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 past seven days.
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”Memphis Burning,” Preston Lauterbach, Places Journal
In the afternoon of February 26, 1953, fire destroyed a landmark in south Memphis, on Lauderdale Street. A stately three-story home, with eighteen rooms and twin gables, burned from its spires down.
Firefighters weren’t late to the blaze — in fact, they’d ignited it. The city of Memphis, which was then hosting a convention of fire safety officials from around the country, had authorized the burning of the vacant mansion in order to demonstrate a new, efficient, fog nozzle fire-hose. Thousands stood in the street to watch. For two hours, firemen in black helmets and black slickers fought flames that burst through the roof and out of the windows. After blasting down each fire, they set another part of the home ablaze. Afterwards, the ruins steamed.
But there was much more to this demonstration than a test of new firefighting equipment. As locals understood, the burning of this particular home was an assertion of power, because of who it had belonged to and what it symbolized. Abandoned, weather-beaten, but still grand, the mansion at 384 South Lauderdale represented the pinnacle of black achievement in the city.
“When You Grow Up in Brooklyn, Staying Is Complicated,” Emmy Favilla, BuzzFeed
Walking to a Long Island Rail Road station by myself on the sunny, unseasonably warm October morning after closing on my new condo, I cried, just a little. It was a visceral reaction, and I embraced it. In a state of semi-disbelief, I was proud to finally own a tiny slice of New York City, the gorgeous, strange, magical, dirty, inspiring metropolis I’ve always called home — much as I assume my parents had felt 20 years earlier; and my grandparents had in the 1930s, when they bought the six-family Brooklyn building (for a cool $8,000, mind you) my mother and I would spend our childhoods in; and my great-grandparents had in the 1950s, when they bought their Brooklyn house after arriving in America only one year prior.
When I announced on Facebook that I had purchased my first home, it was understandably met with various forms of “How?” by my peers. The New York real estate game is comically intense; Brooklyn has become the least affordable housing market in the United States. I’ve never made a salary close to six figures, and I come from a working-class, Sunday coupon–collecting family, but I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the majority of my adult years living in my parents’ home on the Brooklyn–Queens border, just a few blocks from my new apartment. I’ve been working since I was 15, and my mom always advised me to save as much as I could stand. I listened, even when that meant living at home instead of on the NYU campus (“Where are you going?” “When will you be home?” “Shouldn’t you be studying?”) for four torturous, thrifty years.
Becoming a homeowner was simply something that I was going to do; there was no “might” or “maybe” in the equation, just a shaky sense of the timeline. Three generations of my family had done it with the bare minimum of expendable income, so there was no question I could as well, especially without children of my own to worry about. I won’t say that I was inspired by them or that I owed it to my family; I’m not that sentimental. I just didn’t want to be a renter for the rest of my life, and I didn’t intend on leaving New York in the long term.
“Why I'm Moving to the Place I Called 'America's Worst Place to Live,'” Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post
This isn't what I expected to happen.
Last August, in the middle of the summer news doldrums, I wrote a quick story on an obscure U.S. Department of Agriculture dataset called the "natural amenities index," which ranked America's counties on a number of physical characteristics -- mild weather, ample sunshine, varied landscape -- that usually make a place desirable to live in.
The piece had a few hundred words, a map and some charts -- standard data journalism fare. Per usual, I called out the winners and the losers, according to the data. On that latter point, some far-flung place I'd never heard of called "Red Lake County" (pop. 4,057) in Minnesota scored dead last. I did a quick Google search, added a dash of snark about its claim to fame -- "the only landlocked county in the United States that is surrounded by just two neighboring counties" -- and called it a day.
That's when the trouble started.
You can read all about the intense and exceedingly polite backlash to the original story here. At the suggestion of a local businessman, I took a trip out to Red Lake County to complement my spreadsheet smarts with some boots-on-the-ground knowledge. I met interesting people, petted friendly cows, and experienced firsthand the stark beauty of the northwestern Minnesota landscape.
“The Cult of Wawa,” Amy Lombard, Mashable
It’s around 10 a.m. in Ridley, Pennsylvania, at the local Wawa. The morning coffee rush has just ended at the convenience store, leaving only a handful of customers lingering during the calm before the storm of lunchtime hoagies.
“Are you interviewing people about Wawa?” a customer named Ferrenc Rozsa approaches me. “You know, I wrote a song about Wawa.” He quickly retreats to his car and then back into the store with a country tune blasting through the speakers of his iPhone.
Coffee in the morning, hoagies in the afternoon
In the evening I fill up my tank
They got everything and more
I love my Wawa, I love my Wawa
I love my Wawa, it’s my favorite store.
Rozsa imagines Blake Shelton on lead vocals.
To an outsider, Wawa appears like a normal, run of the mill convenience chain — except to residents in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and Florida. To them, Wawa is a community hub that deserves praise, fan mail and even country songs.
“The Architect of the Reich,” Michael J. Lewis, The New Criterion
It is one of history’s cheekier pranks that the first architect ever to appear on television was that thirty-year-old prodigy with the movie-star face, Albert Speer. Nazi Germany was the first country to introduce television broadcasting, just in time to cover the 1935 Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg. If you search for it, you can watch a short clip as Speer drives his convertible into his newly enlarged rally grounds, banters with a reporter, and then speeds off with a jaunty Hitler salute.
Of course the world knows Speer from an entirely different media appearance. This was his testimony at the Nuremberg trials, where he dramatically accepted full personal responsibility for Nazi war crimes, the only one of the accused to do so. His subdued, humble demeanor could not have contrasted more with the evasiveness, self-justification, and unconcealed haughtiness of his co-defendants. It was literally the performance of his life, and it saved him from certain execution. Having stepped into the role of “the good Nazi,” Speer never relinquished it. Upon serving his twenty-year sentence, he published a series of fascinating though self-serving memoirs, beginning with Inside the Third Reich (1970). Through it all he played the part of the naïve and innocent artist, who was guilty of nothing more than letting his childlike eagerness to build overwhelm his good judgment and moral sensibility.