Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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"The Gentrification of Skid Row—A Story That Will Decide the Future of Los Angeles," Colin Marshall, The Guardian
In the centre of one of the world’s most high-profile cities lies a concentration of desperate poverty unlike any other in the developed world. Los Angeles’s Skid Row, a common name for a once-common form of down-and-out quarter in American cities, persists as the last neighbourhood of its kind.
Skid Row’s very existence illustrates a major planning mistake the southern Californian metropolis made in the past. The struggles over what to do with it now reveal the extent of the challenge facing LA in its current transformation into a denser, more traditionally urban city. It’s no exaggeration to call Skid Row one of the main battlegrounds for the future of Los Angeles.
The neighbourhood went from metaphorical to literal battleground last Sunday when, on a rare rainy day in this city, an altercation with Los Angeles Police Department officers resulted in the death of a 45-year-old resident. Known locally by the name “Africa” or “Cameroon”, he was shot by several officers after allegedly grabbing one of their guns; beyond that, facts about the precise sequence of events have been slow to emerge.
"Uphill Both Ways," Kyle Berlin, Pacific Standard
At 5:15 a.m., it is easy to spot the Jones household on its quiet residential block. In the darkness of this December morning, it’s the only place with the lights on.
Renata Jones and her three kids live in the Westbank area of New Orleans, across the Mississippi River from the bright lights of the French Quarter, where many of the bars are still serving drinks at this hour.
Although the school day for Renata Jones’ youngest son, Kai, age seven, will not begin until nearly 8 a.m., his daily trip to Lafayette Academy, the pre-K-through-eighth-grade charter school that he attends on the opposite side of the city, takes an hour, and the bus is often late.
Inside the house, Kai, a spindly little boy, comes down the stairs from his room in a trance, grumpy and mute. “It’s always a fight,” says his mother, who works as a registration coordinator in the radiology department of a local hospital. She manages to dress him in his embroidered-polo-and-khakis uniform without a complaint. “He doesn’t understand why he can’t get up when the rest of the kids do.”
"Designing for the Dead: The Perfect City Cemetery," Anna Clark, Next City
Think of urban cemeteries as the first public parks in America. They enticed city-dwellers into an idyllic country experience with rolling green hills, shady trees and stone benches designed for reflective thought. But it wasn’t a complete escape. A city’s character is echoed in the landscape of its cemeteries, from social hierarchies made visible in the burial of prominent citizens on higher ground to generations of graves segregated by the ethnicity of the deceased.
As the meeting point between the living and the dead, cemeteries are peculiarly fraught ground. That makes them easy for cities to ignore. Crime, environmental problems, historic preservation, social class, religious traditions, and the thorny legacy of who is included in cities, and who is not, all come crashing together in urban cemeteries. It’s a toxic tangle of priorities that often contradict each other, and when the cemeteries are on public land, they are an endless drain on city budgets. If no descendants are around anymore to care, if eroded grave markers make it hard to even tell who is buried where, is there any harm in letting nature run its course?
"The Fight for Mexico City's Future," David Adler, Latin America News Dispatch
MEXICO CITY — Around the corner from two taco stands and a small cantina, in an otherwise nondescript section of Mexico City’s Doctores neighborhood, there is an unmarked storefront known as the “Prepa Popular Tacuba.” On its outside, two large stencils frame the doorway. One depicts the Virgin of Guadalupe, melancholy, clinging to an AK-47. The other is of Emiliano Zapata, leader of Mexico’s biggest peasant revolution, scowling, looking outward. A poster below him carries the faces of Mexico’s missing 43 students.
Inside, in a large, dimly lit classroom, several leaders of Mexico City’s Urban Popular Movement convene for their weekly meeting. On the whiteboard, someone writes the details of an upcoming march in red marker. Others pass around copies of “Norma 26,” a law that regulates the construction of low-income housing in Mexico City. The rest of the members of the movement — a collection of local community organizations fighting for housing rights — sip instant coffee, eat biscuits and deliberate. “We must defend the city,” one leader said. “This is a matter of our right to the city, and we must defend it.”
"Doomed to Pittsburgh: W. Eugene Smith in the City of Steel," Jeremy Lybarger, Belt Magazine
Eugene Smith arrived in Pittsburgh in March 1955, a man hellbent on salvation. He had recently resigned as a staff photographer at Life, protesting what he considered the magazine’s botched layout of his photo essay documenting Nobel laureate Albert Schweitzer. Smith was 36 years old and one of America’s preeminent photojournalists. His work in the Pacific theater during World War II — along with subsequent essays chronicling a village in Franco’s Spain, a country doctor in Colorado, and an African American nurse-midwife in rural South Carolina — were landmarks in contemporary photography. His integrity and immaculate craftsmanship had earned respect tinged with wariness. Editors knew he could be as edgy as a junkyard dog.
Now he was adrift. In debt, drinking steadily, battered by a diet of Benzedrine and downers, Smith hit Pittsburgh desperate to salvage whatever remained of his career. His wife, Carmen, was back home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, caring for their four children and supporting (often supported by) the family’s live-in housekeeper. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, Smith’s mistress, Margery Lewis, had recently given unwelcome and illicit birth to the couple’s son. It was the proverbial dark time made darker by the death of Smith’s mother, Nettie, in February. A whirlwind of grief, vengeance, despair, and a kind of ravening idealism drove him into the City of Steel.