A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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"Nevermore? Ravens Sighted in New York," Jesse Greenspan, The New York Times
As Patrick Baglee jogged around the Chelsea Park track in March, he noticed a hulking, jet-black bird overhead.
To the untrained eye, it looked like a run-of-the-mill crow. But to Mr. Baglee, a bird-watcher, the bird’s considerably larger size, wedge-shape tail and distinctive flying style gave it away as a common raven, the highly intelligent species immortalized by Edgar Allan Poe, which typically prefers wild, mountainous regions.
Since then, Mr. Baglee has been observing ravens regularly in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, where he lives, including three soaring together on a Sunday evening near West 25th Street and Ninth Avenue. Other birders in Chelsea and Greenwich Village, where Poe once lived, have also noticed them and suspect that they may have bred close by.
If a nest is confirmed — no easy task, because it would most likely be on a water tower or on the roof of a tall building, with the young long-since fledged — it would be a first for modern Manhattan and the best indicator yet of the resurgence of ravens in New York City after an absence of well over a century.
"The Dives of Others: How to Open a New Old Bar," Jenny Rogers, Washington City Paper
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.
What happened to my bars? In the old 18th Amendment now sits the handsomely lit Barrel, the sort of place where one might sip a fine whiskey among bearded urban rustics, but definitely not the bar in which a gal on a budget would want to run up a tab. Pennsylvania Avenue SE is beginning to smack of 14th Street NW, that miserably buzzy strip bursting with small plates and something called “burlesque cocktails.” (See: Red Light District cocktail and dessert bar.)
"Immigrants Reshape Houston, America's Most Diverse Metropolis," E. Tammy Kim, Al Jazeera America
On Wright Road, near the cellphone parking lot at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, sits an enormous rectangular warehouse and parking lot stippled taxicab yellow. Sedans and SUVs imprinted with the blocky names of car companies line up headlight to taillight in countless rows. Drivers of every nationality, age and background—nearly all men—wait hours to be dispatched to the airport terminal with the promise of a $53 fare.
They huddle around TVs, lift weights, gossip, pray and eat in a rundown concrete shelter that once served as a detention facility and is now Houston’s main taxi depot. There’s a circle of North Africans watching Arabic-language news, a lively pingpong game, a chess match and a lone Pakistani leaning back in a plush armchair. In the only air-conditioned part of the structure, not far from the two food trucks parked outside, drivers nuke their lunches in microwaves stacked on the floor, and part-time students read and surf the Web.
Ebrahim Ulu, an affable, round-faced man with a broken gait, begins a sultry 14-hour shift in July. A teacher and public-health worker in Ethiopia, he went to Houston in 2007 on a diversity visa, a certain number of which go to countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States. “For six months, I slept in the car in order to buy a car and bring my family from Africa,” he said. Life today is much improved: After a long day of driving and waiting for customers, he returns home to his two young children and pregnant wife. He owns the car he drives but must lease the right to operate a taxi in the form of a costly $170-per-week medallion.
The burden of having to rent the medallion from a middleman moved Ulu and his fellow drivers to form an unofficial union, the United Houstonian Taxi Drivers Association, in 2011. It’s the eighth organizing effort that Sam Arnick, a 63-year-old African-American driver, has seen in his long career as a Houston cabbie. “In the past we had 10 different ethnic groups out there. They didn’t trust each other, so we got representatives,” he said.
Each community of drivers—Latinos, African-Americans, East Africans, West Africans, South Asians—now has a voice in leadership, and the union has become a fixture at city council hearings, demanding more reasonable lease rates, improved sanitation at the airport depot, direct ownership of medallions and, most recently, protection against informal ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.
“I used to dream of going to the U.N., but the U.N. came to me,” Ulu said.
Naomi Hirahara never "got" Raymond Chandler. The dark, mistrustful view of Los Angeles that Chandler's work so embodied seemed foreign to the award-winning mystery writer. "He has set a tone for stories about the darkness under L.A.'s glitz for 80 years, but I can't relate to the paranoid view Chandler had of my Los Angeles, or his fear of 'the other,' or how his loner detective Philip Marlowe navigated his investigative cases without the weight of family or community," she confessed in a recent article. Rather the Pasadena-born Japanese American writer knew a life of family and strong immigrant networks. L.A.'s sense of reinvention, not alienation, she confided to readers, was its real asset. "Change at L.A.'s pace creates unreliable characters, and unreliable characters drive mysteries." Indeed, the postwar shift of Los Angeles suburbs, spearheaded by Japanese Americans who helped to make the South Bay an entrepot of transnational connections, provided no small amount of change.
Hirahara's piece encapsulates the post 1945 arc of Asian Americans, particularly those of Japanese descent. The kind of stories told by Chandler and other American literary luminaries frequently ignored or marginalized minority characters. Yet in metropolitan Los Angeles millions of non-whites worked, leisured, and loved along side their white counterparts. These lives, long ignored, had their own comedies, tragedies, dramas, and noirs. In places like Boyle Heights, Torrance, Montebello, Altadena, and Gardena, Latinos, Asian Americans, and blacks built lives full of mystery and excitement, even if these stories rarely found a mass audience or critical acclaim. Japanese Americans created the built environment as much as much as anyone else, and few suburbs demonstrate Asian American agency like South Bay's Gardena.
"Under Annihilation's Sign: Public Memory and Prospect Park's Battle Pass," Ben Nadler and Oksana Mironova, Urban Omnibus
[This week marked] the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, the largest single battle of the American Revolution and the first under George Washington’s direct command. The British invasion of the scattered towns of southwestern Long Island was of national as well as local importance, helping form Brooklyn’s identity as a coherent entity, first a city and then a borough. The battle was a violent defeat for the Continental Army, but Brooklyn’s unique and critical role in delaying the British invasion of Manhattan—and the entire fledging republic—had long-term ramifications. The mass violence inflicted a wound that Brooklyn has continued to process in the intervening centuries. What was perhaps the bloodiest and most tragic site of the battle is now known as Battle Pass, and sits in the northeast corner of Prospect Park in a wooded area between the zoo and the southern end of Long Meadow. Spanning two small hills and a 50-yard stretch that passes between them, marked by a few modest memorials and plaques, Battle Pass is preserved largely as it was at the time. Today, when commemorative spaces more often take the shape of costly, monumental, highly visible memorials, the subtle commemoration found at Battle Pass offers an opportunity to challenge our assumptions of what it means to remember collectively and publicly.
Of course, the site’s surroundings have changed since 1776. Flatbush Avenue has always been an important arterial road, but in colonial times it was a narrow dirt cart path. When the avenue became a modern, paved road it was redirected 200 yards to the east, where it forms the park’s boundary and connects to the street grid. The original section of Flatbush Avenue that ran through the pass is now incorporated into the park’s East Drive, popular with cyclists and joggers. The area was cleared farmland at the time of the battle, not the green parkland of today. A small knoll behind Redoubt Hill — the western hill, which is the higher of the two and the site of the American cannon position — was removed during the construction of the park, but the hill itself maintains its original elevated topography. Few park goers climb the hills, but many stop on the drive to read the memorial plaques and take pictures.