Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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“Inside the Secret World of Russia’s Cold War Mapmakers,” Greg Miller, Wired
A military helicopter was on the ground when Russell Guy arrived at the helipad near Tallinn, Estonia, with a briefcase filled with $250,000 in cash. The place made him uncomfortable. It didn’t look like a military base, not exactly, but there were men who looked like soldiers standing around. With guns.
The year was 1989. The Soviet Union was falling apart, and some of its military officers were busy selling off the pieces. By the time Guy arrived at the helipad, most of the goods had already been off-loaded from the chopper and spirited away. The crates he’d come for were all that was left. As he pried the lid off one to inspect the goods, he got a powerful whiff of pine. It was a box inside a box, and the space in between was packed with juniper needles. Guy figured the guys who packed it were used to handling cargo that had to get past drug-sniffing dogs, but it wasn’t drugs he was there for.
Inside the crates were maps, thousands of them. In the top right corner of each one, printed in red, was the Russian word секрет. Secret.
“Why Is It So Hard to Get a Great Bagel in California?” Elizabeth Weil, The New York Times Magazine
One day in February, a notice appeared on the website San Francisco Eater. An unknown outfit called Eastside Bagels was hosting a pop-up at a Mission District bar called Dear Mom. One morning only: actual New York bagels, with schmear, lox or pastrami. Doors open at 11:30 a.m.
But even before Sonya Haines pulled out her slicing knife, she was in well over her head. She had 10 dozen bagels (five plain, five everything) overnighted to herself, and by 10:30 a.m. there were more than 200 people standing on the 16th Street sidewalk in the rain. When you offer an East Coast Jewish transplant the possibility of a fresh New York bagel on a Sunday morning, you arouse a lot of yearning. Californians, spoiled by Platonic produce, excellent burritos and fine-art coffee, have a tormented relationship with this particular food item. Even expert local bakers, like Joe Wolf, the owner of Marla Bakery, concede, ‘‘San Francisco has struggled with the bagel.’’
Conventional wisdom, at least among former East Coasters and California Jews, holds that you can’t buy a good one in the Golden State. On the sidewalk outside Dear Mom, the mood quickly turned from grateful to complaining. Many customers felt disgusted by the line (though, of course, they themselves were the line). Others were outraged by the prices: $6 for a bagel with cream cheese; $10 for a lox or pastrami bagel sandwich, the latter with a poached egg. Half the customers left unfulfilled because of lack of inventory.
“World Bicycle Relief: Helping African Farmers Two Wheels at a Time,” Andrew Amelinckx, Modern Farmer
In many parts of Africa, owning a reliable bicycle can be the difference between success and failure for small farmers like Georgina Situmbeko, a widow in her 60s with a modest dairy operation in Zambia. She relies on what’s called a Buffalo Bicycle to get the milk from her three cows to a cooling station more than seven miles away, twice a day, 365 days a year, without it spoiling.
Situmbeko is one of the more than 250,000 people in Africa that have benefitted from Buffalo Bicycles, designed by the Chicago-based nonprofit World Bicycle Relief specifically for carrying heavy loads across the rugged African terrain. It’s a simple idea that’s helping school children get to class, health workers reach the sick, and farmers, like Situmbeko, get more products to the marketplace.
“How an Abandoned Barracks in Ljubljana Became Europe’s Most Successful Urban Squat,” Ajit Niranjan, The Guardian
Just across the river from the sleepy old-town of central Ljubljana – a delicate maze of cobbled streets, medieval fortifications and colourful churches that characterise the many cities once occupied by the former Austro-Hungarian Empire – lie the dozen or so dilapidated buildings that make up what has become known as Slovenia’s second capital. On first glance, it is hard to believe it’s actually occupied. There are no signs directing visitors to its gates: the rubbish-strewn streets are eerily empty in the daylight, the graffiti covering the walls unread. But after dark, it becomes the focal point of the country’s alternative culture scene.
This is Metelkova Mesto – one the largest, and arguably most successful, urban squats in Europe. Sprawled across 12,500 sq m of an abandoned army base, the self-proclaimed city has become the leading centre of underground music and art in the region. Vivid, cracked-tile mosaics adorn the walls of the complex’s galleries and studios; rusty sculptures, fashioned from broken bike frames and upturned oil drums, cover its concrete gardens. And at night thousands of students and artists congregate to revel in its streets and bars.
Every year Metelkova Mesto hosts more than 1,500 alternative events in its illegally occupied buildings, catering to a wide spectrum of subcultures, from theatre performances and punk concerts to disability workshops and LGBT club nights. Together with the adjacent museum district, owned by the Slovenian Ministry of Culture – its vast courtyard showcasing the more traditional side of local nightlife, with young couples swing-dancing in the evening sun – the former barracks occupies a special place in the nation’s hearts.
“What Recovery?” Kai Wright, Harper’s Magazine
I came into town on a highway from Atlanta, the shining symbol of a young and prosperous and growing New South. It was February 2013 and I was making the first of several trips to Albany, Georgia, in the southwestern part of the state, sixty miles from the Alabama border. Jimmy Carter’s evangelism took root here. It is the home Ray Charles evokes when he says Georgia’s on his mind. Stately antebellum plantations line the highway into town, rare historic gems that still stand because this area avoided direct fire during the Civil War.
Today, millionaires and billionaires host lavish retreats in the mansions and hunt quail on the former farmland that surrounds them. The celebrity chef Paula Deen is one of Albany’s most famous daughters; when she got herself into trouble waxing nostalgic about plantation-style dinners with black servants, she was probably talking about her experiences in these houses. To be fair, jobs on the plantations are coveted by some of Albany’s black residents. Ask around and some people will tell you that they pay better than most other businesses in the area.