs and the decline of cities as a place for middle class, which occurred simultaneously with that the decline of urban public school systems. Schools are a really important part of making a city work for families.

Industrialization brought a whole lot of jobs to cities and help really dramatically expand them but also brought pollution. And so also what you saw in the 60s, 70s, and 80s was this confluence of the decline of the public school systems and the rise of the urban and the loss of jobs at the same time. And that hit cities really hard. So 100 years ago you had all these trains which were moving people to cities and then 50 years ago you had these trends which were moving people away from cities. Now that’s reversing.

The Civil Rights Act and its aftermath

Toni Griffin

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, giving greater access, opportunity, and rights to African-Americans in this country, they began to dismantle the decades of federal policies and programs. But you can’t dismantle racial segregation. That manifested itself in cities all across the U.S. through racially restrictive covenants, blockbusting policies, redlining, Federal Highways Act—all  programs that were designed to exclude and separate African-Americans from other populations. In turn, it also deeply divided cities—by class, in addition to race. Through the 60s and 70s the struggles really began to operationalize. The Civil Rights Act was pretty pivotal.

The decision to invest in highways instead of transit

San Liccardo

I think many urbanists like myself lament that we didn’t get city building done before the automobile came along. If I could go back, I would encourage the Eisenhower administration to reinvest all that money that went into the interstate highway system and double down on transit. I don’t pretend that anybody in the 40s or 50s could have seen that. Newly constructed highways would divide communities, lead to suburban sprawl, and increase social isolation and alienation. I think it’s our task now to see how we can retrofit the city. In my work in San Jose, I want to transform a city that was built for cars into a city for people.

The steam engine, the electric grid, and the automobile

Dan Doctoroff

I actually think we’ve had three big innovations over the last 200 years that have fundamentally shaped the modern city. One being the steam engine in the early part of the 19th century, the second being the electric grid in the latter part of the 19th century, and then the automobile and its widespread adoption in the early part of the 20th century. I would argue that they haven’t changed a whole lot. The way we get around is essentially the same, the way we get our energy is the same, the way we get our water is basically the same, the way our buildings are built is essentially the same, the way we do government functions is largely the same. That’s the whole thesis behind Sidewalk Labs. When Google and I got together, we shared a belief that we’re at what we would call the fourth urban technological revolution. This is a combination of digital technologies all based on the Internet, the fact that everyone is connected or will be within a relatively brief period of time.

The power of advanced computing sensing, the whole idea of social networks, as well as sort of new design and fabrication technologies can build off of a lot of these other digital technologies. Our whole thesis underlying Sidewalk Labs is that the convergence of these technologies at this moment in time actually heralds sort of a fourth technological revolution that will play out over the course of the next generation or two. We actually sit at the very early stages of that. We’re only beginning to glimpse it, and I probably use the word glimpse as maybe even a slight overstatement.

Jim Crow and the war on drugs

Michael Tubbs

Three for me. The backlash after Reconstruction in the 50 to 70 years of Jim Crow. Just the terrorizing effect of it. Also, the advent of open markets and international trade and the declining manufacturing and semi-skilled labor. And then the third thing would be the war on drugs. The war on drugs is part of the rise of the prison incarceration state where you have whole ecosystems and economies and billions of dollars in prison stocks traded on Wall Street. It created a profit motive where we’re locking people up for nonviolent offenses while not necessarily corresponding with the decreasing crime. Doing that ravages communities of color. And you see the ripple effects today.

Interviews were conducted and compiled by Longpath City Fellow Chad Rochkind.

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Fortress ‘Black in America’: Closed to Africans?

“Black in America” is like a fortress that is all at once forbidding and inviting. As an African arriving in America, I took it for granted that I would gain access to that fortress of black belonging by virtue of shared ancestry. How mistaken I was. When I moved from Kenya to New York City, my reception baffled me: The racist ridicule I got was mostly from black people, an experience many Africans in America tell me they have shared.

I was living with relatives in Briarwood, Queens, then a mix of Asians, whites, Latinos and some blacks, while pursuing graduate studies at a college in Manhattan and working as a teaching artist. In these classrooms of mostly-black students, I played a word-association game: I would write the word “Africa” on the board, and the volley of uncensored words the students contributed were all negative.

I was careful not to make the singular examples represent the whole because I could also see black people who embraced their own self-fashioned African identity with fierce pride. But one thing seemed clear to me: We African immigrants and our African identity were troublesome for many blacks. I would also come to learn that the black identity was equally troublesome for many Africans. It seemed to me we reminded blacks of an identity they had been taught to be ashamed of.

Back in Kenya, studying American literature in college and getting to read the works of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. DuBois, the poetry of Paul Dunbar and the Harlem Renaissance greats, never educated me on what it feels like to live as a black person in present-day America. I learned my accomplished book knowledge of the black experience was as worthless as a sack of cowry shells in a bank account.

One day I mentioned to a friend that I was going home to watch “Murphy Brown” since it was one of my favorite shows. I used to watch it in Kenya, I said. “You watch what?!” My friend was a black student. She asked this with a mixture of disdain and confusion. My education into being black in America was just beginning.  Why would I watch a show of mostly white people? Yet while growing up in Nairobi and Mombasa, we watched it all. But watching “Murphy Brown,” and even “Good Times” or “The Jeffersons,” could not teach me about the complexities of American race relations. We watched the shows for their entertainment value, for the most part, blissfully ignorant of the tragedy that carried black comedy. The tragedy of race and racism was always there in those American sitcoms I had watched in Kenya, but I was not a black person. I was an African immigrant. And that too was a designation that took some learning.

In Kenya, racism was a concept that existed only in books and never in conversation. Tribalism is what we lived with daily. Our identity was and still is ingrained in ethnicity, not in skin color. It explains why most Africans experience being called “black” or “African” for the first time when they come to America. Neither “black” nor “African” are conscious identity markers for Africans in Africa. One is a Taita, Igbo, Shona, etc. So any jokes or reference to racism in the black-American sitcoms flew right over our heads. The tiny population of Kenyan whites left over from a colonial past are mainly cocooned in their own enclaves and any effects of post-colonial white supremacy remain very different in an African country where black people run their own political affairs.

New York was overwhelming after my home in Taita, a county a few miles from Mombasa. It was the most-densely peopled city I’d ever been to, and the most intensely lonely. The perks that come with African extended family bonds are profusely underrated. I certainly could never have afforded New York rent, which explains why many African immigrants who land in New York leave soon after for more affordable cities. After I moved to Washington, D.C., I began to fit into my African-in-America identity. D.C. is a slower and more deliberate city than New York. You get to pause and attempt real human connections. I felt more at home there. In D.C., I found kindred spirits in the activists and black intellectuals steeped in the smarts and grits of politics and position.

In Washington, I finally felt I might have a better chance at being stitched into the black identity that I was beginning to find rich and alluring. But I soon found that I couldn’t just claim the Sistah identity. I was treated with respect and regarded as a comrade in art and struggle by other blacks, but without expectation that I would, or could, share the conversations that only people with a shared historical and cultural experience understood.

My place has been as one hovering somewhere around the outer rim of the inner sanctum of blackness. I watch and learn and laugh the loudest when I catch that one joke that almost got away, just to make up for all the others that went right over my head.

Many Africans in America find little value in identifying with Blackhood. They resist being identified with blacks once they become aware of the American caste system that puts melanin-rich humans at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Africans in America have this false hope that being an immigrant saves them from classification on that totem pole. They check the box “Other.” When they make it, most buy homes outside the city, as if American cities and their inner-city component haunts them with a certain stigma of failure.

This reticence about bonding with blacks has made Continental Africans miss out on some of the most amazing inter-personal relationships possible. This claim will undoubtedly be met with derisive laughter by fellow Africans in the U.S. who say they cannot handle the aggression of black people in relationships. Unfortunately, the angry black person is a stereotype; one as dangerous and misinformed as the ugliest stereotypes about Africans held by black people.

The black American has been actively engaged in emancipation on the Motherland since most notably, Marcus Garvey. In the ‘60s through ‘90s, Congressional Black Caucus members and TransAfrica Forum (now TransAfrica) were responsible for fighting the American legislative and corporate anchors that propped up an oppressive white supremacist reign in South Africa. Through the Aughts, Friends of the Congo, a black initiative, has been fighting genocidal neo-imperialism in the Democratic Republic of Congo by confronting American corporate greed in Africa.

Clearly, African immigrants have a natural ally in their Black siblings in the US. To ignore this factor is myopic and self-defeating. This has left most African immigrants weak in agency, splintered as a people, and visionless in a foreign country. They either keep to themselves and thrive as individuals or form collectives around ethnicities, not as Africans. They will also form pockets of small professional and investment blocs. These splintered efforts keep them advancing at their lowest potential.

Pew Research statistics estimates Africans in the U.S. at about two million. This is likely a very conservative number in light of the fact that many African immigrants who have multiplied within the U.S. do not participate in the census.

Although a 2018 National American Economy report notes that “African immigrants boast higher levels of education than the overall U.S. population” they remain a population that seems completely uninterested in the incredible possibilities that come with rising as a monolith.

The story in these statistics is that African immigrants are not going anywhere, and they will remain recognized as black people within the socio-economic stratification of American society. Some Africans have fought for Africa Desks in local governments, arguing that socio-culturally and politically, they are unique enough to warrant a separate recognition from African Americans. Forming lobbying power as Africans for African interests is fine but attempting to form separate recognition on the tapestry of black is delusional.

As a resident of Baltimore, exploring black Baltimore has brought me closer to a Nairobi experience than any other city I’ve known. From fighting for healthy communities to promoting black business patronage, capturing fiery post-Freddie Gray activism, and lobbying for a black arts district, that feeling of being stitched into the tapestry of the black identity is now coming full circle.

Melanin identity goes beyond skin. It courses through our separate histories and through a collective unconscious that causes blacks to reach out across continents for each other. It is wise for Continental Africans to figure out how to become black politically and economically in America. Socially? Love will find a way.

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More Routes = More Riders

Noticing a smaller huddle at the bus stop recently? You’re not crazy. Transit ridership

But the strongest determinant of ridership’s rise and fall may not be the lure of another mode—it’s service cuts on bus and train systems. According to a new study by researchers at McGill University’s department of urban planning, transit agencies are repelling riders by shrinking routes and schedules on buses in particular. “The more service a transit authority provides (measured as the number of kilometers driven annually by public transit vehicles—VRK), the more transit trips it will attract,” the authors wrote in an article summarizing their research, which was presented at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., last January.

The researchers gathered data on transit ridership, fares, and operations, between 2002 to 2015 for 25 large transit agencies in the United States and Canada, from the National Transit Database and the Canadian Urban Transit Association. Operations were measured in terms of vehicle revenue kilometers—which is the distance traveled by vehicles available to the public with an expectation of carrying passengers, according to the American Public Transportation Association—for buses, trains, and the two modes combined. The researchers performed an analysis to find the strongest relationships between these and more than a dozen additional factors related to the 25 service areas, including gasoline prices, GDP per capita, geographic and population sizes, the portion of households without a car, and the presence of Uber and bike-sharing.

Gas prices did have some statistical bearing on ridership, the analysis shows, but it was fairly weak. Much stronger were the factors that transit agencies and cities themselves control. Transit service drove ridership more than any other factor: A 10 percent increase in VRK was associated with a roughly 8 percent increase in ridership, with all other variables constant, they found.

And buses, the backbone of mass transit for the vast majority of North American cities, were the primary driver. New light-rail and streetcar segments have popped up in several North American cities over the past 15 years. The researchers found that a strong uptick in rail service between 2002 and 2007, during which time bus service remained stable, had a positive relationship with overall ridership. But between 2011 and 2015, transit agencies saw a decline in ridership as they slashed bus service by about 14 percent, even as they continued to build out rail as steadily as before.

Boisjoly, G., Grisé, E., Maguire, M., Veillette, M., Deboosere, R., Berrebi, E., & 43 El‐Geneidy, A. (2018). “Invest in your riders: A longitudinal analysis of the determinants of public 44 transport ridership in 25 North America cities.”

Fares also mattered: Conversely, a 10 percent increase in fare was associated with a 2 percent decrease in ridership. Not significant: the presence of Uber or bike-sharing.

Like all studies, this paper has its limitations—namely that the factors the researchers studied were constrained by the data that was available for all 25 agencies. And there may be local factors at play that complicate the one-to-one relationship between ridership and service hours that the study implies. “I think the issue is nuanced,” Yonah Freemark, a transit consultant and Ph.D. student in urban planning at MIT, said in an email. “Just expanding the number of bus hours, but in the wrong corridor, may not bring many people on board.” And the lack of counterfactuals in these types of analyses is always tricky. Some cities that have increased bus service, such as Baltimore, have still seen declines in ridership.

Still, this study suggests that transit agencies struggling to keep passengers on board needn’t look too far for explanations. What seems to determine whether people ride transit is how well it compares to other options, in terms of cost, frequency, reliability, and connectivity. Uber is not killing off the bus in every city in North America, at least not by itself. Cash-strapped transit agencies have been sabotaging themselves.

How to stop? The pithy title of the McGill study might say it all: “Invest in the ride.”

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Navigator: Summer Readin’

I have a long summer reading list that I keep ) ¤ The forgotten women of the Bauhaus movement. (ArchDaily) ¤ Hanoi, after the war. (The New York Times) ¤ The anatomy of a food truck. (Washington Post) ¤ The queer history behind the movie A League of Their Own. (Narratively) ¤ When a photographer gave cameras to rural kids around the world. (New Yorker) ¤ An animated guide to never getting lost. (Atlas Obscura) ¤ The Mumbai man who mastered the American crossword. (Narratively) ¤

(Emma Darvick)

This week’s bonus recommendation comes from CityLab contributor Lyndsey Gilpin, who curates a great weekly newsletter about ecology, justice, and culture in the American South:

Despite how it’s often portrayed, Appalachia is complicated, nuanced, and diverse. I loved episode four of NPR’s Embedded: Coal Stories, which dug into the history and complexities of race in the region with a simple story: how two young best friends—one black and one white, one a Trump critic and one a Trump supporter, one a coal miner and one struggling to find a steady job—are navigating the immense changes happening here.

Finally, I’m going to leave you with something that’s apparently trending: brutalist home goods! Garden gnomes! Tetra Soaps! Cuckoo clocks that resemble famous buildings! I know where CityLab’s Mark Byrnes and Kriston Capps are spending their pocket money this summer.

View from the ground:

@vickophoto showed us a cyclist tackling stairs in Quebec, @alisonawtrey captured Newark Penn Station after hours, @jklou1996 shot Pyeonghang from above, and @storiesfromdna photographed the architecture of Russia’s Petrogradsky District.

Tag us on Instagram with the hashtag #citylabontheground.

Over and out,

Tanvi

@Tanvim

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One Year After Trump Left the Paris Agreement, Who’s Still In?

When Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement last June, cities and states promised they’d fill the environmental vacuum. If the U.S. would no longer deliver on its commitment to lower carbon emissions 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, as the international agreement had stipulated, local leaders would. “We’re going to do everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” said former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg at the time.

A full year has passed since that commitment was broken and another was made. And while states and cities have taken climate action on the ground—banning hydrofluorocarbon pollutants (California); divesting pension funds from fossil fuel companies (New York State and several cities), and levying harsher-than-ever emissions regulations (California again)—it’s been difficult to measure their collective progress toward fulfilling the accord, which traditionally does not accept members other than countries in its ranks. So to mark the June 1 anniversary, states and cities have set themselves a new raft of green goals.

Starting today, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the ex-mayor’s charitable foundation, is holding an American Cities Climate Challenge. In October, the foundation will give away $70 million divided up among 20 “Leadership Cities”—those that propose the most compelling projects to reduce emissions in the building and transportation sectors, or that are already climate leaders in their states. Any of the 100 largest cities in the U.S. that have publicly pledged to uphold the Paris agreement are eligible to compete. More than half of those large cities have already signed the joint document We Are Still In, but the remaining cities have until June 19 to add their names. Cities’ applications are due on July 18, and the program will span two years.

“We hear from mayors all the time that they want to do more, that they want to push farther on buildings, push farther on transportation,” said Jim Anderson, head of the government innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “But we also recognize that they need some help.”

The U.S. Alliance on Climate Change also announced eight new initiatives this week, focused on sustainable infrastructure, renewable energy, carbon storage, and clean transportation. Created by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee in the days after Trump’s Rose Garden announcement, the Alliance has grown to include governors from 16 states and Puerto Rico. Together, this group represents 40 percent of the U.S. population and has a collective economy worth $9 trillion.

These tandem announcements themselves represent little more than a commitment to future action, and, in the case of some of the Alliance’s initiatives, a commitment to start a committee to then plan for future action. Next steps for both groups will be announced at the Global Climate Action Summit in September. But the announcements are a signal to the rest of the world that although nationally, the U.S. has broken from global consensus, citizens on the ground are dedicated to lowering emissions.

The moves are far from purely symbolic, insisted Antha Williams, head of environmental programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. She expects the challenge to foster a range of local-level projects—from “no-brainers,” like buying more renewable energy or removing permitting barriers for solar on municipal buildings, to transformative policies, such requiring building energy efficiency retrofits or adding parking charges to encourage public transportation use.

Focusing on the building and transportation sectors is a shortcut to progress, she said, because together they’re responsible for almost 90 percent of the emissions from U.S. cities. “The great news is that mayors have a ton of authority over those two sectors,” Williams said. “So by working in cities and [in] the biggest, most polluting cities on carbon and transport, we can get pretty far, pretty fast.”

The Alliance’s efforts, meanwhile, are targeted at the state level. They include a solar soft-costs initiative to drive down permitting, installation, and other non-hardware costs of solar, and offset some federal tariffs. With the help of NY Green Bank, the group is looking into opening new green banks, which work with private-sector investors to fund sustainable infrastructure projects. Following California’s lead in phasing out hydrofluorocarbons, it’s launching a super-pollutant challenge to reduce short-lived climate pollutants. And it’s rolling out an initiative to get more electric vehicles on the roads, while pushing back against any federal weakening of a clean car standard.

Setting these goals as a team allows for valuable information-sharing, said Julie Cerqueira, the executive director of the U.S. Climate Alliance. California is holding webinars on how to inventory and set policy around HFCs; New York and Massachusetts have spent $1.5 million on a climate-change clearinghouse filled with state-specific climate data tools, a database model that could be duplicated elsewhere. Broad buy-in is also necessary to compel market-level innovation and lower costs, especially for states that have fewer resources. To deploy more EVs, faster, “whether or not through some kind of coordinated procurement across the states, they can also help to move the market, thereby reducing the cost of those vehicles to make it more affordable to a larger number of states,” said Cerqueira.

These initiatives are meant to fill federal gaps, but not all of them can be filled by localities, Cerqueira says. “There’s a ton that states and cities can do, and we’re seeing this incredible groundswell,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not an excuse for the federal government to continue to cede the leadership on climate change.”

Bloomberg’s team was more sanguine. Between the city-level initiatives and Beyond Coal, a campaign with the Sierra Club to close down coal-fired power plants, Williams says they could tackle up to 65 percent of the reductions by 2025. “The experts tell us we can get there, and we don’t need to wait for action from Washington.”

Still, even when you add them together, these coalitions don’t make a quorum. The Alliance has representation from less than half of the states in the U.S., and of the three Republican governors who’ve joined, all of them represent blue states: Vermont, Maryland, and Massachusetts. While the big cities that have signed onto the Paris accord and are therefore eligible for Bloomberg’s challenge are more diverse, many are Democrat-led.

Research indicates, however, that despite a small conservative showing in these sorts of public coalition groups, support for climate resilience policy is more bipartisan than it seems. According to an analysis by the Boston University Initiative on Cities, while Republican mayors “shy away from climate network memberships and their associated framing of the problem,” they do “advocate locally for policies that help advance climate goals for other reasons, such as fiscal responsibility and public health.” Open climate leadership by some states and cities could encourage quiet, policy-driven support from others.

The real test will come in September, when city and state leaders across the country gather in California for the global climate summit. There, they will announce the level of U.S. emissions recorded in the past year—and how much lower it’s really gotten—and leaders of the initiatives spearheaded by the Alliance will outline more specific action plans. In October, Bloomberg Philanthropies will announce its 20 winning cities and they’ll embark on the two-year program.

“When we look around the world right now and we think about the real climate standouts, you might think of Oslo or Stockholm,” said Williams. “But we think there’s an opportunity to be thinking of cities like Pittsburgh or San Diego among those ranks.”

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When the Water Came for Me

If I have any takeaway from nearly drowning in the flash flood that swept through Ellicott City, Maryland, last Sunday, it’s that reality feels like it’s falling apart around you. Standing five doors down from the apartment I rent above my mother and sister’s kitchen goods store, I watched parked cars weightlessly slide down the street. Water that had been ankle high when I’d gone out to move my car up the street quickly rose to my thighs and, eventually, my waist. A police officer who had been blocking off traffic was standing next to me one second, yards away booking it up the street the next. I ran and banged on doors until I found an unlocked apartment building entrance, next to a cute shop that sells bathbombs and scented soaps. I slammed the door shut and watched transfixed as a wall of water bore down on the other side of two inches of wood and glass.

It only took about two hours for rain to turn Ellicott City from a quiet anytown Main Street into a raging torrent of mud, water, and garbage. I watched the flooding from the second floor of a stranger’s apartment, my hands trembling as sidewalks and store interiors were carried off by the waters. Some of the gutted buildings had been freshly renovated and re-opened as recently as a few months ago. A Buddha head statue from the neighborhood psychic bobbed down the impromptu river as this horrific multi-block bathtub filled and churned and finally drained. Later, after digging through debris and squeezing my way outside, I noticed a little frog hopping at my feet, just as confused by my presence as I was at his.

I’ve lived in Ellicott City, a small historic burg outside Baltimore, for a little over a year. I grew up in the neighboring suburb of Columbia and, after four years in New York City, the call to come back home became too strong to ignore. To know this town is to love it; it’s the kind of place where everyone turns out with their lawn chairs for weekly outdoor movies in the summer and neighbors pay you in cheesecake when you shovel snow from out in front of their businesses. Babe Ruth was married here a lifetime ago. We have enough haunted houses and assorted weird history to support a thriving mini-industry of ghost tours. A two-mile trail that once played host to a trolley line extends from the edge of town into Baltimore County. On Saturday mornings, I’d walk my dog there and listen to the trickle of stream water. After what’s happened, I’m not sure I’ll ever hear that sound without tensing up.

Water built Ellicott City: The nearby Patapsco River powered the grist mills that the three Ellicott brothers, Joseph, Andrew, and John, established here in the late 1700s. But as beautiful and picturesque the tributaries that flow in and around Main Street are, they also hang over our head like a guillotine blade waiting to drop. This is the second devastating flood to hit Ellicott City since 2016—to say nothing of floods that came through in 1817, 1837, 1868, 1901, 1917, 1923, 1938, 1942, 1952, 1956, 1972, 1975, 1989, and 2011.

The big difference, however, is that while most of these events are credited to the nearby Patapsco River overflowing following sustained heavy rains, often from tropical storms, the 2016 and 2018 floods are different beasts entirely. They swept in following relatively brief but very intense thunderstorms, as billions of gallons of precipitation flowed down the hillsides that surround the town, turning streets into wild rivers of runoff. Harvard atmospheric science student Matthew Cappucci, who writes for the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang, put it best in a tweet the evening after the flood:

In a follow-up, Cappucci estimates that the sheer volume of water from the flood was equivalent to “7 billion gallons, 118 million bathtubs [or] 11,000 Olympic swimming pools.” In the days that follow, I will think about how preposterous and impossible those comparisons feel, even if I know logically that they must be accurate.

When we talk about climate change, we think of things like melting glaciers and homeless polar bears, or exotic islands vanishing beneath rising oceans. But now my neighbors and I, residents of an artsy small town that Money dubbed a “best place to live” in 2010, are climate refugees, too. A warming atmosphere holds more moisture, and leads to more extraordinary events like the “training thunderstorms” that pummeled the town with at least six inches of rain over a few hours on Sunday afternoon.

Another exacerbating factor in the 2016 and 2018 floods is the long-term consequences of excessive land development. As a historic district, Ellicott City is unique in that property owners are extremely limited in the kind of major changes they can make to buildings, some of which are over 200 years old. So developers have gone around the town, peppering the surrounding hillsides with condominiums and apartment complexes. Forested land has been replaced with slick concrete and impervious surfaces that deflect runoff. Rainwater that was once absorbed naturally by the environment has nowhere to go but down.

You don’t think about any of this, by the way, when water that hits hard enough to move tons of concrete and steel is rushing through your legs. Survival mode kicks in and you think “I’m going to die if I don’t get out of this.”

I’m writing this article at a coffee shop two miles from the disaster zone, and it still feels like a dream. And I don’t mean that in the trite “Oh, how could this happen?” way, but in the way that dreams are made up of familiar elements that don’t make sense jammed together. There is a four-foot moat where the sidewalk in front of my apartment used to be. Bags of pasta that filled the store window above it are most likely floating somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay. My car, a used 2010 Camaro I parked up the block, is miraculously unharmed, protected by some kind of muscle car magic.

My week has been strange, to say the least. In a journalistic fugue state during the flood, I recorded and uploaded photos and video of the storm to my Twitter and Facebook accounts—images that would end up on nearly every major news outlet. An instinctive “fuck off” to a verified Fox News account asking for permission to use a video snowballed into thousands of retweets, and a lot of arguing over intellectual property laws in my mentions. It’s too much—it’s months, a year, five years packed into less than a week. Ellicott City’s iconic town clock, recently rebuilt and reinstalled after the 2016 storm, is gone. It only follows that time feels fundamentally broken, that things aren’t supposed to happen this fast.

Trauma is a funny thing. My interactions with people feel like they’ve been shot with a weird camera filter; I have difficulty remembering mundane details from the last week and I’ll catch myself telling the same stories over again. In my quieter moments, I remember that a National Guardsman eating dinner at the Mexican restaurant up the block from my home was washed away trying to rescue my friend Kate—Kate, my sister’s friend, who I buy dog treats and kibble from. Sgt. Eddison Hermond was announced as missing after many of us had concluded, prematurely, that at least no one had been killed or seriously injured. His body was recovered in the Patapsco two days later. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, who ran his 2015 campaign on repealing a stormwater management fee he dubbed a “rain tax,” honored him by ordering that the Maryland flag be lowered at half mast. I didn’t know Eddison but I know he didn’t deserve to die alone, swept up in a flood that could have been averted, or at least planned for.

When Ellicott City flooded two years ago, there was confusion. This time, there’s anger. Anger that our homes and businesses are gone again. Anger for Eddison and his family. I can’t speak for my neighbors, but when you look in their eyes, you can see how exhausted they are. Many businesses that had been destroyed in 2016 had only reopened within the last year and a half. The proprietor of Bean Hollow, Ellicott City’s homey coffee shop that served as a school night refuge for local high schoolers, has announced that they will not be returning. My neighbor Jason, who owns a toy shop and who gained some measure of fame in the last flood after rescuing a woman from her car, released a statement on Facebook that while he wants to re-open he cannot in good conscience do it in a location that puts his employees and customers in harm’s way. And can you blame him? Three people have died between the 2016 and 2018 floods. “Insult to injury” is too kind to describe watching your store windows burst with flood water while you’re still repaying a loan from the last time this happened.

A town with two catastrophic floods in three years has a problem that can’t be fixed with new windows and restored utilities. I hope this is a wake-up call—the kind of intervention you’d throw for a friend with drinking problem, but on a national scale, if not a global one. The tragedy that has unfolded in Ellicott City is not unique or even particularly remarkable when compared to the thousands who died in New Orleans over a decade ago, or the thousands more who appear to have lost their lives in Puerto Rico less than a year ago. The story of humanity is adapt or die, and it’s time to decide if we’re going to make the kind of serious infrastructure changes this new world demands, so that the neighborhoods, towns, and cities in harm’s way can survive. There is no third strike for Ellicott City, or the Ellicott Cities we all call home.

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