A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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"The Trailer Park at the Center of the Universe," Andrew Thompson, The Awl
The longest road in California is El Camino Real, a 600-mile route that once connected twenty-one Spanish missions from San Diego to Sonoma. While the state began to pave over the road in the nineteen tens, portions of it still run throughout California, including every city on the San Francisco Peninsula. In Palo Alto, El Camino begins at Stanford University, where it winds past the Stanford Shopping Center, a regal, open-air mall with an Ermenegildo Zegna but no Foot Locker, restaurants but no food court. As the road continues southward, it passes a series of newly finished luxury apartments, then half-completed luxury apartments still wrapped in scaffolding and tarp, followed by a showroom for Tesla, and one for McLaren. Then, finally, it reaches the city limits at the border of Mountain View, about two-and-a-half miles from Google.
A few blocks before the car dealerships, tucked behind a strip mall with a health spa, a Baja Fresh and a Jamba Juice, is Buena Vista Mobile Home Park, a four-and-a-half-acre plot of land roughly in the shape of Utah. The park’s five small streets are not flanked by sidewalks, and the territory of each trailer seems to bleed into the next. Unlike the recent vintage mini-mansions and luxury condos constructed in tightly uniform patterns of stucco and beige, Buena Vista’s hundred and eight mobile homes are a patchwork of styles: Some are an inoffensive industrial brown, one is evergreen, one is baby blue, one has a roof lined with Christmas ornaments that appear to have been hung in the mid-nineties and never taken down. The park houses about three-hundred-seventy-five residents, who are mostly low-income and predominantly Hispanic. It is the last mobile home park left in the city limits.
"Madison Is a Great Small City, Unless You're Black," Kashana Cauley, The Billfold
I am at the age where my old friends drop into NYC to visit me every summer and ask me how long I plan to live here. They are Midwesterners who wonder if I’ll move back to Wisconsin now that I’ve been here for eleven years and have a son. They ask how I could “take advantage of it all.” They deploy the argument about the crushing cost of living, no matter how much I insist that my husband and I are doing okay on that front for now. My hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, sometimes hovers in my mind during these talks, because it’s much cheaper and has public schools that will admit my son without requiring an application, an interview, or an IQ test. Yet Madison has never felt like a place I could return to—because I’m black.
I realize this sentiment contradicts everything that everyone on earth has ever heard about super-liberal Madison. It also doesn’t make sense at first because cops don’t kill unarmed blacks in Madison, and are unafraid to do so here, as in the cases of Eric Garner, Amadou Diallo, and so many others. But during my eleven years in New York I have been spared so much of the day-to-day indignities growing up black in Madison showered upon me. In New York, I am allowed to relax to a degree I never dreamed possible in Madison. I can be just another black face on Flatbush Avenue or in Soho or Harlem. I am not regularly asked to represent an entire race of people.
"The Huge, Unseen Operation Behind the Accuracy of Google Maps," Greg Miller, WIRED
The maps we use to navigate have come a long way in a short time. Since the ’90s we’ve gone from glove boxes stuffed with paper maps to floorboards littered with Mapquest printouts to mindlessly obeying Siri or her nameless Google counterpart.
The maps behind those voices are packed with far more data than most people realize. On a recent visit to Mountain View, I got a peek at how the Google Maps team assembles their maps and refines them with a combination of algorithms and meticulous manual labor—an effort they call Ground Truth. The project launched in 2008, but it was mostly kept under wraps until just a couple years ago. It continues to grow, now covering 51 countries, and algorithms are playing a bigger role in extracting information from satellite, aerial, and Street View imagery.
Street View, which launched in 2007, was conceived as a way to improve the user experience by letting people see what the area around their destination looked like, says Brian McClendon, Google Maps VP. “But we soon realized that one of the best ways to make maps is to have a photographic record of the streets of the world and refer back to those whenever there’s a correction,” McClendon said.
And as the data collected by Street View grew, the team saw that it was good for more than just spot-checking their data, says Manik Gupta, group product manager for Google Maps. Street View cars have now driven more than 7 million miles, including 99 percent of the public roads in the U.S. “It’s actually allowing us to algorithmically build up new data layers from information we’ve extracted,” Gupta said.
"When a Stray Dog's In Trouble, Katmandu's Canine Rescuers Jump To It," Donatella Lorch, NPR
The phone calls start in early morning. They are strikingly similar.
"There is an injured dog on the street. Can you take care of it?"
Ram Nagarkoti, the 31-year-old ambulance driver at the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre (KAT Centre), often spends his days zigzagging through traffic, waving at police officers as he edges across chaotic intersections and squeezing into labyrinthian alleyways to find his patient—one of 20,000 stray dogs in Nepal's capital.
In flip-flops, baggy pants, and a well-worn white T-shirt, Ram looks more like a wandering hippie than a driver/animal medic. This particular morning, the injured dog was a mutt of medium build with thick black hair who lived with seven other strays on the compound of a Hindu temple. A shopkeeper made the call when she noticed the dog could no longer walk and refused food handouts.
Ram knelt down, caressing the dog as he tried to figure out what was wrong. Before moving the mutt, he also did a quick health survey of the temple's other canine residents. As the shopkeepers began hovering around him, he slipped into an impromptu talk on animal health and the need for birth control.
"Who Wants a Supertall Skyline? The Emerging Aesthetic of the 1,000-Foot Tower," Justin Davidson, New York Magazine
When you’re putting up a multibillion-dollar tower that’s a quarter-mile high, there’s not much leeway to make it a work of art. On the other hand, when you’re putting up a multibillion-dollar tower that’s a quarter-mile high, it had damn well better be a work of art. Dozens of supertall buildings are being built or planned, radically redrawing the skyline. If we avert our gaze, we’ll get a bundle of glass stakes fencing off the air above Manhattan. Skyscrapers can be better. The difficulty of making an elegant symbolic presence out of an immense vertical machine has been vexing architects for more than a century. And yet it must be done.
“Problem,” declared the skyscraper wizard Louis Sullivan in 1896: “How shall we impart to this sterile pile, this crude, harsh, brutal agglomeration, this stark, staring exclamation of eternal strife, the graciousness of those higher forms of sensibility and culture that rest on the lower and fiercer passions?” Sullivan knew from experience that in big buildings, aesthetics struggle to assert themselves against the overweening realities of technology, zoning, and real-estate arithmetic. But he also saw that unless the tower could be ennobled, it would do violence to urban life. That remains true, especially now that some spires reach ten times higher than he ever contemplated.
Sullivan expressed these anxieties in an essay called “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.” In 1982, the critic Ada Louise Huxtable updated his concerns in an article for The New Criterion (which became a book) called “The Tall Building Artistically Reconsidered.” Sullivan gazed forward with trepidation and excitement; Huxtable looked back and saw a string of failed fantasies. Modernism had produced exquisite prototypes, like the IBM Building — and also a host of clumsy knockoffs. Postmodernism had reduced major questions to the ironic recycling of ornaments; Philip Johnson’s AT&T (now Sony) tower committed “architectural malapropism at drop-dead scale.” Both movements had yielded some fine buildings, but, she concluded mournfully, architecture had ceased to matter in New York because midtown was becoming so massively overbuilt.
She hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet.