The Photographer Who Watched Toronto Become a City

It’s not clear how Arthur Goss acquired his first camera.

It was the 1890s and photography was a technical and expensive hobby for a teen recently sent into the workplace to help support his family following the death of his father. However he came to take his first pictures, Goss’s talent was immediately clear. Aged 15, he won an amateur contest. Over the course of his prolific career he would see Toronto become a city through the lens of his camera.

Goss grew up in Cabbagetown, a working class neighborhood in the east end of Toronto. To help his struggling family, Goss found work as an office boy at the age of 11 in the city’s Engineering Department, one of the few offices where a camera could be found.

(City of Toronto Archives)

City officials found that photographs of work sites, land conditions, street scenes, even tangled overhead electrical wires were an important documentary record. They also saw photography as a time and money saving device, reducing the need for site visits and protecting the city against lawsuits. “In the… matter of damage suits brought against the city, it saves the cost of itself many times over. It is photographic evidence that counts when a damage action is being tried,” the Toronto Daily Star reported in 1913. Faced with an ever increasing workload, the city hired Goss as its first official photographer in 1911, the same year Dr. Charles Hastings was appointed Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health.

Goss systematically documented the building of new roads, sewers, transit lines, and many of the major infrastructure projects that came to define the burgeoning city.  More importantly he was also a skilled social documentarian, photographing with skill and empathy scenes of terrible poverty in the city’s poorest neighborhoods that helped bring about public health reforms.

(City of Toronto Archives)

Though he was officially part of the city works department, Goss was called upon to take photos for a number of other city divisions, such as the Board of Education and Hastings’ Department of Health. In 1911, his pictures illustrated a landmark public health report by Hastings that for the first time widely exposed the dire living conditions in the city’s St. John’s Ward, which was often known simply as the Ward. Before Hastings and Goss’ report, city officials and the public at large had ignored the poverty in the Ward where new migrants, many of them Jewish or Chinese, frequently found lodging. “It is a common saying that half the world does not know how the other half lives,” Hastings told the Star. “The truth is that one half not only does not know but does not want to know.”

Over a period of several years, Goss visited hundreds of tenements, rooming houses, and shacks in the Ward and beyond, many of which lacked basic amenities like heating or running water. His photos place the subjects, frequently children without adults, at the center of the frame in the broad context of their surroundings. He gave careful thought to how the photos would be received, taking care to avoid harsh flashes and making use of gentle natural light to illuminate his subjects. Many of the pictures are remarkably intimate. In one, a woman breastfeeds her baby in a kitchen crowded with children. In another, a group of workmen stand in a bedroom holding what seems to be copies of the same photograph up to the camera.

(City of Toronto Archives)

Just a year after being made city photographer, Goss’s department had expanded to include a small staff and a dedicated office. “He has a little department of his own on the top floor of the City Hall,” wrote the the Star in 1912, “with two assistants, a fairly good equipment, a couple rooms, a pair of cameras, and a host of lenses which make photography comparatively easy.”

Each negative created by the Civic Photography Department was carefully labelled and filed away for future reference. “Just as every dog has his day, every one of these pictures is liable to be needed at any moment,” the Star wrote. “Few people imagine what an important cog in the civic machine this photography department has become.”

(City of Toronto Archives)

Goss’ work was varied and occasionally dangerous, taking him high above the ground on plank scaffolds or deep underground. “Mr. Goss has on occasion been forced into some peculiar locations to get desired views,” wrote the Star. “For instance, when he has to take a flash-light picture inside a 3-foot sewer. That’s like getting under a bed to take a photograph.”

(City of Toronto Archives)

Apart from his pictures of the Ward, Goss is best known for his pictures of the Prince Edward Viaduct’s construction, which wrapped up in 1918. It was the first substantial bridge to link central Toronto with its newly-annexed eastern suburbs. The finished structure, 108,000 tons of steel and concrete, carried automobile, streetcar, and pedestrian traffic high above the Don River. Goss’s pictures of the viaduct encapsulate the entire project, ending with the completed structure and beginning with the land survey photographs of the valley slopes prior to the first turning of soil. Even in these utilitarian exposures, his skill as a photographer is clearly evident. Workers hold numbered survey markers at the center of skillfully composed landscape scenes. Author Michael Ondaatje drew inspiration and a vast amount of historical detail from Goss’s viaduct photographs in his 1987 novel, In the Skin of a Lion. Goss even makes a cameo in the book, emerging from a water tunnel under construction beneath the Toronto Harbor.

(City of Toronto Archives)

Though the bulk of his output was part of the official business of the City of Toronto, Goss was recognized as a skilled landscape photographer. He was an associate and contemporary of the Group of Seven artists and was responsible for one of the best known photographs of the group, taken at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto in 1920. He was even called upon to judge the 1926 “Miss Toronto” beauty contest with the renowned sculptor, Frances Loring.

Goss was the city’s official photographer until he died in 1940 at the age of 59. The office was then reorganized (and reduced) and the role became “photographer and blue printer.”

In his career, Goss took more than 35,000 photographs, many of them now carefully preserved at the City of Toronto Archives as a vital document of Toronto’s formative years. Had he lived a longer life, he could have witnessed the post-war boom that turned Toronto into a sprawling metropolis with endless suburbs and a downtown filled with glass-and-steel skyscrapers. No doubt he would have been fascinated.

The Rapid, Devastating Decline of the Denver Post

The iconic Denver Post building has a slight curve to it. Like a camera lens, the bright white structure widens into the shape of a parentheses on its front side, an architectural flourish that allows those inside to capture sweeping views of the city sprawled before it. From this perch, journalists covering the city could spot the institutions they were responsible for covering: the majestic Colorado State Capitol, the Civic Center’s open walkways, the stately city council building.

In recent months, however, the city’s watchdogs have instead been monitoring Denver from a distance. The Post relocated from downtown Denver to the paper’s printing plant outside of the city earlier this year. This was the beginning of a string of devastating cuts that now leave the Post at risk of closing its doors permanently.

This isn’t your average “local journalism is a failing business” story. The threat in this case is far less abstract. Alden Global Capital, a New York City-based hedge fund that owns the Denver Post’s parent company Digital First Media, has been slashing its newsrooms across the country while maximizing profits. Digital First Media, the country’s second-largest newspaper chain, has eliminated two out of every three staff positions at its media outlets since 2011, according to reporting by The Nation.

Over the last few months, these tactics have spelled danger for the Denver Post. Around 30 percent of the paper’s newsroom was laid off this April. Soon after, Editorial Page Editor Chuck Plunkett spearheaded a series of opinion pieces in the paper demanding Alden Global Capital sell the paper or invest in its newsroom. Two weeks ago, Plunkett resigned when he was told he could not run another editorial standing up to the hedge fund. And then two other senior editors resigned, too, leaving the Post severely understaffed and without a clear path forward.

Journalists from Digital First Media publications around the country gathered outside Alden’s New York City offices Tuesday to demand answers. In Denver, the Post staff members that remained rallied around their office wearing shirts declaring “News Matters.”

Surrounded by his former co-workers and television reporters, former Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, center, speaks during a rally against the newspaper’s ownership group. (David Zalubowski/AP)

In one opinion piece published by the Denver Post, former reporter Ricardo Baca wrote of the journalists’ protest: “To an extent, this is the opposite of what we’ve been trained to do since Journalism 101. But these are also desperate times, and if we don’t speak up now, then we will be destined to witness the demise of our city’s largest and most essential news-gathering operations — and what would happen to democracy then?”

All the while, the beleaguered staff at the Denver Post continued to crank out a daily paper.

This scene is a far cry from the environment I encountered when I started a summer internship at the Denver Post last July, as one of about 12 paid interns. Denver had lost its other major newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, in 2009 and the Post’s staff had seen its share of cuts in the years before I arrived. But a team of editors supported a newsroom united by a strong sense of camaraderie and an enthusiasm about local news big and small—from policies criminalizing homelessness in Denver to the threats facing the city’s oldest cemetery. When the Great American Eclipse arrived in August, 2017, the staff mobilized to Wyoming, Nebraska, and all over Colorado to cover the bizarre beauty of the moon overtaking the sun.

Fast forward ten months, and all but one of the editors I worked with have quit the paper or been let go. Most of them haven’t been replaced.

Danika Worthington, who works the Post’s Sunday shift, said the job often now requires her to be her own editor. Now that senior editors Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman have stepped down, she doesn’t even know who her editor during the weekdays will be.

“If we’re continuing on this trajectory, there’s no way in hell we will survive,” Worthington said.

If the Denver Post folds, it will leave the city without a paper of record to monitor the most basic developments. But even in the newspaper’s current emaciated state, there are fewer and fewer people to keep a close eye on the growing metropolis of three-million-plus people.

In February, politics reporter Jesse Paul and three other Post journalists polled every member of the Colorado House of Representatives to determine if lawmakers would vote to expel a representative accused of sexual harassment. Paul said that the politicians were angry and “frustrated about the fact that we were going to put them on the record.”

Just three months later, Paul said the staff doesn’t have the bandwidth for this type of intensive reporting anymore.

“There’s no way we’d have time now to poll all 65 lawmakers on every single issue,” Paul said. “Basically we’re having to triage on a daily basis to decide what we’re covering and what we’re not…Whether it’s a bill that will affect everyone in Colorado or the really contentious governor’s race happening right now.”

Cops reporter Noelle Phillips fears this means public figures in Denver won’t be held to account. Phillips is the only reporter regularly covering the police beat and the city’s court system, meaning she often doesn’t make it to trials before the day the verdict is announced.

“The people we cover know that we have diminished resources, so they’re likely to take advantage of that,” Phillips said.

Denver Post investigations in recent months have uncovered a disturbing pattern of young people aging out of the Colorado foster care system without permanent homes or institutional support and fraud and sex crimes in Colorado sober-living homes.

This isn’t just about the current landscape of journalism; it’s also about its future. Worthington and Paul came to the Denver Post as interns. When I started there in the summer of 2017, the Post had paid interns allocated to each section of the paper. This summer, staff members say that the paper may only hire a couple interns whose colleges can pay their stipends, if they host interns at all.

When Erin Douglas landed an internship at the Post last summer, she thought she was starting her dream job. A Colorado local who grew up in the suburbs of Denver, she hoped to eventually join the staff as a full-time reporter—a trajectory many in the newsroom had taken in years past.

Douglas will graduate from Colorado State University this month with degrees in journalism and economics, but instead of returning to the Post she’ll be heading to New York City to start her career.

“I feel that as a young journalist, I literally have to leave (Denver) if I want to get a job,” Douglas said. “If all of our journalists are moving to New York, D.C., and Boston, then that’s a problem. We’re not reporting for the rest of the nation at that point….Who is reporting for the people here at home?”

Omnipresent or Invisible? London’s Deadly Knife Crime

The longstanding push and pull between London and New York made headlines this year for a grim reason: London’s murder rate passed New York’s in two of the first four months of 2018. In London, knife crime is the main culprit. In this piece, adapted from Tales of Two Londons: Stories From a Fractured City, edited by Claire Armitstead (OR Books $18), two friends—a director and a youth worker—walk through a neighborhood in a north London borough, and discuss the two Londons they see layered atop each other: One has gastro pubs and boutique shops; the other, fatal bus routes and enemy zones.

Penny: I live in the top half of a shabby Georgian house in Barnsbury, an affluent area in north London. Opposite there’s a pretty little park with massive horse chestnut trees and 50 yards on the left a beautiful larger park. We have three gastro pubs nearby, it’s a five-minute walk to the Almeida Theatre and just up the road from the Screen on the Green where we can sink into a sofa and sip a cocktail while watching the latest cinema release. Pet dogs trot around amiably day and night but our pavements are spotless because well-behaved owners always scoop up the poop. It’s an oasis of calm, occasionally disturbed by a motorist and a cyclist yelling at each other at the narrow chicane on the corner of Thornhill Road. This is the Angel, Islington.

Madison McVeigh

Penny: I’m halfway between Upper Street with its snooty estate agents, boutique shops and dozens of expensive bars and restaurants and the Caledonian Road—the Cally—still shabby but sprinkled with the telltale signs of gentrification. Apart from remnants of the white working class and Asian market traders on Chapel Market, it’s uniformly posh and very safe.

Or is it?

Look carefully and you might notice a uniformed security guard outside the McDonald’s on Chapel Market, a sign that there is a parallel world right here. There are teenagers for whom this tranquil area is a deadly battlefield, laced with landmines and traps and this particular McDonald’s is one of its most hotly contested territories. These same streets have doppelgangers, not elsewhere in the universe but under our noses. In London we literally don’t see the young people dying right under our noses, their bloodstains just seem to evaporate. My eyes were opened after making two films about gang life in inner-city Birmingham, leaving me no longer able to conveniently unsee this parallel world.

At the Copenhagen Youth Project (CYP), my friend Steve (who is a senior youth worker there) and I were talking to a group of teenagers about the recent murder of a young rapper they knew in south London. Nobody seemed shocked or upset.

Steve: We had a discussion about what goes through a young man’s mind when he leaves his house armed, on a mission to harm one of his rivals. So many teenagers on the streets wear grey North Face or hooded tracksuits that one realistic hazard is stabbing the wrong person. But the boys were more concerned about the danger of leaving their immediate area at all.

Steve: O J said, “Say I need to go Angel now, it’s only a short walk. Maybe I catch the 274 [the 274 bus] and maybe that’s safe. But it’s a warm evening so say I decide to walk, well I could be caught slipping and something happens.” Sadly, a year later O J was in intensive care after a stabbing. It seemed he had been caught slipping. O J was one of the lucky 1,000 London stab victims every month who survive. Over a single fortnight in May, 11 young people were stabbed to death. This is not Chicago but we’re on our way.

Penny: Half an hour later I walk home to Angel not thinking about losing my life. As I cross the Cally Road I think about turning left to buy a pack of deliciously salty olives at the little Turkish shop next to the Coop, and I walk as far as the Tarmon pub on the corner of Richmond Avenue. I decide I can’t be bothered to buy the olives and turn back to stroll up Copenhagen, go left at Matilda and turn up Everilda Street.

Some evenings a group of Cally boys gather outside Angel stores on bikes and mopeds and it can feel dodgy. I’ve had a couple of narrow escapes on that corner. One time I kept my wits and made eye contact, nodded and smiled at a boy who was swooping down to snatch my phone from my right hand with his three friends hovering on my left. He was disconcerted and backed away—his friends hooted and called him a pussy but I had briefly become more than a phone to him and it put him off.

Today it’s calm. I smile at the pigeon lady with her long grey hair but she ignores me, and make my way through the Sainsbury’s car park past the owner of the weird secondhand shop with her ratty leopard skin coat and erratically applied lipstick and into Chapel Market. A few stallholders are clearing up and a stooped old lady with white hair is foraging for squashed peaches in empty wooden boxes. I pass McDonald’s and now I can see the gleaming silver angel wings outside the N1 shopping centre [Named after a North London post code, North One].

Created for CityLab by Esri, this map shows the location of stabbing incidents in London for the first three months of 2018.

Steve: For the young people I work with the same journey goes something like this: Is it a walk up to Angel or shall we jump on the bus? The bus brings back memories of a stabbing on the platform of Caledonian and Barnsbury Station last summer. The perpetrator, an EC1 boy  [EC1 is a post code for East Central London] ran out of the station and jumped on the 17 bus only to be confronted by a group of Cally boys unaware that he had just stabbed one of their boys on the station. They beat up the EC1 boy and left him in a bit of a mess, but who knows what would have happened if they had been aware of the damage he had just caused to one of their own.

Once on the bus they’re pretty much trapped and often the question is where to look if another youth boards the bus; to look away could seem disrespectful or weak and to look could be seen a challenge.

The Cally Road shouldn’t be a problem, it’s fairly open with many known faces. However, a few years ago, Alan Cartwright, a boy from our youth club, was fatally stabbed by an EC1 boy as he was innocently riding his bike up the Cally. Now Cally boys feel vulnerable even in the heart of their own territory. Across the Cally Road and through the Barnsbury estate, where there is a lot of cover, is probably the best route. But EC1 boys now maraud around our area without fear, looking for Cally boys. So whilst there is cover, it might be safer to stick to Copenhagen Street because there are more random people about. But on the other hand there’s more chance of being caught if the EC1 [boys] are on bikes or in a car.  So better stick to going through the estate up to Chapel Market, where it becomes seriously dangerous for anyone involved in this life. Lots of people, lots of hustle and bustle as you walk through the market, but there are strange faces from different ends, so the Cally boys say it’s too bait.

Steve: This lifestyle is a vacuum that never turns off, and young people who are sucked into it accept it as the norm. People on the other side of the street don’t see the detail of it and therefore will never understand we can’t just turn off a switch to make the vacuum stop sucking. There are some young people who have an extraordinary talent that could offer a way out, but more often than not the force of the vacuum puts an end to any dreams. People like Lewis Johnson, a boy from CYP was signed by Crystal Palace [A professional soccer team in Britain’s highest division], a good scholar on a fast track to becoming a professional player. At Crystal Palace, he was the model academy boy, but during holidays and off-season his involvement in criminal and gang activity grew and grew until at 15, he turned his back on football for life on ‘the Road’.  I met him again at the funeral of one of his friends who died after crashing his moped while being chased by the police.

I had worked with Lewis since he was eight and thought I could help him again. At the funeral, he was clearly on edge, looking over his shoulder after every few words and, after a hug and a brief conversation, he told me it was too dodgy for him and he needed to leave. The next I heard he had been killed while being chased by police.

I take the young people I work with into other worlds—to theatres, to restaurants, to Sadler’s Wells, the English National Opera, to the Roundhouse [a theater space] to give them experiences outside the vacuum, to broaden their map of the world. Out of their environment a lot of the swagger vanishes, heads go down and insecurity emerges. But there is one place where this never happens. They walk into any McDonald’s and they’re in familiar territory, whatever geographical space it occupies. In McDonald’s they have a licence to behave however they wish, which often includes abusing the staff, leaving a mess, disputing the bill, claiming the order is wrong and returning food. As far as they’re concerned, if you work in McDonald’s and are not one of their boys your only option is to hand out free food. Otherwise you’re an easy target because you’re all the same, just like the fast food chain itself, where you are guaranteed to get the same food anywhere in the world.

Penny: Street robberies sporadically provide brief but meaningful encounters between our two cities but, most of the time, most of us float around in our own bubbles, blissfully unaware. If you’re a north Londoner you’ve probably hung out in Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell where the Islington postcode changes from N1 to EC1. It’s a short strip of hipster paradise, where you can squeeze into Moro’s and eat tiny tapas at tiny tables at whopping prices or drop into its sister Morito, or any of the other 20 bars and restaurants squashed next to the hairdressers, gift shops, flower, jewelry and leather boutiques.

Steve: This area is also home to the EC1 [the EC1 gang], also known as Easy Cash because of the ease with which they accumulate money through criminal activities. Shoreditch and Dalston provide not only a booming hipster market for recreational drugs but also lots of dozy punters with expensive phones ripe for the picking. Easy Cash have been at war with Cally for about 15 years following the death of a Cally boy. The war subsided for a while but recently younger even more reckless groups have reignited the feud. These boys feel they have nothing to lose: they are usually in the criminal justice system, excluded from school and able to roll a joint before they have even considered what work they might do. The top boys are often those who are the most intelligent; they can call on backup to implement their violent talk and usually have little or no parenting and therefore no foundation. They are surrounded by negativity, which they accept as the norm. In my experience, without one adult who really cares about you, it is almost impossible to escape this life.

Nobody remembers the original reason for the feud and it no longer matters as it’s now about who has the most cash in their rucksack and who is perceived as the most violent. Last summer, Easy Cash were using Periscope to advertise how far they were advancing into Cally territory, into the same parks that other people use to walk their dogs, lie in the sun and play with their children on the swings. These incursions into Cally are known as a violation. And when you’re violated you have to retaliate, otherwise you’re seen as soft. Walking the streets is genuinely terrifying so you carry a knife to defend yourself.

A map of violent crimes in northeast London, March 2015- February 2018, by Esri. The number of incidents ranges from fewer than 200 to more than 1000 as the shades darken.

Penny: This whole city is carved up into little bits of turf and the rest of us blithely cross invisible frontlines every day. Where I live is one of these front lines and they are all over the city. A couple of years ago I went for a walk through Camden, just west of Islington, with Hassan, a young man who grew up on the Queen’s Crescent council estate just behind the grand houses on Queen’s Crescent. Camden Lock [a part of Camden near a canal], a mecca for tourists and teenagers, was a business opportunity for QC boys, perfect for selling weed or, if you’re broke, picking a clump of grass from the pavement, wrapping it in cling film and pretending it is weed. Hassan felt sorry for young people from poorer areas like Tottenham without easy access to crowds of mugs. We walked from the Lock to the south side of Hampstead Heath, a favorite location for romantic comedies, a vast green space where the middle- and upper-middle classes bird-watch or walk their dogs, swim in the various ponds and the Lido, picnic, play tennis, hike and fly kites. I asked him whether he and his friends ever visited the Heath. Hassan flashed his lovely smile and snorted, “Hampstead Heath is ours.” Hassan didn’t mean that the middle classes at play were trespassing on QC territory—they mean nothing to him. In his parallel world he would only see boys from rival gangs committing a violation by venturing into his green space.

Steve: Walking around with a knife is the same as carrying a mobile phone—for many of these young people it’s part of the kit. If you’re carrying a knife you’re going to have to use it or lose face, and in this world losing face can’t happen. Young people can be stabbed or shot or sprayed with acid over territory, or drugs, or criminal activities, over a stolen bike, over social media, over a girl, over being disrespected. If you’re an uneducated young man with no prospects, having a gun or a knife makes you someone, and too many times I’ve heard the words, “we have nothing to lose.”

Penny: Early this summer I walked past a large group of teenage boys standing with their hoods up in broad daylight by Tottenham Green on the Seven Sisters Road a few miles north of Islington. I felt something was about to kick off, but 15 minutes later I heard that a 16-year-old boy was already lying dead in the bushes. Osman Sharif had been stabbed in the chest with a kitchen knife by another 16-year-old, over a Snapchat argument.

Osman’s life is over. The boy who killed him will be swept into the prison system where he will be trapped in the bubble, the matrix where all everyone talks about is their next move.

Steve: The Caledonian and Barnsbury area, sandwiched between the King’s Cross Development with its expensive restaurants and fountains on one side and the leafy streets of Barnsbury on the other, contains six pockets of poverty known as Super Output Areas. These pockets are among the 20 percent most-deprived areas nationally. It’s like a third world country on the doorstep of the richest, complete with its own language (incomprehensible to anybody else) and its own rules.

People live in cramped accommodation, side by side and on top of each other, in little boxes with no space to breathe. If you walk along the balconies of these estates looking into windows, in the first you’ll see a family preparing food, in the next they’re eating, next door music is blaring and next to that there’s a party. Arguments are frequent between people living in these conditions and they quickly involve everyone. Everyone in the flats above and below can feel and hear the aggression, the swearing and the violent talk; they are trapped whether they stay at home or go out, and finding alternative accommodation is impossible. So the boys I work with choose a lifestyle that seems to offer easy access to what other people have.

Penny: In the hood there are more words for money than the Innuit have for snow. We have taught them well. They worship money and they’ll stop at nothing to get what they want. But the eight richest men in the world are as wealthy as half of humanity and we are fighting seven covert wars in the Middle East right now. Is there a connection between grotesque inequality and petty criminal activity, between state-sanctioned violence and small turf wars? I believe there is.

What I do know is that if white middle-class kids were killing each other on the streets of London, we would see them very clearly.

Is Local Self-Reliance Illegal? The Story of Waste Management, Inc. in California

Claims and counter-claims are being aired about the right of a city to choose a local hauler over Waste Management Inc., which has held the contract for the past 15 years in Carson, California. Waste Management, Inc. is in classic “sore loser” mode and challenging the bidding process for the award of a multi-million dollar waste collection contract to a local competitor.… Read More

The post Is Local Self-Reliance Illegal? The Story of Waste Management, Inc. in California appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

The State(s) of Distributed Solar — 2017 Update

Across the country, more states than ever are making solar energy—and distributed solar at that—a key part of their energy mix. But where have these gains been greatest, and what are the economic implications for residents from one state to the next? To answer these questions, an updated analysis of solar markets, using annual data from 2017, takes a closer look at the state-by-state share of distributed solar, highlighting which states have taken the lead to prioritize small-scale, local energy systems.… Read More

The post The State(s) of Distributed Solar — 2017 Update appeared first on Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A Loving Glimpse of an Aging Concrete Utopia

What happens to a city when the ideals that built it start to fade? This question lies at the heart of New Town Utopia, an affecting new British documentary released this month that charts the recent history of the model modernist city of Basildon.

Founded in 1949 roughly 30 miles east of London, Basildon was one of Britain’s first post-war new towns, a network of planned settlements that developed on the earlier Garden City model. Created by state development corporations in a spirit of practical idealism, these new towns sought to provide better homes and lives for mainly working class residents of Britain’s crowded, bomb-damaged cities.

In Basildon, the resulting city—green, rigidly-zoned, and almost exclusively state-owned housing—proved for decades to be a largely successful community. But as the film reveals through the words of Basildon artists, musicians, and creatives, the sense of vibrancy and cohesion the city fostered started to fray in the 1980s as the country’s government abandoned the social democratic values that underpinned the town’s creation.

Watching the film, it’s easy to see how heartening and radical towns like Basildon must have seemed after the war. Their creation was part of a wave that also introduced Britain’s first fully-fledged social security system and tax-funded National Health Service. The ideals that underpinned Basildon’s creation were humane, says New Town Utopia’s director Chris Smith. “The original vision behind Basildon was very noble—to create a place for people to live where they would be able to grow their communities,” he tells CityLab. “Where they would experience art and culture, where [there would] be a lot of green space.”

In keeping with urban policy of the time, this utopian setup involved rigorous zoning, landscaping, and architecture that mixed Modernism with updated versions of English suburban vernaculars. As such, its layout can now make it seem a little fragmented, but Basildon is a kind of test case for Mid-century urbanism.

Smith is nonetheless wary of either fetishizing its modernism or laying all the city’s problems at its door. “I’ve always been interested in Modernist art and design, but also aware of the potential conflict between that and the lived-in experience,” he says. “It’s all very well taking a middle class, aesthetic view of this kind of architecture, but those don’t mean much to someone living in the top of a tower that was freezing cold in winter, where their heating doesn’t work properly.”

Accordingly, the film criticizes its construction mishaps and poor layout more than any aesthetic flaw. Among the missteps, the film cites heating pipes being embedded in one building’s ceilings, while some low-rise project neighborhoods designed to shield residents from cars evolved into alienating labyrinths that risked shielding residents from any sense of life or vibrancy at all.

Planning glitches aside, the film is a love letter to the town. It’s not that it paints the city’s past as universally rosy, noting that the city developed a decidedly macho street culture where (not uncommon in Britain) walking into the wrong bar could get you in trouble. This is shown as counterbalanced, nonetheless, with a strong sense of social solidarity. With its decent housing on state-controlled rents, Basildon, the film notes, was once such a union town it was dubbed “Moscow-on-Thames.” With a publicly funded arts sector giving misfits a place to congregate, Basildon also developed a lively counter-culture in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. During that period, it fostered a music scene whose most famous product, Depeche Mode, still brings thousands of fans to the city as a site of pilgrimage.

And now? It’s not as if the city has faded away in recent years. High costs elsewhere in the London region still encourage people to move there in search of cheaper housing. In the mid 1980s, however, Basildon’s state-owned homes came up for sale to tenants as part of Margaret Thatcher’s Right-to-Buy scheme, and the inclusive ethos on which the city was based started to unravel as it changed from a city of tenants to one of owner-occupiers. As the city was handed over from a development corporation to the local municipality, the idealism on which the city was based was drained away as funding for community projects came under ever stricter scrutiny.

Nowadays, in a country where living standards are falling for people on lower incomes, many of Basildon’s shops and art venues have been shuttered or demolished. The city has developed a stigma as a place outsiders tend to assume is rough and crime-ridden. Smith says that partly stems from “the demonization of working class people, because these environments were designed for them.”

That doesn’t mean the city’s future is inherently bleak. New planning guidelines are softening the city’s formerly rigid zoning, while the influx of new citizens from elsewhere provides potential for future transformations. Watching the changes charted by New Town Utopia, it’s still hard not to reflect on what has been lost in Britain when it comes to providing a good life for people with few resources.

CityLab Daily: Inside the Massive U.S. ‘Border Zone’

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What We’re Following

Bordering on: While the weight of border patrol operations is felt heaviest along the southwest border of the United States, immigration agents possess expanded search and seizure powers in a wide swath of the country known as the “border zone.” The zone, which hugs the entire edge of the United States and runs 100 air miles inside, includes some of the densest cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago—and is home to around 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to a CityLab analysis based on data from location intelligence company ESRI.

(ESRI/Madison McVeigh)

Inside this space, agents can enter private property and set up highway checkpoints; and have wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations. CityLab’s Tanvi Misra reports on what it’s like to live or travel within the massive border zone—and how towns and activists are challenging the checkpoints that have become borders themselves.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

Chicago’s South Side Gets Dockless Bikeshare

A pilot program on the South Side aims to expand beyond the reach of the city’s docked system. But will lock-to requirements and other regulations allow for enough bikes to be useful?

Andrew Small

Boston Wants People To Build Tiny Houses In Their Yards

The city is showing off a prototype for “pop-up” affordable housing—and easing rules on accessory dwelling units.

Anthony Flint

Britain Wants to Protect Its Postmodernist Architecture

Following an announcement by Historic England, 17 buildings, the youngest of which was designed in 1991, will be preserved. It’s not hard to see why the newly listed buildings caught conservationists’ eyes.

Feargus O’Sullivan

The Abstract D.C. Metro Maps That Might Have Been

A series of modernist transit design gems were discovered last week inside Massimo and Lella Vignelli’s archives.

Mark Byrnes

The Defense That Failed White Nationalists

Marchers from last year’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville who attacked a black counter-protester made a claim that has often worked for police officers: They acted in self-defense.

Adam Serwer

West flight story


After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, nearly 400,000 Puerto Ricans left the island, and found shelter in Florida, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Now, we know more precisely where people went because a New York-based tech company called Teralytics harvested data from 500,000 cell phones to track migration patterns after the storm.

Using that data, CityLab’s Martín Echenique and Univision’s Luis Melgar look at where Puerto Rico’s residents went after the storm—and when they came back.

The map above is just a snapshot of that post-Maria diaspora logged from September 2017 to February 2018. The streams of red show the exodus from the island territory, followed by waves of returnees in blue.

What We’re Reading

The future of transportation is the bike… (Wired)

… also, the future of transportation is the bus (The Verge) #BusToTheFuture

How could D.C. absorb Amazon HQ2 if it can’t handle housing and gridlock now? (Washington Post)

Black Oakland throws a big cookout to protest where a white lady called the cops (The Root)

These 95 apartments promised affordable rent in San Francisco. Then 6,580 people applied. (New York Times)

Reasons for Living With Parents Differ by Race

So, why are more and more young adults living at home—and for longer stretches than ever before?

“The economy, duh!” is, indeed, the right answer. But it’s not the complete answer.

The 2000s have been rough, and the recovery after the Great Recession has has been sluggish and uneven. But economic forces triggered by the downturns during this time have manifested differently for young people of different races, a new study out of Johns Hopkins University finds. While white people got stuck in their parents’ homes because of job-related concerns; for black ones, the biggest obstacle was housing.

“Economic factors do not operate the same for everyone,” says Scott Holupka, one of the authors of the study. “Whenever we do these generalizations, we are missing a lot of the action.”

Using a rich, longitudinal household survey, he and his colleagues examined the conditions young adults faced in their metro areas with respect to rents, employment, and earnings between 2001 and 2013. That economically tumultuous period had wide-ranging effects across the American landscape, and so was a particularly intriguing one to study the effects of macroeconomic events on behaviors.

After controlling for the relevant factors, the researchers expected to find some evidence showing that parental wealth had a bearing on the propensity of young adults to live independently—especially since blacks of all ages are more likely to live at home to begin with. Surprisingly, the study detected none.

“We looked at income and wealth of parents compared to economic climate and we really thought we would be looking at a horse race between those,” says Sandra J. Newman, the lead author of the peer-reviewed study published in Journal of Housing Economics. “Intriguingly, parental income and wealth had no effect on either blacks or whites—but what influenced blacks was very different than what influenced whites.”

For black adults who were between 18 and 24 during the time period examined, a $100 increase in rent was likely to trigger a 5 percent drop in what the authors call “household formation”—the tendency to leave the nest. For whites, it only led to a 1 percent decrease. Put another way, blacks appeared to be five times more sensitive to rent, as a factor in their choice to move out of their parents’ home.

The housing crisis essentially turned America into a renter nation, triggering a steady upwards climb in rents. Young black adults, on average, made less than their white counterparts. And they tend to live in “segmented housing markets”—racially and economically segregated metro areas with more expensive housing markets that just got more expensive over time. All of this made the burden of moving out of their parents’ house and into a rental much greater for them.

“Locationally, when you look at where young adults lived, whites were kind of distributed across the country, blacks were more concentrated in particular areas,” Newman said. “Blacks do not have access to all locations and that’s the historical, structural legacy.”

The effect of the labor market panned out differently. According to the study, the unemployment rate and the increase in staying with mom and dad went hand-in-hand for whites: A 1 percent drop on the first front led to a 1 percent increase on the second. For blacks, though, a 6 percent decline led to just a half-percent increase in living with mom and dad—a virtually insignificant blip.

The economy is improving and unemployment is at a historic low, so it’s likely that young, white people will move out of their parents’ home in greater numbers (non-economic factors not withstanding). What’s clear from this study’s findings, though, is that because the cost of housing keeps climbing higher, the same may not be true for their black counterparts.

“There’s really no sign that increasing rent increases are abating any time soon,” Newman said. “So it’s a cloud with no silver lining for blacks, because that still is a very big obstacle for them.”

The D.C. Metro Almost Had a Very Cool Abstract Map

Jennifer Whitlock is the lone archivist at the Vignelli Center for Design Studies at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Every day, she pores through through boxes upon boxes of artifacts from the careers of legendary graphic designers Massimo and Lella Vignelli. The couple donated 60 years worth of their papers—covering everything from subway maps to shopping bags and airline logos—to the western New York school in 2010 (Massimo died in 2014, Lella in 2016).

Whitlock has been documenting her discoveries on the Vignelli Center’s social media accounts as she unpacks, and last week, she made a remarkable find: Massimo’s delightfully abstract concepts for a Washington, D.C. rapid transit system map. “I’m pretty sure I did a little dance and let out a little scream of joy,” Whitlock says of her latest discovery.

(Vignelli Center for Design Studies, RIT)

In 1968, Massimo—working for the design firm Unimark at the time—was asked to design the signage system for WMATA’s stations. According to Cameron Booth, the graphic designer behind TransitMaps, Massimo put a separate bid to design the system map after he left Unimark to form Vignelli Associates with Lella. Booth estimates these designs were made around 1973, one year after his polarizing New York City subway map debuted.

WMATA ended up turning to Lance Wyman to come up with the map that’s still used by the system today, although it never adopted the station icon system originally proposed. “I wanted to, after the experience of seeing how effective [icons] were in making the city visible in Mexico [City’s subway], do that again,” recalled Wyman in a 2014 CityLab interview. “But we had to use an approach that Massimo… mandated when he did the signage system, and that was to use more of a diagrammatic map like the London Underground.” Wyman’s final concept, however, maintains non-Vignelli features like sections of green that correspond with popular park space and icons that identify landmarks.

Inside the archives at the Vignelli Center. (Jennifer Whitlock)

Besides these latest discoveries, the center has a photocopied version of the WMATA signage manual, some preliminary sketches by Massimo for the manual and signage system, and 35mm slides of the final manual and signage in real life. Whitlock still has plenty more to uncover: She tells CityLab that there’s a whole summer’s worth of large cardboard portfolios to go through related to WMATA.

And in case you happen to have some Unimark or Vignelli relics laying around, she says the center is still collecting.

Inside the Massive U.S. ‘Border Zone’

Arivaca is a small, unincorporated community in Pima County, Arizona, around 11 miles north of the Mexican border. The closest big city is Tucson, 60 miles northeast. The town itself is barebones—a smattering of old buildings, some dating back to the 1800s. It is surrounded by swathes of yellow grassland.

To get groceries or cash a check at the bank, residents often have to drive north to Green Valley, or even further, to Tucson. And to do that, they have to pass by a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoint, where they’re inevitably asked if they’re U.S. citizens.

“It sometimes feels like they’re trying to create a no man’s land,” says Arivaca resident Peter Ragan. “All the people who are living here, and may have lived here for generations, are now part of the problem because they’re in the way.”

While the weight of border patrol’s operations is felt heaviest along the southwest border of the U.S., the “no man’s land” Ragan is talking about actually extends much further into the country. In the “border zone,” different legal standards apply. Agents can enter private property, set up highway checkpoints, have wide discretion to stop, question, and detain individuals they suspect to have committed immigration violations—and can even use race and ethnicity as factors to do so.

That’s striking because the border zone is home to 65.3 percent of the entire U.S. population, and around 75 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population, according to a CityLab analysis based on data from location intelligence company ESRI. This zone, which hugs the entire edge of the United States and runs 100 air miles inside, includes some of the densest cities—New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. It also includes , Border patrol operations led to 97 deaths over the last 15 years—some 160 miles from the border itself.)

But even if that worst case scenario doesn’t materialize, activists and residents near the border see the mere presence of these checkpoints as cruel and inhumane. For undocumented or mixed-status families, they create impossible, Hobson’s choices. Should an undocumented Texan woman exercise her already-restricted right to have an abortion, if there’s a checkpoint on the way? Should undocumented parents take themselves and their kids to get crucial medical treatment if there’s a checkpoint on the route to the hospital? Or, should they stay home and risk the consequences of not getting help?

“These checkpoints? They’re borders themselves—they separate families; they separate communities,”said Jorge Rodriguez, an ACLU organizer in Southern New Mexico.

*It’s worth taking all the numbers provided by CBP with a grain of salt because the GAO also found “inconsistent data collection practices at checkpoints.”