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The pieces that stuck with us this year.

Each week, we round up our favorite #cityreads. As 2014 draws to a close, here's a collection of the pieces that stuck with us. Did we miss something? Add your favorites in the comments.

"The Concrete Tangle"
Will Wiles, Aeon, July 17, 2014

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.

"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.

"The Knowledge, London's Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS"
Jody Rosen, T Magazine, November 10, 2014

At 10 past 6 on a January morning a couple of winters ago, a 35-year-old man named Matt McCabe stepped out of his house in the town of Kenley, England, got on his Piaggio X8 motor scooter, and started driving north. McCabe’s destination was Stour Road, a small street in a desolate patch of East London, 20 miles from his suburban home. He began his journey by following the A23, a major thruway connecting London with its southern outskirts, whose origins are thought to be ancient: For several miles the road follows the straight line of the Roman causeway that stretched from London to Brighton. McCabe exited the A23 in the South London neighborhood of Streatham and made his way through the streets, arriving, about 20 minutes after he set out, at an intersection officially called Windrush Square but still referred to by locals, and on most maps, as Brixton Oval. There, McCabe faced a decision: how to plot his route across the River Thames. Should he proceed more or less straight north and take London Bridge, or bear right into Coldharbour Lane and head for “the pipe,” the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which snakes under the Thames two miles downriver?

“At first I thought I’d go for London Bridge,” McCabe said later. “Go straight up Brixton Road to Kennington Park Road and then work my line over. I knew that I could make my life a lot easier, to not have to waste brainpower thinking about little roads—doing left-rights, left-rights. And then once I’d get over London Bridge, it’d be a quick trip: I’d work it up to Bethnal Green Road, Old Ford Road, and boom-boom-boom, I’m there. It’s a no-brainer. But no. I was thinking about the traffic, about everyone going to the City at that hour of the morning. I thought, ‘What can I do to skirt central London?’ That was my key decision point. I didn’t want to sit in the traffic lights. So I decided to take Coldharbour Lane and head for the pipe.”

McCabe turned east on Coldharbour Lane, wending through the neighborhoods of Peckham and Bermondsey before reaching the tunnel. He emerged on the far side of the Thames in Limehouse, and from there his three-mile-long trip followed a zigzagging path northeast. “I came out of the tunnel and went forward into Yorkshire Road,” he told me. “I went right into Salmon Lane. Left into Rhodeswell Road, right into Turners Road. I went right into St. Paul’s Way, left into Burdett Road, right into Mile End Road. Left Tredegar Square. I went right Morgan Street, left Coborn Road, right into Tredegar Road. That gave me a forward into Wick Lane, a right into Monier Road, right into Smeed Road—and we’re there. Left into Stour Road.”

Traditional London black cabs line up  to block the street in protest over new technology they say endangers passengers. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
"The Roast Duck Bureaucracy"
Eveline Chao, Open City, March 11, 2014

About a decade ago, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOH) began to puzzle over a strange and disturbing sight: whole, roasted ducks, hanging by their necks in the windows of Manhattan’s Chinatown.

“The health department had nothing to go with in terms of how they should react towards it,” recalled Kerwyn Mark, a former DOH health inspector.

Every time the inspectors came to Chinatown, the same routine played out. They would measure the temperature of the meat, find that it wasn’t held at the required 140 degrees or more, slap the restaurants with fines, and force them to throw the ducks away.

The cooks at these restaurants refused to keep the ducks at 140 degrees lest it dry out the meat. Restaurants complained to the community board, and the community board complained to the department. The dispute dragged on for years. Finally, the department sponsored a study on the ducks, and found that the method by which they were made was, as Kerwyn Mark put it, “pretty much foolproof.”

A worker at a restaurant in Manhattan's Chinatown reaches for roasted duck hanging in the window. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

"In Chicago's War Zones, the Tragedy Extends Beyond the Kids Who Die"
Steve Bogira, Chicago Reader, August 20, 2014

Like many Chicagoans, Latoya Winters was stunned by the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Shamiya Adams at a sleepover in July. Shamiya and several friends were in the bedroom of a home in West Garfield Park. They were circled around a pretend campfire, about to microwave s'mores, when a bullet fired at some boys outside came through a window. It struck Shamiya in the head; she died the next morning.

Winters lives a few blocks away. "I ride past that street all the time, and it's hard to take in," she's telling me on an August morning. "I have a lot of little cousins and nieces. We have sleepovers at my sister's house, we paint nails and watch movies and order food. Who would think that you aren't safe inside a house, doing little girl things?"

But Winters knows that children anywhere in her neighborhood aren't really safe. She's spent most of her life in West and East Garfield Park, neighborhoods besieged by poverty and violence when she was born 26 years ago, and ever since.

She grew up looking over her shoulder. "I feared for my life, and I feared for the life of the kids that I lived with, that I went to school with, all these young kids in the neighborhood I knew. You can be in the wrong place at the wrong time, or even in the right place at the right time, and something bad can happen."

"Earthquake Early Warning Systems Save Lives. So Why Don't We Have One?"
Alissa Walker, Gizmodo, June 19, 2014

Here's something you might not know about the 6.4 earthquake epicentered near the Pacific Coast of Mexico on May 8: By the time it hit Mexico City, 170 miles away, people there already knew it was coming. Even before the shaking started, they had time to move to safety. They were ready—thanks to their advanced warning system.

After a devastating 8.1 earthquake in 1985 which may have killed upwards of 10,000 people, Mexico's government was determined to find a way to prevent this kind of loss of life again. Mexico City residents knew that this 6.4 earthquake was rippling towards their homes because, in 1992, they launched an effective system that's able to tell millions of people that an earthquake is on the way. It's simple, it's relatively affordable to implement, and it works.

In fact, Mexico is one a handful of seismically active countries that have a early warning systems. Taiwan, Turkey, and Romania each have one, too. After the 1995 Kobe quake killed 6,500 people, Japan employed its own early warning system, eventually becoming the first to take advantage of nascent cellphone technology. Following the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, overone million people downloaded a new app which helped prepare them—both physically and mentally—for the dozens of aftershocks that rocked the country.

A similar system, properly implemented, could give cities the time to stop trains and freeze elevators. It would give doctors time to halt surgical procedures in hospitals. It would allow police and firefighters to strategize in the case of a power or communications failure. Just a few seconds of warning could prevent millions in financial losses or even an environmental disaster like Fukushima—and it could potentially save thousands of lives.

So why doesn't the U.S., which bears a large amount of the global earthquake risk, have any kind of system in place?

Anthony Guarino Jr., a seismic analyst at the California Institute of Technology, demonstrates an early earthquake warning system in Pasadena, California. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File)

"Louisiana Loses Its Boot"
Brett Anderson, Matter, September 8, 2014

Early this year, I drove from Arnaudville, Louisiana, to Morgan City, hoping to walk where I’d heard there was land.

Arnaudville is in Cajun country, in the southern part of the state. Morgan City is roughly halfway between Lafayette and New Orleans, if you take the Highway 90 route. Directionally speaking, that’s all I knew.

I was aware Arnaudville is just outside Lafayette, but I couldn’t have told you in what direction, even though I’d been there several times before. Compulsive use of my smart phone’s map apps has eroded whatever navigational confidence — and, by extension, awareness — I ever possessed of areas outside New Orleans, where I’ve lived for over a dozen years. And this part of Cajun country can be disorienting. Boats traverse rice fields flooded in winter for crawfish production, and the slow-running bayous look innocuous until you get trapped on the wrong side of one. In Arnaudville, I met a tourist from Arkansas who, upon entering the tasting room at Bayou Teche Brewing, announced, “We tried to Google this place and ended up in a muddy swamp by the levee over there.”

I was gearing up to feel a variation on that pain myself as I made my way from Arnaudville to Morgan City. It was the first in a planned season of road trips during which I’d compare the facts on the ground in coastal Louisiana with the facts as presented by the official state maps produced by government agencies. Paper maps.

"The Minimum Wage Worker Strikes Back"
Sarah Kendzior, Medium, April 14, 2014

At 24, Patrick is a fast food veteran. Over the past eight years, he has worked at seven different franchises. He started out at America’s Incredible Pizza Company at the NASCAR Speedpark in St. Louis, Missouri, the city where he grew up and still lives. He thought a fast food job would keep him on his feet while he figured out his life. He did not know it would become his life. Now he is captive to the hustle, always moving and going nowhere.

“You pick up something easy to get stable,” he says. “And on your quest to get stable, you end up getting stuck. You either fall or you stay where you are. Or you fall staying where you are.”

Patrick has spent one third of his life working in fast food restaurants, and most of that time wondering how to get out. Between 2007 and 2008 he worked at Subway, then Popeye’s Chicken, then Red Lobster. No place paid above minimum wage no matter how long he stayed or how hard he worked, so in 2008 he took a job as a waiter at Romano’s Macaroni Grill. He hoped that a more formal chain would pay more. They started him at three dollars an hour plus tips. After two years of hoping, he quit.

"When You've Had Detroit"
Rollo Romig, The New Yorker, June 17, 2014

We grew up in Detroit—yes, the city itself. It’s not as if we spent two decades cowering in fear. Our neighborhood was North Rosedale Park, on the northwest side, and for nearly two decades the beautiful things about living there easily eclipsed the crimes that finally drove us away. But the crimes and the beautiful things were never easy to disentangle.

We moved to North Rosedale in December, 1975, just after I turned one and my sister turned three. My mom thought that she’d gone to heaven. The day we moved in, our neighbor Mrs. Halsted stopped by to make sure we knew about Community Christmas—which turned out to be a beautifully organized arts-and-crafts assembly line for local kids and kaffeeklatsch for their parents, free of charge. Then our next-door neighbors the Youngs invited us to their annual Christmas party for everyone on the block. One night it snowed, and my parents woke up the next morning to find their sidewalk already plowed by emissaries from the neighborhood civic association. On our first Christmas at our previous house in Detroit, burglars stole our winter coats and all the presents from under the tree, leaving a stampede of muddy footprints on the living room carpet.

"The Dives of Others: How to Open a New Old Bar"
Jenny Rogers, Washington City Paper, August 29, 2014

Last April, I found myself with a group of friends stumbling around Capitol Hill on a cold Saturday night, looking for a bar. We were large in number but low in sophisticated attire and pocket money, which ruled out most of the places on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. We settled on Remingtons, the gay country/western stalwart, located between a chiropractor and an opthamologist.

Upstairs, no one paid us a bit of attention, save a pair of taciturn cowboy types drinking Miller at the end of the bar and regarding us with dark eyes. We stomped around while someone karaoked to Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and downed shots that tasted like apples candied in acid. We played Family Feud. A guy in carpenter jeans sang “Rocky Top.” It was as uncool a scene as could have been found in D.C. that chilly night, and if I’d known then that it would be my last in Remingtons, I would have tipped the bartender better.

A week later, Remingtons announced it was closing. The loss stung, and so did the timing. The past year and a half had not been kind to the Hill’s dives, known for their confluence of congressional staffers, neighborhood regulars, and professional drinkers. In early 2013, the ancient Hawk n’ Dove reopened under new ownership with a major facelift, one that erased every wrinkle along with every bit of character from that pleasantly dark dump. 18th Amendment, home to rugby hooligans and other assorted characters, closed two months later; Lil Pub, a bar I had heard referred to as “stabby” and where, in fact, the original owner had been stabbed to death decades ago, followed shortly after. Then went the sporty Pour House and its upstairs bar, Top of the Hill. One by one, Capitol Hill’s dives and near-dives fell, leaving Capitol Lounge and the venerable Tune Inn among the last standing.

(Top image via jannoon028 / Shutterstock.com.)

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