In Search of the Night Sky

Originally published in Sierra.

WHEN I WAS A KID, someone gave me a copy of Find the Constellations, the classic kids’ stargazing book by H.A. Rey. I read it with great intensity but little understanding. The night sky seen from my Metro Detroit backyard looked nothing like the illustrations in the book. The only constellations I could spot consistently were the obvious ones: Orion and the Big Dipper.

My generation was the first in my family to live this way. When my mom was a child, her neighborhood was thick with stars. My grandparents had bought a house on the edge of Detroit so they could grow crops and still live close enough to the metropolis to work in the factories. When my mom walked through the fields on her way to school, pheasants would burst out of the grass in front of her. The city lights were still far enough away that the night sky was a star riot.

The house in which my mom grew up was one of two that the family lost to eminent domain as Metro Detroit’s suburban ambitions spread outward in the 1960s. The house’s remains were buried under a parking lot near I-75, something that my mom would comment on, casually, whenever we parked on top of it.

By the time I came around, the area was an Escher maze of malls, parking lots, and drive-through fast-food joints lit up bright enough to lure cars from the nearby freeway. Every few years, a pheasant would appear in our backyard looking confused. The stars were history.

During my lifetime, the world has gotten even brighter. The gas station down the street from my San Francisco apartment is lit up like an alien landing site at all hours. Affordable LED lights enabled my neighbors to install individual ones on every step leading up to their porch, as if hoping that Busby Berkeley would stop by and choreograph a dance number. Every night, the skyscrapers downtown light up like Christmas tree ornaments.

It seems like it’s always been this way. It hasn’t. Electricity’s eclipse of the nightly firmament is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Being the first in my family to grow up without stars comes with a particular kind of territory: I’m the first to think that stars are anything special. The once-ordinary is now spectacular.

I came to this realization late. It didn’t really strike me until last summer, when I, like millions of others, went on a quest to see some darkness: specifically, a few minutes when the moon would cover the sun during broad daylight.

To get to a place where I would be able to see Earth’s personal star go dark, I traveled hundreds of miles. I crossed multiple state lines. I listened to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” many, many times. Finally, I was in Idaho.

There was a galaxy out there. A huge galaxy. Our galaxy.

When the eclipse came to pass and the sky darkened to a purplish black, the oohs and aahs of hundreds of people filled the air. The campers around us had been acting nonchalant, but now that we were all together in the dark, wonder was afoot. I took off my eclipse glasses and gazed at the burning ring in the sky. It looked like a tiny live-action heavy metal album cover. It was very cool.

But it made me wonder: What else were the stars and planets doing? Why had I applied this level of obsessive road-tripping to see the moon slide over the sun like a lid over a pot when I had never even tried to see what was actually going on up there on a clear, dark night? With a little planning, I could be seeing galaxies. So I began a second quest, one in search of a night sky like the one that my grandparents had grown up with.

It turned out to be much harder than I imagined.

THE FIRST PEOPLE WHO HAD ACCESS TO public lighting didn’t seem to miss the night much. “Most of the crimes against person and property are committed at night in darkness,” a reporter for the Pittsburgh Gazette Times wrote in 1911. “It is a wise local administrative policy that looks kindly upon liberal use of electric lamps for street lighting, particularly in those sections of a large city where crooks like to hide. A sufficiently lighted city is always attractive, well-advertised, and of course progressive.”

Cities were so eager to be illuminated that they moved restlessly from one technology to another. Oil lamps were replaced by gaslights, which were replaced by structures called “moon towers,” which cities ran on evenings when the moon wasn’t full. The towers, which were lit by arcs of raw electricity, were built as high as possible, both because they were so bright and because shorter versions had a history of electrocuting people who used them to light cigars.

In the United States of the late 19th century, Detroit had the most comprehensive moon tower system—122 towers covering 21 square miles of downtown. They ultimately fell out of favor because the towers cast strange shadows and, with the advent of the skyscraper, they weren’t tall enough to effectively light the streets. Detroit sold its moon towers to Austin, Texas, where they still stand (minus the original arc lighting), woven into a city that is now so illuminated that they are barely noticeable anymore.

The moon towers were replaced by lightbulbs. Of all the technologies that have left their stamp on America, the lightbulb has become synonymous with innovation itself—a cartoon shorthand for genius and insight. I grew up taking regular field trips to a replica of the Menlo Park, New Jersey, workshop where Thomas Edison had tinkered with the carbon-thread incandescent lamp. The replica was part of a village that Henry Ford, our homegrown automobile magnate, had built to serve as an artifact of preindustrial America. On these visits, we were shown how to make hand-dipped candles. “Imagine,” the bonnet-clad docent said, “that this was your only source of light, and you had to make enough to last your parents for an entire month.” No, I couldn’t imagine it.

I also couldn’t imagine a world where light was exciting. In her book about the history of artificial light, Brilliant, Jane Brox writes that as Edison’s workshop began to have success with the lightbulb in 1879, wagons full of people—farmers, visitors from the city—began to show up at the laboratory to see the new lights. Once the visitors started showing up by the thousands, Edison stopped letting them inside the factory. They still came—they just stood out on the lawn instead.

Brox describes a funeral for a kerosene lamp held by the Adams Electric Cooperative, in Pennsylvania. “Buried here May 3, 1941,” the eulogy read, “as a symbol of the drudgery and toil which its member families bore far longer than was necessary or right.” Some farms, newly electrified, left their lights on all night in glee. Other farmers took their old oil lamps outside and smashed them.

People quickly habituated to each leap forward in lighting technology. During World War II, German bombers used London’s lights as a navigational tool. In the city’s first defensive blackout, Brox writes, Londoners found that they were so dependent on lighting that many couldn’t find their own homes in the dark. Some people wandered into trees and canals.

When my grandparents were children, electricity was distant and urbane—it didn’t work its way out to the countryside until the Roosevelt-era Rural Electrification Administration. My mother’s parents met as teenagers on the migrant farmworker circuit, and their stories from that time were not about stars but about darkness. Darkness, in their telling, was not a good thing. In one story, they stopped by the side of the road to sleep on their way to the next job. It was a moonless night, and they kept stumbling over encampments made by other sleeping travelers.

If I ever went back to that roadside, I would probably find it lined with LED billboards. According to one scientific paper, the United States, on average, became 6 percent brighter each year between 1947 and 2000. To experience the kind of night sky my grandparents saw regularly, my best bet was to go to one of the national or state parks designated as an “International Dark Sky Park”—a certification developed by the International Dark-Sky Association, which was founded by two astronomers in the late 1980s. The idea behind the dark-sky parks is simple: The night sky is a natural resource that deserves preservation every bit as much as, say, watersheds or wildlife corridors. To be certified as a dark-sky park, a place needs to make basic infrastructure fixes, like shielding its lights so that they shine only on the ground, rather than into the atmosphere. A dark-sky park also needs to contribute to making its own little corner of the world a darker place by educating visitors about its nighttime modifications and monitoring, and by working with nearby municipalities and other potential allies on a night-friendly lighting code.

Figuring out which dark-sky park to visit was tricky. Joshua Tree has dark-sky status, but the western edge of the park glows with the night haze of Palm Springs and Los Angeles (though the eastern edge still manages to be one of the darkest places in California).

After much deliberation, I decided on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The national park’s dark-sky status was still in the provisional stages (the park has until 2019 to retrofit all of its lighting fixtures), but if it failed to impress me with its darkness, I could always drive on to Bryce Canyon, which claimed to be one of the three darkest places in America accessible by paved road.


IT WAS A LONG DRIVE FROM San Francisco to northern Arizona, so I stopped in Las Vegas. The lights there were so bright and so insistent that they seemed almost like a natural phenomenon, and in one sense, they were. After Hoover Dam was finished in the 1930s, the then-tiny city had access to so much electricity that it cloaked itself in neon.

Wandering around Vegas on the way to a dark-sky park was the sensory equivalent of eating a tower of donuts the day before Lent. Downtown, much of Fremont Street was covered with a giant canopy—basically a fake sky—made of LED lights. The sky oscillated between images of prisms turning into birds, then flames, and casino advertisements. Nearby was a 12-story slot machine that sold $25 zip-line rides underneath the fake sky.

The next morning, on my way out of town, I stopped by the Neon Museum. The sun was so bright that the museum provided parasols for visitors. All around me, ancient signs leaned up against each other like companionable, sun-bleached giants: a single flamingo feather from the old Flamingo Hotel, a gold nugget glittering with incandescent bulbs. The museum has been taking junked neon signs, fixing them up, and reinstalling them in spots near downtown. When Las Vegas is unearthed by the archaeologists of the future, it will be fairly clear what we worshiped.

When I arrived at the Grand Canyon later that day, it felt almost as busy as the Vegas Strip. But as the sun set, the trail cleared out until I was all by myself, walking a narrow footpath along the edge of the mile-deep gorge. After a while, I realized something weird: The sun had set, but it wasn’t getting any darker. I looked up and immediately saw what was to blame—the moon. The freaking full moon.

In kids’ picture books, the moon and the stars hang out in the same illustrations like perfect pals. In real life, this huge moon was a diva so bright that only the strongest, brightest stars could even try to make an appearance. In my attempt to spend more time with the night sky in all its splendor, I had revealed how little I knew about even the most basic celestial rhythms. The planets and stars and I have never been on very familiar terms.

“Maybe if I fall asleep, the stars will come out,” I thought. “Is the moon really going to be such a big deal at 3 A.M.?”

The moon was a big deal at 3 A.M. It was so bright that it made the Grand Canyon look fake, like a diorama in a museum of natural history. At this point, there was nothing to do other than enjoy the experience of seeing an icon of the American landscape lit up like a parking lot.

As I wandered around outside my lodge, I looked for examples of the dark-sky-friendly lighting that I’d been reading so much about. All the outdoor lighting had a warm, yellowish glow and some kind of cover to keep the light focused on the paths around the lodge and the cabins. Many of the lights were designed to look old, but even the ones that weren’t had a retro quality, because they were covered. In the past, lamps were covered because the light they generated was precious and expensive and we only wanted it to glow in one direction. Now we were using shaded lamps to preserve the darkness. The only bright spot in the whole human firmament was the dish room behind the kitchen and a Pepsi machine, which glowed near the visitor center like an artifact from outer space. The front of the machine was printed with a giant photo of the Grand Canyon, as though trying to disguise itself.

I looked at the few stars I could see and tried to feel grateful.


LOSING THE NIGHT SKY IS NOT just an issue of nostalgia or aesthetics. We, like most of the other creatures on this planet, evolved to use night and day as cues to regulate our physiology. The near-constant presence of artificial light affects humans and other species in unnerving ways.

Researchers have found that women who work the late shift have a higher-than-average risk of developing breast cancer. This may be because exposure to blue light (the spectrum often emitted by neon lights) can lead to decreased melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone that, among other things, helps suppress the body’s nocturnal production of estrogen—and too much estrogen has been shown, in some studies, to increase the risk of cancer. A global study of cancer data from 158 countries found an elevated risk of lung, breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers in areas where artificial lighting is common, even after other environmental factors like air pollution were taken into account.

The effects on wildlife are even more clear. Artificial lighting has a documented history of messing with bird migration, baby-turtle survival, salmon spawning, and lightning-bug sex. This is largely because many species evolved to use the moon as part of their navigation system—not the moon plus a coastal hotel development.

Scientists learned about these effects on wildlife the hard way. In the mid-20th century, office buildings began leaving their lights on all night. New fluorescent lights brought dramatic reductions in lighting bills, and it was ridiculously pretty to see downtown skylines lit up so brightly. Then some cities, including Chicago, discovered that they had built their skyscrapers in the center of migratory-bird corridors. Many species of songbirds migrate at night and use the moon and the constellations as guides. The lit-up buildings disoriented the birds, causing them to either slam into the buildings or circle them until they dropped from exhaustion. During peak migration, workers would arrive to find the sidewalks littered with dead warblers and thrushes.

Getting precise numbers is difficult because many casualties are eaten by predators before anyone spots them, but an estimated 365 million to 988 million birds are killed by colliding with windows in the United States annually, and many of those collisions happen at night. Dave Willard, an ornithologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago who catalogs the migratory birds that are discovered dead on Chicago’s streets, has found that a building that turns off its lights at night reduces its death toll by as much as 80 percent. One of the most notorious bird killers in the area, a convention center on the shores of Lake Michigan, saw yearly casualties drop from a high of 2,400 in the early 1990s to a sixth of that once it reduced the number of lights left on at night.

Successes like this happen, but so do new problems. Every September, New York City’s Tribute in Light creates two four-mile-high pillars of light near the site of the old World Trade Center, in remembrance of the September 11 attacks. Migratory songbirds like American redstarts, blue warblers, and wood thrushes become trapped in the beams’ glare. Today, volunteers from the National Audubon Society monitor the light towers to guard against bird deaths. Every time an exhausted bird plummets to the ground, or the count of circling birds reaches 1,000, the volunteers alert the September 11 Memorial, which shuts off the lights for 20 minutes to give the birds time to move on. In 2015, Tribute in Light had to be shut down eight times.

Around the world, cities are switching over to LED lights, which are vastly more energy efficient than the incandescent bulbs and sodium-vapor lights they replace. But while the LEDs are better from an energy and climate change perspective, they are very likely worse for wildlife and human health. LEDs typically emit a bluish tone (though there are ones that cast a more yellow light), and that makes them even more competitive with the moon, giving them the potential to kill even more wildlife than their predecessors. In the summer of 2016, the American Medical Association declared LED streetlights—which made up 10 percent of America’s supply at the time—to be a public-health risk because of their potential effect on human circadian rhythms.


A FEW WEEKS AFTER MY POORLY TIMED TRIP to the Grand Canyon, I set out for another dark-sky park: Death Valley. I was headed for the Eureka Dunes, a place that I’d been to briefly, years ago, after one of the most harrowing, boulder-riddled drives of my life. But when I set up camp near the entrance of the park the evening of my arrival, I thought the sky looked strange. Hazy. Not like the desert skies that I remembered at all.

The next morning, a park ranger cleared up my confusion. “Yup, it’s the wildfires,” he said. Two weeks earlier, some of the worst wildfires in California history had broken out in Northern California. The smoke blanketed the Bay Area for a week before clearing. But some of the haze had moved southward on the winds.

“What about the Eureka Dunes?” I asked. “Those will be clear, right?” The ranger looked at me with gentle pity.

The only solution, other than to quit, was to try to get above the smoke. The highest campground in Death Valley is Thorndike, 7,400 feet above sea level and reached via a very bumpy dirt road. I decided to go for it. When I reached the rustic campsite set at the top of the road, I could see smoke lying over the valley like a pancake—a thick cloud made of the angry ghosts of burnt subdivisions.

The problem with Thorndike, though, was it was a whole season colder up there, and I hadn’t come prepared. Neither, it turned out, had a lot of other people at the campground. On my way back from the bathroom before bed, I saw two men sitting in the cab of a truck with its engine running, eating ramen and looking miserable. I wasn’t feeling much better, but I was determined to tough it out and had put on every single article of clothing I had packed, one on top of the other. It took what felt like forever to get warm enough to fall asleep. When the alarm went off at 3 A.M., I unzipped the tent window and looked out.

There was a galaxy out there. A huge galaxy. Our galaxy. There were stars beyond count, an infinity of worlds whose names I did not know.

I thought of that line from The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway looks out across the water and goes on about how he almost imagines how interesting the world was when it was a wilder place, about what it must have been like for man to be “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.” Nick Carraway clearly needed to get out more.

I stood there, shivering, for hours, taking it all in.


A New History of Love Canal

Originally published at Grist.

If you’re traveling through the suburbs around Niagara Falls, you might notice that one of them is missing. There are still roads, and you see empty driveways and old sidewalks hiding in the grass. But no one lives here anymore.

There aren’t any signs saying where you are, so I’ll tell you: It’s Love Canal, an idyllic suburb that caught the country’s attention back in 1978 when its residents realized that they were living on a toxic-waste landfill. Love Canal’s residents organized, protested, and kept their story in the media for a year. Along the way, they helped launch the modern environmental movement.

fire hydrant - Niagara Falls, NY Oct. 2012

A new history of that struggle, Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present by the environmental historian Richard S. Newman, reveals details that I’d never heard before. Love Canal’s evocative name? The land used to be owned by William T. Love, a real-estate dreamer of the 1890s who dug the canal in the hopes of creating a model city along its banks. Love imagined his city would be powered by hydroelectric energy poached from Niagara Falls. In contrast to the dirty, coal-powered factory towns then powering the American industrial revolution, Love’s city would boast such luxuries as clean drinking water, lines for telephone, gas, and water, as well as mail delivered by pneumatic tubes.

Love Canal Book Cover

In 1894, local papers reported that the excavators hired by Love “have already made quite a hole and a big pile of dirt,” but that was as far as the model city ever got. Love lost a ton of money, then quit and moved west. Local kids used the canal as a swimming hole in the summer and an ice pond in the winter, until a local producer of bleaching powder, rubber, and explosives noticed it.

From 1942 through the early 1950s, that company, Hooker Electrochemical, filled in the unfinished canal with 22,000 tons of toxic waste, much of it leftover from Hooker’s work outfitting the military for World War II.

In 1952, the Niagara Falls school board approached Hooker and asked if the company would be willing to part with the land so that it could build a suburb and a new elementary school on it. Several Hooker company officials objected. Maybe the land was safe for a park, they said, but not housing. Still, in April 1953, Hooker sold the former canal to the school board for $1. The deed of sale mentioned that the site was brimming with chemical waste, and that, by signing the deed, Niagara Falls assumed all liability for any problems.

When the school board then sold the land to a housing developer in 1957, Hooker executives warned city officials against putting houses on the site. “There are dangerous chemicals buried there in drums, in loose form, in solids and liquids,” A.W. Chambers, a Hooker representative, told the Niagara Falls Gazette. All they could do was warn, though — Love Canal was no longer Hooker’s property. The developers built hundreds of houses atop the landfill anyway.

To the thousands of people who moved in during the 1960s and 1970s, Love Canal was a nice neighborhood — working-class and friendly. But weird things happened. When the kids threw rocks against the pavement they exploded like firecrackers. Manhole covers launched themselves into the air without warning. Kids playing baseball would get strange, chemical burn-like rashes when they slid across the grass. Dogs went bald.

Neighbors shared stories and slowly realized they had more than their share of miscarriages, birth defects, and cancer. In 1976, New York State health officials started testing the area around Love Canal for dangerous chemicals. The following year, a regional officer for the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency wrote a letter to his bosses in Washington, warning that the area around the canal was so polluted that the state’s only option was to buy up the 40 or 50 homes closest to the canal and tear them down. Local officials panicked, and asked for more tests.

Love Canal Killing Grounds
University of Buffalo

More tests just made everything scarier: 82 different chemical compounds were found around Love Canal. They were sitting in puddles, hiding in sump pumps, and seeping through basement walls. Many, like benzene, were known carcinogens. State health officials found that women in the neighborhood miscarried at 1.5 times the level of the general population. Some 13 percent of the babies born in one section of houses near the canal had birth defects. The state health commissioner advised evacuating all pregnant women and children under the age of 2.

After years of rumors and unsettling data, news of the planned evacuation made the people of Love Canal go from afraid to ballistic. They began organizing protest groups, the most visible of which was the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) led by a local housewife named Lois Gibbs. Another organization, the Concerned Love Canal Renters Association (CLCRA) is less well-remembered. It was run by a community activist named Elene Thornton, and consisted mostly of African American residents from a nearby federal housing project. Television crews and reporters, enchanted with the idea of white housewives turned activists, largely wrote the CLCRA out of their coverage of Love Canal.

What’s also forgotten is just how vicious the situation was. At one point, residents burned effigies of Jimmy, Rosalynn, and Amy Carter (who was 10 years old at the time).

Jimmy Carter Effigy Love Canal
University of Buffalo

But it was Carter’s executive decisions that paid for people to move from Love Canal. In 1978, Carter approved emergency federal aid so that New York State could start buying the homes of the 236 families closest to the canal.

That didn’t appease the other 710 families that still had to live there. In May of 1980, the EPA announced that blood tests of 36 Love Canal residents revealed nearly a third “exhibited chromosome damage of an abnormal nature.” The LCHA responded by holding two EPA representatives hostage. When the police arrived, they found the entrance to the LCHA offices blocked by hundreds of angry suburbanites armed with two-by-fours. Gibbs called the press, and the White House. “We’ll keep them fed, we’ll keep them happy,” she said of her hostages.

The homeowners association released their hostages after five hours. Gibbs later recalled that one of them, Frank Nepal, was kind of into it. “He was telling us how he used to be involved in the Vietnam War protests,” Gibbs said. “So he thought it was kind of cool, being held hostage.”

Love Canal Bonnet Protest
University of Buffalo

New York and the federal government squabbled over buying out the remaining 710 families. A compromise was finally reached in October of 1980, with the federal government providing $7.5 million in grants and another $7.5 million in loans to the state so that it could begin buying homes immediately. The following spring, Love Canal was a ghost town.

Love Canal Old Man
University of Buffalo

The Love Canal experience also led Carter to create the Superfund program in 1980. That way, when another Love Canal happened (and there would be many drums of toxic waste unearthed in the following decades), there would be funds ready to pay for any cleanup and relocation.

Time has edited the story of Love Canal. The EPA rescinded the chromosome study in 1983, saying that it was poorly done. Gibbs’s two children, both sickly as children, grew up to be healthy adults. A long-term study carried out by the New York State Health Department found the health of former residents wasn’t that different from those of others living in Niagara County and throughout the state. Sure, they died more frequently of heart attacks, car crashes, suicide, and bladder and kidney cancer, but overall, their mortality rates fell within the average range for the area.

Former Love Canal residents continue to dispute this research. For one thing, residents who died of cancer before 1972, or moved away before 1978, were not counted in the state’s study. For another, why compare the health of Love Canal residents to another group that lived nearby? Why not make the control group people who lived in a community with no pollution at all?

The toxic waste filling Love Canal proved too big to move, so the canal was covered in clay and entombed instead. Or, as Gibbs said, it lived in “a gated community for chemicals.”

In the 1990s, some 200 homes at the outer edge of the evacuation zone were refurbished and renamed Black Creek Village. A few years later, residents of Black Creek Village began complaining of miscarriages and mysterious rashes. Not possible, replied an EPA spokesperson. The area around Love Canal was surrounded by monitoring wells and “the most sampled piece of property on the planet.” Any leak in the landfill would be detected. Because it’s so closely watched, the story goes, what was once the most dangerous suburb in America is today one of the safest.


Meet the YIMBYS

Originally published at Grist.

The first time I heard of Sonja Trauss, she was mobilizing San Franciscans to support new apartment construction. This was not a campaign that went over well in the Mission District, a formerly working-class neighborhood that was in the middle of a full-on freakout over how many people seemed to want to build luxury condos there. One night, when I was walking down 24th Street, I saw that someone had taped up fliers to telephone poles with pictures of Trauss on them. Her eyes had been whited out and replaced by dollar signs.

Based on this backstory, I assumed Trauss must be one of the numerous young real estate professionals who come to the Bay Area to seek their fortunes. I was surprised, when we met up last week, to realize that she actually belongs to a species I’d thought almost extinct in the Bay Area: the bona fide, deeply eccentric city-government nerd. Even stranger, Trauss had just turned around and done something that seemed to delight even her more vociferous opponents — she was trying to sue a suburban municipality to build more affordable housing.

Here is how Trauss’s thinking goes: We need more housing units, and the market-rate units we build now will become tomorrow’s middle-income apartments. Her theory is based on her experience working for a neighborhood advisory committee in a rapidly gentrifying part of Philadelphia right before the mid-2000s housing bubble burst. “When the market crashed,” Trauss told me, “all those projects we had approved went on sale for a third of the price they would have, while all the projects we gummed up were never built. We lost the opportunity to create more units.”

Trauss’s enthusiasm for building has brought out the critics. They say that, at best, she just doesn’t know her local history (when the mid-2000s housing bubble burst, the Mission was relatively unaffected); at worst, she’s a tool of the real estate lobby, hoping for a payout.

Neither view could be easily squared with Trauss’s latest move — organizing a lawsuit against the East Bay suburb of Lafayette, arguing that the city has wrongly blocked builders from putting up new housing. The lawsuit would be based on the 1982 Housing Accountability Act — an obscure California law intended to help affordable housing projects from having to compromise on density in order to win approval from local planning commissions. In 2011, a court ruled that the act applied to all housing, not just affordable housing. In 2014, a developer in the Mission used the act to fend off an effort to scale down a 12-unit apartment building that they had been trying to build for years on the site of a former Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But Trauss’s new effort seems to be unprecedented — it would be the first time that actual people, rather than developers, were using the law. And if her campaign succeeds, the implications could be huge. Suburbs like Lafayette are historically allergic to allowing more housing density, yet denser communities, many urban environmentalists believe, are the key to kicking our climate-wrecking carbon habit. Trauss’s suit could upend the tidy universe of California suburbia: Google employees living in San Francisco and commuting down the peninsula by tech bus could potentially could sue Mountain View for its refusal to approve three-quarters of the proposed housing around the Google campus. Speculators could ride BART and Caltrain all over the Bay Area, looking for locations around transit hubs where community organizations had blocked development.

Here’s how Trauss came to Lafayette: In August, she read a news article about the well-to-do suburb located east of San Francisco, over the hills from Oakland. Average income in Lafayette is about $130,000 — double the state average. It has an excellent school system and its own BART stop, and, like many similar communities, is determined to stay suburban. The Bay Area may have acquired 270,000 new residents in the last five years, but that doesn’t mean Lafayette is working to make room for them.

In 2010, Lafayette tried to rezone a Christmas tree lot that had been zoned for apartments in the 1940s, down from 35 units per acre to one home per five acres. The rezoning never went through. Then in 2011, a developer came up with a plan to build 315 apartments on the land (about 15 units per acre). The plan was to rent the finished units out, starting at $1,500 per month for a one bedroom — a price that, by Bay Area standards for new construction, was fairly modest, especially for an area with a good school district.

Neighborhood backlash was swift: “This development project will significantly impact traffic, threaten the safety of children crossing the street on their way to school, and decrease property values of hundreds of homes,” one petition read. The city refused to approve the project. The developer threatened to sue Lafayette under the Housing Accountability Act, but backed down when Lafayette offered to buy half of the land and turn it into a 10-acre city park. The developer drew up plans to build 44 more expensive single-family detached homes on the property instead.

But because of a quirk in the Housing Accountability Act, the developer wasn’t the only person who could sue Lafayette. Any person who could make a case that they would have lived in one of those 315 apartments, had they been built, could sue the City of Lafayette for standing in their way.

Right now, Trauss has a legal team and 15 plaintiffs lined up. She’s looking for more. The group also plans to host a panel discussion at the Lafayette Public Library titled: “Why are we suing you?”

Trauss has been obsessed with local politics since the days when she started writing the newsletter for her neighborhood organization in Philadelphia. She can rattle off the permit history of every major housing development that has gone up in the Bay Area in the last three years. “When we’re all there at a deep-level city meeting all night,” says Trauss, “I feel like I have more in common with the other people at the meeting than with anyone not at the meeting, even if we’re on opposite sides of an issue, because we’re all the type of people who think this is a good way for us to spend our lives.”

When Trauss moved to the San Francisco Bay Area four years ago, she first lived in El Cerrito with a relative whom she helped get through chemo. (“It’s a country club model moving here,” she said. “Either you have to pay a huge up-front fee, or you need to know someone.”) She found work quickly, teaching math at a private high school. But finding a place to live was an ordeal.

“I was just sick of ranting with my friends about how hard it is to find a place,” she says. “My four friends and I could go to the Planning Commission every Thursday and make our same speeches that we make at the bar about how we need to build more, build faster, build everything someone wants to build — and we might actually do some good. Local politics is where it’s at. People say ‘Oh, I’m so disconnected from politics. Nothing I say or do matters.’ That’s only because they’re paying attention to national politics. Local politics? You can take it over. If you’re bored with going to the bar every night and getting drunk, you can just take over your town. If you feel like it.”

Trauss and her friends decided to call themselves the San Francisco Bay Area Renters Federation — or, for short, SFBARF. The acronym was deliberate; Trauss’s roommate insisted that you couldn’t buy branding like BARF, and no one would ever confuse them with anyone else. (The current lawsuit is organized under a new, less creatively acronymable name: the California Renters Legal Advocacy & Education Fund.)

The ultimate goal is not to torment Lafayette so much as to fire a warning shot across the bow of all the Bay Area suburbs who have failed to take on their share of new residents. “I talked to Sam Altman, the head of Y Combinator,” Trauss says. “He told me that Y Combinator alone creates 10,000 new jobs a year in the Bay Area. That means we need 5,000 new homes. At least.”

That said, Lafayette Terraces, the 315-unit complex that inspired the lawsuit, is far from a poster child for smart growth. Those 315 apartments were going to come with over 500 parking spaces, made necessary because the development is a nearly 40-minute walk away from the Lafayette BART station. A high density building’s environmental value vanishes if the people who live densely still drive everywhere. Many of the things that Lafayette residents objected to about the project — increased pollution from traffic near the complex, in particular — made sense.

That’s the argument that the mayor of Lafayette — attorney and former Ecology Law Review editor Brandt Andersson — made when he debated SFBARF member Brian Hanlon on television station KTVU. Andersson felt SFBARF’s pain, he said. He himself had a kid in his 20s who was still living in the home. But in its enthusiasm to find a test case, Andersson argued, the group had ignored the specifics of Lafayette as a city.

For one thing, since the city had never formally turned down the development, SFBARF didn’t have much of a case. For another thing, Lafayette had drawn up a plan, made three years ago, to keep multi-unit housing downtown, near the BART station. “We don’t want high-rises,” Andersson said — the plan called for a maximum of three stories in height, and 35 units per acre. But over the last few years the city had approved several apartment complexes downtown, and had optioned a city-owned parking lot to a developer to build 24 units of workforce housing.

All fine and good, said Hanlon, but still not enough — between 2007 and 2013 Lafayette had only signed off on permits for 10 percent of the amount of low-income and moderate-income housing that the Association of Bay Area Governments recommended built to keep up with population increase in the area. (Overall, though, Lafayette built 65 percent of the recommended number of units, which is a higher percentage than San Francisco.)

Trauss objects to Andersson’s characterization of the development as too far out of town. An ordinary person could walk the 1.7 miles to downtown, she responded, and a not very in-shape person could bike. Plus, she adds, “It’s almost always true that new development doesn’t have the transportation infrastructure (this includes walking friendly roads, not just buses and whatnot) it needs at the time it’s developed. That’s because we don’t build transportation (or really do anything) unless there are people asking for it. So if we let ‘not enough transportation’ be a reason to not build (and often we do), almost nothing will get built.”

That said, this case has always been about something bigger than Lafayette. “It’s not just a lawsuit,” says Trauss. “It’s a political exercise. Most people would be very uncomfortable tearing down 315 houses. But they don’t have a similar objection to never building them in the first place, even though I feel they’re morally equivalent. Those people show up anyway. They get born anyway. They get a job in the area anyway. What do they do? They live in an overcrowded situation, they pay too much rent, they have a commute that’s too long. Or maybe they outbid someone else, and someone else is displaced.”

“It’s easy to see the problem when you’re tearing down someone’s home. But when you’re not building, it’s hard to see whose home it is.”



Homobiles, SF’s queer ride service, is the anti-Uber

It’s Saturday night, and the drag queens in the back of the car are impossibly young and dewy and imbued with an ostentatious teenage cynicism. They are dressed in a style popular with the drag queens of San Francisco these days, which is to say that one of them looks like the lovechild of a fierce babe from an Italian sci-fi movie from the ’60s and Björk, and the other one looks like Barbarella, if Barbarella had a really nice beard.

I can’t see them, because I’m in the front of the car, and they’re in the back seat, but I can hear them.

“Let’s make out!” says one.

“Let me pick your nose!” says the other.

I can hear scuffling. Again: “Let me pick your noooooose!”

The car that I’m riding shotgun in for the evening is a Homobile. Homobiles is a quirky, pay-what-you-will nonprofit car service in the Bay Area created by queer people (and their allies), for queer people (and their allies).

It was the bathroom walls that first clued me in to the existence of Homobiles. The year was 2011, and stickers began to appear in the bathrooms of gay bars across the city. A little while later, at a party, a friend took out her phone to call a cab, and the host stopped her and told her to text Homobiles instead. It turned out several people at the party — not all of them gay — were secret Homobiles customers.

I was working as a city reporter at the time, so I contacted them and asked for an interview. They wrote back politely to say hell no, because what they were doing wasn’t, technically, legal then. The city’s taxi companies had already clued in to their existence and freaked out, but Homobiles mollified them by explaining that its drivers only picked up people who called them first, and that they were picking up exactly the kind of people — the drag queens, in particular — that taxi drivers didn’t want to pick up. The Homobiles business model was the opposite of “too big to fail”; it was aiming for “too small for anyone to see as competition.”

William Gibson once said, “The future is here: it just isn’t fully distributed yet” — and in few situations is this more true than in the life of the visibly gay. “A lot of taxi drivers are immigrants from Middle Eastern countries,” says Rashid, a Homobiles regular. He is headed to Little Orphan Andy’s, a 24-hour gay diner in the Castro, and wearing a plastic raincoat and a peach-colored neon women’s bathing suit. “They can tell I’m Middle Eastern. They can tell I’m a faggot. It gets uncomfortable.”

The later it gets, the more Homobiles acquires an overall vibe that is one part car service, one part social services agency. Especially at night, many of the passengers have that air of emotional fragility that comes with being very young and very drunk in the big city, and the drivers have a seasoned, cool-older-aunt vibe.

A Homobiles ride is the kind where you can be hammered at the end of the night and singing along to Destiny’s Child at the top of your lungs, which happened earlier this evening. “Sorry,” the singer in the back seat, said after she had belted through the full duration at “Say My Name” and “Survivor” at a volume that makes human thought impossible. “This is just so my life right now.”

“I did all my partying years ago,” says Terry, who started driving for Homobiles six months ago, after she retired from a career as a bakery supervisor. “But I like to drive around and see what the kids are wearing. I like to watch the streets empty out.” One advantage of driving a small subset of the population around is that Terry gets to see the same people over and over again. When she gets a call from a regular, she lights up. “Willard!” she says. “I love Willard. We always have the best conversations!” It’s also one of the reasons she doesn’t drive for Sidecar anymore — back then, she never saw the same person twice.

There are educational payoffs, too. “I’ve learned so much about drag,” says D.J. Mora, who has driven for Homobiles longer than anyone else besides its founder, Lynnee Breedlove. “There are all these kinds of drag. Like Asian drag — it’s so different.” Mora got rid of her Prius and replaced it with a six-person Subaru station wagon for the good of Homobiles — the car is large enough to carry an entourage, and has enough leg room for some very high heels and a roof high enough to accommodate major wigs.

In all the time that I’ve spent learning as much as I can about Uber (and Lyft and Sidecar et al.) I have wondered: What’s next? Homobiles aren’t the future; what they do is too weird and specific and based on the personalities and ideals of the people involved to apply to an industry this large. What they are is a future — a local, grassroots alternative to the Clash of the Titans game that is playing out now between startups that are trying to become what Amazon is for books or Google is for search.

Homobiles was and remains a seat-of the pants operation, founded by Breedlove, the former owner of a bike-messenger service called Lickety Split. As far as tech goes, it is pure 2000s: Passengers request rides by texting their name and location to dispatch, and dispatch, who is usually a former bike-messenger dispatcher with a laptop, texts that information to the drivers. Whoever is closest to the call goes to pick them up. In theory, Homobiles doesn’t pick up anyone who hails cabs in the street; but in practice, it has cultivated a relationship with gay bars across the city, and its drivers frequently appear outside them around closing time.

I have looked, and have not found, any equivalent to it across the country — though the idea of running your own taxi service is so basic that it must have been created and recreated a thousand times over, especially in immigrant neighborhoods. I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes Homobiles so unusual is the degree to which it is able to operate out in the open. I also suspect that, since it began, Homobiles has had allies in city and state government who believed in what it was doing and worked behind the scenes to keep it from getting shut down.

In those ancient days of four years ago, when Homobiles first started, Lyft didn’t even exist (it was still a “true” ridesharing service called Zimride), and Uber was still a black-car service; but all that was about to change. Now these “we-say-we’re-not-taxis-but-boy-sometimes-do-we-act-like-taxis” companies are legally called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs).

Homobiles is not a TNC. For one thing, it still doesn’t have an app, and its status as a nonprofit puts it under different jurisdiction. But when the TNC designation was created by the California Public Utilities in 2013, the new rules contained an unexpected shout-out to Homobiles.

Homobiles was formed to meet the needs of consumers whose transportation needs are not being adequately met by either taxi cabs or limousines. We applaud the founders of Homobiles for establishing a non-profit 501(c)(3)volunteer organization that caters to the underserved communities of San Francisco.

In California, at least, the seemingly ironclad monopoly that taxis have held over private transit in the state for decades is broken at the moment — which may have a lot to do with why, right now, Homobiles is able to operate openly. The question is, will this last? For all their talk of disruption and open playing fields, it’s unlikely that TNCs have done this without having their own monopoly dreams.

Taxi companies have not been doing right by America’s cities for a long time. They’ve used their political sway to get away with treating their employees badly, and they’ve used it to shut down potential rivals like dollar vans and jitneys in low-income neighborhoods, while continuing to ignore and underserve those neighborhoods themselves.

But however convenient TNCs are right now, a TNC monopoly is not a good idea. A TNC duopoly isn’t a good idea, either. Allowing Uber and Lyft to keep permanent records of the places that every one of their passengers has visited is a civil-liberties nightmare. So is the way that TNCs can redline certain passengers and drop them entirely from its transit network.

I am reminded of this when I tag along with Homobiles to pick up Charles. Charles is an elderly black man and lives in the Tenderloin. When we arrive, he’s not waiting outside, so the driver, a briskly efficient D.J. Mora, goes into the building he called from to find him and bring him down. Charles has trouble getting into the cab, because he is profoundly drunk. When he makes it into the back seat, Mora introduces him, warmly, as a legend of queer rights history — which I have no doubt of, since Charles is of an era where to live as openly gay (even in the Tenderloin, which was the city’s gay district before the Castro) was to be, basically, a crazy badass.

Charles mutters something incoherent and we drive him to his apartment building, where Mora helps him out of the car and shadows him on his very slow, hesitant walk to the apartment lobby. At the sight of Charles, the worker at the front desk races to the front door, flings it open, and watches him anxiously as he goes through, as though Charles were weapons-grade plutonium.

“He’s proud,” says Mora, of Charles. “So it’s hard. You don’t want him to fall, but he doesn’t want you holding him up, either.” The whole thing takes 15 minutes, and as Charles and Mora part ways, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a few rumpled singles. “Is that enough?” he says. “It’s always enough,” says Mora.

If you are wondering about the strength of Homobiles’ pay-what-you-can business model in one of the most expensive cities in the country, you would be right to wonder. In the early days of Homobiles, the system worked pretty well: More solvent passengers tipped generously, which made up the difference for passengers who were more financially marginal. But the solvent customers have been disappearing — probably poached by Uber and Lyft, which have been racing to cut prices with the hope that, when the dust settles, they’ll be the last app standing.

Homobiles can’t match Uber and Lyft either in the number of drivers or in technological sophistication. Developing its own app is probably the service’s best way to survive, but paying for that is proving to be a challenge. Its main advantage is that it actually is the convivial, community-oriented “your friend with a car” thing that TNCs like Lyft are trying to position themselves as.

Lyft in particular is making a big push to court the city’s queer population, both as drivers and passengers — I recently got a Facebook invite to the funeral of a local queer icon, and the comments section was full of people offering Lyft coupons to anyone who attended. A few weeks ago, I was walking through Soma just as the bars let out, and the man in front of me started talking to his friend about how, when he got to his car, he was going to turn on the Lyft app in the hopes of catching a fare home — but also on the off chance that he might pick up a hunky, end-of-the-night hookup. “But it’ll probably be some straight girl,” he said, sighing. “That would be just my luck.”

“We’re in trouble,” says Mora. “If this keeps up, we’re not going to survive for much longer. Us old-school folks remember when all we had was each other,” she says, reflectively. “But our children — they’re captivated by the new and shiny thing.” She wonders out loud about what it would take to keep the operation going: A less edgy name, maybe? Would the professional gays with their professional dollars take a taxi called Homobiles?

Mora pulls up to the Brava Theater on 24th Street. Someone has called for a ride to the East Bay away from the theater, but the show, based on the life of disco icon Sylvester, hasn’t yet ended. Fifteen minutes later, the doors open and the audience pours out. Two young women spot the sign on the side of the door and collapse with laughter. “Homobiles?” one of them says, reading the magnet on the side of Mora’s Subaru. “I’m going to put this on Instagram! I’m going to promote the shit out of this! Fuck Uber! Do you have Twitter?”

“Sort of,” says Mora. There is a Twitter account, but no one has posted anything on it since 2012.

“Thank you!” the woman yells, striding away into the night. “Get all the homos!”

The ride from the theater turns out to be a former member of the San Francisco drag troupe the Cockettes, who tells us to check out a film somebody made about him. “It’s the story of an elusive countercultural pioneer — me!” he says, by way of introduction.

We drive him to Oakland, where Mora waits to make sure he has unlocked his front gate before driving away. “It’s important to do that,” she says. “Both for safety, and because you won’t believe how many times people forget their keys and you have to drive them all the way back to wherever they were to look for them.”

Around 11:30 p.m. ridership hits a lull — just about everyone out tonight has settled in until last call. I head over to Oasis, a new bar on 11th Street, where there’s a drag show in progress. The opening number is a riff on Mario Kart, and the performers are dressed as different transportation modes in San Francisco. Someone’s wearing a giant Muni bus made of cardboard; someone else is a BART train; and there’s a Lyft, an Uber, and a taxicab. They all jostle each other for first place. Uber is declared the winner, after which the other forms of transit tear the trophy from her hands and beat her to death with it.

When the show is over, there are three Homobiles cars and a score of Ubers and Lyfts idling outside. I tell Mora about the number.

“What?” she says, outraged. “Homobiles should have been in it!”

By 3 a.m., the city is a ghost town, and the doors to the bars are all padlocked shut. Everyone is either going home, going to the diner, or moving on to a secret party. I am falling asleep.

Terry insists on driving me home. “It’s what I do,” she says, cheerfully. She’ll be up until at least 6 a.m. She pulls up right in front of my apartment, and I step outside. When I open the gate, I turn around and she’s still there, watching me to make sure I get inside safely.