Why U.S. Public Transit Ridership Is Finally Growing

For the subways, buses, and light rail lines of America, the last five years have been nothing but bad news. Since 2014, low gas prices, aging infrastructure, and the rise of Uber and Lyft have led to spiraling ridership on public transit systems from coast to coast.

But the latest statistics from the National Transit Database suggests that a turnaround may be afoot—thanks to service improvements in two major cities. Ridership across U.S. public transit agencies rose 2.2 percent compared to the same time period in 2018, the American Public Transportation Association reported last month. This was the second consecutive quarter to mark an increase, and the first consecutive quarter to post an increase since the end of 2014, when ridership hit a 50-year peak. The uptick in ridership between Q3 2019 and Q3 2018 amounted to about 54 million more trips.

This growth was driven almost entirely by an influx of subway, commuter rail, and bus trips in the New York City region, as well as subway trips on Washington, D.C.’s Metro. Both cities, which have the nation’s first- and third-highest shares of transit commuters, have weathered major reliability and maintenance crises in recent years and hemorrhaged riders as a result.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s nadir came in 2016, when the agency shut down all rail service following a cable fire, enraging District commuters. One year earlier, an electrical smoke incident had claimed the life of a rider in L’Enfant Plaza. In summer 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a “state of emergency” for New York City’s subway system, where on-time performance had dropped to just 65 percent on weekdays.

But both have since made substantial improvements, including a year of 24/7 track maintenance in D.C. and nearly $800 million of signal upgrades, drain clearing, and employee overtime payouts in New York. Upticks in ridership are a sign of success, said Yonah Freemark, a consultant and MIT researcher (and occasional CityLab contributor) whose blog, The Transport Politic, tracks transit usage in the U.S. and beyond. “The progress in New York and Washington is undoubtedly a product of those region’s considerable efforts to improve service over the past few years.”

Still, neither system has reached their prior ridership peaks. And their 2019 gains are an outlier: the rest of the country’s transit systems still lost ridership last year. That includes major cities such as L.A., Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Some factors in the ongoing decline are local. In L.A., a recent rehabilitation to the light rail line connecting downtown and Long Beach (now recently rebranded as the “A line”) likely shifted passengers away over the past year. And since it reopened as the A Line—part of L.A. Metro’s new name scheme—“reliability hasn’t been good and ridership hasn’t come close to fully rebounding,” said Ben Fried, the communications director of TransitCenter, a public transportation think tank. In Boston, the derailment of a Red Line train in June 2019 may still be deflecting passengers, while in Chicago, population decline, ongoing construction, and the popularity of ride-hailing services seem to be pushing riders away.

Longer-term ridership trends vary depending on the mode. Rail passenger numbers have grown over the last 30 years, and only began to dip in 2015. But bus ridership has been fading steadily every year since 2012. In 2018, it was just 80 percent of where it was in 1965, when the federal government began tracking transit data. It is now scraping new lows, said Simon Berrebi, a post-doctoral researcher at Georgia Tech studying the causes of transit’s decline. “2019 is on target to be the lowest bus-ridership year in recorded history for the third consecutive year,” he said. “It’s happening despite improvements in employment and population gains, which are all usually major contributors to ridership.”

Many factors explain the dwindling popularity of the bus, according to transit experts, including low gas prices, cheap auto loans, the rise of Uber and Lyft, rising telecommuting, and unreliable, slow service aboard the rubber-tired workhorses of America’s transit fleet. A few cities, including Seattle and Austin, have been able to reverse these trends by creating bus-priority lanes and bumping up frequent service.

Not only does low ridership result in lower farebox revenues for transit agencies, it also creates a vicious cycle. It frequently forces agencies to cut routes and defer maintenance projects, which in turn results in even fewer passengers. Declining transit use means more cars on the road, transit experts say, leading to vehicle congestion, air pollution, and traffic fatalities. Meanwhile, Freemark said, the U.S. continues to invest far more heavily in infrastructure for driving than for buses and trains: Between 2010 and 2019, the U.S. built some 28,500 miles of arterial roads, and just 1,200 miles of transit service.

“It’s definitely a good sign that transit ridership finally appears to be on the upswing,” Freemark said. “[But] most transit systems in the U.S. are still struggling.”

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The National Public Housing Museum Eyes a 2021 Opening

When you’re working to establish a museum with such contested subject matter as the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), it pays to have a few shorthand expressions within easy reach, lest anyone get confused about creating a curatorial platform for an institution many associate with failure.

Crystal Palmer, a former public housing resident and vice chair of the museum’s board, says the museum will tell “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of public housing. Lisa Lee, the museum’s executive director, says (quoting another board member) that it will “tell the stories of our in-laws and our outlaws.”

Lee is attempting to encapsulate this complicated legacy on the Near West Side of Chicago, inside the only remaining building of the Jane Addams Homes, a public housing complex built in the 1930s. It took 10 years of administrative wrangling to get the building from the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and the museum hopes to open in 2021. Since 2010, however, it has been mounting exhibitions at a variety of other venues.

An aerial view of the future museum on Chicago’s Near West Side. (Landon Bone Baker)

It’s unabashedly an “activist museum,” says Lee, and will be full of revisionist histories. The museum’s stance is that housing is a human right—75 years after FDR asserted the right “of every family to a decent home” in his Second Bill of Rights. To make its case, the NPHM will look to everyday resident histories and apply them to today’s housing crisis.

“This methodology believes that in order to preserve history, you have to make it relevant to contemporary social justice struggles, and in order to solve social justice struggles of today, you have to look back in time,” says Lee. “Housing insecurity is one of the most critical issues today, and I don’t think you can solve it without becoming a student of history.”

The museum will tell this intimate and domestic story with intimate, domestic-scaled architecture. “When people close their eyes and imagine public housing, they imagine a scary high-rise,” says Lee. But the building on Taylor Street, commissioned by the Works Progress Administration and designed by Holabird & Root, is positively neighborly at three-and-a-half stories, and scaled to the commercial strip that surrounds it.

It will undergo a light-touch adaptive reuse by one of Chicago’s most talented architects of subsidized housing, the firm Landon Bone Baker Architects. Even before construction, the ceiling heights, corridor widths, and basic proportions of the Jane Addams Homes are reminders that this was where people once lived. “It’s a much more intimate space than a typical museum might be,” says architect Peter Landon, and “amazingly well built.” It had to be strong to survive: It’s been vacant since 2002. Workers have done lead-paint and asbestos abatement on the site. The museum has saved artifacts from the building’s former life, and some original walls will be incorporated in the new design.

Landon’s design begins with a new glass-pavilion entry lobby. In addition to standard gallery space, the 47,000-square-foot museum will contain three model apartments, furnished and decorated to represent different communities that lived in the Addams Homes and in American public housing (including Jewish, Puerto Rican, Polish, and African-American families).

There will be spaces for public programming, performances, and oral history. An entrepreneurship hub will work with nonprofits to develop cooperative models of what Lee calls a “solidarity economy.” There, a focus on the informal economies that thrived in public housing will include ad hoc barbershops and nail salons, but also the drug trade and prostitution. The museum is considering an interdisciplinary center where former and current residents of public housing come together with artists, scholars, designers, planners, and advocates to envision the future of housing.

The rear of the building will have a courtyard featuring several 1930s animal sculptures by Chicago artist Edgar Miller, which will be reinstalled after the restoration. This courtyard recently hosted a 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial installation that focused on oral histories and storytelling, and the museum site has already been the venue for a series of exhibitions. The near-constant stream of activity, for a museum so far without a permanent home, has helped along a capital campaign that has garnered about $6 million toward a $15.7 million goal.

Children playing in the courtyard of the Jane Addams Homes in the 1940s. (Photograph by Peter Sekaer, courtesy of the National Public Housing Museum)

This remnant of the Jane Addams Homes is one of only a handful original CHA properties still intact. Widespread dereliction, violence, and concentrations of extreme poverty plagued many high-rises. Palmer, who lived for decades in the West Side’s Henry Horner Homes, recalls how she couldn’t get basic services like garbage, fire, police, and mail. “It’s like you’re a refugee in the city you were born in,” she says. And yet, “I could stick my hand out from where I lived and touch downtown.”

Early on, the CHA was run by progressive social reformers like Elizabeth Wood, who fought relentlessly to racially integrate developments. But Wood’s successors gave way to policies that created a death spiral of social segregation and infrastructural breakdown. In 1999, the CHA launched the Plan for Transformation, which would tear down 18,500 subsidized homes and build 25,000 new units, many of which would be in mixed-income developments. CHA became a facilitator, guiding investments from affordable housing developers; funding for a given project might come from a dozen different sources, many of them private.

This year, 10 years behind schedule, CHA is set to reach its goal of replacing 25,000 units. But given the level of housing need and the delay, communities were dispersed.

The building today. (Zach Mortice)

The NPHM is both a product of this dispersal and a corrective to it, and the Plan for Transformation will be a curatorial focus at the museum. Deverra Beverly, who lived in the complex that contained the Addams Homes, is credited with originating the idea of the museum in the midst of demolitions. Beverly (who died in 2013) used the Local Advisory Council structure to build up a power base and advocate for the museum. Even amid dysfunction, Chicago public housing residents formed grassroots leadership and governance structures “that all movements can and should be looking to,” says Lee.

That history is one reason why Chicago is an ideal place for the National Public Housing Museum. Lee has another: “There’s nowhere in the country where the aspirations for public housing were as big, and also the failures and dreams deferred were as major.”

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When Cities Don’t Accept Cash For Public Services

I hardly notice the quick succession of beeps anymore as my fellow commuters board the D.C. Metrobus, paying with a tap of their SmarTrip fare cards. But every now and then, I hear the clanking of coins being dropped into the fare-box, or I look up to see someone inserting a wrinkled bill into the slot, only for the box to spit it out.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority says transactions like these slow down their buses, which recently , they’re looking at a $100 million overhaul of their payment system making it possible for transit cards, smartphones, and other forms of contact-less payments to be used instead of cash payments. In New York City, meanwhile, express buses shuttling commuters from the outer boroughs into Manhattan started accepting fare-card payments only this spring, and soon, the Long Island Rail Road will no longer take cash for onboard ticket purchases.

In these cases—in which riders can still technically reload their cards using cash at transit stations or sometimes at retail stores—it’s a question of convenience and ease of access to government services, says ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley. Mass transit, after all, is a battleground for equity, and how passengers pay is very much part of it.

Lotshaw, who co-authored a report on how transit agencies can create inclusive fare policies, sees the appeal of upgrading the nation’s many outdated fare systems. Not only would it make it more convenient for riders, but it would also allow operators to focus staying on schedule, instead of tracking payments. At the same time, she says the decisions need to balance revenue generation with the agency’s various other objectives. “You really have to think about who you are trying to serve, and what your riders need from the service,” she says.

Lotshaw points to NYC’s recent rollout of the OMNY system, which allows subway riders to pay with contact-less cards or their mobile phones. One thing she applauds the transit agency on was their effort to double the number of retailers that sell MetroCards from 2,000 to 4,000. “As [agencies] think about the convenience of going cashless, they also have to think about the investment it takes to deliver that kind of system and be inclusive of all of the communities that use it.”

That said, Lotshaw adds that the solution to better service isn’t always in the technology. Things like adding bus lanes, implementing all-door boarding, lowering—or even eliminating—fares for the poor, can result in dramatic improvements, and therefore, ridership. The perks of these strategies is that they don’t risk singling out low-income riders.

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This Thanksgiving, Give Thanks for Public Transit

Living in a city can sometimes feel like a video game won by the player who finds the perfectly curated experience: culturally diverse (but not so much as to threaten) and devoutly authentic. As we pack up for the dreaded inconvenience of Thanksgiving travel, I am here to tell you that the winning experience is right under your nose: It’s called public transit. Take a moment and be grateful for it.

Let me explain by way of a story.

Last year, during a trip from San Francisco to see Brooklyn-based family, I woke up early one morning to return our rental car and then hop the subway into Manhattan for a meeting. The closest rental car spot was in Canarsie, a Brooklyn neighborhood I had never explored. After I dropped the car off, the rental car representative drove me over to Brownsville, another neighborhood I’d never visited, to catch the inbound 4 train. Still groggy, I climbed the weathered green stairs up to the elevated tracks above Livonia Avenue.

When I pulled my attention away from my phone to scan the platform and see who my fellow commuters were, I was pleasantly reminded that Brownsville is known for its West Indian population and, as I am not West Indian, I was the outlier.

That feeling—of being pulled out of my bubble and plopped into someone else’s very different everyday universe—is something I miss about living in New York. It is actually one of New York’s superpowers, and the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) has a lot to do with that. A robust, heavily-used subway system is the spoon that mixes our urban melting pots. It cuts seamlessly across the boundaries of little ethnic enclaves, scrambling up everyone’s best attempts to stay with their people.

Whether we’re talking about subways, commuter trains, or buses, they all have the ability to shoehorn us right into a complete stranger’s life for a survivable stretch of time—a trade we make in exchange for it taking us from point A to B, or in this case, to family.

But mobility companies have other ideas. As they present us with a glut of new options, they chip away at ridership on municipal transportation systems plagued by deferred maintenance and it becomes easier to overlook public transit’s social utility. All the new transportation tools out there—the scooters, the on-demand rides, the dockless bicycles—they all tout their convenience. And convenience is king, especially if you live in cities. But the problem with maximizing convenience is that—and please forgive me for saying so—other people are enormously inconvenient. To maximize convenience is to essentially minimize human contact.

Other people have terrible taste in music and listen to it too loud, they eat things that you don’t like the smell of, they never move fast enough, and they have the gall to talk too loudly about their lives when you are tired, or have a headache, or just want a brief moment of silence.

If you take an Uber or a Lyft, you will avoid all of those irritants, which I get it is a big part of the appeal. But conversely if you avoid public transportation, you will also vastly reduce the odds of being exposed to new music, unfamiliar food, news from someone else’s perspective, stories about how Uncle Alvin argued with Aunt Julie about homophobia and politics nonstop over Thanksgiving dinner, or—and this is the big one—having it visually and sometimes physically impressed upon you repeatedly that you are not the most important person in the world. Other people are all out there being inconvenienced while traveling to their weird families for Thanksgiving just like you.

Reminding you that you are inconsequential is what cities do. It comes complimentary! By dint of their ecosystem of inconveniences, cities force you to reckon with being an actual member of society. There is even a fair argument to be made that that is exactly what draws us to cities: They beat the hell out of us and we love them for it. Public transit is their best tool for doing so. It puts you in a confined space teeming with people you might never otherwise decide to spend time with.

A world without public transit is one where you are much less likely to be completely outside your comfort zone. Your Thanksgiving travel, and all of your commuting, would be the suburbia of transportation: much more convenient, definitely more expensive, and it will make you lonelier than King Midas. Be grateful for the inconvenience of travel. Convenience is the opposite of community.

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The ‘Namewashing’ of Public Transit

On November 21, the board of Washington, D.C.’s Metro planned to announce the sale of naming rights to one the system’s newest subway stations. Specifically, Metro would rename the Innovation Center station, now being built in the D.C. suburb of Fairfax, Virginia, after an as-yet-unidentified Fortune 500 company. The station, which is set to open in summer 2020, is one of six new stations on Metro’s Silver Line that are in the works.  

But it seems like Metro forgot to consult Fairfax County. Virginia officials were caught off guard and objected to the idea, and last week Metro caved on the scheme to rename the Innovation Center station, which is so named because it’s right next to the Center for Innovative Technology. Local leaders and Metro worked out all the names for the Silver Line extension years ago, through lengthy (and public) debates.

But despite the setback—and despite the fact that all of the D.C. area’s stations already have names, ones that locals and tourists alike have spent many years getting familiar with—the Metro board is moving forward with a policy for selling the naming rights to other stations, and possibly even putting the name for an entire line up for auction.

Selling naming rights to public transit centers has one obvious upside: cash. For a beleaguered agency weighing fare raises and eliminating several bus lines, scrounging some extra revenue from station-name sponsorships might look like a no-brainer. But there could be unforeseen costs. Not only does “namewashing” erase local history and diminish the qualities that define a region, the process can end up contributing to the problems that result in budget deficits in the first place.

“The argument in favor of it is, ‘Look, no one really cares what the stations are called. All that happens is that we get some extra revenue,’” says Timothy Weaver, assistant professor of public policy at the University of Albany-State University of New York. “I’m not so sure it’s actually a win-win.”

There’s a phrase that urban geographers use for this private rebranding of public space: “toponymic commodification.” Weaver describes it as a form of enclosure, referring to a centuries-long process in Europe whereby the landed aristocracy gradually forced peasants off commonly shared lands. He draws on the work of the early 20th century political economist Karl Polyani, who described the enclosure movement as a “revolution of the rich against the poor.” In a recent paper, Weaver outlines how station-naming campaigns in Philadelphia and New York amount to “new enclosures”—ways of injecting the market into novel spheres of society.

Weaver began thinking about this when he was living in Philadelphia, around the time when the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) decided to sell the naming rights to Pattison Station, the southern terminus on the Broad Street Line named after the intersection of Broad and Pattison Avenue. SEPTA sold the name to the station to AT&T for $5.4 million in 2010. Four years later, the naming rights for another SEPTA station, Market East, were bought by Jefferson Health System; now that station is known as Jefferson Station.

The biggest winner in the AT&T deal was advertising. A New York-based agency, Titan Outdoor, took home 37 percent of the entire deal, or nearly $2 million. After eight years, the name changed again: The station is now named after a utility company. New ads for the station popped up in summer 2018 that read, “Hey Philly, we’re taking over. Welcome to NRG Station.”

With every shift in nomenclature comes new costs that must be borne by the city. Changing station names means reprinting or adjusting apps, maps, brochures, and other media. Generic, corporate place names that are essentially placeless (“AT&T”) can be as confusing to visitors and as they are insulting to residents. Critics argue that the city should have charged AT&T (and now NRG) more for permanent advertising at the subway station within walking distance from the city’s professional baseball, basketball, hockey, and football stadiums. (Philadelphia could have done worse: In New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority receives just $200,000 a year for the naming rights to Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center.)

Yet the greater cost for transit agencies and the citizens who support them is the implied suggestion that the public has failed public transit. Weaver draws a comparison with stadiums: In the PWC Stadium Complex in Philadelphia, for example, fans exiting NRG Station can watch the 76ers or the Flyers play at Wells Fargo Center, catch a Phillies game at Citizen’s Bank Park, see a concert at XfinityLive! Philadelphia, or suffer with their fellow Eagles fans at Lincoln Financial Field. One might walk away with the impression that these corporations were responsible for building these structures, which were all financed publicly.

When cities name stadiums after private companies, the act shades the hundreds of millions of dollars that the public pays to build these facilities. Privatization of transit is a different sleight of hand: Renaming stations disguises the operating costs of public transit. It’s harder for officials to argue for higher taxes to fund buses and subways when they’re signaling to the public that private sponsors are picking up the tab. Namewashing is a hedge on the shared responsibility of public transit, a compromise that corrodes a system’s commitment to equitable service. In the paper, Weaver describes this enclosure of the public realm as a neoliberal tactic that requires a “severing of the link between the citizens and their public transportation system.”

“Rather than providing services in a decommodified realm, which is to protect people from the vagaries of markets, by providing affordable and reliable transit, forcing cities to become entrepreneurial means that the separation from public and private has been eroded,” Weaver says. “That sweeps into all sorts of areas hitherto walled off from the invasion of market forces.”

As I was writing this story, I received a phone call from a poll, conducted on behalf of Metro, about this very subject. (D.C. is a small enough city that freaky coincidences like this happen.) The pollster asked me how frequently I use rail and bus services and tested my knowledge of the planned Silver Line station names. (I aced this test.) The survey also asked my feelings about Metro putting station naming rights for sale, providing as examples the Capital One-Gallery Place-Chinatown Station (currently Gallery Place-Chinatown) and the Marriott International Station (unclear, maybe Mount Vernon Square?). The pollster wanted to know how I felt about a Target train “take-over” or a Lockheed Martin Yellow Line. (At least that sounds fast?)

If the poll is any indication, what Metro is contemplating would go further than either SEPTA in Philadelphia or MTA in New York. (Although Philadelphia set a high bar when they named a public high school after Microsoft.) With the proposal for Innovation Center in Fairfax County, Metro signaled its willingness to do more than tack on a corporate prefix to an existing station name. While scrubbing Metro station names or lines might not draw outraged mobs—who really loves Metro Center?—a corporate moniker can only emblanden a city.

The prospect of putting station names up for auction raises another concern: How will transit agencies decide which stations have economic value? In the case of the Innovation Center station, an unnamed multinational company that is building offices nearby approached Metro. This is unlikely to be the only offer that Metro fields: Amazon is determined to rename an entire suburb, after all. Namewashing stations or lines in affluent areas might make the geographic disparities in the District—already brightly demarcated by the Anacostia River—even more glaring.

“The rebadging of places consistent with corporate identification helps to reinforce the areas of the city that are or are not valuable and are or are not worthy,” Weaver says. “To the extent that we’re going to measure worthiness according to market logic, this really reinforces the idea that there’s something right with these places and something wrong with those places.”

Back in 2015, activists in Philadelphia pushed SEPTA to rethink a campaign at the Cecil B. Moore Station on the Broad Street Line that papered over signage bearing the name of the civil rights-era icon with advertisements for Temple University. “People with money [feel] entitled that they can do anything,” Karen Asper Jordan, head of the Cecil B. Moore Freedom Fighters, told Philly Mag.

In Fairfax County, the answer might ultimately be that the name is not Metro’s to sell. “I don’t think [Metro] paid anything for the Silver Line,” Fairfax County Supervisor John W. Foust told The Washington Post. “We paid for that. The landowners out there, who will be impacted by this decision, paid for it with their tax district.”

Metro’s board has yet to surface any name swaps for stations inside the District. When that happens, it will be more tinder for a raging debate over the city’s soul. CityLab’s Brentin Mock has already explained how the war between gentrification and go-go is a spiritual test of Chocolate City’s “undercommons.” Corporations are coming for the public commons as well. The stakes are high: Weaver quotes Bonnie Honig, a theorist at Brown University, as saying that “democracy is rooted in common love for, antipathy to, and contestation of public things.”

”What do we do to the public realm when we start making it feel less public?” Weaver says. “It potentially undermines the sense that it is collectively owned and therefore has to be collectively paid for. The sense of publicness is really quite important.”

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CityLab Daily: Why Public Transit Is an Equity Battleground

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***

What We’re Following

Standard fare: In New York City, a spate of attention has come recently to policing America’s largest transit system. As part of a new campaign to combat fare evasion, the MTA hired new cops to police the subway. When videos of aggressive arrests surfaced, protesters demonstrated against the police presence by jumping turnstiles en masse.

Transit systems across the world—from Santiago to London to Hong Kong—have become theaters for protest over the inequity of communities. In part, according to Alexis Perrotta, a lecturer at Baruch College, that’s because buses and subways serve as a special kind of egalitarian public space where “you are in community automatically with the people around you.” Drawing from her research interviewing riders, Perrotta explains the thought process of riders who choose to evade fares:

It’s a rational decision, and a frightening and terrible decision that you have to make because you are poor. What do you do? You still have to continue living. Being able to move around the city is just being able to continue living.

Read an interview with Perrotta on CityLab: Why Public Transit Is an Equity Battleground

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

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Richard Florida

My Fight With a Sidewalk Robot

A life-threatening encounter with AI technology convinced me that the needs of people with disabilities need to be engineered into our autonomous future.

Emily Ackerman

The Three Personalities of America, Mapped

People in different regions of the U.S. have measurably different psychological profiles.

Olga Khazan

Native American Tribe Gets Its Land Back, 159 Years After Brutal Massacre

The Wiyot Tribe was driven from California’s Duluwat Island in 1860. After decades of lobbying by the tribe, the Eureka City Council returned it.

Sarah Holder


Mile-High Perspective

Perspective map of the city of Denver, Colo. 1889, by Henry Wellge. (Library of Congress)

There’s more to fast-changing Denver than beer, hiking, and skiing. Still, it can be daunting for a new resident to penetrate that shallow surface. “There is no newcomers’ guide for urbanist ennui,” writes Andrew Kenney, who decamped to the Colorado capital when his partner found a good job opening. But this old map above—”Perspective map of the city of Denver, Colo. 1889”—gave Kenney a clue about where to look:

The map captured a sweeping bird’s eye view of the early city. It was distorted and perhaps embellished to impress unsuspecting would-be transplants, not unlike the modern city. But as I pored over its rendition of the South Platte River, I realized I could sync its details to real life, block by block.

From CityLab’s Maps that Make Us series: What an Old Map of Denver Can Teach a Newcomer


What We’re Reading

The quiet rooms: In schools across Illinois, kids are being locked away alone and terrified. Often, it’s against the law. (ProPublica)

As climate risk grows, cities test a tough strategy: saying “no” to developers (New York Times)

Why Walmart is turning its headquarters into a walkable town square (Curbed)

What it takes to be carbon neutral—for a family, a city, a country (Washington Post)


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

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Is There a Better Way to Police Public Transit?

In a video posted on Twitter by New York City subway rider earlier this month, a tearful woman is seen surrounded by four NYPD officers.

“What’s she doing?” Sofia Newman, the rider, asks.

The woman was selling churros—she’s one of several vendors with carts who sell the fried pastries to riders in the city’s subway stations. “It’s illegal to sell food inside the subway station,” the officer replies. “We warned her multiple times, and she doesn’t want to give it up. That’s it.”

“Can’t she just go outside, and keep her stuff?” Newman asks. No, the officers say. Eventually, the officers handcuff the vendor and take her cart away.

The churro vendor’s arrest, followed by the arrest of another vendor, Maria Curillo, in the following days, was retweeted by the advocacy organization Decolonize This Place and quickly went viral, leading to demonstrations at Broadway Junction, one of Brooklyn’s busiest subway stations, last week. That capped off what has been a spate of attention given to policing America’s largest transit system. The MTA has launched a new campaign to combat fare evasion, which the agency claims cost them $300 million this year in lost bus and subway fares. That has been coupled with the hiring of 500 transit officers underground—which could cost the system more than it saves in recovered fares. With the new cops came viral videos of “hyper-aggressive” tactics they used. In late October, thousands of riders jumped the turnstiles en masse in a protest against the stepped-up police presence underground.

But New York City is not the only city whose transit systems have become theaters for protest. In Chile, more than a million people took to the streets of Santiago in October after a fare hike sparked larger discontent with the ruling party, with many demonstrators attacking the subway stations themselves. Hong Kong protesters and authorities alike have focused their attentions on the city’s vaunted Mass Transit Railway system. And in London, the climate-crisis protest group Extinction Rebellion made a controversial effort to disrupt subway service last month. Talk of cracking down on fare beaters is on the rise here as well.

Why does public transit so often play a starring role in protests? And how do questions about who gets to access it collide with gentrification, police violence, and racial disparities? To find out, I reached out to Alexis Perrotta, a lecturer at the City University of New York at Baruch College who studies the intersection of public transportation and equity in cities around the world. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

We know that transit is linked to traditional means of equity, when we think of access to jobs, leisure, and social inclusion. What else did you find in your research that specifically links transit to equity?

The experience of using transit—where we all feel like we’re in it together—is quite different from the experience of driving in a car independently. There’s an egalitarian aspect to being on a subway car, or on a bus; you are in community automatically with the people around you in a way that is unlike any other way. It’s a public space, but it’s a special kind of public space that everyone has opted into. In the sense that a community is a team, it’s an immediate team that has been built up.

This community aspect is often overlooked when we think about transit, so it doesn’t surprise me that we see uprisings around transit issues in places where there are deeper problems around equity and poverty. Transit is the place where we can actually come together. To threaten transit with a higher fare or service cuts will immediately spark a kind of community-driven anger.

In Chile, we saw subway fare hikes serve as a trigger for protests. In New York, viral videos of aggressive enforcement have led to demonstrations, most recently after the arrest of a churro vendor. But what conditions lead to this? What do you think is often the straw that breaks the camel’s back here?

Any incursion into the space of transit is going to feel like an affront to people for whom that it is an important space. [The subway] is an important space for everyone who uses it, but I think in a way it’s an even more important for very low-income people or people who are outside of conventional communities. Cops entering into that space presents a feeling of exclusion. Raising the fare presents a feeling of exclusion.

There’s a lot of other issues in Chile that are obviously much more salient than just the subway fare. But I’m not surprised that it was the fare that was that straw; it was immediately galvanizing, because that’s a place where we actually come together.

A part of the fare evasion issue in New York may be a sense that the social contract has been broken—the subway is no longer reliable, and therefore riders may feel less inclined to pay for it. But do you need that context for protest?

No. When I talk to people about fare beating, I find that there is the occasional person who feels justified in fare beating because the level of service is so low. But for the most part, that’s an anomalous reason. It’s generally people who are in dire straits, who are in a rush and can’t get the money together. And it’s also broken equipment, frankly.

Putting cops in that space highlights a problem not with transit and level of service, but rather the police themselves, and police-community relations. We have a major problem with police in New York City; it’s an institution that has a very poor reputation, and people are afraid of the police. We also have a policy, equity, and poverty problem. People often find themselves without enough money to even get the $2.75 together to ride the subway, but still need to go where they need to go, so they’re beating the fare. That is a problem that is not appropriately solved with weapons of any kind. That’s precisely why the police’s reputation has declined over time: outsized uses of force. It’s happening in the transit system, but I think it’s a problem with police-community relations.

That, of course, marks a lot of the sentiment towards a potential presidential run by Michael Bloomberg, New York’s former mayor, and recent statements by Governor Cuomo regarding a supposed lack of safety underground.

I think the impetus for this policy may have come from a fear of our system returning to what it had been in the 1970s and ’80s. When we see unsheltered people down in the subway system, there’s an immediate visual trigger that might happen to people of a certain age. They might say, ’Oh, this is the type of system that we had in the past. We need to prevent this from happening again.’

But it’s 2019, and we’re not going back in time. There’s no reason why we can’t have an improving subway system, with cleaner stations, better-working fare machines, shorter headways, and a city that’s still growing. Sometimes there will be unsheltered people sleeping in stations, and they need mental health help and homelessness assistance. Just because they’re there doesn’t mean that suddenly there’s going to be, like, Guardian Angels and graffiti. It’s not like 1975 is going to happen again.

I’m concerned that urban policy in New York City, and urban areas everywhere, is produced because of a fear of a declining inner-city, when that has not been the reality for at least 20 years. People are poor now for different reasons, and in different ways.

In your research, you interviewed a wide spectrum of riders about how they pay for transit. What is the perception you found that is held by low-income individuals towards accessing transit, and who can be a transit rider?

[For those who sometimes evade paying the fare,] it’s ‘I need to go, I’m going to get there, but I don’t have the cash. I know what the risk is, and I can take the risk.’ It’s a woman who gets on the back of a bus with her kids so she can get them to school on time, who didn’t have the fare that day. It’s someone whose family member took their MetroCard, and they still have to get to work or else they’re going to lose their job. They’re looking at that moment in their lives, and they’re assessing the risk versus the benefit. It’s a rational decision, and a frightening and terrible decision that you have to make because you are poor. What do you do? You still have to continue living. Being able to move around the city is just being able to continue living.

And for people who live on the outskirts of a city, for example, and who have to travel considerably in order to get to work, it’s not an option to just go ahead and walk. Although I also spoke with people who do that: people who will spend their last couple of dollars or fare-beat to get where they need to go during the day, knowing that they’ll just be walking for hours and hours that night so they don’t fare beat again, and don’t have the money.

So what should the role of enforcement be in transit systems?

Those same people I spoke with said that every person should have to pay the same, and nobody should be in there without paying. People get angry, for example, when they see a bus driver go ahead and let someone on the bus, even though they didn’t pay, after they just went ahead and spent the fare. They like the procedural fairness of everyone having to pay to enter.

But there are ways to enforce fare differently, without bringing in an institution like the police. Those 500 officers, for example, can be trained in community relations and procedural fairness, and then practice that underground. They can stop every 20 people on Select Bus Service [express buses], and explain that they’re the twentieth person and that’s why they’re stopped, to check their tickets. That’s a nice way to get training of procedural justice into the police system, which is not something that I know they do right now. Instead, when an officer approaches you, you feel targeted, and put down by the situation, as opposed to, ‘Hello, sir or ma’am, I’m sorry to bother you, but you’re the tenth person that has come on the bus, and that’s why I’m checking for your SBS ticket. OK, you don’t have it—let me get your information, in case you do have it later.’ There are no guns, no threats, and no getting kicked off or anything like that.

It’s also worth thinking about the rest of our transportation system. The 14th Street Busway, for example, is working so well because there are human beings standing in the middle of 14th Street telling cars that they can’t turn down there. That’s one thing that those officers can certainly be trained to do easily. There are plenty of other places to put uniformed officers. The subway stations need to be safe places, and that may sometimes involve removing unsheltered people who are using the space inappropriately, but none of this has to involve guns. You can definitely police these spaces; they’re not public in the sense of a park, with a gate and curfew. They’re quasi-public: There’s a fare, not everyone can go in, and there’s a reason to be there. Enforcing that is appropriate. But there’s a way to do it that is actually for the public safety, as opposed to terrifying the public.

In Hong Kong, we see an inverse scenario—highly reliable service, but protests focus on larger structural issues with the Chinese government and society. Same can be said about the Extinction Rebellion protests on the London Tube, to a certain extent. How does that fit into the equity conversation?

It’s not surprising. Again, it’s the public square in many ways. It’s where people gather because they all have to, and not because of any particular agenda. You don’t always go to Trafalgar Square or into the middle of the Sogo Mall [in Hong Kong] or whatever city you’re in; you go to the transit system because that’s where public attention is. For groups who are trying to gain attention to make a point, it makes sense.

Of course, destroying those places disrespects those places as public spaces. But if those spaces have been managed in the way that New York’s are starting to be, then those otherwise public spaces are managed in such a way where people think they’ve been taken from them. That they’re no longer really public—they’re just instruments of a police state, or some kind of oppression. And people will absolutely fight back against that.

I’m not surprised that they’re starting to do that. That’s pretty much the case with Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, those stations are funded by real estate development, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the protesters there are quite aware of that. They’re state-owned, and sort of global capitalist statements.

What implications do these protests hold for the future of mass transit, and cities?

Gentrification is sometimes defined as the production of urban space for increasingly affluent users. By making a transit system more amenable to people who don’t want to see the homeless, or people who don’t fit in what their idea of what the public ought to be, by removing those people and putting in cops who make some people feel comfortable and not others, you are taking a space that was once egalitarian and public and making it for more affluent users. It’s the gentrification of a subway system.

We’ve seen it happen in other public spaces, like parks and sidewalks in some neighborhoods. I think this is the next step of gentrification, in transit systems—to create those spaces for people who have more affluent sensibilities. And I think it’s inappropriate.

But I think they say something more about cities. The voices of people in the face of oppression can be difficult to hear when we’re too far apart from each other. Where’s the place that we all have to go in cities? We all have to go underground at some point, or on public transit. We all kind of work around each other, and that becomes unique to our own city, and our own bit of a subway line, sometimes. That’s special. And that’s us doing it. We’re creating it ourselves.

The prospect of that being taken away, or overpoliced, or the fare going up, can really arouse deep-seated anti-oppression sentiments that are there for other reasons. It’s like, ‘Oh, you’re going after my family. You’re going after my community; a place where I am me, where I have the support of everyone around me.’ It can really feel that way. And anything that gets in the way of that, basically gets in the way of what a city does well.

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CityLab Daily: Inside the Green New Deal for Public Housing

What We’re Following

Here’s the deal: On Thursday, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would dedicate billions of dollars to energy retrofits for America’s public housing. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over 10 years to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

That might sound like a lot of green, but it’s actually a two-in-one deal: The bill would address the federal government’s dilapidated buildings that already have very costly deferred maintenance backlogs, while also reducing those buildings’ energy consumption. Another easy-to-overlook feature: It would repeal a law that currently caps the number of public housing units at the level it was at in 1999. CityLab’s Kriston Capps has the story: Inside the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act

Andrew Small


More on CityLab

What’s Behind the Wave of Urban Protests?

The slums of the world’s growing cities have become staging grounds for demonstrations against corruption, inequality, and municipal dysfunction.

Henry F. (Chip) Carey

How the Disappearing Towns of Japan Struggle to Survive

Facing declining birthrates and rural depopulation, hundreds of “marginal villages” could vanish in a few decades. But some small towns are fighting back.

Allan Richarz

19th-Century London’s Extreme Wealth and Poverty, Mapped

A new edition of Charles Booth’s famous 19th-century maps offers a chance to reflect on how London has changed—and how it hasn’t.

Feargus O’Sullivan

Want Immigration Reform? Look to Cities

While fear, anger, and misinformation dominate the federal-level debate, local leaders are making policies that work.  

Juliana Kerr


Everywhere a Sign

Toru Hanai/Reuters

Whether you like it or not, advertising signage has always been part of urban life. Fly-by shots of cities may present the “blank facades of skyscrapers,” but at the street level, “cities are a riot of lettering and symbols,” Darran Anderson writes. These images and symbols—the hanging signs of London, the neon lights of Las Vegas and Hong Kong, and even ads projected on the side of the Eiffel Tower—have aroused both curiosity and irritation. Even if we try to shut it out, advertising can become part of a city’s identity, as brands fade into our urban past. On CityLab: The Irresistible Visual Power of Urban Advertising


What We’re Reading

New Jersey fined Uber $649 million for saying drivers aren’t employees (New York Times)

Will Kansas City become the first major U.S. city with free bus service? (Kansas City Star)

Cities and states take up the battle for the open internet (Next City)

Venice got hit by a massive flood, again (Reuters)

Why street vendors make cities feel safer (Curbed)


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

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Bernie Sanders and AOC Unveil a Green New Deal for Public Housing

Socialist Democrats are pushing the progressive envelope with a new iteration of Green New Deal legislation this week, this time with a focus on public housing.

On Thursday, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced a new bill that would dedicate billions of dollars to energy retrofits for America’s dilapidated public housing stock. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act would commit up to $180 billion over 10 years to upgrading 1.2 million federally owned homes.

At a press conference outside the Capitol on Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez said a bill focused on public housing reflects the larger aim of the Green New Deal to prioritize “frontline communities”—those that are most likely to be harmed by the climate crisis. “In the Bronx alone, 2,400 public housing residents may be going without heat tonight. That is inhumane,” she said. “That is environmental injustice.”

At the same event, Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coaltion, said: “We must build the political will to combat both the affordable housing and climate crises.”

The bill is an effort to bag two birds with one stone. America’s public housing portfolio is in a shambles, with deferred maintenance costs nationwide running into the billions. The bill introduced by AOC and Sanders would bring that backlog up to date while also reducing the energy consumption from this aging housing stock.

Overall, buildings are responsible for about 39 percent of global carbon emissions, and about one-third of emissions in the U.S. That puts energy retrofits front and center in debates about how to arrest climate change.

“For an estimate between $119 and $172 billion, you could decarbonize the country’s entire public housing stock,” said Billy Fleming, the Wilks Family Director of the Ian L. McHarg Center for Urbanism and Ecology at the University of Pennsylvania. “If you think about that from just a pure carbon perspective, that’s the equivalent of taking 1.2 million cars off the road.”

The energy retrofits imagined by the bill run the gamut, including new cladding, efficient window glazing, and electric appliances. Building-systems modeling tools would be used to determine the best approach to upgrades in different regions. All the technology envisioned by the bill is already within reach, according to Fleming. Energy retrofits could reduce the costs of public-housing water bills by $97 million per year (about 30 percent), according to estimates by the progressive think tank Data for Progress, and bring down energy costs by $613 million (70 percent).

Fleming, an alum of President Barack Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, is also a senior fellow with Data for Progress, which has led the national conversation on policy associated with the rising socialist left and the Green New Deal. He said that Ocasio-Cortez’s office approached the think tank to discuss how deep energy retrofits could be a way of improving the lives of public housing residents while also accomplishing Green New Deal goals.

“It was a surprise to us how quickly and how cheaply this could be done,” said Fleming, who worked on the proposal with Julian Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal strategy for Data for Progress, and Daniel Aldana Cohen, director of Penn’s Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative and, like Fleming, a Data for Progress senior fellow. “We began by saying, what are the things we have to do just to get public housing up to the standard that we promised residents?”

Overall costs for the program speak primarily to the dire straits of public housing in America. Estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for necessary repairs for public housing nationwide through 2030 total $90 billion, work that includes abatement of lead, mold, and other toxins. Given the intrusive nature of this work, a more dramatic overhaul would not necessarily mean a much bigger lift.

“If we have to do all of this work anyway, what would it cost to take this a step further and do deep energy retrofits that get the nation’s entire public housing stock at or near a net-zero standard?” Fleming said.

The bill, which is cosponsored by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, would create some 250,000 jobs—including high-paying jobs and union jobs, as the proposal’s backers are quick to point out. Some of these would benefit public housing residents themselves. A bill that would actually put severely delayed federal upgrades into motion would not only spur new opportunities, it would promote economies of scale to boost industries in weatherization and energy retrofits, its backers say.

“Policies such as this which protect the needs of workers, taxpayers and community should be implemented wherever public funds are spent,” said Mike Prohaska, business manager for New York’s Construction & General Building Laborers Local 79, in a statement.

The bill would have a seismic impact in New York City, where the nation’s largest public housing agency faces deferred maintenance costs of nearly $32 billion. Federal prosecutors accused the New York City Housing Authority of “systematic misconduct, indifference and outright lies” following an investigation into elevated blood lead levels among public housing residents. A local solution to the city’s public housing crisis looks impossible. In fact, earlier this year, HUD Secretary Ben Carson named a federal monitor to oversee the the New York City Housing Authority.

“As [New York City] makes plans for a changing climate, public housing residents are often last on the list, despite being some of the most vulnerable,” said Wanda Salamán, executive director of Mothers on the Move/Madres en Movimiento, a South Bronx community organization, in a statement. “The Green New Deal for Public Housing includes opportunities for residents to finally gain access to promised jobs, while improving their quality of life and planning for climate resilience.”

Yet the benefits of a GND for public housing would not accrue to New York and other coastal cities alone. The analysis from Data for Progress finds that such a bill would create more on-site construction jobs in states that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 than in blue states.

The original Green New Deal framework called for upgrading all buildings in the U.S. as a way to transform the nation’s economy. Republicans pounced on that proposal as impossibly optimistic, citing figures from conservative think tanks that pegged the costs for building upgrades at $1.6 to 4.2 trillion.

So the new approach from AOC’s office is more piecemeal. The Green New Deal for Public Housing Act fits within an existing policy sphere targeting the built environment to bring down the country’s carbon pollution. A new, Green New Deal–inspired law in New York aims to cut the city’s carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement. (Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris protocols earlier this month.) Numerous U.S. cities now require the owners of large buildings to measure and disclose their energy use.

The AOC–Sanders bill also promotes public housing as a goal in itself. A provision of the bill would repeal the Faircloth Amendment, a federal rule that caps the construction of new public housing units. Data for Progress has outlined a vision for a progressive housing agenda that leans heavily on public housing and other goals that current federal law (and federal funding levels) make difficult or impossible. People’s Action, a grassroots group, introduced a policy platform called the Homes Guarantee that outlines many of the same goals.

Housing has emerged as a high-profile issue in the Democratic primary, with numerous candidates touting a range of plans and reforms. In the fall, Ocasio-Cortez produced her own suite of protections for tenants, immigrants, children, and others, most notably a proposal for a national rent control policy. The left has found a policy arena in which they have common ground with establishment Democrats—at least in terms of big-sky proposals.

“The folks at People’s Action and in the housing and tenants’ rights movement really built the momentum for Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Sanders to feel like they had the cover and the urgency necessary to put this bill up,” Fleming said.

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How Lebanon’s Protesters Have Reclaimed Public Space

BEIRUT—A protester carefully places a plastic water bottle in the correct recycling bin under a tent run by volunteers, before scurrying back to a crowd calling for the fall of the Lebanese government.

Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut is packed with demonstrators, a microcosm of what appears to be Lebanon’s largest independent popular uprising in recent memory.

A wave of protests and riots sparked off across the country on the evening of October 17, following a series of austerity measures, severe wildfires, and talk of new regressive taxes—including fees on phone calls made through WhatsApp—as the government tries to resolve Lebanon’s dire economic situation. Protesters are demanding that the government step down and that early parliamentary elections be held.

Many also want a pathway to end the country’s semi-democratic sectarian power-sharing system, in which representation is allocated proportionally to a multitude of religious sects. They want a secular state and an end to corruption.

Demonstrators put up tents in public squares in dozens of cities. In Beirut’s Martyrs’ and Riad Solh squares, people improvised a democratic, cooperative tent city that breathed new life into a district previously reserved for the ultra-rich.

In this makeshift city, the “Green Tent” group placed recycling bins all over, and its volunteers in green vests clean the streets at 8 a.m. Waste is sent to recycling groups that reintegrate it into the economy; for example, bottle caps are taken to a local NGO that makes wheelchairs out of them and donates these to people in need.

“Our gardens were burned in the Mechref and Chouf wildfires [two weeks ago], where we grew up,” Karma, one of the founding members of the Green Tent, told CityLab. “So, we decided our contribution to the protests will be through environmental and social work.”

Tents for first aid and legal aid were set up just around the corner from a community kitchen. Walls became a colorful cacophony of street art and protest slogans.

The protest encampment in Martyrs’ Square. (Kareem Chehayeb)

At 6:30 p.m., crowds of people gather and have open discussions about politics, the future, and what the protest movement ought to do. Everyone is eager to have a turn with the microphone.

“[It] became sort of like a fantasy microcosm of what people want Lebanon to be,” Tarek Zeidan, executive director of LGBTQ+ rights group Helem, told CityLab, adding that his organization’s unbranded tent was intended to be a safe and inclusive organizing space. “This isn’t an information booth; the socioeconomic grievances are queer people’s grievances, too.”

The creation of the tent city was “extremely organic,” Zeidan added. “A few people volunteered to help with logistics, and people donated their time and their cars for transport and helped purchase tents at cheap prices.”

“It became a space in a decentralized format that never existed in Beirut, certainly not in the heart of the city.”

Protesters taking part in a public forum. (Kareem Chehayeb)

Prior to the tent city’s emergence, a handful of tourists would often be seen taking pictures of the nearby Mohammad al-Amin Mosque standing side by side with the Saint George Maronite Cathedral. But apart from this Instagram cliché, the capital’s downtown district was a glamorous ghost town.

Empty luxury apartment and office buildings overlooked streets populated mainly by pigeons and soldiers guarding the area around Nejmeh Square, where the parliament building is, and the prime minister’s office at the Grand Serail.

With the exception of a few luxury stores, the district is virtually empty of businesses.

Prior to the country’s 15-year-long civil war beginning in 1975, it was a bustling downtown, only to be privatized and revamped in the 1990s, following extensive demolition. Property owners, both commercial and residential, lost their homes to Solidere, a construction company led by then-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. They were given shares of the company or were allowed to keep their property if they could maintain it to the high standards of the project. Only a few were able to do so.

“Downtown Beirut was turned by the oligarchy into a major real estate project … [and it] emptied the city center of the popular classes,” economist Jad Chaaban told CityLab, adding that the area turned into a “gated community” for the wealthy.

“The tents set up during the revolution attacked this model, and helped bring back regular people to the heart of the city. They helped regain privatized public spaces.”

A young Beiruti protester in his early 20s said that he was elated about this pushback. “My [maternal] grandfather had a simple shop,” he said, asking to remain anonymous. “Solidere gave my mom and her siblings shares that today are not worth more than $1,000, even though the property today is worth millions.”

Growing up, the downtown district was always an “alien space” for him, he said. Now, it’s a public space in a capital city where areas for the general public to congregate are scarcer than ever. “These are protests against the powers of capital and of privatization that have excluded us everyday citizens,” he said.

However, the tent city was not without angry neighbors, hoping to contain or even destroy it.

Lebanon’s main security institutions ramped up their presence on protest squares to “protect citizens and protestors, and to open roads.” Security forces fanned out across the squares, rather than at their peripheries. Unlicensed food vendors that flocked to the area were told to leave, and steel fences were added at different spots where protesters congregated.

But the state wasn’t the tent city’s only adversary.

Police put out a fire set by men who attacked protesters’ tents on October 29. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

On October 29, political partisans carrying sticks attacked protesters and swarmed into the tent city. The riot police watched, interfering minimally, as the partisans set tents on fire, looted the community kitchen and electronics, and attacked protesters who confronted them. Not even the designated children’s section with donated books was spared. It took them two hours to demolish everything.

But some protesters quickly regrouped to rebuild what they could. Zeidan was among them.

“They destroy, but we build,” he said as he rushed back toward the square.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned shortly after the incident, but protesters only briefly celebrated, focusing more on the reconstruction effort.

Chairs, tents, and other objects destroyed beyond repair were piled up and topped with a Lebanese flag. People gathered around the makeshift monument under the night sky and took pictures.

Then they got back to sweeping streets and rebuilding their tent city.

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