A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.
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“As Homeless Find Refuge in Forests, ‘Anger is Palpable’ in Surrounding Towns,” Jack Healy, The New York Times
Gerald Babbitt lives in these woods, in a pop-up trailer on cinder blocks that he bought for $250. His toilet is a bucket, and when he and his wife need to refill their water jugs, they drive their creaky green Jeep a mile down the mountain and into town. Most people are kind, but the other day someone called them “homeless vagrant beggars,” Mr. Babbitt said.
“Yes, we’re homeless,” he said, sitting in the shade of his camper here in the Arapaho National Forest. “No, we’re not vagrants. No, we’re not beggars. We just barely are making it. What you see is by the grace of God.”
To millions of adventurers and campers, America’s national forests are a boundless backyard for hiking trips, rafting, hunting and mountain biking. But for thousands of homeless people and hard-up wanderers, they have become a retreat of last resort.
“Full House: Expensive American cities need to embrace group living,” Henry Grabar, Slate
Why is the rent so high in America? It’s not so complicated: In many of the cities where people most want to live, there aren’t enough homes. The share of Americans who rent is at a 50-year high, and the housing stock hasn’t kept up. More than 21 million Americans are “rent-burdened,” paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent. The long-term solution, as most tenants have come to realize, is building more, bigger buildings—as well as correcting policy bias toward homeownership and enforcing stronger protections for tenants. But in the short term, there’s an easy way to ease some of the pain: revising the patchwork of laws that dictate who may inhabit existing buildings, and how.
In Boulder, Colorado, for example, the code says that no more than three or four unrelated adults (depending on the neighborhood) can share a unit, no matter if it’s a studio apartment or a 10-bedroom house. Distinct from overcrowding laws that regulate the amount of space per person, theoccupancy law is a widespread modern policy of social preference, not of public health or safety. In Boulder, as elsewhere, it is widely flouted and seldom enforced. It didn’t stop Emily Sigman and Steven Winter from renting a seven-bedroom house in Boulder four years ago, knowing that they would need help paying the rent.
Their house eventually sheltered more than a half-dozen people, and they called it Picklebric, a portmanteau derived from one housemate’s pickling operation and Winter’s conception of the place as bricolage, a term for art composed of found objects (their roommates, a piano from the 1893 World’s Fair, a backyard fence built from chicken wire and firewood). For years, it served as a kind of local model for how a group of young people could adapt a single-family home into a respectable cooperative—and, more broadly, a paragon of how a generation struggling with high rents and student debt could adapt to inhabit America’s ubiquitous, unchanging architecture of single-family neighborhoods.
“Discomfort Food: Using Dinners to Talk About Race, Violence, and America,” Maura Judkis, The Washington Post
When Nigerian chef Tunde Wey brings people together over a beautiful meal to talk about some of the ugliest problems facing our country — racism, sexism, police brutality — he can’t help but notice one recurring theme. After the people of color in the room have voiced their frustrations, fears and sorrows, someone — usually a white ally — would ask, “So what’s the solution?”
“White folks or privileged folks are quick to try to find a solution, or ask for a solution, as opposed to sitting in the discomfort,” said Wey. “How do you answer what the solution is to racism or systemic injustices?”
Wey is traveling across the country in service of a provocative dinner series he calls Blackness in America. Over his meals, he and guest speakers moderate an exasperated and mournful conversation about what it’s like to be a person of color in a year in which 152 black people have been shot and killed by police so far, and poverty rates for African Americans are more than twice as high as for white people.
“An Inside Look at Utah’s Land Grab Legal Scheme,” Jimmy Tobias, Pacific Standard
Back in 2012, upon passing its Transfer of Public Lands Act, the state of Utah laid down a deadline. It told the national government to relinquish ownership of most federal lands within Utah’s borders by December 31, 2014, or face consequences. It was big talk, and for a while there it seemed the state would back its words with action. When Uncle Sam inevitably ignored the deadline, for instance, Utah began laying the groundwork for a pricey lawsuit meant to snatch millions of acres of national forest and other coveted land from the federal government’s grasp. A legal brawl was brewing.
Then, suddenly, things changed: Antonin Scalia died, and with him went the conservative Supreme Court majority that land transfer’s proponents need to succeed. Donald Trump, meanwhile, became the GOP presidential nominee, and conservative hopes of re-capturing the White House and the high court withered. Nearly four years after the land transfer act became law, nearly two years since the state’s deadline, Utah’s tough-talking lawyers and legislators have yet to sue.
Earlier this month, however, as if to signal the state’s determination not to give up on its quixotic quest, the National Review published an op-ed by two lawyers consulting with Utah on its land transfer scheme. The article is a glimpse into key arguments the state could employ if a lawsuit moves forward, and so it’s worth considering the attorneys’ assertions in detail. After all, should their perspective someday prevail in court, should it create precedent, it will ultimately strip the American people of their stake in the public mountains, forests, and plains of the West.
“The Home of Techno,” Arthur House, 1843
Detroit – that infamous parable of industrial collapse, racial strife, unemployment, crime and corruption – has become painfully hip in its advanced stage of decay. Ruin porn, of which the city is the undisputed capital, can take much of the blame. Looking at those ultra-shareable online galleries of flaking ballrooms and derelict factories, you wouldn’t know that a million people still live in Detroit, many of them struggling to get by. Cult hipster films from recent years like “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “It Follows” have been set in Detroit – not because their stories required it, but in order to lend them a backdrop of artful desolation. Even the British publishers of Mark Binelli’s cautiously optimistic history “Detroit City is the Place to Be” (2012) saw fit to slap an apocalyptic new title on it (“The Last Days of Detroit”), complete with a cover image of the abandoned Packard Plant.
The city’s questionable coolness owes something to its reputation as the birthplace of techno, which originated in the mid-1980s when Detroit was already in steep decline. Never wholeheartedly adopted in its home town beyond a hardcore of acolytes (the crowd at the Music Institute, the first techno club, was remarkably mixed for such a racially divided city), the music blew up abroad in 1988, when the British music journalist Neil Rushton put together his compilation “Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit”. Sixteen years after Motown had upped sticks for LA, Detroit was back on the music map. Techno was immediately influential. It kickstarted Britain’s acid house movement (see image below), leading to rave and countless post-rave genres that flourished across Europe and the world in the 1990s. And with the global saturation of techno-infused pop in recent years and the rise of stadium-filling EDM (electronic dance music). Detroit’s role in music history has been cemented.
Since Britain was midwife to the genre, London seems like the right place for a Detroit techno exhibition. The ICA’s “Detroit: Techno City” is limited to a single, poky room, suggesting modest ambitions on the part of its curators, but it runs up against a problem common to any dance music exhibition: how to convey the spirit of a cultural phenomenon that is mostly non-verbal and rooted in the experience of clubbing. Records adorn the walls, unplayable behind perspex. Two drum machines and a bass synthesiser (the now “iconic” Roland TR-808, TR-909 and TB-303) lie disconnected on a central table. With its ritualistic objects stripped of their original function, the room feels more like some retro-futurist shrine than anything to do with dance music. The curators would have been better off clearing out the exhibits and hosting a small, sweaty club for the duration of the summer. The art students would have loved it.