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

Tweet us your favorites with #CityReads.

"Time and the City," Craig K. Damrauer, Re:form

If you stand on a rooftop along the East River in Brooklyn in the evening and look down past Governor’s Island, down toward the Verrazano Bridge, you can see time. Time as a dimension. Up above your head are lights that seem to be hovering. There’s one close, one a bit further behind, one behind that. They twinkle in the distance and you know, because you know, they’re planes. These planes are lined up for landing at LaGuardia. The space between them is about five minutes, I’ve noticed, which must be the amount of time between landings on whatever runway they’re headed for. And so if there are three planes hovering patiently in the air down the river, you’re looking at a perfect vector that consists of fifteen minutes. If there are five twinkling dots in the sky, you’re seeing twenty five minutes unfurling just above.

What catches me when I look at this is how inevitable these stretches of time are. The planes must move at a certain rate. The line cannot, for the most part, stop and therefore this is a fairly true representation of time. And what catches me as well is that there is diminishment in the size of the planes. The one three back is smaller than the one in the front. The fifth is a distant dot. Visually, it appears quite far away, a small blip on the horizon. Twenty five minutes, from the looks of it, is a good ways away.

Time is a dimension. Einstein gave us this thinking in General Relativity. This is apparent when one is wading through the blinding murk of grief. It initially feels like an impossibility, something so large, so heavy that it might be impassible. But then you’ll notice that the pain gradually lifts in an almost linear fashion. Day by day the feeling gets smaller as if you’re viewing it from a moving vehicle headed the opposite direction. What was once a monument turns into a mere signpost as time drives us away.

But the other thing Einstein gave us was Special Relativity. Time is relative. Verlyn Klinkenborg describes this beautifully in The Rural Life, saying that from a distance ‘summer looks as capacious as hope” and yet it contracts the closer we get. Time’s relativity is completely clear in New Orleans. Something strange happens to your clock the moment you arrive, as I did a few years back. It is as if your rigid time piece has melted.

"In a Rough Part of Mexico City, Shooting with Cameras Instead of Guns," Judith Matloff, Al Jazeera America

By the time Alam Bernal turned 11 he was mute. The boy stopped talking after his mother was shot in front of him and his father went to jail for murdering her killer. The aunt who became his guardian didn’t know what to do with the boy. She feared that in this rough part of Mexico City he’d succumb to a similarly violent fate.

Then someone told her about a cultural space called Faro del Oriente, or Lighthouse of the East, located near her house. She brought the boy to the photography teacher, Jesús Villaseca, who had gained fame for steering youths away from trouble. Villaseca, a walrus of a man with a giant moustache who himself knows about pain, gently coaxed the boy out of his shell and gave him an outlet for his rage. Slowly, Alam learned to frame shots, document his neighborhood and, most importantly, trust. He resumed speaking, and today is studying politics at a leading university to prepare for a career in photojournalism.

“Jesus saved my life,” Alam reflected at a recent exhibition of student work at Faro. “Photography gave me a way to channel feelings and support myself. It gave me a way to seek justice and a reason to live. This psychological help kept me from turning to guns or drug. Crime is an easy path. I could have ended up that way but now I feel part of something larger."

Piñatas in various stages of preparation dry on a rooftop terrace in the Iztapalapa neighborhood of Mexico City. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

"'The Empire Economy': How the Hit Fox Show is Making Chicago Swing," Britt Julious, The Guardian

The owners of Kokorokoko, a vintage boutique, had no idea their collected wares would feature prominently on Fox’s breakout hit Empire. Six months ago, Jennifer Salim, who works in the costume department for Fox, entered their store and asked about their sourcing and menswear. She reportedly provided scant details about her pilot project, but purchased more than 20 pieces of clothing.

Starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henson and created by Lee Daniels, Empire is a King Lear-esque night-time soap following the triumphs and tragedies of the Lyons family, their hip-hop record label and the competition for the label’s legacy. Soon after Empire aired, the stylist returned to Kokorokoko seeking more pieces and finally revealed her connection to the show.

Kokorokoko’s highly specialised 80s and early 90s apparel was later worn by the show’s characters during flashback scenes. The tiny shop, located in Chicago’s hip Wicker Park neighborhood, is just one of a number of small businesses within the city operating as part of a local “Empire economy”.

In March of 2011, after signing our names so many times that our wrists ached, my wife and I took into our weakened hands the keys to a modest wooden rectangle on a slightly larger rectangle of dirt in Oakland’s Golden Gate neighborhood. Never mind that we bought it with borrowed money, we now “owned” a home.

This was something we never thought we’d be able to do when we moved to California in 2004, each from states with far lower costs of living. By the time we finished graduate school and found satisfying but not extravagantly compensated jobs, we’d consigned buying a house in the Bay Area to the same category of laughable impossibilities as commuting to work in a flying jet car or playing the harp.

The messy pop of the housing bubble changed all that. As sources of easy money shriveled and foreclosures swelled, home prices dropped precipitously. We came out okay; our jobs were stable. The crash—that is, the collective misery of those around us—gave us the opportunity to join one of California’s long traditions: the land grab.

"Our Town," Ian Evtushenko, The Calvert Journal

Flying home over the years I have often been blown off-course and forced to land in another Siberian town. On my most recent trip it happened again. An hour before we were due to touch down at Alykel airport, our captain announced that the plane would be landing further south in Nizhnevartovsk instead. I didn’t mind: it was only about an hour’s delay. The airport was clean and new. At the start of the Noughties an acquaintance of mine had to spend two days in the old military airport in Raduzhny, where the arrival and departure lounges were in the same dilapidated wooden bunkhouse. I don’t know if the airfield is still there — but even if it isn’t, you can still have any number of adventures on the way to Norilsk.

In the middle of the last century, Norilsk was known as the “City of Brawn”. You couldn’t go there unless you were specially invited, like the gritty and fearless workers hailed as “builders of Communism”. Besides space, the Extreme North represented the last unexplored zone for Soviet-era Russians. Visiting it became a dream for many children in the 1960s — including the two people who would become my parents. But it wasn’t just romantic notions that brought Russians to the sub-Arctic.

They were lured there by three things that made even the inhospitable conditions tolerable: a living allowance, generous rewards for hard work, and an abundant supply of goods. Thanks to their high northern wages, miners could afford to fly to Moscow every weekend if they wanted to; smiles spread over my parents’ faces when they reminisce about how their local supermarkets were overflowing with sweetened milk, while you could hardly find a block of margarine in the rest of the Soviet Union.

Norilsk in 2013. (Wikimedia Commons)

(Top image via bcampbell65 /

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A pedestrian wearing a protective face mask walks past a boarded up building in San Francisco, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Governors from coast to coast Friday told Americans not to leave home except for dire circumstances and ordered nonessential business to shut their doors.

    The Geography of Coronavirus

    What do we know so far about the types of places that are more susceptible to the spread of Covid-19? In the U.S., density is just the beginning of the story.

  2. photo: A lone tourist in Barcelona, one of several global cities that have seen a massive crash in Airbnb bookings.

    Can Airbnb Survive Coronavirus?

    The short-term rental market is reeling from the coronavirus-driven tourism collapse. Can the industry’s dominant player stage a comeback after lockdowns lift?

  3. photo: a For Rent sign in a window in San Francisco.

    Do Landlords Deserve a Coronavirus Bailout, Too?

    Some renters and homeowners are getting financial assistance during the economic disruption from the coronavirus pandemic. What about landlords?

  4. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  5. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.