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.
A roundup of the best stories on cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days.
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“Fixing the American Commute,” Patrick Sisson, Curbed
Few commuters today would describe the experience of traveling underneath the Hudson River from New Jersey to New York as exceptional. But that’s exactly how newspaper writers of the day described a then-miraculous train trip in 1909. This system of iron-clad tunnels connecting New York and New Jersey, a progressive transit project finished during the first decade of the 20th century and overseen by builders, engineers, and statesman such as William Gibbs McAdoo, was "one of the greatest railroad achievements in the history of the world," transforming an often frigid 10-minute journey across the water on ferries into a three-minute, climate-controlled run. Passengers arrived at the original Pennsylvania Station, a Beaux-Arts masterpiece that was greeted with "exclamations of wonder" when it opened in 1910, and observers from London were awed by the superior transport system. The Holland Tunnel, devised by master tunneler Ole Singstad, was opened in 1927 by President Coolidge in an elaborate ceremony using the same ornate golden key that played a role in the opening of the Panama Canal. Summing up all of the infrastructure built during that period to connect the island of Manhattan to the burgeoning populations of Brooklyn and New Jersey, theNew York Times asked the rhetorical question, "How much better off are the young men of this hour than their fathers?"
Today’s travelers have, to put it lightly, lost that sense of awe, and likely envy the commutes of previous generations. The subterranean journey has become an existential slog, with semi-regular power outages plaguing train riders and traffic jams clogging the Holland Tunnel.
“‘Normal America’ Is Not a Small Town of White People,” Jed Kolko, FiveThirtyEight
Earlier this week, Jim VandeHei, a former executive editor of Politico, wrote an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal accusing the Washington political establishment of being out of touch with “normal America.”
“Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption,” he wrote, citing his regular visits to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Lincoln, Maine, as his credentials of normality.
It’s a familiar accusation in a year in which most presidential candidates are trying to pretend they have nothing to do with the coastal elite, and after one — Ted Cruz — spent weeks attacking “New York values.” Even PBS, a standard-bearer of the media elite, recently featured a quiz designed to assess in-touchness with “mainstream American culture” with questions about fishing, pickup trucks and living in a small town.
But that sense that the normal America is out there somewhere in a hamlet where they can’t pronounce “Acela” is misplaced. In fact, it’s not in a small town at all.
“Smelling New York: A Blind Man on the Scents and Sounds of the City,” Craig Taylor, The Guardian
I’m blind, so my nose tells me what neighborhood I’m in.
My dog and I – we walk. We’ll walk from 125th down to Houston. The smell of Harlem is definitely different now. It’s more open. There’s a new class of people. The whole thing feels like someplace else.
As we walk through the city, I hear the different kinds of neighbourhoods – black people turning into white people, Spanish people turning into black people. I hear the sounds of the languages, the vendors, the different kinds of ways that the different cultures sell their stuff, present it.
Black voices, white voices. I used to even be able to pick out if someone was bi-racial. They just had a texture in the voice, and a clarity in the voice, and a thickness in the voice that would say: this is both. And now it’s harder to do because everybody’s mixed now. It’s not as easy.
Years ago, I used to walk in Hell’s Kitchen and pass all the railroad apartments and all the tenement buildings and people sitting on the stoop playing checkers. You could hear the dominoes, you hear the checkers. And then you could hear who’s playing them. Because Spanish people love dominoes. You hear them banging the dominoes, boom boom boom. Black people would be playing checkers. You’d hear them slamming the checkers. There was a difference.
“Why Do Pedestrians Have to Press “Beg Buttons” to Cross the Street?” Alissa Walker, Gizmodo
We were all taught how to cross a street: Look both ways. But, in some cities, you'll also have to ask permission by pressing a tiny button and waiting your turn. Those little buttons on walk signals have been nicknamed "beg buttons"—because walkers are pretty much begging to be able to cross.
Here in Los Angeles, if you don't press them, you won't even get the opportunity to cross—the light will turn red, stopping the opposing traffic, but you'll never get a walk signal and the light won't stay green long enough for you to actually make it to the other side.
It's annoying for walkers: have you ever tried to walk a few blocks, stopping to hit the button at every single intersection? Or hit the button just a few seconds too late and had to wait a whole additional cycle? But it also illustrates the backwardness of our street design: pedestrians, who are supposed to have the right-of-way, are required to press a button at an intersection in order to get a walk signal, which should happen automatically.
“A Debate Is Raging in the Museum World—And Design Is at the Center,” Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan, Fast Co.Design
A few weeks ago, architects and art fans issued a bit of a collective freakout over a report that the Museum of Modern Art would be permanently "abolishing" its legendary architecture and design galleries. This week the museum responded, publishing a letter explaining that’s "absolutely not true."
"I think the reaction in the press was less directed against our curatorial experiment than an expression of the fear that MoMA was no longer going to have its architecture and design collection on show in dense and medium-designated spaces," Martino Stierli, the Philip Johnson chief curator of architecture and design, told Co.Design. "This fear is unnecessary."
Anxious architecture fans aside, the news that the galleries are being redesigned, to reopen next year to become exhibition space for special shows, is part of a shift taking place in many museums as they move away from strict categorization by medium (e.g., "architecture" and "painting") and toward multidisciplinary, contextual curation. The way the public consumes art—and increasingly, design—is changing.