Lost Frontiers and Foolish Funding: The Best #CityReads of the Week

Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.

Image
Reuters

Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days. Share your favorites on Twitter with #cityreads.

"Horsemen, Goodbye: Thoughts on the Gradual March of Civility and Urban Sprawl Across the Lost Frontier," Larry McMurtry, Texas Monthly

In literary terms I was a reasonably brash young man when I wrote “A Handful of Roses,” but the thesis I argued, at times to the point of tedium, still seems to me indisputable: Texas in the sixties still thought of itself as a frontier; its cities and their residents were not yet maturely urban. In support of this thesis I cited various examples of a frequent resort to gunplay such as might occur on a frontier, my favorite being a snippet from one of the Houston papers about a diner on the always risky north side who shot a waiter because there weren’t enough beans in his chili; though equally exotic was another snippet someone sent me about a citibilly from Wichita Falls who drove his pickup through the wall of a honky-tonk and tried to run over his wife.

My point, much reiterated, was that Texans in the main were not yet able to handle the pressures of urban life. I saw this demonstrated on a hot summer day on the Houston beltway, where traffic neither moved nor offered the slightest prospects of movement, when the two cars in front of me bumped fenders; their drivers, both wearing ties and pinstripes, got out and flung themselves at one another. Soon they were rolling around on the burning pavement, in the traffic. Several drivers, including myself, tried to reason with them, and eventually it took, up to a point. Neither car was hurt at all, but the two men got up, exchanged insurance info, shook hands, and got back in their cars. Twenty minutes or so later the traffic moved normally again. Terrible traffic is the price Houstonians pay for living in a real city.

When I published my essays with the Wittliffs, they had no interest in curbing my wordage; they wanted as much book as they could get. Not so the Monthly: it serves a readership whose attention span is far from limitless. More than forty years have passed since I took that first look at the cities of Texas. Now many of its citizens have shaken off the frontier ethic and become mature urbanites. In response to this change, most of the cities have gone to the trouble to provide their better-informed residents some of the trappings of high culture. There are several excellent museums and an opera house or two. In addition, these cities have produced a number of locally grown artists who are good in various spheres. This is no small thing.

"Money-Wise, Stadiums and Super Bowls Don't Benefit Cities," Harry Moroz, Next City

Professional sports teams, and the big events associated with them, are near and dear to many an urban-dweller’s heart. New York City is already salivating over next year’s Super Bowl before this year’s has even happened. The city will rename part of Broadway “Super Bowl Boulevard” in honor of a game that is not taking place in New York State. And for many, this year’s Super Bowl is still more proof of New Orleans’ recovery.

To some extent, the excitement is understandable. Sport is part of a city’s lifeblood. Without the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox to define them, Northsiders and Southsiders would have little except a few city blocks to divide them. Hosting a premier sporting event can instill a strange civic pride in having your city “on showcase.”

These feelings of identity and civic pride would all be well and good if they didn’t come at such a high price, one extracted not by these civic-minded fans, mind you, but by a uniquely undemocratic cabal of mayors and monopolists.

The public foots a large portion of the bill for new stadiums — more than 60 percent for new NFL stadiums since 1990 and 59 percent for new professional baseball stadiums. The rehabbed Superdome, host of this year’s Super Bowl, has cost taxpayers $471 million. Even FEMA provided more than $40 million for the renovation, with an additional million given just last summer. The tax exemption for municipal bonds has provided a subsidy of $4 billion from federal taxpayers to the owners of teams that have built new stadiums since 1986.

"Silencing the Subway," Christopher Maag, Narrative.ly

(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

If you’ve ever stood in the deafening racket of the Spring Street subway station in Manhattan and asked yourself, “Hmm, I wonder if standing here is a terrible idea?” then a quick consultation of the noise exposure standards promulgated in June 1998 by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health will show that, indeed, standing there is a terrible idea. During the lull between trains, the station is a quiet enough place. You can hear a woman’s boot heel clacking against the concrete platform, the MetroCard reader’s piercing electronic beep, the click-click-click of spinning turnstiles, a train in an adjacent tunnel shaking the walls with tectonic rumble.

This is the rush hour’s quietest moment, when noise levels inside the station drop to a low of seventy-one decibels. The hush, on a Thursday morning in January, lasts eight seconds.

An uptown 6 local train arrives. Its doors open with a staggered “thunk-unk-unk”; the fans inside the train’s twenty roof-mounted, six-and-a-half-ton Bombardier heating and cooling units spool up; and the station’s noise level jumps to ninety decibels. That’s as loud as an idling semi truck. According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) rules, workers exposed to ninety decibels of noise for eight hours a day must wear protective gear to prevent ear damage and eventual deafness.

From there, the sound piles on. Spring Street station is built on a convex curve of subway track shaped like the tail of a parenthesis, and when the downtown 4 express rolls over the middle track, its hard-fixed wheels shriek and bark as they struggle to make the turn, emitting this horrible EE!eeEEE!ee!EEEE!!! that stabs your brain.

"Strict Gun Laws in Chicago Can't Stem Fatal Shots," Monica Davey, The New York Times

CHICAGO — Not a single gun shop can be found in this city because they are outlawed. Handguns were banned in Chicago for decades, too, until 2010, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that was going too far, leading city leaders to settle for restrictions some describe as the closest they could get legally to a ban without a ban. Despite a continuing legal fight, Illinois remains the only state in the nation with no provision to let private citizens carry guns in public.

And yet Chicago, a city with no civilian gun ranges and bans on both assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, finds itself laboring to stem a flood of gun violence that contributed to more than 500 homicides last year and at least 40 killings already in 2013, including a fatal shooting of a 15-year-old girl on Tuesday.

To gun rights advocates, the city provides stark evidence that even some of the toughest restrictions fail to make places safer. “The gun laws in Chicago only restrict the law-abiding citizens and they’ve essentially made the citizens prey,” said Richard A. Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. To gun control proponents, the struggles here underscore the opposite — a need for strict, uniform national gun laws to eliminate the current patchwork of state and local rules that allow guns to flow into this city from outside.

"Cities Make It Incredibly Hard to Start a Small Business," Matthew Yglesias, Slate

Last week, having read my own writing about how it’s cheaper to buy a house than rent one in most markets, I decided to take my own advice. My wife and I bought a new place, and instead of selling our old condo, we’re going to rent it out. And thus I became a small-business man.

Or, rather, I’m becoming one. Entrepreneurship—even on the smallest and most banal scale—turns out to be a time-consuming pain in the you-know-what. My personal inconveniences aren’t a big deal, but in the aggregate, the difficulty of launching a business is a problem and it may be a more important one as time goes on.

In the District of Columbia, I need to get a simple Basic Business License to rent out a single dwelling. After puzzling over the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs website for a bit, it became clear that step No. 1 was actually to file form FR-500 with the Office of Tax and Revenue, which you can do online. Then it was time to hustle down to the DCRA (which closes at 4:30 p.m.) to file the paperwork. Once there, I learned that filing the FR-500 online wasn’t good enough—I needed a hard copy. Fortunately, the Office and Tax and Revenue was right across the street, so I went there and refiled. Then it was back to the DCRA to stand in line to get a number, wait for the number to be called, do some more paperwork, wait in another line for the cashier, fork over $100 in fees, then get a slip from the cashier to finalize the paperwork.

But then it turned out I needed to go to a third office, the Rental Accommodations Division of the Department of Housing and Community Development. It closes at 3:30 in the afternoon and required a 15-minute walk through a sketchy neighborhood. So the next morning I went down to that Rental Accommodations office to file a paper claiming exemption from D.C.’s rent control law.

The striking thing about all this isn’t so much that it was annoying—which it was—but that it had basically nothing to do with what the main purpose of landlord regulation should be—making sure I’m not luring tenants into some kind of unsafe situation. The part where the unit gets inspected to see if it’s up to code is a separate step. I was instructed to await a scheduling call that ought to take place sometime in the next 10 business days.

"L.A. Becoming More Bike Friendly, Thanks Partly to the Mayor's Elbow," Roy M. Wallack, The Los Angeles Times

On July 17, 2010, after a P90X workout, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his police bodyguard began riding mountain bikes west in the bike lane on Venice Boulevard. About 6:30 p.m., heading toward La Cienega Boulevard, they were cut off by a taxi cab. Villaraigosa flipped over the handlebars. His elbow shattered on the asphalt.

Two days later, with his arm in a cast, he told his staff, "Let's use this as a teachable moment" — and for good reason. He and the city had a lot to learn about how to make bikes safer to ride and how to integrate them into the transportation system.

Before the crash, L.A. was known as as one of the least bike-friendly cities in the country. Advocates had struggled unsuccessfully for years to get bike lanes and paths. As other big cities raced ahead with cycling infrastructure and automated bike-sharing programs, using cycling to lessen transportation congestion and pollution, L.A. did nothing. The city was known more for anti-cyclist road rage, personified by a Brentwood doctor who was jailed for injuring two cyclists on Mandeville Canyon Road in 2008.

That same year, Alex Kenefick of the L.A. County Bicycle Coalition said, "The mayor has 20 things on his plate, and cycling isn't one of them." Slate magazine called L.A. "a pathologically unfriendly bike city."

But that was then. Villaraigosa became a cycling advocate after his accident. And L.A. has three high-profile bike projects on its agenda: a 1,680-mile bikeway plan to be installed over the next 30 years; CicLAvia, a Sunday party-on-wheels on car-free routes that draws 100,000 to 200,000 people; and an inexpensive bike rental program that starts this month and will eventually put 4,000 bikes on the roads — the second-biggest rental program in the country.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.