Two Facts About PV’s State House Representation

It’s the beginning of the primary season, and also Black History Month, so I thought I would take a look at who is representing the Pioneer Valley in the state legislature. I was interested in whether state legislators are representative of the racial/ethnic makeup in the Pioneer Valley, especially the majority-minority cities of Springfield and Holyoke.

As I dug through who our legislators are, I learned two interesting facts:

  1. Our State Representatives (not so much State Senators) are pretty representative of the racial/ethnic composition of the places they represent.
  2. We only have one (!) female legislator in the entire Valley.

First the race/ethnicity of our legislators:

map comparison
Source: malegislature.gov

Continue reading “Two Facts About PV’s State House Representation”

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The Geography of Somewhere

The inevitability of moving to the Pioneer Valley was by no means a given. My wife and I knew that we wanted to leave the Boston area (for a variety of reasons, the cost of housing being first and foremost among them), but there were a lot of different places we could go.

My wife grew up in New Mexico, and I was born and raised in Kentucky. We have lived in New England and the Pacific Northwest, and so had experienced many different parts of the continental US. Each part of the country has something to offer: climate, or culture, or affordability, or agreeable politics. But in the end, a crucial factor for both of us is something lacking in a lot of the country: place.  Continue reading “The Geography of Somewhere”

Hartford’s Blazing Glory

While some members of a snobby coastal caste might refer to inland parts of America as “fly-over country,” truth be told there are also places that I consider “drive-through cities.” These are the cities that I have driven through multiple times on road trips, and are just part of the scrolling scenery on my way to wherever I’m going.

A good example is Sturbridge, MA. When I was commuting from Boston to Springfield on a regular basis, there was always a sign directing me from I-90 to “Historic Downtown Sturbridge.” Has anyone ever actually gotten off the highway on a whim to see the living history that is Sturbridge? Well, not me – I just drove through.

When I was in college, I would make the Kentucky – Amherst drive at least twice a year; one year I went back and forth four times. There were a lot of good town names along the way – Moosic, PA was my favorite. And then those curious signs in West Virginia reading “A Certified Business Location.” But this was all drive-through territory. Pull off the highway for gas or food or bathroom, and then start rolling again. Continue reading “Hartford’s Blazing Glory”

50 Years of Highways and the Decline of Springfield’s North End

Back in December, I went to a MassDOT public meeting on the long term vision of the I-91 corridor from the Connecticut line up to Holyoke. Eventually, the Springfield stretch of I-91 is going to have to be totally reconstructed, and this is MassDOT leading the effort to think about what we want that major arterial roadway to look like.

History on I-91

For those of you unfamiliar with I-91, it is the major north-south connector between the Canadian border, down along the New Hampshire-Vermont border, and then along the Connecticut River to eventually connect up with New Haven.

i91

I have heard that the original plan for I-91 was to run along the west side of the Connecticut River for the entire length. This was altered for one of the two following apocryphal reasons (or both): Continue reading “50 Years of Highways and the Decline of Springfield’s North End”

Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City

Lewis Mumford, that grandiloquent titan of the urban planning field, detailed urban development in his magnum opus, The City in History. In it, he wrote about the transition from Neolithic villages into the modern day human settlement, the city.

Neolithic villages, Mumford wrote, were architecturally rounded, or womb-like – essentially feminine. Replacing those settlements, the modern city brought:

. . .male symbolisms and abstractions now become manifest; they show themselves in the insistent straight line, the rectangle, the firmly bounded geometric plane, the phallic tower and the obelisk. . .

In Mumford’s view, the feminine design of the neolithic village was a vessel for life. This was overtaken by the masculine drive for dominance and power, as expressed through the ziggurat, or bell tower, or modern day skyscraper.

My daily bike commute takes me from the North End of Springfield up through Chicopee and then to where I live in Holyoke. Along the way I ride past two city halls, and am not too far from a third. Mumford’s words echo as I whoosh past. Continue reading “Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City”

Them Fancy Federal Dollars

In a prior job, I was tasked with reviewing public comments on a proposed transit extension in Oregon. It was a pretty controversial project, which included several ROW takings, and was making headlines right at the crest of the Tea Party wave. A lot of people were pissed off. I remember one comment in particular. It went something like:

You people think you can do whatever you want just because you have them fancy federal dollars.

I really like the idea that federal funding is somehow more ornate than “regular” money, making it “fancy.” The $2 dollar bill is pretty fancy-looking, maybe all federal funding comes in $2 increments. Continue reading “Them Fancy Federal Dollars”

Flint, and the Country I Want

Two figures define the idealized America more than any other: Andrew Carnegie and Horatio Alger. Carnegie was the first generation Scottish immigrant who, through good luck and hard work, became the steel magnate of Pittsburgh and one of the richest people to have ever walked the earth. Alger was an author writing numerous rags-to-riches books about poor children “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps” and achieving the wealth and leisure that America promised and continues to promise so many throngs of hopefuls.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan is a gut-wrenching violation of that promise. As Nate Silver’s blog FiveThirtyEight reported in their article What Went Wrong in Flint, it was a massive failure of government at every level that sickened a young generation, possibly for the rest of their lives.

As the article reports, it was a group of just a few unrelenting locals in Flint who exposed the lies that were fed up the food chain to state and federal regulators, and the willfully flawed testing protocols used by those regulators that confirmed everything was OK. I highly recommend reading the article.

ambj-flint-lead-chart-21
The Michigan DEQ, though selective testing, found acceptable levels of lead (left). The more rigorous citizen testing initiative found disturbingly high levels (right). Source: FiveThirtyEight

CityLab, another one of my favorite blogs, further drove home a broader point – there is a strong correlation between water quality (and environmental quality in general) and race. Their article, If You Want Clean Water, Don’t Be Black in America, details the sad history of Blacks and, more recently, other minorities much more likely to live in places with tainted water and air. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder insisted that race played no role in the creation of this crisis. But with the overwhelming weight of history looming, the article notes:

So, when Snyder told MSNBC that there was “absolutely” no racism involved in this situation, good follow-up questions would have been: How can you be so absolute? How does this Flint case differ from the multitude of similar cases that make up the canon of environmental racism in America?

Lead is a thoroughly researched neurotoxin shown to have significant and lifelong negative impacts in children. The most troubling impact is cognitive development impairment, including learning disabilities, developmental delay, and hearing loss. The impact of lead is so deleterious that it has been (controversially) posited to have contributed to the decline of the Roman empire. There is no “safe” level of lead exposure, though the EPA has set thresholds at which point mitigation activities are mandated.

Governor Snyder was probably being honest that race, as an explicit factor, did not play any part in the decision to change water sources. And, from a certain perspective, that’s real progress compared to the days when George Wallace ran for president. But when a city that is 60% Black has their children exposed to such a well-understood and easily avoidable toxin as lead, we need to take a step back and look at the systems and institutions that produced these results.

In Massachusetts, a really obvious example of institutional racism that I often ponder is in Boston, one of the most segregated cities in America. When you look at the rapid transit map in the greater Boston area, you immediately notice a hole right down through the southern neighborhoods. These are the exact same neighborhoods which hold the highest proportion of Black residents in the city; one block group actually has 100% Black residents, according to the 2014 American Community Survey. You can see in the map below that there is no rapid transit in this part of the city (the section with the dark blue block groups).

Transit Inequality_edited
Dashed Green Line Extension added; as of now, it is unclear if GLX will actually be built.

You might notice that one part of the Red Line does travel adjacent to a majority Black area, the Mattapan “High Speed” Line (quotations my own). For anyone interested in the history of rail transit, I highly recommend taking a field trip to ride the Mattapan Trolley. It’s like stepping back into the 1940s, because that’s how old the trolley cars are. Needless to say, it is not high speed, is terrifying and rickety, and is laughably inferior to modern day rapid transit.

The only investment in rail rapid transit that could conceivably happen in the next decade is taking place not in these very dense, underserved neigborhoods. Rather, it is in Somerville and Medford (dashed green line in the map above). The Green Line Extension (GLX) will connect the current terminus in east Cambridge up through rapidly gentrifying east Somerville to Tufts University. Meanwhile, residents the largely minority neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan continue having to crawl along in buses on congested roadways.*

I’m sure that at no point did any transit planner sit down and say, “OK, we’re going to plan rail rapid transit in all of these neighborhoods EXCEPT this low-income minority neighborhood.” Just like I’m sure no one in the Flint debacle said, “OK, we’re going to allow this terrible water supply to be used because these residents are low-income and largely minority.” But in both cases it’s the sum of a huge number of small bad decisions and compromises that lead to these outcomes; wealthier residents are able to attend public meetings on a topic. They write letters to their elected representatives (or are the elected representatives), form civic groups to push for an amenity or issue, file lawsuits. And public sector officials, when prioritizing decisions, put these noisy, influential people first – with the intention, probably, of getting to those other parts of town later.

The Brookings Institution has a trove of articles on The Opportunity Gap in America – for example, half of Black Americans born in the bottom quintile income bracket stay in that bracket, compared to just 23% of white Americans.

 

opportunity gap
Source: Brookings Institution

And this opportunity gap, this structural bias, this headwind blowing on residents of these low-income minority communities is just so un-American.

As a public sector employee myself, the Flint crisis is a jolting reminder of the fundamental commitment that I and everyone else in government has made to the public good – not to optics, or career ambitions, or the path of least resistance. Children have been robbed of their futures because of a failure at every level of government. People who probably don’t think of themselves as racist have perpetrated a highly racist injustice. It is incumbent on us, the public sector, and civically engaged citizens, and adherents to whatever is left of the American dream, to work toward a country where Flint’s water crisis doesn’t happen again.

What happened in Flint is not the America of Carnegie and Alger. What happened in Flint is not the country I want.

 

*It is worth noting that MassDOT has a “RDM Study” to improve transit service in the area I described in Boston. Furthermore, changes have been made to the commuter rail line that goes through these neighborhoods, improving access to RDM residents. This is a good start, but still an embarrassing gap on the rapid transit map.