What I wrote when I hosted my group’s weekly affordable housing discussion email

Hello, hello, and welcome to an email you don’t have to respond to.

So here’s the deal: before the trip even starts, Bike and Build gives you SO MUCH WORK to get you prepared physically and affordable housingly. One of the components of this is a weekly email between little subgroups of the rider group.

Each week, one person picks two articles on (a) topic(s), writes a bit about them, and sends them off. Then everyone else responds with their thoughts/related experiences/reactions to the articles. This is meant to be a discussion, but since it’s a really homeworky structure– required responses and all that– it ended up being more like everyone just writes their thing, possibly responding to those who went before them.

In case it wasn’t clear, I don’t love this format because I don’t like forced responses. If you don’t have anything to say, or you don’t have that much to say, or you want to mull stuff over before saying something, I think that’s fine and making people blubber up some words on some topic isn’t necessarily going to get you quality thoughts, so why bother?

But now it’s over and I did get to learn about some of the people I’ll be going with’s experiences with un/affordable housing in the various cities and towns where they all live, so that’s a positive. I’m also curious to see what directions all the other subgroups’ talks went in.

Last week was my turn, so figured I’d share with y’all here what I sent out.


Hello and welcome to the final week ever of AH email discussions! (You can still discuss AH over email after this week, but it won’t be mandatory.) 

This week, we’re gonna talk about ——————————ing.
(See what I did there?! The topic is REDLINING!)
I’m including lots of stuff, so please prioritize [2] and just read whatever interests you of the rest. Hopefully everyone will be drawn to different parts and you can glean whatever you don’t choose to read from everyone else’s responses.
[1] First, an initial definition of redlining from How We Built the Ghettos: A brief introduction to America’s long history of racist housing policy. This article goes into detail on the many components that went into redlining and its effects on geography and the racial distribution of wealth in America.  I want to pull out its definition of redlining:

Redlining is the practice of denying key services (like home loans and insurance) or increasing their costs for residents in a defined geographical area. In theory, this could be used against anyone. In reality, it was almost exclusively a tool to force blacks (and other minorities) into particular geographic areas. The practice began with the National Housing Act of 1934, which established the Federal Housing Administration, as well as the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. It was this agency which created “residential security maps” for several cities to determine the safety of real estate investments in selected areas.

[2] Armed with this definition, we’re going deep into the human side of redlining, reading Ta-nehisi Coates’ famous The Case for Reparations. To get at the heart of the redlining section of this suuuper loong essay, Command-F for “1961” and start reading there (“In 1961, Ross and his wife bought a house in North Lawndale…”). Read through, “The resulting conflagration has been devastating,” which is 7 paragraphs down from the interactive census map of Chicago.

[3] Now let’s look and see how, of course, somehow this shit is still happening.
[4] I also really appreciated this essay by a teacher in Portland on how she tried to answer her 6 year old’s question, “Why Is This the Only Place in Portland I See Black People?”We’re having these discussions at ages 18-26, but here’s a group of 6 year olds engaged in a super serious exploration on racism and housing discrimination. As we visit towns this summer, we’ll be meeting kids along the way, so it’s nice to get some pedagogy juices goin’ to start us thinking on how we’re gonna broach big topics with little people. You might want to skim this, but you also might get sucked into it idk.
[5] And, if you’d like, you can look for redlined maps of your city (or a random city you’re interested in), or maps of it during the Great Migration and its current levels of segregation. What’s happening now in those areas marked as “racially blighted?” I’ve found that the areas my friends (young, largely white, with not great paying jobs but usually better than minimum wage) live in are those that are comparably affordable now mostly because of their redlined histories. So that’s one way the legacy of redlining is shaping cities.
[6] I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Ta-nehisi Coates:

“If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services. Housing affects your chances of being robbed and shot as well as your chances of being stopped and frisked. And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly. It can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it. Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organic sorting, as opposed segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.”


Let’s Talk About Flint and Environmental Racism

If you get your news the responsible way, that is, by following Cher on Twitter, then you’re well aware that a part of America right now is under siege from its tap water.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 3.29.48 PM

All the news that’s fit to caps lock

I wish I could say this is old news, but unfortunately, while in terms of media attention it’s practically new news, not only does the start of this calamity date back much further, it’s also nowhere even close to over.

On the off chance you’re getting your news from me, a person whose sole source of nutrition for the day has been pretty much just an entire box of strawberry Fig Newmans, allow me to tell you the story. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder decided to essentially overthrow democracy in Flint by overturning the results of an election and installing his own people (America has literally invaded countries over less). These outsourced politicians, much like any consultants might, looked to how they might improve the bottom line above all else. They saw an opportunity to save if they went ahead and switched Flint’s water source from the relatively clean and safe Lake Huron to the contaminated Flint River. People alerted the government a year ago, when their children were getting sick and their water looked like pond scum, but no one did anything to help them, despite their protests. Then General Motors complained that the water was rusting their car parts, and Governor Snyder jumped through hoops and spent a considerable amount of money to get them hooked back up to the clean waters of Lake Huron. Meanwhile, the residents of Flint were coming down with Legionnaire’s Disease and irreversible lead poisoning.

There are a lot of ways to look at what’s been happening in Flint, and a lot has already been said. So I just want us to look at the crisis in Flint through a particular lens: that of a faction of the environmental movement called environmental justice. But first, a quick tour of the history of American environmentalism to see the context in which the environmental justice movement emerged.

Note: This will be a woefully simplified version of this history because you don’t want this to end up like my essay on the history of NYC public housing. Oh, you never saw that? That’s because it’s still an unfinished 4,000 word draft. Yeah. Let’s get started.


Environmentalism only came into being when people began to perceive the environment as under threat, or their own wellbeing as under threat from those changes. While people throughout the ancient world connected the effects of pollution on public health, the American environmental movement got its start only as the true ramifications of the industrial revolution were growing clearer. The broad history of modern American environmentalism thus comes in three main stages: a “hey bros, let’s go camping and shoot stuff” first stage, a “we are definitely all going to die soon” second one, and a “we can innovate our way out of this mess again and again until forever” third.

Stage 1: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man going camping must be in want of sufficient camping grounds  


[In aristocratic bellow] Let’s go camping, boooooyyys!

It can get pretty awkward when you try reading the words of the environmentalists of the 1800s stage, as for a group of people purportedly all about saving the wilderness (from themselves), they were awfully enthusiastic about shooting it up. Many considered Nature a pristine yet primitive and dangerous Eden that they needed to rush to carve out little bubbles in before their robber baron companies did the 19th century equivalent of put up a parking lot.

Theodore Roosevelt with Dead Rhino

Teddy Roosevelt, famed conservationist, with an animal he saved from um, living

Like the gender binary that defines female as what is “not male,” much of this understanding of nature was “that which is not human.” That humans had in fact lived on this continent, not necessarily “living lightly on the land,” as the myth of the ecological Indian would attest, was an inconvenience. Yet this was a nuisance easily remedied by population removal, whether though communicable disease, violence, or land grab. As America expanded, it pushed whomever it found on its new land out, into the seemingly infinite expanse of land that was the West. As the 19th century was coming to a close, however, so too was this stretch of wide open western frontier that, according to Gilded Age historian Frederick Jackson Turner, had kept up white America’s hopes, self-conception, growth, and ambition. (It was basically “there’s always money in the banana stand,” but in the 1800s and replace “money” with “land” and “banana stand” with “west.”) Aristocratic, Aryan conservationists applied the same Eugenics they used on people to other species and landscapes. Only pretty, noble animals and scenes like elk and mountains were worth saving; the little flora and fauna, like the little people, weren’t worth their time.


Technically, it’s going to some Native Americans’ home that you took

For the men who relished America’s “purple mountain majesties” (a brand new poem at the time) for all they offered in terms of both natural resources and self-identity, this was a crisis. People like Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir rushed to siphon up still-beautiful parts of the country to hide them in a bubble of protection, while removing the indigenous people who had lived on them before, and sometimes even the animals they didn’t like (there was a full-on wolf genocide in this country the population has yet to recover from). This is the charming legacy of our National Park system. In a 1901 promotional essay for the parks, Muir good-naturedly assured would-be white visitors that, when it came “to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.” [Ed. note: calling dibs on “Useless Innocence” as a band name now]

Not everything was profit- or sentiment-driven, however. Some, such as Aldo Leopold, were advocating for biocentrism, which is the belief, contrary to what the Bible says, that humans are just one species among many and should act as such. Middle class lobbying groups would continue to push this agenda of conservation and anti-pollution through the next century.

Stage 2: The birds are dying; we’ll be next

The second famous wave of American environmentalism came in the middle of the 20th century, when Rachel Carson explored and explained the ruinous effects the pesticide DDT was having on species that were merely bystanders to the insects it was meant to corral. The earth was our very own handbasket, and our miles per hour rate to hell was as high as our trucks’ fuel efficiency wasn’t. Things got really Malthusean for a moment there, and we seriously considered whether about half of us had to die, though it wasn’t the white parts.


You guys, I went to India, and it is just so gross. Love, Paul

The government got involved, though, and we got the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Clean Water Act, and the end of hairspray. Still the movement stayed as white as a bleached coral reef. Polling its members in 1972, the Sierra Club found that forty percent of respondents were strongly opposed to the organization potentially “concern[ing] itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities.” Only fifteen percent were in favor  (Obviously a group with any sizable number of minority members wouldn’t have phrased the question that way, or had to ask it). Some young, white activists who had cut their teeth protesting the Vietnam War were excited to get the underclasses involved, but their attempts to Lorax the urban poor were met with suspicion. The working class saw environmentalism as the elite trend it had long been, and feared its ability to create further oppression.

As the movement grew, leaving the poor and brown behind, it was maligned as anti-growth and thus, anti-jobs. While as the environmental non-profit industry proliferated, creating lots of jobs, those went to the liberal arts grads you’d expect. The jobs the poor were allotted were often in the very industries environmentalists fought against, such as coal mining and construction, and the immediate need of a job, even a dangerous and poorly paid one, trumped the eventual need for a non-lethal planet. Environmentalists got a bad rap as “anti-job,” a slanderous fire big business was more than happy to flame.

Stage 3: Buy green! Stop buying! But this Prius, tho

What came next was an optimistic, We Can Do It approach, which basically said, “if we had the ingenuity and inventiveness to get us into this mess, then gosh darn it, we have the smarts and pluck to invent our way out of it!” We didn’t have to stop building, we had to start building better. We got LEED buildings, hybrid cars, and a lot of TED talks on green cities. We’re all excited because sustainability is a fun design challenge.

This has led to the juxtaposition of anti-capitalist co-ops, “eco-friendly” packaged goods, and those tote bags that say “I am not a plastic bag.” We live in a weird mix of anti-consumption and conspicuously virtuous consumption.

im green

Methinks the tote bag doth protest too much

The absurdity is perhaps best embodied in the idea of carbon credits, which let governments or companies “buy” the right to emit a certain amount of pollution, or sell their rights on the free market. While many conservatives hate this idea as restricting industry’s ability to produce unfettered, many environmentalists hate it as well because it’s just in particularly bad taste to sell the rights to poisoning our only planet. So still pollution rages on, uncapped and untraded, as we all fight over what we can do, who can do it, and whether anything bad is happening at all.



The unequal burden of environmental destruction

Now, this is how the history of environmentalism is largely taught, but of course, it’s important to note here that just because this is who we, as a society and as historians, heard and noticed doing stuff, it doesn’t mean this is all that was happening. Rather, like in all of history, most people’s voices and actions either got stopped before they could occur or weren’t written down or spread for us to remember.

And just as their stories have been struck from the record, so have poor people, children, women, and ethnic minorities always been hit hardest by environmental degradation. This is both because they interact more closely with it, and because they are usually located right on the site of the worst abuses. These marginalized groups are the ones forced to extract its resources and depend on that labor for their livelihoods (through mining, agriculture, or drawing water, for example), live more closely intertwined in it (as they are less likely to own a car, live in a secluded and pristine habitat, or have the means to protect themselves from extreme weather events) and whose dwelling spaces the powerful invariably choose as the site of blights they don’t wish to live near, like landfills, fuel extraction operations, and freeways.

In addition, people from cultures other than the West’s have a host of different traditions dictating how to interact with the environment. Since they already know a different path, they cannot be convinced of the inevitability of capitalism and its treatment of nature, despite Margaret Thatcher and her ideological descendants’ famous declaration that “there is no alternative.”


Your father and I made capitalism for dinner, and you’ll eat it or go to bed hungry. That’s it; I don’t want to hear any more about hot dogs or democratic socialism

Environmental Justice is the fight against the deliberate and systematic oppression of disenfranchised groups through environmental tactics. These include discriminatory housing regulations; placement of landfills and toxic waste in communities of color; preventable environmental health problems such as asthma, lead poisoning, cancer, and developmental illnesses; farmworkers’ exposure to toxic pesticides; unsafe and unfit housing; mistreatment of sacred indigenous grounds; lack of representation in the environmental movement; poor access to healthcare; restricted community participation in decision-making; and unequal enforcement of environmental laws.

dumpingEnvironmental racism refers to the fact that people of color are the disproportionate victims of the above litany of abuses. As Robert Bullard defined it in his seminal 1990 work, Dumping in Dixie, “Black communities, because of their economic and political vulnerability, have been routinely targeted for the siting of noxious facilities, locally unwanted land uses, and environmental hazards… and are likely to suffer greater risks from these facilities than is the general population.”

To advocate for environmental justice is to fight a two-pronged battle, against not only environmental degradation’s disproportionate effects on the very people least responsible for it, but against the very act of environmental destruction itself.

The Environmental Justice movement


Dolores Huerta, American hero

The sentiments and tactics of the American environmental justice movement can be seen throughout the country’s history, coming to a head in the second half of the 20th century. From 1965-1970, Mexican and Filipino farmworkers organized against abusive working conditions in the agricultural fields of California. In 1967, black students in Houston protested a city dump that had killed two children. The next year, black residents of West Harlem fought a sewage treatment plant in their midsts. But the movement would be subsumed by the larger civil rights campaign until the 1980s, when environmental justice came into the spotlight thanks to a poor, black county in North Carolina that surprised everyone by fighting back when their health and community came under threat.

In 1982, the African American residents of Warren County, North Carolina found themselves selected as the dumping grounds for the state’s PCB toxic waste, which the state had previously been haphazardly dispersing across the state’s highways. The site selected for the landfill wasn’t geologically wise, as it had a shallow water table and was dangerously close to the source of residents’ drinking water. But new EPA regulations were rolling back restrictions on where landfills could and could not be built in order to facilitate building them in more politically expedient locations, and Warren County fit the bill. Poor, rural, and 84% black, it was expected to lie down and take whatever the government threw at it.

PCB protest

Center: Rev. Ben Chavis, who coined the term “environmental justice” based on his experience in Warren County. This photo was taken as he raised his fist in support of fellow protesters as they were taken to jail on Thursday, Sept. 16, 1982. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)

It turned out that wasn’t to be the case this time. Warren County residents organized a formidable opposition, joined by national civil rights leaders, black politicians, churches, labor unions, activists, and students. In just two months, over 500 Warren County residents were arrested for participating in non-violent protests. Now, when students and activists get arrested in protest, that’s a great sacrifice. But when a group that has a history of suffering at the hands of the police, and for whom missing a day of work could be financially ruinous, gives up everything to exercise their right to free speech and assembly in the name of a cause? That’s awe-inspiring. That the people of Warren County deemed this level of dedication and personal suffering was worth it shows the gravity of what was– and still is– at stake when it comes to environmental racism.


Nonviolent protest tactics

Though the trucks still came with the toxic trash, the media had come as well, and with it, the nations’ attention. The Washington Post called Warren County’s activism the “marriage of environmental concerns with civil rights activism.” Dr. Benjamin Chavis, director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, coined the term “environmental justice” to describe what they were fighting for. The Environmental Justice movement was born.


A coalition of protestors. I really don’t know why all these photos from 1982 are in black and white

While Warren County’s campaign is heralded  as the birth of the environmental justice movement, Hazel Johnson is known as its mother.

Johnson began fighting the discriminatory polluting practices of her Chicago hometown after her husband died of lung cancer in 1969. She documented the disproportionately high cancer rates among her public housing community, who lived in homes laden with asbestos and surrounded by over 250 leaking storage tanks and landfills. Her advocacy efforts led, among other things, to a 1994 Executive Order directing federal agencies to examine minority communities’ disproportionate environmental and public health ailments. In a fitting turn of events, the young black president who reaffirmed this pledge in 2014 had worked alongside Johnson as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, thirty years before.

hazel and barack

Two audaciously hopeful South Side community activists

In 1991, black leaders organized the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, drawing up the principles that guide the Environmental Justice movement. Today, the environmentalism movement includes many activist groups founded by and for people of color, and lower class and minority communities increasingly banding together to try to protect their environments. The federal government has even worked in fits and starts to address environmental discrimination. But environmental justice isn’t an especially well-known cause, and it’s a fight that is far from over, even as it may sit on the sidelines of national awareness. What Flint did was to bust this ignorance open and shine, what for many white Americans was the first light they saw on the unique health effects of being black, poor, and living in the wrong place.


Dr. Bullard addressing the First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit

Flint is far from alone. The small, 77% black community of St. Joseph, Louisiana has been suffering through chalky, murky water the color of caramel for a decade. One resident told Mic, “You can’t wear white clothes because if you wash your white clothes, the water turns them tan or beige. All of the toilets, sinks in town are stained brown.”

Lead poisoning is also more commonly transmitted through old housing stock, with its leaded paint, than through water. And dilapidated, unsafe housing is tragically common, especially among African Americans. As a result, Black children are five times as likely to suffer from lead poisoning than white children. Multiple towns in Pennsylvania have equivalent or higher levels of lead exposure to Flint, mostly from old leaded paint. A study by socio-environmentalists recently found evidence that “extreme emitters” are having an even larger effect on sacrifice zones than scholarship until this point has suspected.

Spacialized discrimination, with all the hazards that entails, has only gotten worse in the three decades since Warren County rose up against toxic waste. As Dr. Bullard explains, “African Americans and people of color are more concentrated near hazardous wastes facilities today than two decades ago. People of color now make up 56 percent of the residents living in neighborhoods within two miles of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities; they comprise a whopping 69 percent in neighborhoods with clustered waste facilities… African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of posing the greatest health danger.”

And this is truly an issue of environmental racism, rather than just a byproduct of environmental classism. Black people making $50,000 – $60,000 a year are still more likely to live in a polluted area than white people making only $10,000. Meanwhile, despite supposed increased federal oversight, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has not declared a single instance of discrimination among any state or local agency in its twenty-two years of existence from the hundreds of claims and documented events submitted to it. The racial lines of suffering drawn by Hurricane Katrina drew a clear distinction in how vulnerable black people have been left not just to the daily effects of environmental degradation and abuse, nor to the immediate catastrophe of a sudden weather event, but also to a government and societal response that left us with the indelible and unimpeachable charge that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” As a group of scholars including Bullard wrote in the journal Race, Poverty & the Environment wrote,”environmental justice is about slow-motion disasters—and disasters reveal environmental injustice in a fast-forward mode.”

Flint has largely been reported on as a public health crisis, or a political scandal, but increasingly, people are calling it out as the instance of environmental racism that it is. Russell Simmons explicitly called the situation environmental racism in the Detroit Free Press, adding that, “If this were Beverly Hills, it would be a minute before we found out and a second before someone would be blamed and be brought up on charges.” Yale360 sought out Dr. Bullard for an interview on Flint’s plight, which he called “a textbook case of environmental injustice.” Autostraddle‘s “Notes from a Queer Engineer” column traced the roots of the disaster to a combination of road salt and environmental racism. And the New York Times asked, “If Flint were rich and mostly white, would Michigan’s state government have responded more quickly and aggressively to complaints about its lead-polluted water?” in an article entitled “A Question of Environmental Racism in Flint.”


I think we’ve all seen this by now, but it doesn’t get less unsettling

So why am I writing about all this here (besides the fact that it’s the only blog I’ve got)? Well, this is ultimately an issue of housing, as it is an issue of the lived, natural, and built environment. Your housing, or rather, your habitat, doesn’t stop at your front steps. It extends into your community, in floats in the air around you, it’s painted onto your walls, and it’s pumped into your pipes and streams from your faucets.

Housing justice is not just about affordability; it’s about the right and ability to be safe and healthy in one’s home. Environmentalism is not just about saving the rainforest and polar bears; it’s about making sure none of our own species are in danger of habitant destruction. Urban planning is not just about public transit and bumped out curbs; it’s about finding a place for the less pretty stuff besides where the people no one cares about live. The people of Flint were denied their human and environmental rights when the city switched their water to a toxic stream, and it was due to environmental racism. Here’s to a world where Environmental Justice wins.



The Irish Potato Famine + Housing Justice

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

If my countryfellows (okay, not a word) know one thing about the Irish, it’s this holiday. If we know two, depending on age, it’s either how awesome The Luck of the Irish was (I’ve been told this is an unpopular opinion, but it spoke to me in some ethnic minority heritage way) or maybe Angela’s Ashes? If you know THREE things, then it’s gotta be the Potato Famine.

Now, when you first hear about the Potato Famine, it’s like, ahh that is sad, but must’ve been a natural disaster, right? Famines happen all over! (But maybe not in democracies?). Everybody starves sometimes! But if you are lucky enough to learn the first thing about the Colombian Exchange, that tale begins to unravel, just a bit. You see, potatoes are from the Americas. So how did a crop failure of them cripple Ireland? Why didn’t they just eat whatever they ate before you know, all that conquistadoring and guns, germs, and ste(a)ling?

Well, as the archconservative Mises Institue is quick to point out, they weren’t exactly dealing with a free market, or a free anything. The English ruled Ireland as they did India, or Western Africa, or, uh, 25% of the globe at their imperial height: as a colony with the primary purpose of enriching the Motherland. The English had occupied Ireland as a vassal state for centuries, viscously putting down rebellions every few generations. In 1798, they brutally suppressed another attempted revolution, this time inspired by those of the French and Americas. In retaliation, the English declared Ireland part of the British Union, taking away any parliamentary representation and increasing the level of army occupation.

But this was just the latest in a long history of English terrorizing of Ireland. In 1695, they struck back against the isle’s support for Catholic James II’s ascendency to the throne. The English outlawed Gaelic culture and language, prohibited Irish Catholics from attending school, serving as government officials or officers in the military, holding apprenticeships, voting, practicing law, buying land, or holding weapons. They also outlawed the Catholic Church and did their best to crush the Irish economy. You might not be surprised to find out that two centuries of this treatment had left Ireland a pretty sorry place, which the English were quick to attribute to a faulty national character.

In the English imagination, the Irish were a dirty, promiscuous, lazy, overly spiritual, drunken, teeming mass of Catholics (if you ever start to think racism makes sense, it’s good to consider all the prejudices people around the world have held at one time or another to see how abject and absurd they all are). So they forced them to become England’s breadbasket. “Great! An agricultural society,” you might think. ‘So little chance of famine then!” Well, let’s take a step back.

You say Potato, I say South American crop that never should have been able to lead to mass starvation

In South and Central America, the potato was a wonder food. The Incas developed over three thousand strains, each with a different nutritional makeup and suited for different growing conditions. A blight wouldn’t cause a famine in the Andes unless it mutated to include 3,000 strains, plus then took down all their other food sources. But as much as the European conquistadors learned from the Native Americans (the learning went far beyond that thing we’re told every year about Squanto helping the Pilgrims plant), they were resistant as hell against getting to the end of the “lessons,” as could be expected when the student considers the teacher a heathen and then enslaves and murders their people. And let it never be said that the Europeans followed indigenous farming advice, or even basic logic at all. No, the Spanish outlawed the cultivation of amaranth because the Aztecs would bake it into cookies and eat it ritually (okay, sometimes they had human blood in it, but the Spanish probably were just salty because they hadn’t though of being so practical about the charred remains of their Auto de Fe victims). The Spanish considered this a mockery of the communion, which, dude, these people have been doing their own thing for thousands of years without you or your god-cookies– this is not about you! So you can see how the potato learning might not have gone smoothly.

The Europeans got the message, “Hey! Plant some potatoes!” but not the part that said, “more than one variety” (because how can you hear when you’re too busy massacring the people who might have let you in on that One Weird Tip to Cut Down on Crippling Famines?) So off they went to Europe with their, uh, not that many potato types. The Irish, in particular, planted only one strain, the Lumper. And as potatoes spread through propagation, the potatoes in Ireland were technically an army of clones. Monocultures have little defense against disease or environmental change. Planting only one species, and especially only a single strain of a species means every one will have the same vulnerabilities. So all it would take was one little disease or extreme weather event and the genetically identical potatoes across the country would go down like dominoes.

The mass of Europeans, who were the historic opposites of the Gluten Free craze, at first thought this potato thing was a dumb novelty. But grain had a way of dying in the fields, from blight, climate, or pests, that the safely burrowed potato could resist. Further, the little tuber could grow great in the areas of Europe too chilly for the weaksauce known as the wheat stalk. Before the potato, southern Europe– the area warm enough for grain to grow with greater ease and reliability– held the power in the region. But with the introduction of the hearty, cold-bearing potato, the scales began to tip in the north’s favor (Game of Thrones joke about the north rising). Populations rose by so much and so quickly thanks to this reliable new food that people started to suspect it held aphrodisiac powers (cause and effect game weak, Europe). Hardy, long-lasting, highly caloric, and not half bad mashed with a bit of butter, the potato was the perfect food if you were food insecure, that is, poor. And the English had done their very best to make sure the people of Ireland were exactly that.

Land rights (or lack thereof)

Protestant Englishmen held the titles to most of the land in Ireland, inheriting it from conquerers since the 1370s. The plight of the Irish mirrored that of the serfs in Russia or soon-to-be sharecroppers in North and South America. They were without land, control over the means of production, or much by way of rights. A French sociologist said of his visit in 1835: “I have seen… the Negro in his chains, and thought… that I saw the very extreme of human wretchedness; but I did not then know the condition of unfortunate Ireland… In all countries, more or less, paupers may be discovered; but an entire nation of paupers is what was never seen until it was shown in Ireland.” (He added that, while the Native Americans were materially poor, at least they were free, whereas the Irish were not just poor but unequal, in both possessions and law, to the British.)

The English had put a stop, through law or neglect, any potential source of wealth in Ireland. They had outlawed Catholics from attending school or owning land, and kept Ireland flooded with cheap English goods so as to prevent any local industrialization. Only agriculture remained, and so rent prices skyrocketed. Equivalent land would cost 80-100 times more in Ireland than in England.

A British survey in 1835, ten years before the Famine’s outbreak, found that half of all rural Irish families lived, with up to a dozen people and their animals, in a single room mud shack without windows or chimney (how much you wanna bet they had respiratory problems?). Families would build these homes near each other to create communities called clachans, or all share a single, tiny plot. Often people lived on the same land their ancestors had owned, but in shacks rather than manors thanks to the English dispossession. The law disincentivized any fixer upper tendencies one might have, because any improvements on your dwelling became property of the landlord.

These bound laborers were in some way lucky, as they had an agreement, tenuous as it was, with the farmer and landlord to stay on the grounds. Other, roving laborers called cottiers had no such agreement with any landowners, but traveled the countryside looking for work. Farmers granted these migrant agricultural workers the right to build a small cabin and plant a small plot of potatoes in exchange for help with the harvest.

Landlords, for whom Ireland was a distasteful backwater they would sooner die than commute to, collected rent through local middlemen, who the Irish called land sharks. These agents kept subdividing plots of lands while raising prices, in a practice known either as a sick version of that math question about how many times you can fold a piece of paper in half, or rack-renting (depending on who you ask, I guess). Tenants would grow indebted though the rising rents and interest. Without leases, land sharks could evict on a whim, at which point the unlucky family would be forced to wander and beg. Many Irish slept under trees, in dug out mud pits, or in other makeshift approximations of shelter.

Little cash exchanged hands between farmhand and landlord. Landlords paid workers by granting them use of a small plot of land for their own subsistence farming, and charged their rent by deducting it from their wages. Peasants’ survivals thus depended on their ability to feed themselves from their small conacre lot, or land sublet with the express purpose of growing one crop for a single season.

The Irish peasantry quickly found in potatoes a near-perfect food for this system. Potatoes took quickly to Ireland’s climate, required less effort than grains, and were so calorically and nutritionally dense that even just an acre could feed a family of six and their animals for a year. Landlords approved, as the spud neither took up too much space from their own profitable crops, nor depleted the soil.

By the 19th century, three million of the eight million Irish were living virtually exclusively on potatoes, with the occasional cameo by milk, cabbage, fish, or salt. Men might consume as many as fourteen per day. The power of the potato was such that Irish peasants were actually healthier in some ways than English peasants, whose wheat-dependent diet lacked the nutrients of the spud. The potato didn’t eliminate Irish hunger, however. In the summer space between fall potato harvests, the Irish went hungry, begged, bought predatorily-priced British grains, or traveled to England looking for work. If they could last until fall, however, they were assured another few months of calories, nutrients, and satiety.

English reformers thought a spot of charity could be just what the Irish needed, so they set up workhouses for the truly destitute. Only complete families could enter, as to clear land entirely for the landlords of tenants unable to make rent. Upon turning oneself into a workhouse, the officials, usually ex-police or army, would interrogate you to make sure you had no other options. If you passed that test, your family would be separated into barracks for men, women, girls, and boys, and not permitted reunion except maybe Sundays at church. After separation, you were washed down, given uniforms, and held to strict rules, including silence at meals and never leaving the building. Oh, and for ten hours each day you would do purposefully pointless work, such as breaking rocks if male, or knitting, turning a wheel, picking apart old ropes for reuse, or cleaning if female. The work was there more “to set you free” than help the economy, as it was decried that the workhouses not pose any competition to business. At least you could leave, if you had anywhere to go. People did not rush to apply for spots, the same way Japanese Americans did not flood internment camps with applications, nor Europeans Jews concentration camps. Or at least they didn’t until the Famine made the workhouse the only option for those too poor to emigrate. Eventually, things got so bad (read: expensive for landlords) that financing people’s emigration became cheaper than keeping them in a workhouse. In the middle of the famine, the British government began exporting Irish to their colonies. The British sent emigration officers around the workhouses to sign up volunteers to leave. They sent about 4,000 orphaned girls to Australia, then over 15,000 to Canada when they said they’d appreciate getting a few more domestic servants. Men answered American help wanted ads in Irish newspaper, sailing to America to work long, poorly-paid days building infrastructure projects like the Erie Canal, sometimes forgoing pay in exchange for passage. Even as people poured out of the country and the workhouse, the system would continue until the semi-autonomy of the Irish Free State in 1920.

Just before the Famine, revolutionary fervor once again reached a peak, but the English crushed the movement with all the cold bloodedness you’ve come to expect from this country that in a bizarre twist would go on to become associated with dry, self-depreciating humor. Thus, even on the eve of the Famine, the Irish had all-too-recent memories and scars from what it meant to try to stand up to the English.


In 1845, a warm and damp winter created the perfectly tragic conditions for a newly imported American fungus to blacken, ferment with a sickening smell, and turn to black goo potato plants across the country. The fungus spread even faster than human disease normally does, as the genetic homogeneity between the potato clones put up no defense. The not too cold, not too hot weather that year was exactly the type the fungus needed. By the end of the year, a third of Ireland’s potatoes were lost.

Some English thought the blight was a blessing in disguise– finally, here was their opportunity for a scorched earth approach to remaking Ireland in their own industrialized, Protestant image! Others thought it was God’s divine will, a pox on the obstinate Catholics.

Fortunately, Prime Minister Peel took a more humane view, and sought to repeal the Corn Laws (corn meaning all grains). These laws imposed heavy tariffs on imported grains, thus minimizing foreign competition. Peel sought to repeal (ha) them in order to allow the UK to import much-needed emergency grain for Ireland. Unfortunately, however, the greed of England’s grain merchants and the barons who loved them won, as landowners loathe to give up their privileged place in the market struck down his effort.

Most English assumed the blight would be alleviated come next year’s harvest, and so provided only temporary measures for relief, in keeping with what they knew and did about past famines. But this was to be a different breed of disaster, wrested upon an already derelict country, and so its effects rippled out to crushing proportions. A series of unusually cold and wet winters followed the initial blight, keeping conditions just so to prevent any potatoes from successfully growing. The Famine thus continued to spread.

People lived off what they could forage: wild blackberries, twigs, cabbage leaves, or air. Food riots broke out, and the English retaliated with gunfire. Group after group combed over potato fields in the vain hopes that anything remained.

As The History Place describes, the English tried several, half-hearted, contested approaches to fighting the vast starvation. Prime Minister Peel shipped in corn from America, but it was difficult to find a way to process it in a land with little infrastructure for grinding grains, alien to the Irish, didn’t provide as many calories as potatoes had, aggravated already weakened digestive systems, and, most damningly, soon ran out. The government set up a relief office run by Charles Edward Trevelyan, an Englishman who felt his distance from the problem (he visited Ireland only once during the Famine) kept him more acute. Local relief committees were supposed to raise funds to take care of their own regions, but when uneducated farmers ran the meetings, wealthy landowners were turned off from participating.

Simultaneously, the English felt a conviction to maintain laissez faire policies, though only when it suited them. Thus the irony of protectionist tariffs for England while a timidity in stepping in to provide free or even subsidized food for the starving Irish, as that might upset grain prices and private profit.

Peel lost his position as Prime Minister thanks to backlash against his position on the Corn Laws. Trevelyan took the opportunity to go full austerity on the Irish. He promised to make “Irish property pay for Irish poverty.” He got his wish, in a way, as in the end, the English spent about seven million pounds (0.01% of their gross national product) on all of Ireland during the famine, whereas the Irish, through taxes and landlord borrowing, paid about 8.5 million. He vowed as well to not too give the Irish too many handouts for fear they become “habitually dependent” on the generosity of the English government. In other words, the English saw the Irish as lazy, promiscuous substance abusers who relied on government handouts– sound familiar? He closed the soup kitchens and sent back a ship filled with corn without allowing it to unload its cargo. The free market would work everything out.

Unsurprisingly, it did no such thing. For those who could find work, wages were low and went straight to rent. Infrastructure was lacking, so what food there was could hardly travel. Even those with money couldn’t find any food to buy. Private enterprise relied on taxes to fund public works projects, but no one was earning any money, so tax coffers lay fallow. The blight continued to spread. People continued to die. The British continued… to ship food from Ireland to England. Up to 75% of Irish land continued to produce crops for export throughout the famine, but this the British took from them, leaving the Irish to starve as they watched ships sail off with their country’s rightful bounty. When Irish people tried to seize these shipments for themselves, the British simply sent in more troops.

The British implemented pointless public works projects that neither paid enough for survival nor created anything of use (so as not to compete with private industry), just destination-less stone roads for people were too weak to travel. In most cases, the calories one could afford with the wages paid by these jobs were fewer than those you’d have to expend doing the hard labor to earn them. A clause in one of the Irish Poor Laws passed stipulated that the only people eligible for any public work were those with less than a quarter of an acre. Thus even more Irish lost their land, as they made the impossible choice between immediate food and work or a once and future home.

In 1847, the government had a change of heart and policy, and decided to “keep the people alive.” New soup kitchens gave out watery gruel that only added to the dysentery sweeping the country. Other diseases, in turn, ravaged their shares of the population.

1847 also brought an exceptionally cold winter to Europe, freezing to death thousands of the now-homeless population. Unlike in 1846, when people still tried at least to plant potatoes, no one had planted anything that year. People were too weak, families too scattered, knew landlords would simply confiscate anything that grew as back payment for rent (which they could sell at hyper-inflated prices), and had eaten even the blighted potatoes they might have used as seed. The English heaped scorn on the Irish for stupidly eating their only hope at food for the next year.

In 1848, as revolution swept across the rest of Europe, typhus swept across Ireland. Typhus attacks the blood. In its first stage, it turns its victims black, just as fungus did the potato. This stage is called Black Fever, After the first wave hits the body, it progresses to Relapsing Fever, turning the skin yellow. Appropriately, this stage is referred to as Yellow Fever. People also called it Roadside Fever, as infected people often lay down in roadside ditches, waiting to die. Scurvy, lice, and dysentery rounded out the starvation.

England knew from history that fever always followed famine, and they took precautions. Yet the Fever Laws were set to sunlight five months after passage, revoking the support before the fever had even reached its height. They were not renewed. The 28 functioning fever hospitals in all of Ireland were shrinking, as doctors died off from the infections caught from their patients. The hospitals hardly offered any help, anyway: patients slept on filthy hallway floors surrounded by other disease-riddle bodies. No accurate numbers exist from this time, but it is estimated that perhaps ten times the number of people succumed to fever than famine.

Housing + Tragedy

Much of the tragedy in Ireland was the result of predatory landowning and housing practices. Landowners and their farmers and rent-collection agents prioritized the profits of export agriculture over the survival of the tenant sharecroppers both before and during the Famine. Without any potatoes to either eat or sell, peasants could hardly afford rent. English landlords responded mercilessly, evicting anyone who could no longer pay.

Then in 1847, the English decided that for once and for all, this was Ireland’s problem, not theirs, and it was all the damn landlords’ faults. So Parliament passed the Irish Poor Law Extension Act, which placed responsibility for tenants onto whoever owned the land on which they lived. The law demanded that landlords, who had long stopped receiving reliable streams of rent, furbish 10 million pounds to aid the country’s poor. This was to be paid through a tax on each tenant whose annual rent was 4 pounds or less, with the assumption that this was a reasonable measure of how many impoverished people lived on one’s land. But this law only incentivized landlords to reconfigure the ever-shrinking plots they had rented out to try to rent them in larger, more expensive expanses, or stop hosting tenants entirely. Either way required landlords to clear their land of people. And besides, without paying tenants, paying any tax was an impossibility. Additionally, since British property law in Ireland was byzantine and eccentric, it was very difficult for most landlords to sell their properties even if they wanted to. So landlords, rather than taking this call to provide a tax of “charity “graciously, simply did their best to rid themselves of any remaining tenants.

Between 1846 and 1854, landlords evicted some 500,000 people. The famous song Skibberdeen, named after the first part of Ireland hit by the blight, highlights the role intentional, human cruelty played in the tragedy, focusing on rent and eviction rather than the wrath of God or Nature on some crops:

Oh, son, I loved my native land, with energy and pride

‘Til a blight came over on my prats, my sheep and cattle died,

The rent and taxes were so high, I could not them redeem,

And that’s the cruel reason why I left old Skibbereen.

Oh, it’s well I do remember, that bleak December day,

The landlord and the sheriff came, to drive us all away

They set my roof on fire, with their cursed English spleen

And that’s another reason why I left old Skibbereen.

Landlords would burn peasants’ shacks, as described in these lyrics, both to clear the land for new construction and to send a message about what happened to tenants who couldn’t pay. Homeless Irish roamed the countryside, burrowing into the ground; making shelter with what sticks, holes, grass, or other materials they could; dying from the elements, starvation, and disease; or trying, with desperation, to gain admittance to the now-overflowing workhouses. Some committed crimes just to get sent to the penal colonies in Australia. Whatever Australian prison was like, at least it came with a meal.

Landlords had a variety of methods to kick out families. The first was through the law. They could sue destitute tenants for back-rent, which would land the man in jail and his family on the streets. As news spread of the results of getting sued, Irish families would flee upon first sight of a summons to court. They could also simply use force to remove them from their lot. Sir William Butler, an Irishman who would go onto become a British officer in South Africa, described one eviction he witnessed as a boy in Tipperary:

“The sheriff, a strong force of police, and above all the crowbar brigade, a body composed of the lowest and most debauched ruffians, were present. At a signal from the sheriff the work began. The miserable inmates of the cabins were dragged out upon the road; the thatched roofs were torn down and the earthen walls battered in by crowbars (practice had made these scoundrels adepts in their trade); the screaming women, the half-naked children, the paralysed grandmother and the tottering grandfather were hauled out. It was a sight I have never forgotten. I was twelve years old at the time, but I think if a loaded gun had been put into my hands I would have fired into that crowd of villains as they plied their horrible trade. The winter of 1848-9 dwells in my memory as one long night of sorrow.”

A third method landlords used to clear their land was to pay to ship their tenants abroad. Knowing there would be no way for emigrants to come back and claim anything they were owed, landlords promised their tenants that they had contacts to meet them at the docks in America, Canada, or wherever, and give them a bit of money. There were no contacts or money, but thousands of Irish left just the same. What was left for them in Ireland? So they huddled, gaunt, dressed in rags, and diseased, into the tight quarters of the “coffin ships” that took them away (or not–  one ship drowned upon leaving the dock, while another suffocated all its passengers) from Ireland in droves.

Fleeing Ireland for new homes?

But wherever they went, the Irish were met with prejudice, segregation, and more predatory housing conditions. They were the first mass of poor immigrants Americans had seen. The Irish’s poverty frightened and angered the Protestant majority almost as much as their Catholicism did. They took affront to being treated as “Europe’s poorhouse.” Poor white Americans resented the Irish as competition for unskilled jobs, and freed African Americans and Irish often found themselves in fierce opposition as both groups jockeyed for the scraps left to the bottom rung of society.

Each city offered its own hardships. In New York, “runners” gouged newly arrived Irish for all their money and possessions by putting them up in unsanitary “hotels” that they changed the rate for after the fact. Landlords slapped up wooden tenements in alleys to stuff with Irish renters.

Boston landlords took old housing stock and divided it a hundredfold, turning single family homes into tiny rooms without windows, water, or ventilation to fit as many rent-payers as possible. Of course they charged the Irish a fortune for this. The Irish began building outward from these “apartments,” with shacks popping up in any spare space. The average Irish emigrant lived for only six years upon arrival in America.

The Irish tended to stick close together, staying in cities both because they lacked funds to travel much farther than where they landed, and to try to regain the tight knit communities they were used to. Yet the values and traditions of Irish culture withered in the harsh new world, and many fell victim to alcoholism, crime, and despair. With time and generations, the Irish would come to occupy an accepted and ethnically neutral place in American society. St. Patrick’s Day is now the one day a year any average American really considers who might be Irish American, and rather than try to swindle them into paying high rents or making sure they don’t apply for a job, they simply dye some beer green and take a swig.

The Quebecois originally hoped to conduct thorough health inspections of each would-be Irish immigrant. But the ships were coming in such thick droves that the doctors at the quarantine station of Grosse Île could hardly reach a fraction of them. By 1850, the harbor was filled with a line of forty Irish ships carrying 40,000 sickly Irish, all waiting to be let in for inspection. This protracted wait, however, gave the diseases more time to spread between sick and formerly healthy passengers through the tight corridors of the ships. Crews dumped corpses off deck as passenger after passenger succumbed to death so close before reaching relative safety in a new land. Some ships were emptied on a nearby island, where 5,000 died either trying to make the crawl to the hospital or in makeshift hospice shacks the Canadians set up to try and accommodate the dying hordes. A medical officer described the survivors of one coffin ship: “the few who were able to come on deck were ghastly, yellow-looking spectres, unshaven and hollow-cheeked…not more than 6 or 8 were really healthy and able to exert themselves.” Today, Grosse Île is a monument to the 5,000 Irish who lost their lives at sea and the 5,000 more who died on the isle, all in an attempt to enter Canada.

Perhaps one million Irish fled Ireland during the Famine, yet many died along the way. Those who made it and could afford to, sent money home for both domestic support and to finance others’ passage.

The End of the Famine, housing activism, and revolution

Back home, in Ireland, the Famine seemed to recess, but came back in full force with the blighted potato harvest of 1848. The English were agog that the Irish would try once more with that damn potato, but what choice did they have? The English had refused to supply any other seeds or money to purchase them. Conditions only worsened through 1849. People assassinated six landlords and ten land managers, and others greeted the news with celebratory bonfires. The British sent in even more troops.

Toward the British, the Irish attempted both (underfed, underarmed, undermanned) rebellion and supplication for help. This enraged the British, with The Times opining that “In no other country, have men talked treason until they are hoarse, and then gone about begging sympathy from their oppressors…and in none have they repeated more humble and piteous [requests for help] to those whom they have previously repaid with monstrous ingratitude.” The British seemed not to recognize that, if someone insists on standing on your head, one might alternate between biting your assailant’s ankle and begging them to switch out their cleats for slippers.

The Famine eventually came to an end in the early 1850s thanks to improved weather, but English cruelty did not. The English flooded the housing market with cheap, indebted Irish estates. The new landholders unceremoniously raised rents and evicted any Irish who somehow had managed to hold onto their homes, clearing the way for vast swathes of grazing land for cattle.

In retaliation, the Irish formed, effectively, a militant affordable housing organization: the Land League. With the League, people burned their leases (a century before Americans would burn Vietnam draft cards), physically obstructed evictions, and boycotted unfair landlords. This “Land War” grew powerful enough that England revised its policies. In 1881, the government first reduced rents, and one year later, the League negotiated the nullification of back-owed rent in exchange for a cease in Land War activities. In 1903, the Wyndham Act permitted the Catholic Irish to once again own land, and provided assistance to tenants to purchase their homes outright, albeit at prices that were overly fair to the landlords. Still, the English system of land ownership and denial, which for so many generations had deprived the Irish of the right to their homeland, had come to an end.

In 1841, before the Famine, the people of Ireland had numbered over 8 million. At the time of its close, in 1851, only 6.5 million remained. A million had emigrated, and the rest had died. Even today, the country is home to under 5 million. In comparison, the populations of England and Wales doubled from 1841 through 1901, from 16 million to 32.5 million. While countries across Europe felt the sting of the potato blight, none would be so devastated as Ireland was forced to suffer, as an occupied territory ruled by absentee, free market-obsessed imperialists. As John Mitchel, an Irish nationalist and advocate of independence wrote,”The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine.”

The horror that Ireland endured from 1845 to 1851– the Great Hunger, or, in Gaelic, an Gorta Mór– weakened the nation; drained it of its citizenry; wiped much of its towns, people, and culture from its face; and traumatized the survivors. But the people would keep fighting, until a hundred years later, they would win their centuries-long battle against occupation and oppression. In 1949, the Irish were finally able to declare their own state, the Republic of Ireland.

I found The History Place’s essay on the Great Hunger an amazing resource. If this got you interested in the topic, I would recommend you read their longer, more detailed piece here!

A Classic-ish Piece of Pop Culture About Affordable Housing


Apparently in the ’90s, you could get major studio backing for a musical comedy film about reclaiming empty city lots with community gardens, rent-controlled apartments marked for teardown to make room for prisons, and singing cockroaches.

Check out what Wikipedia has to say about this made-for-MTV movie:

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The Dave Chappelle link is purple because I clicked on it to make sure it was that Dave Chappelle. It is.

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Okay, what other films’ wikipedia pages include directions to “see landlord harassment”?!?!?!

Also, in case you missed it, a pair of brothers in this are named Vlad and Jesus.

Now, I have a lifelong complete terror of cockroaches, and I still endorse this movie even after watching part of it. I checked out a clip on YouTube to test it to see how things went for my stomach, its contents, my life, etc., and somehow I made it through.

So in case your curiosity is piqued and you’d like to dip your feelers into this mess, here’s a scene from the movie, a song called “Funky Towel.” In this representative clip, a group of cockroaches sing a funk song about a towel.

If you enjoy this, YouTube will be happy to suggest more scenes from this film, including a ballad about garbage, a do-si-do number featuring a cat rodeo, a Gospel song called “The Healer Touched My Feeler,” and the original short the film was based on.

A brief history of making sure you don’t have to live anywhere near anyone you don’t want to in Los Angeles

Imagine that you are in charge of creating an entirely new urban plan to develop the world. You could put parks everywhere, build freeways straight to your door, declare your birthplace a national monument. There’s just one catch: you have no idea, or control over, where you’ll be born or live. How would you design the world then?

Unfortunately, urban planning and public zoning does not take place behind a veil of ignorance.

If it did, perhaps NIMBYism wouldn’t be the driving political force it is today.

Southern California is a strong contender in the auditions for poster region for NIMBYism. The story of Los Angeles’s growth is the story of real estate developers selling a dream of white homeownership to dentists in Topeka and accountants in Peoria. They pushed the Southern California lifestyle as a product in and of itself, so that moving to Los Angeles became a tautological journey to somewhere where the main economic activity was convincing more people like you to move in too.

For those who had purchased the sunny, detached unit, West Coast lifestyle, protecting this investment became of utmost importance. What this meant, starting in the ’20s, but with no end in sight, was keeping out people with the wrong skin colors, religions, credit scores, lifestyles, or affinities.

Early Angeleno homeowners did this by banding into Homeowner’s Associations. These mandated, in addition to lot sizes and the minimum construction costs, the races and ethnicities of who was allowed to purchase homes. Many included provisions excluding non-whites, and sometimes, non-Christians, from living in their communities, except as domestic servants, of course. Through the 1920s, these “protective associations” rendered 95% of LA’s housing stock de facto inaccessible to Black and Asian would-be homeowners. In case this was too subtle, there was always the Klan, which overlapped in motive and membership, if not method.

The United States Supreme Court ruled against these restrictive covenants in 1948 (the California Supreme Court had upheld them in 1919), and California struck down its own law prohibiting non-citizens (but targeted at the Japanese) from owning or making long leases on agricultural land two years later. Where there’s a will, however, there’s usually a way to keep out people you don’t want to live among, and so neighborhoods started organizing exclusivity through the channels of geography, policy, and accessibility.


Geographically, many white homeowners simply left, creating new suburbs in the San Fernando Valley where developers could ignore legal mandates and continue to redline out whomever they didn’t want. It’s like the old saying, “if you don’t like somebody, move away from them into a gated community miles away.”


Politically, neighborhoods began incorporating as their own “minimal cities,” contracting out social services like firefighting and mail, and levying their own taxes as they saw fit. Deciding you are your own city is like playing a Libertarian expansion pack in SimCity. If renters or low-income residents are dragging you down, you can just zone them out. If unions crop up among your social services, you can simply terminate that company’s contract. And best of all, the larger, capital G government can never touch your property as a resource for redistribution. These Cities By Contract, like the charter schools that offer a micro model of their logic, are still gaining favor among residents of wealthy enclaves who would prefer to not be pushed into paying for services they themselves might not be in immediate need of.

This protectionist tradition in local politics is alive and well and living by the beach. Right before Thanksgiving, residents of Newport Shores, an enclave of wealthy Newport Beach, crowded a City Council meeting in an attempt to block a twelve-unit affordable housing project for seniors and veterans. One man (whose eponymous personal injury firm assures that “when life gets difficult, we are here for you”), said he objected to building what he referred to as “the projects of Newport Shores,” since the town already has enough affordable housing. “Newport Shores has effectively become the dumping ground for Newport Beach,” he continued, and his former neighbors in wherever he used to live before Newport Shores clucked in agreement (conjecture; stricken from the record).

It’s also seen in measures to block development of more homes near you because they might be ugly or bring in unsavory types. Now, I am of a split mind on development. There’s a reason the West Village in NYC is soooo charming and fun to walk around in (old, small buildings and Amanda Burden made everyone stop building up), but is it the same one (old, small buildings and Amanda Burden made everyone stop building up) that makes it the most expensive place in the universe? Further, how dense can you get before it starts taking a toll on residents? People get spooked when they feel crowded, whether it’s from around or above them. I moved to the other side of the country in part to escape feeling this way.

But to get affordable housing you have to do one of two things: 1. regulate existing units’ costs and/or 2. build more units and charge less or hope flooding the market knocks down prices. My hunch is that it’s gonna take a combination of the two. The question remains, then, where are these affordable units, whether built or regulated into existence, going to be? If you’re anything like the residents of Los Angeles, you’re not sure, but you would prefer not within eyesight, or perhaps your lifetime. A new ballot measure would stop any construction requiring zoning changes from proceeding without specific oversight. Its key backers, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, are headquartered next door to the two proposed apartment buildings they hope to block. I lived in between the ever-rising Barclays Center condos and the controversial Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park project for over 2 years, so I get how annoying it is to be near construction, but that’s a bit suspect, especially for an organization focusing on a cause that traditionally includes housing as part of its mission. And if we’re going to develop anywhere, it should probably be in a dense, public-transit-adjacent part of the city. By blocking construction there, you really just push it outward, which increases commute times and with them, pollution.


But you don’t have to bother to legislate people away from your community if they have no way to get there. Wealthy Los Angeles neighborhoods like Santa Monica and Beverley Hills, located on the western coastline of the city, simply pushed to prevent freeways from linking them to the more plebeian East Side. The freeways got built instead in poorer areas, where transportation developers came across less protest. Now, these same wealthy neighborhoods are trying to block construction of the Purple Line subway that would allow you to reach the beach with a single method of public transportation (currently, you have to drive or take a bus). According to Portland State University urban planning professor Sy Adler, “by keeping transit projects out, wealthy neighborhoods around the country have created de facto gated communities.” Laws are only as good as their enforcement, and your area is only as accessible as it is reachable.

The proposed Purple Line would bring the subway to the wealthy West Side. It is also the West Coast’s answer to New York’s Second Avenue Line. In talks since the 1980s, it finally broke ground just this year. “I’m determined we will have the last bit of this open before I die,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said at the ceremony, showing the drama and geologic timescale one doesn’t always expect from transportation projects. Current plans for this “Subway to the Sea” have it stopping 3 miles short of that goal.

White people in LA famously don’t take the bus, so when you block public transit from an area, we know who you’re blocking. But white people aren’t just avoiding the 10-mile-per-hour bus speeds, they simply live in sparser neighborhood where bus service doesn’t run or would drop them too far from their homes (“sparser,” of course, means, “nicer”– single family homes, lawns, long driveways.) It’s a Mobius strip of anti-transit development feeding anti-transit attitudes feeding anti-transit habits feeding anti-transit development.

Maybe this would all be okay if people you didn’t want to live near would just go live somewhere else, or magically disappear. But if you redline, out-price, and out-zone people, you don’t actually solve anything. You merely create a situation in which people build slums, crowd as many people as possible into homes, or simply leave entirely. As Woody Guthrie almost sang, this land is your backyard, this land is my backyard. Just because you got there first doesn’t mean you get to keep out people who don’t look like you, then expect them to travel far distances, without public transportation, to come clean your low density, single family, detached, sunny Californian house.


Note: Basically everything I know about Los Angeles is from City of Quartz by Mike Davis, which should help explain my dual fascination/horror at the place. While looking for sources to corroborate its facts and ideas, I mostly found more people citing it. So any fact you don’t see linked to a source, you can assume is credited to Mike Davis.

Another note: The Wikipedia article on NIMBY is really fun because it includes all sorts of acronym alternatives to NIMBY, like BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything/Anyone), SOBBY (Some Other Bugger’s Back Yard), NIABY (Not In Anyone’s Backyard [a kinder, more Kantian NIMBY]), and the satire of the environmental justice movement-coined PIBBY (Place In Blacks’ Back Yard).