A local government. A powerful private entity with controversial technology. A secret deal. This time, in New Orleans.
On Tuesday, The Verge ’s Russell Brandom revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has purchased access to an extensive national database of license plate reader information from a private company called Vigilant Solutions, which allows the agency to retrace the movement of a license plate for the last five years. ICE can also get alerts when a particular license plate pops up on the radar in real time. Vigilant collected this data, in part, by partnering with local law enforcement.
“Surveillance technology is a big business, and companies who build it have an interest in collecting data from one customer and making it available to their other customers,” Cagle said.“I think one of the key lessons here is that surveillance that happens locally doesn’t necessarily stay local.”
These technologies are multiplying, in part, through hush-hush agreements and lack of regulation at the local level. But cities are starting to catch up. In January, Culver City in California held a city council hearing to purchase an of Automatic License Plate Reader (ALPR) system from Vigilant worth half a million dollars. Many residents were unhappy.
“This is a solution searching for a problem,” Local blogger Warren Szewczyk reported a military veteran saying at the meeting. “We don’t need to change our neighborhoods into war zones. “
In the spring of 2016, African-American children as young as 11 marched in protest against the gun violence in their Miami neighborhood of Liberty City. The low-income area had lost 13 teens and children so far that year to guns. The kids demanded the right to play outside safely; they held signs and chanted slogans like “We want to live” and “We want to see another day.” Phillip Agnew, leader of the Florida-based Dream Defenders, a youth-led group fighting for racial justice, said the demonstration didn’t get much attention from the national media at the time.
Liberty City is about 40 miles from Parkland, Florida, site of the deadly shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School two weeks ago. But it’s been hard not to notice the difference between how youth-led protests against gun violence in these two communities were received. Since the Parkland tragedy, the national news has been filled with the school’s student survivors, who rose up to protest school shootings and demand—in eloquent and defiant terms—tighter gun legislation. Across the country, teens have been walking out of class in solidarity, often standing together in silence for 17 minutes, one for each of Parkland’s victims. National walkouts are planned for March 14, the one-month anniversary of the shooting, and April 20, which will mark 19 years since the Columbine High School massacre.
Many school districts have also been supportive of the student efforts: At Missoula, Montana’s Hellgate High School, for example, principal Judson Miller stopped short of openly endorsing a walkout on February 21 by hundreds of students, but told staffers to use the protest as a “teachable moment.” In Wake County, North Carolina, where several high schools have seen student walkouts, schools communications director Lisa Luten told CityLab, “We respect the students’ right to protest. Our priority is supporting them and making sure they are safe.”
In contrast, teens and adults of color have often faced very different responses when protesting gun violence. Indeed, while youth of color have been confronting the issue for years, the protests and actions associated with the Movement for Black Lives have often been criminalized, greeted with police repression and public scorn, or simply ignored.
Florida Governor Rick Scott, for instance, snubbed calls from the Dream Defenders to hold a special session on the state’s “stand your ground” law in 2013. The law removes the duty to retreat before using force in self-defense, and figured in the trial of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted of gunning down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. A group of Dream Defenders peacefully occupied the Florida state capitol in Tallahassee for 31 days to pressure the governor for the meeting, to no avail.
Parkland students, on the other hand, traveled to Tallahassee last week to meet with Florida lawmakers, including Governor Scott, and participate in a press conference at the capitol. They also interfaced with Florida Senator Marco Rubio and two Florida legislators in a town hall on CNN. Though the Florida legislature recently rejected a ban on assault rifles and advanced legislation on arming teachers, despite appeals from Parkland students, it also moved forward on imposing a three-day waiting period on gun purchases and raising the age to buy a gun from 18 to 21.
Many black scholars and activists are drawing attention to this stark contrast, while at the same time championing the Parkland students—and seeing the rise of their movement as an opportunity. Dream Defenders, for instance, has submitted a proposal to bring the young people from Liberty City and Parkland together at a town hall to talk about their trauma. Both communities have something to gain from collaboration. “The black teens haven’t been able to talk because there hasn’t been anyone to listen,” Agnew said. “And the students from Parkland haven’t been able to grieve because the public wants them to be spokespeople.”
As CityLab’s Brentin Mock reported back in 2015, this isn’t the first time that the “natural alliance” between largely white gun control groups and the Black Lives Matter activist community has been explored. For Agnew, the idea is both to create a larger and more formidable movement and to share with the Parkland teens and other young allies what youth of color have learned through their own activism.
“Dream Defenders trains young people to organize,” he said. “We want to show them how to do it bigger and more effectively.”
At the Tolleson Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona, the school day begins with an expression of hope: After the pledge of allegiance, the kids recite the “
But maintaining that sense of optimism has been a challenge recently, says district superintendent Lupita Ley Hightower, because so many students are experiencing anxiety related to their immigration status. The student body in this district is 82 percent Latino. Administrators and teachers don’t ask about the legal situation of their parents or students, so they don’t know how many are undocumented. Attendance at activities like legal assistance forums for parents suggests that the numbers are significant. Some students have already had parents deported; others have seen friends and their families targeted with arrest and detainment. “When they feel this anxiety and stress about being deported, they feel hopeless and depressed,” Hightower says.
That anxiety is an ongoing reality in U.S. schools with a high immigrant population. It affects not only those who have undocumented parents, but their classmates. “They were their friends and now they’re gone, from one day to the next,” says Patricia Gándara, a UCLA researcher and co-director of the university’s Civil Rights Project. “And then the other students wonder if it can happen to them.”
Gándara co-authored a new report to study this problem and identify how the immigration policies of the Trump administration have affected students in the past year. Surveying 5,400 teachers and administrators in 730 schools across the United States, they found clear effects on students’ behavior and emotional well-being. Ninety percent of principals said they’d observed behavioral and emotional problems in their immigrant students; more than two-thirds also noted similar issues in students who are not directly targeted, like friends and colleagues. “It seems to affect everyone,” says Gándara.
This anxiety also manifested in students’ grades: 70 percent of respondents said that the academic results of immigrant students dropped this year, and 1 in 6 counselors said that this problem is extensive. Many respondents spoke of students who simply “gave up” on school after a parent was deported. Others were haunted by the prospect of losing one or both parents: A fourth-grade teacher in the Northeast described to researchers how one student “told me that her mom is teaching her how to make food and feed her baby sister, in case the mom is taken away.”
Absenteeism was another issue, noted by 68 percent of administrative staff in all regions. “I have heard students say that they do not want to come to school, in case their parents are deported,” said a teacher from Texas. Parent involvement suffered accordingly: Not only has the threat of deportation and raids kept parents from going to school events, they have also caused others to lose jobs, impacting the time they have to accompany their children.
For teachers, this made their jobs even more challenging; many of the most heavily impacted schools are located in low-income communities, and resources to deal with the crisis are scarce. “They tell us that they are very stressed,” says Gándara. “They know [their students] very well. When they have children so young crying, it affects them, too.” To address the problem, teachers are asking for more forums with the school community to better explain immigrant rights—and more legal counseling. “There is no school that wants to cooperate with ICE. They want to teach,” she says. “But many parents aren’t trusting.”
Some districts are making efforts to stress that message. In Oakland, California, for example, district superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell recently outlined protocols designed to protect students from immigration enforcement at school. “We want to remind everyone that Oakland Unified School District is a Sanctuary District inside a Sanctuary City located in California, a Sanctuary State,” she said in a message sent to students, family and staff. “That means your state, city and school district support you no matter where you came from or how you got here.”
Despite such supportive efforts, Gándara fears that the negative effects of the current crackdown on immigration status could linger for decades.
“Many first-generation immigrants are the best students. The teachers tell us that,” she says. “They’re the most devoted to their studies and most ambitious. We are going to suffer because of this, and in the long term it will affect us immensely.”
Welcome to the eighth edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox and ) of Snapchat’s Snap Map feature, which plotted user photos and videos of gun reform demonstrations at high schools, middle schools, and college campuses around the country last week. Snap Map has “proven to be a valuable, honest, and raw lens into modern life, where tragedies like school shootings … have been documented in real time by regular people as the events unfold,” my Quartz colleague Mike Murphy wrote. Long live the Snap.
Before last week, the official U.S. map of broadband access had accumulated a fair amount of dust. On February 23, though, the Federal Communications Commission’s cartography of connectivity got a long-awaited upgrade. But while the new broadband map is easier to click around, it still isn’t a reliable tool to gauge what internet options are available to homes or communities around the country.
Just ask one of the FCC’s commissioners what’s wrong with it.
“I looked up my house and can tell you with good authority it lists service that is not available at my location,” Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote in a dissenting statement. She invited people to e-mail error reports to an inbox she had set up: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christian Moe, an automotive journalist living outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, struggled to get broadband at a home that was advertised as having it. He offered a similar critique in an e-mail.
“The map at my section of the world is hilarious,” he wrote. The map listed AT&T’s top download speed at his address as 75 megabits per second—about six times faster than the best service he could actually get, 12 Mbps.
The map’s biggest downfall lurks behind its search-by-address function, which suggests a precision that its underlying data usually can’t deliver. The FCC data doesn’t get more granular than census blocks—statistical areas that can span a city block or several counties. Within census blocks, internet access can vary quite a bit. Just because your closest neighbors have broadband doesn’t guarantee that you’ll have any.
An FCC spokesman said the agency is considering asking for more detailed coverage data from providers, but warned that this could be “burdensome.”
The map also doesn’t cite prices. The FCC doesn’t collect that information, much less factor in complications like the discounts that cable firms offer for bundling TV, phone, and internet service.
To make things more confusing, the broadband map identifies internet providers by their holding companies, not necessarily the names you’d recognize on a bill. At CityLab’s D.C. office, for example, the map lists one provider as “Radiate Holdings, L.P.” You’ll have to consult a separate FCC table to find out that this firm owns cable provider RCN.
The map’s raw material is a document called Form 477. The FCC requires internet providers to submit the forms twice a year, reporting the top advertised download and upload speeds across each census block in which they sell access.
That filing schedule explains Starry’s absence: Spokeswoman Virginia Lam said the Boston firm was still in a closed beta test at the end of 2016, meaning it didn’t have to file the forms that fed the new broadband map. Future updates should include that firm.
The private sector has only filled in some of the information gaps. A site called BroadbandNow takes the FCC’s data, corrects errors that it finds, and adds pricing data that it gleans from various sources. (Scraping rates off providers’ sites with automated software would be faster, but also lawsuit bait). BroadbandNow collects referral fees from some providers.
“We have a data team that works on this—we’re in there every day, manually reviewing ISP sites, testing addresses, on the phone with reps, coordinating with marketing and technical teams at various ISPs,” e-mailed marketing head Jameson Zimmer.
But BroadbandNow only lets you search by ZIP code (Zimmer said they’re working to add address-level queries) and remains subject to the limits of the underlying FCC data (it doesn’t list Starry either).
BroadbandNow’s price data can also miss smaller, more interesting options. In the Sonoma County town of Sebastopol, for instance, it omits rates for the gigabit fiber service that the Santa Rosa, California, firm Sonic has offered since 2011.
“I’ve seen their site, but they’ve never reached out to me for any pricing,” Sonic CEO Dane Jasper wrote. “It’s certainly possible they’ve tried to reach someone else here via support or sales e-mail addresses and that never got routed to my attention, though.”
It’s also easy to find private-sector maps of mobile broadband coverage—see, for instance, the data produced by firms like RootMetrics. But while a car stuffed with instrumentation can drive around and measure bandwidth waiting in the air, there’s no similar way to find out how much bandwidth reaches homes by wires.
Meanwhile, most local broadband markets don’t have a lot of competition, consisting of just a phone company and a cable company. Dave Burstein, a longtime telecom consultant and editor of Fast Net News, said those conditions leave fewer reasons for incumbent providers to reward ISP-finder sites with commissions. (The new broadband-map site, built for the FCC by Mapbox, makes it easy to visualize this lack of competition across counties, congressional districts, and states.)
So if you want to know all the broadband options available at your home, you’ll have to do things the hard way: Consult both the FCC and BroadbandNow, then plug your address into the site of every provider listed as offering respectable speeds.
If that seems aggravating after the third time, take a moment to pat yourself on the back: Your home has more broadband options than most American abodes.
The allure is undeniable: A mega-corporation moves to town, bringing with it billions in capital investment and tens of thousands of jobs. Little wonder that the ongoing sweepstakes to win Amazon’s second headquarters has inspired city and state officials to offer record-breaking economic incentive packages in the hopes of attracting the online giant. Chicago has offered $2 billion in tax breaks, including a tax diversion program which would redirect up to 100 percent of potential Amazon employees’ income taxes back to the company. Newark, New Jersey—which has an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent—is offering up an eye-popping $7 billion in state and local tax incentives. Metro-Atlanta offered to form a brand-new city (named Amazon, of course) and proposed legislation that would make Jeff Bezos mayor for life, in addition to the $1 billion in incentives they are pledging to the company.
In return, Amazon promises enormous economic growth to the city that hosts its HQ2. The company’s analysts say HQ2 will bring with it $5 billion in local investment and 50,000 new jobs.
But there is little evidence that such subsidies bring sustainable economic benefit to cities. Research suggests that firms receiving incentives are statistically no more likely to generate new jobs than similar firms that don’t. Perhaps another high-profile megadeal provides some insight into what the winning HQ2 community can expect for their investment: In Wisconsin last year, lawmakers agreed to a $3 billion tax incentive package for technology manufacturer Foxconn—despite the fact that the state’s nonpartisan budget office concluded that the state won’t break even on the deal until at least 2043. That should give policymakers and voters pause.
Public funds generate far better—and more immediate—returns when they are prioritized for smaller, Main Street-scale economic development efforts. The most cost-effective and promising path for bettering the lives of city residents begins at home, via encouraging growth from within the city by building local capacity, leveraging existing assets, and creating quality places that can attract entrepreneurs and investors. That’s the premise behind Main Street America, a national network of organizations and individuals working to revitalize local economies. Since 2013, I’ve been the president and CEO of the National Main Street Center, which runs the Main Street America program.
In the nearly 40 years since Main Street America began, modest investments by cities and states in support of locally driven economic development have driven impressive returns. With relatively small budgets and large teams of volunteers, Main Street America programs help to transform their communities in myriad ways, from public art projects in Portland, Oregon, to community health initiatives in Arkansas to business retention support programs in Emporia, Kansas. Taken together, these kinds of projects contribute to enhancing the overall quality of life in a community, making it a more attractive place for potential investors, and a more inviting place for residents and shoppers. In 2016 alone, the 1,000 communities participating in the Main Street America network collectively invested $745 million in public resources to leverage more than $4 billion in private investment. Put another way, for every public dollar invested, the private sector matched that and added another three dollars.
One recent example of how the program can trigger big payoffs: Between 2015 and 2016, the city of Boston invested $1.8 million in 20 “Main Street” commercial districts throughout the city. The program helped preserve the historic facades of storefronts, provided direct technical assistance to small businesses, and helped support women entrepreneurs launch and grow startups. These efforts generated nearly $7.3 million more city tax revenue than would have been expected without the presence of a sustained neighborhood development program, amounting to a $5.5 million net fiscal gain for the city. And the benefits didn’t just flow to the city’s coffers: nearly 100 new businesses and 500 new jobs were created.
Beyond this program, other cities are also seeing powerful results from a focus on growing jobs from within. In Nashville, Tennessee, the city used federal “Promise Zone” funding to strategically invest in entrepreneurs, makers, and small-scale manufacturers. The program directly supports local business owners in commercial districts by helping them secure space to launch businesses, providing funding to help them grow, and building capacity to ensure they thrive. This kind of localized economic activity creates four times as many stable jobs as large industry does in the city.
Smaller cities have been able to see similar results: Littleton, Colorado, population 42,000, is a pioneer in an economic development concept known as “economic gardening.” The town began this experiment in the late 1980s, when missile manufacturer Martin Marietta (now Lockheed Martin) dramatically cut its footprint in town, resulting in the loss of 7,500 jobs and over 1 million square feet of vacant commercial real estate. Instead of attempting to lure in new corporations with incentives or tax rebates, the city focused on helping existing businesses grow by identifying new markets, mapping geographic areas for qualified sales leads, and raising visibility through search engine optimization and sophisticated digital marketing. In the three decades since, Littleton has gained 15,000 jobs and sales tax revenue more than tripled from $6 million to $21 million—all without recruiting, incentives, or tax rebates.
So, here’s a thought for the 19 mayors who are fated to “lose” out on HQ2, and the approximately 218 mayors who already have: Take just 10 percent of what you were going to hand over to Amazon—a company that may be on track to be a $1 trillion business—and invest it in local place-based economic development. Focus on creating neighborhoods that are attractive to innovators and entrepreneurs—neighborhoods that have a distinct sense of place, dense mixed-income housing, cultural offerings, and accessible transit. Systematically identify and cultivate existing businesses that are ready to grow by connecting them to technical and financial resources that help them scale. Finally, actively seek out the would-be entrepreneurs in your midst, and help smooth their path by offering training, low interest loans, and small grants.
Then sit back and watch the dividends accumulate. And maybe take a small bit of pleasure in seeing the housing affordability, traffic, and budget crisis you avoided when your city failed to “win” HQ2. You may find that your city wasn’t the loser after all.
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What We’re Following
For the love of HUD, show us the table: As the Department of Housing and Urban Development awaits deep budget cuts, The New York Timesreports that the agency spent $31,000 on a new dining room set in late 2017 for Secretary Ben Carson’s office. The custom hardwood table, chairs, and hutch—made in Carson’s hometown of Baltimore—sure sound cozy, but we’re still wondering, where are the pictures? (Here’s a look at what it’s replacing, per TPM)
Of course, that’s a little beside the point, given that federal law requires congressional approval for any spending over $5,000 on redecorating department head offices. (HUD now says the dining set was “a building expense.”) The Guardian obtained a copy of the complaint filed with a federal whistleblower agency, in which a senior career official at HUD claims she was demoted and replaced for refusing to break the law to fund the redecoration, and faced retaliation for exposing a $10 million budget shortfall.
A new report from the Environmental Protection Agency finds that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air—even as the agency seeks to roll back regulations on pollution.
LANCASTER, Pennsylvania—When Hurricane Maria came for Carlos Rodríguez, he locked himself, his wife, and his two children in a small bathroom in his house in Gobernador Piñero, southwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The wind whistled through the cracks of the door and threatened to blast through the window; on the other side of his street, the roof of his neighbors’ home was torn off.
“Maria has been the strongest storm I’ve ever experienced,” says Rodríguez. “It just wiped out everything.”
The immediate aftermath was even worse. The power was out, water was scarce, supermarkets closed or empty. Their food rotted in the freezer. For the next six weeks, Rodríguez and his family ate sausages, spaghetti, or crackers only once a day. Lines of hundreds of people waited eight hours to get gasoline. Amid the devastation and chaos, some residents started to go crazy. “We wanted to leave when we saw that they were assaulting our neighbors,” he says. “I could not stay in a situation where there was no power, there was no water, there was no gasoline, there was no work. There was nothing.”
Rodriguez sold his guagua—his old car he had bought a few years ago—for $2,000 and contacted his son, Luis, one of the children from his first marriage; Luis has been living in in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the past four years. And on Thanksgiving Day, he and his family headed to Luis Muñoz Marín airport, east of old San Juan, and boarded a flight for Baltimore, Maryland.
“We are starting from scratch,” Rodriguez told his wife.
The Lancaster connection
Lancaster, Pennsylvania is a small city of 60,000 in southeastern Pennsylvania. It may not seem like the first place that comes to mind when considering where Puerto Ricans might resettle. But Lancaster has been welcoming immigrants for centuries: Most famously, the Amish community that lives in the nearby farms of Lancaster County began settling here in the 1720s, after escaping religious persecution in Europe.
Most Maria refugees have migrated to Florida: An estimated 200,000 former residents of the island chose to move to the metropolitan areas of Miami and Orlando. Many others have gone to New York City and New Jersey. But Pennsylvania, which has the fourth-largest population of Puerto Ricans living in the continental U.S., has also received thousands of families. They’ve come not only to Philadelphia, where 8 percent of the city’s population is Puerto Rican, according to the 2010 Census, but to smaller towns—Lebanon, Allentown, Reading, and Lancaster. Almost 30 percent of Lancaster’s residents are Puerto Rican or boricua (Americans of Puerto Rican descent), according to data from the 2016 American Community Survey.
Lancaster’s new mayor, Danene Sorace, wasn’t surprised to learn that evacuees were heading to town. “I knew immediately that we were going to be welcoming family members into the city, for sure,” says Sorace.
But resettling these new residents has been a challenge, as the city has limited economic and institutional resources. Unlike major cities with deep ties to the Puerto Rican community, like New York City or Orlando, Lancaster is struggling with how to deliver assistance in a coordinated manner and link non-governmental organizations and social services with the evacuees.
“It’s been crazy,” says Yirmares Cuevas, director of Lancaster’s Spanish American Civic Association, which has been helping to support the new arrivals. “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my 16 years at SACA.”
Puerto Ricans have been in Lancaster for decades: During the 1960s, the first wave of transplants began to arrive in this part of Pennsylvania, driven by rising housing costs in New York and New Jersey and the promise of industrial jobs. As the Puerto Rican debt crisis deepened in recent years, that migration accelerated. Today, almost 40 percent of the city’s population is Hispanic, and most are Puerto Rican, a proportion second only to Reading.
The region has several attractions for newcomers. Lancaster is one of a relatively modest number of small Rust Belt cities to enjoy economic growth in recent years, thanks in part to its healthy tourist sector and proximity to Philadelphia and Baltimore. Cafes, restaurants, art galleries, and vinyl record stores abound along Prince Street, one of the historic main drags in the city. Hidden inside a building in the center of the city, across the street from the country’s oldest farmer’s market, is Old San Juan, a new Puerto Rican restaurant. It’s one of a handful of visible signs of the thriving boricua community hidden away here.
The shape of the Maria migration is driven largely by personal networks, perceived job opportunities, and especially family ties. Lancaster’s existing Puerto Rican community has been a key draw, says Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY). “Friends, relatives, or acquaintances are those who transmit the information to those who want to leave the island,” he says. “Many times [relatives] are the ones in charge of receiving newcomers and help them in those first weeks in the new place.”
It’s not clear exactly how many Puerto Ricans have moved to Lancaster since the hurricane. But data from the county’s school district offers a clue: To date, the district has received 108 families and 187 Puerto Rican students since Maria destroyed the island. “In all, there would be between 400 and 500 people,” says Lisette Rivera, coordinator of Families for Transition, a 30-year-old program of the Lancaster school district that has been the focal point for immigrant families who enroll their children in school. The number of families arriving at their office has doubled since last year.
“We didn’t have any plans”
Rodríguez and his family landed at Baltimore/Washington International Airport on the chilly evening of Thanksgiving Day. The plan was to rent a car, but with his limited English skills he got on the wrong shuttle and wasn’t able to get to the rent-a-car facilities located away from the terminal. He had to find a way to get his family to Lancaster, more than 80 miles away. His son called and suggested Uber.
Many of the Maria refugees who relocated to the Northeast U.S. this winter found themselves similarly poorly prepared, starting with the weather. (On Christmas Day in San Juan, it was 80 degrees; Lancaster’s temperatures hovered just above freezing.) With limited resources, the islanders not only arrived without adequate clothing, but they found it difficult to access assistance in obtaining housing, jobs, food aid, and English classes.
“We didn’t have any initial plans or emergency actions,” says former Mayor Richard Gray, who finished his third term in January.
While Orlando and New York have established relief centers, created websites available in Spanish, made communication efforts on social media, and established hotlines to engage with the evacuees, smaller locations have struggled to provide services aimed at refugees, many of whom arrived with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Lancaster, for example, now has a website, but it’s only in English and doesn’t link the evacuees with local social organizations that provide direct assistance; there’s no office, telephone number, or email specifically for newly arrived Puerto Ricans.
The municipal government of Lancaster, as in most smaller U.S. cities, doesn’t really have the capacity to directly provide residents with social services related to education, housing, or work. “The city’s never had that capacity because of the structure that local government has here,” says Sorace. “Our lane is kind of narrow. But what we can do is make sure that the connections are being made to the organization who can.”
In his first days in Lancaster, Rodriguez didn’t know where to go or who to ask for help. Most of the information was in English, and it was scattered across multiple different sources. Searching for jobs was a challenge, because of the language barrier. He finally found assistance at a local Catholic church, San Juan Bautista, where one of the church’s assistants, Edna Lopez, guided him through the process of navigating the school district and eventually hired him as a maintenance worker at the church.
So, how does a small city deal with hundreds of people who arrive (legally) after having been displaced by a natural disaster, like any other U.S. citizen would? One answer lies in social organizations like SACA, which has so far assisted 95 Puerto Rican families in navigating the city.
For many of these newcomers, the biggest challenge is housing. The average monthly rent for a home in Lancaster exceeds $1,100, and many landlords ask for up to two months of deposit and credit reports—daunting barriers for families that have literally lost everything. The waiting list for federal housing assistance is no longer counted in months, but in years, according to Gray.
The lack of coordination between local, state, and federal governments—plus the various nonprofits involved—isn’t helping, either. According to SACA’s Cuevas, local nonprofits, the school district, and agencies like FEMA sent people from one place to another, and evacuees had problems understanding the role of the mayor and the local government; it was SACA, she says, that had to start functioning as the main point of entry to support incoming Puerto Rican families since January 22, along with churches and social organizations.
“I honestly have no idea how it works with the local government,” says Cuevas. “It’s definitely a challenge. It’s not organized. They know we’ll take care of this whether the money is there or not. And I think that we’ve done this for so many years they’re just used to the fact it will be taken care of.”
The uphill road
It’s been more than two months since Carlos Rodríguez and his family arrived in Lancaster. His children, who are 11 and 7 years old, are now going to school and learning English. His wife works an early shift in a soda factory; her days begin at 4 am.
Their combined income from Carlos’ job at church isn’t enough for them to move out of Carlos’ son’s house, he says. “Right now, to get a house, they ask for a credit check. A person like me, who after the storm was left without a job, paid his mortgage a little behind, and comes here [to Lancaster], and they ask you for that—how do they do that? Don’t they have a heart?”
His problems are common among other recent arrivals from Puerto Rico, as he has seen. Earlier that day, he says, he met a woman who was desperate to get a job, but she did not know where to look for one, or how to move around the city. Lancaster has a limited bus system with only a few routes in the city. “The bus does not work well,” says Rodriguez, who was used to driving everywhere he needed to go on the island. Now, he spends his days walking. When he had to get from his son’s house to the post office recently, it took him two hours to walk there, each way.
Beyond the immediate needs of housing and work, the psychological trauma facing newly arrived Puerto Ricans is one of the harshest realities tied to the hurricane exodus. Escaping the island has not spared the evacuees of Lancaster from Maria’s mental health toll.
“It’s not just walking into the door and needing food stamps, filling an application, getting them and done, you’re happy,” says Cuevas. “It’s the language barrier, [the fact that] your degree that is not valid in Pennsylvania, the housing, the job thing, the weather. It’s ‘What do I do?’ It’s starting your whole life again. It’s thinking what you left behind.”
For Rodriguez, the church has been his foundation, his place of peace, and, for now, a source of faith that things will improve.
“I thought it would be a little easier, but everything has gone uphill,” says Rodriguez. With his eyes fixed on the ground, he makes an effort not to cry. “If you do not have faith, you honestly go crazy here, because you do not have a job, because you can not find a home, because you do not have enough money. And in the end, you have no choice. Returning to Puerto Rico is not even an option. I don’t even have a place to return to.”
This story originally appeared in Spanish on our sister site CityLab Latino.
A building that architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable once called a “post-war miracle” could soon vanish from the streets of Manhattan. And if 270 Park comes down, so will a key part of the legacy of pioneering female architect Natalie de Blois. De Blois, who joined the renowned architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) in 1944 and passed away in 2013, helped design headquarters for the Lever Brothers, Pepsi-Cola, and Union Carbide. The Union Carbide office, located on Park Avenue, eventually became the headquarters of JPMorgan Chase. Last week, the company announced it will demolish the building in order to build an even taller one with more space for its employees.
The 52-story tower built in 1961 is a classic example of corporate Modernism, with steel ribs, glass walls, and black spandrels. One of the building’s most notable features, its two-level lobby, was conceived as a creative work-around for the railroad tracks that ran underneath the structure from Grand Central Station. SOM had to sink columns between the tracks and place the elevator block above ground. De Blois once said that the biggest challenge she had when designing the plans was figuring out where to put mechanical and electrical services, since the tracks made it impossible for the building to have a basement.
De Blois worked in a male-dominated field, and the way she was treated by her peers keenly reflected that fact. When she rejected the romantic overtures of a male co-worker, the man told their boss, Morris Ketchum, that they couldn’t both possibly continue to work in their small, shared office. Ketchum told de Blois she would have to be the one to leave, despite the fact that she had been with the firm longer.
Later in her career, de Blois was excluded from lunch meetings held in men’s clubs. Much of the work she did was attributed to Gordon Bunshaft, another architect at SOM and a frequent collaborator, who once told her to go home and change before a meeting because he didn’t like the color of her outfit. De Blois’ designs now span the globe, from the Terrace Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati to the Hilton Hotel in Istanbul. But the Union Carbide building is one of her most renowned contributions to New York City.
According to ArchDaily, if the plans go through to destroy it, the ensuing tower will be “the world’s largest and tallest building ever to be intentionally demolished,” and the new office JPMorgan Chase has proposed would add 1 million square feet of space. The demolition plans were enabled by a new zoning rule for Midtown East, which allows companies to buy the development rights (or “air rights”) of nearby buildings to increase the height of proposed developments. This is a boon for the city’s coffers, as developers have to contribute a minimum of $61.49 per square foot of unused development rights, funds which are to be used for public improvements. But Kyle Johnson, a board member of Documentation and Conservation of Buildings, Sights and Neighborhoods of the Modern Movement (DOCOMOMO)’s NY/Tri-State division, worries that any neighborhood gains will be offset by the flood of new foot traffic.
“There’s a bit of a wrinkle in that,” said Johnson. “Whether you make wider stairways, or subways, or sidewalk space, to what extent are provisions going to compensate for the increased density that’s going to result? In some ways, the zoning of East Midtown is backwards from a city perspective.” He added, “In recent years, we’ve seen office development moving to new locations that were seriously underutilized. That makes more sense than increasing the density of an area that has already been developed to its full extent.”
As Alexandra Lange points out in Curbed, other de Blois buildings have been landmarked: the Pepsi-Cola Building was granted protected status in 1995. “But should SOM, with designers like Bunshaft and de Blois, be penalized for being too good, for working too much?” Lange asks. “Their buildings define postwar New York style, a style that, when repackaged in television shows like Mad Men, seems plenty modern enough for these times.”
DOCOMOMO is urging the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate 270 Park as a landmark building before plans for demolition begin. In a letter sent last week to Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, the group called 270 Park one of the most “iconic corporate office buildings in New York,” and said that the organization feels strongly that the building “played an important role in the evolution of modern, world-class cities, and it continues to enrich the urban realm.”
What perplexes Johnson and DOCOMOMO’s Executive Director Liz Waytkus is why JPMorgan Chase is insistent on tearing down 270 Park rather than simply relocating to another, larger building. “They left one Gordon Bunshaft building in the Financial District for Midtown,” Johnson pointed out. “They could move to another location and have another distinguished tower by another architect. They don’t have to demolish one building to build the next one.”
Advocates for the building have also pointed out that 270 Park Avenue was renovated in 2011 to obtain an LEED Platinum rating from the U.S. Green Building Council. At the time, it was the largest renovation project to achieve such a status. Typically, tearing a building down to create something more efficient has a greater environmental impact than simply reusing or retrofitting the structure. Now, JPMorgan Chase is planning to down a building they have already retrofitted, which makes the potential environmental impact even more stark. As Lloyd Alter pointed out earlier this week, “When it comes to the expensive stuff that wears out, like mechanicals and electricals and finishes, this building isn’t 57 years old; it’s six years old. It is barely out of warranty, let along fully depreciated.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed satisfaction with JPMorgan Chase’s building plans, saying that the proposal reflects the city’s “plan for Midtown East in action,” and that it will bring “good jobs, modern buildings, and concrete improvements.”
But it’s hard to believe that the destruction of 270 Park—and perhaps similar towers in the future—will somehow make for a better city. “You can’t just say [the new zoning] is a win for New York,” said Waytkus. “In what way? We need more information before we can just sweep some important buildings under the carpet in the name of progress.”
When historians analyze the causes of the Great Migration, the exodus of millions of African Americans from the rural South in the early 20th century, they stress the urgency of escaping the vicious Jim Crow backlash against Reconstruction and the dream of finding factory jobs in Northern cities. Yet a less studied factor—worth noting in this era of crude stereotypes about black attitudes toward education—was the lure of better schools in the North. And surprisingly, nowhere was that attraction greater than in the gritty steel town of Pittsburgh.
In the 19th century, what is now the University of Pittsburgh was called the Western University of Pennsylvania and considered a sister school to Penn in Philadelphia. Before his death in 1858, Charles Avery, a white Pittsburgh cotton trader whose travels through the South had awoken him to the horrors of slavery and turned him into an ardent abolitionist, endowed a fund for 12 scholarships a year at Western University for “males of the colored people in the United States of America or the British Province of Canada.”
Forty years later, Robert Lee Vann, the teenage son of a former slave cook from North Carolina, traveled by himself to Pittsburgh to claim one of those scholarships. It was the start of a remarkable success story. In 1910, after earning undergraduate and law degrees from Western University, Vann accepted a job as the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, a four-page chronicle of local events. Eventually becoming publisher and owner as well, Vann transformed the Courier into America’s best-selling black newspaper, with 14 regional editions and an avid readership in black homes, barber shops, and beauty salons across the nation.
Ever since the Civil War, blacks had voted overwhelmingly Republican out of loyalty to the Great Emancipator. But in 1932, Vann used the Courier as a soapbox to urge blacks to turn “the picture of Abraham Lincoln to the wall” and vote for FDR, beginning a migration to the Democratic Party that transformed American politics. As World War II loomed, Vann pressed for a greater role for black soldiers. After his death in 1940, his successors led a “Double Victory” campaign to rally black support at home while demanding an end to racial injustice once the war was over. (Sadly, that second victory never materialized—a betrayal that the Courier exposed as dashed hopes helped fuel the Civil Rights Movement.)
Vann took pride in hiring young college grads, and his recruits played a major part in some of the biggest cultural stories of the age. Chester Washington, a Pittsburgh native whom Vann helped send to Virginia Union University, used his behind-the-scenes access to boxer Joe Louis to turn the “Brown Bomber” into a hero to blacks and a sympathetic champ to whites. Sports columnist Wendell Smith, an alumnus of Wayne State University, crusaded for the integration of pro baseball, then introduced Brooklyn Dodgers President Branch Rickey to a promising Negro League rookie named Jackie Robinson.
After hiring Julia Bumry Jones, a West Virginian with a degree from Wilberforce University, as his stenographer, Vann put Jones in charge of a four-page weekly women’s section and gave her a gossip column that she used to encourage black women across America to master political as well as party-giving skills.
History hasn’t always been kind to the rapacious capitalists who turned Pittsburgh into an industrial engine of the Gilded Age, but their philanthropy helped finance some of the best integrated public high schools of the time. In 1912, Mary Schenley, the heir to a railroad fortune, donated land and money for Schenley High School, a three-sided limestone behemoth that was the first high school to cost more than $1 million. A decade later, Westinghouse High School, named after electricity tycoon George Westinghouse, was built for $2.5 million.
Admitting black students from their earliest days, Schenley and Westinghouse attracted many who went on to become giants in their fields. Earl Hines, a piano prodigy from a steel town south of Pittsburgh, was sent by his parents to live with an aunt in the city so he could attend Schenley. Later, Hines moved to Chicago and recorded groundbreaking early jazz with Louis Armstrong.
Although married to an abusive drinker who had trouble holding jobs, Lillian Strayhorn insisted that her family move to a back-alley shanty in the neighborhood of Homewood so her young son Billy could attend Westinghouse High. After becoming the star of the school’s music program, Billy Strayhorn met Duke Ellington at a downtown theater, beginning one of the greatest collaborations in jazz history.
In the ’30s, ’40s, and ‘50s, Westinghouse graduated so many black luminaries that a Hall of Fame display of their photographs covered the walls of its front lobby. They included piano virtuosos Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal, and Mary Lou Williams, and journalists Bill Nunn Sr. and Jr., the longtime managing editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and his son, later a football scout who recruited key members of the 1970s Steelers dynasty.
Meanwhile, Bill Nunn III, the actor who starred in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, graduated from Schenley High, as did guitarist George Benson and Harvard’s first black law professor, Derrick Bell. (Peabody High School, in Pittsburgh’s Hillside neighborhood, educated two other legends, singer Billy Eckstine and artist Romare Bearden.) In the movie version of the play Fences by August Wilson—the Pittsburgh-born playwright who set most of his dramas in the city’s Hill District—director and star Denzel Washington pays homage to Schenley High by having Cory, the son of garbage worker Troy Maxson, wear a red varsity jacket emblazoned with an “S.”
In his unique way, Wilson was also a product of black Pittsburgh’s devotion to education. Although Wilson’s mother was a maid who went on welfare to raise her children after their white German father all but abandoned them, she insisted on sending August to Catholic schools on the Hill. Later, when Wilson dropped out of high school as a rebellious teen, he educated himself by roaming the stacks of Carnegie Library, funded by the most famous Pittsburgh robber baron of them all, Andrew Carnegie.
Yet if these pioneering schools were cornerstones of black Pittsburgh in its heyday, their decline has been part of the sad narrative of that community’s descent over the past 60 years. In the late 1950s, white downtown business and political leaders joined forces to push through an early experiment in urban renewal that resulted in the razing of the Lower Hill, long the center of black business and social life.
Despite big talk, the city never made good on promises of new housing construction. As displaced Hill residents sought refuge in surrounding neighborhoods, white residents of those previously mixed enclaves fled, gradually eroding the tax and political bases that had supported schools like Westinghouse.
Today Westinghouse is a shell of its former self, looming forlornly over an entire block in the now downtrodden neighborhood of Homewood. Metal bars stripe the windows. A magnetometer guards the lobby. The virtually all-black student body numbers a scant 450 over six grades.
The teachers are almost all white, young, inexperienced, and likely to move on after a few years. Although the school has worked its way back from a dismal diploma rate to graduating most of its students, more than a quarter of them will never attend college, and many who do will never finish. As administrators walk the hallways, they greet students who skip classes not with warnings but inquiries about what’s bothering them, a sign of their primary concern that no one leave the building before school is out.
Schenley, meanwhile, has been shuttered and sold to private developers, the victim of a contentious experiment in school reform. In 2005, Pittsburgh turned its school system over to Mark Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts state legislator and great-grandson of Teddy Roosevelt, who decided in mid-career to become a school superintendent by attending a one-year training course funded by entrepreneur Eli Broad.
Mark Roosevelt delivered innovation, including support for charter schools and Gates Foundation projects, but he lost goodwill in both black and white communities by closing Schenley rather than pay for asbestos removal. The uproar over the loss of the iconic school drained support for Roosevelt’s agenda, and it hamstrung Linda Lane, the black woman who took his place after he quit to take the presidency of Antioch College. “The pain goes on,” Lane admitted as she stepped down after six years.
Witnessing what has become of the Hill and Homewood and so many black city neighborhoods like them across America, it’s hard to believe what thriving hubs they once were, and even harder to fathom what it will take to bring them back. Yet if there is to be progress, virtually every expert agrees, reforms will have to be multi-pronged—encompassing courts, prisons, police, and banks—and will have to start with schools.
While the overall forecast for Pittsburgh’s inner-city schools is far from bright, there are rays of promise. When a city-wide vocational high school was shut down to save money, many of its programs—in carpentry, health services, sports management, cooking, and cosmetology—were moved to Westinghouse. Students in those programs are now the stars of the school, paraded before visitors as musical prodigies once were.
A handsome, gregarious senior boasts of earning his electrician’s license and having a job lined up after graduation. Students in a professional cooking class learn from a former sous chef how to work a restaurant kitchen line and organize a food truck. Although administrators say some parents still look down on vocational training—a stigma in black America that dates back to controversy over Booker T. Washington’s trade schools—they concede that for many students, it offers more realistic hope than taking on student debt to pursue a liberal arts education.
The city of Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is enjoying an overall resurgence, propelled once again by its institutions of higher learning. Tech giants such as Google, Facebook, and Uber have opened outposts to snap up engineers and computer scientists from Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, and Duquesne. Those companies have started donating computers and other supplies to black neighborhood schools, and they could do more. They could establish or fund after-school programs where African-American kids can learn extra math and computer skills. They could create mentorship and internship programs to give high-school students a taste of the jobs that might await them if they stay in school and get through college.
If nothing else, Pittsburgh’s revival gives motivated black youth an incentive to stay put. For another, more sensitive, factor in the decline of black Pittsburgh was black flight, by middle-class strivers who walked through doors opened in the civil rights and affirmative action era and never came back. (One was my father, C.S. “Syl” Whitaker, Jr., Westinghouse class of 1952, who went to Swarthmore College and then became an Africa scholar at UCLA and Princeton.)
Today, members of that generation who did eventually return express shame over not being there to fight for their neighborhoods. One is Lynell Nunn, the actor’s sister, who returned to Pittsburgh to care for her aging parents after decades working as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., only to discover that it was too late to save her beloved high school. “I still haven’t forgiven them,” Lynell says of city and school board leaders. “We had so much pride in Schenley.”
One who did stay was Joe Williams III, the son of a mechanic and grandson of a janitor who grew up in the North Side neighborhood of Manchester. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne’s law school, Williams opened a criminal law practice in his old neighborhood on a block that had grown so decrepit that he was able to buy a boarded-up townhouse from a city slum agency for $4,000. Two decades later, Williams was elected to a judgeship in a downtown courthouse where his grandfather mopped the floors and his father fixed the boilers. After raising their son in the suburbs, he and his wife Darryl have moved into the Manchester house and are working with neighbors to rebuild the neighborhood.
Every Memorial Day, Williams also hosts a family reunion at which he and his relatives visit the burial sites of ancestors who have lived in the Pittsburgh area for four generations. At each grave, they require members of the younger generation to recite the stories of their forebears. Like so many tales of black Pittsburgh, they are stories full of sacrifices made for the sake of education, and a reminder to the youngsters that reverence for learning is a strain as deep and proud as any in the African-American tradition.