Episode 141: How “Most Livable Cities” Lists Center Upwardly Mobile White Professionals

Citations Needed | July 21, 2021 | Transcript

Citations Needed
51 min readJul 21, 2021
An outdoor market in the “most livable” city of Carmel, Indiana. (Via NWI Times)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: With the exception of one ad, which is an ad I run for my wife. My wife Sarah Lazare, contributor to the show, has a book coming out which I’m now shamelessly using my podcast to promote. It is a regulatory noir that takes place in 2002 about the corporate capture of utilities in Springfield, Illinois. It’s brisk, it’s funny, I think it’s a good read, and it has to do with the very sexy topic of public ownership of utilities. The title is Testimony, it’s written by Sarah Lazare and her late father Peter Lazare. He wrote the first draft, after he passed she finished it and it is published by Strongarm Press. You can find it at Strongarm Press or you can go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and search for it there. Unfortunately, those are the only sites you can buy it at because it’s a small publisher so it doesn’t really scale to sell it any other way. If you could please order it there we’d be very grateful. It came out on July 20 so it’s new, it’s fresh, it’s hip, all the kids are doing it. Check out Testimony by Sarah Lazare and Peter Lazare. Thank you so much for listening to this shameless plug of my wife’s book.

Nima: That will do it for this shameless promotion, a family affair on Citations Needed. Please do buy the book, it came out officially July 20. So it is available, go get it folks.

Nima: “America’s 50 best cities to live in,” reveals USA Today. “These rising U.S. cities could become the top places to live and work from home,” reports CNBC. “The best U.S. cities to raise a family,” lists MarketWatch.

Adam: Over and over again in American media, we hear stories centered around ranking, judging and analyzing the rather vague concept of a city. But who is being discussed when we talk about quote-unquote “cities?” How are “cities” a meaningful unit to understand a given space, especially in a country marked by runaway inequality and segregation?

Nima: When we’re told Johns Creek, Georgia is the best city for “young people” or Carmel, Indiana is the most “livable,” whose lives and experiences are the media really talking about? Who is the audience for these reports about the best cities for families, for nightlife, for safety, for education, for happiness?

Adam: The criteria most US corporate media uses centers a very particular constituent: your average homeowner or prospective homeowner, usually white, upwardly mobile, namely, those who marketers, investors and real estate agents most want to reach.

Nima: Cities, then, aren’t deemed livable for their fair labor practices, but for their business-friendly policies. They’re not worth moving to for their abundance of free, public space in low-income neighborhoods, but for their charming boutiques and chic restaurants. They don’t generally rank high for their strong rent-control laws, but for their ability to attract tech companies, and they capture attention not for their excellent mental-health statistics, but for their booming economies.

Adam: On this episode, we’ll parse the ways in which media coverage of cities and urban living — often crafted by white professional-class writers for white professional-class audiences, and funded by faceless parent companies and corporate advertisers — centers the most powerful while ignoring the needs of the working class, the homeless, people with disabilities, and the vast majority of Black and brown residents.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with Jawanza James Williams, Director of Organizing at VOCAL-NY, a statewide grassroots membership organization that builds power among low-income people directly impacted by HIV/AIDS, the drug war, mass incarceration, and homelessness.

[Begin Clip]

Jawanza James Williams: One of the things that I think is critical for us to understand when we’re thinking about the stories that we tell, the situations that we are describing, the kind of city that we live in, the kind of city that we imagine living in, that we understand that that whiteness is central, that capital and the market is central, and so therefore, anybody that challenges the sort of centrality of whiteness, anyone that challenges the usefulness of a market system or the justification for it, those folks are left out of the conversation.

[End Clip]

Adam: So when we were discussing the initial impetus of this episode, we were basically having a conversation where you say, whenever you talk to people, you talk about the concept of cities like, ‘What are the best cities?’ ‘I enjoyed living in this city.’ This city is this, this city is that. Chicago is great for this, or New York’s too pretentious. Again, I know it can sound a little bit dorm room, but I remember thinking it’s such a bizarre conversation, because we don’t make generalizations about states or any other kind of constituent. There are obviously certain threads that hold cities together. But it got us thinking, what is a city and how do you define a city? What is the metric of a city something that’s, you know, city planners and civil engineers and philosophers and literary types have poured over for centuries? How do you define a city in any meaningful sense? And, you know, got me thinking that this is not just an academic question, that this is actually a major driver of how public policymakers, to sort of establish the stakes here, how certain public policymakers on a city level, they very much wanted, many of them openly advertise their desire to be featured highly on the best cities lists, specifically those done by USA Today and CNN, and that this is considered a victory for any particular municipality, and then, of course, what follows from that is well, what’s the criteria and who does the criteria serve? Because you know, Nima, a lot of people you talk to like, the most boring people in the world, and you say, what do you think about X city? The most boring people in the world, what’s the first thing they mention? They mention restaurants.

The Interval bar in San Francisco. (Via The Interval)

Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah.

Adam: Now, I’m not going to dunk on foodies — because we’ll do that for a separate episode — and I’m being pretty ungenerous here but if you’re ever talking to someone, you know, what do you think about Portland? ‘They have great restaurants.’ You walk away, because that says the least interesting thing you could possibly say about a city. Unless you work in the industry, I suppose, right? Then it sort of seems relevant. But this is not unique. This is when you look at best cities lists, we’ll, obviously, detail on this episode, things like nightlife, restaurants and other things like that, these are all fine, you know, having nice restaurants is good and all, but these are the things that are centered in that conversation and when you expand it further there’s a reason of course why that is and there are other upwardly professional type things that concern you because if you move to a city to make a quarter million dollars a year as a marketing executive or a software engineer, having 95 different Belgian ales to choose from or a certain kind of truffle French fry appetizer, these things would be useful, these things would be really important to you, which isn’t so much wrong in and of itself, except that it becomes the thing with which we center our pop understanding of a city when we actually do publish these lists and talk about cities and are cities dead? Right?

Nima: Exactly and so much reporting was done during this past year, during the pandemic, about the death of cities, about will cities ever come back? Revealing the fissures that are evident when there are these once in a century crises, economic health, employment, et cetera. You just see really an explosion of these — can cities ever bounce back? But what, again, is being centered there, and what we find time and time again, is that best cities lists are really just real estate speculation — this will come as probably no surprise to listeners of Citations Needed, we talk about real estate interests a lot — but it’s not purely the real estate interests and the upwardly mobile constituency that they are playing to but also how that then influences public policy. If you are deemed to be one of the most livable cities, that is going to influence the way that budgets are allocated, is going to influence the way that public policy is made, that municipalities operate. That’s why these are more than just sort of puff pieces that real estate speculators enjoy, but they actually have real implications.

Now, these types of stories in the media are nothing new and not nothing new in terms of, yes, we’ve been seeing them for decades, but the newspaper and magazine tradition of ranking the quote-unquote “best cities” to live in dates back over a hundred years. One of the earliest references to a city characterized as quote-unquote “most livable” can be found in a 1907 real estate ad that ran in multiple San Francisco papers. Here’s an example under Berkeley, California real estate. It asks, “Why not Berkeley?” And the article says this, quote:

At the present moment thousands of people are looking toward Berkeley as a place of future residence. Its fame is just beginning to spread as the cleanest, prettiest, most ‘livable’ city of homes in California. There is every indication that Berkeley’s present population of 40,000 will be doubled within a very few years.

Are you thinking of adding yourself and your family to Berkeley’s fast-growing population? The Mason-McDuffie Company wants to help you get acquainted with Berkeley. It has maps and booklets which are yours for the asking. It has a very large and very choice list of property which it is anxious to show you, whether you buy or not.

Now, since then, since 1907, classifications of “livability” have almost uniformly been used in relation to business interests, whether to boost the real estate industry, attract companies or lure people — that is, usually white people — in pursuit of prosperity. So for instance, a January 28, 1911 article in the Topeka State Journal from Topeka, Kansas, said this under the headline, “Topeka’s Latest Edition,” quote:

Topeka certainly appreciates the decision of the Chicago, Rock Island & aRailway company to make it the headquarters for the general departments that will have control over the operation and management of the second district of this great railroad system.

It is to be hoped that the feelings of Topeka towards these Rock Island newcomers will be reciprocated. In all modesty, it may be said that they are coming to one of the most livable little cities in the great west.

Media kept doing this year after year. By 1925, in the Fort Worth Record Telegram from Fort Worth, Texas, you saw this, an article that summarizes ways for Fort Worth to grow as an industrial hub, and that touts its potential for its cotton and railroad development, not exactly industries from which everyone benefits of course, yet, the article also presents Fort Worth as a place where, quote, “Young America” can thrive. And it says this, again from 1925, quote:

Young America wants opportunity, a chance for personal prosperity, independence, wealth. The land from Fort Worth to the New Mexican border is the greatest potential wealth producer in the United States and is rapidly swinging into production. It offers to the ambitious and energetic a share in these riches which in the older sections of the country are claimed, staked out, appropriated.

That is the principal reason why West Texas and particularly its capital, Fort Worth, is a good place to live in.

Adam: In 1933, this idea of livability became very vogue as a place without crime, again, exclusively white, this is about the preservation and the maintenance of whiteness, it just is. It will, as you will see, continue to be. From July 30, 1933, the Dayton Daily News of Dayton, Ohio, headlined, “Commerce Secretary Is in Favor of Developing Civic Center in ‘Livable City.’” Quote:

When William B. Warner, president of the McCall corporation, established its large printing plant in Dayton, he was asked why he selected this city above all others for the home of this big business enterprise and he replied by saying, ‘because Dayton is the most livable city in America.’

Nima: Now, as we kind of entered the mid-20th century, no historical analysis of city reporting would be complete without of course a mention of Robert Moses, architect of the mid-20th century urban renewal project in New York City. Now to this day, Moses is often lauded for his public works — the parks, zoos, swimming pools, highways, buildings, and mass transit networks. As New York City’s Parks and also City Planning Commissioner, Moses built 658 playgrounds, 416 miles of parkways, and 13 bridges. But his most enduring legacy was one of gentrification, the explicit destruction of Black, Jewish, Latino neighborhoods and cementing an urban policy that gave priority to white, monied residents.

After World War II, Robert Moses shepherded a vast amount of infrastructural development, including, most infamously, the construction of highways through and out of New York City. Moses’s work escalated after the passage of the Housing Act of 1949, the provisions of which included federal funding for what it termed, quote-unquote, “slum clearance” — a process of demolishing low-income, often Black and brown neighborhoods to replace them with higher-income, almost exclusively white ones, and the construction of public housing as part of an effort to render the poor invisible.

Robert Moses with a model of the lower end of Manhattan, March 1938. (Bettmann / Corbis)

For instance, Here’s a headline from a 1950 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle about the potential of one of his ongoing projects. This is from January 6, 1950. The headline is, “Tunnel to Raise Boro Property Values — Moses Says Many Slum Areas Will Become Desirable When Tube is Opened.” It’s an article literally written by Robert Moses, credited as the chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

Adam: As famed Moses biographer Robert Caro wrote for the New Yorker in 1974, the same year his biography — The Power Broker — of Robert Moses came out, he wrote, quote:

To build his highways, Moses threw out of their homes tens of thousands of people. He tore out the hearts of a score of neighborhoods — communities the size of small cities themselves, communities that had been friendly places to live in, vital parts of the city which made New York a home to its people.

To make room for the Coliseum, Lincoln center, and the United Nations — for a score of mammoth urban-renewal projects — he threw out of their homes many thousands of poor people, and he used the urban-renewal money available for housing to build housing for rich people, so that the poor had no place to go except into the slums or into borderline areas that then became slums.

He built parks and playgrounds with a lavish hand, but they were parks and playgrounds for the rich and comfortable. Recreational facilities for the poor he doled out like a miser.

When he built housing for poor people, he built housing that was bleak, sterile, cheap — expressive of condescension and contempt in every line. And he built it in places that contributed to the ghettoization of the city, dividing it up by color and income.

Now, at the time, The New York Times praised this effort, because again, who would not want to make a city more livable? Who would not want to make a city cleaner, get rid of the slums, right? It sounds good, because you think, oh, they’re getting rid of slums, they’re gonna move them to some housing project, that sort of sounds sterile, like okay, you’re getting rid of this thing that looks bad, and then you’re going to give them some nice shiny building. But of course, what you’re doing is you’re clearing land for real estate developers. The New York Times editorial in 1954 scolded the city for not doing this fast enough, writing in their editorial, “Making New York Livable,” quote:

The house-to-house block-to-block inspection drive to clean up tenement conditions in four city areas as a trial run for even broader attack is overdue but nonetheless welcome. Inspectors from six city departments, Housing, Sanitation, Fire, Water, Health and Air Pollution, are taking part in this attack directed by Mayor Wagner, and Chief Magistrate Murtagh is ready and waiting to deal out justice and punishment where warranted for the landlords summoned because of violations, already discovered in fabulous number.

So again, they’re protecting the poor man here, right, going after the evil landlord, which sounds good, but not really what their goal was. They would go on:

This sort of thing is no good if it is just a seven-day wonder. It is no good unless there is persistent follow-up. The deterioration, the overcrowding have been years in the making. TO turn back the tide of property and human degradation that make a slum requires more than a one-day display of police power and the waving of an official badge. It requires consistent revisitation and concentrated pressure until an area is convinced that there is no escape from harassment in the public interest until unwholesome conditions are corrected.

So this was something broadly considered good, because again, people think of the projects now as this kind of ghettoization of Black America within cities, but in many ways, it was presented as a liberal project, it was presented as like, ‘Oh, we’re going to take then out of these horrible conditions and put them in these public buildings.’

Nima: They’re being exploited by landlords so the city is going to help them out.

Adam: They destroyed communities, and again, this gets back to the initial question of the episode — albeit somewhat, again, somewhat college dorm room — what is a city? What makes a community? What makes a specific place have some thru line of constituent parts that makes it something that’s ontologically defined separate from something else? And I think that when you say, ‘Oh, we’re gonna eradicate the slums, because they’re a blight, and they’re bad,’ it sort of sounds good, but then again, what you’re really doing is you’re setting up an aesthetic for real estate developers and the wealthy, something we’ve seen repeated in various cities. Obviously not unique to New York.

Nima: No, of course, I mean, but when you have the people who make a city, who build the city, who provide the city with its culture — and I don’t say that in terms of the way that real estate developers say culture, style magazine writers — but like a city’s look, feel, sound, when those people and their families, their entire communities are then relegated to the outskirts of those cities, and their own communities completely raised, and they are put in housing projects, and that is what makes the city quote-unquote “more livable,” than what are we actually talking about? And it gets to these kind of best cities lists. So the genre of the best cities list seems to really have originated the way we know it today, back in the early 1980s. Now, one of the most famous early examples was the annual “Places Rated Almanac: Your Guide to Finding the Best Places to Live in America,” which was first published in 1981, Ronald Reagan’s 1981. The “Places Rated Almanac” used nine metrics to rank over 300 metropolitan areas, including housing costs, what it termed as “crime,” and “personal economic outlook.” Yet it inherently favored monied classes. For example, its data for housing only accounted for houses that were owned, rather than say rented. Now, later came the advent of publications dedicated to quote-unquote “urban life” and city-related verticals of mainline national newspapers, continuing media’s tradition of letting capital dictate which qualities in a city are most desirable and thus most livable.

Money magazine, later subsumed under CNN, introduced its annual ranking of the quote-unquote “best places to live in America” in 1987. The magazine ranked, again, 300 metropolitan areas based on three factors they deemed most important. These were, “safety of property, personal safety and the likelihood that houses will appreciate in value.” Those were the three metrics. The three least important metrics were these, “proximity to an Amtrak station, availability of household help and closeness to a bus terminal.” Now, the best city from Money magazine’s 300 metropolitan cities ranked, best places to live in America, the best city on the list was Nashua, New Hampshire, primarily because of, quote, “the area’s strong economy, first-rate schools, and proximity to both Boston and the bountiful recreation spots in New Hampshire’s White Mountains.” End quote. Now, of course, the white mountains are not the only white thing in New Hampshire, in 1990 for instance, the census year closest to the publication of this Money magazine list, Nashua was noted as 95.2 percent white. The article couldn’t be more obvious in the way that it presents this. This is from the initial article, again, from 1987, it says this, quote:

Nashua is the 20th safest metropolitan area in the country, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Residents cheer the lack of crime. Nancy Daly says, ‘I’ll leave my pocketbook overnight in my unlocked car in the driveway and never think of anything happening.’

Technology companies, aided in large measure by President Reagan’s defense buildup, now propel the local economy. Today, 40% of local jobs are in high-tech. The region’s job stability was further enhanced last year when Lockheed, the enormous defense contractor, bought Sanders Associates, the biggest employer in Nashua and the state.

Nashua, New Hampshire. (Jan Dagnall / Alamy stock photo)

Adam: And so this criteria obviously still exists with us today. One of the most popular, if not the most popular, is the most livable 50 cities published by USA Today, co-published with Wall Street 24/7 that is, quote, “Most livable: America’s 50 best cities to live in,” written by Samuel Stebbins, Evan Comen and Michael B. Sauter. Now, what’s interesting about this list is that they all have something in common which is their white suburban, or even semi-urban enclaves in cities that are overwhelmingly, or even sometimes majority people of color, and so the number one city, according to them, this is one of the more recent lists published in 2017, the most livable city is Carmel, Indiana. They write, quote:

Population: 90,533

Median home value: $315,200 (top 25%)

Poverty rate: 3.9% (bottom 10%)

Pct. with at least a bachelor’s degree: 69.7% (top 10%)

So, they’re not alone. Carmel, Indiana has been listed number one best place to live by Money Magazine in 2018, listed number one place to live by Niche.com in 2017 and 2018, it’s the number 16 best place to live by Money Magazine in 2017, the third best place by Money Magazine in 2014, and the number one best place to live by CNN Money Magazine 2012 and Arborculture’s highest award the Golden Leaf Award for best city. So, Carmel, just to give you some context here, Carmel is a northern suburb of Indianapolis and the racial demographics of Carmel are over 85 percent white and 2.7 percent African American, despite Indianapolis, the city with which it falls near, is 30 percent African American and Carmel, Indiana has a huge history of racial discrimination, as a lot of white enclaves near urban minority heavier, minority majority cities do. The Indy Star wrote last year that Carmel, Indiana is, quote:

…a city that also has never elected someone who is not white to serve either as mayor or on city council. Likewise, every department head is white. In the Carmel Clay School District only 10 out of the more than 1,000 teachers, or less than 1%, are Black. All of the 65 administrators are white.

Nima: Ah, yes. The greatest place to live in the US.

Adam: For whom?

Nima: A utopia, Adam.

Adam: In Carmel, Indiana, Channel 8 Indianapolis, WISHtv.com, there is an investigative team did a pretty good report about racial discrimination of traffic stops and found that Black motorists account for 23.1 percent of all traffic tickets, despite making up only 2.7 percent of the population. The tickets written per 1,000 residents for white residents was 52.8 and yet it was 363.8 per 1,000 Black residents. So they had a frequency of being ticketed at over six to one. So if you’re African American driving in Carmel, you’re 6 to 1 more likely to be pulled over and given a ticket.

Nima: That’s what happens in the greatest place in the US Adam.

Adam: Number two on their list is Centennial, Colorado which was incorporated in 2000 and had written to its charter it couldn’t have city taxes of more than 1 percent. Centennial, Colorado is a white enclave suburb of Denver, Colorado. Centennial, Colorado is at 84.7 percent white and less than 5 percent Latino and .4 percent African American whereas Denver is 53 percent white, 30 percent Latino and over 10 percent African American. Number three on their list is Arvada, Colorado, which is almost 90 percent white, 1 percent African American and 8 percent nonwhite Hispanic, whereas Denver again is 53 percent white, 30 percent Latino, and 10 percent African American. Number four on their list of the best cities is Johns Creek, Georgia, which is 9 percent African American despite Atlanta, the city that it’s closest to, the city that it is part of, being 54 percent African American.

So again, you’re seeing a trend here, which is what makes a city most livable according to this criteria, and several others, CNNMoney Magazine, USA Today, what makes cities livable, for the most part is high income levels, which of course correlates with racial disparities, low crime, which of course, heavily punishes the poor, because crime is mostly a product of poverty, and more importantly, you want to have proximity to large airports, they put nightlife, restaurants, culture, opera, symphony, city centers. So what these cities offer that these poll makers, these listicle makers love, is you have the kind of proximity to the urban life, but you’re still in this white protected fortress America that has 90-plus percent, 87 percent-plus white populations.

Nima: They’re just advertisements for the suburbs, or as what’s sometimes known as the exurbs.

Adam: Yeah, exactly. And this is something you see on a lot of these lists, which is, again, sort of the mother’s milk of real estate attracting people, which is, we’ve talked about this before, but suburbs are in so many different ways — and we can do a longer episode on this, Nima, right? — but suburbs are about the preservation, protection of and the maintenance of whiteness as a political concept, and very much these lists reinforce that. Now, look, do I expect CNNMoney to have a meaningful analysis of the racist bias of their criteria? I mean, yeah, it would be nice — god forbid, maybe if you had critical race theory you could do this — but this is the sort of thing you see over and over again. We talk about, what does it mean when we say best cities, most livable cities? Well livable for whom? Livable for what demographic?

Nima: Well, right. And so that question is exactly what animates so many of these articles, it’s not just the listicles because there are also all of these kinds of urban life publications or sections of larger magazines or newspapers. The year 1990 saw the founding of one such urban life publication called City Journal, which is an extremely right-wing New York-based magazine published by the also very very right-wing Manhattan Institute.

Adam: Yeah, for those who don’t know, the Manhattan Institute, it houses Heather MacDonald, who’s probably the most prominent critic of the Black Lives Matter movement, popularized the Ferguson effect, literally wrote an article about defending racial profiling, said it actually helps Black people. They are probably the most, they’re definitely the most visible pro-police, most right-wing think tank, most of the anti-critical race theory stuff that you’ve seen lately is being pushed by fellows at the Manhattan Institute. They are a white nationalist institution — I think it’s probably fair to say — they are very much the most cited and most quoted non Breitbart, right-wing, anti-Black Lives Matter movement, very much into the what about Black-on-Black crime crowd.

Nima: Yeah, exactly. So, 30 years ago, the Manhattan Institute founded City Journal. This is, you know, coming off of the 1970s, 1980s, kind of crime-ridden New York scene and Manhattan Institute called their new publication, a magazine that was a, quote, “intellectual and journalistic response to New York’s downward spiral and to the illness of the American city generally.” End quote. Now, the “downward spiral” and “illness” referred to, according to City Journal editor Brian Anderson was the, quote, “out-of-control crime,” the, quote, “disorder,” the, quote, “gigantic welfare agencies,” and the decline of education, caused by none other than — you guessed it! — teachers’ unions.

Almost presaging the spate of narratives about COVID and the death of cities, Anderson said in 2010, 20 years after the founding of City Journal, this, quote:

Combine these four things — crime, disorder, a massive and costly municipal welfare state, and horrendous schools — and you can understand why people were fleeing cities when they could afford to, why Hollywood frequently depicted New York as a frightening and chaotic netherworld, and why futurists were predicting the death of the city in a globalized world of instantaneous communication.

End quote.

Cover of the first issue of City Journal, 1990.

And so, this idea of analyzing urban life in this way with these kinds of metrics, we have seen expand. We also see media consistently run PR for cities looking to attract tech companies, which kind of goes hand in hand with the way that City Journal operates. This is the way that they wish cities operated, right? Something really attractive to business that expands quote-unquote “high-paying jobs,” and so you see endless examples of this. You have September 2015 in Bloomberg, quote, “The Unlikely Cities That Will Power the U.S. Economy.” You see USA Today in November of 2018, “The 25 most innovative cities in US share affinity for technology.” You see this from Inc.com in December 2019, “These 5 Cities Create the Most Tech Jobs, According to a New Study. Here’s Why You Should Move Your Company to One of Them.” That one incidentally has a sub headline, quote, “Despite high housing costs and clogged commutes, these cities attract the best talent.” And then you have from January of this year, 2021, NBC Miami reporting on “Miami’s Mayor Working to Bring More Tech Jobs to the City,” and Wired magazine following up a couple weeks later, also January 2021, “Miami’s Mayor Woos Techies. What Does He Need to Succeed?”

Adam: Yeah, and this obsession with tech and high tech and new jobs, I mean, yeah, that’s good for a certain demographic, but it’s basically good, most importantly, for real estate speculators, who want people with high incomes to move in so they can raise prices, and of course, most of these are just, to a great deal, to the extent to which they are promoting white only enclaves, they’re very much promoting gentrification. They’re saying come to these places you can get relatively cheap rent or buy relatively cheap housing in areas that have proximity to downtown, are hip, have nightlife, all the sort of fun stuff you want, which again, fair enough, whatever, but that’s what this is. It’s marketing to upwardly mobile professionals who have disposable income. What you never see is what are the best cities for the poor? What are the best cities for those who work making $15 an hour? What are the best cities for people with disabilities? With one exception, USA News and World Report did have an article last year about the best cities for people with disabilities — so there are exceptions — but for the most part, people who aren’t spending lots of money going out to restaurants, and buying tickets to watch La Boheme at the opera are not really that important in these criteria, many of them do so explicitly, the most important criteria on almost all these lists — and again, we are generalizing, there are some differences, but they mostly follow a general playbook — the most important thing they mention is crime, specifically property crime, they don’t factor in things like labor abuses, wage theft, union busting, rights violations of low wage workers, but property crime is always always central to these lists. One thing they also consider is the number of people with bachelor’s degrees, which is a proximity for both wealth and institutional wealth and whiteness. The New York Times and Niche.com with their rankings that they’ve used a few times along with other factors, one of the main things they use was residents aged 25 to 34, their proximity to coffee shops, bars and restaurants, of course, the level of education of its residents and the costs of living. Now again, how many young people do you have in your proximity to coffee shops is an important factor for a very specific demographic of people. Now we’re beating the dead horse, you know, the demographic of people is largely white upwardly mobile professionals.

Nima: Now, a more pandemic-era version of the best cities article is the ‘which cities are dead’ articles. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic grew last year in 2020, the panic over what was going to happen to cities really crescendoed with white owners of capital and potential owners of capital fleeing cities, and the attendant media speculation that big cities were thus dead. These kinds of articles really proliferated with a disproportionate focus on the experiences of, again, upwardly mobile white professionals. So for instance, you had The Guardian right at the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020, saying, “Cities after coronavirus: how Covid-19 could radically alter urban life.” And Politico, July 2020, with, “The death of the city,” which argued that, “Teleworking, not the coronavirus, is making urban living obsolete.” You have The Hill in December 2020, “ Is this the end of cities in America?” The following month, the BBC, January 21, “New York is not dead, but it is on life support.” And in March of 2021, you had CNBC asking, “Are American Cities Already Dead?” And then in May of 2021, The New York Times saying, “New York is dead. Long live New York.” That headline, incidentally, was later changed to “What Is the Future of New York?”

Adam: And this led to a series of counter articles by other navel-gazing media types. Foreign Affairs, May 2020, “The Pandemic Does Not Spell the End for Cities.” Wall Street Journal, December 2020, “Will Coronavirus Be the Death of Cities? Not So Fast.” Bloomberg, February 2021, “Why We Don’t Believe the Big City Obituary.” Fortune, March 2021, “If you think COVID is the end of cities, you’re wrong.” And again, the primary constituent being focused on here is upwardly mobile professionals, as indicated by the casual way in which they talk about work being done mobilely. So as The New York Times reported in May of 2020, roughly 5 percent of New York residents left the city between March 1, 2020 and May 1, 2020. The greatest New York City population drops in response to pandemic were wealthy neighborhoods. Of the total population of parts of New York City where more than 25 percent of residents left 68 percent were white, 55 percent made more than $100,000 per year, and 29 percent made more than $200,000 a year. So the only time we’ve heard the panic, when cities are dead, is when there’s rare instances, because of a pandemic, of white people leaving a city en masse. This is considered a city dying. Conversely, when populations of non white people leave a city en masse, there are no such reports that a city is dead.

In 2016, Chicago’s Black population had decreased by 350,000 from its peak level of nearly 1.2 million in 1980, a nearly 30 percent decline, but yet nowhere you’ll find in reading, reading any reports, that Chicago is dead or that Chicago is dying to the extent you see stories about Chicago is dead or dying it is to lament gun violence, but has nothing to do with demographic shifts or people leaving. St. Louis, just the same, the number of Black residents in St. Louis has fallen every year since 2010 yet St. Louis isn’t considered dying because of this, and in fact, the magazine Curbed called it a city with, quote, “promise and potential,“ adding that while St. Louis, quote, “has many of the issues facing other Midwestern cities, including a declining population and a history of segregation. But don’t count the city out; it’s poised to incubate new ideas and attract new businesses.” So when the wanted populations — again upwardly professional, largely white — they leave it’s fucking meltdown time we get 500 thinkpieces.

Nima: Right.

Adam: When the people who are not considered desirable, right, the poor ,people of color, they leave, it’s like, oh, this is an opportunity for bringing in new businesses and is an opportunity for growth. You saw this a lot during Katrina that once Katrina killed 8,000 people, overwhelmingly Black people, this was sort of a silver lining for the city to kind of attract businesses and be more entrepreneurial. David Brooks, he literally called it a silver lining, this kind of rhetoric of the wanted and unwanted people in a city, because then you can attract rich, upwardly mobile professionals, this increases the tax base, increases property values, but again, whose experience of the city matters?

Nima: Exactly. And so therefore, who makes a city livable has to do with whose lives in those cities matter the most. To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by Jawanza James Williams, Director of Organizing at VOCAL-NY, a statewide grassroots membership organization that builds power among low-income people directly impacted by HIV/AIDS, the drug war, mass incarceration, and homelessness. He’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Jawanza James Williams, Director of Organizing at VOCAL-NY. Jawanza, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jawanza James Williams: It’s an absolute pleasure to be here.

Adam: So in this episode we’ve been critically examining at the top of the show, the way American media ranks, categorizes and speculates as to the health of a quote-unquote “city.” It likely won’t shock you to learn that, with rare exception, how a city is viewed, specifically in the outlets we’ve covered, it is viewed from the perspective of a kind of upwardly mobile, I think it’s fair to say largely white, urban professional, which is why discussing cities as a kind of atomic unit of value is interesting, literally Tale of Two Cities, right? This has been written about before, is such an interesting choice that a lot of media outlets make, and I think it kind of shows where their priorities are, specifically where their advertisers priorities are, and it’s kind of simply taken for granted the kind of upwardly mobile, wealthy professionals are the relevant moral constituent when determining the comparative or absolute value of a city. I want to begin by talking about how we view quote-unquote “cities” in the media, who is left out when we make these generalizations about cities, from your experience? I don’t put words in your mouth, that’s what we found, maybe you haven’t found the same thing — but I want you to tell us when you see that or you see this or you see people talking in generalities about cities, who is left out of that conversation?

Jawanza James Williams

Jawanza James Williams: Yeah, you know, I deeply appreciate this question because it helps decenter the upper class, white, propertied folks that people are genuinely talking about. You know, one of the things that I think is critical for us to understand when we’re thinking about the stories that we tell, the situations that we are describing, and the kind of city that we live in, the kind of city that we imagine living in, that we understand that whiteness is central, that capital and the market is central, and so therefore, anybody that challenges the sort of centrality of whiteness, anyone that challenges the usefulness of a marketing system, or the justification for it, those folks are left out of the conversation, as so much as it it doesn’t help sort of maintain sort of stories that are told in general by that sort of dominant narrative set by the same parties that I’m naming. So in short, what I’m trying to say is that we’re not talking about the vast majority of the people in the city, we’re not talking about the vast majority of the people that are servicing the city. So for instance, I’m thinking about people that live in the outer boroughs, in particular in the Bronx, for instance, I lived in the Bronx for about four years, and you know, one of the things that struck me and mind you, I should note that I’m originally from Beaumont, Texas — a smaller city on the east coast of Texas, near the Gulf of Mexico, near Houston, 80 miles southeast of Houston — and when I first moved to the Bronx, I noticed that in the morning, when it was time to go to work, that the vast majority of folks were stuffing themselves into the trains, and going to Manhattan to work service jobs, and I felt like that most of the coverage I see, most of the stories that I hear about what it means to be in New York, the central stories of New Yorkers, they aren’t really talking about those folks. So I think that the average worker, the person that serves these rich folks in New York City, people that are living in the homeless shelters, they’re 78,000 people living in shelters right now in New York City — the richest city in the country, the richest country in the world, in the richest point in human history — we’re not talking about those folks, we’re not talking about the thousands more that find themselves sleeping on the streets or, you know, seeking shelter in subways, we’re not talking about the 100,000 students that went to school from a shelter in 2019, that’s one out of 10 students in New York City. So I think oftentimes, the conversation is leaving out the most vulnerable people in the city, we’re not talking about the people that are still dealing with the AIDS crisis, the dominant narrative sort of suggests, you know, in most stories that we hear that AIDS is over, but you know, New York City being the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, you know, 100,000 people have died from AIDS-related complications in New York State since the onset of the epidemic in the states, and there’s thousands more still living with HIV and thousands more that are, you know, at risk of contracting HIV that are not being talked about, like sort of invisibilized communities, I should say, and they became very visible to me whenever I moved here.

Adam: I want to follow up by talking about sort of, this is obviously, the perspective of the disenfranchised and dispossessed is just taking for granted to not really matter especially, not just in the media, but in political coverage, political priorities of the police, the police sometimes take the mask off and I want to read from a 2019 article about flooding the zone is what Mayor Lightfoot in Chicago called it, what the CPD called it, the Chicago Police Department called it, the Chicago Sun Times reported, quote:

If police saw large groups of young people intimidating shoppers or otherwise causing trouble, they would surround these groups, follow them and sometimes steer them back to CTA stations.

And one other interesting thing about this paragraph is that the central moral constituents shopper, which is such an interesting, not citizen, not person, not human being, but shopper, right? Someone who’s spending money. Andrew Yang, who is running for mayor of New York, caught a lot of heat a few weeks ago, he said on the campaign trail quote, “We all see these mentally ill people on our streets and subways and you know who else sees them? Tourists. And they don’t want to come back, and they tell their friends, ‘Don’t go to New York City.’” So here we have tourists. This is very, very common phrasing.

Nima: Consumer. Tourist.

Adam: Consumer, tourist as being the thing that’s the really the most important thing in a city. And I find these comments very revealing because it’s your ability to be rich and to spend money is what elevates your value, and not only are those who are, for example, quote-unquote “mentally ill” not valuable, but they’re actually a blight. They’re treated like litter. And you see this kind of language all the time, these are just sort of two examples. But I want you to talk about how we sort of don’t even notice how we assume who matters when it comes to a city is very often, again, people’s ability, these are all proxies for real estate interests, but even beyond that, people’s ability to consume is what matters most.

Jawanza James Williams: Yeah, again, I think this speaks to the sort of centrality of the market and that everyone is seen not as a human being but as a consumer. So one’s value is determined by their ability to purchase and to participate in that market, and I think it becomes central because so much of the powers that are at play — and by that I mean the capitalist class that are within our sort of democratic institutions and trying to control them for the sole purpose of maintaining their ability to produce capital, oftentimes at the expense of the vast majority of us — if we tell stories that decentralize the capitalist and center the vulnerable person, the person that is unable to participate in said market to the same degree, we threaten the continuity of that kind of system. So I think that there’s a really massive story that we’re really talking about here, but sort of like on the edges of, and it’s really about the influence of big money. It’s about the influence of capitalism in every sector of our society. When I think about the media in particular, I think a lot about Sinclair Group, I think about so many of the media outlets that the vast majority of people in this country and in New York City are consuming, that these organizations are not exactly telling the sort of definitive truth, but sort of telling a story from perspectives that sort of fit within a framework that we call today “mainstream,” but I would call violent and dangerous. You know, I think a lot about PIX11 News, which I watch pretty faithfully, most mornings, just to get a sense of what the vast majority of New Yorkers are watching, what kind of stories and what kind of frameworks of reality they’re being offered, and oftentimes those frameworks of reality are centered on, you know, sort of politics of fear, they’re centered on these mythologized characters, these archetypes that live in our public consciousness, like the drug user, the Black person, the poor person, the homeless person, and then how we really address that in is very reductive, sort of like, ‘We need police to be able to come in and keep us all safe,’ but the reality is that the police are being used and have always been used, and I would argue, come from a foundation of being used as a means of protecting property, and I think that so much of what we’re experiencing, the institutions in our society, what’s fully funded, what’s underfunded, ultimately aligns with the sort of maintenance of this domination, the sort of maintenance of this consistent or through line, the story that some people are less valuable than other people and the police are the sort of physical, the material means of enforcing those problematic ideologies.

Nima: Yeah. The other night, I actually made the mistake of leaving local news on when it came on, and Channel 4 New York NBC News, it’s basically just a police blotter. I mean, it always has been of course, right, but I sometimes even though this is literally my job, sometimes just forget how egregious local news is, TV news, News at 11, it’s all this person got attacked, this car ran into this group of people, this crime happened, this person was killed, and everything just results in clearly pushing the idea that more police are needed, and that this city, New York City, is unsafe, and I think that we are seeing that kind of narrative also spread across the country in terms of the waning safety of cities, and also as it relates to what we’ve seen in the past year during the pandemic of all these reports about the death of cities, right, Jawanza? So it’s like the idea of centering, as we’ve been saying, the needs of urban white professionals, as Adam said, the relevant moral constituent in deciding what makes a city either alive, dying or dead. And in this pandemic time, we really saw how when pricier your restaurants couldn’t stay open, when a certain type of nightlife was shut down, when green spaces that were proximate to wealthy neighborhoods were either inaccessible or less accessible, weren’t deemed as accessible because people were worried about going outside, being around other people and of course, the quote-unquote “strength of the housing market” and seeing the weaknesses then there evident during the pandemic, you know, those are all key factors in what is deemed to be the health or, you know, livability of a city with that one singular constituency, and so the media pushing all this has mayors across the country saying that they’re working to move up on these kind of yuppie-centered rankings and rating systems. Those are the metrics that they have to achieve: strong housing markets, green spaces that are close to certain communities. In your experiences, you know, as an activist and an organizer for years, how do you think these media perceptions of the health, the livingness or, you know, as we’ve seen “death of cities,” really doesn’t just shape, but perhaps really warps priorities of then the actual officials in those cities who make and present policy?

Jawanza James Williams: Yeah, I mean, I think this is one of the critical issues with, you know, local governments and state governments in particular, because one of the things I often argue as an organizer, again, really anti-poverty, thinking a lot about the most vulnerable people, so much of the conversation, so much of the discussion always starts with, well, how do we stabilize and expand the middle class, and as a working class person, I think a lot about, I understand the sort of intention, but the ultimate consequence is that if we focus at this sort of midpoint at the middle class, then we don’t actually solve the kinds of issues that creates most of the problems in our society for most people in the society. We should be centering the most vulnerable people, the people that are catching the most hell, so, what would it look like if the mayoral candidates and the city council candidates, et cetera, whomever, and the governor, instead of talking so much about home owners focused primarily on people in shelters. Well, what got them in the shelter? Why are they in the shelter? Why are they still in the shelter? And how do we get everybody rapidly rehoused from shelter? It would set a totally different perspective for everybody about how we should be organizing our city and state budgets, for instance, but again, I think so much of this is so intimately connected to market forces, I think a lot about real estate, I think a lot about just the people, the organizations, the special interests, that have a vested interest, namely money, to create the sort of stories, the sort of narratives, the sort of ideal city, sort of in people’s imagination, and then using the sort of measures of these measurements or these factors to make people want to live in these places, while simultaneously creating the conditions that force people to think that something’s wrong with the place. So, if we’re saying live in Bed-Stuy or live in New York City, because it’s so nice, and it’s all these nice things to do, and then now we’re going to drive up all the costs of everything, and then it creates a homelessness crisis that rivals that of the Great Depression, and then the leadership doesn’t actually address the actual root cause of the displacement of the homelessness crisis, of the growing amount of poverty in the city, and then tries to sort of say that the city is dying because of these other factors, then I think it becomes a very convenient way to power oneself up and I think we see Eric Adams doing that right now, who could very much likely win the the mayoral election.

Adam: Yeah, because it’s not as if politicians’ words don’t talk about homelessness, per se, it’s that when they talk about homelessness, it’s always, always, with very rare exception, it’s homelessness as an aesthetic nuisance that needs to be dealt with. Now there are various sort of more humanitarian ways they allegedly will deal with it, right? They’ll say like, ‘Oh, we’ll build housing.’ They did a lot in California, the sort of liberal compromises. ‘Look, we’ll get this blight out of your way and we’ll build them a house.’ Of course, they never really do, but it sort of sounds good, right? Because it needs to be palatable. The fundamental starting point, even in the kind of liberal version of it — although we’re not even talking about the conservative version, which is just purely genocidal, right, sort of dehumanization, Tucker Carlson, et cetera — is to say, well, okay, this is a problem, but we’re not going to deal like you said, we’re not gonna deal with the root causes of it, we’re not going to deal with the root causes of housing, the runaway housing inequity in the cities, and you know, real estate speculation, lack of proper rent controls, we’re not going to deal with all that stuff, we’re gonna sort of gesture towards it, but ultimately, we’re just gonna work to get them out of your way. And what happens is, of course, the path of least resistance is to just over-police them. So even if you do have a lot of lofty rhetoric about rehousing and permanent housing, which people like, you know, Andrew Yang — to his credit, does on his website, of course, he doesn’t really talk about that anymore — the ultimate solution is sort of just get it out of sight, get it out of mind, it’s just kind of inconvenient. One of the reasons we talked about at the top of the show, the reason why it’s inconvenient is because, this is a bit reductionist, but marketing, people advertising in The New York Times aren’t trying to reach the homeless, they’re trying to reach $1 million, $2 million homeowners and home purchasers, for the most part, who drive the real estate market, which leads to my next question, which has to do with one of the major criteria that’s thrown about on all these lists and all these kind of rankings that we went over at the top of the show is low crime rates, that low crime rates are sort of held up as the holiest of the holy when determining where one lives. This is something obviously that New York has, has been brandishing for many, many years. Now, of course, within the context of low crime rates, things like the sexual and physical assault of police on Black communities, wage theft, worker abuse, anti-homeless policies, putting spikes down where homeless people live, obviously, the crime of poverty, none of these really factor into the concepts of low crime rates, low crime is sort of just considered an absolute unquestioned good, because it sort of prevents street crime, because people don’t want to have their Toyota Priuses broken into, and I want to critically examine the concept of low crime rates as a way of luring in this so-called upwardly mobile, kind of tech person we presumably want in our cities, and what that says about whose crime is prioritized over others.

Jawanza James Williams: I think a number of things here, I mean, there’s so much to unpack. Number one, I think that it’s important for us to be conscious of the fact that when we say crime, we have to remember that crime, and what is a crime is a legal designation, and too often it’s sort of used as a sort of euphemism, or sort of interchangeably with the word “violence,” and then violence itself is reduced to mean, you know, very specific things, like the breaking in of cars, like gun violence. But you know, again, I would argue that violence is multi-dimensional, many layered, violent for people to be shooting at each other, but it’s also violent to have 70,000 people living in homeless shelters in the richest city in the country. So when we’re talking about safety in a community or low crime rates, we’re really talking about the absence of certain people, the absence of these sort of imagined characters, and not to suggest there aren’t real realities of violence that we have to continue with that we have to deal with that do exist — I’m not trying to erase that reality — what I’m saying is oftentimes what people are criminalizing are behaviors that are associated, they’re intimately connected to economic devastation, poverty, economic disadvantage, et cetera, and the sort of criminalization of those activities and of those communities amplifies already problematic effects.

Adam: I want you to play God here for a second, let’s say tomorrow you are in charge of the CNBC or CNN rankings, the criteria used —

Nima: Our condolences, but bear with us. (Laughs.)

Adam: To measure the best cities. Because, you know, I think this is something we can actually be prescriptive about, right? If you are in control, let’s say that there was, I don’t know, five criteria or three criteria or whatever, and you for whatever reason, Time Warner, AT&T put you in charge of that list — I don’t know why they would do it, but let’s say they didn’t, let’s say that they were being held hostage by some Citations Needed fan — what would be the three criteria, five criteria, whichever you wish to answer, what you would use when measuring the health or the viability of a city?

Jawanza James Williams: Oh, yeah, that’s a perfect question. First of all, I don’t know if I would need to be God, I think I just need to be a billionaire, but —

Adam: Close enough.

Jawanza James Williams: Yeah, close enough. I would say one, that there’s literally zero homelessness, there are no homeless people in the city, and if anybody ever becomes displaced, there are shelters, crisis shelters. So like, how many crisis shelters are there, how many units of social housing are available for working poor people, if there are even poor people at all. So number one, zero homelessness. I think number two, we would have a, you know, fully funded, highly funded public education for every child, school-aged child in the city, every single person, I think we’d have a literacy rate at 100 percent. Number three, we would have a vast, robust public transportation system that is free to the individual, collectively paid for, and a comprehensive healthcare system that includes comprehensive mental healthcare services for every person that lives in the city and the emphasis on the word that lives in the city not saying citizen, simply residents.

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: Yeah, that’s another big one, too.

Jawanza James Williams: Yeah, and we would have a massive public health infrastructure that, you know, is supported by this sort of healthcare system, but on the hazard of carve outs for uniquely vulnerable populations, like people that use drugs, we would have harm reduction based services, syringe exchange programs in every neighborhood, we would have safer consumption spaces, not just bars, but also other places where people could use drugs that they want to use, and be able to access the kinds of love, care and services that they need. Those things are really some of the things I would look for first, no homelessness, and when I mentioned homelessness, what I mean is, it’s not just that we just have housing stock in general across the board as if one shoe size fits all, I think we need a vast range of housing types that people need, including supportive housing, and not just sort of independent living sort of situations. I think that some communities do need supportive housing. So those kinds of options are available for people, you know, and not being difficult to access, but commonplace.

Adam: Well, that all sounds great, but what about the artisanal cocktail bar?

Jawanza James Williams: Oh, yeah, we need bars for sure.

Adam: But what about the Speakcheesy quotient? We have to make sure we pacify that. Sorry.

Nima: Okay. You know what, Adam? Fun shit about living in the city is also important.

Adam: Hey, I partake, I’m a hypocrite. Yeah, those lists are made for me, let’s be honest.

Nima: (Laughing.) Yeah, exactly.

Jawanza James Williams: Oh, I’ve not even mentioned, there’s a lot more green, less concrete, I really appreciate places like Prospect Park, but there are just so few spaces that I really appreciated since the pandemic, all of the sort of open streets opening in the boroughs, like, I think we would have much more of that, far fewer cars, you know, a lot more green space, that are permanent for folks to be able to access. Oh, and of course, I’m leaving out one of the biggest things, we would have a vastly smaller police department, if one at all.

Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. (John L. Dorman / The New York Times)

Nima: Yeah, I mean, I’ve really liked these ideas of, you know, determining a different kind of health metric. What does it mean for a city to be successful, to be thriving, to be safe? And what you’re laying out for us, Jawanza, those things are never really included in these statistics, or these lists, or these real estate listings that are really showing up on the front page under the headline, you know, ‘Will New York City ever make it back?’ And I think that, you know, what would you say to people, when you hear New York has been dying, as someone who, who has lived in New York for a bit and actually, you know, moved there from a very different space, you know, you and Adam are both from Texas, and, you know, and kind of your experience with cities and what the life of a city can and should mean.

Jawanza James Williams: Yeah. The first thing I would say is that they are not talking about the city. They’re talking about corporate powers in the city, they’re talking about their ability to sort of have a good time, but I would argue as a person that when I first moved here was not sort of economically stable, that this city is very much alive, even amid COVID, even as the pandemic recedes a bit here. This city takes care of each other, the vast majority of the people that are not centered, whose stories you’re not mostly hearing, whose interests are not being met overwhelmingly, they’re being met by everyday New Yorkers. You know, I when I experienced homelessness myself for about seven months, where I lived in a shelter in Harlem, and one of the things I would always say, I’ve even joke that, you know, one day if I ever run for office or run for city council, I’ll say that ‘The Bronx took care of me, let me take care of the Bronx,’ you know, ‘Vote Jawanza for city council,’ whatever, you know, because, honestly, at one of the most vulnerable moments in my life, this city and its people really showed up for me and not just organizations, I mean, communities, individuals, neighborhoods, again, living in the Bronx for those four years off the 6 train line in St. Lawrence near Parkchester, very good people, and if you think that even COVID could kill what is the heart of this city because a bar or two closed down, then you don’t know what New York actually is because it’s so much more than these amenities. It’s so much more than, you know, artisanal shops or coffee shops or wine stores, there’s a culture that persists, that will persist, that has always existed in a sort of marginal space when it comes to the dominant narrative, when it comes to the market, but that has always been thriving. So if people think that the city is dead, I’m not sure that they ever knew it.

Nima: Before we let you go, Jawanza, can you tell us a little bit about what VOCAL-NY is up to these days, what you want our listeners to know about the work that you are currently doing?

Jawanza James Williams: Yeah, sure. So again, you know, VOCAL, we’re a statewide organization, we have chapters in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany, Westchester County, and of course, the five boroughs, but right now, we just released a report called “The Caring and Compassionate New Deal” this past March, you could just Google that, where we’re really sort of talking about the crises, the multi-crises of homelessness, unmet mental health needs and substance use disorder, and the fact that the carceral system in New York City, NYPD, DAs, and you know, jails are being used in these ways, and fully funded, of course, to respond to things that they should not be responding to. So we’re sort of framing the issue sort of modeled after AOC’s Green New Deal resolution, that really just sort of names the sort of scope of the problem, that sort of talks about sort of governmental restructuring that needs to happen, and, you know, really the cultural change that needs to take place, the sort of paradigm shift politically and economically that needs to happen. So we’re calling for a $4 billion divestment from the carceral system and investment into ending homelessness, to making sure that people who use drugs have access to harm reduction services, to wrap around mental health services, to stay for consumption spaces, those kinds of things, and I think that while we’re coming off of the high, no pun intended, of legalizing marijuana in New York State, I think that it’s very important that people remember that just because we legalize marijuana, even with the robust economic and racial justice carve outs like 40 percent of revenue generated going back into hardest hit communities by racist marijuana prohibition, that the drug war is not over, that our work is not done, and that if you think that it’s okay for people to use marijuana, and not to use crack or heroin, then perhaps you are moralizing the drug use, and you need to do a deeper critical self analysis. So I think that you need to be supporting the fight towards decriminalizing possession of all drugs, towards creating a safe supply and towards legalization, and I think that’s where we’re headed as an organization, and again, we organize for issue-based unions, and I’m naming a lot of the Users Union work, which is made up of people who are active and former drug users, and also our homeless union, made up of people who experience homelessness, or who have experienced it, or are housing insecure.

So, there’s a number of things. I think the biggest thing I should leave on, is in New York City in April of 2020, we did a lot of work during the sort of height of the pandemic at that time in the city, where 100,000 or so hotels across the city were vacant and there were thousands of New Yorkers experiencing homelessness in congregate shelters, which of course, we all knew, when the city kept saying, you know, everybody stay home to protect yourselves, which was really offensive, because so many of us don’t have homes to stay in, and you know, in congregate settings, were essentially petri dishes, so we did a lot of work through the Homeless Can’t Stay Home campaign to get the city of New York to purchase hotel rooms, and to move people from these congregate shelters into those private hotel rooms, maybe with one other person so that they could be protected, and many folks have been able to stay in those hotels. The city of New York, the mayor, announced that they were going to move those folks from hotels back to the congregate shelters, even though we have a new Delta variant that, you know, threatens our, you know, receding COVID numbers here in New York City, so it’s just a really bad move. So we did work for three years to pass Intro 146 which would increase the CityFHEPS voucher which is a housing voucher for housing insecure or homeless New Yorkers to market rate, because a lot of people haven’t been able to use it for the last few years. We won that bill through the city council, and it’s a big deal. So we’re hoping that the city can aggressively implement that new legislation to increase the CityFHEPS voucher payout amount, so that we can get those folks not back into shelters, but into permanent and stable housing. So that’s a fight that we’re going to be working on for some time, because right now, the city is supposed to implement it in about 180 days, and that’s just a bit too long, especially if you’re threatening to send 8,000 people back into squalid conditions when you could be sending them into permanent housing. So I think that that’s a big fight that we’re gonna continue and of course, the defund the police campaign is not going to disappear just because it is becoming not as politically expedient for, you know, politicians to be down with the defunding the police and investing in communities, that work will not stop just because it will be sort of rising crime rates and folks like Eric Adams taking advantage of this fear, and this fearmongering, because our call to divest from punishment, from boots, from mace, from handcuffs, from bullets, from knees on our necks is not only one year old, we’ve been doing that for 20 years, and we will continue to do that work.

New York City mayoral candidate and former cop Eric Adams (right) having a laugh with the NYPD. (John Minchillo / AP)

Nima: We have been speaking with Jawanza James Williams, Director of Organizing at VOCAL-NY, a statewide grassroots membership organization that builds power among low-income people directly impacted by HIV/AIDS, the drug war, mass incarceration, and homelessness and so much more. Jawanza, thank you really, again, so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Jawanza James Williams: Thank you so much for having me. Deeply appreciated.


Adam: Yeah, I mean, I think keeping the focus of the show to city listicles, and how the media in pop coverage covers the concept of cities is a focused way to kind of look at this question, of course, what is and what isn’t a city is a much, much, much bigger question, but for the purposes of narrowing the focus and keeping it grounded, I think starting with the list of goals of best cities, and the parallel is the city dead, what’s the most livable city, is a sort of gateway into who the media prioritizes in general. We’ve talked about real estate a lot on the show in previous episodes and there’s a current theme being highlighted here, which is that much of media, local media, is driven by and animated by the needs of real estate and real estate interests.

Nima: Well, settler colonialism has a lot to do with real estate.

Adam: Right, there are material forces behind that. The racism is an animating material factor. It isn’t just a collection of moral failings on individual white people, though it very much can be, it also has a material force, and the reality is, is that the people who our guest, I thought very well sort of centered and discussed, they’re not the market people want to reach, they’re not the people that matter, they’re considered a blight, they’re considered sort of unimportant and the extent to which we give them any relief, especially with homelessness, to the extent which we even care enough, it’s because they’re kind of in our way, they’re visually distracting, and it lowers real estate value.

Nima: But they need to be potentially, Adam, at arm’s reach somewhere because that’s when you get funky neighborhoods and vibrant communities. That’s why I think this kind of dog-whistle-y, couched terms which you see in real estate speak all the time, but it also bleeds into culture and style sections of magazines, newspapers, TV shows, it all turns into what is a place that is livable, what is a place that is either up and coming or that is safe and secure for your family, but who is the you? Who’s the you in that?

Adam: How good is your city for homeless people?

Nima: Right.

Adam: Does your city have an abusive police force? Are there services? Are there hot soup kitchens? Are there beds to sleep in?

Nima: Is mass transit affordable or free?

Adam: Yeah. Can they scam somewhere? Of course, you know, needless to say, these criteria would never appear in any of these lists. The poor just fucking don’t exist, and again, the fact that the initial list had as its bottom criteria proximity to train stations and bus stations, from the get-go, it’s like who does proximity to bus station matter to? Poor people. But that, of course, is not really who’s being marketed to, obviously.

Nima: Right, exactly, that is never going to be prioritized because if that got a high ranking, that would mean it was an undesirable place to live because undesirable people would be populating that place.

Adam: That’s a proxy factor for poverty, which you definitely do not want because it lowers your property values and your kids have to go to school with these people and that’s the worst thing in the world.

Nima: Exactly and therefore unlivable. That will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast, all your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded, and as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks, everyone, for listening. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.