Doing construction in New York City is dangerous and expensive. Cut the pavement in the wrong place and crews can rupture gas lines. Hit a water main, short a backup generator. These sorts of mistakes cost the city $300 million each year. Worse yet are natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy — where floods caused a three-day blackout and left two hospitals without power — and threats like buried chemical tanks and national security issues. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Greg Milner follows the people who are creating the city’s first three-dimensional subsurface infrastructure map to create a safer city that can self-regulate and grow more efficiently, and where agencies and private utilities can coordinate. In a very real sense they are pioneers, of a frontier that lays below our feet. Detailing pipes, cables, sewers, wires and electric lines, even soil types, the map will be the first of its kind, and if it works, it could make New York a model for the world’s future smart cities.
Because of data from satellites, we can now map the world down to about 6 inches. We’ve almost reached the point Jorge Luis Borges describes in his short story “On Exactitude in Science,” in which cartographers built “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.” But the world beneath our feet remains shrouded in darkness. “Light and radio waves don’t go through dirt like they do air,” says George Percivall, chief technical officer for the Open Geospatial Consortium, which is helping to develop global standards for underground mapping. “The next frontier, in both a literal and figurative sense, is underground.”
New York City’s daunting infrastructural labyrinth is like the “Here be dragons” decorating ancient maps. Underneath the 6,000 miles of asphalt and concrete road lie thousands of miles of water, sewer, gas, telecommunications, and electrical infrastructure. And let’s not forget the 500 miles of underground subway tracks or Con Edison’s 100-mile steam delivery system. In its entirety, it’s known to no one. The individual details of the vast underground are hoarded and guarded by the various stakeholders. Con Edison has its electrical map; the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) keeps track of water and sewer pipes; the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) could tell you where the transit tunnels are; and so on.
Imagine the city as a living organism, a body consisting of various systems—respiratory, nervous, skeletal—that share the same space and even intertwine. Now imagine surgery performed on that body by a surgeon who knows the location of only one system, who looks at the body and sees only blood vessels or bones. This is the odd condition of New York—a body subject to what, viewed through a wide lens, looks like perpetual triage. Each year, for repairs or to facilitate construction, the streets are sliced open 200,000 times—an average of almost 550 cuts per day, or 30 per street mile every year.
Svetlana Boym, an eminent Leningrad-born literary scholar, died earlier this month in Boston. She was a versatile and eloquent critic, novelist, and photographer, but is perhaps best known for her work on nostalgia, a cultural and psychological phenomenon that she described as “a strategy of survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming.”
Boym left the USSR in the early 1980s. Since then, her country of birth has formally disintegrated, but has also become one of the most fetishized nostalgic objects of our post-Cold War imagination, a political entity that continues to cast spectral shadows in unexpected places — in Russia, in the former Communist Bloc, and in the West.
Writing about post-Soviet Kaliningrad/Königsberg, Boym described the city, and by extension contemporary Russia as a whole, as a “theme park of lost illusions.” The stories in this reading list — from a haunting travelogue through an abandoned Soviet mining town in the Arctic to Boym’s account of Moscow’s 850th anniversary celebrations in 1997 — take us on a ride through the park’s gaudily uncanny landscapes. Read more…
In “Kay, Zales, and Marketing Diamonds to the Middle-Class Man”—a recent feature for Racked—Chavie Lieber wrote about Signet Jewelers, the parent company that owns such household names as Kay Jewelers, Jared, and Zales. Signet became the largest specialty jewelry company in America by targeting the midmarket jewelry segment, knowing their customer base, and doing some serious marketing. Trust also plays a major role in jewelry purchases, and Signet has honed customer trust via an unlikely strategy: store location.
Location is another incredibly important factor in the company’s success, says Angie Ash, executive vice president of jewelry marketing firm Fruchtman Marketing. Stores for Signet’s three largest brands (Kay, Jared, and Zales, which make up 41, 21, and 14 percent of the brand’s sales, respectively) are strategically placed. Most Kay and Zales storefronts are located in suburban malls populated with shoppers, while Jared storefronts are “normally free-standing sites with high visibility and traffic flow, positioned close to major roads within shopping developments,” as per the company’s 2015 annual report.
This emphasis on location not only correlates to sales, it also helps build brand recognition among shoppers.
Echoes Ash, “A customer that walks past the same mall jewelry brand every single week is going to eventually feel comfortable enough going when he’s ready to buy something. These mall jewelers also don’t have many barriers. They are an open storefront where people can go right up there and talk to an employee. In most cases, they also have price tags so shoppers can easily look at the items and see what they can afford.”
Architect Maya Lin was a senior at Yale when she designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In a 2000 essay for the New York Review of Books—which she began writing around the memorial’s completion in fall 1982 and then put aside for nearly two decades—she reflects on how she came to enter in the competition, and the concepts behind her design. After seeing a notice announcing a competition for a Vietnam veterans memorial, Lin’s funereal architecture seminar decided to adopt the design idea as their class’s final project. In the excerpt below, she delves into the class’s previous assignment:
At that point, not much was known about the actual competition, so for the first half of the assignment we were left without concrete directions for what “they” were looking for or even who “they” were. Instead, we had to determine for ourselves what a Vietnam memorial should be. Since a previous project had been to design a memorial for World War III, I had already begun to ask the simple questions: What exactly is a memorial? What should it do?
My design for a World War III memorial was a tomblike underground structure that I deliberately made to be a very futile and frustrating experience. I remember the professor of the class coming up to me afterward, saying quite angrily, “If I had a brother who died in that war, I would never want to visit this memorial.” I was somewhat puzzled that he didn’t quite understand that World War III would be of such devastation that none of us would be around to visit any memorial, and that my design was instead a pre-war commentary. In asking myself what a memorial to a third world war would be, I came up with a political statement that was meant as a deterrent.
The city’s origins are clouded in rumour and speculation. Some describe it as a vanity project of Than Shwe, the former military leader of the country. Many believe the “audacious” name given to the city might reflect “illusions of grandeur or … perhaps another sign of [Than Shwe’s] possible dementia”, according to one 2006 US government diplomatic cable, released in the trove of documents published by Wikileaks.
Other theories have pointed to an increasingly paranoid junta wanting to move the capital away from the sea, fearing an amphibious US invasion. Instead, the seat of military and political power now sits closer to the restive regions where separatist movements and ethnic groups are pushing for greater rights for bitterly oppressed minorities, including the Karen and Rohingya.
The regime, and Than Shwe, pitched the move to Naypyidaw as akin to building a new Canberra or Brasilia, an administrative capital away from the traffic jams and over-population of Rangoon. Not many believe this story. “By withdrawing from the major city, Rangoon, Than Shwe and the leadership … sheltered themselves from any popular uprising,” suggest activists Benedict Rogers and Jeremy Woodrum in their book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant.
Hillel Aron’s “The Last Freeway” was published in Slake in 2011 and appeared as a Longreads Member Pick in September 2013. It’s a story about a city (Los Angeles), a freeway interchange (where the 105 meets the 110), and a man (Judge Harry Pregerson). Aron explains:
“Well, my friends Joe Donnelly and Laurie Ochoa had this great quarterly called Slake, and I wanted to write something for them, so we sat down and talked about it… I think maybe I pitched it to them, I can’t remember. I’d was just always fascinated by freeways, growing up in Los Angeles, and I loved that Reyner Banham book, The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. When I was kid, I was completely enchanted by that 105 / 110 interchange, the carpool lane one, which towers above the city. It’s basically like a rollercoaster. Actually it kind of sucks—since I wrote the piece, they’ve turned that carpool lane into a “toll lane,” so normal carpoolers can’t use it anymore without one of those fast pass things. At any rate, I did some research and it turned out that (a) the 105 was the last freeway built in Los Angeles—the end of an era, really. And it was so tough to build that it basically set a precedent of not building freeways anymore. And (b), there was this nutty judge who turned the whole thing into a New Deal-style public works program to benefit the communities that were being bisected by this massive beast of a freeway. And he also ordered them to stick a train in the middle of it, which didn’t quite go to the airport, but that’s a different story…”
Passengers in the lounge car of the Empire Builder enroute from Chicago to East Glacier Park Montana, June 1974: Flickr, US National Archives
Thanks to a travel grant and a discounted Amtrak pass, Danya Sherman recently spent thirty days traveling around the country by train, studying the public realm of long-distance rail travel. Sherman formerly served as Director of Public Programs, Education & Community Engagement at the High Line.As a planner and cultural programmer, she hoped to learn what makes trains such powerful spaces for interaction, and how those lessons can be applied elsewhere in the urban environment. In a recent piece for Next City, she explored some of these ideas:
The long-distance train is one of America’s greatest and least heralded public spaces. Perhaps without intending to, the train encapsulates many qualities of public spaces that planners and designers try so hard to create. It is democratic in that it serves people across many different communities, geographies and interest groups. It is diverse in that it appeals to a broad spectrum of people across ages, ethnicities, races, nationalities and genders, and critically, it facilitates connections between these different people. (While traveling from New Orleans to Los Angeles, I met a gay couple going to Houston, a Latino family headed to Albuquerque, an indie rock-loving pizza-maker from Austin, a minister going to Tucson and an L.A.-bound retired merchant marine who taught me how to play dominoes.) Unlike planes, trains foster a sense of appreciation and curiosity about the landscapes through which they pass, which in turn help passengers develop a deeper connection to place.
The physical qualities that help to facilitate this sense of connection are human-scale design, a clean and safe environment, and an aesthetic that is straightforward and not overly fanciful. The dimensions of the car make it (generally speaking) cozy and comfortable, but spacious enough that you aren’t on top of the person seated next to you. (When people are too physically close they tend to retreat emotionally and mentally, as anyone who has ever ridden the 1 train during rush hour in Manhattan can attest.)
That long-distance trains aren’t designed with one specific aesthetic, demographic or psychographic in mind means that the ride is more about what’s unfolding within the space rather than the materiality of the car. It also frames the passing landscape in a way that makes it easy to use as a conversation starter. This follows the concept of “triangulation,” which William H. Whyte, a famous public space researcher and advocate, coined to describe a third element that gives people something easy to talk about.