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Race and the American Skyscraper: Best #Cityreads of the Week

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

The Hudson river is seen covered with thick ice against a backdrop of Brooklyn skyscrapers in 1936. (AP)

On the Black Skyscraper: An Interview with Literary Critic Adrienne Brown,” Catherine Halley, JSTOR Daily

“Skyscraper” is an interesting word because it has really changed a lot. The Home Insurance Building in Chicago was once considered the “first skyscraper,” but it was only 10 stories tall. It wasn’t even the tallest building in Chicago at the time. But it’s called a skyscraper because it had a steel frame. We tend to think about the skyscraper now as merely a tall building, but when the word was invented it referred to a building structure that’s not wedded to construction rooted in walls or masonry that holds the weight of the building. Instead, a steel interior holds the weight.

Originally, the word was hyphenated—“sky-scraper”—to point out the artifice of the term. The early language with which we talked about skyscrapers was childlike, poetic, almost utopian.

My project is really around the invention of the skyscraper. For me it’s not only about the invention of a building type, though that’s certainly important, but also the invention of a new language or descriptive language to describe height, density. The skyscraper is really a symptom of an era. It came of age in the late-nineteenth century with urbanization, mass immigration to the U.S., and industrialization. The skyscraper is a product of all of these forces and movements, but it’s also contributed to these discourses at the same time.

Why Trump’s Use of the Words Urban Renewal is Scary for Cities,” Emily Badger, The New York Times

Two weeks before the election, Donald J. Trump delivered a speech in Charlotte, N.C., sketching his “New Deal for Black America.” It was a set of ideas promising greater school choice, safer communities, lower taxes and better infrastructure.

The four-page outline posted to his campaign website that summarizes it — a document subtitled “A Plan for Urban Renewal” — is today the closest thing the president-elect has to a proposal for America’s cities.

When Mr. Trump announced plans on Monday to nominate Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he said the two men had “talked at length about my urban renewal agenda.”

His language has an odd ring to it, not solely for marrying Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with the post-World War II era of urban renewal. If Mr. Trump was reaching for a broadly uplifting concept — renewal — he landed instead on a term with very specific, and very negative, connotations for the population he says he aims to help.

In Boston’s South End, a sign protesting urban renewal circa 1960-1975 (Boston Landmarks Commission image collection/CC BY 2.0)

Central Park was Once Seneca Village, Home to a Thriving Free Black Community,” a graphic history, Lucas Adams, Atlas Obscura

Up north everything seemed wild.

In places like Yorkhill and Pigtown, Irish widows ran illegal bars called shebeens doling out liquor, runaway slaves hid out with free African American families, Sunday morning boxing matches were broken up by the police, and bone-boiling plants ran unfettered by regulation.

This was Central Park, before it was Central Park, in the first half of the 19th century.

A detail from a map drawn by Egbert Viele circa 1856 shows the layout of Seneca Village.

Larimer and Orphan,” Joy Katz, Places Journal

At the corner of Larimer Avenue and Orphan Street is a meadow turning to forest, where the foundations of demolished homes are softened by ivy and moss. This spot is only twenty years into a quiet ruination, but it feels ancient. Wherever I step, in the low grass, dozens of tiny crickets spring out, noiselessly, pale-gray. I can’t find them when I bend over to look. It’s as if I am splashing through an invisible, mysteriously dry puddle.

I visit this corner for its particular emptiness. In steeply hilly Pittsburgh, nowhere else feels like this — it’s flat, and I can see. I lived in flat cities most of my life and didn’t realize, till I found this corner, how much I miss the sensation of being able to look far off and see a street narrow in the distance.

A purple bicycle rusts between a walnut and a Japanese honeysuckle. A beer can, How to use a condom, Parliament, Spree, details that alter context. But Larimer at Orphan is not a postindustrial catastrophe. It is just a corner that people have left alone for a long time.

This was the Year America Finally Saw the South,” Jesmyn Ward, Buzzfeed

My grandaunt Jane migrated to Chicago, married, and found steady, well-paying work in the 1950s. At some point in those early days up north, she asked my grandmother to join her. At the time, both of them were teenagers. My grandmother was keen to leave the grinding poverty she’d grown up with, anxious to never eat another pot of beans flavored with salt-pork, to use real toothbrushes instead of twigs chewed to frayed nubs, to never weed another patch of Mississippi earth, to use indoor bathrooms. She wanted a different future, one filled with furs instead of sackcloth dresses, with factory work instead of housekeeping for white people, with access to parks and beaches and seats and water fountains that weren’t separated by race.

Even though my grandmother dreamed of possibility, of the new, she did not accept the invitation. Her husband didn’t want to go, and my grandmother would not leave him in Mississippi. So she remained, and she bore and raised all of her seven children there. For her, there was no escape. Instead, she worked hard as a domestic, a seamstress, a hairdresser. After one of her cousins saw her pick up a full-grown pig and throw it over her shoulders, he said, “We’re looking for people to work down at the plant. Women who can work as hard as men.” Her youthful dream of steady factory work came her way 20 years after she wanted it, but she was grateful nonetheless.

As a young woman, my grandmother went to see Ike and Tina Turner perform on the chitlin circuit in a juke joint in a nearby town. Tina Turner glittered, my grandmother said. Glowed. Tina’d been born and raised in the South before escaping north. She roared her songs like she’d passed through fire and come out the other side unburned. Sometimes, when my grandmother tells me the story, she’s wistful. She tells me about how she sewed a special outfit for that night, a dress that was fitted on the top and flared out into an A-line skirt. She tells me that she spun around that floor like a windblown flame, that the audience made space for her and her partner to dance as Tina wailed. Sometimes, I wonder if her proximity to a woman, an artist who was a displaced Southerner but who shone brighter for her embrace of her Southern musical heritage, was heady for my grandmother. I wonder if it made her feel free. If it made her feel seen.

Author Jesmyn Ward is from DeLisle, Mississippi. Her novels and memoir portray life in the South and on the Gulf Coast. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)

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