Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
These new titles open windows onto urban culture around the world.
A great book about a city transports you there, whether its streets are familiar to you or utterly foreign. Serious or slapstick, it conveys the sense of being on the block—the cast of characters you’d encounter, what it might feel like to be a regular. Here are a handful of new books—both sincere and silly—that shed light on daily life in cities.
Dancers After Dark
A dancer is suspended in mid-air over Stockholm’s cobblestones. In New York, a performer lunges on wet pavement smeared with billboards’ red and yellow lights. Over the course of more than 150 photographs, Jordan Matter’s new book, Dancers After Dark, teases out the interplay between bodies and buildings. Some portraits highlight the similarities between the figure and the cityscape—in Amsterdam, for example, a dancer bends over a bicycle, arching her spine into the shape of the wheel. A flicked wrist conjures the curving ceiling in London’s Covent Garden, while a port de bras is fluid beneath Penn Station’s clacking departures board. Matter’s photographs also call attention to the startling differences between artists and their surroundings: one captures a balance held, on pointe, as a train blurs past in the background. Matter celebrates dancers from the Dutch National Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and many more. The result is an ode to the human body as scaffolding for its own amazing constructions. (Workman, $19.95) —Jessica Leigh Hester
You Are Here NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City
The act of mapmaking is a way of pinpointing and parsing one’s place in the world. In cities, writes the author Katharine Harmon, mapping is a means of navigating “an endlessly morphing population of contemporary lives humming along, side by side and mutually oblivious.” Harmon’s new book, You Are Here NYC: Mapping the Soul of City, pulls together 200 maps of the metropolis spanning the period from 1600 to 2015. The maps chart complaints and bed-bug hotspots, as well as more personal and psychological terrain. The artist Meredith McNeil coaxed contemporary transit maps into a vintage dress pattern as a nod to the pastiche of her Brooklyn neighborhood’s landscape. The ruffled skirt and billowing sleeves are a mishmash of past and present, like the gas lamps on her block that mingle with modern streetlights. Jan Rothuizen, a Dutch artist, made a written map of Bedford Avenue 20 years after he left it, annotating stalwarts he recalls and new additions he observes. Of one storefront, he writes: “This used to be Trojanowski liquor store (and it still is on Google streetview).” His graphic map grapples with how memories help make a place. (Princeton Architectural Press, $24.95) —Jessica Leigh Hester
Made of Iceland: A Drink & Draw Book
Reyka and Snorri Sturluson
In Iceland, a simple sketch means a lot. CityLab previously wrote about a letter delivered to a house in west Iceland via a hand-drawn map, and the new book Made of Iceland collects dozens of little pen-and-ink doodles that convey something essential about the island’s culture. The Icelandic vodka Reyka is the brains behind the volume. Earlier this year, the company sponsored a series of “drink and draw” nights at bars in Reykjavik; some of the results are collected in Made of Iceland, alongside thoughts from local chefs, designers, musicians, and artists about the inspiration they draw from their country. Everything from mountains to sheep to bearded men in wooly hats appear in the drawings, which the book’s creators hope will inspire readers to pour a cocktail, pick up a pen, and sketch some Icelandic doodles themselves. (powerHouse Books, $24.95) —Eillie Anzilotti
On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories
For decades, people questioning their gender identity or sexual orientation have found their way to Christopher Street. Called the birthplace of the modern LGBTQ rights movement, the West Village street welcomed generations searching for acceptance. In On Christopher Street: Transgender Stories, the photographer Mark Seliger captures the denizens of the place that he calls “an Ellis Island for freedom of expression and gender identity.” Seliger’s black-and-white images, introduced by an essay from Janet Mock, depict the transgender experience along this one street, which like so many LGBTQ havens across the country, is wrestling with gentrification and the erasure of its past. On Christopher Street is as much about personal identity as it is about the street itself. In the introduction, Mock writes: “We must be vigilant about protecting public space from the interest of systems looking to displace our most marginalized neighbors.” Seliger’s portraits, she adds, “remind us of our need for sanctuary, for a space to call our own.” (Rizzoli, $55) —Eillie Anzilotti
Silent Beaches, Untold Stories
The story of the city is written not only in its buildings, but also its shoreline. Elizabeth Albert’s new book, Silent Beaches, Untold Stories: New York City’s Forgotten Waterfront, is an atlas of overlooked, overgrown, and dried-up enclaves. The book grew out of an exhibition at St. John’s University, and was produced in collaboration with the online journal Underwater New York, a compendium of “objects lost and found, sunk and surfaced” in the city’s waterways. It juxtaposes contemporary fiction and poetry with historical ephemera: Bernice Abbott’s shot of oyster shells piled up to the windows of a building beneath the Manhattan Bridge; the fetid landfill at Dead Horse Bay; the potter’s field at Hart Island; the infirmary at North Brother Island, where Typhoid Mary was confined. There’s an engraving of the fish once plentiful in the now-lifeless Newtown Creek, and a recent print of a boat slicing a path through the Gowanus Canal, speckled with sludge that looks like icebergs. Each body of water contains its own tale, and also traces of what happened elsewhere—the wake of the industrial economy, for instance, ripples all the way to the city’s edges. (Damiani, $39.95)—Jessica Leigh Hester
Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec
Data can be quantified in the service of gauging trends or shifting policy. And that’s useful, for sure, but aggregation loses some of the particulars that shape an individual’s life. Two designers—Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec—decided to mine all of those granularities, and spent a year swapping statistics as a way to get to know each other. The designers exchanged weekly hand-drawn postcards transmitting the patterns of their days, charting the sounds they heard (footsteps, radiator, a steel drum band) and their distractions, rendered like lines breaking across a seismograph. “Everything can be mapped, counted, and measured,” the authors write. By creating “data diaries,” they add, readers can reorient their understanding of the contours of their lives and what matters to them most. (Princeton Architectural Press, $35) —Jessica Leigh Hester
The Eyes of the City
From 1977 to 2001, the photographer Richard Sandler made city streets his subject. Working his way through New York and Boston, Sandler turned his gaze on religious zealots in Times Square, drug use in Harlem, and the aftershocks of wealth stratification and corporate greed. In The Eyes of the City, Sandler’s precise visions appear without signposting: The images, many of which have not previously been on public display, speak for themselves. The book, David Isay writes in the introduction, offers up “a fiercely political meditation on justice and injustice, on race and racism, on humanity and inhumanity.” Though Sandlder made his last photograph for The Eyes of the City 15 years ago, his assessment of the urban street resonates today: these are spaces where, if one pays attention, the complex dynamics and serendipitous moments of city life come into focus. (powerHouse Books, $49.95) —Eillie Anzilotti
Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York
During the hottest months of 1931, fans wafted the scent of fried doughnuts out onto the streets of midtown Manhattan. Joy Santlofer describes the scene in new book, Food City: Four Centuries of Food-Making in New York, noting how the New Yorker marveled the vision of dough “float[ing] dreamily through a grease canal.” The whole scene sounds absolutely ideal. But Santlofer’s book doesn’t rest on its delicious descriptions. Instead, it considers the role that food played in shaping New York’s economy and culture, from the boom in Kosher products to the flurry of confectioners that offered unmarried, childless women a way to earn a steady wages “sugaring gumdrops” or nestling candies in paper and foil. At five cents apiece, those doughnuts were an affordable indulgence, Santlofer writes, “within the reach even of those with only a few pennies to spare.” And though many old-school businesses have since shuttered or relocated to cheaper pastures, others have simply changed up their ingredients, and Santlofer describes how a new batch of entrepreneurs is keeping the handmade habit alive. (W.W. Norton & Company, $28.95) —Jessica Leigh Hester
How to Spot a Hipster
Does he wear his long, flowing locks piled high in a man ban? Do her coke-bottle, wood-frame glasses peek out from beneath shaggy bangs? Did you meet either of these people in a bar with no sign? Then, congratulations! You have found yourself a hipster. In a new illustrated field guide, How to Spot a Hipster, Jeremy Cassar details a step-by-step approach to identifying hipsters and their attendant subgenres—which won’t pose too much of a challenge, because “hipsters have popped up in every corner of every urban city,” Cassar writes. Finding them is just a matter of nailing down the details. How to Spot a Hipster presents an exhaustive list: love of quinoa; enthusiasm for small-batch whiskey; a high probability of owning a fixed-gear bike. Nevertheless, Cassar recommends a gentle approach to applying this label: calling someone a hipster, after all, is still a sensitive issue. (Smith Street Books, $14.95) —Eillie Anzilotti