The Hurricane Refugees of Amish Country

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.

(Madison McVeigh/CityLab)

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.

On Prince Street in Lancaster, the city’s historic downtown is healthy. (Martín Echenique/CityLab Latino)

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.

Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace (left) with her predecessor, Richard Gray.  With limited resources, the small city has attempted to assist hundreds of Maria evacuees. (Martín Echenique/CityLab Latino)

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.

Lisette Rivera, from Lancaster’s school district, shows an emergency basket provided to Puerto Rican families. (Martín Echenique/CityLab Latino)

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.

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A Female Architect’s ‘Post-War Miracle’ No Match for New Zoning

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.”

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Pittsburgh’s Black Renaissance Started in Its Schools

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 Pittsburgh’s Hill District in the 1940s, Herron Avenue marked the boundary between the elite Sugartop neighborhood and the working-class Middle Hill. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

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.)

The Washington edition of the Pittsburgh Courier on April 19, 1947, a few days after Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball. Courier columnist Wendell Smith had introduced Robinson to the Dodgers’ Branch Rickey. (Library of Congress)

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.

Dancer Charles “Honi” Coles (left), Billy Strayhorn (center), and Duke Ellington (right) at the Stanley Theatre, the show palace where Ellington and Strayhorn first met. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

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.  

The Bethel AME Church, the last building to be destroyed on the Lower Hill in 1957. (Courtesy of Getty Images/Teenie Harris Archive/Carnegie Museum of Art)

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.

A mural in the Hill District honoring playwright August Wilson, who attended Catholic schools in the neighborhood and set Fences and other plays there. (Beth J. Harpaz/AP)

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.

Mark Whitaker’s book SMOKETOWN: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance was recently published by Simon & Schuster.

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Ex-Census Director: Citizenship Question Is ‘a Tremendous Risk’

Next month marks the first test of the Census Bureau under the Trump administration. By the end of March, the bureau has to submit its formal list of questions for the 2020 Census to Congress. There’s one item in particular that’s drawing much attention: In December, the Department of Justice requested the addition of a controversial citizenship question.

The DOJ explained that, in order to fully enforce the Voting Rights Act, “the Department needs a reliable calculation of the citizen voting-age population in localities where voting rights violations are alleged or suspected.”

That request alarmed many census-watchers, who were already anxious about the fate of the big decennial count under the Trump administration. Currently, the Census Bureau has neither a director nor a deputy director in place; last fall, the White House floated a name for deputy, who would not require Senate confirmation (but would serve as acting director). That candidate withdrew from consideration last month following criticism of his lack of administrative experience and somewhat provocative views on democracy.  

Speaking with CityLab after he gave remarks at an event on Tuesday morning, the bureau’s former director, John Thompson, explained why he agreed that the citizenship question would risk undermining the count.

“There are great risks that including that question, particularly in the atmosphere that we’re in today, will result in an undercount, not just of non-citizen populations but other populations that are concerned with what could happen to them,” Thompson said. “That is a tremendous risk.”

Thompson, who left the bureau last May, says that the 2020 Census faces two significant threats, both of which may come to a head next month. The first is the citizenship question, which has drawn widespread condemnation from leaders. In January, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and 170 other organizations sent a letter to Wilbur Ross, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce (which runs the bureau), urging him to reject the DOJ’s request. More than 160 mayors sent him a similar notice earlier this month.

“The concern is it will cause great fear among certain populations that this data will be used for inappropriate purposes,” Thompson said. “The Census [Bureau] has a really, really hard job to convince everyone of two things. One is why it’s important to be counted. The other message that is really, really critical is that the census is confidential. The Census [Bureau] doesn’t give the data to anyone.”

In addition to the citizenship question, which has not been tested in a census environment since 1950, underfunding could also lead to drastic undercounting among certain populations—namely minorities, vulnerable families, and at-risk communities. These counts are critical for deciding representation in Congress and funding levels for law enforcement and public education, among other things.

Thompson now serves as the executive director of the Council of Professional Organizations on Federal Statistics, a nonprofit devoted to preserving and expanding the use of data by federal statistical collections. He was appearing at an event in Washington, D.C., assembled by the Center for Data Innovation, where he spoke about the bureau’s push for automation and priorities under the federal budget. He hammered the DOJ’s effort to add a citizenship question so late in the process, noting that the American Community Survey has historically served as the federal source for information on citizenship. “It apparently, until recently, has been adequate,” he said.

Thompson added, “Putting that [citizenship] question on the decennial census has the risk of raising fears among certain populations that it would be very hard for the Census Bureau to countermand.”

Any inaccuracies in the 2020 Census will have long-lasting and wide-ranging effects, as it would carry over into other surveys performed by the Census Bureau, including the American Population Survey, the Current Population Survey, and the National Health Interview Survey. “If there is inaccuracy in the decennial census, that will be with us for 10 years,” Thompson said.

Will the bureau submit to the DOJ request? Thompson wouldn’t speculate on whether he thinks his old colleagues will add the citizenship item to the questionnaire it submits to Congress next month. But even if they do, there’s an additional level of official oversight that gives him hope: Article 1, section 2 of the Constitution. It says that “the actual Enumeration” is the responsibility of Congress, to be executed “in such as they shall by Law direct.”

What that means is that, should the Census Bureau add the new question, “Congress doesn’t have to accept it,” Thompson said. “I think it was smart of the people who wrote [the Constitution] to include that.”

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CityLab Daily: The Quest for a New Black City

What We’re Following

Greenhaven on my mind: What does it take to break off and start your own city? For more than a decade, the metro Atlanta area has been finding out, with several neighborhoods doing just that. But now the movement faces its greatest test: If successful, Greenhaven would become the second-largest city in Georgia, with 300,000 people and a larger share of African American residents than Atlanta.

CityLab’s Brentin Mock takes us to this part of South Dekalb county, where organizers are pushing for a ballot measure to create the self-contained city. There’s just one problem: State lawmakers need to approve the plan by Wednesday—and it doesn’t look like they’re going to do that, even as a similar plan for white-majority neighborhood in North Dekalb is poised to pass. This first story in a series about Greenhaven’s cityhood movement looks at what stands in the way on the quest to a new black city.

Andrew Small

More on CityLab

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Self-Driving Pizza Just Hit Miami

The automaker Ford is bringing autonomous deliveries from Domino’s and Postmates (plus Lyft rides) to Miami-Dade County.

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‘We Can’t Afford to Be Naive’

Meet two teen gun reformers who are done waiting for politicians to address school shootings.

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Why Puerto Rico Is Pushing to Privatize its Schools

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Here’s to doing better in 2022.

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Map of the Day

(Urban Institute)

The Urban Institute has a new interactive map assessing the black homeownership gap in the 100 cities with the largest number of black households. Researchers Alanna McCargo and Sarah Strochak calculate the difference between homeownership rates of whites and blacks.

The largest gap is 50 percent, in Minneapolis. Not one of the 100 cities has closed the gap, but the smallest is in Killeen, Texas, with a 14.5 percent gap between white and black homeowners. Only two other cities fall below 20 percent: Charleston, South Carolina, and Fayetteville, North Carolina.

What We’re Reading

More than 100 cities are now mostly powered by renewable energy (The Guardian)

What if you and your neighbors redesigned your worst intersection? (Strong Towns)

How ticket debt is driving Chicago’s black motorists into bankruptcy (ProPublica)

Fifty years later, almost no progress on racial inequality gaps (Washington Post)

Dockless bikeshare company hits the brakes in France after vandalism (NPR)

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

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Self-Driving Pizza Just Hit Miami

If you didn’t get a chance to experience the pizza delivery of the supposed future in Ann Arbor, Michigan last summer, fret not: Self-driving Domino’s Pizza vehicles are now roving the streets of Miami.

It’s part of a new research partnership between Miami-Dade County and the automaker Ford. Over the coming months, the company will deploy custom-built autonomous cars across Miami and Miami Beach through a variety of partnerships with other businesses. Apart from the world’s largest pizza chain, they’ll include the on-demand delivery company Postmates, the ride-hailing giant Lyft, and others yet to be announced.

Consumers will soon be able to opt to order their pies, groceries, and on-demand rides to be conveyed via robot (with backup drivers behind the wheel in case of emergency). The county, meanwhile, hopes that the experiment can be a learning opportunity and a signal to other self-driving technology leaders.

“We want to learn from Ford what it is we need to do to get ready for these vehicles, so that when AVs become a reality, fully, we’ll be one of the first communities to get them,” said Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Giménez. “We want to let the world know that Miami is ready to be a testbed.”

According to the latest Pew polls, Americans are “more worried than enthusiastic” about the development of driverless vehicles. Do people really want to share the roads with job-stealing, crash-preventing robots? Maybe not. But for carmakers, it’s more a question of familiarizing the populace with a disruptive new technology. To accomplish this, partnerships with familiar brands could be a savvy move.

The Domino’s “research vehicles,” a few of which are already on the road in Miami, are specially modified Ford Fusions with lidar hats and built-in pizza warming compartments. Stuffed-crust lovers have to walk out of their homes and up to the curb to retrieve their pies from the cars; a robot voice emanating from the vehicle instructs them how to unlock the special pie window. (Some of you may ask: Can’t the human emergency driver perform this chore, or even bring the pizza to the door? But you are clearly missing the whole point of this automation exercise.)

The autonomous Postmates deliveries and Lyft rides haven’t started yet, but they will work similarly, according to Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification. Key for Ford, Marakby said, will be to see how consumers in relatively dense, urban Miami-Dade will react to these new behavioral norms compared to more suburban Ann Arbor, where the cars were tested in summer 2017.

“In Ann Arbor, some people might be coming out in their PJs. But that’s not the busy, bustling downtown of a big city—it might be different in Miami,” he said. The service and its user interface might have to be tweaked accordingly.

Likewise, the performance of the vehicles themselves—which are powered largely by Argo AI, a major Ford investee that builds artificial intelligence for self-driving vehicles—will be put to the test in a larger city with more pedestrians, cyclists, and construction zones. “Curbside management is a big challenge when you’re picking up and dropping off goods, even in a normal, non-AV situation,” Marakby said. “We’re going to see what an AV would do when it encounters double-parked cars where it needs to go.”

More broadly, this is also a chance for Ford to test out a variety of business models for self-driving technology. The automaker has stated that it plans to deploy large fleets of robotic cars built for ride-hailing purposes by 2021. But such vehicles hold promise for freight and package delivery, too. Through its partnerships with other cities, such as San Francisco and New York, Ford is testing other new mobility modes, including bikesharing and microtransit shuttles.

What do cities get out of it? Giménez, for his part, is a believer that self-driving cars could reduce transportation expenses and cut back on personal vehicle ownership in Miami-Dade. In the city of Miami, about 80 percent of households own cars. He also hopes that the city can eventually make use of the maps and that Ford and Argo AI will create to underpin and guide the self-driving vehicles.

Of course, few cities have had meaningful success in gaining access to the wealth of trip data generated by new private mobility services, even though many believe much of this information could be invaluable for planning purposes—and in the case of autonomous cars, to prevent the dreaded “zero occupancy” gridlock of the future, in which empty robo-cars clog the roads. Companies often argue that privacy and competitive concerns prevent them opening up their stores. This disagreement has led to all manner of ill will between tech companies and the cities they test in; Pittsburgh soured on Uber after the ride-hailing behemoth fell short of the city’s expectations of it as a data-sharing civic partner.

Giménez and Marakby both said that they have not had conversations about data sharing in relation to the self-driving pilots. “We have no agreement with any of the companies,” Giménez said. “They’re hoarding it very well.”

John Kwant, the vice president of Ford’s City Solutions group, expressed enthusiasm for recent efforts to create third-party repositories of anonymized and aggregated trip data to help cities get the information they need. “Cities want to achieve the ability to orchestrate things,” Kwant said. “Companies are going to eventually need to offer that up, either by political pressure or mandate.”

Whether that’ll be the case in Miami remains to be seen. Meanwhile, there’s pizza.

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How Cities Are Divided By Income, Mapped

In Philly’s Center City live its richest residents—those who can pay the premium for that walkable, amenity-rich, green neighborhood. But just across the river, blocks away from the lush, expanding campuses of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University, the visual landscape of the city changes: Pawn shops, fast food eateries, boarded-up store fronts, and dilapidated houses. Only a few areas in West Philadelphia have become more prosperous (and whiter). The rest continue to suffer concentrated poverty and decline.

This is not just a Philadelphia story. To visualize the landscape of economic inequality in U.S. cities, the mapping whizzes at ESRI have created a captivating story map with multiple layers. It presents America’s stark income disparities—and in the few places where it exists, income diversity.

Let’s zoom in further on Philadelphia to understand ESRI’s three metrics. The first type of map divides census tracts into four differently colored categories based on the income brackets of the “predominant”—or most most numerous—household type.

The clusters of orange dots show the tracts where the most common household type makes below $25,000; the pink ones show where households in the $25,000 to $50,000 range comprise the largest group; the purple: between $50,000 and $100,000; and the blue ones are where rich households that earn over $100,000 live. Note: The larger the dot, the more populous the tract it is marking; and the brighter it is, the higher the concentration of the “predominant” income group.

In Philly, you can see that blue spots burn bright in the Center City area, in particular.

Predominant income groups in Philadelphia. (ESRI)

The second measure gives a sense of how the share of groups at the lower and higher end of the income spectrum compare with the national average. So, the orange clusters on the map below show the tracts where the share of households making below $25,000 is higher than the national share of 22.3 percent. The blue ones show where the share of households making over $100,000 a year is higher than the overall share of 24.6 percent. The brighter the dots, the higher the gap between the Census tract’s share and the nation’s. Put another way, this map shows the extremes of poverty or wealth. West and North Philadelphia, the map below shows, have deep pockets of red:

Income extremes in Philadelphia. Those with a greater share of incomes below the national average are in orange; those higher are in blue. (ESRI)

The third type of map, inspired by a USA Today diversity index, examines the likelihood that households belong to different income brackets in a given census tract. The green ones are more diverse; here, you’re more likely to run into people from different economic backgrounds. The pink ones are less so; most households in these tracts fall into a single income bracket, whether it be high, low, or moderate. While Center City and some areas in West Philly may have high concentrations of rich and poor folks, respectively, they also tend to have a little bit more income diversity than areas in the North.

Where incomes are most diverse in Philadelphia. (in green). (ESRI)

ESRI has a handful of other cities on the tab that all have their own distinct patterns. Below is the first type of map showing Los Angeles, which is majority residents of color, but still starkly divided by income. Lower-income households that make below $25,000 (in orange) are clumped together in areas including downtown and the San Fernando and San Bernardino Valleys.

The distribution in Los Angeles of the predominant income groups (lowest-income in orange; highest in blue). (ESRI)

In Chicago, the West and South sides contain households that have higher concentrations of poor households (in orange) compared to the national average.

Where the share of the groups with lower incomes (orange) and higher incomes (blue) are above the national average in Chicago. (ESRI)

And then there’s Detroit, mapped below based on the concentration of income brackets. Even though it has been recovering from its economic woes, and is poised to become a crucial regional player, the city has yet to distribute its gains to the most vulnerable residents. A quarter of the city’s residents still live in poverty—usually in the inner city area which, by and large, has very few households of other economic profiles.

Where income is most segregated (in green) and most diverse (in pink) in Detroit. (ESRI)

At the end of the day, the way economic inequality manifests geographically can be measured in a number of ways—all of which have their pluses and minuses. But pinpointing concentrations of rich and the poor is a crucially important sociological exercise. Rich enclaves tend to “pool their resources for the exclusive benefit of themselves,” writes political economist Robert Reich in the New York Times:

The renewed emphasis on “community” in American life has justified and legitimized these economic enclaves. If generosity and solidarity end at the border of similarly valued properties, then the most fortunate can be virtuous citizens at little cost. Since most people in one neighborhood or town are equally well off, there is no cause for a guilty conscience. If inhabitants of another area are poorer, let them look to one another. Why should we pay for their schools?

Put simply: As the rich cluster together, the poor get poorer, because the effects of living in poor neighborhoods are passed down from one generation to the next. That’s why dismantling economic silos within a city can boost its total well-being and economic health.

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The Quest for a New Black City in Georgia

Updated: 2018-02-28

DEKALB COUNTY, GEORGIA—Roughly 25 people are holding court in the Greenhaven headquarters, all of them bound together by an unclarity about the name of the place where they live. Standing before them is Kathryn Rice, an urban planner who heads the Concerned Citizens for Cityhood of South DeKalb Inc. (CCCSD).

“Where is South DeKalb? What are its boundaries,” she asked them, but none could give an answer.

“I bet you can name the tallest building in South DeKalb, though, right?” she asked. Just about everyone blurted out “The jail!”

Indeed, the DeKalb County jail is the largest building in the area known intimately as “South DeKalb,” which is not a city or any kind of official jurisdiction. North DeKalb is where all the major businesses, office parks, hotels, restaurants, and skyscrapers are. Almost all of the major economic development over the last few decades has happened in North DeKalb, while South DeKalb, which is majority African American, struggles with just having its basic needs met, like landscaping and litter-pickup. Rice is leading a team of businesspeople and civic leaders to change the South DeKalb dynamic by turning the region into its own, self-contained city.

The city, named Greenhaven, would be the second-largest city in Georgia after Atlanta, if formed. It would be 87 percent African American—a larger percentage of black residents than even the city of Atlanta has. And while the notion of solving local problems by creating a freestanding city may sound extreme, it’s the new normal in the Atlanta metro area. At least ten other cities have formed anew since 2005 in the region, in a cityhood movement that is rendering this part of Georgia a new American frontier. But Greenhaven has had no such luck. Right now its supporters have had little success in even getting their city proposal approved for voters to decide on via a ballot initiative.

Greenhaven might be the greatest test yet for the cityhood movement. Its proposed population of 300,000 would make it many times larger than other recently-approved cities, in the 50,000 to 70,000-person range. Some state lawmakers have cited its large size as their reason for opposition. Others have said the city wouldn’t be economically viable. But to Rice, the exploding cityhood movement around her has already left many black people behind, and she can’t understand why the people of South DeKalb haven’t been granted the same fortunes as people in other parts of the region.

DeKalb County Jail (Brentin Mock)

Wednesday, February 28, is a key deadline for Greenhaven. It is the last day to move any bill out of the state House of Representatives before the legislative session ends. If no legislator carries a bill for Greenhaven by that date, then Rice’s team will have to wait until the legislature convenes again, next year, simply for the right to call a vote.

Of the other cities that have been approved in DeKalb County in recent years, all of them were granted the right to vote on cityhood within two years of submitting their proposal. This is Rice’s fourth at-bat in trying to make Greenhaven happen. CityLab reached out to several state legislators representing DeKalb, who haven’t yet responded to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, in North DeKalb, yet another majority-white neighborhood, Vista Grove, is poised to become a city, and they have a bill currently pending that has a good chance of passing. But most of the DeKalb delegation are against Greenhaven.  

When the cities to the north municipalized, they took major chunks of revenue away from the county. Meanwhile, the county still covers those cities with the services it provides, and those cities get to keep its tax dollars within their borders. This means that while the unincorporated parts of DeKalb County share their resources with the cities, the cities do not have to share all of their resources with the rest of the county. Wrote Sam Rosen for The Atlantic on Atlanta’s cityhood movement last year:

For those left behind in unincorporated parts of these counties, however, the cityhood movement has been disastrous. Data on the overall economic impact of the movement doesn’t yet exist, but the withdrawals of wealthy enclaves have left county governments with a recurring and unpleasant choice: raise taxes or provide less.  

These losses have exacerbated racial inequality in an area that was found, in a landmark 2013 study, to be one of the nation’s worst for economic upward mobility. All of these new cities, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote in 2015, “have become mostly white islands of safety and affluence. What’s remaining is heavily black [and] less well-off.”

Given that many of the people in South DeKalb work and shop in North DeKalb where the business clusters are, the south is, in some ways, subsidizing the lifestyles of people living in the north.

Economic development would be the Greenhaven priority if Rice can successfully get the proposal on the ballot this year. Part of Rice’s presentation at the Greenhaven headquarters that Thursday night included an appeal from Ron Bivins, a local businessman who once opposed municipalization. He came around, however, after he found he couldn’t get the county to bite on any of his economic plans for South DeKalb. Those plans included pitching Amazon to set up its new headquarters there and also possibly a new Major League Baseball team and stadium, since the Atlanta Braves took its facilities out of Atlanta to a northern suburb in Cobb County.

Listening from the audience, Evan Anderson, a young black man who lives not far from the Greenhaven office, said that those economic prospects sounded great, but he had concerns about how they’d change his neighborhood and cause displacement.

“It just sounds like to me that if you bring all these baseball stadiums and stuff that this place would lose its identity,” said Anderson.

Rice showed them a copy of a glossy promotional pamphlet titled “This is DeKalb,”which the county’s chamber of commerce uses to profile the premeire destinations around DeKalb. It did not include anything found in the areas where the people at this meeting lived. The two major properties that did exist in South DeKalb—the Centers for Disease Control and Emory University— were just annexed by the city of Atlanta. Closing the book, she calmly tells the group, “To DeKalb County, we don’t have an identity.”

Formal opponents of the proposal include Ed Williams, the chair of a group called Citizens Against Cityhood in DeKalb. Williams said in an interview that he does not believe south Dekalb would suddenly attract new companies just because it turns into a city, and he says the reason is because of a theory called “Black belt economics.”

According to this theory, “If the population of a neighborhood or community goes over 40 percent African-American, then significant investments tend not to be made in that community,” said Williams. “You won’t get a Radisson or a Hilton hotel or any of the top-line food stores, and that’s just a fact.”

Another opposing group is Neighbors Against Greenhaven, or NAG, which believes that if South DeKalb becomes a city, property values will decrease—a common belief for areas that have been designated as a “black neighborhood” or “black city.”

For Rice, all of that is getting ahead of the game. Right now, proponents are just looking for the ballot, so that the residents of South DeKalb can determine for themselves what they want.
Georgia’s only requirements for new cities are that the people proposing a new city have established a non-profit or company, conducted a feasibility study, drafted a city charter, and secured a state legislator willing to introduce a bill on the city’s behalf.  

So far, the Greenhaven team has amassed nearly 600 signatures for a petition asking the state to let them have this ballot vote. The sampling size for a population of 300,000 is roughly 400, a threshold that the Greenhaven team clears easily, but so does the opposition. Williams has a survey of South DeKalb residents with 500 people saying they oppose becoming a city. For Rice, this is all more the reason why the county deserves to vote on this.

Said Rice, “If the people decide they don’t want this, then fine, but for now we just want the ability to discuss, debate, and decide. That’s all.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that, according to their web campaign, NAG fears their property values, not property taxes, could decrease if Greenhaven becomes a city. It has also been updated to clarify the nature of Ed Williams’ objections to Greenhaven.

This is the first in a series of CityLab pieces about Greenhaven’s cityhood movement. Stay tuned for more coverage after the legislature’s deadline.

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