A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the last seven days.
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"The Knowledge, London's Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS," Jody Rosen, T Magazine
At 10 past 6 on a January morning a couple of winters ago, a 35-year-old man named Matt McCabe stepped out of his house in the town of Kenley, England, got on his Piaggio X8 motor scooter, and started driving north. McCabe’s destination was Stour Road, a small street in a desolate patch of East London, 20 miles from his suburban home. He began his journey by following the A23, a major thruway connecting London with its southern outskirts, whose origins are thought to be ancient: For several miles the road follows the straight line of the Roman causeway that stretched from London to Brighton. McCabe exited the A23 in the South London neighborhood of Streatham and made his way through the streets, arriving, about 20 minutes after he set out, at an intersection officially called Windrush Square but still referred to by locals, and on most maps, as Brixton Oval. There, McCabe faced a decision: how to plot his route across the River Thames. Should he proceed more or less straight north and take London Bridge, or bear right into Coldharbour Lane and head for “the pipe,” the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which snakes under the Thames two miles downriver?
“At first I thought I’d go for London Bridge,” McCabe said later. “Go straight up Brixton Road to Kennington Park Road and then work my line over. I knew that I could make my life a lot easier, to not have to waste brainpower thinking about little roads—doing left-rights, left-rights. And then once I’d get over London Bridge, it’d be a quick trip: I’d work it up to Bethnal Green Road, Old Ford Road, and boom-boom-boom, I’m there. It’s a no-brainer. But no. I was thinking about the traffic, about everyone going to the City at that hour of the morning. I thought, ‘What can I do to skirt central London?’ That was my key decision point. I didn’t want to sit in the traffic lights. So I decided to take Coldharbour Lane and head for the pipe.”
McCabe turned east on Coldharbour Lane, wending through the neighborhoods of Peckham and Bermondsey before reaching the tunnel. He emerged on the far side of the Thames in Limehouse, and from there his three-mile-long trip followed a zigzagging path northeast. “I came out of the tunnel and went forward into Yorkshire Road,” he told me. “I went right into Salmon Lane. Left into Rhodeswell Road, right into Turners Road. I went right into St. Paul’s Way, left into Burdett Road, right into Mile End Road. Left Tredegar Square. I went right Morgan Street, left Coborn Road, right into Tredegar Road. That gave me a forward into Wick Lane, a right into Monier Road, right into Smeed Road—and we’re there. Left into Stour Road.”
"The Twilight of the Indoor Mall," Mike Nagel, The Awl
On Memorial Day weekend, one of the bigger shopping weekends of the year, I stopped by the Collin Creek Mall in Plano, a Dallas suburb. Sitting back about a quarter mile from the highway, the mall has a hundred and thirty stores, over six thousand parking spaces, and more than a million square feet of retail space. It is faceless, sprawling, silent; the exterior walls are fading beige brick. On the day that I visited, it looked like it was going to rain. A security guard in a golf cart endlessly looped the parking lot, which was nearly empty. I was here to see if the rumors, press reports, and Yelp reviews were true: that the mall was dying.
Pharrell’s “Happy” played over the hi-fi inside the mall. It echoed down the hallways, bouncing off the walls and overlapping with itself in weird, dissonant ways without the plush, shuffling bodies of shoppers to absorb some of the sound waves. There was almost nobody here. A woman with a clipboard asked me to answer a few questions: When’s the last time I purchased sunscreen? Bought athletic footwear? Went swimming? I answered her questions, but kept walking as she half-chased me down the hallway; there were twenty-five yards between us when she asked how old I am. I told her that I am twenty-six, and then realized why she was so persistent: There were around a hundred people in the mall, and at twenty-six, I was one of the youngest. The old people were everywhere: walking laps and playing cards and sitting on benches and staring off into space. None of them had a shopping bag.
"The City Is an Ecosystem, Pipes and All," Courtney Humphries, The Boston Globe
Is a tree trying to survive in the city better off than a tree growing in the forest? The obvious answer would seem to be “no”: City trees face pollution, poor soil, and a root system disrupted by asphalt and pipes.
But when ecologists at Boston University took core samples from trees around Eastern Massachusetts, they found a surprise: Boston street trees grow twice as fast as trees outside the city. Over time, the more development increased around them, the faster they grew.Why? If you’re a tree, city life also offers a number of advantages. You benefit from the extra nitrogen and carbon dioxide in polluted city air; heat trapped by asphalt and concrete warms you in the cold months. There’s less competition for light and space.
Cities may strike us as the opposite of “the environment”: As we pave streets and erect buildings, nature comes to feel like the thing you find somewhere else. But scientists working in the growing field of urban ecology argue that we’re missing something. A city’s soil collects pollutants, but it also supports a vast system of microscopic life. Water courses beneath roads and buildings, often in long-buried streams and constructed pipes. And city ecosystems aren’t static; they change over time as populations grow, infrastructure ages, and different political structures and social values shape them.
"The East Village Eye: Where Art, Hip Hop, and Punk Collided," Tiernan Morgan, Hyperallergic
Between May 1979 and January 1987, the East Village Eye breathlessly covered the East Village art scene. Indiscriminate in its interests, the magazine charted the rise of hip hop, graffiti, and punk, and is widely credited with contributing to the intermingling of several New York scenes. “The Eye’s unswerving editorial position was to advocate for the neighborhood’s uniqueness,” wrote curator Dan Cameron in the catalogue for the New Museum’s 2004 exhibition East Village USA, “even when money became a central part of the equation.”
The back issues of the Eye are an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the 1980s art scene. A staggering number of art world luminaries crossed paths during the magazine’s tenure. A brief list of contributors includes David Wojnarowicz, Richard Hell, Cookie Mueller, Lucy Lippard, and Rene Ricard. Art stars such as Patti Astor, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Vito Acconci were featured on the magazine’s cover, as were musicians such as Run DMC, Annie Lennox, and the Beastie Boys.
On September 18, Printed Matter hosted an exhibition of Eye ephemera and held a mini symposium entitled “How Hip Hop Came Downtown.” Speakers included the Eye’s editor and publisher Leonard Abrams, writers and filmmakers Michael Holman and Steven Hager, artist John Ahearn, art historian Yasmin Ramirez, and legendary musician and artist Fab 5 Freddy. Though the proceedings largely focused on the origins of hip hop, all six speakers touched upon the influence of the Eye. Fab 5 Freddy expressed gratitude for the magazine’s coverage of Wild Style (1983), in which he starred alongside graffiti artists Lady Pink and Lee Quiñones. Directed by John Ahearn’s twin brother, Charlie Ahearn, the film was released during a time when New York’s graffiti scene was characterized as a scourge on the city. Sitting alongside Fab 5 Freddy was Steven Hager, who was fired from the Daily News for publishing a glowing article on graffiti art. “[The Eye] was the only place that would publish my research,” Hager quipped.
John Ahearn joins Fab 5 Fred Y. Ramirez, M. Holman at our "How Hip Hop Came Downtown" talk, Printed Matter Thur 6-8 pic.twitter.com/5EgEBamlyq— East Village Eye (@EastVillageEye) September 16, 2014
"At L.A. County Cemetery, Unclaimed Dead Await a Final Resting Place," Jon Schleuss, The Los Angeles Times
Clear shipping tape covers the oversized ledger, holding together the corners. Its 1,000 pages threaten to overwhelm the three large flat-head screws that clamp the spine. Inside, names and dates fill row after row in near-perfect script.
This is the book of the unclaimed dead.
They die in hospitals in Torrance, in nursing homes in Long Beach, on the street in Los Angeles.
About six bodies arrive each day at L.A. County's cemetery in Boyle Heights. There, Albert Gaskin gives each body a round metal tag with a cremation number.
As he has done for more than three decades, Gaskin records the tag's number and the dates of the cremation and the cremation permit in the ledger. The name comes next. Then date of birth. And sex. Race. Date of death.