The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


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The Housing Segregation Conundrum

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I live in a city that is often called “the most racially segregated city in America.” I’ve heard a few different definitions of what that means but the best one explains that in no other city in America does black so thoroughly and consistenly mean “poor,” and white so thoroughly and consistently equate with “middle class or wealthy.” I think about segregation and it’s complicated cousin, gentrification, a fair amount, especially as they relate to housing and homelessness. I see the neighborhoods where my clients–who are almost all African American–end up living and they are filled with other poor African Americans living in run-down houses with few businesses nearby. Then I look at my own neighborhood which is mostly white, with a bit better housing stock and far more vibrant local businesses. The worst crime that happens in my neighborhood is theft and drunk driving. In my clients’ neighborhoods, it is assault, rape and murder. This is the general picture, not the exact details of every block, but the general picture is bleak and clearly segregated.

A couple weeks ago, the New York Times rans this op-ed by Thomas Edsall entitled “Where Should a Poor Family Live?” In it, Edsall questions what he calls the “poverty housing industry” for its maintenance of the status quo–keeping poor people in poor neighborhoods instead of moving them into wealthier areas which theoretically offer greater opportunity. He asks, “Should federal dollars go toward affordable housing within high-poverty neighborhoods, or should subsidies be used to move residents of impoverished communities into more upscale–and more resistant–sections of cities and suburbs with better schools and job opportunities?”

Edsall mostly talks about federal subsidies that come through Low Income Housing Tax Credits (which widely enable most affordable housing corporations to build and maintain their developments), although his arguments could also be extended to public housing. In essence, Edsall is raising an immensely challenging, but highly relevant question for today’s cities and towns: Should public and private anti-poverty efforts (in this case, affordable housing) focus on uplifting the neighborhoods where poverty exists, or removing poor people from those neighborhoods altogether? Continue reading


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Interview: Christina Talks Richmond, Race and the Southern Life

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Christina Mastroianni lived on the East Coast for many years, but now she lives with her husband and children in Richmond, VA. I spoke with her about her experiences in this Southern city—a juxtaposition of beauty, history, and inequality—as well as her thoughts on a way forward that educates children equally and lifts up neighborhoods no matter who lives in them. 

Q: What’s it like to live in Richmond, VA?

A: Richmond is a beautiful city. It’s steeped in enormous amounts of history, some of which is painful. […] But I think they’re doing great things to be very frank and honest about what happened here and how it fits into our history as a nation and as a whole.

In terms of livability, the taxes are low, the cost of living is fairly low. The river, which cuts right through the city is just spectacularly beautiful and used by everyone. We swim in the river. We watch the eagles and hawks there. You can access it anywhere. It’s such a gem.

Before I moved here, I had this perception of [Richmond] being a city just lost in time. You know how people joke about how in some parts of the south, people still haven’t accepted the fact that they lost the war? Well, that’s not true here.

The one unfortunate part about Richmond is that in the ‘60s the city essentially placed all of the public housing developments in two main parts of the city, completely isolating folks from the downtown. The public transportation is abysmal; it’s not accessible, it’s not convenient. It makes it very hard for folks to get to jobs.

Recent census data shows the disparity in terms of income and race in the city. The east end of the city is where most of the people of color live. It’s the poorest part of Richmond. The western side of the city is the wealthiest and has the largest percentage of whites. We live on the east side. It’s beautiful; the east end is the historic district. But just north of us, the houses are crumbling and people are seriously poverty stricken. Our schools on the east end are horrendous compared to other parts of the city. There’s some real institutional barriers to success. Those are compounded by the fact that folks are isolated.

The east end is also one of the largest urban food deserts in the US.

Q: Is anything being done to address the food desert situation?

A: There’s some really cool stuff happening on the east end. Our councilwoman has been working with the health system, Bon Secours, and another nonprofit called Tricycle Gardens. They have established these refrigerators in many of the corner stores that sell subsidized fresh vegetables and fruit. Bon Secours also provides seed grants for businesses to start up on the east end […] We now have this blossoming commercial corridor on the east end.

Q: Do you think Richmond is a typical Southern city?

A: I recently heard on NPR that southern cities are the fastest growing in the nation. There is such a huge influx of folks from the northeast that Richmond is really creating its own identity. I don’t think that it’s a typical southern city. We have incredibly rich culture and art and music and dance in Richmond that I don’t think is typical of a southern city. But then you look at places like Atlanta and Charlotte and they too are creating their own identities. Its not until you go to the lower-tier cities that you see that old-guard, lost in the past, serious racial tension.

Q: How does Richmond compare to your previous home, Philadelphia, PA?

A: I lived in Philly for 20 years. First of all, the city of Richmond is 200,000 people. The city of Philadelphia is 1.2 million, so Philly was massive. There were parts of the city that I didn’t even know how to get to. There’s much more ethnic diversity in Philadelphia. You’d walk down the street and see Cambodians and Africans and Hispanics and Eastern Europeans. In Richmond, it’s pretty much just black and white. The ethnic diversity is, surprisingly, in the suburbs.

The other difference—it’s kind of hard to put your finger on—there was a frankness and gruffness to the people in Philadelphia. They were honest to a fault, which I loved. Some people took it to be mean or rude, but to me it was just a refreshing, frank honesty. Down here [in Richmond], there’s much more of a dance that goes on. You can’t appear to be too pushy or aggressive. You have to take that time to talk to people about their family and the weather and what’s going on. It’s almost like a courting ritual. In a way, I kind of like it because you kind of get to know people, but it’s definitely different.

Every time we go back to Philadelphia, we notice the tension. It’s dirty. The traffic is out of control. There’s very little trash in Richmond and you don’t feel like you’re being closed in on. But you don’t really realize that until you leave.

Q: Living with a biracial family, what is your experience of diversity and/or racism in Richmond?

A: We have not experienced any outright aggression. There has been some raising of the eyebrows, the second glances. You walk by some people and their mouths are open. There are definitely less biracial couples than there were in Philadelphia, but we’re seeing more and more of them. We’re definitely not the only ones.

I think the thing that we noticed more here than we did in Philadelphia—and it might just be where we lived—is the resentment around socioeconomic differences. I think that had to do with the school [my kids] were going to previously. Some enormously large percentage of students in the school system in Richmond are at or below the poverty level and predominantly black. There are two or three schools on the west end where predominately white, upper middle class families really wanted to turn the public school into the local school. They invested money and resources and enrolled their kids. They now have resources that schools on the east end couldn’t even dream of having. They are all predominantly white. Meanwhile, there were some teachers and parents at my kids’ old school that felt like “What are you doing here? This isn’t your place.” My kids were seen as the rich kids, even though we’re far from that.

Now they’re at this independent school that’s 99% white, and while they’re among their peer group in terms of academic interests and grade level performance, they’re definitely not the rich kids any more. It’s a little bittersweet to have to make that choice. The school district has got to deal with this. They’ve got to find a way to convince middle class families to invest in school. All the research shows that kids succeed in diverse socioeconomic environments.

Thanks to Christina for sharing her thoughts on Richmond, VA!


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Concepts of Homelessness: Why Shelters Are Not the Solution

In recent years, communities around the U.S. have been faced with an intractable problem of homelessness, dwindling resources, and increasing numbers of tent cities within municipal limits. In this moment of U.S. upheaval, we have a chance to rethink what home means and how local policies can better meet people’s needs of home, particularly for those considered homeless. A common thread unites all community conflicts and decisions about shelters, transitional centers, tent cities and other institutionally created housing for the homeless—core beliefs about what ‘home’ and ‘homelessness’ mean. How we think about ‘home’ and what that means for housing impacts how people without access to those dominant types of housing are conceptualized. National approaches to home have implications for all citizens, but particularly for those who find themselves unable to afford the types of accommodations associated with ‘home.’

-Abbilyn Miller PhD, Determining Critical Factors in Community-Level Planning of Homeless Service Projects

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Homelessness first came into my life when I was young, volunteering at a church soup kitchen with my parents. On Sunday evenings, a line of tired-looking people would snake around the building, waiting for the back doors to open while I poured cups of juice and milk, and the grown-ups prepared food—always the same assortment of canned vegetables, mashed potatoes and chicken. I remember being told that many of the men and women who came to eat were homeless and this sat with me. What did ‘homeless’ mean? Did they all live in the streets? When we left after clean-up, I didn’t think much about their situation, though, beyond being thankful that it was not mine.

As I grew up, my awareness of people who were experiencing homelessness also grew. Some were on the streets, sure, but many lived in shelters that dotted the downtown landscape of my city. I’d never been inside a shelter, but I imagined them to be warm and welcoming, with beds for each guest. Back then, I saw homelessness as a long-term state and “homeless” as a concrete identity which it might take years for someone to break out of. Luckily, or so I thought, shelters were a constructive solution to this problem, meeting a visible need and housing people who had nowhere else to go.

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By the time I finished high school, I had learned enough about American poverty and injustice to develop an understanding that without a home, it’s nearly impossible for a low-income person to get ahead in any other aspect of her life. I knew that housing was fundamental for healthy, successful families and for overcoming the persistent inequality in America. And I yearned to contribute to a solution. So, in 2011, I started working at a nonprofit that ran a rotating shelter in different faith communities throughout the Twin Cities. I thought the shelter was providing a way out of homelessness for people in need. What I learned there changed my mind.

For the first time in my life, I put myself into direct contact with homeless people beyond just handing them a cup of juice. I don’t know that my contributions amounted to much more than providing a cold drink, but I did spend time listening to the stories of the people staying there, and I allowed these stories to teach me about homelessness. I met mothers with growing daughters, single fathers with newborns, large families with moms and dads and aunts and cousins; some staying for just a day or two, and others who would be there for a whole season. (Program rules prevented families from staying more than six weeks, but if they did not find more permanent housing by then, they would seek placement in another shelter, or a renewal, and start the cycle again.) The shelter’s guests had landed there due a slew of unfortunate circumstances, and they were exhausted from the sheer weight of all this turbulence and uncertainty.

Children from the shelter playing outside

I remember a woman—I’ll call her Jenny—who had recently separated from her husband and was now in charge of their three preteen girls. She’d stayed with her mother for a while, but when that living situation fell through, the shelter became her only option, and she’d lugged all her family’s belongings in garbage bags to the church. I was doing the night shift one evening when her youngest daughter became ill and threw up all over her cot. Jenny never even woke me, but she cleaned up the sheets, gave her own bed to her daughter and slept on the floor. She was utterly on her own, with three young people relying on her. I could not imagine handling this level of responsibility without a stable place to come home to.

For those of us working at the shelter, our job was to provide, at the very least, rest for people like Jenny and her daughters. Days at the shelter would start around 4pm, as we prepared for a busload of seven or eight families to arrive at the makeshift residence. Once they got there, volunteers (and I) handed out snacks, flipped on the TV, threw together games for the kids to play or books for them to read, and got to know the guests. When evening crept in at the shelter, everyone went to their respective beds and a volunteer stayed overnight with them. Then, in the morning, the families would be bussed out to their respective jobs, schools or a day shelter. So it went, every day of the year.

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Much has been written about the global charity industry which allows privileged people to donate their time and money to help the “less fortunate” without truly engaging or honestly listening to the people they seek to help, and this barrier between server and served was often present at the shelter where I worked. With the constantly fluctuating populations of volunteers and clients, it was challenging to develop anything beyond a short-term relationship with an individual and so much easier to just sit behind a counter and dole out snacks during your shift. Yet, for each month that the shelter spent at a different house of worship, dedicated members from that community threw themselves into the work. They believed they were providing a valuable service for people who needed a home. Meanwhile, I was on my way to recognizing just how far from “home” the shelter truly was.

Near the end of the summer, I started looking after a rambunctious two-year-old boy at the shelter whose young mother badly needed a break from chasing him around. He was adorable and I was enthusiastic to entertain and get know him. Then one day, I came to the shelter and he was gone; he and his mother had secured a spot at a higher-quality downtown shelter. Just like that, they left us. In that moment, I remember feeling quite hurt that this family wanted to leave our shelter for a different one.

Then I opened my eyes and realized how bad the conditions were. We were basically slapping cots and air-mattresses on the floor of a church basement and calling it a “home.” To make matters worse, every morning when the residents departed, they were forced to pack up all their belongings and carry them with, leaving the place as though no one had ever been there. The spaces they occupied and the amenities they were provided with were often cast-offs, unused because no one else wanted them. Sometimes families didn’t even get their own rooms.

I do not mean to diminish the efforts of volunteers and staff who provided a warm place to sleep for families in need, nor do I wish to write off the impact that the shelter had; I know that those enrolled in the shelter also gained access to employment help, legal counsel and other services during the day. So it’s not as if there was a lack of care. However, I also know that this place was not a home.

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If you read the founding documents of most homeless shelters, you’ll actually find that the majority of them are intended to be “emergency” housing, meaning that they are a temporary fix for a person who didn’t make rent last month and needs somewhere to stay while she gathers the funds for next month. Some shelters are safe havens for domestic violence victims who are supposed to be relocated to permanent housing once the situation with their abuser is dealt with. Some shelters are specifically for men or women recovering from addiction who need a clean space for a few weeks. Regardless of the circumstances though, most homeless shelters were intended to be temporary solutions for temporary problems.

What has actually happened is that they have become long-term housing situations for hundreds of thousands of Americans. These children and adults bounce from shelter to shelter when their stay-limit is up, spending months on end in a system which was never designed to accommodate them for more than a week or two. Cots on a basement floor may be enough for a few rough days between paychecks, but they are not sufficient to house people long term. We can’t fault the shelters for failing to shift away from their original purpose, but neither can we allow these inadequate, unproductive living conditions to persist.

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Homelessness is a critical issue that I have dedicated my life to combating, and I hope it is something that matters to you too. However, we cannot hope to bring justice into this situation without unpacking our perceptions of homelessness and truly listening to the people that we have labeled as “homeless.” Only then can we determine the best ways to meet their housing needs.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about the thesis quoted at the top of this article, and how we can move towards broader concepts of home in order to create more opportunities for everyone to have one.

Photo credits: KOMUnews, me, blog


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My Role in Gentrification

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I knew I would confront gentrification in New York City, but I didn’t think it would be this swift or this persistent. The fact that I can stand next to an H&M while simultaneously staring up at a thirty-story housing project is a juxtaposition I’m still wrapping my head around. My afternoon jogs take me past taquerias, corner stores, laundromats, then—suddenly—trendy coffee shops.

And I’m still trying to figure out how I fit into it. As a middle class white woman who moved in a month ago, I know I’m checking lots of gentrification boxes. I sometimes placate myself with the knowledge that I haven’t driven up the cost of living by moving here since my housing situation mostly exists outside the market. (I live in a church for a very discounted rate.) Nonetheless, my white face in a Dominican neighborhood shifts the topography. I stand out. On a weekday morning, I’m one of the only people wearing business clothes as I walk to the subway. And I don’t speak Spanish (though I badly wish I did).

I am also an outsider to the personal experience of gentrification: For generations, my family moved around the country and the world, so we have no roots—no neighborhood filled with history to be kicked out of. The neighborhood I grew up in was white and has been for as long as I can remember. I attended college in a town that was built by the most vicious kind of gentrifier: a pair of missionaries who wiped out the Cayuse Indian tribe that had been living there for centuries. I have never faced foreclosure or eviction. I have never lost my apartment to an upscale developer.

I have, however, witnessed a movement of white young people into neighborhoods that they might never have set foot in before the recession and I wonder about the effects of their migration. As the recession presses on and young people of all races fail to secure well-paying, full-time work, I know they will continue to turn to more affordable neighborhoods for housing—particularly if those neighborhoods are close to employment options in a downtown. It makes sense for these young people, but it becomes problematic if their presence encourages landlords to raise prices, eventually bumping out long-time residents, or if they begin to build new businesses that take away profit from existing stores. That’s Gentrification 101.

I’ve been struggling with this tension between housing demand and neighborhood history ever since I talked to Anna and learned about the in-your-face gentrification taking place in certain neighborhoods of Detroit. It’s also happening in Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Atlanta, and every other city you can think of. For example, long-time residents of my current neighborhood tell me that although it is broadly Latin@ now, fifty years ago the people who lived in these apartments were African American and farther north, they were Jewish immigrants. Time and again, one community gains economic ground and more freedom to live where it chooses, while another must make do with what’s left.

So what is the role of someone like me in these places? Is my presence so harmful that I should relocate to a white, middle class neighborhood where I “belong,” or can I be an informed, respectful resident? This is the answer I’ve come to so far: If gentrification is the act of pushing out existing residents, then the key to socially-just living choices is making your home in such a way that you do not exclude the people who already live there.

I’m not completely convinced that it’s possible, given the economic and racial hierarchies already entrenched in our culture and the top-down, all-encompassing manner in which gentrification pollutes a neighborhood. However, the best I can say for individuals who live in neighborhoods with the potential for gentrification is to be intentional about your attitude and your actions towards the place. Get to know all your neighbors. Learn the history of the area. Familiarize yourself with the systems, services, and leaders that govern there. Frequent diverse businesses to strengthen the existing economy. Dismantle your sense of entitlement, fear or superiority. Educate yourself about warehousing and land speculation. Join grassroots movements that combat the effects of gentrification. Most of all, recognize your role in the process and resist the allure of complacency at every turn.

Update: Some interesting and intelligent dialogue related to gentrification is going on right now (April, 2014). Check out 20 Ways Not to be a Gentrifier, then this response by Daniel Hertz.


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Interview: Anna’s Word on Detroit

My cousin Anna is an inspiration for a lot of people, and one of the ways she inspires me is through her activism for racial reconciliation and economic justice. She spent the past two summers in Detroit for that very reason, and I told a bit of her story last month. In today’s interview, Anna digs deep on the causes and effects of Detroit’s economic struggles, as well as potential paths forward. Sincere thanks to Anna for sharing these powerful words.

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Q: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

A: I grew up in a suburb about 15 minutes outside of the city of Detroit, called Farmington. The past two summers, between my semesters at school in Chicago, I have lived in Detroit, in an impoverished neighborhood in the heart of the city. It’s been eye-opening to see the differences in resources and opportunity between the city I grew up in an where I’ve been living. I was privileged to go to a high school where I was well prepared for college, when right next door in Detroit, there is a graduation rate of just under 65%. Besides education, there are stark differences in employment opportunities, racial demographics, public services, police activity and access to fresh food.

Q: Can you describe your neighborhood in Detroit?

A: The Detroit neighborhood I lived in is ridden with abandoned homes and buildings. Before I lived here, I had never seen a place with paralleled vacancy. There are only a few businesses, and since the city itself is lacking in adequate public transportation and businesses that would offer jobs, there is not a lot of opportunity for people. But in the midst of this struggle, people fight on. There is also a sense of community that I’ve never experienced before. There are regular neighborhood gatherings, and it is common to see many people gathering together on porches and in parks. People in my neighborhood love being together, and they welcome each other, and that is something that was less prevalent in the community I grew up in.

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Q: What did you do in Detroit?

A: Both summers I have been working for a Christian community development corporation that creates affordable housing, runs parenting and homeownership classes, helps start small businesses, provides affordable produce, runs many programs for children and youth and more. During the summer, their main youth program is a day camp for kids in the city, which is a way for kids to have fun, be safe, eat hot meals, learn, and experience the city while they are out of school. The day camp is also an employment opportunity for teens in the city. I spent most of my time in this area, specifically helping with the children’s activities in the organization’s community gardens. Continue reading


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When the Bank is Not Your Friend

from americanprogress.org

from americanprogress.org

Besides ads for food, college and the occasional “If you see something, say something” poster, I’ve noticed a subtle series of advertisements on the New York subway system that targets people low on cash. “Need a facelift?” they ask. “We’ve got a layaway plan that can get you looking hot now and paying for it later.” And others invite, “Sell your gold jewelry for a quick buck!” or “Get your payday loan at the convenience store.” I’ve been filing these away in my head as I ride to work or to the market.

It goes beyond the subway too. Up and down the blocks of lower-income neighborhoods (and you’ll see this in any city, I guarantee it) are payday loan shops, instant check-cashers and other economic ventures that cater to people living paycheck to paycheck. Their “good deals” attract people, but their fees and interest rates ensure months of debt—ultimately a substantial loss to those who participate. It’s because of this that I’m disappointed at the frequency with which I see instant check cashing places in my neighborhood rather than banks. It’s because of this that the subway ads promising to squander your money make me angry.

Or at least, that’s how I used to feel. Last week, however, I read an article in The Atlantic Cities by an urban policy professor at the New School who has thoroughly studied “alternative financial services,” and it changed my mind. First, the author, Lisa Servon, did away with the idea that people who use these services lack a bank account. In fact, although “17 million nationwide are unbanked […] 43 million have a bank account but also continue to use alternative financial services providers.”

Why would someone choose to spend extra money to cash a check when he could just take it to the bank? The Atlantic article continues by pointing out that, for one thing, banks aren’t easily accessible in many neighborhoods. For example, in Manhattan there’s about one bank for every 3,000 residents. The South Bronx, however, has only one bank per 20,000 residents. This gap in banking services for lower income people is the result of decades of redlining, and it is one reason that alternative financial services appear in such neighborhoods. Continue reading


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In Praise of Farmers Markets

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I probably don’t have to tell you what a delightful asset a farmers market can be for a city; I’m sure you’ve already been to one. Maybe even this weekend. At first glance, farmers markets may look like cosmopolitan elitism disguised as a rustic pursuit—the wealthy condo-dweller traipsing down her street to buy fresh cut flowers and blueberries so she can feel distantly connected to rural America (the real America, as Jack Donaghy puts it)—but I think that at the heart of the farmers market we’ll find good intentions and wholesome food.
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The cities that do it right have markets in every neighborhood. Maybe there’s a central plaza downtown where the big dogs set up shop, but there are also smaller gatherings of stands in parking lots throughout the city. A good farmers market has fresh produce, food products like honey and eggs, and prepared foods such as baked treats. Musical acts or cooking demos are a plus too. Continue reading


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What’s the deal with “development”?

from last year's visit to an at the Chicago Art Institute on the Studio Gang Architects

from last year’s visit to an exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute on the Studio Gang Architects

This blog is partially about urban development and I think it’s pretty clear by now what “urban” means—of or pertaining to cities.* But what about “development”? We hear talk of community development. People advocate for development in the Third World. We see plans for neighborhood re-development (often viewed as a codeword for gentrification). For some people, development suggests positive outcomes and hope for the future, while other people understand development as overreaching, unnecessary or coercive action. Because of this disconnect, I want to weigh the diverse definitions of the term and varying responses to its implementation.

To begin with, proponents of development argue that it signifies progress and greater equality. For them, development is the new façade on a dilapidated building repurposed for use in a community. Development is internet access in remote villages of South Africa and indoor plumbing in the slums of Cairo. Development means improvement, renovation, democratization. And how can we argue against a rise in living standards, a lessening of the massive inequality in our world? Continue reading


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Public Transit Trends: What a Bus Ride Can Tell You About Race and Class

Two weeks ago, I started a discussion about the relationship between cities and public transit. I outlined the different public transportation models that I’ve seen broadly employed in big cities, sprawling cities, mid-size cities and small towns, but now I want to go more in depth to talk about two intersecting issues that effect public transit across the nation: race and class.
from thesource.metro.net

from thesource.metro.net

Riding the bus is one of the best ways to understand race and class differentials in a given city or town. By watching who gets on which routes, at which places, and at what times of the day, you can begin to notice the demographic make-up of your city. This information tells you what sort of jobs people have (night-shifts, office jobs, etc.) as well as what neighborhoods they live and work in, and how segregated those areas are. But public transit doesn’t just demonstrate how our cities are divided by race and class, it can also create those divisions.

Two Examples

I know I mention these cities a fair amount on The City Space, but New York City and Washington DC offer excellent fodder for an examination of the relationship between public transit, race and class. While I’m not a transportation expert by any means, I feel comfortable speaking about public transit in these places because I’ve used it a lot, and the corresponding issues seem to come up frequently in discussions with friends. Stick with me on this example—it’ll make sense in the end.

Let’s start with New York City. Here, the subway costs $2.50 no matter where you’re going. $2.50 buys a trip from the Far Rockaways to the heart of Manhattan, lending a certain equality to the daily commute. $2.50 also buys a homeless person a warm place to sleep on a cold winter day. In New York, everyone from grandmas to babies in strollers, from politicians to actresses, takes the train. $2.50 is by no means a bargain, but it can take anyone almost anywhere in the city. Continue reading


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Public Transit Trends: From Cities to Towns

With numerous recent articles commenting on my generation’s decreasing use of the automobile, it’s time I started a discussion here about the relationship between cities and transit. Having never owned a car myself, I’ve often relied on public transit to get me where I need to go in a number of cities. Thus, from both a personal and an urbanist standpoint I know how important it is. In this first post in the transit series, I’ll outline the different transportation models that I’ve broadly seen employed everywhere from major metro areas to small towns.

IMG_0164 Big Cities
New York City and Washington DC provide some of the most expansive public transit systems in the nation and they are usually pointed to as examples of top-notch public transit. (Chicago is also a notable example of quality transit.) These cities’ transportation systems serve millions of residents a day, taking them to the office, the supermarket, the theater, the park and everywhere in between with relative speed and ease. The webs of their bus and subway lines reach the corners of the city (though both, notably, exclude certain neighborhoods like Red Hook in Brooklyn and Georgetown in DC). Public transit in these metropolitan areas may not be cheap, but it is the quickest method of movement in traffic-logged cities that cost a fortune to park in. In New York and DC, it is completely reasonable not to own a car and if the need arises for an out of town trip or an IKEA buy, one can grab a ZipCar for the weekend. Class differentials seriously effect access to such resources and I’ll speak more about that in a future post.

Mid-size Cities
Mid-size cities are a vastly mixed bag when it comes to public transportation. Some, like Philadelphia, have gone all in with a commitment to maximum accessibility and frequency. Others, like Atlanta hardly try. Still others—Milwaukee, WI for example— have a transit system that quietly links thousands of residents to the surrounding area while whizzing through, unnoticed, by its wealthier, car-bound citizens. I won’t deny that having a car in my mid-size hometown of Minneapolis makes transportation a lot quicker—with the exception of rush-hour wherein a designated highway lane makes commuting on the bus a relative breeze. Ultimately, quality public transit is entirely achievable in these sorts of places if governments and people want to make it happen.

Continue reading