Building Highways, Cutting Transit

As you might have read, the FY18 state budget reduced funding for transit (resulting in service cuts) and cut the Springfield-to-Boston rail study entirely. Adding insult to injury, the legislature decided in the same budget to fund a study on building a new exit on the Mass. Pike somewhere between Westfield and Lee, probably around Blandford. As the MassLive article puts it, “[State Representative] Pignatelli argued that a turnpike exit could spark economic development in the hill towns, as well as provide convenience to residents who must currently travel to Lee or Westfield to access I-90.”

blandford exit
Proposed area for a new exit

Cutting funding to transit and rail while funding a study for a new highway exit is a terrible move by the commonwealth for the following reasons:

  1. Environmental Goals: It runs totally counter to well-established state goals. For example, MassDOT went through an intensive process to create a sustainability plan (“GreenDOT”) and established mode shift goals of tripling the amount of biking, walking and transit by 2030. Also, the state has passed legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Adding a Mass. Pike exit promotes driving and undermines both goals. 
  2. Land Use Goals: Just like building the highways in the first place resulted in the suburban boom that dominates our metro areas, building this new exit in the Hill Towns is indeed going to “spark economic development.” Land values will go up near the exit, farmers will subdivide and develop new single-family housing, and businesses will follow that new growth into what was once green fields. This runs totally contrary to the land use program goals of the state, which seeks to encourage Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development. 

    suburban development
    Big box stores, chain restaurants, and post-war suburban housing around Mass. Pike Exit 7
  3. Economic Goals: The same processes that sucked the Springfield and Holyoke economies dry in the post-war period will still be at work today if an exit is built. When our “Gateway Cities” (smaller regional hubs like Springfield, Holyoke, Fitchburg, etc., that have struggled economically over the past few decades) are finally starting to see a turnaround, it makes no sense for the state to facilitate businesses locating into rural areas.
  4. Equity Goals: And perhaps the most egregious of all, this highway exit is going to overwhelmingly benefit relatively well-to-do white families living in the Hill Towns, while the cuts to transit service disproportionately impacts low-income people of color. This is counter to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to multiple programs run by the MassDOT Office of Diversity and Civil Rights.
Poverty map
Map of poverty in Hampden and Hampshire Counties by Block Group. Note the dark blue of Springfield and Holyoke, and the light blue of Blandford. 

The political argument for the exit is that it will better serve people who live in Blandford, Chester, Russell, etc. And that’s true, it will (at least those who drive). But the people who live in these communities moved there knowing that highway access is not very good. And while their convenience would probably increase, their private benefit is outweighed by the cost to the public.

Not only would the new exit promote more driving, more destruction of farmland and open space, and the relocation of business activity from Springfield to Blandford, but there is also the opportunity cost of building the exit – what else could that money have been used for? (I have a suggestion – fully funding PVTA.)

If the state and the region are serious about climate change, about downtown revitalization, about smart growth, then PVPC and MassDOT must make crystal clear in this legislatively mandated study that the project hurts the public and conflicts with myriad state policy goals.

They say that actions speak louder than words. Massachusetts has some excellent policies on the books regarding climate change, active living, equity, and urban revitalization. Building this new exit would show that those policies are nothing more than just words.


Will Hampden County Ever Gentrify?

Since moving to Hampden County, I’ve thought a lot about economic development, about why Holyoke and Springfield have so many blighted, abandoned structures, and about what we can do to fix that. But then a discussion I went to last Tuesday evening, “Places that Matter,” turned to the topic of gentrification, which was surprising. Surprising because when I think of Holyoke, I think of a place far away from even the prospect of gentrification. And yet a spirited conversation ensued nonetheless. 

The gist of the meeting was that some Architecture and Planning professors at UMass-Amherst had developed an online historic preservation tool. The tool pulls posts from Twitter and Flickr and then places mentions of specific Holyoke places on a map. Based on the number of mentions a certain place gets, it is ranked as an “important” place in the city. Ultimately, this could be a tool to help inform where historic preservation efforts should be targeted, rather than the traditional method of a Historic Preservation Commission and perhaps a few community members at sparsely-attended evening public meetings deciding what places are historically significant.

I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd at this presentation – it was about half white folks and half non-white, primarily Puerto Rican. Toward the end of the event, we discussed how we would like to see these “important” places marked, preserved, or otherwise commemorated.

At first, people suggested typical things – wayfinding signs, maps, plaques, etc. But then the question came up, who are we creating these designations for? And that led to a discussion about how do we ensure that the primarily non-white and/or Latino community residents benefit from this new attention to historic or “important” places in their neighborhoods, and not just “tourists” or “visitors.” Which, it quickly became obvious, “tourists” and “visitors” were code for “gentrifyers.”

The Broken American Economic Development Model

As far as I can tell, America basically doesn’t have a good economic development model for cities.

The model seems to be basically this: Wait around until a blighted area becomes desirable, at which point developers build luxury condos and boutique dog pedicure (“peticure”?) businesses, and just accept the skyrocketing housing costs. Residents, especially those who rent, get pushed out of the neighborhood while homeowners benefit from an incredible windfall that they more or less lucked into. This has happened in Boston’s South End, New York’s Williamsburg, Washington DC’s Columbia Heights, even here in the Pioneer Valley’s Northampton.

And then there are those areas which never gentrify, which is most of them. According to an analysis by Governing Magazine, only 8% of census tracts gentrified since the 2000 census. In those places, the millennial white collar hipsters never appear. Here in Massachusetts, think Fitchburg, think Orange, think Springfield, and yes, think Holyoke.

boston census tracts
Map of gentrified Boston census tracts since 2000. Source: Governing Magazine

So given the fact that there are basically two pathways for an impoverished neighborhood with blighted buildings and a lack of services (skyrocket into unaffordability or languish in poverty and disinvestment), economic development efforts leave residents – especially poor residents, especially people of color – with only bad options. But time and again, I have seen residents opt for the status quo because at least they won’t be displaced. And who can blame them?

Will Hampden County Ever Gentrify?

Of course, I’m not sure that Hampden County is going to be struggling in any significant way with gentrification in the near future. There may be certain places, like Longmeadow or maybe Atwater Park in Springfield or the Holyoke Highlands where housing affordability is a widespread issue.* But the population in these urban areas has declined from their record highs, meaning that the housing stock far exceeds the demand for housing. And then there are the numerous redevelopment opportunities for housing afforded by the abandoned mill buildings sprinkled all over the valley.

In short, I think there will be enough housing to keep prices pretty low for a long time.

population chart
Population of Springfield and Holyoke. Source: US Census Bureau

So I was glad that we went through the exercise of identifying important place. And I’m glad that we thought about how to mark where these important places are. And I’m certainly glad that we’re already thinking about what it will mean if we succeed and the “secret” of Holyoke gets out (that it’s a wonderful, diverse community with many excellent cultural, architectural, and natural resources). Gentrification is a legitimate concern. However, and I could be wrong here when I say this, but I think we’re a long way off from needing to deal with it in any big way here in Hampden County. 

*I should note that housing affordability will always be a major issue for households in or near poverty. When I talk about gentrification, I am specifically referring to housing affordability problems expanding beyond households in poverty to impacting middle-income households as well.


Poverty is Killing Hampden County

Hampden County is sick and losing years of life. Hampshire County is healthy and living long.   

That’s the conclusion of a recent county health rankings report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s County Health Rankings and Roadmaps project. Hampden County ranks dead last in the state for health outcomes (how healthy people are right now) and health factors (how healthy people can expect to be in the future).

health outcomes
Health Outcomes – Hampden County Ranked 14th
health factors
Health Factors – Hampden County Ranked 14th

I dove into the data and on the following measures Hampden County ranks last (asterisked) or second-to-last (typically behind Suffolk County):

  1. High school graduation rate
  2. Teen birth rate*
  3. Smoking rate*
  4. Years of potential life lost due to poor health*
  5. % reporting fair/poor health*
  6. Chlamydia rate*
  7. HIV prevalence rate
  8. % Diabetic*
  9. Income ratio, highest earners to lowest earners*
  10. % kids with free or reduced lunch
  11. % children in poverty

It’s especially striking in contrast to the health outcomes of Hampshire County, which ranked third for health factors, and fifth for health outcomes (out of 14 counties). What is Hampshire County doing right, and Hampden County doing wrong?

Hampshire_Hampden Counties health table

When I ran some correlations across all counties, I was struck by the relationship between poverty and negative health outcomes (insert the usual caveat that correlation is not causation). These are the following correlations for child poverty:

  • 0.83 for fair/poor overall health
  • 0.78 for teen birth rate
  • -0.88 for high school graduation rate
  • 0.90 for firearm fatalities rate

Also, Chlamydia rate, HIV prevalence, and infant low birth weight rate all also have strong correlations.

That’s bad news, because poverty is tough. Most of all for the families struggling through it, but also for the communities trying to solve the problems that come with it. Incomes have stagnated among the lowest earning households, and public programs haven’t been able to fill the gap. Cities are left with an incomplete tool set to address poverty – tinker with the school budget, or increase law enforcement, or offer incentives they can’t afford to redevelop blighted properties.

And I’m also reminded that the most common tool cities use, out of a lack of other good alternatives, is to just push out poverty (also known as displacement or gentrification). This is usually accomplished through zoning that restricts multifamily housing and mandates lot sizes that only the affluent can afford. In hot real estate markets, abandoned buildings are torn down and luxury condos are built in their place.

Poverty is a deeply cyclical problem, intertwined with race and racism, and I continue to be vexed by the limited things cities can do to lift its residents out of the cycle. Historically, state and federal government have taken the lead through welfare programs, Medicaid, food stamps, Section 8 and public housing, and Head Start, just to name a few. All of these programs have stagnated over recent years, and are threatened with being slashed in the near future.

The fact that Hampden County residents are going to live shorter, sicker lives than their neighbors in Hampshire County underscores the life and death urgency of figuring this out.


“Are You the Police?”

Today I had a major reality check when I decided to take my lunch break in nearby Calhoun Park in the North End of Springfield. I had been there a few times before, but today was by far the nicest day I’d had the opportunity to enjoy it.

The North End of Springfield has a reputation for being one of the more dangerous parts of the Pioneer Valley. It was highlighted in 60 Minutes, likened to a war zone where “counter-insurgency tactics” are being used to fight gang violence. So, despite having several large office parks in the area, I never see any business suits or ties.

When I got to the park, I saw a group of young men, probably in their 20’s, hanging around one of the sets of benches. Keeping in mind the neighborhood’s reputation, and knowing that I would find their music and chatter annoying, I chose a bench on the other side of the playground from them.

Painfully aware of my “otherness,” I started reading my magazine. I’m a typical Anglo-looking guy in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood, and the only person wearing any business casual clothing. Before long, one of the young guys came up to me.

“Excuse me, don’t take this the wrong way, but are you a police officer?”

I must have looked really puzzled – I don’t consider that there’s much about me that exudes the authority of a police officer.

“Uhh… Why do you ask?” I countered.

“Because you’re new around here, and people like you don’t usually come to sit and read.”

Ah, people like me. I smiled, and said, “No, I’m not a cop. I just work down the street.”

He laughed, and said, “I figured,” as he walked back to the other four or five guys who were back at the other benches. Meanwhile, I was seriously confused and more than a little uncomfortable.

After thinking about it a little more, I realized a few things from this encounter:

  1. As uncomfortable as I was around a group of young Hispanic men hanging out by those benches, they were also uncomfortable with having a white guy sitting in their neighborhood park;
  2. really stand out in that neighborhood. Like, way more than I thought;
  3. It’s unbelievable that my presence is such a curiosity. As I mentioned, there are several large offices nearby. I guess all of the (mostly suburban) office workers are too scared to walk around, even on a nice day?

I honestly don’t know if those guys are members of a gang, or if there was some other reason they wanted to know if I was a police officer. Given the national notoriety that police have had lately when it comes to relations with low-income residents of color, I can understand why that guy would want to know. I would want to know, too, regardless of whether I was doing anything illegal (though I might not go up and ask).

That’s not the first time I’ve been asked if I’m a cop, but it’s usually by a little kid as I ride by wearing my day-glo vest. Those times it’s happened, it’s always been when I’m in a low-income neighborhood. I hate to think that the quickest association in low-income neighborhoods of “white guy – day glo vest” is “police,” but that seems to be the case

I contrast this with my other park-sitting experiences, in Boston and Belmont. In the Public Garden or Belmont Common. I feet so generic on the street, I completely blend into the scenery like a garden-variety shrubbery. The North End of Springfield truly is a world away.

I guess I’ll close by pointing out the obvious: this is one of the most tangible examples of my privilege that I’ve experienced. I walk around this Springfield neighborhood oblivious to the social dynamics of the area – I didn’t even give my presence a second thought. And, indeed, I only got sideways glances from the residents because they guessed, a white guy like that? He must be a cop out to bust someone. It was only my perceived power over them that made them at all on edge.

And that’s a really weird feeling.

*Author’s Note: This is an especially poignant piece for me given a recent racially motivated assault on a close friend. She was in the streets in Manhattan with her two small children when a person screamed racial slurs and attempted to pepper spray them. The person was restrained by passersby and arrested, but it still underscores the currents of racism, power dynamics, and privilege – even in an urbane, diverse city like New York. 

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

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

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.

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.

White People Like White People

Cards Against Humanity, for those who haven’t played, is a game that violates rules of social decorum for the purposes of being hilarious. A grown-up version of Apples to Apples, it pairs bawdy or scatological terms with fill-in-the-blank sentences (sort of like Mad Libs). Just click on the link above if you don’t understand.

I was playing Cards Against Humanity with some friends, and the prompt card read “White people like _______.” Of course, a flurry of potential things run through one’s mind when thinking about what funny card to put down for what white people like: “Panera Bread Company.” “Adam Sandler Movies.” “Colonialism.” As the judge flipped the cards, the clear winner was “White people like white people.”

As I have become more involved with issues surrounding equity, that round of Cards Against Humanity pops back into my mind now and again. How simple and unfortunately true it is.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council has done a lot of work on segregation in Boston-area communities. One example of this is classroom makeup; the average white primary school student in the Boston region is in a classroom that is overwhelmingly white, whereas the average non-white student is in a much more diverse class.

classroom diversity

You can find the series of graphics that MAPC did here.

Furthermore, there is evidence that our communities nationally are becoming more segregated at the suburban level. As this article from The Atlantic reports, the spatial manifestation of segregation has shifted out to the suburbs, where certain communities become known as “Hispanic” or “Black” towns. As the MAPC graphic suggests, segregated communities show up as segregated classrooms.

This has gotten me to wondering: How do things look in the Pioneer Valley? In a subjective, abritrary-ish selection, I decided to compare a census tract in Holyoke to a census tract in Longmeadow. Holyoke, a low-income city with a large immigrant population, probably looks like the classroom in the lower left-hand corner of the graphic above. Longmeadow, a leafy affluent suburb of Springfield, I’m guessing, looks more like the upper left-hand corner.

I chose two census tracts in the communities that were roughly comparable in size and population.*

Census Tracts

Then I compared the race/ethnicity breakdowns between the 2000 census and the 2010 census. In 2000, the two tracts looked like this:

2000 census table

You can see that Holyoke looks a bit closer to Hampden County averages than Longmeadow. The census tract in Longmeadow has a substantially higher proportion of white people comprising their population, which becomes even more pronounced when looking at non-Hispanic whites.

By 2010, the breakdown looked like the following:

2010 census table

Hampden County as a whole, as well as Longmeadow and Holyoke in particular, saw the share of the non-white population increase. When looking at non-Hispanic whites, Longmeadow saw only a modest decrease (just over 4 percentage points), compared to the Holyoke which saw a 10 point decrease.

How do I interpret these findings?

On the question of whether there is segregation by community or “racial/ethnic clumping”: These two census tracts suggest that, indeed, “White people like white people.” Of the three geographies examined, the decrease in non-Hispanic whites was the smallest in Longmeadow. Hampden County, along with the nation as a whole, is becoming more diverse – Longmeadow is just taking a lot longer to do so.

But who cares?

That answer is complicated, but the issue for me has to do with the entanglement of race, class, and “The Opportunity Gap.” Longmeadow’s median household income is $108,835 according to the 2014 American Community Survey, while Holyoke’s is $35,550. This ends up being reflected in lower property values, which is then manifested as less money available for public schools (funded largely through local property taxes). The result: last April, Holyoke Public Schools were placed under state receivership.

There are a lot of reasons to dislike segregated communities, but the cycle of wealth and poverty ranks highest on my list. A fundamental aspect of the grand American experiment is social mobility. Separating people who are different from each other decreases access to new opportunities, and thus social mobility. MAPC has done a lot of work showing that this is a major problem in the Boston area. It looks like the Pioneer Valley has some work to do, too.

*The two census tracts examined in 2000 were split into four census tracts in 2010; the 2010 results represent summed counts corresponding to the original geographic extents.