A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
"Where on Earth Is the Berlin Wall?" Philip Oltermann, Guardian Cities
Behind the caretaker’s cottage in Berlin’s botanical gardens, hidden from the visitors’ view, stands a bit of concrete European history: a piece of the Stützwandelement UL 12-11, 3.2m high and 1.2m wide, weighing 2.6 tonnes, with yellow and blue graffiti on one side. Between 1961 and 1990, around 54,000 of these concrete slabs made up the western side of the Berlin Wall.
The collection stashed away in the botanical gardens’ depot belongs to the city senate: they are gifts, to be handed out at grand state visits. Receiving a slab of wall is a bit of a mixed blessing: you need a crane to load it on to a van, so the pick-up alone costs at least €2,000. Shipping it overseas sets you back another five grand, so sometimes recipients contrive to leave their presents behind.
Still, out of an original collection of 30 slabs only eight remain, and five of them already carry reservation tags, for the Philippines, Cleveland and Bochum. One secretary in the senate has already been in touch with the caretaker to say that she wants to be there when the last piece of the wall gets picked up, to wave it goodbye with her handkerchief.
“Where is the wall?” is still the first question many tourists ask when they visit the German capital. But 25 years after its fall, more pieces of the Berlin Wall are scattered across the globe than remain in the city itself.
"Home and History In the Fiction of Los Angeles," Sarah-Jane Stratford, Los Angeles Review of Books
LOS ANGELES does not, perhaps, get enough credit for feeding the imaginations of science fiction writers. Our original cinematic visions of imagined futures — often dystopian wastelands — were shaped by their film locations on what was then undeveloped land outside Los Angeles. Even the futuristic worlds on soundstages called back to Los Angeles, a city whose rapid growth was multi-pronged and haphazard. But despite the sprawl and isolating car culture that fueled dystopian fancies, the city has certainly not been a dystopia. When we talk about the pace and occasionally impractical results of LA’s development, often conducted without long-term considerations, we tend to overlook the beauty, inventiveness, and quirky charm of so much of LA’s architecture. It’s no wonder Los Angeles has long been a home to writers who found comfort, space, and privacy to let their minds wander through the thicket of human experience.
Some of LA’s most inventive residents, like Ray Bradbury, attempted to use the conduit of literature to prevent LA from actually becoming the dystopian world it had helped people envision. But while LA’s isolation and tension, and excessive concrete, may themselves not have been a problem, they are being met with a new difficulty: mansionization. And as this trend gains apace, the city is in danger of inadvertently creating exactly the sort of desolate society it has excelled in rendering as entertainment.
"In Brazilian City, Homeless Face 'Extermination", Matt Sandy, Al Jazeera America
GOIÂNIA, Brazil — Marcos Aurélio Nunes da Cruz, the boy who was like a little bird, died in his sleep. His cardboard deathbed sat under the concrete awning of a discount supermarket.
His killer had approached at 3 a.m. The man, who wore a black helmet, glanced around, paused for a few seconds, pulled out a handgun and shot Cruz once in the left side of his forehead.
In a sense, Cruz was lucky. Dozens of others who, like him, slept on the streets of Goiânia, a disregarded city of 1.3 million in Brazil’s agricultural heartland, have been stoned, stabbed, clubbed or burned alive. Others have simply disappeared.
The memory of the 57 killed since August 2012 is preserved with a list kept by human-rights campaigners — some by full name, others by their street monikers: Hummingbird, Woodpecker, Cinnamon. The youngest was 13, the oldest 52.
The deaths have equaled about one in 20 of the city's homeless population. In the two-year period, homeless people in Goiânia were murdered at a rate roughly ten times higher than in the rest of Brazil, although experts warned of the difficulty of gathering complete data.
After midnight on the streets of the city’s industrial core, outside its ubiquitous rodeo bars and shopping malls, the homeless stumble down the sidewalks with ripped clothes, bruised skin and panic in their eyes.
Many who live on the streets sleep during the day and walk at night. It is safer that way. In Goiânia, a city where, as one drifter put it, “no one sees and no one knows,” only the bravest dare to ask who is doing the killing and why.
"Soft Rock, High Speeds: The Second Avenue Subway," Steph Yin, Cafe
The Second Avenue Subway is the stuff of legend in New York City, the locomotive who cried wolf. Plagued by funding shortages, the project has been stop-and-go since the 1920s. Now construction is back to go; in late September, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the body in charge of public transportation in New York State, requested $1.5 billion from its board to start the second phase of construction. Michael Horodniceanu, head of construction for the MTA, has stated that the long-awaited line may be ready by 2029. In the meantime, the MTA is learning about, and acting on, geology.
Since its readoption in 2007, the Second Avenue Subway has crept back into New Yorkers’ imaginations, both taunting and tormenting those who live and work on the Upper East Side. Roughly 70 feet below the brownstones and businesses, a 485-ton, 450-foot-long tunnel boring machine named Adi (after Horodniceanu’s granddaughter) has excavated twin tunnels running between 96th and 63rd Streets. Along with four stations, these tunnels make up Phase I of the project, which the MTA estimates will serve 200,000 riders daily when it opens in December 2016.
Before Adi could get to work chewing through roughly 50 feet of rock per day, engineers had to characterize the rock under Second Avenue. The more accurately they understood the subway’s underlying geology, the more confidently the project’s contracted builders could predict the timeline and cost of construction.
"In Search of Uber's Unicorn", Alison Griswold, Slate
In just four years, Uber has constructed an intimidating profile. It operates in 45 countries around the world and well over 100 cities. It services millions of customers and employs hundreds of thousands of drivers. In June, Uber snagged $1.2 billion in financing that valued it at $17 billion—the biggest tech startup funding round ever.
That Uber has compiled such impressive numbers is fitting for a company that’s avowedly built on data. For all its talk of “ride-sharing,” Uber is essentially a for-hire car or taxi service like any other, but for one golden insight: how to make taxi-ing more efficient. Using an algorithm of its own making, Uber has introduced drivers and customers to dynamic pricing—the idea that rides should cost more when demand is greater. In doing so, Uber has embraced the free market and systematically chipped away at inefficiencies in car services by bringing supply in line with demand. That algorithm—and the data that make it possible—underpins all of Uber’s successes; the company has staked its reputation on numbers.
Of all of Uber’s numbers, one is particularly important: $90,766. In a late-May post on its blog, Uber cited $90,766 as the median annual income of a driver for UberX in New York City. “UberX driver partners are small business entrepreneurs demonstrating across the country that being a driver is sustainable and profitable,” the company wrote. “In contrast, the nation’s taxi drivers are often below the poverty line … so that wealthy taxi company owners can reap the benefits of drivers having no other option to make a living.” Uber was the heroic disrupter of those taxi companies, and $90,766 was its version of the American dream—proof that contract workers in the so-called sharing economy could do much more than just make ends meet. In recruiting drivers to its platform in New York and around the world, little has been more important than the glimmer of $90,766.