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.
The pieces that stuck with us this year.
Each week, we round up our favorite #cityreads. As 2015 draws to a close, here's a collection of the pieces that stuck with us. Did we miss something? Add your favorites in the comments.
"Bikes vs. Cars: The Deadly War Nobody's Winning”
Andrew Tilin, Outside Magazine, February 17, 2015
Concussion or no concussion, Steve Hill wants a new bike. Pronto.
“To be honest with you, I feel like I should have it already,” he says to the woman he’s facing, Megan Hottman, a 35-year-old personal-injury lawyer who’s taking notes on a laptop inside her Golden, Colorado, office. From where I sit, just to the right of Hill*—who is 38 and trim—he looks pretty good, considering that he suffered a concussion and whiplash in a car collision just one week ago. But as I watch him, I have to wonder if he should have even driven himself to this meeting. As a longtime rider, I’ve endured similar injuries: I once went to the ER with a concussion after a crash, and I felt the effects for weeks. Hill has already told Hottman that he’s been experiencing dizzy spells.
*Because of ongoing litigation, the name of Hottman’s client has been changed.
Talking a beat too slowly, Hill describes a big ride he’s supposed to do eight days from now. It’s a Colorado event that took place last summer and covered more than 100 miles and over 13,000 feet of vertical gain—a major undertaking.
Hottman nods. She’s a dedicated rider herself, so she knows all about the hunger to get back on the road. But Hill is in no shape for a day like that, and he’s naive to think that a lawyer can serve up a new high-end bike anytime soon.
“Almost every client sitting in that chair has some event coming up,” Hottman says diplomatically. “These accidents only seem to happen when you have something on the burner.”
“My White Neighbor Thought I Was Breaking into My Own Apartment. Nineteen Cops Showed Up”
Fay Wells, Washington Post, November 18, 2015
On Sept. 6, I locked myself out of my apartment in Santa Monica, Calif. I was in a rush to get to my weekly soccer game, so I decided to go enjoy the game and deal with the lock afterward.
A few hours and a visit from a locksmith later, I was inside my apartment and slipping off my shoes when I heard a man’s voice and what sounded like a small dog whimpering outside, near my front window. I imagined a loiterer and opened the door to move him along. I was surprised to see a large dog halfway up the staircase to my door. I stepped back inside, closed the door and locked it.
I heard barking. I approached my front window and loudly asked what was going on. Peering through my blinds, I saw a gun. A man stood at the bottom of the stairs, pointing it at me. I stepped back and heard: “Come outside with your hands up.” I thought: This man has a gun and will kill me if I don’t come outside. At the same time, I thought: I’ve heard this line from policemen in movies. Although he didn’t identify himself, perhaps he’s an officer.
“The End of Walking”
Antonia Malchik, Aeon, August 15, 2015
In 2011, Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide following the death of her four-year-old son. Nelson, it’s crucial to note, was not driving. She didn’t even own a car. She and her three children were crossing a busy four-lane road from a bus stop to their apartment building in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. She’d stopped on the median halfway across when her son let go of her hand and stepped into the second half of the road. Nelson tried to catch him but wasn’t fast enough; she and her two-year-old daughter were also injured.
The driver admitted to having alcohol and painkillers in his system (and to being legally blind in one eye) and pleaded guilty to the charge of hit-and-run. He served six months in prison. For the crime of walking three tired, hungry children home in the most efficient way possible, Nelson faced more jail time than the man who had killed her son.
I am writing from a position of privilege. Not white or middle-class privilege – although I am both of those things and those facts play a role in my privilege – but rather, the privilege Americans don’t realise they’ve lost in a nearly Orwellian fashion: I can open the door of my home, take my kids by their hands, and meet almost any need by lifting my feet and moving forward. Food, schools, social centres, books, playgrounds, even doctors and dentists and ice cream – nearly everything our family uses daily is within about a mile’s walk of home and well-served by wide, uncrowded sidewalks.
“The Art of the Urban Nap: Let’s Lose the Stigma of Public Snoozing”
Leo Benedictus, The Guardian, July 7, 2015
The Japanese practice of inemuri is one that many westerners would envy with all their hearts. It describes what would be a severe faux pas in any European or North American workplace, and would be embarrassing almost anywhere.
Translated literally, inemuri means “being present while sleeping”, and indeed that describes the practice fairly literally as well, because inemuri is going to sleep in front of people while you are meant to be doing other things – which can, and often does, include sitting in a meeting room and listening to them speak.
Inemuri is not shameful, however, as it would be in the west, where sleeping on the job – let alone in a meeting – signals a loss of self-control, and therefore weakness. Instead, it is conventionally understood to mean that the sleeper is so dedicated to their work that they are momentarily exhausted by it. If carried out correctly an inemuri is an honourable kind of minor failure, like having no time to eat lunch, or 200 unanswered emails. It’s a commercial war wound to show off.
“The Price of Nice Nails”
Sarah Maslin Nir, The New York Times, May 7, 2015
The women begin to arrive just before 8 a.m., every day and without fail, until there are thickets of young Asian and Hispanic women on nearly every street corner along the main roads of Flushing, Queens.
As if on cue, cavalcades of battered Ford Econoline vans grumble to the curbs, and the women jump in. It is the start of another workday for legions of New York City’s manicurists, who are hurtled to nail salons across three states. They will not return until late at night, after working 10- to 12-hour shifts, hunched over fingers and toes.
On a morning last May, Jing Ren, a 20-year-old who had recently arrived from China, stood among them for the first time, headed to a job at a salon in a Long Island strip mall. Her hair neat and glasses perpetually askew, she clutched her lunch and a packet of nail tools that manicurists must bring from job to job.
“Coming to America and Coming of Age”
Asthaa Chaturvedi and Jenny Luna,Wilson Quarterly, September 16, 2015
Nelson’s day begins at midnight. He washes, dries, and folds linen for local restaurants until 6 a.m. An hour later, the 19-year-old reports to class. He is about to enter tenth grade. He lives on his own in a boarding house in Lindenhurst, Long Island, and is one of thousands of recent immigrants who crossed the border as unaccompanied minors and settled in the New York area.
Nelson, a slim boy with his hair spiked up with gel, looks down at the floor when he talks about his journey to the border. He had grown up in Honduras, near Colón, where his parents worked on a coffee farm. Nelson began working alongside them at the age of 10. He did not go to school, even though he wanted to. And local gangs saw him as a prospective recruit, even while they extorted his family.
“They said they would kill my family,” he says. “We couldn’t live peacefully.”
In the summer of 2013, Nelson left Honduras for the United States. He was 17 years old and on his own. By the time he arrived in America in June 2014, a flood of unaccompanied minors was already following in his footsteps.
“The Infuriating History of How Metro Got So Bad”
Luke Mullins and Michael Gaynor, Washingtonian, December 9, 2015
On January 8, Richard Sarles walked into his final board meeting as Metro’s general manager. It was a triumphant afternoon. During the hourlong sendoff, ten different board members extolled Sarles. One person played a video tribute to baseball star Derek Jeter and compared him to the retiring director. “You were both at your best,” the staffer said, “when times were tough and you were surrounded by those who doubted that the job could be done.”
Sarles arrived at Metro in the aftermath of the 2009 Fort Totten crash, the deadliest in its history, which exposed Metro’s negligent safety practices to the world. He’d closed out most of the National Transportation Safety Board’s post-crash recommendations and launched a $5-billion capital improvement plan to fix the aging infrastructure responsible for the disaster. In a unanimous commendation, the board cited the GM for “rebuilding credibility and the region’s confidence in WMATA.”
Sarles was touched. “It brought a tear to my eye,” he said at the meeting, after crediting the 2,000-year-old Athenian code of civic responsibility for guiding his work. “When you enter public service, you find things the way they are,” he said. “And when you leave it, hopefully you’ve made an improvement while you were there.”
The meeting’s tone would probably have surprised a lot of ordinary Metro riders. Washingtonians used to celebrate Metro with a boosterish pride. But over the past decade, griping about rush-hour meltdowns had become a staple of office water-cooler conversations. Compared with the safety improvements that board members were touting, the question on many riders’ minds was more prosaic—but possibly more crucial to the system’s survival: Could Metro even be trusted to get people to work on time?
"Where the Real Skyscrapers Are (Hint: North Dakota)"
Casey Tolan, Re:form, February 26, 2015
Name the tallest structures in the world. Maybe flashy skyscrapers in China or the Gulf States come to mind. Or maybe you’re thinking of U.S. icons like One World Trade Center in New York or the Willis Tower in Chicago.
You’re almost certainly not thinking of TV towers. But dozens of nearly anonymous towers around the United States, most in small rural communities, dwarf all but the tallest man-made structures in the world.
Take the KVLY-TV Tower in Blanchard, North Dakota, a township of 26 people north of Fargo. At 2,063 feet (628.8 meters), it’s the tallest structure in the western hemisphere and the fourth-tallest structure in the world.
Or the Diversified Communications Tower in the unincorporated community of Floyd Dale, South Carolina. At 2,000 feet (609.6 meters), it’s close to double the height of the Eiffel Tower.
Around the country, TV broadcast towers like these, unheralded but sometimes record-breaking, keep millions of Americans connected. And as the way we watch TV is changing, the industry behind these towering structures faces turbulent times.
"Built for Humans"
Bryce T. Bauer, Guernica, April 1, 2015
Gentrification is driven by myriad factors, among them global investors, real estate developers, and the media, which celebrates “destination neighborhoods.” But there is one group of people who in this fraught urban process have been painted both as perpetrator and victim: the artists.
Brooklyn College sociologist Sharon Zukin has placed this paradox at the center of her work. Her landmark 1989 book, Loft Living, examined the gentrification of New York City’s SoHo neighborhood. Loft Living—whose title was a neologism at the time—chronicled the transformation of the cast-iron downtown lofts from industrial spaces to live/work artists’ studios to upscale real estate commodities, a trajectory which, in effect, diminished the neighborhood’s arts scene.
When Loft Living was first published, artists’ laments about real estate in New York City mirrored the concerns that have plagued residents for much of the last century. Namely, it’s tough to find a suitable and affordable place to live. Since the late ’80s, the tenor of that complaint has shifted from one of anxiety to one of fear. In recent years, rents have climbed rapidly and inexorably. New economic realities have prompted artists and other low-income residents to flee the city for cheaper locales—among them, upstate New York, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Zukin says that this exodus threatens to undermine the diversity and vibrancy of the city, as well as its economic health.
“Driven: The Story of A Deaf Chauffeur in NYC”
Dorian Geiger and Saila Huusko, Narratively
On a sunny autumn afternoon in the grungy, graffiti-splattered Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, Morgan Wang, a mobile game marketing consultant, is watching the Uber car she recently hailed pull up in front of her apartment building.
Her driver, a short and bespectacled middle-aged man, exits the vehicle and eagerly takes Wang’s suitcase, loading it in the back of his metallic charcoal Honda CR-V. Wearing a striped, grey collared shirt, he smiles and gestures towards the vehicle, all while not making a peep.
Wang, a 23-year-old California native, takes the back seat and is handed a laminated piece of paper. Dismay spreads across her face, her eyes absorbing the note’s message: Her driver is deaf.
“Definitely something you don’t see every day,” she says. “How do deaf people drive? It’s cool that they can make a living that way—in one of the most chaotic cities.”