Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘cities’

18 DECEMBER, 2014

How New York Became New York: A Love Letter to Jane Jacobs, Tucked Inside a Graphic Biography of Robert Moses

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How two titans faced off to shape the ideal of the modern metropolis.

Few people have done more to redefine the fate of a city — and, by a halo of influence, of cities in general — than Robert Moses (December 18, 1888–July 29, 1981), “master builder” of New York during the city’s astonishing growth spurt in the middle of the twentieth century. He envisioned and brought to life 658 playgrounds, which increased the city’s previous supply of these precious play-areas fivefold, 416 miles of parkways, 288 tennis courts, and 678 baseball diamonds, in addition to numerous major roads and bridges. A brilliant architect and fierce politician who denied doing politics, Moses possessed “an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other people,” as Robert E. Caro wrote in his Pulitzer-winning, 1,200-page biography The Power Broker — one of the most impressive books ever written in the English language — tracing how Moses slowly changed from “the optimist of optimists, the reformer of reformers, the idealist of idealists” into a man who used “iron will and determination” to bend a city, perhaps the world’s greatest city, to his will. That uncompromising willpower and its fruits would eventually lead the great urbanist Lewis Mumford to proclaim that “the influence of Robert Moses on the cities of America was greater than that of any other person.”

Forty years after Caro’s classic, writer Pierre Christin and artist Olivier Balez offer a very differently delightful take on the legendary man’s life in the beautiful graphic biography Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City (public library) — the latest installment in the same series by British independent press Nobrow that also gave us the excellent graphic biography of Freud and that of Karl Marx, which was among the best history books of the year.

In gorgeous mid-century-inspired illustrations, the story chronicles Moses’s formative years, his rise to power, his many contradictions — the greatest urban planner who ever lived built revolutionary highways and freeway systems, but never learned to drive — and how he acted out that infinitely rare combination of dreamer and doer on one of the grandest stages the world has ever known.

But make no mistake — Moses was no holy hero. The deep flaws of his power-hungry character and the dehumanizing ruthlessness of his industrial vision reveal themselves gradually and crescendo midway through the book as his counterpoint emerges: Jane Jacobs, legendary patron saint of urbanism and the human-centered city, enters the scene, via the beloved bicycle on which she was known to roam the city.

By that point, Moses has developed “such arrogance that he started to think himself irreplaceable.” Jacobs, on the other hand, operates with equal determination but from a deep place of humility and compassion for the citizen’s experience. The two titans of urban planning soon clash over their differences, exposing the disquieting fact that no ideal is without its tradeoffs and that what is most effective, more often than not, comes at the expense of what is most ennobling.

Moses’s fertile and perhaps perverse imagination has no limits and a second, equally gargantuan project will bring the antagonism between him and Jane Jacobs to a climax….

Jane has no trouble denouncing the monstrous “Spaghetti Bowl” that will constitute the Lower Manhattan expressway, soon also to be known as the LOMEX.

All that constitutes New York’s heritage, but also the memory of the tenements crammed with new immigrants — the air laden with the smell of meat from the meatpacking district; the discarded fish of Fulton Street; the sewing workshops full of exploited girls — all of this, considered by Robert Moses as inefficient or worse, unhygienic, is destined to disappear under a ten-lane highway.

Jane Jacobs will personify the refusal of the systematic eradication of the human, done in the name of a hypothetical better world.

In fact, the entire book feels like a love letter to Jane Jacobs buried inside a biography of a man far less worthy of admiration, which begs the obvious question: Where is the graphic biography of Jacobs herself? And, more broadly, why is it that among all the major graphic biographies released in the past few years — Salvador Dalí, Andy Warhol, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Richard Feynman, Hunter S. Thompson, Steve Jobs, and Francis Bacon — there hasn’t been a single one of a female cultural icon? There are some lovely children’s books celebrating great women — such as those about Julia Child, Maria Merian, and Jane Goodall — but the graphic biography genre woefully remains gender-warped, to say nothing of the subtler implication that women’s stories are to be infantilized and men’s superheroized.

Even so, Robert Moses remains an excellent book and in many ways a necessary one, worthwhile not only for that love letter to Jacobs — though it, to me, was the highlight — but also for telling the complicated story of a complicated man who shaped a complicated city. In doing so, it disabuses us of the dangerous illusion that history’s most important narratives are simple and straightforward hero-myths.

Illustrations courtesy of Nobrow

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09 JULY, 2014

What Makes a Great City: E.B. White on the Poetics of New York

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“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.”

A great city is like a great love — it makes you feel closer to your own center, envelops you in its immutable and caring magic, and no matter how far from it you may travel, it always beckons you with steadfast, unshakable mesmerism.

But what makes a great city? Scholars, social scientists, and urban planners have pondered the question for centuries, pointing to everything from walkability to the social life of small urban spaces. And yet the most timeless answer is a poetic rather than a pragmatic one. From the 1949 gem Here Is New York (public library) — one of the best books about New York ever written, and undoubtedly one of the best books about anything — comes an exquisite articulation by E.B. White, who captures the singular mesmerism of Gotham and all the “enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

In one of the most spectacular passages, he writes:

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. … New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.

But White’s words also emanate the universal exhilaration of any large city that cajoles humanity into a state of constant interaction:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

Here Is New York is a sublime read in its entirety, as “miraculously beautiful” itself as the city it serenades. Complement it with White’s moving obituary for his beloved dog Daisy and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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18 MARCH, 2014

Meanwhile: An Illustrated Love Letter to the Living Fabric of a City and Our Shared Human Longing to Be Understood

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A tender reminder that however vast our differences, we are bonded by the yearning to feel seen for who we are.

I’ve written before that every city needs a love letter. Though Meanwhile, in San Francisco: The City in Its Own Words (public library | IndieBound) by illustrator extraordinaire and frequent Brain Pickings contributor Wendy MacNaughton — who gave us the wonderful Lost Cat, one of the best books of 2013 — may be “about” a city, in the sense that the raw inspiration was drawn from the streets of San Francisco, it is really about the city, any city — about community, about subcultures and belonging, about the complexities of gentrification, about what it means to have individual dignity and shared identity.

Like a modern-day Margaret Mead armed with ink and watercolor, not a critic or commentator but an observer and amplifier of voice, MacNaughton plunges into the living fabric of the city with equal parts curiosity and compassion, gentleness and generosity, wit and wisdom, and emerges with a dimensional portrait painted with honesty, humor, and humility.

Beneath the individual stories — of the bus driver, of the hipsters, of the old men in Chinatown, of the librarian, of the street preacher — lies a glimpse of our shared humanity, those most vulnerable and earnest parts of the human soul that we often overlook and dismiss as we reduce people to their demographic and psychographic variables, be those race or gender or socioeconomic status or subcultural identification. Embedded in these simple, moving stories is MacNaughton’s tender reminder that there is no greater gift we can give each other than the gift of understanding, of looking and really seeing, of peering beyond the persona and into the person with an awareness that however different our struggles and circumstances may be, we are inextricably bonded by the great human longing to be truly seen for who we are.

We meet the Mission Hipsters, who might as well be the Williamsburg Hipsters*, or the Insert-Any-City’s-Neighborhood-That-Has-Become-Synonymous-With-Hipsters Hipsters, an affectionate portrait of the cultural trope, down to “hand-knit dog sweater #62″:

And speaking of dogs, any dog-lover would relate to MacNaughton when she writes, “I don’t know any of the dog owners’ names, but I know all their dogs.'”

Many of the stories, which were originally created for MacNaughton’s column Meanwhile in The Rumpus, are also a meditation on the realities, often tragicomic realities, of modern life:

Others offer a lens on the invisible and often misunderstood threads that hold a community together, like the board games people play on the sidewalks of Chinatown, any Chinatown.

We’re reminded, too, of the heartening resurgence of maker culture in the digital age.

One of the most poignant stories is that of two intersections “a block away [yet] a universe away”: 5th and Mission streets on the one hand, a mecca for rapid gentrification and $6 soy lattes, and 6th and Mission on the other, a land of homelessness and produce scarcity. There are, MacNaughton writes, four types of people on 6th and Mission: residents of single-room occupancies, folks who sleep in a shelter and hang out on 6th street during the day, those who work on 6th street, and passers-by. On 5th and Mission, the four archetypes come from a different world: programmers, tourists, business people, and … Australians. (Among the book’s many gifts is MacNaughton’s penchant for infusing even the most uncomfortable of subjects with warm and amicable wit.)

Then there are the old-school Dolphin Club Swimmers, who plunge into the freezing waters of the Bay to swim alongside the dolphins as an eccentric yet immensely life-affirming antidote to the bystander quality of modern life.

But as a lover of libraries, I found the most heartwarming section to be the one about the San Francisco Public Library, where we meet Leah, “the first and only full-time social worker dedicated to a library, anywhere,” Charles, a formerly homeless man now employed at the library’s health and safety division, and the library’s colorful patrons, a microcosm of the city itself.

Mostly, however, Meanwhile is a gentle invitation to do as the title implies — pause and spend some time with those invisible, in-between moments that often slip unnoticed as we float in the trance of our big-plan-making lives. Because, after all, John Lennon was right when he sang that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” in Double Fantasy. It is in those meanwhile-moments, captured in MacNaughton’s beautiful ink-and-watercolor illustrations, that the fantasy collapses and the dizzying vibrancy of reality springs to life.

Bonus joy: A number of the spreads from the book are available as prints.

Images courtesy of Wendy MacNaughton / Chronicle Books

* This illustration is the only one from the book not from the Rumpus series — it was originally created for a Bold Italic piece by Stuart Schuffman.

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