Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
It’s 6:47 a.m. on Friday as I write this, and I am more than four hours early for my international flight. (I mixed up the departure time with the arrival time!)
Light from the brightening sky has been pooling into the previously dark waiting area of Dulles International Airport, where I have been sitting, waiting to check in. An Indian family across from me is trying to entertain a fussy toddler. Behind me, an airport employee speaks to someone (a friend? a sister?) on the speakerphone in a mix of West African French and English. From time to time, her walkie-talkie bleeps and stern voices crackle through. In the background, Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” is playing, but because I’m so sleepy, it takes me a few minutes to identify the song.
I love this airport; I’ve come to admire its handsome brutalist slopes and edges; its remoteness from central Washington, D.C.—although inconvenient—makes it seem like I’m already far away. And while the security lines aren’t fun, people watching here always is.
Generally, too, I find airports fascinating—they function as mini-cities, planned for security, commerce, and mobility. But they’re also portals to other worlds—borderlands with their own set of rules. They all reflect unique aspects of the places they’re in, but they’re also sort of all the same.
According to French anthropologist Marc Augé, airports are places of “solitude and similitude,” where people who pass through become reduced to their roles—they are passengers or pilots before they are people, it seems like. But in a blog post for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, author Jenifer Van Vleck disagrees, arguing that an airport is “a deeply social space—and, indeed, an emotionally charged space.”
As I look at the screen to check on the departure time for my flight to India, I realize my love for airports draws from all of these theories. I love the anonymity and time-warping quality of the space; but also enjoy observing human moments that appear particularly stark against the sterility. Most of all, I love the feeling of being everywhere and nowhere all at once. Like Alain de Botton writes in his book, A Week at the Airport, airports offer “promises of alternative lives, to which we might appeal at moments of claustrophobia and stagnation.”
What we’re writing:
Are dog parks… exclusionary? ¤ Why Toledo just gave Lake Erie legal rights. ¤ Finding a writer’s voice in Lagos. ¤ These Parisiens have had it with people who want to Instagram their street. ¤ Pune is turning buses into public bathrooms for women. ¤ Want to fight a pipeline? Live in a tree. ¤
And remember that sampling of public transit textiles I previewed in the last edition of Navigator? CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan has now written a much more comprehensive, global review of public transit fabrics. Check it out!
What we’re taking in:
The feminist history of the tea room. (JSTOR Daily) ¤ “Convinced that becoming skoolies—people who live mobile lives in converted school buses—would afford them freedom and adventure, they sprung for a white 36-foot 1995 Thomas Built Saf-T-Liner for $4,500.” (Curbed) ¤ “I could see how big the city was, that we were a small part of something larger. It comforted me. ” (Catapult) ¤ How does one map a myth like Homer’s Odyssey? (Lapham Quarterly) ¤ Solange’s new album is “made in Houston and steeped in its hyper-local culture.” (NPR) ¤ “We honour our concrete just like people honour their trees.” (The Discourse) ¤ How the Census was manipulated. (The Baffler) ¤ Liberty City memorializes lost loved ones on T-shirts. (Topic) ¤ A Norwegian town called “Å.” (Popula) ¤ This Kolkata artist is creating traditional Patachitra art, but with urban scenes from modern India. (Scroll.in) ¤
View from the ground:
@axlaxlaxlaxlaxl strolled by the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco. @yasminedagher highlighted the warm rooftops of Beirut. @ethan.k56 captured the waterfront views in New Orleans. @helloimhelen enjoyed the sunny Houston weather.