Living Among the Dead in San Francisco's 'City of Souls': Best #Cityreads of the Week

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

Image Flickr/Tom Hilton
The dead outnumber the living in Colma, California. (Flickr/Tom Hilton)

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The Town of Colma, Where San Francisco’s Dead Live,” John Branch, The New York Times

COLMA, Calif. — While the Super Bowl will be played at Levi’s Stadium, and thousands of news media members who descended on the Bay Area this week were based at the Moscone Center, Levi Strauss lay inside a marble crypt in one of this tiny town’s 17 cemeteries, and George Moscone lay under the grass in another.

In a broad valley devoted largely to the dead, the history museum in Colma – nicknamed “The City of Souls” — sells T-shirts that read, “It’s Great to Be Alive in Colma!”

It is a town of 1,600 living residents and about 1.5 million dead ones — many of whom, like the 49ers, uprooted and left San Francisco for greener pastures to the south.

The road to Sunday’s Super Bowl stretches about 50 miles, from San Francisco, the epicenter of festivities this week, to Santa Clara, site of the actual game. The corridor, mostly along Highway 101, is a time capsule of the Bay Area’s history and its quirks — and a modern-day testament to its traffic problems.

The Long White Line: The Mental and Physical Effects of Long-Haul Trucking,”  Dan Nosowitz, Pacific Standard

For most people, it’s easy to see 18-wheelers as dangerous beasts.

While the behemoth trucks often drive annoyingly slow on uphill climbs, they fly scarily fast going downhill, becoming zooming boulders that can crush smaller vehicles with a moment’s inattention.

What many don’t consider, though, is how trucking as a profession can quickly become crushing to the drivers themselves.

“I'd like people to come away with a little more compassion for the job,” says Mona Shattell, the author of several scientific surveys of the mental and physical health of long-haul truckers. “Because I know I did, after doing all this research. It is ... really hard.”

Truck driving is, without a doubt, one of the most brutal jobs a person can do. Across the board, long-haul truckers have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, divorce, and drug use than the average American. Their on-the-job fatality rates are a ridiculous 11 times higher than average. The mental issues tend to play off the physical issues and vice versa, churning up a whirlwind of work-related trauma.

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Portrait of a Trump Town,” M. Scott Mahaskey, Politico Magazine

During a campaign stop January 9, Donald Trump told supporters in Ottumwa, Iowa that he embraced greed. “I’m a greedy person. I’ve always been greedy. I love money,” Trump told an audience of several hundred southern Iowans. Just ten days after that speech, a report ranked Wapello County—of which Ottumwa is the county seat—the poorest county in Iowa. In other hands, it would have seemed like a misfire. But the crowd laughed, cheered and later stood in applause as Trump exited the stage.

Trump didn’t win Iowa on Monday, but he won Ottumwa—easily, with 592 votes to Cruz’s 494, with a record Republican turnout to boot. And if his strange insurgent candidacy stays aloft, it will be because of towns like this: Places where the robust promise of America has been replaced by the prospect of a long, bleak slide, and which have thrilled to the message that it’s possible, as the baseball hat says, to make America great again.

The story of Ottumwa’s decline is fairly typical. After the closure of manufacturing plants in the 1960s and 1970s—including the massive John Morrell meatpacking plant, which at one point had more than half the city’s manufacturing workers—the population of the town dwindled from 33,871 in 1973 to 24,488 in 1990. Today, it remains stuck there. Only 16 percent of adults here hold a bachelor’s degree, and in the town, more than one in four children is below the poverty line. The town’s Main Street is a shell of what it used to be, a scattering of buildings with empty storefronts and vacant lots. Traffic lights have been replaced with stop signs.

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The Buddy System,” Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker

Be careful,” the notoriously thuggish Mayor Vincent Albert (Buddy) Cianci, of Providence, Rhode Island, told an officer of that city’s notoriously sniffy-patrician University Club, back in 1998. “The toe you stepped on yesterday may be connected to the ass you have to kiss today.”

That is a teaching that would fit handsomely on a tombstone for Cianci, who got himself elected for the first time, in 1974, as an anti-corruption candidate, and died in that city Thursday morning, at the age of seventy-four, with a reputation as one of America’s most thoroughly corrupt political personalities. In the intervening years, he served as mayor twice—in a scandal-plagued first round, from January, 1975, to April, 1984, and again from January, 1991, to September, 2002—and both times was forced to resign after being convicted of felonies. He was Providence’s first Italian-American mayor (breaking a long Irish-American lock on power); he was its first Republican mayor since the forties (although, after his first two terms, he disaffiliated and declared himself an independent); he was the longest-serving mayor in the history of the city (and one of the longest-serving mayors of any American city); and, as the patriarch of Providence’s transformation from a desolate post-industrial, Mafia-dominated wasteland to a vibrant, thriving, model of new urbanism, a cultural and culinary destination city with falling crime rates and rising property values, Cianci was deservedly one of the most celebrated American city fathers of our times—except, of course, for his penchant for running afoul of the law.

Former Providence, R.I., mayor and talk show host Buddy Cianci, speaks into a microphone during a live broadcast of "The Buddy Cianci Show" in 2010. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Can Rain Hold Us Hostage?” Jia-Rui Cook, Zócalo Public Square

We’ve bought sand bags at Home Depot, installed new gutters, and patched up the roof of our house in Los Angeles. We’ve asked a plumber to check our industrial-grade sump pump and looked into flood insurance. I’ve even been pestering my husband to spray Thompson’s Water Seal over a leaky patch on the stucco wall outside our kitchen.

Now we’re just waiting for the next iteration of this “Godzilla” El Niño that threatens to send torrents of rain over California until March. As I check the weather report every morning—something I haven’t done in many, many years—I keep thinking: Have we done enough to prepare for these storms? Have we gone overboard? And, Didn’t I come to California to escape all of this?

I know rain. I lived through the wettest consecutive 12 months on record in England, a place famous for waterproof Wellington boots and soggy holidays. Between April of 2000 and March 2001, 53.37 inches of rain fell. In October 2000, large parts of Kent and Sussex were underwater as the rivers Ouse, Uck, and Medway burst their banks. In November, the swollen Ouse, in Yorkshire, damaged 5,000 homes and businesses in the worst flooding in 400 years.

I didn’t see that much catastrophe in Oxford, where I was studying for a master’s degree in English literature. But there were a few torrential downpours, frequent soft rains that soaked everything, and a sky that gave me a sense of how many shades of gray there really are. It was like living in a Eurythmics song on loop: Here comes the rain again.

Water covers a closed Las Posas Road near Camarillo, California, after heavy rain from the first in a series of El Nino storms passed over the area. (AP Photo/Joel Angel Juárez)

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