Atlantic Cities
Year in Review

The Best #Cityreads of the Year

The Best #Cityreads of the Year
Reuters

Each week, we round-up our favorite #Cityreads. As 2013 draws to a close, here's a collection of the pieces that stuck with us. Did we miss something? Add your favorites in the comments.

"Invisible Shadows: Dasani's Homeless Life"
Andrea Elliott, New York Times, December 9, 2013

It is no place for children. Yet Dasani is among 280 children at the shelter. Beyond its walls, she belongs to a vast and invisible tribe of more than 22,000 homeless children in New York, the highest number since the Great Depression, in the most unequal metropolis in America.

Nearly a quarter of Dasani’s childhood has unfolded at Auburn, where she shares a 520-square-foot room with her parents and seven siblings. As they begin to stir on this frigid January day, Dasani sets about her chores.

Her mornings begin with Baby Lele, whom she changes, dresses and feeds, checking that the formula distributed by the shelter is not, once again, expired. She then wipes down the family’s small refrigerator, stuffed with lukewarm milk, Tropicana grape juice and containers of leftover Chinese. After tidying the dresser drawers she shares with a sister, Dasani rushes her younger siblings onto the school bus.

"I have a lot on my plate," she says, taking inventory: The fork and spoon are her parents and the macaroni, her siblings — except for Baby Lele, who is a plump chicken breast.

"So that’s a lot on my plate — with some corn bread," she says. "That's a lot on my plate."

"Upstairs"
Kait Heacock, Brooklyn, April 14, 2013

Peter was an agoraphobic. He couldn’t tell you what that was a year ago, but he could describe to you now what it feels like to stand by the front door and feel the heat radiate off of the knob, so sure it could burn you if you touch it. He never would have guessed when he rented this one-bedroom basement apartment that it could become his waking coffin, that he would let her death bury him alive. It was the first place he found on Craigslist, the woman who owned the house was the first landlord to return his call, and he took it without inspecting the toilet or looking closer at the cracks in the ceiling.

Sylvia didn’t know she had rented the apartment in her basement to an agoraphobic. She thought they kept different hours. As a nurse who worked the graveyard shift three nights a week, she had grown used to keeping hours with truck drivers, ghosts, or the women working on Highway 99.  She had become a ghost herself at some point. She lost track of when.



Musicians in Portland, Oregon, over Labor Day weekend 2011.

"Marketing Portland's Music to the Masses"
Aaron Scott, Portland Monthly, July 23, 2013

By profession, Matarazzo is known as a "music supervisor." Marketing companies, brands, and filmmakers hire her to find that perfect song—such as an electronic track by the artist Dabrye that sonically propelled a Motorola commercial in which a sleek room fractures and folds up into a Moto Razr phone. When she can’t find the right song, she hires someone to write it, to order. The string quartet she commissioned from the young composer Nicholas Wright for Nike’s “Find Your Greatness” London Olympics spot, showing everyday athletes around the world, won the Association of Independent Commercial Producers’ award in June for best original music. Often, the tracks she discovers come from Portland’s fertile independent music scenes. She’s placed the swinging rock of Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside in ads for Target and J. Crew, casting the band’s songs farther than any radio play has. Given the otherwise dismal state of the music industry, any of those phone calls Matarazzo relentlessly places or receives could change the life of a starving songwriter or a scruffy band.

This power has helped Matarazzo and a few local colleagues make Portland a fulcrum for a major shift in how the music business works, especially for the kind of independent, edgy, underground artists the city prides itself on breeding.

"The Weeklies"
Monica Potts, The American Prospect, March 26, 2013

Across the country, suburban poverty rose by more than half in the first decade of the new century. Families now find themselves navigating landscapes that were built around wealth: single-family houses that are sold, not rented; too few apartment buildings; and government agencies hidden at the far edge of the suburban ring, more responsive to trash-pickup complaints than rising hunger rates.

The Ramada families became homeless because they could no longer pay rents and mortgages and found little help to slow their fall. In 2011, Colorado ranked eighth in foreclosures nationwide. When families in Jefferson County, which encompasses Denver’s western suburbs, lost their home in the recession, they flooded a market that had the lowest number of rental vacancies in ten years. The Section 8 program in the area dispenses vouchers through a random lottery that typically has about 2,500 applicants; in any given year, only 30 to 40 spots become available. The school system, which keeps the best records of homelessness in the county, says the number of homeless students rose from 59 in 2001 to 2,812 in the current school year. Unable to find another home and unable to find space in the county’s shelters, which hold fewer than 100 beds, the new poor disappeared into the suburban landscape wherever they could find a roof. With nowhere else to go, they turned the Ramada Inn into an impromptu SRO.


A man carrying a girl walks pass a man sleeping on the sidewalk on Market Street in the Tenderloin District in San Francisco. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)

"Arise, Tenderloin"
Gary Kamiya, San Francisco Magazine, October 26, 2013

For as long as I’ve lived in San Francisco—going on 43 years now—I’ve been fascinated by the Tenderloin. It is the strangest neighborhood in the metropolis—maybe the strangest on the planet. In the midst of one of the most affluent cities in the world, it is a 40-square-block island of poverty and squalor. Its streets teem with the people the Chamber of Commerce does not want you to see: the ragged, the mentally ill, the addicted, the paroled, the homeless. While all big cities have such denizens, they are usually scattered here and there—not clustered right next to the most valuable real estate in town. But the Tenderloin couldn’t be any more central. It’s encircled by money: to the east, Union Square; to the north, Nob Hill; to the west, Civic Center and the Van Ness corridor. From the glittering shops of Union Square, it’s only a few minutes’ walk to the crackheads, derelicts, and prostitutes at Turk and Mason. Make a wrong turn coming out of the Hilton Hotel, and in a few seconds you feel like you’re in the South Bronx—or Calcutta.

This is bizarre. For if there is one ironclad rule that governs cities, it’s that money and poor people don’t mix. Once money appears, poor people disappear. Most American cities used to have Tenderloin-like neighborhoods downtown, but in almost all cases, those neighborhoods have been gentrified out of existence. Take New York’s Bowery, a name synonymous with flophouses and alcoholic despair as recently as the 1990s. Today it gleams with luxury hotels, shops, galleries, and museums. Or Los Angeles’ downtown, long a skid row Siberia, now a bustling yuppie dreamscape. Similar changes have occurred in cities as disparate in size and disposition as Vancouver, London, San Diego, and Dallas.

"Taken"
Sarah Stillman, New Yorker, August 12, 2013

The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, cops drive a Cadillac Escalade stencilled with the words “This Used To Be a Drug Dealer’s Car, Now It’s Ours!” In Monroe, North Carolina, police recently proposed using forty-four thousand dollars in confiscated drug money to buy a surveillance drone, which might be deployed to catch fleeing suspects, conduct rescue missions, and, perhaps, seize more drug money. Hundreds of state and federal laws authorize forfeiture for cockfighting, drag racing, basement gambling, endangered-fish poaching, securities fraud, and countless other misdeeds.

One result is the rise of improbable case names such as United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins. (Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson’s forfeiture was slugged State of Texas v. $6,037.) “The protections our Constitution usually affords are out the window,” Louis Rulli, a clinical law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading forfeiture expert, observes. A piece of property does not share the rights of a person. There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence. Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods. Washington, D.C., charges up to twenty-five hundred dollars simply for the right to challenge a police seizure in court, which can take months or even years to resolve.

The tangled nature of the process became clear when I spoke to Nelly Moreira, a stout, curly-haired custodian who lives in Northwest D.C. Moreira relied on her 2005 Honda Accord to drive from her early-morning job, cleaning Trinity Washington University, to her evening job, cleaning the U.S. Treasury Department. In March, 2012, her son was driving her car when he was pulled over for a minor traffic violation, and, after a pat down, was found to have a handgun. He was arrested, and her car was seized. Moreira, who grew up in El Salvador, explained in Spanish that she received a letter in the mail two months later asking her to pay a bond of one thousand and twenty dollars—which she took to be the fee to get her car back. Desperate, she borrowed cash from friends and family to cover the bond, which is known in D.C. law as a “penal sum.” If she hadn’t, the car would have been auctioned off, or put to use by the police. But all that the money bought her was the right to a complex and slow-moving civil-forfeiture court case.


New York City Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio speaks after receiving the endorsement of former mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

"The 99% Mayor: Bill de Blasio's Promise May Also Be His Problem"  
Chris Smith, New York Magazine, October 27, 2013

Bill de Blasio ran probably the most surgically focused mayoral campaign in modern New York political history, relentlessly repeating a few key phrases—"a tale of two cities" … "income inequality" … "end the stop-and-frisk era"—that played brilliantly to the hopes, angers, and guilts of the city's liberal, Bloomberg-fatigued Democratic-primary electorate. De Blasio genuinely believes in the ideals underlying the progressive rhetoric he's been retailing; in 1988, he traveled to Nicaragua to support the leftist revolution, and he still converses knowledgeably about liberation theology. But in his own career in elected office—first as a Brooklyn city councilman and then as public advocate—De Blasio has shown a gift for the crafty compromise.

Which is why, as De Blasio nears what is likely to be a general-election landslide victory, the central questions are about just what he believes and just who he’d be as mayor.

"My Day in the World's Biggest Building—a Chinese Mall You've Never Heard Of"
Chris Beam, The New Republic, November 6, 2013

The slogan of the New Century Global Center, the recently completed largest building in the world by floor space, sounds at first like a Chinglish-y misfire: “The One of Everything.” But as I spent a day wandering around the structure, located in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, the catchphrase started to take on a kind of brilliance. It captures the building’s comprehensiveness: It really does have one of everything, from a shopping mall to an Intercontinental Hotel to a 14-screen IMAX theater to a water park to a fake church to a McDoniqloGAPbucks to an ice skating rink—everything, that is, except restraint. The building also is the one of everything; of everything, it is the one. It’s the biggest/gaudiest, the bravest/most brazen, depending on your point of view. Maybe that’s why it’s called the Global Center, as in, the center of the globe. The slogan also nods to the pop-Buddhist concept that everything in the universe is one, with a commercial twist. The Global Center doesn’t distinguish between East and West, high and low, rich and poor, tasteful and tasteless. There is only the one … of everything.


A nurse measures an obese patient. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

"The Obesity Era"
David Berreby, Aeon Magazine, June 19, 2013

Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Weight Watchers magazine, Woody Allen melded the two experiences into a single essay. ‘I am fat,’ it began. ‘I am disgustingly fat. I am the fattest human I know. I have nothing but excess poundage all over my body. My fingers are fat. My wrists are fat. My eyes are fat. (Can you imagine fat eyes?).’ It was 1968, when most of the world’s people were more or less ‘height-weight proportional’ and millions of the rest were starving. Weight Watchers was a new organisation for an exotic new problem. The notion that being fat could spur Russian-novel anguish was good for a laugh. That, as we used to say during my Californian adolescence, was then.

Now, 1968’s joke has become 2013’s truism. For the first time in human history, overweight people outnumber the underfed, and obesity is widespread in wealthy and poor nations alike.


(David Ashley/Shutterstock.com)

"The Most Senseless Environmental Crime of the 20th Century"
Charles Homans, Pacific Standard, November 12, 2013

Environmental crimes are, generally speaking, the most rational of crimes. The upsides are obvious: Fortunes have been made selling contraband rhino horns and mahogany or helping toxic waste disappear, and the risks are minimal—poaching, illegal logging, and dumping are penalized only weakly in most countries, when they’re penalized at all.

The Soviet whale slaughter followed no such logic. Unlike Norway and Japan, the other major whaling nations of the era, the Soviet Union had little real demand for whale products. Once the blubber was cut away for conversion into oil, the rest of the animal, as often as not, was left in the sea to rot or was thrown into a furnace and reduced to bone meal—a low-value material used for agricultural fertilizer, made from the few animal byproducts that slaughterhouses and fish canneries can’t put to more profitable use. “It was a good product,” Dmitri Tormosov, a scientist who worked on the Soviet fleets, wryly recalls, “but maybe not so important as to support a whole whaling industry.”

This was the riddle the Soviet ships left in their wake: Why did a country with so little use for whales kill so many of them?


Top image: Arian Ramsey, 2, walks into the room that she and her family are staying in at the Covenant Presbyterian Church temporary shelter, which has opened it's doors to house 30 homeless people for the week of the Democratic National Convention, in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

Keywords: #CityReads

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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