A Special Urban Brand of Melancholy? Best #Cityreads of the Week

A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.

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"The Geography of Melancholy," Tara Isabella Burton, The American Reader

In Robert Burton’s mammoth 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy, a meandering discourse on soul-sickness, Burton treats melancholy as a universal phenomenon, endemic to the human condition: “Kingdoms and provinces are melancholy, cities and families, all creatures, vegetable, sensible, and rational—that all sorts, sects, ages, conditions, are out of tune… For indeed, who is not a fool, melancholy, mad?”

But nothing evokes melancholy like cities do. The countryside may have its Romantics—its Byrons and its Schillers, its Coleridges and its Shelleys—to identify the epic struggles of nature with the most magnificent dramas of the human soul. But the melancholics, concerned with neither high tragedy nor ecstatic delight but rather, to quote Burton, moods “dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary,” are urban writers. The literary experience of urban space is so often the experience of longing, of nostalgia, of alienation, and of loss. For such writers, the city is not merely setting but allegory: a physical embodiment of the irrepeatibility of experience and the inevitability of decay.

Nearly every historic city has its brand of melancholy indelibly associated with it—each variety linked to the scars the city bears. Lisbon has its saudade: a feeling of aimless loss tied to the city’s legacy of vanishing seafarers, explorers shipwrecked in search of Western horizons. Istanbul has huzun: a religiously tinged brand of melancholy rooted in the city’s nostalgia for its glorious past. As Orhan Pamuk writes, “the people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amidst the ruins… these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power and culture.”

In each case, melancholy creates a psychic geography shaped by street-names: the presence of historic avenues, archways, back-alleys doubling as manifestations of absence. The self that wanders through the melancholy city bears the weight of that city’s history: the urban body the point of convergence for the imminent present and the past that no longer exists.

"Inside the Famous Phnom Penh Cinema That Has Become a Living Nightmare," Poppy McPherson, Guardian Cities

In early summer, as the rainy season approaches Phnom Penh, the faintest wind shakes Meas Sopheap’s home—a creaky shelter in the once-grand building. Water seeps through the roof, fashioned from plastic sheets and corrugated iron, into a mound of sodden rubbish underfoot. At 87, her body bears the scars of an untreated skin disease and she scratches herself constantly as she tells her story.

A few decades ago Meas Sopheap was a star, and the Hemakcheat was one of the country’s most beloved cinemas.

Slums on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. (AP/David Longstreath)

"Hart Island Hallelujah," Roxy Drew, The Nib on Medium
A moving piece of comics-journalism that tells the story of the author, a musician, and an artist paying a visit to Hart Island in New York City, where roughly a million people are buried in a potter's field. Click through to see the entire work on The Nib.

"What 'Urban Physics' Could Tell Us About How Cities Work," Ruth Graham, The Boston Globe

What does a city look like? If you’re walking down the street, perhaps it looks like people and storefronts. Viewed from higher up, patterns begin to emerge: A three-dimensional grid of buildings divided by alleys, streets, and sidewalks, nearly flat in some places and scraping the sky in others. Pull back far enough, and the city starts to look like something else entirely: a cluster of molecules.

At least, that’s what it looks like to Franz-Josef Ulm, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ulm has built a career as an expert on the properties, patterns, and environmental potential of concrete. Taking a coffee break at MIT’s Stata Center late one afternoon, he and a colleague were looking at a large aerial photograph of a city when they had a “eureka” moment: “Hey, doesn’t that look like a molecular structure?”

With colleagues, Ulm began analyzing cities the way you’d analyze a material, looking at factors such as the arrangement of buildings, each building’s center of mass, and how they’re ordered around each other. They concluded that cities could be grouped into categories: Boston’s structure, for example, looks a lot like an “amorphous liquid.” Seattle is another liquid, and so is Los Angeles. Chicago, which was designed on a grid, looks like glass, he says; New York resembles a highly ordered crystal.

Some cities, like New York, look like a crystal when viewed from the "urban physics" perspective. (Wikimedia Commons)

"Uppers and Downers," Aaron Wiener, Washington City Paper

Denis Suski gestures at his back yard, at the ample greenery and the picnic table and the two yellow hand-shaped chairs that match his house’s yellow back walls. “This is my concern,” he says, “is losing things like this.”

All around him, things like that are being lost, at least to the sun’s rays. Throughout his neighborhood of Lanier Heights, developers are buying up two-story townhouses and building an extra floor or two, additions that are known as pop-ups. They’re also extending the structures as far back as allowed, to within 15 feet of the property line, obliterating back yards in the process.

A few doors down from Suski in one direction is a house whose elderly owner died several years ago; the family sold it to a developer who converted it to four units, at a healthy profit. (The house sold in 2011 for $755,000; one condo unit in the renovated building sold earlier this year for $760,000.) A few doors down the other way is a deafening construction site, where a single-family home is being turned into eight units, taking full advantage of what was once the back yard.

Suski and like-minded neighbors, of course, aren’t concerned about other people’s back yards so much as their own, which stand to lose sunlight and airiness if they’re boxed in by these metastasizing condo conversions. And so in front of Suski’s house on Lanier Place NW, where he’s lived for seven years, stands a white yard sign bearing this exhortation: “Save our neighborhood. Support zoning reform. Stop pop-ups.”

(Top image available via Creative Commons License.)

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