Gracie McKenzie is the social media editor for CityLab. She previously worked in public radio, as the digital producer for NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show and Here & Now, and ran social media for Narratively.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we’ve come across in the last seven days.
“Spectators Enjoy the Trump Tower Circus,” Andrew Marantz, The New Yorker
In 1979, Donald Trump and the City of New York cut a deal. His flagship skyscraper, Trump Tower, could be fifty-eight stories tall—about twenty stories taller than would normally be allowed so close to Central Park—if parts of the lobby, balcony, and terraces were designated as “privately owned public spaces,” accessible to anyone who wandered in. So now, as a daily trickle of businessmen, politicians, and celebrities pass through the marble lobby on their way upstairs, to pay homage to the President-elect, a crowd of spectators—reporters, tourists, Trump supporters, Trump opponents—is allowed to gather and enjoy the circus.
On a recent Wednesday morning, about two dozen members of the press clustered behind a velvet rope, pointing their cameras at a bank of four gold-plated elevators. “The tourists are out early today,” one reporter said. She gestured across the lobby, where three dozen visitors were cordoned off behind another velvet rope, next to an Ivanka Trump jewelry boutique.
“I feel bad for them,” another reporter said. “They’re on vacation in New York—they could be doing anything! It’s, like, ‘Well, kids, we were going to go to the Met today, but instead we’re gonna stand in a lobby and try to take pictures of some senators.’”
“Called to Purchase,” David Gambacorta, The Baffler
It was time for Mayor Stephen Reed to have a Come to Jesus moment. Well, another Come to Jesus moment, anyway.
Staffers were tripping all over the second floor of Harrisburg’s city government building again one afternoon in the early 2000s; shipping bins had sprouted up like steroidal stalks of corn everywhere they turned.
Someone had to say something. As usual, that someone was Randy King, Reed’s silver-haired press secretary. King made the trek into Reed’s dimly lit office, which reeked of decades of stale cigarette smoke. “You’ve got to stop this, you’ve got to cut it out,” King groaned, according to court records.
The shipping bins were filled with artifacts and memorabilia—from the Civil War, most likely, or the Old West, or Yankee Stadium—that Reed had ordered by the dozens, by the hundreds, paid for with taxpayer money for both real and imaginary city museums.
”The Willis Tower In 150 Years,” Jesse Dukes and Jen Masengarb, WBEZ
When Chicago was still celebrating the end of the Civil War, the city had a population of roughly 200,000 people. The most memorable structure from that era, the Water Tower, was still three years from construction. Today, 150 years later, the city’s population has grown by more than 1,200 percent, and the city’s tallest building, the Willis Tower, is more than 1,300 feet taller than the height of Chicago’s tallest building in 1866.
This is all to say a lot can change in 150 years. Which makes our question, from engineer Bill Muscat, pretty challenging:
What do we do in 150 years when our current buildings are too old? What do we do with an old Willis Tower?
“Lives in Limbo,” Michael Agresta, The Texas Observer
They hide in the liminal spaces of our cities, near airports or far out in exurban fields. Like many of the undocumented immigrants they warehouse, they strive to fly under the radar and make a little money in the shadows — though their remittances are sent not to family in Mexico or Central America, but to corporate shareholders. They may be invisible, but they’re a hallmark of 21st-century American life, a purgatorial archipelago that runs through dozens of cities and towns, many of them in Texas, describing the outer edge of American guarantees of civil and human rights to people on our soil. They are our immigrant detention centers: de facto prisons, many of them privately owned, reserved specifically for those who have committed no crime besides existing in the United States without the proper documents.
Few besides the detained have ever seen the inside of one. Even researchers who set out to learn about the design of these buildings are likely to find themselves rebuffed. “Studying the architecture of detention is hard,” says Sarah Lopez, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. “Unless you’re incarcerated or detained, or a warden or a food provider or medical assistant, basically, they don’t want you there.”
“A Walk to Freedom: Can Joburg's Bridges Heal the Urban Scars of Apartheid?”, Alice McCool, The Guardian
Johannesburg was built to segregate people by race. The division was first laid out by the city’s gold mining belt, with black townships in the south and white neighbourhoods in the north. Black areas were then separated from other non-white areas, such as those inhabited by people of Indian descent. The final level of segregation kept apart different linguistic groups within black neighbourhoods, with the aim of reducing the risk of communities uniting against the regime. According to Thabang Sithole, an area planner at the council, this was specifically done with infrastructure, using “barriers like parks or huge vast lands that were vacant, so that the division was clear”.
For pedestrians in Johannesburg, that has meant harrowing, dangerous and expensive journeys to work – particularly in Soweto and other poorer neighbourhoods. Joburgers unable to afford a car or who live in areas where economic opportunities are scarce can spend up to 40% of their income on transport. But it has also meant a deeper “spatial legacy” of apartheid, with black and white neighbourhoods kept worlds apart, socially and economically.