Tag Archives: United States

Wage theft!

Nik Theodore from the Department of Urban Planning and Policy of the University of Illinois at Chicago writes about the problem of wage theft in the United States.

Ana worked for five years for a cleaning company in Chicago, where she was paid $8 an hour, even for overtime hours. “One time I worked for 22 hours in a row and was paid only $120, Ana explained. “My boss told me that was all he could give me.” She is owed about $1,800 from bounced checks, plus wages she should have received if her employer had abided by overtime laws. She was fired from her cleaning job after she developed carpal tunnel syndrome. Ana says the debilitating injury was caused by the strenuous work she had been doing: “I got carpal tunnel in my hands from the repetitive motion. I went to Cook County Hospital and I covered my medical expenses. But I couldn’t afford to go to therapy. I fell behind on my school payments, and now I even owe the [Internal Revenue Service] because my employer was not deducting money from my check.”

Ana is not alone in experiencing these types of workplace violations. Increasingly, it is clear that there has been a breakdown in the enforcement of core employment and labor laws in Chicago and other major US cities. Employers must pay workers at least the minimum wage, and time and a half for overtime. They must follow regulations to protect workers’ health and safety, and carry workers’ compensation insurance to cover on-the-job injuries. They may not discriminate against workers on the basis of age, race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability. And they must respect workers’ right to organize and bring complaints about working conditions. Yet there is growing evidence that employers are evading these bedrock labor standards.

A study of workplace violations in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City (http://www.unprotectedworkers.org/index.php/broken_laws/index) found evidence of widespread violations among workers employed in low-wage industries. In the Chicago area, the nonpayment and underpayment of wages take a heavy monetary toll on workers and their families (http://www.ndlon.org/en/resources/item/412-unregulated-work). For those workers who experienced a pay‐based violation in the previous week, the average amount of lost wages was $50, out of average weekly earnings of $322. This amounts to wage theft of 16 percent. Assuming a full‐year work schedule, it is estimated that these workers lost an average of $2,595 annually due to workplace violations, out of total annual earnings of just $16,753.

Furthermore, it is estimated that in a given week, approximately 146,300 workers in Chicago and suburban Cook County experience at least one pay‐based violation. Extrapolating from this figure, front‐line workers in low‐wage industries lose more than $7.3 million per week as a result of employment and labor law violations.

Wage theft not only depresses the already meager earnings of low‐wage workers, it also adversely impacts their communities and local economies. Low‐income families spend the large majority of their earnings on basic necessities, such as food, clothing and housing. Their expenditures circulate through local economies, supporting businesses and jobs. Wage theft robs local communities of a significant portion of this spending, and it ultimately limits economic growth.

Kim Bobo has correctly referred to wage theft as the “crime wave no one talks about.” It is high time that policymakers confront labor standards violations and their detrimental impacts on families and local communities. The policy agenda must include updating employment laws so that they apply to 21st Century workplaces and employment arrangements, redoubling enforcement efforts to strengthen the effectiveness of laws that are on the books, and ultimately devising strategies to hold employers responsible for the workplace conditions under their control.





Is Breaking Really That Bad? How it’s Heroin, Not Meth, that’s Albuquerque’s Vice.

This is the second of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Nicola Carter chose to write about Albuquerque …

Albuquerque, New Mexico, has been pushed into the spotlight thanks to a certain bald meth dealer hitting our screens in early 2008. If you haven’t seen AMC’s Breaking Bad, I suggest you do so. Lock the door, take the phone off the hook and clear a week in your calendar. Shot and based in Albuquerque and chronicling the life and crimes of chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-dealer (Bryan Cranston, below right) and his petulant protégé (Aaron Paul, below left), Breaking Bad paints an altogether grim picture of drug use in the United States. Prostitution, murder, gang mentality and violence all feature heavily in the show – officially named the most streamed (both illegally and legally) show in the world. What is really interesting though, is the city behind the story – a real life city faced with a real life drug problem.

The term “Breaking Bad” itself is a southern colloquialism, meaning to stray from the straight and narrow; in Albuquerque’s case, a move towards drug usage. Methamphetamine, Breaking Bad’s primary drug of choice, is arguably not the drug which causes the most problems in Albuquerque – Albuquerque in fact has fewer patient admittances for methamphetamine abuse than both the state and the national average. Government figures show that Albuquerque only really stands out as a “problem” city in terms of heroin usage and abuse of prescription painkillers (you can check out the 2008 report here). There’s a problem with these official figures, though. Whilst there may be less patient admittances, how does that translate to actual figures of users? No-one is naïve enough to think that every drug user goes into a rehab program – nor that every user is even on any kind of radar. Many people can (and do) keep their addictions secret, from family, friends and colleagues.

New Mexico as a state doesn’t have the best reputation for drug usage. New Mexico had the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in 2008 and in 2011 – that equates to more people dying from overdoses than from all road traffic accidents per year. Española, just 85 miles South West of Albuquerque, has a level of drug related deaths roughly 6-7 times the national average (that’s 42.5 drug related deaths per 100,000 In Española, compared to the US average of just 6).  Whilst Albuquerque isn’t perhaps as bad in terms of statistics, try this interesting test. Internet search “Albuquerque drugs”. Yep, you find this delightful fellow as the first result.

Ouch. Now a bit of a comparison – do the same with “Baltimore drugs”. Supposedly the heroin capital of the US, but no self-professed drug dealer posting his home address on the internet. Do the same with Chicago, or Tucson, which has approximately the same population as Albuquerque. This poses a more interesting question about the culture of Albuquerque, perhaps. What kind of city would facilitate such brazen illicit activity on the internet and more importantly, perhaps, why is there a need for such a thing?

I read an interesting article recently written by a born and bred Albequerquean in Time magazine recently that really opened my eyes. There’s no aspiration, the piece argues – no hunger and no means of escaping the “city of mediocrity”. Apathy is what really rings true with this piece – low income families, poverty, a culture of brazen lawlessness (remember our friendly neighbourhood drug dealer, just a Google search away?) and a wild sense of isolation. The piece, any many more that you can find all over the internet also highlight the use of prescription drugs as gateways to harder substances, like heroin. One small scale study, on a group of seven high school students, found that every single one of them knew someone who’d abused prescription drugs, and every person interviewed for a news story said that the route to heroin started with prescription drugs. Teens in New Mexico are twice as likely to experiment with heroin than in any other state, resulting in $300,000 worth of heroin being sold in Albuquerque every day. Taking into consideration that heroin is now the cheaper alternative to prescription drugs (80-mg of Oxycontin, a prescription opiate based painkiller, costs $40-$60, compared with $20 for a bag of longer lasting heroin) that could be the equivalent of 15,000 users per day. Of the 13 high schools in Albuquerque, 9 have full time drug counsellors.

So what does this mean for the city? The drugs abuse stories that hit the media are usually extreme cases or based on sweeping generalisations – like this story from 2012 where a two year old child tested positive for methamphetamine. Albuquerque has a crime rate 53% higher than the US average. Since 1999, Albuquerque has had consistently higher levels of arson, theft, assault, murder, auto theft, robbery and rape than the U.S average. That’s staggering for a city of just over half a million. Maybe not surprising though, in a city where 22% of the residents live below the poverty line. This online map is awesome for tracking areas of the city. Areas of the city such as Trumbull Village, popularly and infamously known as the War Zone, is plagued by drug related shootings and crime – and 30.3% of the population live below the poverty line. Areas like Santa Fe show just how much drug policing can impact an area; a 20% decline in property crime (including burglaries) is largely attributed to an increase in drug related arrests.

The relationship between poverty and crime (read more here) has been the subject of numerous  academic studies over the years.  Put simply: high crime rates are considered by both the UN and World Bank to be a barrier to development. Albuquerque has both high crime rates and high poverty rates, perhaps both helped along by the high rates of drug abuse and usage? Figures from 2011 state that almost half of all US prison inmates were incarcerated for drug offences. The Albuquerque Journal publishes arrest records for the city, and a substantial number of these are for drug related offences. There are countless reports and testimonials from ex-addicts who explain the lengths they went to for a fix; burglary, prostitution, muggings or even kidnapping. Many others may have been committing crimes to pay for their drug habit. Heroin is cheap, yes, but expensive enough that many users are forced to steal to feed their addiction. The sheer cost of the law and order associated with the drug trade is staggering – police officers, judges, courts, prison services, lawyers. Drug enforcement cost the American Government as a whole billions of dollars (a recent estimate is $41.3 billion) a year – not including the cost of crime indirectly caused by drugs.

It seems Albuquerque’s problems with drugs are actually quite well exemplified by Breaking Bad; the ease with which Walt accesses drugs, and how easily he finds buyers for his meth, Jesse’s using of drugs to escape a painful childhood, and the murders that seem to occur in every episode. If only ending Albuquerque’s relationship with drugs was as easy as ending Breaking Bad

Albuquerque has a heroin problem; a problem that’s debilitating and demobilising for the city. A drug problem that exacerbates the other problems in the city; that drives and maintains poverty, which increases crime and reduces aspiration. The infiltration of heroin into high schools and the young age at which addiction is starting is crippling the city, breeding another generation of addicts and perpetuating a culture of lawlessness. The amount of money being poured into drug policing in the city clearly isn’t enough: in 2010, a 16 year old girl overdosed on heroin and died, following a two year struggle with addiction. Based on a state average life expectancy of just over 78 years, that’s 62 potential working, childbearing, tax paying, life enjoying years lost. And overdose and drug related deaths are on the increase. Reducing this number will be a hard slog, but kicking the heroin habit might just be what Albuquerque needs.

Detroiters: Back in the Driving Seat

This is the first of six blogs written as part of the assessment for North American Cities, a second year undergraduate course in Geography at the University of Manchester. Required to write a blog of 1500 words on an issue of their choosing, Amy Barron chose to write about Detroit …

Detroit is the focus of a stereotype. After years of decline, together with the repetitious drip feed of negative media attention; riots, white flight, dereliction and deserted neighbourhoods have become emblematic of the city. Today as the city faces rejection from government and global press, Detroiters have taken matters into their own hands, nurturing innovation, initiative and creativity.

Detroit; the city that put the world on wheels; the throbbing heart of American culture, soul and industry; the sprawling metropolis; the epitome of the American Dream. During its 1950s heyday, the ‘motorcity’ thrived, providing an accommodating, dynamic and cohesive urban hub; a centrifugal force for the global automobile trade whilst functioning as a magnet attracting social and economic capital that saw the population rocket. So, what went wrong? I hear you cry.

Well listen up America, there’s a lesson to be learnt. After the initial auto-industrial success, it was the failure of the American government to recognise that the Asian auto-manufacturing expansion was upon them and America was effectually bitten on the ass by its competitor. This ultimately caused the start of the cardio-collapse of the heart of American auto-industries, unable to stay ahead of their efficient Asian opponents. This slow death of the motor giants eventually caused the inner-city commuter highway vestals to become clogged with poverty as the rich fled and suburban arteries were drained of talent as the skilled relocated elsewhere. The eventual outcome was a population plummet, leading to a lower tax base. Crime rates spiked and public service networks crumbled. The rust belt of the American mid-west was rapidly corroding and Detroit was the ‘buckle’. The media willingly jumped on the bandwagon and the drip feed of negativity began to infest the city. Events reached their pinnacle when Detroit hit the headlines as it became the largest city in the US to file for bankruptcy. Investment was deterred and the endless cycle of decline had seemingly begun.

So, how do you remake a city and perhaps see it prosper once more? Seemingly an impossible task? Well, providing there is more to life than generalised statistics and headline-grabbing  quotes, I-and Detroit-argue ‘hope is not lost’. Believe it or not media, through the dereliction and destitution; human nature prevails, inter-connections are materialising, and community clusters are beginning to form. Whilst the data presented may well hold elements of truth, surely daily community interaction, cohesion and a dense urban texture are equally important qualities which define urban life. The Detroiters are innovating their way out of this problem, so why should the very real, happening, positive efforts be brushed under the carpet?

All too often the city is portrayed in a negative light. Rarely reported is the surviving stock; the green sprouts of hope emerging at grass roots level. The winds of change are blowing through the streets of Detroit with more force than ever as ‘a neighbour helping neighbour’ ethos is spreading generating a strong ‘shared responsibility for a shared place’ attitude. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes; revitalised and ready for flight, young maverick entrepreneurs are surfacing, thrusting forth new innovative ideas which will regenerate, renew and rejuvenate.

Although Detroit may, in some respects be teetering on the precipice, it still has the safety harness of ‘community strength’ to hold onto, pulling it back from the brink. Realising the difficulties they are facing, many residents are calling on inner resources and imagination, taking issues into their own hands. All sectors of society-young, old, groups, and individuals-are pioneering positivity impacting across the social, economic and environmental spectrum. Could Detroit be a leading beacon in showing the rest of the urban world the path to overcoming these universally experienced problems? With progress in green transportation, sustainability, business incubation and community cohesion; the future looks promising. Detroit is moving forward, starting where it matters; at the heart and with the people.

Sixty four year old John Ratov is only one of the thousands of people across Detroit who have become self-appointed community activists. A former inmate, Ratov now spends his time serving others by giving rides, delivering lunches and visiting the pitiably lonely. Not only is Ratov actively improving the lives of his fellow citizens but his ‘community spirit’ is rubbing off onto others such as 52 year old Renee Miler who met Ratov at a local soup kitchen and now also helps saying; ‘’it’s just the right thing to do’’. Together they continue building an ever expanding human life support machine for the city.

Not only is this ingenuity occurring on an individual level, but also at a collective level. Organised by several local charities, with ‘booming dance music, flaming BBQ grills, and a stocked food tent for thousands of homeless’ Detroit hosted it’s ‘Red carpet backyard surprise BBQ!’ The idea was simply to give struggling Detroiters a holiday meal like the rest of America would be eating that day. The party was a huge success with the food line snaking through the park as far as the eye could see. Instead of the streets feeling bare and cold, they were full of life, laughter and love with thousands of homeless folk uniting in celebration as the festive mood set in and spread through the crowd with a shared sense of place and belonging. This is the precise way a community should unite, by helping one another. It engenders the reconnection of the fragmented city scape and improves Detroit for the greater good.

Have you too been fooled into believing Detroit has being deserted by the young? Well, think again. ‘I am Young Detroit’ is a social venture initiative promoting and publishing positive change occurring in Detroit. Social entrepreneur, Andy Didorosi is one of many who are determined to make a difference.  After reading ‘Detroit’s light rail is dead’ Andy bought a bunch of buses and founded ‘The Detroit Bus Company’. This was a huge success. Not only are the buses environmentally sustainable hybrids but Andy added his quirky artistic edge making them ‘public party buses ‘reinforcing the young imaginative flair so many Detroiters possess. With service hours rapidly expanding, cool areas in the downtown are valuably reconnecting. I am captivated and amused by Andy and found myself continually impressed by his ambitious nature when reading more. The world could really use a few more Andys ready to give it a shot!

Grid, Health and Advertising: A Story of New York City 1811-2011

by Andrew Irving, Social Anthropology, University of Manchester

Weber and Heilborner - Photograph © Frank Jump

Weber and Heilborner – Photograph © Frank Jump

This piece tells two stories, that of New York City and its obsession with money, advertising and rebuilding over the last 200 years; and the story of Frank Jump, a teacher and photographer who has dedicated much of his life to documenting the gigantic, hand-painted, advertisements that line the city’s long straight avenues.

New York City was in large parts founded upon immigration, trade and the distribution of goods and its infrastructure and buildings are the outcome of a complex relationship between the vulnerability of the human body to infection and disease and the forces of money and merchandise. Throughout the 1790s and early 1800s disease was rife throughout the city, including regular outbreaks of yellow-fever caused by mosquitoes thriving in the island’s stagnant swamps and pools, and whose symptoms included skin eruptions, black vomit, incontinence, jaundice, and eventually death. After the terrible epidemics of 1794, 1795, 1798 and 1805, it became apparent that action needed to be taken. Would it be possible—the city’s commissioners thought—to combat disease and facilitate the body’s well-being by building health into the city itself through the physical alteration of its layout?

It was not known to medical science at the time that yellow-fever was caused by mosquito bites and the disease was instead attributed to the foul smelling air and odours of a population living cheek-by-jowl in dirty streets. What if a more orderly city, purposefully designed to encourage the “free and abundant circulation of air” and the regulation of physical space, could prevent disease, contagion and “promote the health of the city,” (Morris, De Witt, Rutherford 1811). Action was imperative because New York’s population was increasing at an incredible rate, having tripled in just twenty years, from the 33,111, sometimes feverish, souls registered in the first census of 1790, to 96,373 in 1810.

The commissioners engaged twenty-two year old surveyor, John Randel to survey the entire island, with the purpose of transforming its woods, swamps and grasslands into a place “composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses” (Morris et al. 1811). Randel spent three years painstakingly measuring and mapping Manhattan’s entire topography, with a resulting 7 feet 8 inch-by-2 feet 1 inch map, which offered unprecedented levels of detail about the island. However, Randel’s does not simply map Manhattan’s topography, streets, and buildings of the time, but also imposes a design for the island’s future, in that a grid-system is laid over the land, determining where future streets would be built. The grid proposes that all roads should be straight and sequentially numbered rather than named. Streets ran horizontally across the island and were numbered 1 to 155, while avenues ran vertically and were numbered 1 to 12, with an additional A, B, C, and D covering the swell of land on the Lower East Side. It was decided that no consideration was to be given to natural variations in the land, existing roads or property divisions.

The map’s official ratification in 1811 marks the point at which the city council confirmed that they would try to build reason, rationality and bodily health into New York by transforming its topography and in doing so they created the city that is known today. The grid is New York’s nervous system upon which the city’s essential operations and street-life are built, and like the human nervous system is never in the exact same state twice but is in a continuous process of renewal and regeneration over time.

Manhattan’s population expanded beyond all expectations of Randel or the city commissioners from a mere 33,111 in 1790 to 2,284,103 in the 1920 census. As such a new sense of industrial scale and materiality emerged, against which individuals, born when farmland still covered the island, could compare their muddy agricultural practices and desires. Construction expanded rapidly northwards and the thousands of buildings constructed along the grid’s long straight lines began to form a set of highly visible canvasses for businesses and advertisers to sell their goods, services and dreams. A new industry emerged that used size, scale, and colour to convey its message to the people below. Huge, hand-painted, advertisements were painted in bold attention-seeking colours on the sides of many buildings, up to fifty feet tall and twenty feet wide, and designed to stir New York’s citizens from their reverie and make them lift their eyes from the grid. The majority of advertisements have now disappeared: they either perished when the building they were painted upon was knocked down or were covered over by the endless procession of bigger, newer buildings being built as part of New York’s restless desire to reinvent and remake itself.  However, the destiny of some advertisements was more gradual and much less dramatic. For regardless of the thickness of their original paint or intensity of their colours, their fate has been to slowly fade out of existence while exposed to the city’s scorching summers and freezing winters: remaining open to the relentless cycles of sun, rain, snow and ice in a dense urban climate of pollution and humidity. What remains are the faded remnants of the these gigantic advertisements.

For the last twenty years, New York teacher and photographer Frank Jump has spent his evenings and weekends roaming the city’s streets capturing and archiving these disappearing giants before they completely fade into oblivion. Jump has photographed and archived, somewhere in the region of 5000 signs across New York’s five boroughs, of which perhaps only 1000 can still be seen today. Mostly they advertise products that can no longer be bought, made by companies that no longer exist, painted on buildings whose original occupants are forgotten, by men long since departed and were often considered eyesores in their day.

Zaccaro Real Estate, Bendix Home Laundry Kenmare & Elizabeth Streets.Photograph © Frank Jump

Zaccaro Real Estate / Bendix Home Laundry, Kenmare & Elizabeth Streets. Photograph © Frank Jump

Radway’s Ready Relief-Delancey St (painted circa 1890) Photograph © Frank Jump

Radway’s Ready Relief-Delancey St (painted circa 1890) Photograph © Frank Jump

Omega Oil: West 147st (painted circa 1910) Photograph © Frank Jump

Omega Oil: West 147st (painted circa 1910) Photograph © Frank Jump

When Radway’s Ready Relief (1890) and Omega Oil (1910) were first painted, tens of feet high in bright marine blues, they suggested to the aching bones of the commuters walking below, that the solution to their discomfort could be found in the simple purchase of their magic elixir. At the time, the world was a very different kind of place: many people did not travel at more than the speed of horse drawn cart and the average life expectancy at birth was around 43. Medicine, as we know it, had not been developed, women were unable to vote and colonialism was still in the process of subjugating vast swathes of the world’s population. It is no exaggeration, therefore, to claim that the course of a single advertisement’s lifespan, was not just an extraordinary period in New York’s history but also the world’s.  Some of the advertisements Jump has documented were painted in the 1860s and in the time they have stood there proudly advertising their goods and services to successive generations of New Yorkers, the world has undergone unprecedented social, cultural and technological changes. Indeed a single advert may have witnessed the invention of the film camera, the automobile, the first airplanes, two world wars and the great depression, television, the jazz age, the jet engine, the rise and fall of Nazism and the Soviet Union, McCarthyism, JFK, the discovery of DNA, The Beatles, nuclear fusion, the civil rights movement, space travel, Picasso, the first men on the moon, punk and hip-hop, post-modern architecture, portable computers, the Internet, 9/11, the gentrification of Times Square, Obama and much else besides. Who would have thought a simple advertisement would endure the rise and fall of empires and nations as the world changed beyond recognition. Certainly not the men who painted it, whose livelihoods depended upon their ability to make citizens look up and desire the goods and services on show to the extent that they became convinced that their lives would be a better place with that particular soap powder, those particular shoes, these particular garden shears.

In the mid-1980s, some two centuries after the city’s yellow fever outbreaks, New York once more found itself throes of a citywide epidemic. This time it was called, in a terrible and macabre coincidence, GRID (Gay Related Immune Deficiency) later to be renamed HIV/AIDS. By the 1990 census, exactly two hundred years after the city’s first census, people with HIV/AIDS filled 8.5% of all New York hospital beds and there had been 72,207 known deaths from AIDS in the city (including almost 10,000 infants) out of 116,316 people diagnosed: a figure nearly four times the entire population in the city’s first census.

In the summer of 1986, when Frank jump was twenty-six years old, he too found out he was one of the many New Yorkers diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and was told he had “a couple of good years left.” Consequently, the long commerce-lined streets built on the grid, shouting out their assorted messages of pensions, retirement homes, medicines and other aspects of a long healthy life, ceased to have any meaning for Frank and many others.  Ordinarily, the grid enables New Yorkers to look far into the distance and guides the eye toward a vanishing point on the horizon: a destiny distant in time and space that seemingly provides an effective metaphor for the promises of capitalism: look to the future, work hard and save for your pension your retirement awaits.

In New York alone, many thousands of men and women were thrown out of the straight lines of capitalism by HIV/AIDS and instead confronted a destiny of impending death. Frank took himself out of the workforce and filled in all the offers for new credit cards and bank accounts that came through his door, thinking “I’ve never got to pay any of this back.”  But Frank was lucky and did not die and instead lived to see the advent of anti-retroviral medications in the late 1990s that re-opened time and space for thousands and thousands of New York men and women living with HIV/AIDS: triggering a massive shift of mind, body and emotion away from death and back toward life.

Bankrupt Frank re-enrolled in college, became a school-teacher and got back on the straight lines of capitalism. He remained acutely aware of the fragility of the human body in an urban landscape. A body which, like the painted advertisements that surround was fading and not supposed to last long but somehow remained part of the city. Accordingly, Frank sees his reflection not in the mirror but in the fading advertisements that line the vast surfaces produced by New York’s grid. They continually provide him with evidence of his existence and provide us with a visual record of the ongoing effects of time on the city and the body. To date, Frank has been living with the disease for half of his life and still hasn’t documented every fading advertisement in New York.

To see more of Frank Jump’s work and archives see his book

Jump, F 2011. The Fading Ads of New York City. History Press.

While his Fading Ad Campaign can be found here:


Teaching the City, Teaching in the City

San Francisco from  The U.S. National Archives via Flickr

San Francisco from The U.S. National Archives via Flickr


Nearly a decade ago, a colleague and I decided to develop a new team-taught Level 3 module on the urban experience in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Americas. Drawing upon her expertise in Latin America and mine in the United States, we hoped to complement other staff members’ modules on British and European urban history, and to emphasise the many ways in which, we felt, that the cities of the “New World” differed, in social, cultural, political, economic, geographical, and architectural terms, from those of the “Old.”

Although the course was a success in terms of enrolments and evaluations, and we really enjoyed teaching it, in its initial form it turned out to be a one-off. Her teaching commitments changed and made her unable to continue our collaboration, and I opted to carry on with the module on my own, removing the elements of teaching and learning on Latin America and focussing exclusively on the experience of the U.S. Although my examples ranged from turn-of-the-century St. Louis to contemporary Los Angeles, from the murder of a prostitute in 1830s New York to the challenges faced by Mexican migrants in Depression-era Chicago, I continued to emphasise the seemingly unique nature of the American city, which I attributed variously to the U.S.’s vast physical size, the relative newness of even its longest-established cities, and the immense role played by immigration in the nation’s history in general and that of its urban spaces in particular.

More recently, though, after a decade of teaching this module, I’ve become steadily more interested in bringing the American and the British urban experience into comparison and, ideally, dialogue. This change has stemmed from two sources: firstly, having now lived and worked in Britain, and specifically in the city of Manchester, for over a dozen years, I’m now much more aware of the UK’s urban history, and realise, for example, that the processes of urban regeneration popularly known as “urban renewal” in the US, which played out in many American cities in the 1960s and 1970s, were similarly influential, and were both welcomed and resisted, in locales such as Hulme, a few hundred yards from my University teaching room. Secondly, recent events, such as the anti-G8 protests of 2009 and riots of summer 2011, with which my students are intensely familiar, have turned out to be a great “hook” with which to draw my students into enthusiastic discussion of topics such as the right to protest, the freedom of the streets, the responsibilities of law enforcement personnel, and the sources and meanings of class conflict.

As an historian, I hope to convince students that, in William Faulkner’s often quoted words, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As a scholar of American Studies, although I hope to avoid the “American exceptionalism” which has been so blinkering for politicians and academics alike, part of my task is to encourage students to believe that American history and culture and not just potentially exciting, but that they offer a sharp contrast with the historical and contemporary experiences of Britain, Europe, and other nations and regions of the world. Negotiating these sometimes contradictory values can be and often has been intensely challenging, but the reason that I have continued to offer this course (now called AMER30772: Cities of Dreadful Delight) year in and year out, while rotating, adding, dropping, or significantly reformulating my other undergraduate and postgraduate courses, is that each year I have moved farther from my original belief in the uniqueness of the American urban experience. To give one example, this spring I gave my usual lecture on the phenomenon of “slumming” in the turn-of-the-century U.S., by which middle- and upper-class American urbanites and suburbanites, bored with their usual leisure activities, organised expeditions to slum neighbourhoods in New York, San Francisco, and other cities in order to see “how the other half lived”—tantalised by the perceived exoticism and danger of the urban poor, particularly those who were non-white and/or recent immigrants, they visited working-class saloons, overcrowded tenement houses, and even opium dens, and returned to regale their less adventurous friends with tales of their daring adventures. I contrasted this bygone fad with the more recent one of the undergraduate “chav party,” using comments from student-oriented websites debating why, and how, one might best imitate the appearance, tastes, and behaviour of the perceived “dangerous class.” My students seemed to gain a much more nuanced understanding of the practice of “slumming,” and to see it not simply as a perplexing or amusing but now irrelevant leisure pursuit, but as something which continues, in both theory and practice, to symbolise some widely accepted attitudes about social hierarchy.

The more I alter my lectures, seminars, readings, and assessments by trying to bring the American historical experience of urban life into dialogue with issues that are “closer” to my students, whether in geographic or temporal terms, the more I feel that I need to do. I’m currently thinking of taking next year’s group of students on an “away day” through the streets of Manchester: by doing so, I hope not only to give them first-hand examples of many of the themes of the course, but to encourage them to make additional connections of their own, and to share them with each other and, through me, with future groups of students. As a scholar of the humanities, the focus of my work has always been on the library and the archive, but I’m starting to feel that I’ve acquired a laboratory of my own, in the city where I live and teach.

Tax Increment Financing – a model in motion

Kevin Ward, Geography, University of Manchester

A definition

The irony!  Since the late 1990s a number of academics, consultants, professional associations and think tanks have been making the case for the introduction of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) into the UK.  This is a model based on debt-creation whereby a political entity – such as a local government – establishes a project area, sometimes on its own, sometimes through consultation with business, community and neighbourhood groups.  The property taxes (business rates in the UK) in the project area are then frozen.  The local government then borrows money against the project ‘uplift’ or ‘increment’, on the basis that if they spend the borrowed money on clean up, infrastructure, and other upfront activities then developers will come in and, well, develop!  The belief is that this will lead to an increase in property values (business rates in the UK) and this ‘increment’ will go to the political entity to pay off the debt and to reinvest in the project area.  After a period of time – normally around twenty five years – the debt will have been paid off, the project area gets dissolved and the property tax returns to going to the normal taxing authorities.



Referencing elsewhere

Beginning with the garishly yellow Towards an Urban Renaissance published in 1999 but assembled through meetings and overseas study tours in the preceding two to three years, a concerted if slightly incoherent effort has been made to get the central government of the day interested in TIF.  This publication was followed up by Paying for an Urban Renaissance and Towards a Strong Urban Renaissance.  So, first Labour and then, more recently, the Coalition have been lobbied.  This has not been easy.  Tax-talk does not always get the political pulse going.  Even those whose business it is to be interested in financing economic development have been known to roll their eyes when the conversation has turned to TIF.  The public, well they are even harder to get switched on!  There has not been much mobilization either for or against TIF in the UK – yet.



An important aspect of the grey literature produced in the UK on TIF has been the referencing of a number of other places.




These places have been pointed to as locations in which the TIF ‘model’ has worked, and from which the UK might – should? – learn.  One such place is Chicago, where the city government has since the mid-1980s established over one hundred and seven TIF areas.  It was the economic development model of choice of the former Mayor, Richard M Daley.  TIF was a significant issue in the 2011 mayoral election in the city, and new Mayor, Rahm Emmanuel has set about making the model more democratic and transparent.  That though is a blog in itself.  No, here my focus is going to be on California.  The ‘Golden State’ was where TIF began, at the end of the Second World War.

California dreaming/scheming

The 1945 California Community Redevelopment Law allowed cities and counties in the state of California to establish redevelopment agencies.   In 1952 voters approved a constitutional amendment to allow redevelopment agencies to use the property tax as a funding source, and hence, Tax Increment Financing (TIF) was established.   This essentially ‘redirected’ local property taxes away from other tax collection jurisdictions, which in some areas of California numbered over ten.  Redevelopment agencies could use TIF when they were able to demonstrate ‘blight’.  While some cities and counties established redevelopment agencies over the proceeding decades, the use of TIF did not become widespread until the late 1970s and the passing of Proposition 13.  This Proposition limited the local tax raising powers of cities and counties and required that any change in taxation rates be passed by a two-thirds majority.  Not a politically attractive option as you can imagine.   Rather like turkeys voting for Christmas!  Redevelopment agencies were separate legal entities and were not governed by this proposition, however.  So, from the 1980s onwards more and more use of TIF was made in the state of California.  Notions of ‘blight’ were stretched to almost breaking point.  Stories circulated about how some cities and counties were using their redevelopment agencies, which a generous reading would suggest went against the spirit if not the letter of the law.  Those tax collecting jurisdictions whose revenue dropped as it was ‘redirected’ to redevelopment sued, and cities and counties responded with their own legal proceedings.  Eminem domain cases, as redevelopment agencies sought to assemble parcels of land that would be attractive to developers, generated pockets of bad feeling amongst different groups.   Court case followed court case.  Proposition 98, introduced in 1988, meant the State made up for the loss in revenues experienced by the colleges and schools, which kept them happy.  And over the decades the amount sitting in the bank accounts of the four hundred plus redevelopment agencies around the state grew and grew.  By early 2011 redevelopment agencies were receiving about 12% of state wide property tax revenues.  This was compared to the 4% they were receiving in the early 1980s.

At various times State Governors, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, ‘raided’ these bank accounts, moving money into the State’s general fund, the balancing of which continued to be a significant problem.  In 2010 the California Redevelopment Association, the trade association for redevelopment in the State, had had enough.  Together with the California League of Cities, it successfully introduced Proposition 22.  This made it illegal for the State to ‘raid’ the bank accounts of the redevelopment agencies.   And this was the situation at the beginning of 2011, when the former Mayor of Oakland and a user of redevelopment funds, Jerry Brown, was elected the 39th Governor of California (he was also the 34th between 1975 and 1983).   Almost the first thing he did was to declare a ‘financial emergency’ and to eye the $5 billion reserves of the redevelopment agencies.

It gets ‘toxic’

Those of you who are still paying attention will realize that the past tense has been used throughout this blog.   And, so we come to the irony, at last!   Six weeks before George Osborn, the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, mentioned TIF in his 2012 Budget Statement, the model was abolished in the State of California!  Two thousand and eleven was a year of claims and counter claims over the value-added of redevelopment agencies, debates that were often played out in both the law courts and in the media.  It got ugly – ‘toxic’ according to some – and ended up in the California Supreme Court on 29 December.  This ruled that AB27 – which would have meant the redevelopment agencies handing over large amounts of their reserves to the State – was illegal.   The Court basically reinforced Proposition 22.   So far so good for redevelopment agencies, and the California Redevelopment Association that represented them.  However, the Supreme Court upheld AB26 – which meant that as the State had created redevelopment agencies and TIF, through the 1945 Act and its 1952 addition, it could also end them.  Redevelopment agencies would be dissolved.  Panic in the California redevelopment community set in.  Attempts were made to build bridges with the Governor’s office and the State legislator, but to no avail.  TIF, and the 400 plus redevelopment agencies that used the model to fund a range of projects around the State, ceased to exist on 1 February 2012.  The result remains an absolute mess.  One sort of bureaucracy is being replaced with another.  Successor agencies around California are trying to manage the winding down of a highly complex and locally specific ‘model’.  Meanwhile, at the State level, Jerry Brown is pulling in staff from different department to oversee the processes through which it gets to give the okay to some TIF projects to continue and to end others.  Watch out for wave after wave of court cases, as all involved seek to establish landmark rulings.


Endings and beginnings

So, one of the UK’s main reference points for Tax Increment Financing (TIF) no longer exists.  The state where TIF began sixty years ago shut down the model and is now dealing the economic and political fallout.  What lessons can be learnt from what happened in California in 2011?  A few I would suggest.  First, a model never really ‘exists’ in its purest sense.  There are lots of different ‘models’ in California and they have all morphed and mutated over the years.  It is not easy to identify from which version those in the UK have looked to learn.  However, great care does need to be taken when generalizing from a model that was established at a particular time in a particular place.   Second, as models change over the years, so it is worth reflecting on the impetus for their initial establishment.  A number of the Californian redevelopment agencies of 2011, and their use of TIF, were a long way from the initial thinking of the 1950s.  A model with a quite ‘progressive’ policy DNA had in many ways become far less progressive, almost regressive in places, by the time of its cessation.  So, it is important to put in place checks and balances.  This was not the case in California.  Third, the law of unintended consequences is prone to makes its presence felt. A number of changes in the legislative and financial system, of which redevelopment agencies were one element, led inadvertently to the incentivising of certain forms of behaviour.  Proposition 13 squeezed city government and made it very attractive to establish redevelopment agencies.  Redevelopment agencies often competed with one another for capital investment.  Other changes made the system more and more complex.  This required the involvement of a growing amount of expertise – economic, environmental, financial, legal, planning, and redevelopment consultants all saw their businesses grow on the back of the increased amount of activity undertaken by redevelopment agencies.  They also then had a stake in a particular version of ‘redevelopment’ and in its continued existence.  So, try and keep it simple!

Whether TIF ever actually gets introduced into England remains unclear.  Other models are also being discussed.  Edinburgh in Scotland got its TIF business plan agreed in late 2010 but has not made as much progress as it would have liked.  What is clear however is that in all areas of policy there will continue to be models that catch the attention of consultants, policymakers and politicians.  These models will find themselves being moved from one place to another, raising issues for those places they pass through as well as for the models themselves as the places they encounter lead to changes in their very constitution.

Between Two Rivers – Another Cairo

by Nick Jordan

Violence erupts on the streets of Cairo. Bricks and stones are thrown between opposing groups on either side of the street. Shots are fired, as armed police intervene to separate the two fighting mobs. But this is not the 2011 revolution in Cairo, Egypt. It is Cairo, Illinois, deep in the heartland of America, and the year is 1969. These are archive scenes from a new feature-length documentary, Between Two Rivers (www.betweentworivers.net), directed by myself and Jacob Cartwright. The documentary centres on Cairo, Illinois, a small city with a dark and turbulent history, located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

Once mooted as a potential capital city of the USA, Cairo exists on the border between America’s northern and southern states, and is a city of marked contrasts and intense conflicts. Isolated and encircled by levees, the once prosperous town has been devastated over time by floods, racial violence, depopulation and severe economic decline. Mirroring the Ohio-Mississippi confluence, Between Two Rivers combines the past and present, connecting themes such as history, politics, economics and the environment, all to be found in a single location, here at the ‘Confluence of America.’

The documentary sets Cairo’s tumultuous past against the backdrop of the latest crisis to afflict the community: the record-breaking floods of spring 2011, when the rising Ohio & Mississippi rivers threatened to engulf the town.

In editing the documentary, which we researched and filmed over a four-year period, we decided to combine our own cinematography with historic film clips, including remarkable archive footage from Cairo: City in Turmoil, made in 1969 by Southern Illinois University. Unseen for over 40 years, City in Turmoil captures the town at the height of racial tensions, when Cairo witnessed the last pitched battles of the American civil-rights movement.

Our collaborative practice often explores the relationship between cultural and natural history, and Between Two Rivers looks closely at the unique natural environment that encircles the town. Cairo is positioned at a biological midpoint of the USA; a region of natural diversity where numerous species and terrains meet at the limits of their northern and southern range.

We originally came upon Cairo by chance, whilst working on a series of short films based on the writings of the 19th century American frontiersman and ornithologist John James Audubon. After filming in neighboring Kentucky our search for somewhere to stay in the area lead us to Cairo. The town’s name conjured up notions of civic grandeur and pioneer ambition. We imagined a clapboard river town, where the old world converges with the new; an exotic, old Americana, offering a welcome antidote to generic motels and chain-food franchises.

We arrived at night to find the town in a state of ruin. Commercial Avenue, once the main mercantile thoroughfare, was lined with the crumbling facades of 19th century stores, banks, abandoned warehouses and saloons, some littered with police tape and bullet holes. Adjacent streets were punctuated by burnt out ‘shotgun’ houses, deserted churches and gutted mansions. Cairo’s troubles were all too evident. It was only later that we discovered the scope and nature of its baleful history: from booming river trade, lavish opera halls and lively juke-joints to mob-lynchings, curfews and armed vigilantes.

At a time when the “99%” majority, who paid trillions to bail-out the financial markets, are left shouldering the burden of higher taxes and food prices, public service and welfare cuts, job losses and a huge drop in living standards, the small, isolated and largely forgotten city of Cairo graphically represents the pressing social problems facing western economies today, with gross levels of wealth inequality, rising poverty and environmental pressures. Candid in its representation of severe economic and social failings, we hope that our film also highlights the dignity, faith and optimism of the people of Cairo, many of whom are proud of their community and yet feel that they have been left behind.

The film will be released to festivals and wider distribution from January 2012.

There will be a special, non-public screening of the film at Cornerhouse, Manchester on November 7th, 2011. The screening is free and will begin at 4pm. If you would like to attend please e-mail mail@betweentworivers.net to secure your place.

Nick Jordan, Director

For further trailer, clips and further info please visit:

Nick Jordan is an artist/film-maker based in Manchester (www.nickjordan.info). He also works for the University of Manchester, making educational training videos in psychiatry and psychology.