‘East Lake Meadows’ Isn’t Just a Public Housing Tragedy

Beverly Parks grew up in a house in Atlanta in the 1960s, where she and her siblings took turns sleeping in one bed. Huddling in the living room during the winter, she’d take a breath and see the frost hang in the air. But in 1970, her family moved into the East Lake Meadows public housing development, and things changed. For $45 a month, her mother could afford a three-bedroom apartment.

“When you come from an environment of no food, no heat, cold, to a housing project, that was just like heaven to us,” she said.

The images of East Lake Meadows that linger in history books don’t look like heaven: Nicknamed “Little Vietnam” within a year of its opening in 1970, it was one of the many American public housing projects cast as dysfunctional when crime, drugs, and government disinvestment — both intentional and negligent — tore through the property in the 1970s and ‘80s. Today, the neighborhood is unrecognizable: In 2000, the development was demolished and rebuilt as a mixed-income project. The original residents were promised they could return, but most were displaced.

In the new PBS documentary East Lake Meadows, directed by Sarah Burns and David McMahon and produced by famed documentarian Ken Burns, those former residents help trace the trajectory of East Lake Meadows with candor, revealing what made it such a special, and eventually, after years of negligence, such a horrible place to live.

Like the 2011 documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, which centered on a St. Louis public housing project made famous in videos of its decline and subsequent implosion, East Lake Meadows uses the history of one development to explain the calcification of segregation in America and the damage that’s done when divisions are drawn between a “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Along with former residents, the film features a who’s who of contemporary voices on American inequality, such as New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah Jones and historian/New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb. The feature film, which premiered on PBS this week and is available to stream online, also serves as a powerful call to action: The reason some public housing failed was not because it has to fail, but because there was a lack of will to make it succeed.

“We could do this better. We could provide decent housing to the people who need it most,” said Burns, who also co-directed the 2012 documentary The Central Park 5. “Ultimately that’s the message of the film: We could be doing this, we just have to decide we want to.”

CityLab spoke to Burns and McMahon by phone — their tour to promote the film was cancelled because of Covid-19 concerns, so the couple and their son were staying in with family in South Carolina.

The documentary used one distinct public housing development to tell such a sweeping story. Why did you choose to highlight East Lake Meadows?

Sarah Burns: We originally learned about East Lake because we’d been told about the new community there — the narrative that is out there about all the successes of the new community, and how much things have changed. But we immediately recognized that that was a really incomplete version of the story, and that in order to think about this place that’s there now, it was much more important to consider the place that was there before.

David McMahon: It felt like in this case that people who had a vested interest in the success of the place had been the ones who put the story out there. And it is an extraordinary success story in certain ways; as Ed Goetz says in the film, you could hardly believe you could remake a community to the extent that they did. But it was just a little digging and we discovered that it wasn’t [a success story] for the people who had been living there when it was East Lake Meadows.

Why Atlanta?

Burns: While Chicago has been the focus of much of the academic research and writing about public housing — certainly a theme is places like Cabrini Green — because of Atlanta’s history of being the first city that started building these federally funded housing projects in the ‘30s, and then being so aggressive beginning in the ‘90s with tearing it all down, it was actually a great place for telling these stories.

We felt like in some ways we could have chosen any housing project and that we would have had stories from residents that we would have been able to explore many of these same issues. When we were sharing the film with public housing residents in other cities, people have found that they recognize something in these stories — that they can relate to those experiences and feel in some way that it’s their story too.

How did you find so many former residents of East Lake Meadows?

McMahon: The tricky thing was that a lot of people did not come back: It was 20 years since the original housing had been bulldozed.

When they were in the 4th, 5th and 6th grade, in the late ’90s, they’d begun doing video diaries of the experience of watching their housing come down around them — their teacher had given them cameras and told them how to use them. The teacher eventually made the video diaries into a feature-length documentary which premiered at a local library.

We tracked the students down using a private investigator. It took months. Some of them gave us on-camera interviews, but they were there at the very end — they had 9- or 10-year-old’s perspectives. They weren’t going to be enough.

So we started, at the suggestion of our colleagues, a Facebook page. After a couple of days, something like 1,500 people had come to the page, all eager to share their memories: Many of them remained connected. In some cases [they left] in the late ’70s — after saving enough to buy a house; in other cases it was under, eviction or leaving with the sense that the housing was coming down and there was nothing left for them, in other cases it was a Section 8 voucher. We were trying to show there were a lot of outcomes over the years.

Burns: So many of the people we talked to said, “Are you going to talk about the good stuff, too?” Even the idea of that was really important to people. They recognized that the way their community had been portrayed, to the extent that it had been, was always with this focus on the “Little Vietnam” aspect of it — the crime, violence, the drugs, the problems. It was really important to so many of the people we talked to that that not be the only thing that was covered, because that had been very much their experience so far.

And people were not shy about telling us about that stuff too: They weren’t saying that that wasn’t the case. That there was crime and violence and it could be scary, especially for people who were parents there, the ways you try to protect your children. But that also there were also happy memories, and ways that people came together.

McMahon: Everyone talked in one form or another about how they were able to keep life moving there in the absence of services that other communities are provided or the businesses that we take for granted that grow around all of the communities that are not abandoned.

One of the most compelling figures was Eva Davis, a resident of East Lake Meadows and a fearless tenant leader who’s described by her granddaughter, Evette El-Amin, as a “fiesty young old lady.” She’s the one who, by the end, convinces many tenants that demolishing and rebuilding East Lake Meadows is the only realistic way forward. How did you find her story? Were there other examples across the country of these strong matriarchs who led movements in public housing?

McMahon: Eva Davis had died a year or two before we began production, and we found her family and her passing was very raw for everybody. It was not only the family. Everyone had something to say about Ms. Davis. She had impacted everybody’s life there. And certainly across Atlanta and I think well beyond, projects have tenants’ association leaders, they’re often women and they often have political clout. They often are dealing with problems as diverse as how do we get people to stop buying drugs on our corner to how do we get a toilet fixed in the third building in 3C. All day long she was advocating for these people.

Eva Davis at East Lake Meadows in September 1986. (Louie Favorite/ Atlanta Journal-Constitution/PBS)

[Before moving to East Lake Meadows, Davis] comes up from a rural area south of Atlanta and gets engaged in civil rights actions there and really cuts her teeth marching with the ministers in Atlanta at the height of the civil rights movement. She’s a perfect person to begin organizing the tenants; she could get 400 people out to vote if the city councilman who represented the district was there to support them. She was a bulldog, as one of her daughters says. Ms. Davis is totally unique. Yet a lot of these spaces have a “Ms. Davis,” and often it’s “Ms.”

The film outlines a forgotten origin story of public housing, which was first marketed and intended as a home for “respectable,” middle-class-presenting, low-income white people. In the 1930s, for example, Atlanta bulldozed an integrated neighborhood to build Techwood Homes, a public housing development that was made for white families only. Why is that history important, and what does it say about public housing?

McMahon: There’s an evolution across the years of who we think deserves public housing. When [the U.S.] began public housing, we had identified a class of people, white people largely, who had fallen from the middle class in the Great Depression and perhaps lost their housing. It was thought we could give them a step back to the middle class. In designing it, they had to do it in segregated terms. With the societal trends of white flight and white people leaving the city [in the 1950s and ‘60s], there was a loss of a tax base, a divestment, a lack of commitment to [public housing]. That really happened when it was exclusively black and brown people.

Burns: The reason why we need to cover that history was both to know how different it was in the beginning, and that different intent, but also to understand that we can do this well. The image you get of public housing in the media over the last decades is the one of the Cabrini Greens, the East Lake Meadows, the Pruitt-Igoes — these large public housing projects serving an extremely poor community, frequently one that is majority African American in population and that is challenged in many ways with crime and drugs. That’s what we see on the news and that’s the sense we walk away from of what public housing is. It comes to define the whole of public housing.

Over the years it’s been done in different ways. There have been times when we have funded it and taken care of it and provided solid buildings that actually provide decent housing. There was a time when this served a different purpose — that it served fairly well the people who lived in it, that it was safe and decent housing, and that it did help people as a sort of stepping stone. It was a different demographic that it was serving in that way.

To [New York Times Magazine reporter] Nikole Hannah Jones’ point: We could do this well. We have done this well. We’ve just never done it well for the most vulnerable, for the people who need it the most.

McMahon: I also don’t think we want to touch the entirety of public housing with this brush exclusively. There are 3,000 housing authorities across the country and some of them succeed beautifully. I think that that gets to how do we do this well going forward: that perhaps there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.

But it does seem to be a universal thing that if you decide to start tearing down the public housing, we know now to put the people who were living there at that time in the foreground, and make sure they’re engaged in the solution in a neighborhood that’s not serving its residents very well.

Atlanta was doing something radical in the mid-’90s: They had a dramatic plan to tear down all of this housing. I think it’s a cautionary tale.

Powered by WPeMatico

For Those Living in Public Housing, It’s a Long Way to Work

Let’s say there are two people in Atlanta who need jobs. They poke around on Snagajob, a job-search site for hourly work that lists hundreds of thousands of jobs in 300,000 locations. They scroll through listings for FedEx delivery driver, or shift manager at Wendy’s, or lot associate at Home Depot. But one job seeker lives in a public housing development, and the other doesn’t. According to a new Urban Institute report, their odds of finding work close to home might look very different.

Using job listing and applicant data collected in 2015 by Snagajob, researchers cross-referenced available jobs posted in 16 metro areas with the number of applicants who lived within a “reasonable commuting distance” from the jobs in question. (Here, “reasonable” is defined as one being within 6.3 miles of each zip code’s population-weighted center; though Snagajob is just one platform, U.S. Census Bureau figures suggest that in the 16 metros researchers studied, it accounted for 13% of recent new hires.) Then they compared that difference for those who used federal housing assistance, like public housing, Housing Choice Vouchers, or Section 8 rental assistance, and those who didn’t.

Depending upon which zip code they call home, researchers found that the average person using some form of government housing aid is likely to face tougher odds of getting a job near their neighborhood than the average job seeker who isn’t using assistance, even those who are extremely low-income. “In fact, the average assisted household is surrounded by 6,032 more nearby Snagajob seekers than Snagajob postings, compared with 3,056 more for unassisted, extremely low–income households — nearly double the amount,” the report reads.

Of all assisted households, those living in public housing had the biggest difference between the number of job seekers and the number of jobs nearby; next came housing choice voucher, or HCV, recipients.

These outcomes weren’t totally intuitive, says Christina Stacy, a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute and the lead author of the report. “You’d think public assisted, federally supported rental housing might help people live closer to available jobs, and maybe live in places they might prefer, that have more opportunity,” she said. But landlords have long discriminated against voucher holders, and public housing has historically been sited in neighborhoods far from opportunity. Though some lower-income families experience frequent, and often turbulent, residential moves, they often lack the ability to choose when, how, and to where those moves happen. As a result, more families on housing assistance may end up living in places where fewer businesses are looking to hire nearby, and where there’s more competition for the spots that exist.

That’s not true everywhere. While New York City, Miami and L.A. show pretty much everyone in every zip code contending with more fellow job seekers than open job listings — with the worst gaps appearing for those who live in assisted housing — Minneapolis, San Francisco and Boston are trending in the opposite direction. There, nearby jobs exceed the number of people who want to fill them.

The gaps between job availability and job seekers are actually smaller for assisted households than for unassisted households in cities like Seattle, which has a healthy regional job market and a fervent construction pace. As the map below shows, the majority of assisted households are concentrated in the city proper, ready to meet demand; assisted households 35 miles south in places like Tacoma aren’t as fortunate.

In the Seattle MSA, both jobs and applicants are concentrated in central Seattle zip codes, but Tacoma displays a greater spatial mismatch. (Sources: Urban Institute analysis of 2015 Snagajob data, 2015 US Department of Housing and Urban Development Picture of Subsidized Households data, and 2013–17 American Community Survey five-year estimates.)

On the other end of the spectrum, households on federal housing assistance in New York City, Chicago and Atlanta have the worst spatial mismatch compared to their unassisted and extremely low-income counterparts, even compared to the poor odds for the rest of the pool. Chicago’s assisted households cluster in the south and west sides, while in Atlanta (as seen in the map below) jobs are clustered in the city’s center — both areas where there are a lot of people gunning for the same gigs.

Spatial mismatch and public and assisted housing in the Atlanta MSA, by zip code. (Sources: Urban Institute analysis of 2015 Snagajob data, 2015 US Department of Housing and Urban Development Picture of Subsidized Households data, and 2013–17 American Community Survey five-year estimates.)

Spatial mismatch was first understood as a phenomenon that increases racial divides, limiting economic prospects for segregated, majority-black neighborhoods. Though job applicants’ race wasn’t recorded on Snagajob or analyzed as part of these maps, among subsidized households, people of color are disproportionately represented.

Proximity to jobs isn’t the only thing that makes a neighborhood worthy of settling down in, of course. Access to good grocery stores, health care, schools, family and friends could all rank higher on anyone’s priority list. But research shows that, particularly for hourly or low-wage workers, spatial mismatch can increase rates and lengthen spells of unemployment. Employers lose out, too, if they can’t find enough staff.

Scoring high on the spatial mismatch scale doesn’t have to preclude workers from bridging those divides and finding a great job in another neighborhood anyway, though. Good public transportation — and affordable housing built near it — can turn an unreasonable commute into a reasonable one. A journey of 6.3 miles in the Bay Area, for example, could mean a two-stop BART ride from Oakland into San Francisco’s Financial District; in Atlanta, that same 6.3 miles across the city could take up to an hour by bus.

The study didn’t account for the connectivity dimension, though Stacy says further research will try to. And the fact that their jobs data is from five years ago, before the U.S. experienced today’s record-low unemployment levels, is another important caveat — though the caveat to the caveat is that, for black Americans, the rate is still twice as high as for white Americans on the national level, as it has been for decades.

Still, creating more housing that’s both affordable and accessible to jobs is an urgent goal in increasingly pricey cities like New York and L.A. To achieve it, Stacy suggests targeting higher levels of housing choice voucher assistance in job-rich areas, enforcing anti-discrimination laws against landlords that deny voucher holders from renting, and consciously locating new public housing in job-rich neighborhoods. Focusing public transportation improvements on areas that are home to job seekers would go a long way, too.

Powered by WPeMatico

How to Get Super Bowl Fans to Ride Public Transit

Of the 64,000 football fans set to descend on Miami Gardens this Super Bowl Sunday, relatively few will be coming by public transit. And no wonder: Hard Rock Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers will face off against the Kansas City Chiefs, has limited bus and no direct rail connections to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, and it’s surrounded by 140 acres of parking lots, some so remote that a new gondola is under construction to ferry ticketholders to the main entrance. Horrendous vehicle back-ups throughout Miami-Dade County are anticipated for the biggest sporting event of the year.

Game-day congestion is part of football tradition, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Enter the concept of “transit validation,” in which sporting venues contract with public transit operators so that all ticket holders can ride buses and trains free on game days. Transit validation increases transit ridership, reduces traffic congestion, saves energy, reduces pollution and carbon emissions, and costs very little.

For example, when Seattle’s 72,000-seat Husky Stadium arranged fare-free public transit on game days, the share of ticket holders arriving by transit increased from 4 percent to 21 percent after the program began in 1984. Stadiums in Ottawa, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City have similar fare-free transit programs. Many event sites in Europe also include free transit in the prices of all tickets.

San Francisco’s newest sports venue is probably the country’s premiere transit validator. In 2019 the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency developed a “transit bundling” program for Chase Center, the 18,000-seat, $1.4 billion arena built for the Golden State Warriors. Event tickets serve as transit passes for all patrons, and Chase Center pays for the transit rides on SFTMA buses and rail lines. “We want people to take public transit to Chase Center, so we’re making it affordable and easy to do so,” Mayor London Breed stated at the time. “This breakthrough agreement demonstrates the commitment by both the City and Chase Center to get people out of their cars so everyone can easily get to games and concerts.”     

Bundling transit rides with game tickets means that each ticket serves as a transit pass on the game day. San Francisco charges $5 for a conventional day pass, but Chase Center pays the city a “transit service fee” of only $1.46 per ticket to offer fare-free transit for everyone. The fee is low because many ticket holders don’t ride transit, and the Center pays only for the actual transit rides. In effect, Chase Center validates its ticket holders’ transit fares.

There are a host of related potential benefits, for both team owners and the community at large. By drawing those who don’t want to drive to the stadium or who don’t own a car, teams could expand their fanbase and build a larger and more diverse crowd. The resulting increase in ticket demand could help to pay for the transit subsidy. Because many spectators drink at games, validated transit may help reduce drunk driving on the way home, too. Bundling transit passes into ticket prices could also provide a reliable new revenue stream for the transportation agency; to serve new riders, San Francisco has added express bus service to the Chase Center before and after each event.

Considering the tiny cost of transit validation compared to the price of almost any ticket for almost any major sports event, it’s hard to argue that this would be a major burden for team or stadium owners. Validating transit rides is also far cheaper than building parking lots or garages for occasional game-day drivers.

Bundled transit also works well in other circumstances. For example, many universities contract with public transit agencies to offer fare-free rides for all students. When UCLA began to offer fare-free transit, bus ridership to campus rose 56 percent and solo driving fell 20 percent during the first year of the program. More than 1,000 solo drivers gave up their parking spaces.

Theaters, concert halls, museums, and other venues may also climb on the bundled-fare bandwagon. Airlines could include free transit to the airport in flight tickets. Amusement parks could include free transit in admission prices. The 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles could include free transit in the tickets for all events. (It’s worth remembering how L.A. assembled a forward-thinking bus-based transportation scheme for the 1984 Summer Olympics that succeeded in getting one out of every five spectators to their venue seats aboard a city bus.)

As a condition for planning permission, most cities require developers to mitigate the traffic congestion their projects will cause. If cities require developers to validate transit as part of their traffic-control plans, transit validation may begin to rival (or perhaps supplant) parking validation. The results may convince us that we’ve been validating the wrong thing for decades.

Powered by WPeMatico

How Racism Became a Public Health Crisis in Pittsburgh

A week after Pittsburgh’s city council signed an ordinance declaring racism a public health crisis in late December, a fog began to develop over the city. Or at least, people on Twitter and Instagram thought it was a fog and began posting photos of the ethereal mist blanketing the city over the Christmas holidays. It was actually soot—particulate matter (PM) 2.5, the kind of lung-prickling pollution that used to coat the sky regularly in Pittsburgh’s steel-making heyday. Pittsburgh has been trying to scrub that reputation for decades, but here the stuff was hanging in the air again, the result of temperature inversions on an unusually warm winter week, trapping air pollutants close to the ground across the region. It lingered in the air all the way into the new year, forcing the Allegheny County Health Department to explain its presence:

We know from research that inversions are expected to get worse with climate change. … While we will continue to advocate for residents to do what they can to reduce emissions, we must also explore new regulations that would impose corrective action requirements on industry during short-term pollution events. These extended exceedances and higher pollution levels are a clear threat to the health of the county’s residents, but ACHD’s current regulations do not provide options to address this issue.

This kind of environmental distress places that “it is precisely [Towne’s] ability to pack up, write this article, and move on to the next Google-sponsored town that is the problem. Because it’s not people like Dennis who are in danger; it is the people that he steps on as he makes his exit stage right.”

Melanie Meade, a black woman who lives near one of the U.S. Steel coke plants wrote in a recent op-ed for Public Source: “While I feel like I’m fighting for our basic rights to clean air, I’m living in a city that doesn’t seem to make a big deal over the pollution and its adverse effects on children and the community, especially people of color.”

There is little language on pollution and environmental justice in the public health crisis legislation. Instead, the ordinance refers to policy agendas that emphasize economic inequities, such as enhancing home ownership and entrepreneurship-employment among Pittsburgh’s black residents. As the ordinances were debated at hearings, town halls, and city council meetings through the winter, Jamil Bey, a local black activist who is helping steer one of those foundational policy agendas, Policylink’s All-In Cities strategy, began to wonder what was going on with the “public health” part of the equation.

After all, Pittsburgh is coming off a year where the air was deemed unsafe to breathe for three months, according to a report from the Penn Environment Research and Policy Center. It’s also the year the city’s air quality was graded an “F” by the American Lung Association. Meanwhile, black babies die in the region at four times the rate of white babies, and it’s disputable whether owning more houses and businesses will change that. Allegheny County Health Department maternal and child health program manager Dannai Wilson has said that “chronic exposure to structural and institutional racism, regardless of a mother’s socioeconomic status or educational attainment” is the primary culprit for high infant mortality rates among black women.  

“On the one hand you rightly identify that this is a public health crisis, but then you mostly propose economic solutions,” said Bey, the president of the local environmental justice-focused Urbankind Institute, which is one of the partnering organizations in Policylink’s All-In Cities Pittsburgh collaborative. “If we are going to attach it to the All-In effort, a better strategy would have been to include public health officials, scholars, and advocates in the process to think about the content of the legislation before it was drafted. Nothing that you propose addresses public health.”

Even the mayor’s grip isn’t exactly the tightest on the environmental-health justice issues. Just months after voicing opposition to petrochemicals, Peduto tweeted opposition to Green New Deal legislation, saying that it doesn’t “put people first.” The Green New Deal is rare among climate-change minded proposals in its focus on prioritizing workers left behind by new economies.

Burgess, the city council member, told CityLab that while air quality and pollution are important, “public health” is defined in these ordinances according to what’s called the social determinants of health—a somewhat amorphous term that carries varying definitions depending on the source. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines them as economic stability, education, social or community context, healthcare, and neighborhood or built environment. But economic stability, says Burgess, is most critical.   

Pittsburgh has some of the lowest rates of black women participation in the labor force and black men have some of the lowest average incomes of most cities in the U.S., according to Pittsburgh’s race and gender disparity study. The Cleveland Federal Reserve reported last year that Pittsburgh experienced one the largest gaps in earnings between white and non-white workers of any major metro between 2007 and 2017. Minority earnings dropped 4 percent in that time period while earnings for white workers increased by 13 percent.

“So it’s not a policy. It’s lots of policies and lots of resources,” said Burgess of plans to address the city’s constellation of race problems.

The ordinance doesn’t yet have any funding attached. But the hope is that funding will come from nonprofits—specifically large institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh’s medical system—and private corporations. Burgess said they would also reach out to “wealthy African Americans who live in and outside of the city” to contribute.

“We didn’t get here overnight. It took hundreds of years of systemic disinvestment and redlining,” Burgess added. “Now it’s going to take us multiple years—maybe 50 to 100 years—to undo this.”

Powered by WPeMatico

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.”

Powered by WPeMatico

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.”

Powered by WPeMatico

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.

Powered by WPeMatico

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.

Powered by WPeMatico

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.”

Powered by WPeMatico