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Hi, I’m Colin Marshall

… a Seoul- and sometimes Los Angeles-based essayist, broadcaster, and public speaker on cities and culture.

I write for Guardian CitiesOpen Culturethe Los Angeles Review of Books (including its Korea Blog), and I’m now at work on the KCET series Los Angeles in Buildings, the crowdsourced urbanist-cultural-travel journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and a book called A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City.

I’ve also written for Boom: A Journal of California (and guest-edited its issue on architecture, infrastructure, and the built environment), Bookforum, Boing Boing, Put This On, The Japan Foundation, The Millions3QuarksdailyThe Quarterly Conversation, and Maximum Fun.

Each month I appear on a Seoul urbanism radio feature on TBS eFM’s Koreascape. Previously, I hosted and produced the world-traveling podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture [RSS] [iTunes], which evolved from the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas. 

My video essay series The City in Cinema examines cities (especially Los Angeles) as they appear on film.

My public speaking, which I’ve done in places like Portland’s Hollywood Theatre, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival, Seoul National University, Yonsei University, Chapman University, California State University Long Beach, and the Seoul Book and Culture Club, usually covers this same suite of cities-and-culture-related topics.

You can also keep up with me on Twitter and Facebook as well.

Korea Blog: Korea’s Dilbert-Era Loanwords

Lulled into a false sense of security by the simplicity of its alphabet, those students of the Korean language who don’t give up in frustration will sooner or later find themselves facing a variety of unexpected challenges of communication and comprehension. Nearly a decade after learning that deceptively easy writing system, I still often get unintentional laughs from Korean interlocutors myself, especially when I fail to recognize one of the many words they borrow from my own mother tongue. “What, you don’t speak English?” they jokingly ask, but in fact I don’t speak Konglish, that curious hybrid of Korean and English now so commonly heard south of the 38th parallel.

Rather than an oscillation back and forth between the local language and English, as in the Philippines’ “Taglish,” Konglish fills Korean grammatical structures with English loanwords. Often those latter replace existing Korean words: you now take pictures with a kamera instead of sajingi, enroll in a class of a certain rebel instead of sujun, and draw up a riseuteu instead of a mogneok. Owing to the difficulty of consistently pronouncing these Konglish words in the “correct” Koreanized manner when my adult language-learning brain stubbornly wants to pronounce them in American English as it always has, I tend simply to use the old words and accept the strange looks they draw as the cost of doing business.

Not that Koreans’ Konglish doesn’t draw strange looks from me. That goes especially for its outer reaches, a harbor for those faddish terms beyond the simple realm of cameras, levels, and lists which, long dead in America, turn out to have drifted across the Pacific to be reborn. Past decades saw attempts to purify the Korean language in the face of mounting “English fever,” but by the 1990s none could hold fast against the mighty tide of buzzwords from American media, business, and technology, with the result that millions of Koreans now walk around sounding like characters out of Dilbert. Here are but five of the many words that, seldom if ever heard in America in English anymore, see use each and every day as Konglish in Korea.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

This week’s city reading: the strengths and shortcomings of Los Angeles’ evolving transit system

Ridership climbs, planning efforts lag as Expo Line extension marks first birthday (Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times) “The plan as it now reads doesn’t go far enough in allowing new density near the Expo Line; it is too timid for a city and region that have systematically underbuilt housing for more than three decades. To the extent that there are some good ideas in it, including modest challenges to rigid parking requirements and urban-design guidelines that pay attention to the needs of pedestrians, the more immediate problem is that it remains a mere proposal. It has been slowed by a familiar combination of paltry planning budgets at City Hall and opposition among many neighborhood groups to zoning changes that would allow denser housing.”

I Rode the Entire Metro in One Day. This Is What I Learned. (David L. Ulin, Los Angeles magazine) “It’s a stunt, of course it is, but if my original intent was to prove how small, how contained the system is—could you imagine riding New York, London, Paris in a single day?—the result is turning out to be the opposite, a way of confronting the vastness of the city, both in miles and communities. I feel a sense of wonder, revelation at the scope of the region, but also at how much territory I have been able to cover without a car.” (The LA Weekly’s Paul T. Bradley attempted a similar stunt, in service of a much different piece, four years ago.)

L.A. bus ridership continues to fall; officials now looking to overhaul the system (Laura J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times) “A recent survey of more than 2,000 former riders underscores the challenge Metro faces. Many passengers said buses didn’t go where they were going — or, if they did, the bus didn’t come often enough, or stopped running too early, or the trip required multiple transfers. Of those surveyed, 79% now primarily drive alone. In an attempt to stem the declines, Metro is embarking on a study to ‘re-imagine’ the system’s 170 lines and 15,000 stops, officials said.”

Los Angeles Looks to “Reimagine” Metro’s Lagging Bus Service (Dennis Romero, LA Weekly) “Metro’s board of directors recently decided the agency should embark on a two- to three-year process of reevaluating the bus system so that it better meets the needs of Angelenos. One idea is to reconfigure bus services so that they are better aligned with transit stops [ … ] This reimagining could also take up the idea of ‘micro-transit systems’ that circulate in particular neighborhoods like Northeast L.A., Koreatown or other densely populated areas.”

Visualizing LA Metro’s Ridership data, 2009 until 2016 (Lisa Schweitzer) “Credible explanations: a) new rail supply is moving passengers from the bus to rail so that we are having fewer bus transfers and thus, lower counts; b) retirements and aging has prompted less commuting by transit as well as car (egads, let’s hope not as that is a demand effect); c) gasoline prices are low so that more people drive; d) the introduction of Uber and Lyft (then Zimride, thanks for the info Kendra Levine) into the LA travel market means that people handle the last mile problem (or the entire trip) with those services instead of buses; e) fare increases; f) reduced overall bus supply; g) the routes need to be reconfigured; h) bus transit is an inferior good, so that we saw the highest possible usage during the worst of the recession, falling off as price-sensitive consumers at the lowest incomes leave the systems for other means; i) all that talk about fighting obesity and active transport hit home and more people started walking and biking; j) fare increases have forced bus riders to ride less.”

What makes people choose public transit? (Alissa Walker, Curbed) “Just how irrational are humans when it comes to transit? When asked how they preferred to get around, people surveyed for the study overwhelmingly said they liked driving their own car, specifically citing benefits like comfort and reliability. But driving was also cited as the mode most likely to experience delays: 70 percent of respondents said driving made them late at least once a month—higher than any other mode of transit. In comparison, only 61 percent of regular bus riders said their mode made them late.”

The Future of Transportation in Los Angeles (Blake Z. Rong, Road and Track) “The automobile has weaved itself into the history and culture of L.A., more than possibly any other locale except, perhaps, Stuttgart, Germany. Dive into Southern California’s past, and somewhere between the dismantling of the Red Cars mass-transit system and the first traffic jam on the Hollywood Freeway, it’s fun, fun, fun, ’til daddy takes the T-Bird away. But in this 21st century, with hydrogen, electricity, and a renewed interest in public transit—no doubt spurred on by the crushing traffic congestion—the gasoline-swilling car is no longer the only way to get around. You know what? That’s not a bad thing.”

The long, tortured journey to bring rail back to Los Angeles (Shelby Grad and Scott Harrison, Los Angeles Times) “Over the last three decades, L.A. County has built a new rail network largely from scratch. But it took decades to get there. After World War II, the region’s once-mighty streetcar services began to fade and building freeways became the top transportation priority. By the 1960s, planners began proposing new rail routes. But these plans faced numerous problems. Several attempts to get taxpayers to finance these rail networks failed at the ballot box. Here’s a history of the high and lows of L.A. transportation dreaming, from the pages of The Times.”

5 Metro Stations That Changed L.A. and 5 That Will (Neal Broverman, Los Angeles magazine) “Since 1990, L.A. has seen its rail network go from 0 to 100 miles of coverage. Not only has the boom changed traveling patterns in the County, it’s also affected land use. Metro also actively works to develop parcels they own near rail stations, hoping to make some green from developers and encourage dense, mixed-use projects near their stations, which ostensibly boost ridership. Twenty-six years after rail arrived in modern L.A., transit-oriented development has been a very mixed bag.”

Times Literary Supplement: Michael Breen’s “The Koreans” and “The New Koreans”

The Korean word for South Korea is hanguk, but South Koreans more often refer to it as uri nara, “our country”. The equivalent term in Japanese is mainly used by octogenarian ultraconservatives, but in South Korea everyone says it. They also speak of uri mal, uri eumshik, uri ddang, uri minjok – “our language”, “our food”, “our land”, “our race” – all of which can project, to foreigners living there, an unappealingly possessive insularity. Yet it is easy to appreciate that at least 50 million Koreans do feel a sense of belonging, and that they feel it with such certainty.

Michael Breen has had more time than most to cultivate that appreciation. Now the CEO of a public relations firm in Seoul, he began his career in South Korea as a journalist in 1982, arriving from his native Britain into a hastily industrialized military dictatorship still internationally regarded as part of the developing world. Just five years later the country had become a flourishing democracy, boasted a formidable economy, and was preparing to host the Summer Olympics of 1988. Then, nine years later, it took a hammering in the Asian financial crisis. Breen’s experience of these turbulent times provided the material for his first book, The Koreans: Who they are, what they want, where their future lies (1998).

“At the time of writing, the North is suffering from extreme food shortages and the South is recovering from the near-collapse of its financial system. My experience of previous Korean crises suggests to me that the South will overcome its problems”, Breen wrote in that book. Today the North still endures considerable hardship; but the South, having managed to repay its unprecedentedly large $58 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund three years early (in part with a much-publicized gold drive that saw “young couples handing in their wedding rings and old ladies handing in items of tremendous personal significance”), has continued its procession to centre stage. Now Breen has written The New Koreans: The story of a nation, originally intended as an update, but in fact an almost entirely new book. This is in itself revealing: Korea is no longer a country Westerners associate with “war, dictatorship, tear gas, riot police in Darth Vader outfits, M.A.S.H., dog eating, the Olympics”, writes Breen; instead they are more likely to think of it in terms of glossy skyscrapers, technology, global conglomerates, surgically enhanced pop stars, “Gangnam style”, even “the new cool”.

Read the whole thing at the TLS.

KCET Movies: How Los Angeles Made Johnny Cash — After Nearly Destroying Him

Johnny Cash, the iconic outlaw of country and western music, may have come straight out of Arkansas, and he may have launched his career in Memphis, but in his story, unlike those of many other legends in his musical tradition, the Golden State also plays a major role. Even his casual fans understand that, many of them having come to his vast discography through his breakout late-1960s live albums “At Folsom Prison” and “At San Quentin,” both recorded in the titular California correctional facilities. But as much as the Man in Black appreciated California’s remote spaces of desperation and isolation, he also spent, at different times, quite a few important years of his life in Los Angeles, a city that witnessed his rise into popular culture, his years of drug-addled chaos, and his professional rebirth.

Cash first moved to California in the summer of 1958, along with his first wife Vivian Liberto and their first three daughters (including Rosanne, who would grow up to become a famous singer-songwriter in her own right). Just 26 years old, he’d already scored hits with “I Walk the Line,” from which the 2005 biopic “Walk the Line” would take its title, and “Folsom Prison Blues,” which would become his standard show-opener. He’d recorded them at Memphis’ Sun Studios, the musical launching pad of such stars in the rock and roll, country, and rockabilly sphere as Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, and Elvis Presley, though only Cash had the distinction of recording Sun’s first long-playing album. When an offer too good to refuse came in from Columbia Records, Cash took it and used the money to buy a house formerly owned by Johnny Carson on Hayvenhurst Avenue in Encino.

To Cash, as to so many of the new arrivals in the city, Los Angeles promised a different kind of freedom than he’d enjoyed elsewhere in America. He saw the city, according to “Johnny Cash: The Biography” author Michael Streissguth, as “musically and culturally a new world, far removed from Nashville’s parochialism and Memphis’ isolation. Though home to thriving jazz and rhythm-and-blues scenes and world-class orchestral music, the city unflinchingly welcomed rockabilly, western-swing, honky-tonk and cowboy styles.” (It also provided new collaborators, such as Cash’s co-writer on the prison song “I Got Stripes,” local disc jockey Charlie Williams.) It turned out that “a country-and-western singer scarcely needed Nashville in Los Angeles. There was a host of recording and publishing companies, high-energy disc jockeys, and a growing movie and television industry which promised bit parts, movie-soundtrack work, and the hope of Gene Autry fame.”

Read the whole thing at KCET.

From my interview archive: “Undercover Economist” Tim Harford

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

People get deep into things in college: music, movies, drugs, their previously unacknowledged sexual orientation, take your pick. I got deep into economics. And though I don’t remember what initially sparked my interest (though Tyler Cowen may have had something to do with it), for a few years there I could think of little else. Seldom have I anticipated as any book as much as I anticipated The Undercover Economist, the solo debut from a fellow named Tim Harford that promised to reveal and explain the hidden economic workings behind the transactions in everyday life, whether they involved a Starbucks coffee or a used car or the People’s Republic of China. It came out in my junior year, but I made sure to have it pre-ordered on Amazon so as to receive it in time to power through it on the first day of Thanksgiving break.

Knowing more about the publishing industry now than I did then, I can see that The Undercover Economist came out early in a wider popular-economics book boom, set off perhaps by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, which a few months earlier had revealed and explained the hidden economic workings behind slightly less everyday transactions involving drug dealers, Israeli day-care centers, and cheating sumo wrestlers. That boom still had some life left in it when I started The Marketplace of Ideas a couple years later, so I seized the alignment of a trend and my own obsession to record interviews with authors of popular economics books, economists and otherwise, including Cowen, Steven Landsburg (whose The Armchair Economist had come out more than a decade ahead of the curve), David Friedman, Michael Shermer, and of course Harford as well.

Harford and I first talked on the show about his second popular economics book, The Logic of Life, in March of 2008 — six months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the defining event of what we now consider that year and the previous year’s global financial crisis. Not long after, I started to hear it trumpeted in many quarters that those troubles had disproven all the pat, just-so conclusions of traditional economics — passed straight down unaltered, presumably, from the time and place of Adam Smith — a pronouncement that seemed to overlook the criminal and regulatory issues at the heart of the crisis in favor of indulging a pre-existing resentment of the markets economics accurately described. In other words, it sounded to me like a too-late execution of the messenger, and its driving impulse underscores why I tend to describe myself as a “liberal-bashing liberal”: you may not like the conditions in this world, but refusing to examine or even acknowledge their causes won’t change them.

Still, Harford, an Oxford-trained economist, actually agreed with the chorus declaring economics disproven when we had our second interview in 2011 — or at least he agreed with them to an unexpected extent. By that point he’d already retooled his professional profile somewhat (“pivoted,” if you like, in the language of Silicon Valley) and written a book called Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. His more recent titles have seen him both make a return to the “Undercover Economist” persona and to follow the Gladwellian path further — keeping a safe distance, one hopes, from the terrible Lehererian edge — with last year’s Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, which no less a reader than Cowen himself described as “Tim’s best and deepest book.”

My own interest in economics has pulled through more or less intact, though lately I haven’t seen published many of the kinds of economics books I used to enjoy reading. That’s a bit of a shame, since I would submit that economics, for all its blunt edges, still goes farther to account for How the Word Works than any other single subject, and yet it remains just as poorly understood, and willfully so, by the general public as ever. Yes, economics doesn’t explain absolutely everything, but in many situations it gets you about 90 percent of the way there. Great danger, of course, lies in mistaking a 90-percent understanding for 100-percent understanding, but frankly, it beats the hell out of the alternative.

Los Angeles in Buildings: the Angelus Temple

The phenomenon of the megachurch, though now associated with the geographical and cultural flatlands of suburban and exurban “middle America,” began in no less coastal and cosmopolitan a city than Los Angeles. Standing at the corner of Glendale Boulevard and Park Avenue in the currently fashionable neighborhood of Echo Park, right across the street from the recently rehabilitated Echo Park Lake, the Angelus Temple comes with not just greater architectural interest than its big-box descendants, but a compelling personality behind it as well. The newly built – and, for the time, extravagantly scaled – house of worship opened its doors on New Year’s Day 1923, owing to the tireless efforts of rural Ontario-born celebrity preacher Aimee Semple McPherson, not just a towering figure in the history of Pentecostal evangelism, but one of the most unlikely urbanists in the history of Los Angeles.

Some might regard the Los Angeles of the 1920s, and even more so the Los Angeles of the 1910s in which McPherson first arrived, as decidedly pre-cosmopolitan. Though booming, the city still had a great deal of growing and diversifying to do, and a considerable segment of its population then consisted of recent arrivals from elsewhere in the country – from that vast, staid “middle America” especially – and invalids in search of cures, climatic, spiritual, or otherwise, for whatever ailed them. McPherson knew what it meant to hope against hope for recovery: she’d lost her first husband, an Irish Pentecostal missionary, to disease on an evangelistic tour of China, and when their only daughter Roberta later fell ill in New Rochelle, McPherson claimed to have received a vision of the California dream, “a little home in Los Angeles,” as she prayed by her bedside.

Roberta returned to health, and the two, along with McPherson’s mother and business manager Minnie, soon moved into that envisioned little home in Los Angeles, or something close enough to it. Having picked up on the East Coast where her late husband left off to become increasingly well known as a traveling evangelist in her own right, Sister Aimee (as her followers knew her) found herself working under an expanded mandate from above on the West: not just to find a house for herself, but to “build a house unto the Lord” unlike any other in this city unlike any other. She delivered the first of the ecstatic sermons that made her famous in Los Angeles in rented spaces around the city, soon filling even the Temple Auditorium (later known as the Philharmonic Auditorium) across from Pershing Square, but in time she became enough of a phenomenon to need a permanent space of her own.

Read the whole thing at KCET, and see the previous installments of Los Angeles in Buildings here.

This week’s city reading: Habitat 67’s concrete, MacArthur Park’s non-gentrification, and the 2nd Ave. Subway’s Comfiness

Growing Up in a Concrete Masterpiece (Blake Gopnik, New York Times) “‘How do you live with all that cement,’ my schoolmates would ask. ‘With delight’ was the only answer. They understood once they visited.” This provides as good an opportunity any to quote (past Notebook on Cities and Culture guest) Jonathan Meades:

The destruction of Brutalist buildings is more than the destruction of a particular mode of architecture. It is like burning books. It’s a form of censorship of the past, a discomfiting past, by the present. It’s the revenge of a mediocre age on an age of epic grandeur. It’s the cutting down to size of a culture which committed the cardinal sin of getting above its station, of pushing God aside and challenging nature. It’s the destruction, too, of the embarrassing evidence of a determined optimism that made us more potent than we have become. We don’t measure up against those who took risks, who flew and plunged to find new ways of doing things, who were not scared to experiment, who lived lives of perpetual inquiry. Here was mankind at its mightiest. Brutalism has to go. For it is the built evidence of the fact that once upon a time, we were not scared to address the Earth in the knowledge that the Earth would not respond, could not respond.

Joining eastward march, Berggruen Institute plans second location in MacArthur Park (Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times) “Asked if he anticipated the sort of backlash from longtime residents that has greeted new galleries and cultural centers in Boyle Heights and other gentrifying areas of the city, Berggruen replied: ‘MacArthur Park is an area that will transform with us or without us. You might as well do it in a way that is productive and dignified.’” As it happens, Nicolas Berggruen, formerly known as the “homeless billionaire,” also invested a big chunk of money in Byline, where I’m gearing up to continue writing about Los Angeles myself soon.

Why doesn’t MacArthur Park gentrify? (Marissa Clifford, Curbed) “Because of its Metro station, park, and proximity to a rapidly gentrifying Downtown LA, MacArthur Park remains, in many ways, perfectly poised for gentrification. But despite increased interest in the area from people like my old landlord, the realities of everyday life in Westlake—overcrowded or poorly maintained housing and little to no functional access to the internet—stand in stark opposition to those advantages.” See also my own Los Angeles Primer excerpt on the neighborhood, one I always enjoyed visiting when I lived in the city.

Step into the Comfiness of NYC’s 2nd Ave. Subway (Sam Lubell, Wired) “Wide platforms, expansive views from the broad mezzanines, and arched ceilings create a sense of spaciousness and order. None of the stations have supporting columns, which presented a big engineering challenge but proved essential for keeping people moving efficiently.” But still no glass doors on the platforms, curiously.

John Mack Faragher’s Eternity Street traces the history of Los Angeles like no other book has (Emmett Rensin, Vox)  “These are encouraging signs for Los Angeles in the 21st century. But to wash out the stain of the past 50 years, the city must do more than make sense of its future. It must make new sense of its past. Like all California schoolchildren, I was taught a history of my state and city that began with the missions and skipped to the gold rush, with a brief mention of some war in between. We visited the old pueblo, sure, but without any sense of how a thousand square miles of city grew around it.” (Incidentally, I highly recommend this same writer’s piece on “the smug style in American liberalism.”)

From my interview archive: Arts & Letters Daily founder Denis Dutton

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

My favorite college class won that designation not just by delivering me my sole A, but by introducing me to Arts & Letters Daily. It lasted the entire quarter but had only one assignment, the same for all fifteen or so students enrolled: write an essay on globalization. On the first day, the professor had us pull up a site that he promised us would offer a fount of engaging and clearly written pieces on a variety of subjects, globalization and otherwise, and so I took my first look at the same three columns, unchanging in format but always ever-changing in content, that I’ve checked every day since: Articles of Note, New Books, and Essays & Opinons (with the less regular Nota Bene on the side). Arts & Letters Daily, in other words, immediately joined the short list of outlets I couldn’t do without.

Pull up the Arts & Letters Daily front page today and you get links to writing on such subjects as the relevance of Alain Badiou, the algorithmic manipulation of human emotions, the optimism of Thomas de Quincey, and the failure of “cool” — all worth reading, and as a mixture more or less what I would have expected when I began following the site over a decade ago. Still, I can’t help but feel that its sensibility has shifted somewhat over the past six years since the death of its founder Denis Dutton. Whatever sensibility it had under him (which had its detractors, one of whom labeled the site “Farts & Fetters Daily”) did enough to shape my thinking that, when I launched my radio show The Marketplace of Ideas, I took the site a a kind of intellectual template for my interviews. And what better tribute could I pay, I eventually thought, than to invite Dutton himself on for one?

When I e-mailed asking if he’d like to have a conversation, I knew nothing about him except that he founded Arts & Letters Daily and that he lived in New Zealand, but when he replied he gave me quite a start: not only had he gone to UC Santa Barbara, the very same university I had (and the one where I took that globalization essay class), he’d been the manager of KCSB, the station where I recorded and broadcast The Marketplace of Ideas, back in the early 1960s when it switched from AM to FM. We talked not just about his work with Arts & Letters Daily but with the Bad Writing Contest, memorably “won” with this 94-word monstrosity by Judith Butler:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

“To ask what this means is to miss the point,” wrote Dutton. “This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind.”

I didn’t know at the time that Dutton, a philosophy professor by day, was at work on a book of his own on aesthetics and evolution. When The Art Instinct came out, I naturally brought him right back on the show to talk about it (thought not before Stephen Colbert did). Later that year, on a trip through New Zealand, I wondered if I should ask if he had any time to meet up, but in the event passed by Christchurch, where he lived, maybe figuring I’d catch him and the city the next time around. He died, of course, the very next year (I actually wrote his obituary in the Santa Barbara Independent), and the year after that an earthquake destroyed enough of central Christchurch that people tell me it’s never really been the same since. I don’t suppose there’s some kind of lesson in all this.

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: Seoullo 7017 sneak preview

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This month, along with Yoon Il Gyu of the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Regeneration Planning Division, we get up above Seoul Station and onto quite possibly the city’s most anticipated urban development of the decade: Seoullo 7017. Previously known as the Seoul Skygarden, the project has permanently shut down a freeway overpass and turned it into a walkway park featuring not just a variety of Korea’s plants and trees, but snack shops, foot baths, trampolines, and more besides. Given its repurposing of elevated space for cars as elevated space for people, some have called it Seoul’s own version of New York’s High Line, but the two projects have their differences as well. We talk about them as we walk Seoullo 7017, which opens to the public on May 20th, and also about the challenges of building such a space, the hopes for its future as it settles into a sometimes neglected part of Seoul’s urban landscape, and how it could show freeway-filled Western cities the way forward.

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here.

From my interview archive: Japanologist and Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburō Ōe translator John Nathan

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

A few years before I ever set foot in Asia, I read John Nathan’s memoir Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, the story of his growing up as a Jewish New Yorker in Arizona, studying the Japanese language in college, moving to Japan soon after graduation in the early 1960s, and quickly falling in with such Japanese literary and cinema luminaries as Mishima Yukio, Ōe Kenzaburō, Abe Kobo, and Teshigahara Hiroshi. The book contains many more stories from subsequent chapters of Nathan’s career on both sides of the Pacific, but the sections on Japan inspired me to seek out the memoirs of other Westerners who’d lived there as well: Donald Keene’s On Familiar Terms, Donald Richie’s The Japan Journals, Edwin Seidensticker’s Tokyo Central, or more obscure — but to me, no less fascinating — volumes like Peregrine Hodson’s A Circle Round the Sun.

Originally, though, I’d simply read Nathan’s book as preparation for an interview with him on The Marketplace of Ideas. He then held, and I believe still holds, the title of Takashima Professor of Japanese Cultural Studies at University of California, Santa Barbara, where I went to college and at whose campus radio station I started the show after graduating. I’d up to that point recorded all the show’s conversations over the phone, so talking to this professor about his just-published memoir provided me the opportunity to get some face-to-face interviewing experience. It also, so I may not have realized at the time, provided me the opportunity to exhume my own long-buried interest in not just Japan but Japan’s part of the world, and not just that of a distant observer.

Nathan, by the time of my own undergraduate years at UCSB, had become something of a celebrity among that school’s students of Japanese: a highly entertaining orator full of stories about the Japan of bygone decades (many of them involving first-hand encounters with the writers and other artists whose work stoked the students’ own interest in Japan), but who could also come off — if I recall the RateMyProfessor comments correctly — as brash and lordly. I suspect I would have taken that attitude as an invigorating antidote to the simpering inoffensiveness found elsewhere in the humanities, but regrettably, I never took any of Nathan’s classes in college myself because I didn’t want to know about Japan in college: after having taught myself some basic written Japanese in middle school, I came to regard an interest in the language and the culture as the province, at least in my generation, of the sloppy, socially inept nerd, and only later, through gradual re-introduction to its less animation- and video-game-oriented fruits — such as the dark, surreal novels of Nathan’s friend Abe — could I kindle it again.

I even began studying Japanese properly, though I came to it through my interest in the Korean language, which I’d started teaching myself not long before launching The Marketplace of Ideas. With no Korean classes easily available to take around Santa Barbara (and with my having been sternly told to graduate after accruing too many credits at UCSB already), I enrolled in a Japanese class at Santa Barbara City College, having heard about the two languages’ (somewhat overstated) similarity of grammar and vocabulary and hoping to meet a Korean classmate or two with whom to practice the Asian language I really wanted to learn. That did happen, but in the process I also realized that I’d never really killed my desire to immerse myself in more things Japanese, and the example of Nathan — and Keene and Richie and Seidensticker and Hodson and many other East-going Westerners besides — led me to the realization that I could actually go to Japan, too.

My interview with Nathan, in addition to being the first I ever recorded in person, also turned out to be the first I had to air in two parts. I’d brought several question-filled notebook pages into the studio (this being so early in my interviewing career that I still felt I needed the crutch of notes), but in the event got so caught up in the conversation that I could simply let it flow naturally, and at length. Nathan, a true storyteller with his life experiences presumably fresh in his mind from having just written the book, happily obliged me with detailed answers that steered the conversation in a host of unexpected directions. I took great satisfaction from the pleasure Nathan expressed at the interview after (and even while) we recorded it, but looking back — from my current life, living in Korea, frequently visiting Japan, and writing, reading, and thinking more than ever about both of them — I wonder whether he could sense what the encounter would, a decade later, inspire me to do.