Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson


Author: Steven Johnson
Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World
Narrator: Alan Sklar
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: [United States] : Tantor Media, Inc., 2006
Summary/Review:

This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London.  Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street.  That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.

Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase.  Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms.  All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week Ending August 23


99% Invisible Peace Lines

A history of the barriers built between Catholic Nationalist and Protestant Unionist communities in Northern Ireland that still remain over 20 years after the peace agreement that ended The Troubles.

The War on Cars Barcelona’s Superblocks with David Roberts of Vox

A discussion of the Superilla, or superblock, plan in Barcelona to reclaim urban space from motor vehicles.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 1


Futility Closet :: The General Slocum

The grim history of the worst maritime disaster in New York City.

Best of the Left :: Our built environment shapes society and vice versa

The issues of increasing urban density, building social housing, and deprioritizing the automobile in cities are near and dear in my heart. And yet, even Leftists tend to fall into the pro-car/pro-sprawl trap, so it’s good to hear these arguments for a more livable urbanism.

Hub History  ::  Love is Love: John Adams and Marriage Equality 

It seems like yesterday, but 15 years have passed since Massachusetts became the first state to perform legal same-sex marriages.  Here’s the history of how that came to be.

Sound Opinions  ::  De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising

I have a lot of nostalgia for De La Soul’s debut album which came out when I was a nerdy high school student.  The Sound Opinions crew explore how the album was created and explain why it’s so hard to find the album today.

Hit Parade :: The Invisible Miracle Sledgehammer Edition

If you turned on the radio in the mid-1980s, you were likely to hear music by members of Genesis (Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, and Mike and the Mechanics) while the band Genesis continued to make hits.  Chris Molanphy explains this unusual situation in pop music history.

Running tally of 2019 Podcast of the Week appearances:

Podcasts of the Week Ending October 20th


To the Best of Our Knowledge :: Pick Your Poison

The most stunning segment of this episode on poison regards “The Radium Girls” of Ottawa, Illinois, who were poisoned painting clock dials with radium.  It’s another example of cruelty of capitalist greed, misogyny, and indifference to human suffering.

Twenty Thousand Hertz :: Theremin

I’m fascinated by weird instruments like the theremin and the career of Bob Moog, and this podcast has a lot of both.

Fresh Air :: Don’t Be Fooled By The Talking Horse — ‘BoJack’ Is A Sadness ‘Sneak Attack’

I’ve written reviews of BoJack Horseman here stating it’s the “best show on television,” and Terry Gross’ interview with its creator is revelatory.

99% Invisible :: The Worst Way to Start a City

What if a city was born by just having 100,000 people show up at once and claim their spot?  That’s the weird story of Oklahoma City.  Listen to this just for the “Oh, Joe – here’s your mule!” part.

Book Review: Holy Spokes : The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels by Laura Everett


AuthorLaura Everett
TitleHoly Spokes : The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels
Publication Info: Grand Rapids : Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017.
Summary/Review:

Rev. Laura is someone I know, mostly from Twitter, but occasionally at church or out biking the streets of Boston.  This is a book about bicycling and as it’s set in Boston, it’s very familiar to me, especially the growing community of bike users that has become more active in the past decade, as well as the more somber remembrances of people who have been killed riding their bikes in recent years.  Everett writes about the spirituality of bicycling, beginning with her own conversion to commuting by bike.  Her ministry to the city grows as she travels the streets of the most vulnerable communities, seeing them up close without the windshield view.  And biking also gives an understanding of vulnerability to the rider as bicyclists are generally maligned community, their bodies always at risk, and any protections gained despite fighting tooth and nail are generally still insufficient.  It’s a beautiful book that touches on many things, cities and bikes, faith and justice.  I highly recommend it.

Recommended books:

Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan, and Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Rating: *****

Photopost: Jane Jacobs in Boston Tour


In honor of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday yesterday, I took a tour of the North End lead by Max Grinnell, the Urbanologist, an urban studies expert who divides his time between Boston and Chicago.  While I’ve been leading tours in the North End for more than 15 years, I learned some new things and visited places I’d not been before.  We talked about what Jacobs found successful in the North End in 1960 and what has changed in the intervening years as the neighborhood has gone remarkably upscale.  The highlight of the tour was a stop at Polcari’s Coffee where the shop owner gave a personal history of the business and the neighborhood.

If only the weather had been better, but it was worth getting soaked to the bone to celebrate Jane Jacobs and urbanism.

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.

Photopost: Casey Overpass Demolition


The Casey Overpass is over and past. The elevated highway structure that darkened the skies over Forest Hills and divided a neighborhood (literally and figuratively) for more than 60 years is gone. I wrote several times about the multi-year process that went into the plan to remove the highway and replace it with an at-grade city street, improvements for walking, biking, and transit, and public space, but had doubts that it would ever really happen.  So when the big machinery arrived this spring and began dismantling the overpass, it was a delight to watch them in action.  Even more so was the dramatic change that occurred in the Forest Hills area as the sunlight was able to shine on the area and views of the Boston skyline and nearby wooded parkscapes opened up.

There’s a lot more work to be done to complete the Casey Arborway Project, and I expect the construction period won’t always be fun, but I look forward to the continuing transformation of Forest Hills from a place where cars just drive through, to a place where people live, work, shop, dine, and play.

Here are some photos I took over the course of the year showing the demolition.

Book Review: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson


Author: Michael Rawson
Title: Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston
Publication Info: Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, c2010.
ISBN: 9780674048416
Summary/Review:

This wonderfully researched and well-written history, explores the making of Boston by focusing on the social and environmental factors that shaped the city, its human ecology.  There are five sections of the book:

1. Enclosing the Common – the effort of prosperous Bostonians to enclose Boston Common, changing it from a place of work (pasturing cows and digging up turf) to a place of recreation.

2. Constructing water – the contentious development of a public waterworks, a means by which reformers hoped to improve both the health and morality of the populace, but a process that also forever changed the role of municipal government.

3. Inventing the suburbs – people move from the city, seeking pastoral cities and escape taxation, but they also miss the public works that the city provides.  Some suburbs are annexed by Boston (willingly or otherwise) while some become cities in their own right.

4. Making the harbor – the modern Boston Harbor is human-made not natural, and the processes of landmaking, dredging, damming, et al that modified it so much were a contentious issue in the 19th century when many mariners thought the harbor would be lost with natural water movement.

5. Recreating the wilderness – suburban green spaces such as the Middlesex Fells and the Blue Hills are created as a connection to the colonial forbears and the lost wilderness.

This book is a terrific means of grasping the process of urbanism for modern cities and a unique approach to the history of Boston. It pairs well with Walter Muir Whitehill’s classic Boston: A Topographical History.
Favorite Passages:

“What made that agenda so contentious was that reformers wanted to expand the role of government to achieve it.  Since government had never played a serious role in structuring how Bostonians interacted with their water supply, transferring responsibility for finding adequate water from the individual to the city seemed to some like a radical and potentially dangerous move.  Instead, early experiments in municipal water like Boston’s would prove to be the leading edge of a wave of change in municipal government.  As the century progressed, cities would expand their power to fund larger public works, often through borrowing, and they would pay the cost through general taxes rather than special assessments.  Event the cost of smaller projects that did not require bond issues would increasingly be spread out among all residents of a city.  Public water would encourage urban residents, in Boston and elsewhere, to expand their vision of the public good.” – p. 104

“The Fells and Blue Hills were designed to store information about colonial people and events and prompt visitors to recall the collected stories.  The existence of such places implies a relationship of permanence, lest the memories disappear with the monument…” – p. 269

Recommended books: Boston: A Topographical History by Walter Muir Whitehill, A City So Grand: The Rise of an American Metropolis, Boston 1850-1900 by Stephen Puleo, Boston’s Back Bay by William Newman & Wilferd E. Holton and Gaining Ground: A History of Landmaking in Boston by Nancy S. Seasholes
Rating: ****

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