A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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"Why Walking Helps Us Think," Ferris Jabr, The New Yorker
In Vogue’s 1969 Christmas issue, Vladimir Nabokov offered some advice for teaching James Joyce’s “Ulysses”: “Instead of perpetuating the pretentious nonsense of Homeric, chromatic, and visceral chapter headings, instructors should prepare maps of Dublin with Bloom’s and Stephen’s intertwining itineraries clearly traced.” He drew a charming one himself. Several decades later, a Boston College English professor named Joseph Nugent and his colleagues put together an annotated Google map that shadows Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom step by step. The Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain, as well as students at the Georgia Institute of Technology, have similarly reconstructed the paths of the London amblers in “Mrs. Dalloway.”
Such maps clarify how much these novels depend on a curious link between mind and feet. Joyce and Woolf were writers who transformed the quicksilver of consciousness into paper and ink. To accomplish this, they sent characters on walks about town. As Mrs. Dalloway walks, she does not merely perceive the city around her. Rather, she dips in and out of her past, remolding London into a highly textured mental landscape, “making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh.”
Since at least the time of peripatetic Greek philosophers, many other writers have discovered a deep, intuitive connection between walking, thinking, and writing. (In fact, Adam Gopnik wrote about walking in The New Yorker just two weeks ago.) “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” Henry David Thoreau penned in his journal. “Methinks that the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.
What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.
"Nobody Steps on a Church in My Town!" Stephen Vider, Avidly
When Dan Aykroyd wrote the first draft of Ghostbusters, he set it in outerspace. Hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket sales, a cartoon series, a line of action figures, and one sequel later, this may be hard for fans to believe. Few mainstream films have used New York City quite so well as both dramatic and comic inspiration. This week, as Ghostbusters briefly hits movie screens again in honor of its thirtieth birthday, many viewers will rediscover the movie’s famed dead-pan dialogue: droll, half-written, half-improvised, funny forever. But what still makes the movie a cinematic feat is not its script but its setting: Ghostbusters was always clearly a New York movie, and now, three decades later, it strikes me that Ghostbusters is easily one of the best New York movies of its era. In the intervening years, it has become only more apparent how perfectly it captured the attitude and anxieties of the city in the early 1980s. Filmmakers like Woody Allen, Martin Scorcese, even Nora Ephron may more readily come to mind when thinking of New York films from the 1970s and 80s. But Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters, shot from a final script by Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, deftly brings together all the fear, joy, and romance of the era into one perfect sci-fi comedy hit.
New York is built into the movie’s infrastructure from the get-go: excised from their jobs at Columbia (though it is never called that by name), the three heroes Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Aykroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) purchase an enormous fixer-upper for their headquarters—a firehouse downtown. It was a moment many old and new New Yorkers—artists and writers especially—were moving downtown, to Soho and the East Village and Alphabet City. Egon compares the neighborhood to “a demilitarized zone,” and he might not have been too far off. As George J. Lankevich explains in New York City: A Short History, Manhattan had largely recovered from fiscal crisis by the beginning of the 80s, but poverty and violence were actually on the rise, with growing heroin use downtown and over eighteen hundred murders in 1981– the same year John Carpenter’s Escape From New York imagined the city as a maximum-security prison. As Luc Sante recalls in his memoir Low Life, “If you told people almost anywhere in the country that you lived in New York, they tended to look at you as if you had boasted of dining on wormwood and gall.” Ghosts and ancient Sumerian gods probably didn’t seem like such a stretch.
"Repurposing Old Rail Stations in the Rust Belt," Alexa C. Kurzius, BELT Magazine
Marilyn Rodgers could do just about anything with her Saturday off, but instead she chooses to vacuum a train terminal. The executive director of Buffalo’s Central Terminal Restoration Corporation (CTRC), a nonprofit that’s rehabilitating the city’s vacant train station, goes up and down yards of original Terrazzo flooring, sucking up dirt with an industrial-strength cleaner. “I have to clean my house,” she jokes of the 523,000 square foot space where she frequently visits.
Keeping a national landmark clean isn’t easy or cheap, especially one this size. Typically, Rodgers gets in-kind help from local cleaning companies and other members of the CTRC. But on this particular day in May, she goes it alone, picking up after the 300 people she brought into the main concourse a few days earlier for a promotional video shoot that the CTRC plans to use in its fundraising efforts. Empty for over thirty years, the enormous edifice has endured vacancy, vandalism, and vicious Buffalo winters. The estimated cost for basic upgrades is around $65 million. The CTRC can use all the help it can get.
Such an ambitious project isn’t unique to Buffalo. The CTRC’s efforts are part of a larger phenomenon of rail station preservation occurring throughout the Rust Belt, including places such as Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, and Detroit’s Michigan Central Station. And while a geographic disadvantage and heavy rehabilitation costs make for an uphill battle, the Buffalo nonprofit and its ebullient members have high hopes for the future.
"Chicagoans Camp Out in the City," Michelle Manchir and Nancy Stone, Chicago Tribune
Security guards stood a few feet away and the CTA's Green Line clacked in the background, but the trappings of city life didn't deter the dozens who had erected tents and roasted hot dogs around campfires on the lawn of Garfield Park Conservatory one recent weekend.
"It is so city, but still, we're here in this peace," said Cynthia Anthony-Harris, who brought her 14-year-old son to the park for the family's first camping experience.
Anthony-Harris, 57, was among dozens who participated that Saturday evening in a Chicago Park District event that aims to give first-time campers an experience without a big financial or time commitment.
For Chicagoans hesitant or unable to leave the city, the growing program aims to draw new recruits to the hobby and expose them to some of the more pastoral corners of the city — in some cases just steps from their front doors.
"Playable Cities: The City That Plays Together, Stays Together," Julian Baggini, Guardian Cities
During the past year in Bristol you could have plunged down a 300ft water slide on one of the city’s main shopping streets, had a text message conversation with a lamppost, let your children play outside during a temporary street closure, or played a zombie chase game around the city centre.
All good fun, you might or might not think. But the people behind these and other similar projects believe they add up to much more than a good laugh. Next week, many of them are meeting for a conference at Bristol’s Watershed on Making the City Playable.
Although their work is in many ways disparate, three key ideas bring them together. First, that cities create problems of living that can only be addressed by collective action. Second, the sense that the well-being of communities cannot be left to local authorities; citizens need to take control of their own surroundings. Third, an optimism that we can do more than just tackle problems one by one. By encouraging public activities that actively bring joy, we can create a happier, more cohesive urban future.
The Playable City movement can be seen as a creative response to the coldness and anonymity of the urban environment, which technology threatens to make even worse. Conference organiser Clare Reddington told me of her despair over visions of “smart cities” where technology aims to remove all the friction from our movements, guiding us by smart phone to exactly where we want to be. For Reddington, this is “over-planned” and all about “how fast you can get from one place to another”. It’s also a vision tailored for tech geeks rather than the whole community. She recalls a workshop in Europe’s then Capital of Culture – Guimarães in Portugal – in which the older people feared being left increasingly alone and cut off in a world in which “everything is going to be mediated by a screen”.