The Racial Injustice of American Highways

Thousands of peaceful protesters in the Twin Cities occupied Interstate 94 over the weekend as they marched from the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul to Minneapolis. For the region’s African-American community, which has been leading the ongoing protests over the fatal arrest of George Floyd and the use of police force on black Americans, the concrete they were standing on bears significant meaning.

It was this highway that, in the 1950s and ‘60s, tore apart the once-thriving neighborhood of Rondo — the heart of St. Paul’s largest African-American community — and helped spur decades of racial segregation in the region.

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz acknowledged as much during a Saturday press conference. “It wasn’t just physical — it ripped a culture, it ripped who we were. It was an indiscriminate act that said this community doesn’t matter, it’s invisible,” he said. “This convenient place to put a highway so we can cross over this place and go from the city out to the suburbs.”

This kind of destruction and devastation are familiar to older African Americans in other cities across the U.S., whose communities were decimated by the construction of the Interstate Highway System. And as protesters take over major highways — from I-630 in Little Rock, Arkansas, I-40 in Memphis, Tennessee,  I-75 in Cincinnati, Ohio — the symbolism has not been lost on some of those marching.

The relationship between highways and racial injustice exemplifies the kinds of systemic issues that many protesters are now seeking to challenge. Policies that on their face may have appeared to be about easing transportation barriers and revitalizing cities were — and still are — often rooted in longstanding racial prejudice, and carried with them cascading effects that worsened pre-existing inequalities.

“The cities were already segregated, and what happens is that these freeways can act as concretizing the barriers to integration that exist,” said Joseph DiMento, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and the co-author of the book “Changing Lanes: Visions and Histories of Urban Freeways.”

Starting in the 1950s, state and local officials bought into the idea that highways would be welcomed as revitalization tools for struggling downtowns by reducing commuting costs and improving accessibility, which would in turn make those areas inviting to businesses. This interest in highway-building came around the same time as a movement for massive “urban renewal” projects that razed neighborhoods considered blighted. It’s no coincidence that many of these were low-income and black neighborhoods into which discriminatory housing practices after the Great Depression discouraged investment. Affected communities often protested proposals that demolished or tore through their own neighborhoods. But in many cities, protests couldn’t stop plans from barreling forward.

In St. Paul, when white suburbanites shifted from mass transit to automobiles and began calling for easy access into the Twin Cities and between their business corridors, running an expressway through the neighborhood of Rondo became the obvious option. It conveniently sat between the two cities’ downtown cores.

During the first half of the 20th century, Rondo residents were mostly middle and working class, and many owned homes and businesses. The neighborhood had an abundance of gathering places that helped foster a vibrant music, theater and sports scene. And as home to several black newspapers and to the city’s chapter of the NAACP, Rondo was also an active civil rights hub.

Black leaders objected to the highway plan, but without the same political influence as a white community, their concerns about the life of the neighborhood and the future of people in it fell largely on deaf ears. Construction began September 1956, just a few months after Congress passed the Federal Aid Highway Act that initiated the building of the highway system, and by 1968, a vast roadway spanning multiple lanes sliced down the middle of Rondo.

Local historians estimate that more than 300 businesses were destroyed, and more than 600 families lost their home. Some had little choice but to sell their property to the city at a fraction of its value, while those who resisted were forcibly removed. Thousands of residents were left to find a new place to live in a region where officials deliberately used redlining practices and racial housing covenants to restrict home sales to African Americans.

DiMento’s research documented similar costs to African Americans when highways tore through other cities. In Syracuse, New York, for example, many of those displaced were low-income renters whose buildings were condemned and razed for the development of I-81.“They weren’t welcomed in white communities and in suburbs, so their dispersion throughout the existing less economically viable parts of city took place,” he said.

In city after city, black residents who were left behind in their cut-up neighborhood were now walled off by these highways in “border vacuums” with far more limited access to job opportunities across town. “It’s just quite remarkable how little fluidity there is across these barriers.” DiMento said.

Between high rates of unemployment, population loss and lowered land values, the effects of racial segregation carried over to generations of residents. In the Twin Cities today, only 25% of black families are homeowners, a rate that remains almost as low as the years right after the opening of I-94. The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made housing discrimination illegal, has done little to mitigate the damage from segregation.

The U.S. continues to fund roadway expansion over public transit infrastructure — exacerbating the economic and health disparities among African Americans. As Governor Walz emphasized Saturday, the continual push for those projects still says to communities that they are, for all intents and purposes, invisible.

Taking protests to those very highways is in that sense a pursuit of visibility. It’s not just in the demonstrations for George Floyd, but in past uprisings over police brutality as well: Dozens shut down I-94 in 2016 after police killed Philando Castile during a traffic stop in a Minnesotan suburb. And in 2014, mass protests stalled traffic on 101 freeway in Los Angeles and highways in several other cities to demand justice for 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 18-year old Michael Brown — both shot dead by white police officers in separate incidents.

“I don’t know how the decision was made to protest on the freeways but I think it has an interesting symbolic gesture,” DiMento said. “Freeways move people out of inner cities to the suburbs; freeways are escape routes from the lower-income areas. They represent decisions made by the powerful that have historically served people who didn’t live in the poor communities.”

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How Infectious Disease Defined the American Bathroom

If Lloyd Alter were building a new house right now, he’d be sure to add one unusual feature: a bathroom sink in the front vestibule. “We’re going to see a real resurgence of the vestibule, I think,” says Alter, a former architect and design historian who now teaches Sustainable Design at the Ryerson School of Interior Design. “This is a transition zone from the outside to the inside, where you take off your dirty stuff and you wash your hands before you go into the house.”

Alter predicted that disease-avoidance would rise to the fore of bathroom design a few years ago, when he observed the traumatizing effects of the 2003 SARS outbreak on Toronto, which killed 44 people. But home design in general — and bathroom design in particular — has long been influenced by infectious disease. This isn’t a linear narrative with clear causation, but rather a convergence of advancements in science, infrastructure, plumbing, sanitation and design trends. The modern bathroom developed alongside outbreaks of tuberculosis, cholera and influenza; its standard fixtures, wallcoverings, floorings, and finishes were implemented, in part, to promote health and hygiene in the home at a time of widespread public health concerns.

Now comes coronavirus, which could bring public health back as a primary home (and bathroom) design issue. Now that we’re spending so much of our daily lives scrubbing each knuckle and nail bed during those frequent 20-second hand-washing exercises, it’s not hard to imagine a renewed focus on bathroom innovation. Of course, ideas like sinks in hallways aren’t new: They were once a common fixture in tenements, although more as a cost-saving measure once indoor plumbing became the norm, not necessarily as a deliberate attempt to get people to wash their hands before entering their homes. It’s just one example of how health concerns have influenced how we live — something we are likely to see more of in a post-coronavirus world. And the bathroom, as ever, will be at the center of this movement.

In the beginning: water treatment and wooden fixtures

By the late 1800s, there were 136 public water supplies in the United States, along with a growing patchwork of sanitation and sewer systems in urban areas across the country.

This was a point after germ theory had become accepted and was in the process of catching on (with the help of early public health campaigns), but before the widespread use of antibiotics in the 1940s and 1950s. Crowded conditions and poor water quality and sanitation made cities fertile ground for a host of pathogens.  

At this time, only the wealthy had indoor plumbing — first in the form of a tap in the kitchen, and later a small sink in the bedroom in place of their existing setup with a wash basin and pitcher, says Alter. There was no dedicated bathroom, and thanks to the widespread belief that “sewer gases” spread disease, even many upper-class urban dwellers opted for chamber pots and outhouses until around the turn of the century.

An ornate home bathroom from 1884. (New York Public Library)

When chamber pots were still in use, those who could afford to do so stored them inside wooden commodes, or chair-like cabinets that contained the pot (which servants were in charge of dumping). “So when the rich built their first bathrooms, they encased everything in wood,” Alter says. Ornately carved dark wood surrounded the toilet, sink and bathtub, so they each appeared as pieces of furniture, masking their true purpose.

A focus on health and hygiene

The cover of a 1912 sales pamphlet from the Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Company (later renamed American Standard) features renderings of American bathrooms dating back to 1875. Though only 37 years had passed between the design of the two rooms, they are starkly different: the former covered in wood, and the latter not all that different from bathrooms as we know them today. “Ideas of sanitation and hygiene apparently unknown but a few short years ago have become so imbred [sic] in our daily lives,” the pamphlet reads, “that were we for any reason, compelled to forgo them, we would feel that we had retrogressed for centuries, instead of the only twenty-five to fifty years in which present day sanitation and hygiene have come into being.”

An advertisement for Standard baths from the early 1900s. (Jay Paull/Getty Images)

During that era, medical professionals realized — and then convinced the public — that indoor toilets connected to the public sewer system were far more beneficial to stop the spread of infectious disease. And as tuberculosis and influenza continued to kill indiscriminately among the classes, bathroom design evolved to help stop their spread.

The wood was the first to go, in favor of open plumbing fixtures, which were far easier to clean and more sanitary. Bathtubs, which were originally made of wood and lined with either sheets of zinc or copper, later featured enamel-coated cast-iron, a development introduced by the Kohler Company in 1883 as way to make their tubs and other products “superior, clean and hygienic,” according to Angela Miller, manager of archives and heritage at Kohler. Thanks to its ability to be easily wiped clean, enamel became the material of choice for the primary bathroom fixtures moving forward in both hospitals and private homes.

Bringing the hospital into the home

In the days before antibiotics, rest, sunlight and fresh air served as the best treatments for respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis and influenza. This was the idea behind the sanatoria where tuberculosis sufferers were isolated and treated. In his 2008 book, Light, Air and Openness, architectural historian Paul Overy lays out how many features of modern design originated in hospitals and sanatoria — structures that were purpose-built to combat the spread of infectious disease. This also included all-white patient rooms, which, he writes, “were designed not only to be easy to clean but to appear to be spotlessly clean — potent visual symbols of hygiene and health.”

Homeowners soon adopted these design principles — particularly in the kitchen and bathroom. Fussy, stuffy Victorian bathrooms were the past; hygiene and sanitation were the future. This meant getting rid of anything that wasn’t easily wiped-down, washed, or swept that could potentially harbor dirt, dust and germs. Wooden floors were torn out in favor of tiles, or better yet, a relatively new material made from cotton scrim with oxidized linseed oil and cork dust called “linoleum.” Lighter textiles like linen supplanted heavy drapery because they were not only easier to wash, but also let in more air and sunlight, design historian Alessandra Wood says. “If you were putting up drapery, linen is something that’s better to choose than the heavier textiles — so ventilation is key here too,” she says.

Wallpaper also became a target for sanitary crusaders in the late 19th century, according to Bo Sullivan, a historian specializing in American residential architecture and decor from 1870 to 1970 and owner/founder of Arcalus Period Design in Portland, Oregon. First, there was a growing awareness that arsenic — used in distemper paints for wallpapers — was poisoning a room’s occupants, thanks to the 1874 book Shadows from the Walls of Death, Sullivan says.

In addition, there was an ever-increasing focus on the “unhealthiness” of dirty and sometimes damp layers of wallpaper that was not designed to be cleaned. “Wallpaper was gone, and walls became white,” Alter says. “White became all the rage because you wanted to reflect sunlight… because light was considered to be the best disinfectant.”

Gleaming fixtures and bright white walls defined the look of mid-20th-century bathrooms. (Sasha/Getty Images)

According to Kelly Wright, who teaches American history at the University of Cincinnati and specializes in the historic use of color in architecture, one of the reasons 19th century wallpaper was so heavily patterned was that flies were so prevalent in homes at the time: The busyness of the walls helped mask the flies and related stains. As sanitation became more of a consideration, easily cleaned white tiles or painted walls became more popular.

Bathroom fittings like soap dishes, toothbrush holders, towel bars, and cup holders were another key component of the ideal sterile look of home bathrooms. “There was a ‘laboratory’-type quality to early-20th-century bathrooms and kitchens … and nickel-plated brass bathroom fixtures play a large role in this,” Sullivan says. Nickel plating emerged in the 1880s as a high-end finish for door hardware that imitated silver, but by the 1890s it migrated into kitchens and bathrooms as a tarnish-free and easy-to-clean treatment for solid brass fittings. Like many other household products at the time, these fixtures wouldn’t have looked out of place in a hospital. The Art Brass Company of New York also sold their products under the name “San-o-la” to capitalize on this sanitary design craze. The San-o-la pieces weren’t just practical — their single-piece castings were easy to clean — they also featured a flowing style influenced by Art Nouveau, adding a bit of glamour to an otherwise plain and sterile space.

Nickel-plated fixtures from 1920 project high style and hygiene. (Bo Sullivan, Arcalus Archive)

Concern over hygiene and the spread of infectious diseases also drove another design innovation: second bathrooms. In multi-story homes, bathrooms were typically located on the second floor, near the bedrooms. But as influenza outbreaks raged in the early 20th century, some homeowners added a small half-bathroom — also known as a “powder room” — on the ground floor of a house near the entrance. In an era of daily home deliveries of ice, coal and groceries, powder rooms gave delivery people or visitors the opportunity to wash their hands using an easily accessible sink, Wright says, instead of bringing germs from other people’s homes upstairs into the family’s personal quarters.

Disease and design

When architects designed homes in the wake of the 1918 flu pandemic and World War I, they typically took one of two approaches to the recent traumas. The first was to start at the ground-up and rethink everything, like Modernists and the Bauhaus did in the 1920s. The second — and far more common — tactic was to try to forget about the trauma and make ourselves comfortable, which bolstered the popularity of Art Deco design, according to Dianne Pierce, adjunct professorial lecturer in decorative arts and design history at the George Washington University.

Glamour returns to the bathroom in the 1920s in this Art Deco-style tiled lavatory. (GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

In the bathroom, that style offered “cocooning and comfort and pleasure and sensuality,” she says: There are tile and geometric fixtures that are easily cleaned, but something else, too. “I think the motivation is more sensual,” she says. “It’s more about the thrill of being able to run hot water into a tub and have the comfort of a bath.”

But whether bathrooms constructed and designed in the interwar period were starkly minimalist or flashy Art Deco, the idea they had to be easily cleaned and as hygienic as possible remained — at least for a while. Once antibiotics became commonplace and design no longer had the responsibility of promoting disease avoidance, other trends emerged — see the popularity of carpeted ’70s bathrooms with fuzzy toilet seat covers.

What might that mean for the bathrooms of the post-coronavirus world? Americans have already demonstrated a keen fixation with this household feature: In the last 50 years, the number of home bathrooms per person has doubled. One could easily see the lavatory-building boom accelerate further as future homeowners keep the needs of the self-quarantined in mind. And many have speculated that sales of bidet attachments will surge as toilet-paper shortages encourage Americans to embrace this more sustainable alternative.

Once a semblance of normalcy returns, it will be interesting to see whether we respond to this trauma by trying to make ourselves more comfortable, or by implementing design features that make our homes and bodies easier to clean, or a combination of the two. “It’s the idea that we’ve been through this horrible trauma, and now we want to live our lives in a way that is just comfortable,” says Pierce.

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The Vast Undercount of Gaps in American Internet Access

The United States grapples with a deep digital divide in which those who need broadband access the most—the poor in rural areas—are the least likely to be connected. But it’s been a challenge for advocates to understand the full scope of the problem nationally, and for local and regional governments to suss out where their most underserved constituents live. Part of the problem is what advocates have long argued is an undercount of the unconnected population by the U.S. agency charged with overseeing internet access.

According to a new report by the company Broadband Now, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission may have underestimated the number of Americans without access to high-speed internet by 20 million people. The researchers also found that those undercounts tended to be greater in states with a higher rural population, meaning the rural poor aren’t getting the funding they need to get connected.

While there are local funding initiatives, states depend significantly on federal dollars, the distribution of which is determined by the FCC’s measurement of who does and doesn’t have have access to broadband. Most recently, the FCC approved a $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity fund to narrow America’s digital gap, starting with the census blocks that the agency’s data show are least connected. But if the FCC’s count is off, funding will be, too.

And that has consequences. More reliable connection can translate to better job opportunities for working rural poor, more competition among farmers, and better education for kids. “For rural areas to be vibrant, with good remote working jobs and competitive economies, everybody needs access to broadband internet,” says John Busby, the managing director of Broadband Now, which pushes for better transparency between internet service providers and their consumers.

The FCC’s latest deployment report, released in May, calculates that 93.7 percent of the American population have broadband access in their area, leaving only 21.3 million Americans without high-speed internet. But when researchers at Broadband Now crunched their own numbers, their analysis suggest the actual number of Americans without broadband access is 42 million—double FCC’s figure. (And that doesn’t account for people who can’t live in areas with broadband infrastructure, but can’t afford it.)

“Frankly, I was surprised about how big the gap was when I got the data back. I’d assumed it was smaller,” says Busby. “It really sheds the light on the need to have better reporting.”

Darker shades indicate places where the Federal Communications Commission more dramatically underestimated gaps in broadband access, according to Broadband Now’s research. These tend to be states with a higher proportion of rural residents.

To get its estimate, the Broadband Now team manually ran 11,663 randomly selected addresses through the “check availability” tool of nine large internet service providers that claim to serve those areas. All in all, the team analyzed 20,000 provider-address combinations. A fifth of them indicated that no service was available, suggesting to the researchers that companies may be overstating their availability by 20%, Busby says. The results also show that 13% of the addresses served by multiple providers didn’t actually have available service through any of them. They then applied these rates across the country to get their final estimate of 42 million people without broadband.

The disparity between their estimate and the FCC’s largely comes from the agency’s reliance on Form 477 reports, in which internet providers self-report the locations they serve. Providers can claim to serve the population of an entire census block if service is provided to just one household in that block. After the release of FCC’s May report, the agency’s Democratic commissioners dismissed the report, berating their colleagues for “blindly accepting incorrect data” and using the numbers to “clap its hands and pronounce our broadband job done.”

A state-by-state breakdown of the data further uncovers a wide range of gaps between Broadband Now’s estimates and FCC’s, depending how rural or urban each state is. “We found that in states that are inherently more rural, there’s a much bigger gap between FCC estimates and ours than in a densely populated city or in states that are primarily urban,” says Busby, whose team compared the data to the “urban percentage” of each state’s population.

In Mississippi, where less than half of the population live in urban areas, the FCC’s coverage is over-reported by 20%. Similarly, in Arkansas where 56% of the population are urban, the coverage rate is overstated by 23%. Meanwhile, in states like California and Massachusetts, where the urban percentage is above 90%, the gap between FCC and Broadband Now’s coverage estimates hovers under 5 points.

The results point to why Form 477 data is especially detrimental to rural areas, where census blocks are bigger and more sparsely populated. That means houses are spread further apart, so while one house may be able to reach a wired line, the family next door—a few miles over—cannot.

The FCC did not respond to a request for comment, but in August, it announced that it would improve the accuracy of its count by requiring providers to submit geospatial maps of exactly where they provide service. Those maps, according to the new FCC order, would also be checked against crowdsourced information from the public. But the FCC doesn’t plan on implementing that upgrade until after the first distribution phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity fund, which will allocate $16 billion to census blocks that the agency’s data show is “wholly unserved” by internet providers.

That has states concerned over whether they will get their “fair share” of the fund, as Jeff Sural, who heads North Carolina Department of Technology’s broadband infrastructure office, put it to State Scoop. In North Carolina, for example, where the FCC overestimates broadband coverage by more than half a million people according to Broadband Now, state officials have had to turn to other data sources such as resident surveys to figure out who needs broadband funding the most.

In 2018, Georgia’s community affairs department began making its own county-level broadband coverage map as well. The first phase of the project, in which it mapped three counties, has already proved to be a labor- and time-intensive undertaking that involved working with municipal government to build an extensive database of all residential and business locations, and negotiating with broadband providers to get location data. But it also showed that in those three counties alone, the FCC data vastly overstated coverage.

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The Bankrupt American Brands Still Thriving in Japan

North American visitors to the shopping corridors of Tokyo and Osaka may be surprised to find brands they’d written off as dead at home. In between the Uniqlos, Lawsons, Tokyu Hands, and other domestic chains that dominate the streets of Japanese cities, you’ll see American names that you’ll recognize from the nearest dead or dying mall: Toys ‘R’ Us, Tower Records, Barney’s, and Dean & Deluca. They echo U.S. chains that have been gone bankrupt in their homeland and yet survive, even thrive, in Japan and other Asian markets.

What gives, an American tourist—or at least this tourist, who recently traveled to Kyoto and Tokyo—wonders? At least according to four experts on the Japanese retail industry, there are as many explanations as there are chains living out what seem to be second lives.

Licensing agreements

In Asia, most chains that bear the name of an American company are independent entities with a licensing agreement. So the decisions that made one company go belly-up in the United States wouldn’t necessarily bear on stores in Japan or its neighbors.

For example, Toys ‘R’ Us Inc. filed for bankruptcy in the U.S. in 2017, having incurred billions of dollars in debt that prevented it from making necessary investments and updates to huge brick-and-mortar footprint. The following year, the erstwhile category killer shuttered nearly 800 of its big-box stores, becoming an icon of the American “retail apocalypse.” The brand relaunched in the U.S. this fall after restructuring.

The story has been different across the Pacific. Toys ‘R’ Us Asia severed ties with its American parent company in 2018, allowing it to focus its business strategy on developing the Asian market, including a plan to open 68 new stories in Japan and China. As it is, the brand has long dominated the Japanese toy sector. Toys ‘R’ Us entered the country’s retail market in 1991 as one of the earliest U.S. brands to break through Japan’s complicated distribution and regulatory regime, which traditionally force customers to pay some of the highest prices in the world. Now the toy giant dictates to manufacturers, with few rivals and widespread name recognition.

A Toys ‘R’ Us in Toyko. (Eriko Sugita/Reuters)

“The reason they’ve survived is because of how well they’ve marketed themselves, plus very low competition in the sector,” said Roy Larke, a senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Waikoto in New Zealand, and an expert on retailing and consumer behavior in Japan.

American brands still carry cachet

Japan also holds an appreciation for certain storied American imports. Luxury food retailer Dean & DeLuca may be closing stores in New York City as debts pile up, but its 50 locations across Japan are going strong. Beyond upscale deli cookies, shoppers may be flocking for the Manhattan-tinged universe that Dean & Deluca conjures up. “I think that retail stores in Japan that are American, and identified with American culture and taste, have a cachet in Japan that is apart from the way these same brands are viewed in the U.S.,” said David Flath, a professor of economics with a focus on retail at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto.

W. David Marx, a Tokyo-based journalist and author, put it this way: “It’s an imported brand that exists in a fantasy world where Sex and the City is still on air.”

Another example in Tokyo shopping malls is Barneys Japan, which licenses its name from the upscale Manhattan department store brand that recently declared bankruptcy. Like Dean & Deluca, its success is helped by having bottled a certain idea of Western luxury. “It lives on as an American fantasy, rather than the real American experience,” Marx said.

Density, density, density

For decades, the California-based chain Tower Records was the ultimate emporium for music lovers, peaking with 200 stores worldwide in the mid-1990s. But years of debt and shifts in how consumers access music forced it into bankruptcy, and all of its U.S. stores shuttered in 2006.

In Japan, however, the music never died. Tower Records still has a major presence in Tokyo and Osaka. The stores are no longer owned by the U.S. company, but the familiar yellow-and-red signage and multi-floor layout can give American shoppers flashbacks to the pre-piracy era.

A few factors explain Tower’s persistence in Japan. First, many Japanese listeners still consider obtaining actual CDs or even vinyl LPs an important sign of their fandom for artists. In 2016, Quartz reported that nearly 80 percent of music sales were on hard copies. That translates to shopping environments: “You have to own the objects, and there has to be a place to buy the objects, and that is part of why physical retail stores last a lot longer,” said Marx.

Recently, online shopping—via mega-purveyors such as Amazon and its Japanese competitor Rakuten—has been eating into Japan’s physical retail sales in nearly every sector. That is especially true for items that don’t need to be closely inspected before buying, such as books and CDs, Flath said.

But a tight-packed population sets Japan apart, said Marx and Larke: The country is about ten times as dense as the United States, and that makes a big difference for retailers with an urban foothold. For example, most of the 40 million people that live in the Tokyo metropolitan area alone can reach the city center in about an hour, Marx pointed said. In shopping hotspots such as Shibuya City—which boasts the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, and the flagship store for Tower Records Japan—the huge volume of foot traffic can keep new and old retailers alive into the e-commerce future. Such city center locations allow retailers to be “part of the customers’ daily file,” Iwao Hosoda, the associate director of marketing and communications for the real estate services firm CBRE Japan, wrote via email.

In contrast, many of the large chains that recently disappeared in the U.S. had vast chains of big-box stores spread out across thinly populated rural and exurban parts of the country. The real estate was cheap, but that space-hungry format was vulnerable to e-commerce, and the empty structures and parking lots that scroll by on cross-country drives are a testament to their inefficiency.

Japan’s population is aging and declining, and wages have stagnated. Suburban-style American shopping formats are becoming more popular there, too. (Costco: literally big in Japan.) And as more shoppers move online, store inventories and layouts are likely to change.

Still, for now, as long as the population is dense, mobile, and large enough, brick-and-mortar stores can survive off the sheer number of shoppers that pass by every day. “The scale is just so big that you can almost always open something new,” said Marx. “People will still line up for it.”

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CityLab Daily: Wage Inequality Has Surged in American Cities

What We’re Following

Place a wager: Since 1980, America has shifted toward a knowledge-based economy that concentrates more people and jobs into a smaller number of leading “superstar” cities. That’s grown economic inequality between metro areas, but new research shows it has also generated another disparity within those places: the wage gap.

As America’s largest metro areas have grown, so has the gulf in pay, with wage growth for the highest-paid workers at roughly triple that for the lowest paid. In some cities, the disparity is even wider. Back in 1980, not a single one of the 10 largest metros in the country was among the most unequal for wages. By 2015, five of America’s 10 largest metros—New York City, San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C.—were ranked among the most unequal. CityLab’s Richard Florida has the details: Wage Inequality Has Surged in American Cities

Andrew Small


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What’s Really Behind the Native American Health Gap?

Growing up as a member of the Ojibwe tribe, Melissa Walls knew that that diabetes ran in her maternal family. “I’ve lost two very close family members, my great grandfather and an uncle, to complications related to type 2 diabetes,” she says. But it wasn’t until she began studying American Indian health in graduate school, at the suggestion of another uncle who served as a liaison between academics and local tribal communities, that she understood that her family’s plight was part of a much larger problem.

American Indian adults are more than twice as likely as white adults to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, according to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Native American youth experience the highest and fastest-growing rate of the disease of any racial or ethnic group. But those statistics only scratch the surface of the kinds of health disparities that indigenous people face.

Nationally, the average life expectancy for a Native American person born today is 73 years—5.5 years below that for all other races. Members of this community, adolescents in particular, also experience much higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide and suicidal behaviors. In fact, while the national suicide rate has gone up 33 percent since 1999, the rates for Native American women and men have jumped by an alarming 139 percent and 71 precent, respectively, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“You could take almost any health outcome and find health inequity for tribes,” Walls says. “I mean, take your pick.”

The health statistics reflect a dire economic reality—1 in 4 Native Americans live in poverty, the highest rate compared to all other races—and the massive gap in medical resources available to this population. The Indian Health Service, which runs clinics and hospitals for Native Americans, spent $3,332 per person in 2017, compared to $9,207 spent on each person in the national health care system, according to a 2018 report on funding shortfalls by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Walls knows from experience: Like the majority of American Indians, she grew up outside a reservation. Her family lived in International Falls, Minnesota, a town of about 6,000 people—mostly white—near the Canadian border. But to access health services, her family had to go to the nearest reservation. “We drove an hour literally to go to the doctor, to go to the dentist, to get our eyes checked,” she says. “But when you grow up in that context, you don’t label it as an inequity or disparity. It’s just sort of your reality.”

More than two-thirds of Native Americans now live in urban areas, not reservations. That reflects 1950s-era federal policy designed to encourage American Indians living on reservations to urbanize, in the name of speeding “assimilation” (and freeing up tribal lands for federal exploitation). The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Urban Relocation Program of 1952 and the federal Indian Relocation Act of 1956 offered promises of job training and housing for the new arrivals; the hope was that moving to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis would allow more Native Americans to participate in the postwar economic boom. But in practice the relocation policy was “essentially a one-way bus ticket from rural to urban poverty,” as former Indian Affairs Commissioner Philleo Nash admitted in the 1960s.

Walls is now the head of the new Great Lakes hub of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for American Indian Health in Duluth, Minnesota, the city of 86,000 located three hours south of where she grew up. Her team currently works with 11 different tribal communities to better understand the health inequities that Native Americans experience, and try to correct them. The hub is just a 15-minute drive from the Fond du Lac band of Ojibwe tribe, with whom Walls has been working closely on diabetes prevention. Among her research interests: how stress impacts can affect type 2 diabetes, and how culture and community can help to buffer the negative effects of modern lifestyles among Native Americans.

CityLab recently caught up with Walls to talk about possible solutions to health inequities among American Indians, and why the damage that government policies inflicted on this population has been so far-reaching. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Can you explain how government policy induced historical trauma in the indigenous population?

The historical trauma encompasses a lot of government actions like setting up reservations and marching people across the country. Then in the the 1950s and ’60s, the government started a relocation program to get [Native Americans] into urban areas, and give them job training programs. It failed miserably, like most of these things did, in part because the job training was woefully inadequate, and often [the jobs available] were temp work or summer employment, if anything.

People were taken out of their family support systems or cultural safety nets, thrown into these urban environments, and expected to survive. Certainly in some cities, native people have worked to try build those kinds of networks. But you are very much a minority in the urban context. I think the idea of not having access to not just your friends and your family, which we all need, but those particular aspects of cultural teachings of ceremony that creates a sense of spirituality, purpose, and belonging would be scary to anybody.

[The relocation policy] was rooted in this flawed idea that all people need to look and act like European Americans, and live the way they do. It’s shocking, if you go into some of these government records, just how blatantly plain the language is about how the goal was really to exterminate or assimilate.

That has impact on communities, and we see it play out in terms of mental health, substance abuse, suicide, and other chronic diseases.

You’ve been largely looking at diabetes—how does historical trauma fit into that story?

In the case of diabetes, one really tangible thing is what we call nutrition transition. In the Midwestern U.S., Ojibwe people once had a thing called a seasonal round, where with each season came new sources of food. In the springtime, you tap trees to get maple syrup. In the fall, you gather wild rice off the lake and you hunt deer. Every season had ways of getting [food] that burned a lot of calories.

Moving away from these ways of eating and getting your food, and suddenly relying on government-sponsored commodity programs [that included] flour, sugar, lard, butter, we start to see rates of obesity kind of going off the charts. And we continue to suffer the consequences.

And this trauma has affected multiple generations?

Some of the research we’ve done is really trying to link up negative health outcomes with specific policies. We’ve published a paper that demonstrates how families who’ve gone through those relocation programs have the worst health outcomes that we can track across three generations.

It’s based on survey data from members of eight tribal communities. We were able to track parents’ reports of their parents going through relocation. If they did, we saw a significant pathway where those [first-generation] parents might have had substance abuse issues, which led to substance abuse and depression in the [second-generation] parents. That led to them being not very good parents of their own kids—the third generation—who at the time were in adolescence. They had bad outcomes like delinquency and depression.

The article was published in 2012, but we continue to collect new data every year from that same cohort, so it’s an ongoing study.

Your research is mostly on communities that live within reservations, but what can you tell us about the current urban Native American population so far?

In our cohort study, the kids who grew up on the reservation, a good chunk of them now have moved on to cities, which is another thing that happens. People tend to migrate between cities and reservations. With our new data that’s being collected from that cohort, we’re going to be able to examine urban-rural differences.

What I do know is that the health issues that hit tribal people on reservations, some reports say they’re actually compounded and worse for people in the cities, for reasons like the lack of access to cultural protective factors and social networks. People are more likely to experience discrimination when they’re in an urban area. And there’s tons of research talking about how that hurts health.

What’s a common misconception about the indigenous community that you hope to dispel?

One of the big stories I’ve helped to push forward is that yes, we have these health inequities, but people on reservations and in urban areas also have really amazing positive stories. Like with positive mental health, when we started measuring it, our communities were off the charts compared to non-native people.

We found this measure created by a sociologist called Corey Keyes [that] assesses emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being across three domains using 14 different indicators. These items assess basically how much you’re flourishing or languishing in those domains. And the outcome was that the percentage of people in our sample who [reported] flourishing was much higher than what we had seen in other studies with non-Native samples.

So you can have these [inequity] issues, but also have vibrant and cultural richness, family centric [communities] with communal, take-care-of-one-another thinking.

And that has implications for all humans: that being embedded in your community is good for you, that being tied culturally to other people is good for you. It’s not just a dismal doom-and-gloom kind of story.

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