Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.
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“The Unlikely Story of One of the Biggest Blackouts In U.S. History,” Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, Gizmodo
Fifty years ago this evening, at roughly 5:15pm, every light connected to New York’s power grid flickered out–along with those of 30 million people throughout the Northeast. Chaos didn’t ensue, oddly enough.
Today, blackouts are scary, for the flashlight prices and cab fares if not the threat of crime. But the great Northeastern Blackout of 1965 was different. While many millions of people were left without power–with as many as 800,000 people trapped in subway cars alone, the New York Times reported–with no explanation of what had caused the outage, there was surprisingly little chaos or panic reported.
The AP–which made its 50-year-old archival report about the blackout available today–wrote that it was the biggest blackout in history. Yet people seemed oddly calm: “The great luminous cities looked as if they had been struck by some awesome tragedy. But reports indicated most people took it all calmly. Restaurants did a thriving business by candlelight.”
“Living and Dying on Airbnb,” Zak Stone, Medium
The rope swing looked inviting. Photos of it on Airbnb brought my family to the cottage in Texas. Hanging from a tree as casually as baggy jeans, the swing was the essence of leisure, of Southern hospitality, of escape. When my father decided to give it a try on Thanksgiving morning, the trunk it was tied to broke in half and fell on his head, immediately ending most of his brain activity.
I was in bed when my mom found him. Her screams brought me down to the yard where I saw the tree snapped in two and his body on the ground. I knelt down and pulled him up by the shoulders. Blood sprayed my blue sweatshirt and a few crumpled autumn leaves. We were face-to-face, but his head hung limply, his right eye dislodged, his mouth full of blood, his tongue swirling around with each raspy breath.
What do you do in this situation? I grabbed a washcloth and started mopping up his leaking face. I told my sister not to come outside. She faints when there’s blood.
“Unmasked! The Mexico City Superhero Wrestling for Pedestrians' Rights,” Dulce Ramos, The Guardian
The traffic light turns red at the corner of Avenida Juárez and Eje Central, the busiest pedestrian crossing in Mexico City, used by around 9,000 people every hour. Tonight, a driver stops his grey Peugeot exactly on the crossing where the masses are trying to pass. His car is now a steel barrier for those trying to reach the Palacio de Bellas Artes. A masked man dressed in black makes his way through the river of people, walking purposefully towards the Peugeot. His black and white striped cape, reminiscent of a zebra crossing, flaps behind him. He goes to the car, flings his cape over his shoulder, and pushes the Peugeot backwards to make space.
“My name is Peatónito, and I fight for the rights of pedestrians,” he says, introducing himself. The driver smiles and reverses willingly and eventually the pair shake hands. With the pedestrian crossing again flowing as it should, Peatónito heads back to the pavement where he will wait until he is needed again. The traffic light turns green.
Since 2012, Mexico City has had a “superhero” defending its pedestrians: Peatónito, or Pedestrian Man. Three years after he first appeared on the streets, armed with a highway code and a white aerosol can to spray zebra crossings and pavements where none existed, Peatónito can take pride in the victories that he and his fellow transport rights activists have achieved. Together, they fight for a safer, more efficient way for people to get around the capital – which has 5.5m vehicles in circulation – on foot.
“The Land That the Internet Era Forgot,” Ralph Eubanks, Wired
For a guy born and raised in Mexico, Roberto Gallardo has an exquisite knack for Southern manners. That’s one of the first things I notice about him when we meet up one recent morning at a deli in Starkville, Mississippi. Mostly it’s the way he punctuates his answers to my questions with a decorous “Yes sir” or “No sir”—a verbal tic I associate with my own Mississippi upbringing in the 1960s.
Gallardo is 36 years old, with a salt-and-pepper beard, oval glasses, and the faint remnant of a Latino accent. He came to Mississippi from Mexico a little more than a decade ago for a doctorate in public policy. Then he never left.
I’m here in Starkville, sitting in this booth, to learn about the work that has kept Gallardo in Mississippi all these years—work that seems increasingly vital to the future of my home state. I’m also here because Gallardo reminds me of my father.
“New York, The Capital Of The Parking Culture,” Andrej Mrevlje, Yonder News
It’s Thursday, and my car is parked on the side of the street that needs to be cleaned by the New York Department of Sanitation. The street cleaner is a small, fast-moving truck with rotating wheel brushes that sweeps through my street between 11 am and noon. The truck does this twice a week for each side of the street, requiring residents to move their cars to permit the street to be cleaned of tree leaves, cigarette butts, empty paper coffee cups and plastic bags. The time I use to move the car twice a week is my only parking expense in Manhattan. That is, if I do not park in a forbidden area, for which my car can get a ticket – or even be towed – for an amount of money equivalent to a monthly lease of a parking spot in nearby garage.
So today, just before I equip myself to go down to the car, bringing my coffee and my work with me, I check the web or simply call 311, where a recorded message tells you immediately if the alternate-side parking is effective or not on that particular day. It is, and outside the weather is murky and drizzly, with people keeping their heads down, feeling in uncommunicative moods. That kind of weather always makes the car operations slightly more difficult. So just in case, I press my SpotHero app on my phone, a new service that is trying to imitate the business model of Uber taxi service in the City, but that helps residents find parking spots instead of taxi rides. No, nothing helpful: the closest guaranteed parking lot is 12 blocks away and would cost about $30 for the next three hours. More time than I need.