A round-up of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
“How to Move 2 Million People Out of Hurricane Matthew’s Way,” Aarian Marshall, Wired
Across swaths of Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina, half the highway lanes have reversed. Traffic engineers call this “contraflow,” the volte-face of normal traffic. Now, on both sides of these roads, vehicles only run one way—away from Hurricane Matthew.
As the Category 4 storm ripped the Caribbean with 145 mph winds, local and state officials urged nearly two million Americans to flee their homes before it hit the southern Atlantic coast.
“If you’re able to go early, leave now,” Florida Governor Rick Scott said Wednesday.
“Behind the Scenes of East Chicago’s Housing Crisis,” Kevin Stark, Pacific Standard
The sun is shining through Nayesa Walker’s front door as four men in bright orange reflector vests exit her apartment. She has just returned from a long weekend at a nearby hotel, during which time the men used hand-held vacuums to scrub clean her two-story apartment. Though the hotel getaway was in a sense a respite from the increasingly anxious chatter of her neighbors, it wasn’t a vacation; the whole time, Walker could only worry about whether the men with orange vests — officials from the Environmental Protection Agency — had found any traces of lead or arsenic in her home.
For the last five years, Walker has been renting this apartment in the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago — the Indiana city of 30,000 mostly black and Latino residents that lies 20 miles southeast of Chicago. She had no idea the extent of the dangerous heavy metals lurking in the dirt in her yard and nearby parks, maybe even collecting in her rug. She knew her home was built in an industrial area, but that’s East Chicago. People here like to say it’s the most industrial city in the country. The median household income is roughly $27,000 per year, according to the United States Census.
Calumet’s problems only became clear in the end of July, when Mayor Anthony Copeland promptly announced that the complex’s 1,100 residents — 670 of them children — would have to leave. The housing authority would be offering housing vouchers, the mayor said, which would be good until November, leaving Walker and her neighbors with just three months to uproot their lives. Their homes, Copeland said solemnly, would be demolished shortly thereafter.
“The Return of the Utopians,” Akash Kapur, The New Yorker
Five hundred years ago, a man who condoned torture, religious persecution, and burning at the stake wrote a book about the perfect world. In “On the Best Kind of a Republic and About the New Island of Utopia” (the book’s full title, translated from Latin), Sir Thomas More envisaged a paradise where men and women could choose their religion, without fear of violence or coercion. In practice, as Lord Chancellor of England, More oversaw the burning of at least six Protestants and the jailing of some forty. One merchant was tortured in More’s own home, and tied so tightly to a tree that blood reportedly flowed from his eyes. More referred to it as “the Tree of Truth.”
Contradiction and hypocrisy have always hovered over the utopian project, shadowing its promise of a better world with the sordid realities of human nature. Plato, in the Republic, perhaps the earliest utopian text, outlined a form of eugenics that would have been right at home in the Third Reich—which was itself a form of utopia, as were the Gulag of Soviet Communism, the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and, more recently, the blood-and-sand caliphate ofisis. “There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia,” the French economist and futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote.
The twentieth century was perhaps the cruellest for utopian hopes. “Innumerable millions of human beings were killed in this century in the name of utopia,” the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz reminded his audience, at a 1986 pen conference. In a 2007 polemic, “Black Mass,” John Gray proclaimed “the death of utopia.” Indeed, utopia’s name has become so tarnished that it has recently been used almost interchangeably with its evil twin, dystopia—a word coined by John Stuart Mill, three and a half centuries after the publication of More’s book, to describe a society that was “too bad to be practicable.”
“The Literal Hell of McMansions,” Colin Dickey, Slate
What is it that so unnerves us about McMansions? Why are they so ugly, why do we hate them, and why—despite their atrociousness—do builders keep building them? These are the questions that the blogWorst of McMansions (aka McMansion Hell, per its URL) sets out to answer. Authored by an architect who calls herself “Kate,” the Tumblr has been around only since late July but has spread across the web faster than a subdevelopment through a vacant tract of suburbia. The site catalogs the most egregious examples of terrible overbuilt architecture, delivering ridicule to these behemoths—along with a series ofMcMansions 101 posts, which explain patiently everything that’s wrong with them, architecturally speaking.
The site’s fans seemed to have flocked to it not just for its ability to put words to that uneasy disgust that so many have when facing these gargantuan homes. We’ve always known they were ugly, but until now we didn’t know why, exactly. A normal house, for example, is made up of a “primary mass” (the central architectural shape of the building) and a few key “secondary masses,” building-block shapes that complement and highlight that primary mass. A McMansion, on the other hand, will have so many secondary masses—gables, garages, entryways, and so on—“that the primary mass is reduced to a role of filling in gaps between the secondary masses.” Nor is the McMansion balanced; unlike a Victorian, its individual pieces don’t have equal visual weight. It is often out of scale with its small lot and out of proportion with itself: inconsistent window sizes, dormers, and gables of contrasting style.
What emerges in Kate’s McMansions 101 posts in particular is that nearly all of the sins of McMansions often boil down to the same thing: violations of order, harmony, and symmetry. What makes a normal house successful is a sense of balance, with equally weighted elements and an overall sense of aesthetic cohesion. What makes a McMansion an eyesore is its jumble of eaves, columns, oversized garages, and other compounded fiascos.
“Preserving the Quietest Places,” Ashley Powers, The California Sunday Magazine
Dawn beckoned. The sun inched over the horizon of northern Colorado as Jacob Job and I twisted through a canyon en route to Rocky Mountain National Park. Over the rumble of his blue Ford F-150, he ticked off a list of rules for us to follow in the forest:
Move like a sloth: slowly and only when necessary.
If you need to turn, do so from your waist.
Don’t bend your wrists, ankles, fingers — they crack.
Calm your breath.
If you sit down, lean against a tree, unfurl your legs, and don’t fidget.
“You don’t realize how much you hear of yourself,” said Job, 33, a dark-haired beanpole in a brownish T-shirt and olive cargo shorts. “Your breathing, your clothes moving, your joints popping, the sound of you swallowing.” Only by staying quiet — melt-into-the-forest quiet, hear-twigs-snap-and-insects-buzz quiet — could we find the distinctive trill that had so far eluded him: Troglodytes pacificus, the Pacific wren.