Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Charter cities, sexy villages, company towns, and more.
It's not just your lousy memory: the end of 2012 was much busier than the beginning. Just since July, we've seen a U.S. presidential election, a once-in-four-centuries hurricane, four horrific mass shootings, riots and warfare across the Middle East. Our #Cityreads of the year follow the news cycle -- into a high-rise housing project after Sandy and the Republican party's relationship with cities -- but they also veer off course, into the weirder corners of rail construction, charter cities, and more.
Over the past year we've tried to make our #Cityreads reflect the breadth of subjects that accompanies so universal a concept. It might be expressed, in its simplest terms as: what happens when a lot of people live in one place? As with the #Cityreads we post each week, this is by no means a complete list. It's a start.
These are some of the best stories about cities we read this year. The first eight are shorter articles, an easy size for workplace reading; the second eight a bit longer. (If you're looking for books, Geoff Manaugh has a great list over at BLDGBLOG.) Bookmark this page and explore them at your leisure: you will find wonderful pieces of writing about cities from Honduras, China, and Syria; about trains, maps, and architecture; and about sex in the Olympic Village. Enjoy.
Jobs and Economy
“U.S. Taxpayers Are Gouged on Mass Transit Costs"
Why does Europe -- land of regulation and labor power -- build transit projects faster and better than the U.S. does?
Tunneling in any dense urban environment is an expensive proposition, but the $5 billion price tag for just the first two miles of the Second Avenue subway cannot be explained by engineering difficulties. The segment runs mainly beneath a single broad avenue, unimpeded by rivers, super-tall skyscraper foundations or other subway lines.
American taxpayers will shell out many times what their counterparts in developed cities in Europe and Asia would pay. In the case of the Second Avenue line and other new rail infrastructure in New York City, they may have to pay five times as much.
"Death by Car"
New York Magazine
Why more and more people are being killed by cars in New York City.
But in America, where the car is king, such measures have been adopted only reluctantly. For years, efficiency trumped safety in New York: “Vehicle level of service” was practically the sole metric by which the city measured the success of its streets, and one of the greatest enemies of that metric was “pedestrian interference.” Quickly and without much opposition, cars came to rule our streets. In the sixties, a New York traffic commissioner named Henry Barnes introduced what became known as the Barnes Dance—intersections where the traffic was brought to a standstill in all four directions to give groups of pedestrians the chance to cross at once, sometimes even at diagonals (elsewhere, the arrangement is known as a scramble). But such innovations were short-lived here. While crashes and injuries plummeted as a result of the Barnes Dance, gridlock shot up. Today just one Barnes Dance seems to be left here: where Broadway meets Battery Place and State Street in lower Manhattan.
"What's Really Happening in Blacked-Out Manhattan"
Three days after Sandy, a group of volunteers are the first to enter a Manhattan public housing high-rise:
Nadia Televiak, 68, in 22C is out of candles. Antonia Rivera, 72, her next-door neighbor in 22B, is sick with a fever and is in need of food. In 20G there is an elderly man with a broken foot who only speaks Cantonese--luckily one of our group can translate. In 18H, one of the Wongs has a heart problem and they haven’t been able to climb downstairs. In 8A there are two young girls by themselves. They say their mom is at work.
Arts and Lifestyle
"Syria: The Citadel and the War"
The New York Review of Books
Aleppo was a city like no other. In this sad piece written before the war reached Aleppo, Charles Glass celebrates its diversity and foreshadows the trouble to come:
Its beauty reveals itself in the elegance of its stone architecture, redolent of historic links to Byzantium and Venice; and in the diversity of its peoples—Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, eleven Christian denominations, Sunni Muslims, a smattering of dissident Shiite sects from Druze to Ismailis, ancient families of urban patricians as well as peasant and Bedouin immigrants from the plains—that makes it a microcosm of all Syria....
Aleppo is tranquil most of the time. There are no soldiers on the streets, and the nightlife that was suspended out of caution in the first months of the rebellion has returned to downtown and the outdoor cafés along Azizieh Square. But Aleppins of all faiths wonder, for how much longer?
"Why Don't We Read About Architecture?"
The New York Times
The sick prose of architecture writing:
To wit (with all apologies to the author, who will remain unidentified):
"ANALYSIS: a territorial and social fragmentation, a typical “no-man’s land” undergoing the urban exodus, the settlement of the old and inactive persons, the absence of public place in the body scale substituted by the car. PROBLEMATIC: How to attract a new living to facilitate the social and urban mixity?"
We can’t entirely blame the perpetrator of this crime, for it is this style of writing that is rewarded within academia. Indecipherability signifies superior intelligence. (The field of architecture is not alone in this — just ask this former Ph.D. grad student, who shudders at sentences she wrote while under the heady spell of such Continental theorists as Barthes, Derrida and Foucault.) And while I’m not suggesting we hew toward the lowest common denominator, architects and those who write about them are doing themselves a disservice by insisting on the impenetrability of discourse.
"The End of the Map"
The Wall Street Journal
What's wrong with having the perfect map?
There is something disappointing about the austere potential perfection of the new maps. The satellites above us have seen all there is to see of the world; technically, they have mapped it all. But satellites know nothing of the beauty of hand-drawn maps, with their Spanish galleons and sea monsters, and they cannot comprehend wanderlust and the desire for discovery. Today we can locate the smallest hamlet in sub-Saharan Africa or the Yukon, but can we claim that we know them any better? Do the irregular and unpredictable fancies of the older maps more accurately reflect the strangeness of the world?
The uncertainty that was once an unavoidable part or our relationship with maps has been replaced by a false sense of Wi-Fi-enabled omnipotence. Digital maps are the enemies of wonder. They suppress our urge to experiment and (usually) steer us from error—but what could be more irrepressibly human than those very things?
Two shorter pieces explore the GOP's troubled relationship with American cities. The first explains why Republicans don't do well in cities. The second examines what it looks like when they do.
“Republicans to Cities: Drop Dead”
The New York Times
The Republican Party is, more than ever before in its history, an anti-urban party, its support gleaned overwhelmingly from suburban and rural districts — especially in presidential elections.
This wasn’t always the case. During the heyday of the urban political machines, from the Civil War to the Great Depression, Republicans used to hold their own in our nation’s great cities. Philadelphia was dominated for decades by a Republican machine. In Chicago — naturally — both parties had highly competitive, wildly corrupt machines, with a buffoonish Republican mayor, “Big Bill” Thompson, presiding over the city during the ascent of Al Capone. In the 1928 presidential election, the Republican Herbert Hoover swept to victory while carrying cities all across the country: Philadelphia; Pittsburgh; Chicago; Detroit; Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; Houston; Dallas; Omaha and Los Angeles.
“Tampa: America’s Hottest Mess"
The trend [in Tampa] today is to say, ‘We don’t need it — no new taxes — we are not going to invest anymore,’” former Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan recently told Tampa Bay Online. “And that message resonates from not only the constituents, but the leadership of the Republican Party.” You could fairly call the GOP vision for the country the Tampafication of America....
These choices have left their mark. In 2010, Forbes ranked Tampa dead last out of 60 metro areas for commuting. Transportation for America declared it the second-most-dangerous city for pedestrians. And a 2007 survey of 30 metropolitan areas found exactly one with no walkable destinations: Tampa, Fla. “Tampa is not a particularly pedestrian-friendly city,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn recently admitted.
“Why Can’t the Bronx Be More Like Brooklyn?”
The New York Times Magazine
The recovery in New York's only mainland borough ought to look for inspiration not in Brooklyn, but in Pittsburgh:
The Bronx’s inability to catch up with the rest of the city’s phenomenal economic growth has been disconcerting. In the early 1970s, the Bronx and Brooklyn had similar average household incomes. Since then, though, the gap has grown significantly. The average Brooklyn resident is now around 23 percent richer than the average Bronxite; people in Queens are roughly 32 percent richer. (Manhattan residents are 265 percent wealthier; Staten Island residents, by the way, are 55 percent richer.) What happened?
Jobs and Economy
"Chartered Territory: Can a New Model for Cities Thrive in Honduras?"
Paul Romer's quest to create the next Hong Kong:
On a bright November morning in Manhattan, several hundred luxury goods executives filed into the basement auditorium of the Morgan Library expecting to hear Paul Romer speak about China and innovation. Courtly, earnest and reserved, Romer is an academic economist by training, and it shows. Before the crowd’s caffeine could kick in, he offered a modest proposal: Rather than start the next Louis Vuitton, we should knock off Hong Kong. Cities can be startups too, he said. “We can build new ones much faster than people think.”That’s what China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping thought in 1979 when he designated Shenzhen as the country’s first special economic zone. In less than 30 years, Romer explained, the fishing village across the border from Hong Kong had become a capitalist enclave larger and more populous than New York. Shenzhen, in turn, kicked off China’s transformation from a rural backwater to an export-driven powerhouse. Hong Kong and its copies, Romer likes to say, have done more to eliminate poverty than all the foreign aid put together, and he may be right. China lifted 660 million of its citizens out of absolute poverty between 1981 and 2008 — more than the rest of the world combined.
"Boss Rail: The Disaster That Exposed the Underside of the Boom"
The New Yorker
Are China's amazing new rail lines tainted goods?
In 2003, China’s Minister of Railways, Liu Zhijun, took charge of plans to build seventy-five hundred miles of high-speed railway—more than could be found in the rest of the world combined. For anyone with experience on Chinese trains, it was hard to picture. “Back in 1995, if you had told me where China would be today, I would have thought you were stark raving mad,” Richard Di Bona, a British transportation consultant in Hong Kong, told me recently. With a total investment of more than two hundred and fifty billion dollars, the undertaking was to be the world’s most expensive public-works project since President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System, in the nineteen-fifties. To complete the first route by 2008, Minister Liu, whose ambition and flamboyance earned him the nickname Great Leap Liu, drove his crews and engineers to work in shifts around the clock, laying track, revising blueprints, and boring tunnels. “To achieve a great leap,” he liked to say, “a generation must be sacrificed.” (Some colleagues called him Lunatic Liu.) The state news service lionized an engineer named Xin Li, because he remained at his computer so long that he went partly blind in his left eye. (“I will keep working even without one eye,” he told a reporter.) When the first high-speed line débuted with a test run in June, 2008, it was seventy-five per cent over budget and relied heavily on German designs, but nobody dwelled on that during the ceremony. Cadres wept. When another line made its maiden run, Liu took a seat beside the conductor and said, “If anyone is going to die, I will be the first.”
“The Last Tower: The Decline and Fall of Public Housing”
The experiment in putting our cities' poorest residents in high-rise towers has come to an end:
Chicago was once home to the second-largest stock of public housing in the nation, with nearly 43,000 units and a population in the hundreds of thousands. Since the mid-1990s, though, the city has torn down eighty-two public-housing high-rises citywide, including Cabrini’s twenty-four towers. In 2000, the city named the ongoing purge the Plan for Transformation, a $1.5 billion, ten-year venture that would leave the city with just 15,000 new or renovated public-housing family units, plus an additional 10,000 for senior citizens. Like many other U.S. cities, Chicago wanted to shift from managing public housing to become instead what the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) called “a facilitator of housing opportunities.” The tenants of condemned projects were given government-issued vouchers to rent apartments in the private market, or were moved into rehabbed public housing farther from the city center, or wound up leaving subsidized housing altogether.
Arts and Lifestyle
"Will You Still Medal in the Morning?"
What happens when you build a small village populated exclusively by the young and fit? (Spoiler: sex.)
"The next morning," Lakatos says, "swear to God, the entire women's 4x100 relay team of some Scandinavian-looking country walks out of the house, followed by boys from our side. And I'm just going, 'Holy crap, we'd watched these girls run the night before.'"
And on it went for eight days as scores of Olympians, male and female, trickled into the shooter's house -- and that's what everyone called it, Shooters' House -- at all hours, stopping by an Oakley duffel bag overflowing with condoms procured from the village's helpful medical clinic. After a while, it dawned on Lakatos: "I'm running a friggin' brothel in the Olympic Village! I've never witnessed so much debauchery in my entire life."
The New Yorker
A delightful profile of the young Dane quickly -- and not quietly -- conquering the world of architecture:
Although Ingels has the swagger of a night-club d.j., he is acquiring the reach of a major international corporate practice; he is designing two of the world's tallest buildings, which is not the usual work of a high-art architect. Some critics acknowledge the wry intelligence with which Ingels presents his designs but wonder if the work sometimes lacks nuance, polish, or is too pliant to the needs of powerful clients. (With the phrase "Yes Is More," Ingels has almost made such pliancy sound radical, or at least fun.) His active projects include a riverfront arts center in southwestern France, a city hall in Tallinn, Estonia, and a mixed-use development of ten million square feet in Tianjin, China. Ingels's New York office space has expanded twice since I first met him, in December. His firm is the Bjarke Ingels Group, or BIG; it pleases him that his Danish Web address is big.dk.
"How Google Builds Its Maps -- And What It Means For the Future of Everything”
Madrigal meets the humans who make Google's Maps the world's most reliable:
There is an analogy to be made to one of Google's other impressive projects: Google Translate. What looks like machine intelligence is actually only a recombination of human intelligence. Translate relies on massive bodies of text that have been translated into different languages by humans; it then is able to extract words and phrases that match up. The algorithms are not actually that complex, but they work because of the massive amounts of data (i.e. human intelligence) that go into the task on the front end.
Google Maps has executed a similar operation. Humans are coding every bit of the logic of the road onto a representation of the world so that computers can simply duplicate (infinitely, instantly) the judgments that a person already made.
"The United States of Subsidies"
The New York Times
Story's brilliant investigative series, complete with a searchable database of subsidies, shows that subsidies are so common, any corporation not asking for preferential treatment would be foolish.
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.
Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.
Isaac Stone Fish
Chinese cities are booming, but they're also boring:
Even today, most Chinese cities feel like they were cobbled together from a Soviet-era engineering textbook. China's fabled post-Mao liberal reforms meant that the country's cities grew wealthier, but not that much more distinct from each other. Beijing has changed almost beyond recognition since Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978, but to see what Beijing looked like in the past, visit a less developed part of China: Malls in Xian, a regional hub in central China famous for its row upon row of grimacing terracotta warriors, look like the shabby pink structures that used to dot western Beijing. Yes, China's cities are booming, but there's a depressing sameness to what you find in even the newest of new boomtowns. Consider the checklist of "hot" new urban features itemized in a 2007 article in the Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, including obligatory new "development zones" (sprawling corporate parks set up to attract foreign direct investment), public squares, "villa" developments for the nouveau riche, large overlapping highways, and, of course, a new golf course or two for the bosses. The cookie-cutter approach is such that even someone like Zhou Deci, former director of the Chinese Academy of Urban Planning and Design, told the paper he has difficulty telling Chinese cities apart.
Top image: A car stops beside a house in the middle of a newly built road in Wenling, Zhejiang province, November 22, 2012. An elderly couple originally refused to sign an agreement to allow their house to be demolished. (REUTERS/China Daily)