spirit of america/Shutterstock.com

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

Tweet us your favorites with #CityReads.

Piety and Perversity: The Palms of Los Angeles,” Victoria Daily, Los Angeles Review of Books

Parisians claim that in Paris, one is never more than 400 yards away from a Metro station. In Los Angeles, I am equally certain that one is always within 400 yards of a palm tree. Scores of streets are lined with them; they are ubiquitous in domestic and public gardens; they rise from hilltops; they tower above cemeteries; they front museums, movie studios, hotels, hospitals, municipal buildings, modest apartments, and lavish villas; they are clustered around swimming pools; they dominate the skyline—they are everywhere, and have never been more popular. The city’s 200-year love affair with palms has never ceased, and rather than waning, the affair is waxing. From the first palms planted by Spanish padres to the city of Beverly Hills, which recently, in an act of cosmetic alteration, created a palm-lined, palm-bisected thoroughfare on upscale Rodeo Drive, the palm has been the tree of choice for Angelenos.

Other regions boast of their trees—the South’s magnolias are legendary, while the Southwest raves about its mighty ponderosa and piñon pines. New England is justly proud of its elms and maples. California has the monumental sequoias. Cities are not usually identified by trees, yet Los Angeles, whose native trees include sycamores, oaks, cottonwoods, and willows, is, curiously, not recognized for any of them. Instead, desert-dwelling palms (and, later, tropical varieties) have become a visual synonym for Los Angeles, resulting in a profound horticultural myth that has produced unintended, detrimental consequences. 

Lately, as I have been scanning the local horizon, the pervasive palms have begun to make me feel queasy. In fact, they now irritate me. I long to see a vista uninterrupted by the skinny, merciless palms—they mock the very idea of shade, and in a region with abundant sunshine, their presence is exasperating. Like alien invaders, reckless colonizers, and “escaped exotics,” as invasive plant species are known, palms have driven out more modest species, claiming, as autocrats do, the exclusive right to reign supreme — they alone signify the arboreal realm of Los Angeles despite their inability to provide shade, their over-reliance on water and their environmental incongruity.

"Copyrighting Cartography With Fictional Places," Bess Lovejoy, Atlas Obscura

With all the time and energy cartographers spend preparing maps, it makes sense that they would want to protect their investment. One of the ways they do so—although they don’t always admit it—is by including “trap streets,” deliberate mistakes added to maps to catch unsuspecting copyright violators. These may include fake streets, as the name suggests, but the term is also applied to other erroneous cartographic data included to embarrass those who might steal it. Usually, these “mistakes” are minor: tiny (and entirely false) bends in rivers and roads, or slightly altered mountain elevations. 

The TeleAtlas Directory, the basis for Google Maps, is said to have included several trap streets. According to a 2012 article in Cabinet, Moat Lane once curved its way through North London, at least in the regular view of on Google Maps, although the satellite layer revealed that the place where the lane was supposed to exist was a disparate collection of trees and houses—there was no lane there at all. 

"Thomas Brothers Map Co. map of East LA (1966), one of the many companies to include trap streets (via david/Flickr user)" - Bess Lovejoy

"The Concrete Tangle," Will Wiles, Aeon Magazine

Whitechapel Underground Station in the East End of London is a long, wide trench, an unexpected burst of sunlight that comes just a couple of minutes after your train leaves the City. Being mostly subterranean, the Tube does not generally foster window-gazing, but here the raised, curious eye is magnificently rewarded. The train passes through a chasm of tens of millions of bricks, not one of which is truly intended to be seen: the canyon’s arched retaining walls, the plain huts and outbuildings used by the Underground’s operators, and the rears of the Victorian terraces on Whitechapel Road and surrounding streets.

This brickscape is just a backdrop. It is painted over by an impossible multitude of stains and seepages, deeply overgrown by pipes and cables. In places, an unplanned arrangement of steel I-beams suggests mismatched forces and structural quandaries. Overpasses bear streets above us. Creaking clapboard walkways carry our fellow passengers. More trains pass below—paradoxically, it’s the Overground beneath the Underground. While many other Tube stations have criss-crossing routes and rumbling suggestions of deeper lines, here we can actually see those other trains and platforms; the whole station, in fact, has an eerie sense of unintentional exposure, as if the surface city has been peeled back in layers like one of Gunther von Hagens’s plastinated corpses, urban viscera laid bare for inspection.

There is no single vantage point at which one can take in the whole of the scene: it reveals itself in turns and blockages. On the eastbound District line platform, the underside of a concrete stairway emerges from a wall and disappears into a ceiling, a hidden and separate space intruding mysteriously into our own. Whitechapel station is one of Giambattista Piranesi’s imaginary prisons, colonised by frantic electrical engineers and watched over by CCTV. A new line, the Crossrail heavy-rail link, is now forcing its way through this extraordinary knot with the odd combination of tact and ultraviolence so characteristic of civil engineering.

"Life Inside SF's Vanishing Single Resident Occupancies," James Hosking and Jeremy Lybarger, The Bold Italic

There are approximately 530 single resident occupancy (SRO) hotels in San Francisco. They are home to more than 18,000 people, the majority of whom live in low-income neighborhoods such as the Tenderloin and Chinatown. A 2009 report from the Human Services Agency listed average monthly rent at $500 to $600, but it’s not uncommon for tenants to pay as much as $1,000 for an 8x10 room with no bathroom or kitchen. As San Francisco’s cost of living continues to explode, many housing activists worry about what will become of the vulnerable SRO population. Between 1970 and 2000, the city demolished or converted to condos 15,000 SRO units. Life has always been precarious for these residents and far from idyllic in even the best-managed buildings. Here are the stories of six people trying to survive in a city that’s increasingly out of reach. 

 The Drake Hotel in San Francisco. (Mark Coggins/Flickr via CC License)

"Zine Makers Grab Their MetroCards and Go to Work," Colin Moynihan, The New York Times

One woman drew cartoons in an artist’s notebook. Another snipped off pieces from a subway map, then pasted them onto a white paper. Yellow fliers that read “Service Changes” along with “Zine Residency!” were taped to subway car walls. And a black banner with the words “Zinesters in Residence” hung from a railing.

Thirteen people formed a sort of mobile salon just after noon on Friday, boarding an F Train in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn with the aim of riding for hours through three boroughs while writing and illustrating zines—self-published, photocopied periodicals usually made by hand.

As the train swayed through a tunnel beneath the East River and entered Manhattan, the first lap of the trip, the woman snipping the map, Madeline Steinberg, was finding it a challenge to produce a zine about transit.

“We’re wobbling a little, so it’s hard to have a steady hand,” she said. “But the train is an inspiring place to work. You go to so many places, you see so many people, and there are different sounds and images to get your ideas flowing.”

Top image: spirit of america/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    Amazon HQ2 Goes to New York City and Northern Virginia

    After Jeff Bezos set off one of the highest-profile bidding wars in modern history, Amazon picked two East Coast cities for its new headquarters. The surprise extra: There's something in it for Nashville, too.

  2. A man walks his dog on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco in the early morning hours on Mount Davidson.

    When Millennials Battle Boomers Over Housing

    In Generation Priced Out, Randy Shaw examines how Boomers have blocked affordable housing in urban neighborhoods, leaving Millennial homebuyers in the lurch.

  3. A photo shows the Amazon logo on a building.
    Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Spectacle Isn’t Just Shameful—It Should Be Illegal

    Each year, local governments spend nearly $100 billion to move headquarters and factories between states. It’s a wasteful exercise that requires a national solution.

  4. Cyclists and walks use a trail beside Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas.

    HQ2 Is Only Part of the Story of Big-Tech Expansion

    Amazon HQ2 may be split between superstar cities, but San Francisco’s big tech firms are starting to expand into smaller, non-coastal places.

  5. A photo of a resident of Community First Village, a tiny-home community for people who were once living in homelessness, outside of Austin, Texas.!

    Austin's Fix for Homelessness: Tiny Houses, and Lots of Neighbors

    Community First! Village’s model for ending homelessness emphasizes the stabilizing power of social connections.