Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.
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“An American Christmas Story,” Brian Moylan, Racked
It’s about 1am on Halloween in Manhattan, and Kent Fritzel is having a holiday-related emergency. It has nothing to do with ghouls, goblins, or girls dressed as Sexy Elmo vomiting into the gutters of Second Avenue. In fact, it has nothing to do with Halloween at all. He is at Saks Fifth Avenue, and he just discovered that all of his extension cords are too short.
Fritzel and a team of about 75 are transforming the ground floor of Saks from a landmark department store pushing designer perfume and dozens of varieties of eye serum into a Doctor Zhivago-inspired Christmas wonderland. Fritzel is the executive creative director of American Christmas, the company that is responsible for making the holidays happen in midtown Manhattan.
It doesn't occur to most of the millions of office workers and residents of the area that someone needs to install those iconic angels in the Rockefeller Plaza Channel Gardens, stack up the enormous red Christmas ornament pyramid across from Radio City Music Hall, hang the huge candy canes (seen above) from the façade of 9 West 59th Street, or create many of the other iconic features both inside and outside city attractions. It also doesn't occur to them that those pieces need a place to live for the 10 months of the year that they're not being used — the sort of reverse equivalent of a retiree's condo in Boca Raton.
“A Hated Phrase That Subway Riders Are Hearing More: ‘Sick Passenger’,” Emma G. Fitzsimmons, New York Times
A voice over the intercom delivers the bad news, and throughout the car there are audible sighs.
Your train is delayed because of a sick passenger.
Subway riders sit and wonder: Who is this sick passenger, and why is he or she on my train? Any sympathy for the mysterious person is often mixed with annoyance.
At the same time, an intricate effort unfolds out of sight. The train’s crew alerts the rail control center to send an ambulance to the nearest station. The emergency medical workers rush below ground to locate the patient — often a challenge in more labyrinthine stations.
This process can stretch on for more than half an hour, creating a cascade of delays across the vast system. And so the not-sick passengers wait. And wait. Statistics show they are waiting more than ever these days.
“How the Gun Control Debate Ignores Black Lives,” Lois Beckett, ProPublica
On a drizzly afternoon in January 2013, almost a month after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 20 first-graders dead, more than a dozen religious leaders assembled in Washington, D.C.
They had been invited by the Obama administration to talk about what the country should do to address gun violence. Vice President Joe Biden had been meeting with victims and advocates all day, and he arrived so late that some in the room wondered whether he would come at all. When he finally walked in, the clergy started sharing their advice, full of pain, some of it personal. “The incidents of Newtown are very tragic,” Michael McBride, a 37-year-old pastor from Berkeley, California, recalled telling Biden. “But any meaningful conversation about addressing gun violence has to include urban gun violence.”
McBride supported universal background checks. He supported an assault weapons ban. But he also wanted something else: a national push to save the lives of black men. In 2012, 90 people were killed in shootings like the ones in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado. That same year, nearly 6,000 black men were murdered with guns.
“Who Owns Our Cities – and Why This Urban Takeover Should Concern Us All,” Saskia Sassen, Guardian
Does the massive foreign and national corporate buying of urban buildings and land that took off after the 2008 crisis signal an emergent new phase in major cities? From mid-2013 to mid-2014, corporate buying of existing properties exceeded $600bn (£395bn) in the top 100 recipient cities, and $1trillion a year later – and this figure includes only major acquisitions (eg. a minimum of $5m in the case of New York City).
I want to examine the details of this large corporate investment surge, and why it matters. Cities are the spaces where those without power get to make a history and a culture, thereby making their powerlessness complex. If the current large-scale buying continues, we will lose this type of making that has given our cities their cosmopolitanism.
Indeed, at the current scale of acquisitions, we are seeing a systemic transformation in the pattern of land ownership in cities: one that alters the historic meaning of the city. Such a transformation has deep and significant implications for equity, democracy and rights.
“Composing the Sounds of Detroit into a Symphony,” Sarah Rose Sharp, Hyperallergic
DETROIT — The sounds of the city have long been an inspiration to composers — think of iconic soundscapes from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue to Bernstein’s West Side Story score. There is a difference, however, between creating music inspired by a city — but still wholly executed within the context of a symphony — and literally making music from urban sounds.
It is this latter ambition that drives composer and MIT Professor of Music and Media Tod Machover. In Detroit this year, Machover sought to replicate a project that he first executed in Toronto in 2012–13, creating Symphony in D, an original sound portrait of the Motor City in partnership with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO). Using 15,000-plus sound bites recorded and submitted by people all over Detroit, as well as his team, Machover wrote a five-movement piece that was performed in the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center on November 20 and 21. It combined the audial minutiae of everyday Detroit with the creative power of the DSO, and live contributions from a diverse host of special guests, too.