Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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Selling a big urban idea isn't easy. More than ever, architects rely on jaw-dropping images to convince their clients to spend millions on their projects. And to do it, they fill their fantastical renderings with people—people who have a story all their own.
These denizens of the designed future are the subject of Designing People, a show that's up through May 19 at the Environmental Design Archives at the University of California Berkeley. From refined watercolors of the early 1900s to today's hip urban landscapes, the architectural rendering has evolved from an elegant illustration to a high-tech marketing tool, and the people populating them have evolved as well.
After arriving at Berkeley's archives 17 years ago, co-curator Waverly Lowell found herself tucking away intriguing architectural drawings as she stumbled upon them, especially ones which incorporated an usual aesthetic. With her fellow curator Christina Marino, she quickly realized there wasn't much available in books about the history of the people who populated these drawings—not even an agreed-upon term, although Lowell prefers "scalie," since the human forms were originally inserted into renderings simply to show scale.
But each rendering told a story, which was largely due to its inhabitants. "We started realizing there is all kinds of information in these drawings once you start paying attention," says Lowell
"Can One Young Guy Lift Cleveland Out of Misery? (No, Not LeBron James)" Peter Moskowitz, Talking Points Memo
"It used to be great, then it got better, then it was not-so-great, then it got horrible, and now it’s fabulous.”
That’s the history of Cleveland’s last 50 years, from a man who knows: Dean Rufus, a former radio DJ and staple of Cleveland’s gay scene. Rufus has lived here for nearly his whole life, which is decades, though he won’t say exactly how old he is. In 2006, he opened a gay-friendly variety store (sex toys, novelty items, “tobacco pipes”) in what was once one of the city’s worst neighborhoods—a subsection of Ohio City that until recently had no name. He shared a building with a duo of dingy gay clubs that were best-known for the drug dealers and sex workers who frequented them.
It used to be that the only time local media paid attention to that complex of debauchery on West 29th Street was when someone was beaten or killed outside it. In 2012, Rufus himself was robbed at gunpoint.
In a rapidly changing, post-industrial, post-recession city like Cleveland, three years is an eternity.
"The Fight for San Francisco," Kim Munson, Places Journal
Fifteen years ago, Rebecca Solnit and photographer Susan Schwartzenberg surveyed “the siege of San Francisco and the crisis of American Urbanism.” Today, the city is once again swept up in a period of rapid change: globalized, gentrified, redeveloped, hollowed out by the forces shaping the “knowledge economy.” Some call this the second tech boom, but of course it is only the latest instance in a long history of booms driven by new technologies, from dynamite to shipping containerization, that transformed entire industries and the city with them.
As we witness this change, it’s easy to forget that San Francisco was once a progressive, tightly unionized port city with a robust blue-collar workforce. Powerful maritime unions won their rights through decades of violent confrontations, notably during the labor riots that culminated in the 1934 General Strike. In the 1950s, the mechanization of shipping finally broke the grip of the unions. Workers reluctantly accepted the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement which eased the inevitable loss of jobs with payouts and retraining programs. New business moved across the bay to Oakland, and the San Francisco waterfront fell into disrepair, the piers cut off from downtown by the hulking mass of the Embarcadero Freeway, until it was demolished after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
"The Incredible True Story Behind the Toronto Mystery Tunnel," Nicholas Köhler, Maclean's
The digger Elton McDonald grew up on what’s probably the toughest street in Toronto—maybe even Canada—and he still lives there with his mother and two sisters. Three summers ago, a man got shot in the head behind their townhouse. Elton’s sister Anora Graham went to the man’s aid, pressing a shirt she’d run to fetch against the wound. He died two weeks later. Lots of others here have, too. “Elton went to school with kids who are not alive anymore,” says Anora. “They died when they were 16.”
The townhouse, in a public housing development in the city’s far northwest called Driftwood Court, is small: a kitchen and living room on the ground floor, three bedrooms on the second. Every now and then, Elton and his sisters start watching the same movie on the TVs in their three separate rooms—as they did not long ago, with Life of Pi —keeping their doors open to chat across the hall during commercials. Sometimes they call their mother, Tracy Graham, who sleeps in the basement, to see if she’s watching, too.
"The Rise of the Mile-High Building," Justin Davidson, New York Magazine
If you’ve sat in an airplane’s window seat, you know what the world looks like from a mile up. It’s that point during takeoff and landing when you can pick out an individual car beetling along a highway; when, on a clear day, you can see the city bleed into its suburbs and trace the outline of a mountain range beyond but still find your favorite bocce court if you know where to look. Individual humans are barely detectable from this height, but humanity’s traces ooze to the horizon. In the not unimaginably distant future, this will be the view from someone’s breakfast nook.
The mile-high skyscraper makes a little more sense to build now than it did when Frank Lloyd Wright designed one nearly 60 years ago. Wright imagined, on the fringes of Chicago, a habitable 528-story sundial called the Illinois. That idea wasn’t buildable then; its successor would still be risky, financially ruinous, slow to construct, and inefficient to operate. But that doesn’t mean a mile-high skyscraper won’t get done. “Going big has been a trend ever since the pyramids. It has little to do with practicalities,” says Jay Siegel, an executive and engineer with Allianz, the company that might one day insure this theoretical Hubris Tower. The technology of supertall buildings is a bit like genetic testing or nuclear energy: a volatile form of power.