Daniel Latorre/CC BY 2.0

A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we’ve come across in the last seven days.

The Fateful Vote That Made New York City Rents So High,” Marcelo Rochabrun and Cezary Podkul, ProPublica

At the end of a pedestrian tunnel, down a flight of stairs from street level, a plush bar with a Prohibition motif caters to wealthy newcomers who have gentrified Manhattan's Lower East Side, displacing immigrants and blue-collar workers. Amid chandeliers, velvet couches and Rubenesque oil paintings, bartenders serve beer bottles in paper bags and pour $14 cocktails into teacups.

The beige pre-World War I tenement above the bar also profits from the neighborhood’s transformation. In 1994, a typical apartment in the 25-unit Norfolk Street building cost $552 a month. Today, it rents for $4,800.

This almost nine-fold increase reflects the gradual dismantling of New York’s system of rent stabilization. That system is supposed to protect renters, who occupy almost two-thirds of New York’s housing stock, by limiting annual rent increases to modest amounts set by the city. Instead, it’s become so easy and lucrative for landlords to circumvent these protections that, when the Norfolk Street tenement went on sale three years ago, a broker’s advertisement boasted that 85 percent of its units were stabilized, providing “tremendous upside” to prospective buyers who could exploit the loopholes to jack up the rent. Similar language has been used to pitch hundreds of other rent-stabilized buildings in the past few years

How the Plan to Fix Tampa Bay’s Most Important Bridge Fell Apart, in Legos,” Eli Zhang, Caitlin Johnston, Anthony Cormier, and Martin Frobisher, Tampa Bay Times

Tampa Bay’s main bridge is old and needs to be replaced. So for the past three years, the state of Florida has been showing around a plan to build a new one.

But when local leaders heard the plan, they misunderstood something really important that was sure to enrage drivers.

Once they figured out what was really going on, the plan collapsed in a week.

The Howard Frankland Bridge leading into Tampa, Florida (Charles W. Luzier/Reuters)

Finding North America’s Lost Medieval City,” Annalee Newitz, Ars Technica

A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region's tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization. Many decided to stay.

At the city's apex in 1050, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in what became the United States, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below. Flanking Monk’s Mound to the west was a circle of tall wooden poles, dubbed Woodhenge, that marked the solstices.

Despite its greatness, the city’s name has been lost to time. Its culture is known simply as Mississippian. When Europeans explored Illinois in the 17th century, the city had been abandoned for hundreds of years. At that time, the region was inhabited by the Cahokia, a tribe from the Illinois Confederation. Europeans decided to name the ancient city after them, despite the fact that the Cahokia themselves claimed no connection to it.

Monk’s Mound, at the site of the ancient city called Cahokia, is the largest Pre-Columbian earthwork in the Americas. (Brandon Shea/CC BY-SA 2.0)

Slouching Toward Santolina,” Ben Ikenson, Pacific Standard

About 10 miles southwest of downtown Albuquerque, a scrawny coyote prowls among the sagebrush and desert scrub on an open mesa overlooking New Mexico’s largest city, which has a population of 550,000. This is the site of a proposed 14,000-acre master-planned development called Santolina, projected to house more than 95,000 people in some 38,000 homes over several decades. The plan includes a town center and several villages clustered around an “urban core,” as well as schools, retailers, offices, and open spaces. If all goes according to plan, the anticipated 2040 build-out of the community would make it larger than Santa Fe, the state capital.

While it has passed some initial hurdles, the proposal has drawn the ire of many. In early November, days after Halloween, protestors dressed as zombies disrupted a county zoning commission meeting, prompting officials to delay the hearing 60 days. Earlier in the year, opponents from around the state arrived on farm tractors outside another commission meeting, bearing signs proclaiming “Agua es Vida.”

“Santolina poses many negatives: impacts to an already strained water supply, increased air pollution and traffic congestion, and much, much more. And all of this at the expense of taxpayers who will have to foot the bill for this unneeded sprawl development where there is no existing infrastructure,” says Virginia Necochea, director of the Center for Social Sustainable Systems and member of the Contra Santolina community group that vehemently opposes the plan. An alliance of dozens of residents and representatives of local non-profits and neighborhood organizations, Contra Santolina has staged protests, sought media coverage, and helped organize and bolster legal challenges to the project.

Going Off Track,” Christopher Beanland, The Long + Short

Birmingham's airport isn't like other airports. Right at the north-western end of runway 15 there's a country park and a row of benches. You'll see families picnicking here, enjoying the subsonic spectacle of planes from Brussels, Bucharest and Barcelona roaring just feet overhead on their final approach. Birmingham isn't like other British cities – it fetishises the technical and promotes the new. It is unstinting in its thrall to evolution and unsentimental about erasing past versions of the future in its rush to create new ones; the comprehensive 1960s vision of the city which itself swept away a century's Victoriana is currently being meticulously taken apart concrete slab by concrete slab. The city's motto is 'Forward'.

When you get to a certain age you realise how much more visions of the future say about the present they're concocted in than the actual future they purport to show us hurtling towards. A track in the air, sitting on top of concrete legs that couldn't look any more like rational new humans striding into a technocratic promised land if they tried, will always evoke a kind of nostalgia for the 20th century. You think of the SAFEGE monorail depicted in Truffaut's 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451; and of regional news reporters with greasy barnets delivering excited pieces to camera about big plans.

Today, on the elevated track that gambols over windswept car parks and threads through cheap motels between Birmingham's airport terminal and the railway station, a simple, ski resort-style people-mover system ferries passengers from plane to train. Three decades ago it was so much more exciting: the world's first commercial maglev, or magnetic levitation, system ran along here.

A cable-hauled shuttle runs between Birmingham International station and the airport on the track of the old MAGLEV. (Ben Coulson/CC BY-SA 2.0)

About the Author

Natasha Balwit
Natasha Balwit

Natasha Balwit is an editorial fellow at CityLab.

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