An Illustrated History of All the Ways Urban Environments Can Control Us

War of Streets and Houses explores how a city can simultaneously foster and crush social change.

War of Streets and Houses, a new graphic memoir from cartoonist and author Sophie Yanow, covers a lot of ground in just 70 pages.

Yanow took her book's title from a pamphlet by Marshal Thomas Bugeaud, an early 19th century French military man famous for his conquests in Algeria. He wrote about how to dominate the narrow streets of North African cities with force. Yanow, born in 1987 in Northern California, weaves that history into her account of participating in the 2012 student strike in Montréal, where she lives now.

With deft sketches and minimal text, she shows how the streets of a city can simultaneously foster and crush social change, and how urban humans cling to personal freedom in an increasingly monitored world.

Yanow answered a few questions about the book for us via email.

How do you think the human-constructed environment of a city can contribute to (or block) movements for social change?

Large open squares are the obvious places where people can converge. But I think that in terms of building social movements, a walkable city is important. Places where people literally brush up against each other on the sidewalk, where they have to be in public together and don't just see each other passing by in cars. When people aren't used to being together in the street, I think they're less likely to go to the street and demand change.

Over hundreds of years, as you point out in the book, the structure of cities has been manipulated in order to better control the people who live in them. Can the average citizen become more aware of these patterns?

I believe it's possible and also necessary. I sat in on an urban planning course once where the professor was talking about how we as a culture in North America have lost a certain "know-how" when it comes to building and creating spaces. But even if we have the know-how to shape space the way we want to, authority always wants to defer to professionals, to urban planners or architects.

Often developers will host meetings where they'll accept ideas from community members in order to placate them and dissuade them from taking direct action, much like how elections can be used to diffuse direct action. It's important to recognize when these supposedly democratic processes are not serving us and when direct action such as strikes or blockades, or even something as simple as painting our own bike lanes, will be more effective.

Your book deals with the tension between two different kinds of freedom: the kind we find in the culture of a city and the kind we find in nature.

That's an interesting dichotomy to establish. In the city there's the freedom to find other folks like me (queer folks, artists), and to establish various communities. There are enough different types of people that we can live without constant scrutiny from people that have known us since childhood, or from people that disapprove of our lifestyles. However, public life in the city is scrutinized, and people are policed and surveilled.

Nature is complex in a way that is calming; it's a different kind of sensory overload and provides a different kind of "cover" than the city. But it can be isolating.

Where do you find freedom in your city these days?

Despite the various cultural freedoms that the city offers, I still feel a need to experience open space and nature, sans surveillance. In Montréal there are these amazing alleys that run behind the blocks. The houses all have "party walls" and so the alleys are hidden from the street. One particular alley may be my favorite place in Montréal. It's covered in grass and can't be seen by the street; cars can't enter. It's in the middle of an area with a noisy nightlife, but when you duck in there it's suddenly very quiet.

Is there a city in the world that you think is particularly good for humans to flourish in? One that is particularly bad?

I think that Montréal is quite good in terms of North American cities. It's very dense, walkable, and bikeable, which makes it easy to live without a car. Being from California, the fact that cars aren't allowed to turn right on a red light here is a novelty to me. I think it slows things down a bit, and makes things safer for pedestrians.

Do you think that being a queer person colors the way you see cities?

Absolutely. As a queer, visibly gender non-conforming person, I think I'm aware of city-space in a different way. There are spaces that I don't feel comfortable in, where I feel exposed, and where my anxiety increases. At the same time, there are spaces that people like me have carved out for themselves that wouldn't exist without the cover of a bustling metropolis. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.