Podcasts of the Week Ending December 22


HubHistory :: When Boston Invented Playgrounds

It seems that places for children to play have always been with us, but someone had to invent the playground and it turns out that Boston played a role in that, starting with piles of sand called sand gardens.

99% Invisible :: Mini Stories

All of these stories are good, but I’m particularly interested in the nostalgic look back at the WPIX Yule Log, a television program that featured a burning log for three hours, which was a HUGE deal when I grew up in the New York City area.s

Scientific American Science Talk :: Meet the Real Ravenmaster

If you’ve ever visited the Tower of London, the resident ravens are a highlight of the experience.  This podcast features an interview with the yeoman warder charged with the ravens’ care.

Book Review: The Poisoned City by Anna Clark


AuthorAnna Clark
TitleThe Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy
Publication Info: Metropolitan Books (2018)
Summary/Review:

I briefly knew Anna Clark when I used to volunteer at the Haley House in Boston and she was a member of the intentional community that lived there. Ever since she moved to Michigan I’ve followed her journalism career from afar.  She seems the perfect person to bring together a passion for social justice and the skills of journalism to documenting the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Clark tells the story from the perspective of the local activists who brought the problems with the water to light and the health and science experts who verified that the water was dangerous.  So much of the Flint water crisis is rooted in greed and indifference. The decision was made by the city’s emergency manager who was appointed by the governor to “run the city like a business” (a practice carried out in many Michigan cities leading to 53% of Michigan’s African American population living under non-elected local government).  The switch from Lake Huron water via Detroit to the backup system of the Flint River was purportedly to save money until a new regional water authority came online, although it is questionable if money was saved at all considering the costs of updating the local treatment plant.

While it’s often reported that the Flint River water is unhealthy, it turns out that water in the river and when it left the treatment plant was in fact clean.  But the different chemistry of the river water compared to lake water had a corrosive effect that leeched lead from the city’s ancient pipes and also promoted growth of infectious diseases.  The water authority failed to use the proper anti-corrosives to help prevent this from happening.  But the real scandal is that when residents complained of discolored and odoriferous water and the bad health effects, especially among children, the city and state officials refused to help and continued to claim there was no ill effects from the water.

In addition to thoroughly documenting the crisis, Clark also provides the historical background that shows why the water crisis inordinately affected Flint’s poorer residents, especially black and brown people.  The prosperous Flint of the mid-20th century was heavily segregated, with the effects of redlining and housing segregation still felt today. The movement of prosperous white families and corporations out of Flint was funded by disinvestment in the city itself.  And while medical experts have been aware of the poisonous nature of lead for centuries, that did not stop industry from making efforts to use lead – whether it be in gasoline or water pipes – and promote it as safe.

Poison City is a well-written book, and a very important book to read as Flint’s crisis is one that is happening or could happen in various ways in cities across the country.  It’s hard not to read this book without feeling rage, yet Clark finds hope in the community activists who fought to bring this issue to international attention, and continue to fight for clean water in Flint.

Recommended booksThe Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, The new Jim Crow : mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Foul Ball by Jim Bouton
Rating: ****1/2

City Stories #5 – Venetian Visions


13 years ago this week, my wife Susan and I spent the first three days of our honeymoon in Venice, Italy.  There is no other city like Venice, and even other cities named Venice or theme park recreations lack the accretion of human construction over centuries that makes the entire city a colossal sculpture of water and stone.  Below are snippets of my favorite memories. If you enjoy this City Story, please check out my previous writings about Brooklyn, Derry, London, and Chicago.  

 

Arriving at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, we took the Alilaguna water bus into the city. I quickly got acquainted with the lagoon when a wave of briny water splashed through the window and soaked my shirt.

* * *

While Susan napped, I strolled blindly through Venice’s alleys ending up in Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Children were playing soccer in the square and I got involved by kicking back a ball that went astray.

* * *

In the evening we consume cones of limone while listening to the orchestras on Piazza San Marco. We try to dance in the mostly empty square, but that inadvertently prompts every flower seller in eyeshot to approach us and aggressively try to make a sale.

* * *

The next morning, Susan catches a glimpse of everyday Venice from our hotel window, watching a man and his dog pilot a work boat down the canal.

* * *

On our walk through the city, we climb the spiral stair to the top of Scala Contarini del Bovolo . We are greeted by a slim, friendly gatto wearing a jewel-encrusted collar. The view here is more intimate than the Campanile, with views of tiny Venetian backyards and clotheslines.

* * *

We visit  the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — home to a fraternal organization that performed charitable works for plague victims — and is richly decorated with religious art by Tintoretto. We enjoyed interpreting the religious themes in the dozens of giant canvases on the walls and carrying large mirrors to study the murals on the ceiling.

* * *

As the sun begins to set, we walk to get a closer view of  La Salute Church. The approach included walking through a covered alley that felt like a dark tunnel. We emerged from the tunnel and found ourselves amidst twig-thin fashion models in a photoshoot. We are certain the photographer said, “Yes! Gauche Americans are exactly what this picture needs to make the cover of Elle!”

* * *

We ride a gondola at night, and Venice looks just right from the water. In the darkness, we can peep in windows, look at the stars, and listen to the gondolier greet doormen and waiters as we pass. We laugh as the motion-sensor doors on one of the fancier hotels slide open as we glide by.

* * *

The next morning while we’re eating our breakfast at the Hotel Riva, we the same fashion models from the night before posing for another photo shoot. The whole crew come into the hotel for coffee and pastries, but the models stay true to stereotype and refuse to eat anything. More tart succo di frutti and cherry preserve on rolls for us!

* * *

On our final morning, we visit Basilica di San Marco, where the glimmer of  mosaic tiles shine in the darkened interior. After years of settling, the marble flooring rolls like the sea. The walls use many marbles of different colors — pink, green, grey, white — like a Neopolitan ice cream.

***

Those are some of our memories of Venice. Have you ever been to Venice?  What do you remember most?

Podcasts of the Week Ending April 14


Code Switch :: Location, Location, Location

The history of housing segregation and how it underlines every serious social issue in America today.

60 Second Science :: Old New England Underground May Be Spry after All

Uh-oh! Tectonic activity underneath New England!!!

AirSpace :: 2001: An AirSpace Odyssey

1968’s weirdest science fiction film and it’s long-lasting affect on the culture of space exploration.

Podcast of the Week: “There Goes the Neighborhood”


Gentrification is a serious issue for anyone who cares about the future of cities.  For every neighbor “revitalization” there’s pressure on long-term communities to be pushed out.

How can we make cities places that don’t have winners and losers?  Can we have housing that’s affordable in neighborhoods that aren’t derelict?  Can more prosperous people move to the city and live side-by-side with the working poor?

The Nation and WNYC collaborate to ask these questions in an 8-part podcast series “There Goes the Neighborhood.”

Subscribe and listen at your favorite podcast source.

Book Review: Fighting Traffic by Peter D. Norton


Author: Peter D. Norton
TitleFighting traffic : the dawn of the motor age in the American city
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c2008.
ISBN: 9780262141000
Summary/Review:

Everyone knows that city streets are for cars and that anyone else seeking to access the street needs to follow the rules so as not to cause traffic congestion.  Except that it hasn’t always been this way.  Fighting Traffic documents a time when the automobile was an intruder on the shared public space of the city street, and one depicted as a menace due to speeding, reckless driving, and the killer of innocents.  During the 1920s, motorist clubs, automakers, safety councils, and the newly created field of traffic engineers changed the paradigm to make the street the through-way for motor vehicles with the emphasis on as few interruptions as possible.  The  book is academic in tone, and a bit repetitive in accumulating evidence for its thesis, but it is an interesting look at a moment in time when basic assumptions shifted as well as a means of questioning the basic assumptions we have about cities and cars today.

Favorite Passages:

“Beneath the grief and anger of many safety reformers lay an old assumption: city streets, like city parks, were public spaces.  Anyone could use them provided they did not unduly annoy or endanger others.  Under this construction of the city street, even children at play could be legitimate street users, and even careful motorists were under suspicion.  In the 1920s, however, the pressure of traffic casualties divided old allies.  Some renewed their resolve to compel motorists to conform to the customs of the street as it had been, especially by limiting their speed.  Others, more pragmatic, wanted to save lives by giving pedestrians more responsibility for their own safety.  Finally, some newcomers proposed a more radical social reconstruction of the street as a motor thoroughfare, confining pedestrians to crossings and sidewalks.”  – p. 64

“The dawn of the motor age has something to tell us about power.  Like money, power is a medium of exchange between social groups. Because it comes in many currencies, it is hard to measure by any one standard. Motordom had substantial and growing financial wealth.  By the mid 1920s it was organized enough to dispense this wealth to promote a social reconstruction of the street, through a well-funded rhetorical campaign and through gasoline taxes linked to road construction.  By then it was also exercising direct political power, especially through its influence in the Commerce Department.  But drivers themselves exercised power every time they traveled at speed in the streets, resorting to the horn instead of the brake to proceed.  This exercise of power drove pedestrians from the streets and sometimes barred them from access to streets, even at designated crossings.  Horsepower gave motorists a literal, physical form of momentum that collided with the social momentum of old constructions of the street, changing their trajectories.” – p. 259

Recommended books: Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back by Jane Holtz Kay, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt and Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: City : a guidebook for the urban age by P.D. Smith


Author: P.D. Smith
Title: City : a guidebook for the urban age
Publication Info:   Bloomsbury Press (2012)
ISBN: 9781608196760

Summary/Review:  This is kind of a coffee table book for urbanists depicting humanity’s greatest invention – the city!  The book is split into bit size chapters about different aspects of the city from public parks to public transportation, from skyscrapers to the street, and from coffehouses to hotels.  The books spans history and the globe seemingly try to create a city in the pages with snapshots of what makes up the city.

Favorite Passages:

“Look above the shopfronts and you begin to sense the history of the original buildings: exposed beams, time-roughened brickwork as red-raw as abraded skin, a plaque recording a creative life spent in a building, faded lettering advertising a long-defunct product.  As you stand in the high street, to the ubiquitous CCTV cameras you are just one more figure among the crowds of shoppers, someone with time to kill and money to spend.  But as you begin to notice these traces of the past and read the urban text, the city starts to come alive. You become part of its history, more than a mere consumer of products.  You are ready to begin a journey that can take you back to the roots of civilisation itself.  It is time to start walking.” – p. 171

“Creative cities are edgy places, where conservative, traditional forces collide with new, radical ideas in a shower of brilliant sparks.  Great cities are complex, even disorderly, cosmopolitan communities.  They are certainly not the easiest or safest places in which to live (housing conditions in Athens were far from ideal).  Such cities are often overwhelming and intense environments.  But this is often why they are such creative places. After all, it’s the irritant of sand in an oyster that produces a pearl.” – p. 253

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Green Metropolis by David Owen


AuthorDavid Owen
TitleGreen Metropolis: why living smaller, living closer, and driving less are keys to sustainability
Publication Info:Riverhead Books, c2009.
ISBN: 9781594488825
Summary/Review:

Owen makes a very compelling case for cities as the most environmentally friendly places to live and work due to the efficiencies of living closer, sharing resources, and reducing travel with New York City as the key example.  I’m already sold on the idea but he piles on the evidence for his theory in a way that I hope convinces other people who have the ingrained idea of cities as dirty places.  He also takes on the pastoral vision of many environmental movements and “LEED brain” where new construction is rewarded for fancy add-ons that are not good for the environment especially when compared to simple renovations of existing buildings.  I’m less sold on his opposition to things like the locavore movement which is as much built on nutrition and local sustainability as environmentalism.  He’s also opposed to vertical agriculture because he thinks it would interfere with the connectivity of cities, but I think they’d fit in perfectly replacing underused light industrial and warehouse districts that already exist in cities like New York.  I’m also not sold on his cop-out argument for continuing to live in a drafty farmhouse in suburban Connecticut where he believes if he moved to New York someone less environmentally aware would occupy his current house.  Nits picked, I still think this book is a great argument for an idea whose time has come.
Favorite Passages:

“Jefferson…embodied the ethos of suburbia. Indeed, he could be considered the prototype of the modern American suburbanite, since for most of his life he lived far outside the central city in a house that was much too big, and he was deeply enamored of high-tech gadgetry and of buying on impulse and on credit, and he embraced a self-perpetuating cycle of conspicuous consumption and recreational self-improvement. The standard object of the modern American dream, the single-family home surrounded by grass, is a mini-Monticello” (p. 25)

Making automobiles more fuel-efficient isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but it won’t solve the world’s energy and environmental dilemmas. The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles to the gallon; it’s that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging. Most so-called environmental initiatives concerning automobiles are actually counterproductive, because their effect is to make driving less expensive (by reducing the need for fuel) and to make car travel more agreeable (by eliminating congestion). In terms of both energy conservation and environmental protection, we need to make driving costlier and less pleasant. This is true for cars powered by recycled cooking oil and those powered by gasoline. In terms of the automobile’s true environmental impact, fuel gauges are less important than odometers. In the long run, miles matter more than miles per gallon.

The near certainty is that, for many years to come, what the market will replace oil with is not something better (such as nuclear fusion, which, at the very least, is decades or generations away) but something considerably worse (such as low-grade coal, China’s main fuel, which makes oil’s carbon footprint and pollution profile look demure), and that ordinary market forces, rather than leading us inexorably toward a golden future, will most likely entice us to compound our growing troubles by prompting us to invest heavily in the energy equivalents of patent medicines (such as shale oil and ethanol). Sometimes, the invisible hand goes for the throat.

Recommended books:  Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward L. Glaeser, The cul-de-sac syndrome : turning around the unsustainable American dream by John F. Wasik, The death and life of great American cities by Jane Jacobs, and Pedaling revolution : how cyclists are changing American cities by Jeff Mapes.
Rating: ****

Book Review: Triumph of the City by Edward L. Glaeser


Author: Edward L. Glaeser
Title: Triumph of the City
Publication Info: Penguin Press HC, The (2011)
ISBN: 9781594202773
Summary/Review:

Glaesar's book is an analysis of the city as one of the great inventions of humanity and the connections the city fosters being a moving force behind human ingenuity and progress.  Cities are seen as a place with poor people living in slums yet Glaesar demonstrates that cities actually draw poor people because cities offer them opportunities to improve their lives.  Glaesar also demonstrates that cities are more environmentally friendly than suburbs.  He criticizes how government policies tend to  encourage sprawl and expensive housing.  Several cities (including my own, Boston) are cited as examples of successful cities.  If there's one thing that does make me uneasy about this book is Glaesar's uncritical support of free-market capitalism, but he does make a good point that governments should spend money to help the poor but not spend money on poor places, an important distinction.  My opinion is already biased toward cities, but I believe this book makes a great argument toward encouraging dense well-managed cities as the sustainable way to go for humanity's future.

Favorite Passages:

“The strength that comes from human collaboration is the central truth behind civilization’s success and the primary reason why cities exist.  To understand our cities and what to do about them, we must hold on to those truths and dispatch harmful myths.  We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around tree and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past.  We must stop idolizing home ownership which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages.  We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another.  Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.” – p. 15

Recommended books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson, and The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream by John F Wasik.
Rating: ****

Cities with Mountains


I’m a man of extremes.  I love urban living, but when I want to get out of the city I want to get way out of the city, skipping over all those suburbs.  Ideally my best vacation spot is on a remote trail hiking up a mountain.  Too bad that the best of both worlds is hard to find – cities with mountains.  Most cities are built on a plain by a river, not mountainsides.  Boston has some nice steep hills – and once had a three-peak hill the English called Trimountain (which was later torn down) – but nothing really mountainous.  So on this hot summer day in the city I’m going to write a tribute to four cities I’ve visited that have mountains within their environs.

First up is Eugene, which technically doesn’t have a mountain but a butte, but a butte is close enough.  I hiked up the trails of Spencer Butte on a visit in 1997 and it was a lovely escape from the city with a lot of typical public park ammenities with some added elevation.  Spencer Butte tops out at 2055 feet (626 m) although oddly it felt the least “mountainous” of the four urban mountains I’ve climbed.

Here’s a view in all its black & white beauty:

To be honest I'm not sure if this photo is of Spencer Butte or from Spencer Butte, but you get the gist
To be honest I'm not sure if this photo is of Spencer Butte or from Spencer Butte, but you get the gist

The following year I visited Edinburgh, Scotland which I wrote about on the tenth anniversary of the visit.  I was awed by Arthur’s Seat which may be the most urban of mountains with the city streets and buildings going right up to its foothills.  Arthur’s Seat is only  823.5 ft (251 m) but I’m certain its elevation rises most dramatically around the surrounding territory of any of the mountains in cities I’ve seen.

Im almost fell to my death trying to make this self-portrait.
I'm almost fell to my death trying to make this self-portrait.

Montreal, Quebec is actually named for its mountain Mont Royal.  I climbed the mountain with Susan & Camille in May 1999 and a few days later rode my bike to the summit.  Mont Royal gets bonus points for being in a park landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted and a spiff cross near the summit. Mont Royal stands at 764 ft (233 m) and is the lowest of the four “mountains.”

Taking in the view of Montreal in my bright yellow bicycling jacket.
Taking in the view of Montreal in my bright yellow bicycling jacket.

Finally there is the city of Salzburg, Austria which Susan & I visited in 2003.  Located in the Alps, Salzburg is surrounded by mountains but the closest to center city is Mönchsberg.  This mountain is fortified with the ancient Hohensalzburg Fortress looming over the city but also felt the most wild, as if we may wander off into some primeval forest of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.  Mönchsberg may also be the steepest of the urban mountains I’ve visited including one section of sheer rockface with monk’s cells carved in the side.   Mönchsberg is 1,771 feet (540 meters) high.

The monks' cells carved in the side of Mönchsberg.
The monks' cells carved in the side of Mönchsberg.

So have you been to a good urban mountain? Does your city have a mountain of it’s very own? Share your stories below, I need some cool thoughts for these hot days!