Linda Poon is an assistant editor 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 past seven days.
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”Drunk with Power,” Kelefa Sanneh, The New Yorker
For much of his life, Gerrit Smith was one of the most prominent abolitionists in America, a distinction he retained until 1865, when the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery, made abolitionists obsolete. But Smith had other passions, and four years later he resurfaced in Chicago, insisting that his life’s work was unfinished. The occasion was the founding of a new political party, and Smith delivered the keynote speech. “Slavery is gone,” he announced. “But drunkenness stays.” He suggested that this continuing form of bondage might be more miserable, and more dangerous, than the one recently abolished. “No outward advantages can bring happiness to the victim of alcohol—to him who has killed his own soul,” Smith said. “The literal slave does harm to no one, whilst the self-made slave of whom we speak is a curse to his kindred, a burden upon all, and, in no small share of the cases, a terror to all.” In nineteenth-century America, the temperance speech was a common attraction on the lecture circuit. Decades before the Civil War, Lincoln had made his own contribution to the genre, calling for a “temperance revolution.” But Smith didn’t think that these “self-made” slaves could free themselves. The party’s main plank was its support for a federal law to ban any drink that had “power to intoxicate or madden the drinker.”
The Prohibition Party, as it was called, never became a major electoral force. But in 1919, exactly half a century after the Party’s founding, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, banning “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” National prohibition, formerly an eccentric obsession, was now enshrined at the center of America’s legal system. In the fourteen years between its adoption and its repeal, in 1933, many Americans—especially those who had conducted personal research into the compatibility of happiness and intoxication—wondered how Prohibition had come to pass. And, in the decades since, not a few historians have wondered the same thing. In the influential assessment of Richard Hofstadter, Prohibition was a farce, “a means by which the reforming energies of the country were transmuted into mere peevishness.” Indeed, Prohibition is remembered chiefly for its failure to achieve its aims. The Prohibition years were also the roaring twenties, the age of rakish mobsters and glamorous speakeasies, “The Great Gatsby” and “The Untouchables” and Bessie Smith singing, “Any bootlegger sure is a pal of mine.” More often than not, when we think about Prohibition, we think about a time when people seemed to drink—and seemed to enjoy it—more than ever.
“For New York’s Best New Public Sculpture, Thank the Sanitation Department,” Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times
James Gandolfini tried to whack it. Lou Reed couldn’t stand it. The “Mad Men” co-star John Slattery told The Daily News: “It’s not a bunch of wealthy people who are just complaining that their views are going to be blocked. It’s about the actual livability of the neighborhood.”
But, of course, it was a bunch of wealthy neighbors complaining.
After years of noisy protests, the New York City Department of Sanitation’s new garage-and-salt-shed complex has opened in Hudson Square, on the northern edge of TriBeCa. The project took nearly a decade and cost a king’s ransom. Luxury apartment developers in the neighborhood predicted Armageddon. Instead, apartment prices went through the roof. The garage and shed have ended up being not just two of the best examples of new public architecture in the city but a boon to the neighborhood, whether the wealthy neighbors have come around to it or not. I can’t think of a better public sculpture to land in New York than the shed.
There are a couple of larger lessons here. They are not so much about Nimbyism, but about how residents of a neighborhood react when faced with development absent real planning, and about why it makes sense, economically and in terms of public health and social justice, for disparate communities to share burdens like parking for sanitation trucks.
“Sky Readers,” Gene Tracy, Aeon
Some years ago, I visited a gallery that specialised in Inuit art, and the owner shared with me a small but powerful memory. She had a close relationship with many of her artists, one of whom had shown up for a visit late on a winter’s night. Like many of us, the first thing he did was call home on his cellphone, to let his wife know he had arrived safely. Unlike most of us, especially on a frigid winter’s night, he did so out in the yard. He needed to see the sky so he could tell his wife what the stars looked like from Richmond in Virginia, while she scanned the sky at her end, in far Hudson Bay. In that way, he connected with her, both of them finding one another in the world through that useful intelligence of distant stars.
For most of human history, the artist’s behaviour would have seemed ordinary, even essential. It was unthinkable to ignore the stars. They were critical signposts, as prominent and useful as local hills, paths or wells. The gathering-up of stars into constellations imbued with mythological meaning allowed people to remember the sky; knowledge that might save their lives one night and guide them home. Lore of the sky bound communities together. On otherwise trackless seas and deserts, the familiar stars would also serve as a valued friend.
That friendship is now broken. Most of us don’t orient to our loved ones using the lights in the sky, nor do we spend our nights pondering what in the 1920s the poet Robinson Jeffers called that ‘useless intelligence of far stars’. Discoveries in astronomy and physics of the past century expanded the known universe by orders of magnitude in size and age, and turned cosmology into a true observational science. Those breakthroughs urged upon us an extraordinary stretch of the imagination, even as related technological advances detached nearly everyone from that larger world by making the stars safe to ignore.
“An Ethereal View of the People Who Roam Chicago’s Streets at Night,” David Rosenberg, Slate
Many of Satoki Nagata’s images might seem to be multiple exposures or to have been manipulated in postproduction, but all are single exposures of Chicago’s nighttime. Trying to figure out a workaround for the city’s dark winter months, Nagata experimented with flash photography. When combined with lower shutter speed, this technique, which he uses in his series “Lights in Chicago,” creates ethereal photographs that appear to be layered.
Nagata has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and initially came to Chicago in 1992 for a job in that field. Although he enjoyed working in science, a decade later he felt the need to try something new and decided to study with the photographer Damaso Reyes.
Those studies lasted four years and prompted Nagata to quit his job and follow his new passion. “Photography had always been a hobby until I decided to pursue it as an art,” he wrote via email.
“One Woman’s Quest to ‘Unite the Parks,’”Alice Daniel, KQED
Deanna Lynn Wulff shoves rusty tin cans, cigarettes and beer bottles into an oversized garbage bag. She’s cleaning up a campsite in the Sierra National Forest.
“This won’t take that long,” she says. Ten minutes later and she’s still picking up trash.
“Let’s see what the magazine is? Dirt Rider!” she says, and shoves it into the bag.
It’s the same campsite where 20 years ago she pitched her tent for the entire summer.
“It’s looking good,” she says. “Somebody can come here now and feel that it’s pristine and was waiting for them, just as it was waiting for me!”