A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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Name the tallest structures in the world. Maybe flashy skyscrapers in China or the Gulf States come to mind. Or maybe you’re thinking of U.S. icons like One World Trade Center in New York or the Willis Tower in Chicago.
You’re almost certainly not thinking of TV towers. But dozens of nearly anonymous towers around the United States, most in small rural communities, dwarf all but the tallest man-made structures in the world.
Take the KVLY-TV Tower in Blanchard, North Dakota, a township of 26 people north of Fargo. At 2,063 feet (628.8 meters), it’s the tallest structure in the western hemisphere and the fourth-tallest structure in the world.
Or the Diversified Communications Tower in the unincorporated community of Floyd Dale, South Carolina. At 2,000 feet (609.6 meters), it’s close to double the height of the Eiffel Tower.
Around the country, TV broadcast towers like these, unheralded but sometimes record-breaking, keep millions of Americans connected. And as the way we watch TV is changing, the industry behind these towering structures faces turbulent times.
"A Thirsty, Violent World," Michael Specter, The New Yorker
Angry protesters filled the streets of Karachi last week, clogging traffic lanes and public squares until police and paratroopers were forced to intervene. That’s not rare in Pakistan, which is often a site of political and religious violence.
But last week’s protests had nothing to do with freedom of expression, drone wars, or Americans. They were about access to water. When Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the Minister of Defense, Power, and Water (yes, that is one ministry), warned that the country’s chronic water shortages could soon become uncontrollable, he was looking on the bright side. The meagre allotment of water available to each Pakistani is a third of what it was in 1950. As the country’s population rises, that amount is falling fast.
Dozens of other countries face similar situations—not someday, or soon, but now. Rapid climate change, population growth, and a growing demand for meat (and, thus, for the water required to grow feed for livestock) have propelled them into a state of emergency. Millions of words have been written, and scores of urgent meetings have been held, since I last wrote about this issue for the magazine, nearly a decade ago; in that time, things have only grown worse.
"View from the Hill: A Tale of Black Pittsburgh’s Complicated Legacy," Damon Young, Carnegie Museum of Art Blog
The home my wife and I share sits in an impressive building on Fifth Avenue. If I peer out our kitchen window and glance right, I’ll see Dinwiddie Street. A 15-second drive up Dinwiddie leads to Centre Avenue. The Hill House, the Thelma Lovette YMCA, the Alma Speed Fox Building, and perhaps the most politically contentious Shop ‘n Save in the country all sit within a five-minute walk. We do not live in the Hill District. This awkward stretch of land that exists between Oakland, downtown, the Hill, and the South Side is technically called Uptown—a differentiation that definitely seems to matter to pizza delivery men. But this apartment we live in—located in a building that was once Fifth Avenue High School and is now the Fifth Avenue School Lofts—and the hows, whys, and whats of how people came to live in this long-dead school building, tells a Hill District story. A Pittsburgh story. A black America story. A Teenie Harris story.
The story of how the Fifth Avenue School Lofts came to exist is a complicated one that I will attempt to simplify. It is also contentious. There will be people who will vehemently disagree with what I’m about to say, either claiming that I’m intentionally disregarding important context or attempting to skew facts to promote an agenda. I am doing neither. What I am doing is telling this story how I’ve come to see it.
"The Allure of Hyperlocal History," Casey N. Cep, Pacific Standard
Some time ago, a young Yugoslavian scholar went to Sweden to visit the Institute for Theater Research. While there, she was looked after by a woman called Mrs. Kristinia Johansson, a caretaker so dedicated that she took the young woman everywhere around Stockholm, to all the sites and every attraction of interest to tourists. One night, Johansson took her to the Royal Library, where the young woman found a book called The Encyclopedia of the Dead; in the book she found an entry about her father, who had died only a few weeks before.
It was no ordinary encyclopedia entry, for in it she found not only his essential biographical information, but so much more—rich, vivid details about every single aspect of his life. The entry seemed to go on forever, and it led from her father’s life into the life of her grandmother. The young woman was stunned by the level of detail: the sound of the cuckoo clock that woke him from his sleep, the text of his love letters, the name of the cobbler who fixed his shoes and the baker who made his rolls, the floor plan of the first house he shared with his life, the everything and the nothing of every one of his days.
The Encyclopedia of the Dead is not real but fictional, only a title in the short story “The Encyclopedia of the Dead.” Published in English for the first time in 1982 by the New Yorker, the story is a masterwork by writer Danilo Kiš. I was thinking of the story and the young woman who narrates it today when I started to write about another seemingly encyclopedic effort, this one to document local history. Arcadia Publishing, which began printing books in 1993, has a catalog of more than 9,000 titles, each focusing on a specific neighborhood, city, town, or local attraction in the United States. There’s one about the York County Trolleys in Maine, the Shaker communities of Kentucky, the stone architecture of Santa Barbara, the Jewish community of Strawberry Mansion in Philadelphia, even one volume devoted entirely to Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C.
"That Magnificent Train," Zach Dorfman, The Awl
The music was everywhere there were tourists. Since arriving in Peru, I’d heard the same songs looped interminably by flute bands: in public squares, hotel lobbies, bazaars, bars, and cheap buffets; in Cusco and Aguas Calientes and Urubamba and Ollantaytambo; and, increasingly, in my sleep. A few general guidelines materialized. First, no group could possibly resist “El Cóndor Pasa,” famous for being repurposed by Simon and Garfunkel in 1970 (“I’d rather be a hammer than a naaaail/yes I wouuuld/if I only couuulld//yes I wouuuld,” and so on). Second, the flute bands would, over the course of their set, eventually return the favor by likewise appropriating some classic Anglo-American pop music: songs like “Hotel California,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Hey Jude” (but never, curiously, any Jethro Tull). And, at 6:45 in the morning, Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind.”
I was waiting to board the Andean Explorer, a once-a-day luxury train that runs from Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, with its magnificent sixteenth-century cathedral that sits across the main city square from Starbucks and North Face annexes, to the city of Puno (“The Folklore Capital of Peru”), which sits on a polluted bay on the shore of Lake Titicaca. The age of the average rider seemed to hover around sixty, the lobby full of pasty Australian retirees travelling with large tour groups. We were informed over a loudspeaker that the ride was estimated at roughly ten hours; this, we later learned, was unduly optimistic.
Like its relative the Hiram Bingham (which travels from Cusco to Machu Picchu, a much shorter journey that is actually more expensive), the Andean Explorer is privately owned and operated by a company called PeruRail and serves no local purpose whatsoever. A round-trip ticket on the Bingham—named for the American explorer who “discovered” Machu Picchu—costs roughly eight hundred dollars, or twelve percent of an average Peruvian’s yearly earnings. (And average earnings in the Andean Highlands are less than a twentieth of those in Lima; poverty rates in the highlands reach past fifty percent, with indigenous communities particularly affected.)