The Best CityReads of 2011

10 of our favorite city-focused pieces of long-form journalism published this year

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Reuters

It’s hard to boil a city down into one article and certainly any aiming to do so would fail. But there are certain elements and situations and facets of cities that, with a little attention, can stand in as representative of these cities from a broader level. The following ten articles find these facets and use them to explain the current state of various cities, and urbanization as a whole. In most cases, cities are the main characters of these stories, and the narrative follows their history, development, struggles and possible futures – in many shades between desolation and triumph. By setting the historical tone and contrasting it against a less vibrant or dramatically hyper-vibrant present, these articles highlight the varied paths cities take, and the remarkably different futures they’re approaching.

These ten articles, presented in the order of their publication (and excluding articles from The Atlantic), represent 2011’s best long-form journalism focused on cities.

"Detroitism"
Guernica
John Patrick Leary
January 2011

An examination of the increasing media attention on Detroit and its “ruins,” and how analyzing the city through pictures of its demise oversimplifies the dynamics underneath its transition.

Detroiters often react testily to this kind of attention (as I do), even when it is done skillfully and with good intentions, as much of it is. Some of the criticism of negative publicity is just boosterism, as when the City Council denounced the producers of the ABC crime drama Detroit 187 for peddling the idea that there are criminals in Detroit. Others, weary of condescending criticism from outsiders, will defend Detroit’s reputation, or at least their privileged right to defame it, something like defending a bad parent: I can say anything I want about the old man, but don’t you dare. Ruin photography, in particular, has been criticized for its “pornographic” sensationalism, and my bookseller friend won’t sell much of it for that reason. And others roll their eyes at all the positive attention heaped on the young, mostly white “creatives,” which glosses over the city’s deep structural problems and the diversity of ideas to help fix them. So much ruin photography and ruin film aestheticizes poverty without inquiring of its origins, dramatizes spaces but never seeks out the people that inhabit and transform them, and romanticizes isolated acts of resistance without acknowledging the massive political and social forces aligned against the real transformation, and not just stubborn survival, of the city. And to see oneself portrayed in this way, as a curiosity to be lamented or studied, is jarring for any Detroiter, who is of course also an American, with all the sense of self-confidence and native-born privilege that we’re taught to associate with the United States.

 

"Mayor of Rust"
The New York Times Magazine
Sue Halpern
February 11, 2011

A character study of the struggling town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and the unconventional mayor who’s taking unconventional steps to rebuild the city’s economy.

Had I sat there all day, as the beekeepers and artists and farmer wandered in and out of view, listening to Fetterman explain how the population of Braddock had gone from 20,000 people crammed into houses built fast and cheap in 1920, to less than 2,700 now, and how, as the population dwindled, the stores all closed, too, and how he paid a guy out of his own pocket to drive around town giving out ice cream to poor kids because their town was “a food desert,” and taken in his explanation that Braddock was gentrification-proof because “even if housing prices tripled, which they’d never do, a house would still only cost $15,000,” I might have been so convinced of the answer that I would have forgotten to ask the question: Is Braddock a model for bringing a Rust Belt town back to life?

 

"Sardine Life"
New York
Justin Davidson
April 3, 2011

Documenting the last 150 years of “piled up” housing in cities, and especially New York.

So powerful was the ideal of the apartment for the masses that luxury buildings aspired to it, too. Postwar architects embraced the austerities of modernism, which they applied to bourgeois quarters as rigorously as they did to public housing. The most bracing high-end apartment building was Manhattan House, an immense 1951 complex that architect Gordon Bunshaft clad in glazed brick that everyone called white, was actually pale gray, and has always looked slightly unwashed. Stretching along 66th Street between Second and Third Avenues, Manhattan House adapted the grand apartment to the stripped-down modern era persuasively enough to attract Grace Kelly as a resident, and Bunshaft chose to live there, too. But its huge scale, stark design, and chain of slabs sitting back from the sidewalk evoked Stuyvesant Town more than it did the ornate prewar palazzi like the Beresford. Half a century earlier, New Yorkers had hoped to live fabulously. Now it was stylish to live just well enough.

 

"City of Dreams"
Conde Nast Traveler
Evan Osnos
May 2011

The history of the development of Beijing, dating from its original planning in the 15th century to Mao Zedong’s vast modernization efforts in the mid-20th century to the city’s current status as China’s home of power but also a thriving creativity.

It is home to thousands of apparatchiks in the machinery of the Communist party, as well as to many of the nation's most provocative artists, writers, activists, and filmmakers. (Some are legal; others are underground.) For the last six years, I've watched powerful, often subversive, ideas bubble up in conversations in cafés and offices and at dinner tables, before spilling out across China. These days, Beijing's brilliantly irascible rabble spans the political spectrum: daring environmental lawyers who have pioneered ways to haul powerful polluting factories into court; artists whose quarrels with the police in the name of freedom go far beyond the bounds of performance art; and self-styled young patriots who are equally comfortable criticizing America one day and pivoting to denounce their own corrupt local officials the next. Beijing is bursting with explosive energy, and it's not clear yet which voices will prevail. Arguably the most interesting city in the world, it is a magnet for China's oddballs and visionaries and provocateurs.

 

"Destroying Detroit (in Order to Save it)"
GQ
Howie Kahn
May 2011

Riding along with the workers in charge of demolishing vacant homes in Detroit, where problem solving is incremental and clearing the old is hopefully setting the stage for the new.

It will take Lorenzo and his two-man crew from Farrow Demolition Incorporated thirty-six minutes to destroy it. It will be their fourth wreck of the day. By 9:30 a.m., 1718 Field, 3911 Beaconsfield, and 13103 Canfield have all been reduced to rubble, having met the mechanized violence of the CAT 330D L excavator. From house to garbage in the time it takes to do a load of laundry. Soon one of Farrow's drivers will collect the remains and haul them to the landfill—eighty-year-old houses, each ground down into a hundred tons of trash and dumped from the back of a truck. In the end, the house is just one more useless thing.

Thirteen local wrecking crews have been hired to demolish 10,000 of these forsaken houses, riding up and leveling them with brute hydraulic force. Detroit had erected itself as a city of freestanding single-family homes: Victorians, neo-Gothics, boxy Foursquares, Greek and Tudor Revivals. But mostly it's a city of small, sweet, low-slung bungalows like the one on Joann that's about to be demolished so that Detroit might thrive again.

 

"Bankrupt in Seattle"
n+1
Jenny Hendrix
August 17, 2011

The growth and prosperity of a city some called “recession-proof,” and how the collapse of the bank Washington Mutual was part of a series of collapses that stalled development and brought the city into the recession it was supposed to be able to avoid.

The April 2008 issue of Forbes included Seattle in its list of “recession-proof” cities, citing manufacturing growth, declining unemployment, and continued demand for products like those of Starbucks, Costco, and WaMu. Amazon and Microsoft were still hiring. But that May something strange began to happen—with three new condo buildings in progress in South Lake Union, Vulcan rolled out an incentive program, offering to pay part of the closing cost for current renters who’d like to buy. Across the city, other developers followed suit, offering prospective buyers cars, vacations, and Vespa scooters. The market for condos, it appeared, had stalled—Puget Sound Business Journal reported that while the number of listings had risen by 43 percent over the previous year, sales had decreased by the same percentage. My cousin moved into a building—the Aspira—which like most of the bright new residential towers had converted from condos to rentals for lack of sales. He estimates that it is still about half vacant. Even Microsoft decided against renting space in a second Vulcan building a few blocks away.

 

"How Brooklyn Got its Groove Back"
City Journal
Kay S. Hymowitz
Autumn 2011

Through the decline of industry, the rise of drugs and crime and the thorough gentrification that is transforming its skyline and culture, Brooklyn is a fascinating tale of evolution.

The new gentrifiers have also, surprisingly, re-created Brooklyn’s identity as an industrial center, locating commercial kitchens, artists’ lofts, and crafts studios in retrofitted factories in Sunset Park, Gowanus, and downtown Brooklyn. If they have to commute to work, they want to ride their bicycles, which is easier to do if you don’t have to cross the East River. (Brooklyn may be one of the only places in the world that occasionally offers valet bike parking.) Many have started their own boutique firms. In its report, the Center for an Urban Future also noted that “freelance businesses have been a faster growing part of the Brooklyn economy than employer-based businesses.” The number of Brooklyn-based firms spiked from 257 in 2001 to 433 in 2009.

 

"Shanghai Gets Supersized"
Smithsonian
David Devoss with Lauren Hilgers
November 2011

In the midst of rapid population growth, developers, planners, architects and officials are transforming Shanghai into a forest of skyscrapers – and fostering the development of an increasing metropolitan and materialistic society.

[I]n 1994, China’s communist leaders were vowing to transform the city into “the head of the dragon” of new wealth by 2020. Now that projection seems a bit understated. Shanghai’s gross domestic product grew by at least 10 percent a year for more than a decade until 2008, the year economic crises broke out around the globe, and it has grown only slightly less robustly since. The city has become the engine driving China’s bursting-at-the-seams development, but it somehow seems even larger than that. As 19th-century London reflected the mercantile wealth of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, and 20th-century New York showcased the United States as commercial and cultural powerhouse, Shanghai seems poised to symbolize the 21st century.

 

"City Solutions"
National Geographic
Robert Kunzig
December 2011

Striking the familiar chord of an increasingly urbanized world but with less awe, this piece from National Geographic explores the benefits of cities and also the challenges of convincing people to adopt a more dense lifestyle.

Sprawl preoccupies urban planners today, as its antithesis, density, did a century ago. London is no longer decried as a tumor, but Atlanta has been called "a pulsating slime mold" (by James Howard Kunstler, a colorful critic of suburbia) on account of its extreme sprawl. Greenbelts aren't the cause of sprawl; most cities don't have them. Other government policies, such as subsidies for highways and home ownership, have coaxed the suburbs outward. So has that other great shaper of the destiny of cities—the choices made by individual residents. Ebenezer Howard was right about that much: A lot of people want nice houses with gardens.

 

"Now That the Factories Are Closed, It’s Tee Time in Benton Harbor, Mich."
The New York Times Magazine
Jonathan Mahler
December 15, 2011

Deeply reported profile of a small industrial city under the watchful eye of a state-assigned emergency manager after a gradual downward economic spiral and amid efforts to revive the city.

Having neutered the city’s elected officials ("I am the mayor and the commission, and I don’t need them"), fired the city’s finance director ("I’d been told she was incompetent, but she really didn’t have a clue") and city manager ("He was smart and articulate, but he just wasn’t doing anything that I couldn’t do"), Harris, a former accounting professor, is pretty much single-handedly running Benton Harbor. Small, balding and relentlessly upbeat, he balances the books, negotiates the contracts and cheerfully presides over sparsely attended Town Hall meetings, rolling out his latest cost-saving measures, his reading glasses invariably dangling around his neck. Over the summer, I saw him introduce Benton Harbor’s new "quick response vehicles" — essentially pickup trucks outfitted with fire-retardant-foam-releasing contraptions that require a lot less money and manpower to operate than traditional fire trucks.

Longform.org was a crucial tool in compiling this list, and there are many more city-focused articles in that collection. As always, share your favorite #CityReads using the hashtag on Twitter.

Photo credit: Jason Lee / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.