“By conservative estimates, the US owes black people several trillion dollars in reparations”

Wes Bellamy, deputy mayor of Charlottesville, VA, and architect of its reparations scheme. Image: Getty.

By conservative estimates, the United States owes black people somewhere between a few and several trillion dollars.

The origins of this enormous debt will forever mystify those committed to not knowing about the monstrous chain of events that lead to it. For the rest of us – those who find a bedtime story version of history too costly or too boring to endure – the reasons are as obvious and unavoidable as a mallet to the face in broad daylight: a half millennium of gothic cruelty inflicted on black Americans by the country their toil made possible.

Still, a single question hovers over any mention of the debt owed to these unacknowledged architects of America. Yes, that sounds good in theory, but how the hell would it actually work?

No doubt the challenge is often made by folks genuinely curious as to how such a massive and complex scheme would unfold in the real world. There’s also no doubt that, just as often, it enters a room via someone already scanning it for the nearest exit.

It’s curious, after all, that the “How the hell?” brigade never gets around to endorsing Congressman John Conyers’ H.R. 40, a resolution in the House of Representatives whose entire purpose is to study and develop answers to this very question. That’s a shame, because it is a vital one.

Lucky for us, the struggle to carve out a navigable pathway to reparations is being pursued as we speak. In states and cities especially, programs sharing a common intellectual ancestry with reparations have emerged, making it increasingly difficult to look the other way.

Take Charlottesville, Virginia. Right now, perhaps, it seems like an unlikely candidate for pushing a reparations package. Yet right before a powder keg of white supremacist lunacy erupted there, the city council, under the leadership of deputy mayor Wes Bellamy, passed a $4m equity package to address the history of social and economic hardship piled atop the city’s marginalised communities, most especially in its centers of black life.

With his city standing on the brink of infamy for the terror soon to be unleashed, Bellamy appeared on Democracy Now! to paint a city on the verge of a very different historic moment:

“And in the midst of all of this, we also got an equity package passed, which I presented in January… which gave us $950,000 to our African American Heritage Center, $250,000 to build onto one of the parks in the local African-American community.

“We got $2.5m to public housing redevelopment, $50,000 annually for anyone who lives in public housing to get free GED training, another $50,000 to anyone who lives 80 percent below the AMI, which is the annual median income, as well as public housing, to have scholarships of sorts to go to our local community college. We got a position for black male achievement, which we’re calling a youth opportunity coordinator…

“In all, it was about $4m, basically, from funding, put specifically into marginalized communities to help bridge the gap and create equity.”

While the city isn’t calling this reparations, the real world kinship between the two is unmistakable. The equity package, like reparations, is an attempt to improve material life for an injured class of people.

In this, it must be said, Charlottesville has thrown a pebble at the colossal edifice that is American white supremacy. This  is not a denunciation: just the opposite. For those who call the city home, who live and toil in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, the effort could make all the difference.

But to be clear: there is no substitute for a national reparations program. What horrors the country collectively authored, the country must collectively repair. And whatever your flavour of horror, the United States has racked up an enormous debt. The nation may continue to scoff at its obligations, but the debt, detailed carefully across an extensive scholarly record, is one that no one who thinks themselves honest can look past and hope to retain that quality.

In the meantime, cities and states have become laboratories of sorts, experimenting with different reparations models in response to organised public pressure. As we speak, programs are underway in states from Virginia to North Carolina and cities from Charlottesville to Chicago.

Chicago, for instance, has now payed out over $5m in reparations to victims of what amounted to a covert torture ring run by the city’s former police commander. This isn’t the way we typically think about reparations – that is, direct compensation for the monstrous and enduring legacy of America’s original sin of slavery. But it is an effort, much like Charlottesville’s, to chip away at a debt of public injury. In doing so, these city-level programs also expose the utter insincerity of those who argue that calls for reparations are unworkable fairy tales that serious people know to be impossible.

From a strategic standpoint, it’s not surprising that the road to national reckoning might run through these smaller arenas of political contest. Not only do they tend to be easier for vocal and well-organised activists to influence. But efforts to hold cities and states accountable for their own legacies of public injustice are powerful sources of experience for national campaigns that hope to do the same.

And as we search for pathways out of the seemingly endless forest of horrors we find ourselves in, it's important that stories like these be told – ones that may not blaze a trail out of that misery, but perhaps provide some light and direction along the way.

Eli Day is a Detroit-based writer and activist.

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To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.

Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.

But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.

A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.