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The Best Cityreads of 2016

A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we’ve come across in the past 365 days.

Carlos Osorio/AP

Flint is Family,” Mattie Kahn, Elle

Shea Cobb stopped cooking in September 2014. It had been five months since her tap water turned brown, since her skin broke out in a furious rash, since Zion, her nine-year-old daughter, complained that the smell of the water made her sick.

Shea, 32, clamped her mouth shut in the shower and barred Zion from drinking from school water fountains. She used bottled water to brush their teeth. She made her mother, Renée, 55, promise to swear off tap water, too.

Even so, Renée noticed her hair was falling out. It had been thinning for months. But now it was coming off in clumps. She obsessed over it—they were so careful. Finally, it clicked. Renée worked for General Motors. She drank coffee every day, sipping it to stay alert during the punishing third shift. It was brewed with water from Flint. [Read more]

My Journey Into Aleppo: Watching a Moonscape of War Turn Into a Functioning City,” Anne Barnard, The New York Times

I took this video while on what often felt like a surreal bus ride through war-torn Syria. The video begins on the edge of the city of Aleppo, its western, government-held half. The area we drove through is all government held but has been intensely fought over, again and again, and has changed hands several times. The route we took connects the city to a key supply route — whoever controls the road determines if the eastern, rebel-held part of the city is besieged or not.

The destroyed buildings are in an area that was long held by rebels. The worst of the damage looks like the result of airstrikes. Only the government and, for the past year, its ally Russia have warplanes in the fight here. But some of the destruction could also be from artillery, which both sides have.

You go from this moonscape of war-destroyed buildings to a street of buses, open shops and apartments with laundry hanging from the balconies. These are areas that the government never lost, so they were never hit with the heaviest firepower. But rebel groups fire mortars; an individual strike doesn’t cause a building to fall, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t kill someone.

As you enter western Aleppo, everything seems so normal. [Read more]

A Syrian boy passes by a market in Aleppo where gasoline stored in barrels is sold. (Aleppo Media Center via AP)

Baltimore vs. Marilyn Mosby,” Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine

In the midst of a national crisis of police violence, Baltimore’s state’s attorney gambled that prosecuting six officers for the death of Freddie Gray would help heal her city. She lost much more than just the case. [Read more]

City State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby departs the courthouse in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S. on June 23, 2016. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

Death by Gentrification: The Killing that Shamed San Francisco,” Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian

On 4 March, on what would have been his 30th birthday, Alejandro Nieto’s parents left a packed courtroom in San Francisco, shortly before pictures from their son’s autopsy were shown to a jury. The photographs showed what happens when 14 bullets rip through a person’s head and body. Refugio and Elvira Nieto spent much of the rest of the day sitting on a bench in the windowless hall of the federal building where their civil lawsuit for their son’s wrongful death was being heard.

Alex Nieto was 28 years old when he was killed, in the neighbourhood where he had spent his whole life. He died in a barrage of bullets fired at him by four San Francisco policemen. There are a few things about his death that everyone agrees on: he was in a hilltop park eating a burrito and tortilla chips, wearing the Taser he carried for his job as a bouncer at a nightclub, when someone called 911 on him a little after 7pm on the evening of 21 March 2014. When police officers arrived a few minutes later, they claim Nieto defiantly pointed the Taser at them, and that they mistook its red laser light for the laser sights of a gun, and shot him in self defence. However, the stories of the four officers contradict each other, and some of the evidence. [Read more]

The Tamir Rice Story: How to Make a Police Shooting Disappear,” Sean Flynn, GQ

The prosecutor pacing in front of the witness was holding a toy gun that looked like a real gun, which was the same kind of toy the boy had been playing with the day he got shot. A rookie Cleveland police officer had fired twice at close range, and one bullet hit the boy just left of his belly button, carved downward through his intestines and a major vein, and embedded in his pelvis an inch to the right of center.

The witness, a retired cop named Roger Clark, thought the gun was a curious prop for a grand jury. The boy was dead, and had been for more than a year. He’d been accused of no crime, ever. Why the toy? There is no need for theatrics in grand-jury proceedings. They are entirely one-sided forums. Prosecutors decide what witnesses to call and what evidence to present. They instruct the grand jurors, ordinary citizens drawn from the same pool as trial jurors, on the law. There is no defense present because the most a grand jury can do is issue an indictment, which means only that there’s enough evidence of a crime that a judge or jury should sort it out. It is a very low threshold, and it is reached as a matter of plodding routine. It also is done entirely in secret. Who was a prop supposed to impress? [Read more]

Tony Dejak/AP

Rethinking America’s Transportation Infrastructure,”  99% Invisible

Infrastructure makes modern civilization possible. Roads, power grids, sewage systems and water networks all underpin society as we know it, forming the basis of our built environment … at least when they work.

As Henry Petroski documents in The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure, physical infrastructure in the United States is in an ongoing state of crisis. The American Society of Civil Engineers recently give American roads and bridges dismal letter grades of D and C+ respectively. Their report describes roughly sixty-five thousand bridges in the United States as being “structurally deficient.”

Petroski, a professor of civil engineering and history at Duke University, notes that while the concept of infrastructure is universal our current use of word itself is actually relatively new. In America, the old phrase “public works” became associated with pork barrel spending and fell out of favor in the latter half of the 20th century. Politicians had developed a reputation for swapping favors and funds for support on public works legislation, trading votes and cash to get things done. [Read more]

New (left) and old (right) East Bay spans of the Bay Bridge (Frank Schulenburg/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Red, White, and Bruised,” Kyle Swenson, Longreads

My hometown isn’t very good at stomaching bad news. The word on Tamir landed on an icebox Monday afternoon deep into December. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office must have been watching the calendar—and the Doppler radar. The announcement arrived in the patch of dead static between Christmas and New Year’s when most of the country is unplugged or has hit the mental snooze button. As Prosecutor Timothy McGinty started his press conference, a perfect storm of human error, a tragic accident, winter rain began soaking the city. That night, spot protests were small in number. But the word went out: tomorrow afternoon, downtown, be there.

The one-day delay seemed to heap more anticipation on the rally. Tamir’s mother’s words looped around the city. “We no longer trust the local criminal-justice system,” Samaria Rice said after the decision. “Prosecutor McGinty deliberately sabotaged the case, never advocating for my son.” For the last 13 months, the city had lived with the grainy footage of 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death at the hands of two Cleveland police officers. This killing was world-shaking, one of a similar pattern of police brutality that turned the Black Lives Matter hashtag into a lasting social movement. But delays and stalling and leaks and insufferable news coverage and speculation marked the wait for a grand jury’s decision on whether criminal charges would be filed in the Rice case. It ate through patience. The city seemed perched on a volcano. Cleveland shared working class DNA with Baltimore, it knew the same racial dynamics. If Charm City could explode for Freddie Gray, there was a palpable fear that Cleveland would do the same for Tamir Rice. [Read more]

Demonstrators sit in a water fountain as a child runs past near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., July 21, 2016. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Nobody Is Home,” Charles Leadbeater, Aeon

The tiny home is one of the many oxymorons of our strange times. Thousands of people, mainly on the west coast of North America, have built small homes, little bigger than a garden shed, that they tow around on trailers. Since they first started appearing a few years ago, tiny homes have become an open-source ‘maker movement’ of thousands who share their designs for very small and often elaborate mini-mobile homes that cost as little as $5,000. It is one of the mutant social phenomena that spread in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and it’s uplifting, amazing and slightly shocking all at the same time.

Tiny homes evoke a frontier spirit of people trying to remake their lives after a catastrophe. The fact that these homes are on a trailer and don’t touch the ground can exempt their owners from property tax in states where they count not as homes but as a vehicle. That is part of what makes them affordable to run. Tiny-home owners often gather in impromptu sharing communities. Yet as proprietors of vehicles, they have to keep moving. It’s difficult to feel you have roots if your home is on wheels.

The tiny house is just one example of the lengths to which people will go to create a sense of home even when they lack the means for it. It’s just one symptom of a much wider and intensifying search for belonging, which makes home as important to politics as the idea of class or rights – especially now, when so many people feel displaced, both literally and figuratively, by life in innovation-driven, high-tech, networked capitalism. On top of that, the contest over where home is and who is entitled to live there, is – in the form of the current apparent crisis over migration – driving global political debate. [Read more]

Marko Djurica/Reuters

Citizen Khan,” Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker

The first person in Sheridan, Wyoming, to learn that Hot Tamale Louie had been knifed to death was William Henry Harrison, Jr. The news came by telegram, the day after the murder. Harrison was the son of a member of Congress, the great-grandson of one President, the great-great-great-grandson of another President, and the great-great-great-great-grandson of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Hot Tamale Louie was the son of nobody knows who, the grandson of nobody knows who, and the great-great-grandson of nobody knows who. He had been selling tamales in Sheridan since Buffalo Bill rode in the town parade, sold them when President Taft came to visit, was still selling them when the Russians sent Sputnik into space and the British sent the Beatles to America.

By then, Louie was a local legend, and his murder shocked everyone. It was front-page, above-the-fold news in Sheridan, and made headlines throughout Wyoming, Colorado, and South Dakota. It travelled by word of mouth across the state to Yellowstone, and by post to California, where former Sheridan residents opened their mailboxes to find letters from home-town friends mourning Louie’s death.

That was in 1964. Two years later, the killer was tried, found guilty, hanged, removed from the gallows, then hanged again. Within a few years after that, Louie, his tamales, his murder, and everything else about him had faded from the headlines. A half century passed. Then, late last year, he wound up back in the news. [Read more]

Girlhood Gone: Notes from the New Nashville,” Susannah Felts, Longreads

At 18, I knew only that I wanted out.

Out of Nashville, Tennessee, out of the whole Southeast. Free from region. If you’d asked, I could have told you why, but I didn’t yet know how deep a print the South had left on me, only the urge to reject its further touch.

* * *

Back then, the Nashville I knew was defined mainly by the limited spheres of a middle-class adolescence: home, school, and a 20-mile stretch of I-40 that I drove many hundreds if not thousands of times, back and forth, east and west, repeat. My family lived on one side of the city, my friends and classmates on the other, hitched together by a private school that sat roughly in between.

To a lesser degree I knew my hometown to be a place defined by country music and Christianity, home of the Grand Ole Opry and Buckle of the Bible Belt. This identity seemed distinct but remote: I did not listen to country, did not go to church. Music City? To a kid who was rock-n-roll crazy pretty much from birth, the nickname seemed almost a cruel joke. This was not my Music City. [Read more]

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