Atlantic Cities

Symbols Worth Saving: The Best #CityReads of the Week

Symbols Worth Saving: The Best #CityReads of the Week
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Our weekly roundup of the most intriguing articles about cities and urbanism we've come across in the past seven days. Share your favorites on Twitter with #cityreads.

"Engineers, Conservationists Work on Lasting Fix for Watts Towers," Angel Jennings, Los Angeles Times

From a distance, the Watts Towers rise as a beacon of pride in a community that has struggled for years with poverty and crime.

But up close, tiny cracks are tearing through the historic sculpture. One particularly nasty fissure starts thin at the base of the 99-foot center tower, then widens and snakes over colorful tiles, branching like a network of veins from an artery. Decorative ornaments — pieces of glass, seashells and pottery that artist Simon Rodia painstakingly affixed — are falling off, bit by bit.

The towers have been deteriorating for years, prompting quick patch jobs that did little long-term good. A worker with binoculars would spot a crack, panic and rush to seal it over with cement and other materials. But the cracks always came back.

Now, a team of engineers and conservationists have descended on Watts to try to discover the root problems for the decay and come up with a more lasting fix.

Frank Preusser, conservation scientist for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has hooked the towers up to several devices to monitor its complex condition. Three sensors track movements of the cracks, measuring wind gusts and minute vibrations.

"Detroit's Quixotic Bid to Host the United Nations," Charlene Mires, Foreign Policy

In the 20th century, Detroit earned a reputation as the automotive capital of the world -- a declaration of pride in its manufacturing achievements. In the 21st century, the struggling city has cropped up in the news as the murder or arson capital of the world. Based on its massive consumption of salty snacks, some even regard it as the potato chip capital of the world.

But suppose Detroit were the capital of the world, known around the globe not only for its industrial past or post-industrial present, but also as the focal point of international diplomacy. Suppose that the United Nations had its headquarters there, and that the last six decades in Detroit's history were framed not only by the decline of the auto industry, the racial tensions, and the plummeting population, but also the work of securing world peace. What then would we think of Detroit? And what might we think of the United Nations?

At the end of World War II, Detroit's boosters dared to dream. In 1944, while the Dumbarton Oaks conference met to lay the foundation for the United Nations, Detroit was the first American city to conceive that the new world peace organization might also offer a hometown opportunity. The idea to invite the United Nations to establish its headquarters in Detroit originated with the local Convention and Tourist Bureau, gained unanimous support from the Detroit City Council, and before long was dispatched to U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull. As the United Nations became reality in 1945 and 1946, additional missives to the world's diplomats called attention to Detroit as an ideal site for the organization's headquarters.

The Motor City pointed to its location on the U.S.-Canadian border -- "the international boundary of two great nations which have been at peace for 132 years" -- and to its role as one of the "arsenals of democracy" that helped win World War II. By 1945, as the United Nations began to define its criteria for a headquarters location, Detroit also boasted of its cosmopolitan population, listing every conceivable nationality that resided there -- but in a sign of the times, excluding any mention of its large and growing African-American population.

"Breeding Pigeons on Rooftops, and Crossing Racial Lines," Joseph Berger, The New York Times

When New Yorkers consider the subculture of people who raise pigeons on rooftops, many are likely to think of Terry Malloy, the longshoreman in the 1954 film “On the Waterfront” played by Marlon Brando. He was a classic rooftop breeder, rough-hewed, working-class and white ethnic to his toes.

But that image has long needed some alteration because in the dwindling world of rooftop fliers, as they are known, the men are as likely to be working-class blacks or Hispanics. Many were introduced to the hobby by Irish, Italian and other fliers of European descent, an unlikely camaraderie that evolved in neighborhoods like Bushwick, Canarsie and Ozone Park that were undergoing gradual racial shifts.

Ike Jones, an African-American who manages one of the last pigeon supply stores for its Italian-Jewish owner, Joey Scott, said he learned much of the craft when he was about 12. He then became a helper to George Coppola, an Italian rooftop breeder in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

“I was amazed at his coop,” said Mr. Jones, now 65. “He had electricity and running water, and I only had a box made of scrap wood. On Sunday his wife would cook spaghetti and meatballs and I would eat with them because I was always there.”

"Tokyo Dust: The Geography of Pollen," Todd Crowell, New Geography

TOKYO – The weather here is turning warmer, the cherry trees are blossoming and the waiting rooms in clinics that specialize in nose and eye problems are filling up with people suffering from runny noses, sneezing and bloodshot eyes.

Tokyo is known for many things: the Imperial Palace gardens, cherry trees in the springtime, super-crowded commuter trains. But it has a more dubious distinction. It is also the world capital for allergies, especially for hay fever, known to the Japanese as pollen sickness.

Of course this is no secret to the bulk of the people living here, especially the estimated six or seven million who are prone to pollen allergies (based on general rule that 15- 20 percent of the Japanese population suffers from hay fever).

Tokyoites know that by the time the plum trees start to blossom in March, it's time to stock up on antihistamine tablets, eye drops, herbal medicines and face masks. Those most susceptible to pollen sometimes also avail themselves of allergy shots and other more exotic remedies.

One might wonder, why Tokyo? The answer goes back to just before World War II, and just after its end. In those hardscrabble years, people denuded the forests of the nearby mountains to repair burned out homes, keep warm and cook food.

"Can the Model for Urban School Reform Be Found in Union City, NJ?", Carly Berwick, Next City

Poverty is a root cause of low achievement in school, and most big-city public schoolchildren are poor.

Mediagenic leaders of the school reform movement, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee , agree with this point, as well do most educators. The bickering comes in when deciding how to tackle the ever-growing epidemic.

For Duncan and Rhee, the answer is found in teachers. They say that by weeding out ineffective teachers using a system of student testing and stringent, punitive teacher evaluation, the life prospects of poor students will improve. Other systems take the approach of shutting down failing schools and hoping that the students left to switch schools do a better job in new, ideally higher-performing classrooms. (Hello Philadelphia.)

Not everyone agrees with these radical approaches. Enter the mild-mannered, rosy-cheeked, bespectacled professor, who argues that in fact, there is a middle ground that doesn’t require mass firings, closing schools or huge infusions of grant dollars to lift poor children above their suburban peers. David Kirp, a public policy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, argues in his new book Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools that poor city kids with many demographic disadvantages can indeed learn what they need to graduate and succeed if only given school systems that work better from day one on.

It’s neither sexy nor fast, but long-term, comprehensive systemic change does work, says Kirp, who spent a year inside the schools of Union City, NJ. to find out how. In Union City, 92 percent of the schoolchildren are in poverty and 30 percent of students speak limited English. In 1989, Union City schools were on the precipice of being taken over by the state of New Jersey for poor performance. Nearly 25 years later, 89 percent of students in the district graduate on time and test scores across the grades have nearly caught up to those of suburban New Jersey students, who are among the top performers in the nation.

Top image: Capture Light/Shutterstock.com

Sommer Mathis is editor of The Atlantic Cities. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com. All posts »

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