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The 18 best city-related longform stories of 2016

Recommended reading on cities, homes, architecture, real estate, and urbanism

Michelle and Chris Gerard

The last week of December is a time for catching up on all the internet you missed this year. When it comes to cities, architecture, and design, we've got you covered. We've already rounded up our own favorite features of the year from Curbed's West Coast sites and Curbed.com. Here, we tally up the best longform we've read elsewhere this year, covering everything from Pokémon Go to Brooklyn brownstones to Donald Trump's hotels. Know of a story we missed? Please share your own recommendations in the comments section.


Resist Pokémon Go

Sam Kriss | Jacobin

For the player of Pokémon Go, the injunction is to obey. Real human bodies are tamed and directed by dangling virtual lures: businesses can buy in-game items that will tempt customers into their establishments; the state could probably quell an uprising by scattering hundreds of rare Pokémon away from the central square. If they wanted to, the game’s creators could send people leaping willingly off cliffs, dawdling on train tracks, running into forest fires.

For a few brief weeks in the summer of 2016, America got a break from its tedious and depressing presidential election as Pokémon Go fever swept the nation and players swept their cities in search of a catch. But the game was also the world's first mass experience with augmented reality, and Sam Kriss reads the writing on the wall: Pokémon Go doesn't encourage users to explore the world on their own—it dictates where to go and what to pay attention to, "unresponsive and indifferent to social existence."—AGK


The House That Love Built— Before It Was Gone

Leanne Shapton and Niklas Maak | T Magazine

It was beautiful. It was a wreck. It blistered on the rocky hillside: a perfect dome, gray weathered concrete and granite connected by a bridge to an eroded staircase. The day was warm and bright, the interiors were crumbling and stuffy. Some rooms contained odd bits of dusty ’60s Italian modern furniture, bright-green glazed tiles and faded taupe cushions. An Italian paperback copy of Patricia Cornwell’s “Cause of Death” was left on a kitchen countertop. Looking around the main room, it was easy to imagine Vitti stepping carefully, cinematically, barefoot down the banister-free staircase that Antonioni built to watch her descend. But by 1972, Vitti and Antonioni were at the end of their affair. I climbed the stairs to the master bedroom. The old mattress on the bed was covered in blue flowers.

Leanne Shapton and Niklas Maak sneak into La Cupola, the aforementioned beautiful wreck built for director Michelangelo Antonioni and actress Monica Vitti before their relationship ended, and the visit prompts them to explore other houses “built on the foundations of love”—in all cases, love that didn’t last. What happens to a house when the relationship it was built for ends?—SP


The House Where You Live Forever

Amelia Schonbek | The Awl

“Gins, in her early seventies, gave the impression of a child trying to impersonate her grandmother: her blonde hair was fastened in pigtails, and her small frame was draped in too-big clothes in shades of deep red. Her face was clear-eyed and rosy, even as wrinkles rippled across her cheeks. She exhaled again. “You know, I have huge responsibilities,” she continued. “Pressing ones.” Most architects generally want to design comfortable, visually interesting buildings for their clients. Gins found that aspiration boring. Instead, her goal was to build spaces that would keep people from dying.”

Gins and her husband Shusaku Arakawa, through their art and architectural work, put forth the theory of Reversible Destiny—the idea that people can actually evade death. But Gins and Arakawa’s own experiences gave the lie to their ideas, so what are we to do with their theories? This story has stayed with me for months.—SP


This Is Not My Beautiful House

Kim France | Medium

Not long after marrying the man I would go on to divorce, I bought a Brooklyn brownstone that satisfied all my most fetishistic Brooklyn brownstone fantasies, and made me feel — in a way that only buying a Brooklyn Brownstone can make a certain kind of striving, creatively ambitious New Yorker feel — as though I had achieved a big old piece of the dream. The place was in far Carroll Gardens just off of Court Street, on a block of classic houses, and even from the outside it felt grand, with its black iron gate and hulking balustrades leading up to arched double front doors. The block was almost a cliché of the authentic you’re-in-Brooklyn-now trope: tree-lined, with kids playing catch, and an old Italian guy sweeping the sidewalk. I would learn soon enough that the old guy was really mean and the children a menace. But on that first Sunday afternoon, when I wandered over from my Boerum Hill rental on a hunch to attend the Open House, it all felt as though it was part of one perfectly charming package.

The classic Brooklyn brownstones pictured in shelter magazines appear “perfectly charming,” but what is life actually like inside them? Kim France tells the story of the fracturing of her marriage through her purchase and interior design of one of those brownstones.—SP


No Parking Here

Clive Thompson | Mother Jones

Disney isn't alone in its expansive approach to parking. Parking is, after all, what cars do most of the time: The average automobile spends 95 percent of its time sitting in place. People buy cars because they need to move around, but the amount of time they actually do move around is tiny. So the cars are parked, and in multiple spaces: A car owner needs a spot near home, but also spots near other places he or she might go—the office, a shopping mall, Epcot.

A 2011 study at the University of California-Berkeley found that the United States has somewhere close to a billion parking spots. Since there are only 253 million passenger cars and light trucks in the country, that means we have roughly four times more parking spaces than vehicles. If you totaled up all the area devoted to parking, it'd be roughly 6,500 square miles, bigger than Connecticut.

I read a lot about self-driving cars and the future of transportation, and this article approached the topic from an angle I hadn’t seen discussed in much depth before: what does the emergence of self-driving cars mean for the future of the parking spaces and lots in cities? If fewer cars need to find parking, suddenly there’s a whole universe of new options that open up for that land.—SP


Finding North America’s lost medieval city

Annalee Newitz | Ars Technica

A thousand years ago, huge pyramids and earthen mounds stood where East St. Louis sprawls today in Southern Illinois. This majestic urban architecture towered over the swampy Mississippi River floodplains, blotting out the region's tiny villages. Beginning in the late 900s, word about the city spread throughout the southeast. Thousands of people visited for feasts and rituals, lured by the promise of a new kind of civilization. Many decided to stay.

At the city's apex in 1050, the population exploded to as many as 30 thousand people. It was the largest pre-Columbian city in what became the United States, bigger than London or Paris at the time. Its colorful wooden homes and monuments rose along the eastern side of the Mississippi, eventually spreading across the river to St. Louis. One particularly magnificent structure, known today as Monk’s Mound, marked the center of downtown. It towered 30 meters over an enormous central plaza and had three dramatic ascending levels, each covered in ceremonial buildings. Standing on the highest level, a person speaking loudly could be heard all the way across the Grand Plaza below. Flanking Monk’s Mound to the west was a circle of tall wooden poles, dubbed Woodhenge, that marked the solstices.

By 1400, this city—which European explorers later named Cahokia—had disappeared. In search of the city’s fate, Annalee Newitz joined an archaeologial dig there last summer. Over the course of her excavation, she also explores the various theories about Cahokia’s decline. If you don’t think the fate of a city that had disappeared by 1400 is relevant today, this piece will change your mind.—SP


Marie Kondo and the Ruthless War on Stuff

Taffy Brodesser-Akner | New York Times Magazine

A woman named Diana, who wore star-and-flower earrings, said that before she tidied, her life was out of control. Her job had been recently eliminated when she found the book. “It’s a powerful message for women that you should be surrounded by things that make you happy,” she said, and her and everyone else’s faces engaged in wide-eyed, open-mouthed incredulous agreement, nodding emphatically up and down, skull to spine and chin to chest. “I found the opposite of happiness is not sadness,” Diana told us. “It’s chaos.” Another woman said she KonMaried a bad boyfriend. Having tidied everything in her home and finding she still distinctly lacked happiness, she held her boyfriend in her hands, realized he no longer sparked joy and got rid of him.

During her lecture, Marie demonstrated how the body feels when it finds tidying joy. Her right arm pointed upward, her left leg bent in a display of glee or flying or something aerial and upright, her body arranged I’m-a-little-teacup-style, and a tiny hand gesture accompanied by a noise that sounded like “kyong.” Joy isn’t just happy; joy is efficient and adorable. A lack of joy, on the other hand, she represented with a different pose, planting both feet and slumping her frame downward with a sudden visible depletion of energy. When Kondo enacted the lack of joy, she appeared grayer and instantly older. There isn’t a specific enough name for the absence of joy; it is every emotion that isn’t pure happiness, and maybe it doesn’t deserve a name, so quickly must it be expunged from your life. It does, however, have a sound effect: “zmmp.”

If I could only read one profile of Marie Kondo, the people who follow her KonMari method, and the members of the National Association of Professional Organizers who think Kondo is trying to take their market share, it would be this one. It sparks joy for me.—SP


Who Benefits from the Tiny House Revolution?

Doree Shafrir | Buzzfeed

You could say that tiny houses are having a tiny bit of a moment. For the people portrayed onscreen buying or building tiny houses, a few common themes emerge, most of which are connected to not having to spend as much time and money on paying for and maintaining a large house. They want to rid themselves of unnecessary possessions; to not feel beholden to maintaining a too-large house, particularly cleaning it; they want to be out of debt; they want to live more “green”; they want to own a home but don’t want to pay a mortgage; they want to be able to pursue hobbies and travel as they see fit; they want to spend more time with each other or with family (which they say they are able to do because they now have more time, and because they are forced into a small space together); they often want to live off the grid, or at least in a remote area. They want to live, in essence, a simpler, more pared-down life—and the rest of us want to watch them do it.

The tiny house movement is often presented, on TV and in documentaries, as uncomplicated: Tiny house owners are living a simpler, less expensive, less cluttered life. But as Doree Shafrir points out in this clear-eyed look at the tiny home phenomenon, tiny house owners tend to be privileged in terms of race and class, and one result of the tiny house phenomenon is “a new vocabulary to gentrify living in a small space.”—SP


For All They Know

Steve Friess | UnDark

“If you looked at pictures of life then, you woulda thought we didn’t have any problems, any unemployment,” she told me as we stood across from the empty lot where the houses once stood off a road appropriately called Industrial. “All the neighborhoods were nice. Even what we considered the poor neighborhoods. Everyone was working. Even with only one parent working, people were able to afford a nice home.”

The city’s fortunes fell as GM and other automakers abandoned their factories in the 1980s and 1990s for less expensive operations elsewhere. Luster got a whiff of that early on when GM bought out the houses in their neighborhood because, it turned out, they’d been contaminated by factory-related chemicals. “We went from owning our own home, to renting our home, to my parents divorcing,” she said. “We never owned anything again.”

This story traces the aftereffects of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan—and the many mysteries involved in how our municipal water systems work, in Flint and elsewhere. A sobering and necessary read.—SP


A Monument to Outlast Humanity

Dana Goodyear | The New Yorker

In every direction, at every angle, wide boulevards disappeared around corners, to unseen destinations, leading me into depressions where the whole world vanished and all that was left was false horizon and blue sky. Fourteen miles of concrete curbs sketched a graceful, loopy line drawing around the mounds and roads. Ravens wheeled, and I startled at a double thud of sonic boom from fighter jets performing exercises overhead. I sat down in a pit; flies came to tickle my hands. It was easy to imagine myself as a pile of bones. Before no other contemporary art work have I felt induced to that peculiar, ancient fear: What hand made this, and what for?

America will leave behind all kinds of epic monuments (the Los Angeles freeway system, the Superdome, the Mall of America), but the most perfect will probably be by artist Michael Heizer, who codes infinities into the enormous voids he creates with rock and concrete and metal. Heizer’s got a terrific artist persona, but the highlight of this profile is the preview of his mile-and-a-half-long sculpture “City,” in the Nevada desert, as it wraps up more than 40 years of work.—AGK


The Last Lifestyle Magazine

Kyle Chayka | Racked

Over the past five years, Kinfolk's signature aesthetic has birthed a sprawling empire. Its umbrella includes translated international editions, clothing lines, a boutique creative agency, and a new print title launching later this year, as well as two books, The Kinfolk Table and The Kinfolk Home, that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The last lifestyle magazine to arrive before multimedia social networks truly took hold, it's equally relevant in print and on-screen. On Instagram, #kinfolk and related hashtags like #liveauthentic collect millions of posts from loyal fans who style their own lives in the magazine's image.

As Kyle Chayka writes in this piece on our sister site Racked, a lifestyle magazine is “a mirror that reflects the trends of our times back at us, only a little prettier, more polished, and less complicated.” The story made me think more deeply than I had before about where we get our ideas about the way our lives should look.—SP


The Yunited States of Yuge

Caity Weaver | GQ

Albemarle Estate at Trump Winery is sumptuous to a degree that is truly crazy. But it's important to note that Donald Trump did not make it crazy. Rather, he re-made it crazy, meticulously restoring the lunatic luxury that was already there but had fallen prey to creditors, water damage, and the gnashing teeth of wild animals. The Kluges installed a private reel-to-reel theater with gold accents; Trump rewired it into a private digital theater with gold accents. The Kluges put an enormous hot tub in the basement; Trump ripped that out and put a newer enormous hot tub in the basement. The Kluges installed a gun room just off the main entrance; Trump replaced the gun theme with golf. Imagine, decades from now, returning to your childhood home to find it covered in a fresh coat of identical paint. Inside, all your furniture has been removed and replaced with very similar (slightly sturdier) furniture. Your graduation picture is gone, but in its place is a fine photo of Mr. Trump in the warm embrace of Sylvester Stallone. The hospitality is far better than it was when you lived here. Military guests receive a 10 percent discount.

What, Caity Weaver wonders, do Donald Trump’s boutique hotels tell us about how he might run the country? Rereading this piece after the election is a bleaker experience than first reading it in July, but I’d only be exaggerating slightly if I said that creating this list was mainly an excuse to read this story again.—SP


Why highways have become the center of civil rights protest

Emily Badger | The Washington Post

Block a highway, and you upend the economic life of a city, as well as the spatial logic that has long allowed people to pass through them without encountering their poverty or problems. Block a highway, and you command a lot more attention than would a rally outside a church or city hall — from traffic helicopters, immobile commuters, alarmed officials.

This is the perfect article to send to that friend who always says “I support the protesters, but why do they have to ruin my commute?”—AGK


Night Moves

Amanda Petrusich | VQR

Due to pervasive light pollution—glare from excessive, misaimed, and unshielded night lighting—80 percent of Europe and North America no longer experience real darkness. By extension, these populations possess a compromised understanding of the night sky as vista, a shifting landscape of constellations and planets, as multitudinous and astounding as any Earthly terrain. For anyone living near a major metropolis, a satellite image of the Milky Way is even more abstract and antipodal than a Brontosaurus skeleton posed in a museum: We understand it to be a document of something true, but that understanding remains purely theoretical. In 1994, after a predawn earthquake cut power to most of Los Angeles, the Griffith Observatory received phone calls from spooked residents asking about “the strange sky.” What those callers were seeing were stars.

Only an essayist as good as Amanda Petrusich could pull off 7,000 words on a subject as simple as “the darkness of the night sky.” Turns out the story of darkness (and its loss) is a story about fracking, urbanism, activism, fear, sex, inspiration, disease, the survival of the species, the origins of science, and pretty much everything else humanity can dream up.—AGK


The Bad Deed that Robbed Compton Avenue of Its Most Iconic Church

Catherine Wagley | Atlas Obscura

Cabrera emailed me late one Friday night in early December. She had been visiting her family and had just watched a group of men vandalize the church with black spray paint. Two stood watch at the corner; while one waited in a getaway car.

“I wanted to go and ask them why,” she wrote, “but as ridiculous as it may sound I did not for the fear of getting shot.”

I drove by two days later, to see the black marks sloppily spray-painted on the building’s front and side. Inside, art advisor Tom Solomon was sitting at a desk with his assistant. Since November 1, Solomon had been hosting an exhibition in the sanctuary by Robert Barry, the New York-based conceptual artist.

Catherine Wagley unravels a bit of one of Los Angeles’s great mysteries: The story of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in the South LA neighborhood of Central-Alameda, the only church designed by modernist Rudolph Schindler. Over the years, the building has been wrapped up with one of the area’s earliest black congregations, an iconoclastic woman preacher, a wide-ranging real estate scam that targeted elderly women, and, today, a Beverly Hills-based investment group that’s selling the church at a price high enough that it’ll probably never be used by a local congregation again.—AGK


How gentrification really changes a neighborhood

Josh Green | Atlanta Magazine

The moving truck showed up a few nights before Christmas. We were coming home from dinner when Anita saw me. Across the fence, she wept while recalling her wedding in the backyard, her mom’s glorious rose bushes, and how her dad used to drink coffee in his shed—his sanctuary—all year long. And then she mentioned, for the first time, that my land—a lot that used to belong to Anna and her husband—had once been a bountiful urban farm. The farm had been a food source for families that had fallen on hard times, which were many during Kirkwood’s post–Jim Crow nadir. I suddenly felt that I was standing on sacred ground, which I’d barely been able to keep green with grass. I realized I had to know more about this little farm and the family who operated it. It was obvious that Anita and I were experiencing gentrification on the most human level that night—quite literally from opposite sides of the fence.

The story of Kirkwood, Josh Green’s recently adopted neighborhood in Atlanta, is the most typical story of an urban American neighborhood in the 20th century (farmland to white working class to urban renewal to white flight to crack and neglect to gentrification), but it’s extraordinary in Green’s telling, largely because Green (who is also the editor of Curbed Atlanta) anchors it with his late neighbor Anna, who refused over decades to ever give up on her home.—AGK


A World at War

Bill McKibben | The New Republic

For years, our leaders chose to ignore the warnings of our best scientists and top military strategists. Global warming, they told us, was beginning a stealth campaign that would lay waste to vast stretches of the planet, uprooting and killing millions of innocent civilians. But instead of paying heed and taking obvious precautions, we chose to strengthen the enemy with our endless combustion; a billion explosions of a billion pistons inside a billion cylinders have fueled a global threat as lethal as the mushroom-shaped nuclear explosions we long feared. Carbon and methane now represent the deadliest enemy of all time, the first force fully capable of harrying, scattering, and impoverishing our entire civilization.

Environmentalist Bill McKibben puts global warming in terms that might actually rouse the world’s richest and most powerful nation to action: Global warming, he writes, is a war, seizing physical territory and making civilians into refugees. Then he lays out a plan, both practical and political, for a new war effort that would both reanimate American manufacturing and help us avert total climate apocalypse. This is probably the link I pushed on people the most this year.—AGK


Red Flags Over Los Angeles, Part 1 and Part 2

D.J. Waldie | KCET

Completed in 1935, the Times building is a cenotaph for the twenty-one press operators and linotype operators who were blown up in October 1910 and flung into fire and collapsing masonry by a union-laid bomb. But the Times building is more than the memory of a crime in stone. It was intended to be a blunt assertion of the paper’s victory in bending the politics of Los Angeles toward conservative reaction.

For the Times and the paper’s business allies in the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association, industrial freedom would mean freedom from organized labor.

Dynamite in Ink Alley wrecked more than the adjacent Times building in 1910. Reputations were wrecked, too, principally Clarence Darrow’s, the crusading lawyer who defended the two union organizers implicated in the Times plot. Also in ruins was a coalition of socialists and union members whose representative was the charismatic Job Harriman, who might have become the city’s first socialist mayor.

Los Angeles might have a rep as a leftist paradise, but it’s far more conservative in its guts than New York, San Francisco, or Chicago. D.J. Waldie recounts the early 20th century beginnings of what might’ve been an alternate history of the city, when a promising socialist movement united laborers and middle class Marxists to advocate for things like free speech, shorter hours, better wages, progressive taxation, and aqueduct water for residents rather than real estate speculators.—AGK