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Posts Tagged ‘urban planning’

Colossally Sordid: An Interview with Luc Sante

October 27, 2015 | by

Luc Sante. Photo © Laura Levine

With the publication of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, in 1991, Luc Sante established himself as one of New York City’s most imaginative elegists. The book was a shrewd chronicle of Lower Manhattan abjection from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries—but also a call for a more expansive sense of historical memory, one with room not just for the banking magnate and the besooted proletarian behind him but for the guy behind him, too, with the chewed-off ear and the shiv. Sante followed Low Life in 1992 with Evidence, a collection of startling and often sublime crime-scene photographs taken by the NYPD in the 1910s, a project in which Sante afforded his poor tenant-dwellers more dignity than many of them could claim in their abbreviated lives. Since then he’s contributed regularly to The New York Review of Books; written the liner notes of the Anthology of American Folk Music and translated Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines; published an autobiography of sorts, The Factory of Facts; and released a collection of essays, Kill All Your Darlings. 

His new book, The Other Paris, magnifies the crime, grime, and scrappy, world-reverberating insubordination of Parisians down through history. Sante’s Other Paris is the one that belongs to le Peuple and always has—to the prostitutes, the ragpickers, the laundresses, the pickpockets, the North Africans, Roma, and Jews, the pop singers and tattooed gang members (the apaches, many of whom “had a dotted line around their necks, to guide the blade of the guillotine”), the insurgents on the barricades and the Illegalist bomb throwers, the ones who got their heads cut off and the ones who physically did the cutting. Perhaps most of all, the Other Paris belongs to the flaneurs, the original dandies in the underworld, in whose tradition Sante has followed as a first-rate observer and reassembler of Paris, making this book the most recent contribution to the venerable body of literature that has sought to capture Paris the way it really was and is, from the vantage of the street rather than the street view.

Flaneurie is a huge part of The Other Paris—you call the flaneur the “exemplar of this book.” Since flaneurs have been the truest historians of Paris, did you find the act of walking at all important to your research? For as much consideration as you give to the social consequences of the built environment, it seems like a dérive or two might go a long way toward finding the essence of Paris from “the accumulated mulch of the city itself,” to borrow a phrase from Low Life.

When I wasn’t at the movies, I was walking. I walked all over the city, repeatedly—I kept journals of my walks, which are actually just lists of the sequences of streets. Even though the city isn’t as interesting as it once was—modern construction and commercial real-estate practices have wiped out so much of the old eccentricity—there are still hidden corners and ornery survivals, and of course the topography is such a determinant. New York City is more or less flat and what isn’t was mostly leveled long ago, so it’s missing that aspect of accommodation to hills and valleys and plateaux, not to mention the laying out of streets on a human scale long before urban planning scaled things to the demands of machines. Read More »

Cheddar, Cheever, and the Burbs

September 1, 2015 | by

An illustration from Muriel Stanek’s How People Live in the Suburbs, 1970.

Fifty years ago, John Cheever published The Wapshot Scandal, his second novel. Like many second novels, it’s more ambitious and more playful than its predecessor, the work of a writer who suspects he’s better than he feared. The traditional form suddenly seems boring, the same old themes threaten a categorization that the writer doesn’t want, and the writer—encouraged by praise, validated by awards, perhaps softened by income—realizes he can write just about anything. So he does.

The Wapshot Scandal begins where The Wapshot Chronicle ended: with the Wapshot family leaving the safety of St. Botolphs and searching for fulfillment in more modern suburban communities. An acrid whiff of cynicism rises from the page: we know this won’t end well, Cheever knows we know, and now it’s a matter of how and when. Moses and Coverley Wapshot bring their wives to Proxmire Manor and Talifer, respectively; the first is an archetype of the suburban nightmare, the second an archetype of a Cold War community, built around a missile-research facility.

Scandal is very much of its time, but even in its time the satire was well-trod: husbands drink too much, wives betray, wealth corrodes, families splinter, sex—granted or withheld—destroys. Cheever’s cynicism isn’t unique; he never claimed it was. What was, and what remains, unique, are passages like this:

The village, he knew, had, like any other, its brutes and its shrews, its thieves, and its perverts, but like any other it meant to conceal these facts under a shrine of decorum that was not hypocrisy but a guise or mode of hope.

This is what made Cheever special: he understood that the desperate idealism behind existential decay is still idealism. Which brings me to, well, me. Read More »

Mapping Central Park

June 17, 2015 | by

Desire Lines turns a walk in the park into an emotional map.

TROUV 2015.0004 Central Park 2015 Install 8

Desire Lines, 2015. A project of the Public Art Fund. © Tatiana Trouvé. Photo: Emma Cole, courtesy Gagosian Gallery

In 1654, Madeleine de Scudéry produced a ten-volume philosophical novel called Clélie, about the coaction between temperament and free will. Clélie was a popular salon novel at the time, but it’s now best remembered for the Carte de tendre, often translated as “the map of love” or “the map of the country of tenderness”: a long description of a country that represents the landscape of human emotion, illustrated by a map in the first volume of the book. The country is divided by the “river of inclination,” and there are little hamlets, deserts, and mountains like “sincerity,” “assiduity,” and “respect.” “Passion” is a dangerous-looking rocky outcrop, beyond which is unknown territory. To get from one end to another, one must avoid the “Lake of Indifference,” and “Affection” has to be surmounted to arrive at deep spiritual love. The map is one of the premier examples of sentimental cartography, which has a niche spot in French literary history.

In March, the Public Art Fund of New York City installed Desire Lines, a new commissioned work by the French Italian artist Tatiana Trouvé, which mixes sentiment and cartography. Desire Lines is at the southeast end of Central Park, in the Doris C. Freedman Plaza, where it will sit for the summer. The structure comprises three steel racks, nearly twelve feet tall, that hold spools of rope in different colors; there are 212 spools in all, each with a length that corresponds to a specific path in the park. Trouvé mapped, named, and indexed every one of them, from the thoroughfares to the secluded, unnamed paths. From a distance, the installation resembles a giant’s sewing kit, or an electrician’s stock. Engravings on each spool suggest various acts of walking in the culture: “Woman Suffrage Parade, March 3, 1913” or “ ‘Walk on By,’ ” Dionne Warwick, 1964.” Visitors “can choose a path by name and then undertake the walk as it describes, tracing the march of history in collective memory while discovering Central Park anew.” Read More »

Meet Your New Neighbors: An Interview with DW Gibson

May 21, 2015 | by


DW Gibson. Photo: Chiara Barzini

In cities, trends come, go, and come again; causes rise to prominence, fall by the wayside, and emerge repackaged; neighborhoods flourish or fall out of favor. Condos, cupcake shops, and bike lanes become signifiers; shady buyouts and racist landlords fuel arguments about whether communities are being renewed or decimated.

The word gentrification is in the subtitle of DW Gibson’s most recent oral history, but the author has trouble with it: it’s too broad, he writes, to adequately capture a wide variety of experiences, contexts, and meanings. Several interviewees in his book also seem at odds with the word. One says gentrification doesn’t describe anything in the real world. Another says he doesn’t need to be able to describe it because he knows what it feels like.

To mark the release of The Edge Becomes the Center: An Oral History of Gentrification in the 21st Century, I spoke with Gibson, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, about bringing the human touch to the page, viewing a book as one long panning shot in a film, and the importance of using all the tools at one’s disposal, including cute daughters.

How do you make gentrification something people want to read about?

Most of the books out there are academic or have an academic feel to them. I think the way you get people to care about gentrification is to write about human beings. My goal was to show the human fabric of gentrification. People relate to people, to stories. Read More »

Systems Bigger Than Ourselves, and Other News

March 16, 2015 | by


From SimCity, 1989.

  • On SimCity and the value of games that dared to make complex systems their protagonists: “SimCity is a game about urban societies, about the relationship between land value, pollution, industry, taxation, growth, and other factors … the game got us all to think about the relationships that make a city run, succeed, and decay, and in so doing to rise above our individual interests, even if only for a moment. This was a radical way of thinking about video games: as non-fictions about complex systems bigger than ourselves. It changed games forever—or it could have … ”
  • Philip Roth’s misogyny is treated as a given these days; “the women are monstrous because for Philip Roth women are monstrous,” Vivian Gornick once wrote. But: “Maybe Philip Roth loves women? Maybe he, who offers a three-page description of female masturbation, is in fact an advocate for female desire? … While misogynists try to shame women, Roth celebrates women’s sexual power. It’s the men he is out to get.”
  • “That sentence is shit. It’s got to be better. You asshole.” Matt Sumell on writing and doubt.
  • Today in German words that dearly need English equivalents: verschlimmbessert, which can be roughly translated as “ ‘ver-worsebettered.’ In essence, it’s a combination of verbessern (‘to improve’) and verschlimmern (‘to make worse’).  Here, then, is a verb that is able to express the idea of something simultaneously improving and worsening.”
  • In which Benjamin Percy attends the dreadfully named Man Camp and enjoys a surprisingly rousing encounter with masculinity: “When men get together, they tend to speak with irony or rough-throated braggadocio, but [here] there was an uncommon sincerity to everyone’s tone. It caught me off guard.”

Olympia by the Sea

August 28, 2014 | by

The dashed ambitions of Brooklyn’s Marine Park.


The salt marshes of Marine Park. Photo via

There is a proud park on the watery edge of Brooklyn. It contains a pool, a little sandy beach, canoes and kayaks, new sporting fields of all kinds, gardens, an open-air theater, and a playground; nearby subway stops draw people from the extremes of the five boroughs. Today, this sounds more or less like Brooklyn Bridge Park, the enchanting construction facing downtown Manhattan and built through public-private partnership, as is the way of city planning these days. But almost ninety years ago, these were just the lesser diversions in the grand plans for Brooklyn’s Marine Park.

Take the B or Q train down, down, down to Kings Highway—bring a book or music, because it’s a ride. Get off there, find the B2 or B100 bus on Quentin Avenue, and ride that another fifteen minutes east, and you’ll find the modern Marine Park. (You can also ride the 2 or 5 to the end of the line, which requires two bus transfers, but you’ll get there.) Almost ten miles from City Hall, you’ll have reached the greatest graveyard of a mighty park that New York City has ever seen.

It started in 1911, when the famed designer of the Chicago Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham, was invited to Brooklyn with his partner Edward Bennett to design a blueprint for the borough’s expansion. They set aside a large area far and away to the southeast by Jamaica Bay, as “a littoral counterpoint to Prospect Park,” as Thomas Campanella, Marine Park’s assiduous (and perhaps only) historian writes. As Campanella has documented, this suggestion became a reality through the philanthropy of two prominent Brooklynites, Frederic B. Pratt and Alfred T. White. They bought up and gave to the city about a hundred acres of land for the park’s creation. The city was leery even then—there were murmurs that a park would do little more than increase real-estate value for homeowners in the region. The philanthropists sweetened the deal to include $72,000 dollars to pay for costs. “The donors owned no other land in the vicinity and did not expect to profit in any way from the gift,” promised the chairman of the League for the Improvement of Marine Park, which throughout its history would have its work cut out for it. In 1925, the City at last made a formal announcement, and Marine Park was born. Read More »