“Strange how the name of a city can come to mean an event, rather than a place”: Aleppo before ‘Aleppo’

The Queiq River in downtown Aleppo. Image: Mohamed Zaki/Wikimedia Commons.

I know nothing of Aleppo, beyond the fact it’s a Syrian city currently playing host to a terror it’s too painful even to imagine. I know, in the abstract, that there’s a real place behind those stories – but I don’t instinctively grasp how it was, or what it was like, before the war came.

When terrorism comes to Brussels or Paris or New York, I have a mental image of what that looks like; an idea, however flawed, of what is at stake. In Aleppo, as in too much of the world, I don’t have that. I know nothing of its history or its people, what work they do or how they get to the office in the morning.

And today, I can’t help but feel I should know those things. So here are some of them.

Aleppo is one of the oldest cities in the world. Some of the archaeological records suggest it’s been inhabited for 7,000 years or more, and by the late 3rd millennium BCE it was already popping up in Mesopotamian records as a city noted for its commercial and military importance. (The late 3rd millennium, to put that date in perspective, is around 1,000 years before the traditional date for the Trojan War.)

The ancient city, in 2011. Image: Preacher Lad/WIkimedia Commons.

The city’s endurance seems to relate to its importance as a trading post. It lies at the western end of the Silk Road, along which goods travelled between Asia and the Mediterranean. For much of history – really, until the arrival of the Suez Canal, in 1869 – all trade between China or Persia and the Levant or Europe would have passed through Aleppo.

At various points in its history, Aleppo was part of the empires of Assyria and Babylonia, the Hittites and Persians and Alexander the Great. It became part of the new Roman province of Syria in 64BCE, thanks to Pompey, and was part of the Byzantine Empire until the Muslim conquest of 637. European crusaders twice besieged the city, but failed to take it. In the last thousand years, it was held by the Mongols, then the Ottomans, then finally the French, before Syria became an independent state in 1945.

The Grand Mosque in 2010. Image: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1986, the city was added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. An extract from its inscription noted:

The old city of Aleppo reflects the rich and diverse cultures of its successive occupants. Many periods of history have left their influence in the architectural fabric of the city. Remains of Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ayyubid structures and elements are incorporated in the massive surviving Citadel.

In 2013, UNESCO added the city to a second list: that of world heritage sites in danger.

Aleppo grew rapidly and industrialised in the 20th century. By the beginning of the 21st, it had grown to become the largest city in Syria, with a population of 2.1m, about the size of Manchester. In the entire Levant, only Amman was bigger.


The Shahba Mall in 2012. Image: Francis-Mag/Wikimedia Commons.

The city’s population was largely Sunni Muslim – largely Arab, though Turkish and Kurdish, too – though it was also home to one of the Middle East’s largest Christian communities. In 2006 Aleppo was named the Islamic Capital of Culture, in recognition of both its historic importance and its careful preservation of its various landmarks.

Aleppo was the centre of the Syrian manufacturing industry, which accounted for 50 per cent of the city’s jobs. Many of the city’s businesses were based in the nearby industrial city of Sheikh Najjar, 10km to the north, essentially a planned business park for the city. In 2010 alone, the district received inward investment worth more than $3.4bn; it was still growing, with hotels and exhibition centres planned, when the war came in 2012.

The city has two football teams. Al-Ittihad plays in the Syrian Premier league, and at the eponymous 16,000 capacity stadium. Hurriya plays at the slightly smaller Al-Hamadaniah Stadium. It has a smaller fanbase, and was relegated in 2008.

There’s no metro or light rail in Aleppo. By way of public transport, the city relied on taxies and a fleet of white minibuses. It was a major stop on the Berlin to Baghdad Railway, however. Here’s a picture of its historic station, known as the Gare de Baghdad:

The Gare de Baghdad. Image: Reinhard Dietrich/Wikimedia Commons.

Since 2012, the city has been divided between rebel and government control. This week, that division seems finally to have come to an end. Reports today suggest that government militias are massacring civilians in the previously rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo.

It’s strange how the name of a city can come to mean an event, rather than a place. Sarajevo means an endless siege. Srebrenica means a massacre. Mosul means the war against Isis. And now, Aleppo means the Syrian Civil War.

But as the horrors unfold, and the recriminations follow, and we berate ourselves with the belief we could have prevented this, or comfort ourselves with the belief we could not, we should keep sight of the fact that Aleppo wasn’t always a war zone. It’s a city the size of Manchester with 7,000 years of history behind it.

You can give to the Red Cross’s Syria Appeal here.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.