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The Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: J. Ryan Stradal

Colin Marshall talks with J. Ryan Stradal, fiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown, editor-at-large at Unnamed Press, and advisory board member at 826LA. He is also the author of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which offers at once its own spin on the modern food novel and its own spin on the modern family novel, telling dozens of stories about Midwesterners and the food they eat through the rise of one young girl, connected to all of them, who becomes one of the most respected chefs in America.

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, download it on iTunes.

Portland, the City in Cinema

Portland hardly runs the risk of cinematic overexposure, but when we see real a Portland movie, one with a sense of place, we remember it. These run the gamut from the 1950s noir morality play
Portland Exposé and nuclear-strike preparedness special A Day Called X to Penny Allen’s 1978 land-use satire Property to the work of such Portland auteurs as Gus van Sant, Kelly Reichardt, and Aaron Katz — not to mention the unerotic erotic thriller Body of Evidence, the pseudoscientific docudrama What the Bleep Do We Know!?, and B-movie master Albert Pyun’s Andrew Dice Clay vehicle Brain Smasher… a Love Story. All of them take the elements of Portland’s urban space — the bridges, the MAX trains, Big Pink, the woods just outside the city — to constitute a fascinating body of modern Portland urban cinema.

For more The City in Cinema video essays, visit its Vimeo page.

This Friday: a free screening of Blade Runner in San Francisco, introduced by yours truly

FILM_FEST_POSTER.finalSan Francisco urbanist-cinephiles! This Friday at the second annual San Francisco Urban Film Festival, with its theme of going “beyond dystopia,” you can catch a free screening of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, whose vision of 2019 Los Angeles established our aesthetic vocabulary for urban dystopia — but how dystopian does it really look these days?

I’ll show up to give a talk about that and other questions before the screening, and do a Q&A with professor Pedro Lange-Churion afterward. You’ll find all the details (especially those about getting your free tickets) here. You can follow the San Francisco Urban Film Festival on Twitter @SFUrbanFilmFest. And if you like, have a look at my City in Cinema video on Blade Runner beforehand. Start thinking dystopian now, and I’ll see you in San Francisco.

It’s the Final Day to Fund “Where Is the City of the Future?” — But Will This Urbanist-Travel-Cultural Journalistic Journey Happen?

Where is the city of the future? Unless we raise at least $860 today, we can’t even begin to find out. The final day of the funding period for this in-depth experiment in crowdfunded interactive urbanist-travel-cultural journalism across the Pacific Rim has come, and it all hangs in the balance. If you’ve already joined in but have friends who might want to get involved as well — friends who love cities, friends into travel on the Pacific Rim, friends who enjoy receiving postcards from exotic places (wherever they would consider “exotic,” from Sydney to Santiago to Seoul to Seattle), this is the time to bring them on over — specifically, to the project’s page on Byline, the new platform especially for crowdfunded journalism.

As I’ve previously mentioned, each $2000 “Where Is the City of the Future?” raises on Byline will produce one report, or long-form series of articles, on one particular Pacific Rim city that could serve as a model for the city of the future. We’ll begin with Los Angeles and Seoul, then move on, depending on the budget raised, to the other world cities of the Pacific Rim, in an order voted on by you, the supporters. And if you support the project at the top level, you can simply name the Pacific Rim city of your choice, and I’ll head over and do a report on it — after, of course, consulting you for your own thoughts on the place!

It goes without saying that “Where Is the City of the Future?” works best — indeed, works only — with the comparative aspect intact. You can’t really look for the city of the future among only one or two or three cities; you’ve got to cast a wider net, and this project intends to cast as wide a net as it can across the urban Pacific Rim. And so the bigger the budget we raise, the more interesting a reading (and viewing, and listening) experience the final product can become. Let’s make it as interesting as possible — in the urbanistic sense, the exploratory sense, the cultural sense, the culinary sense, the architectural sense, and all others besides — today. Thanks very much indeed, and I’ll see you over at Byline.

Diary: This American Road, Raleigh (and Asheville)

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Before arriving in Raleigh, the final destination of this cross-country road trip, we stopped in Asheville, one of those places often found alongside the likes of Athens, Georgia and Marfa, Texas in clickbait slideshows about America’s Coolest Cities of Under 100,000 People. It didn’t answer my long-standing question about who’s doing the clicking and why (coolness or low population; you kind of have to choose one), but I could see why it impresses visitors: it has well-regarded bookstores; it has an architecturally sound and human-scaled downtown (still an astonishing novelty to so many Americans); it has a pinball museum (closed, alas, when we passed by); it has a confectioner who makes shoes out of chocolate.

I didn’t leave with a chocolate shoe, but I did leave with a copy of Lawrence Osborne’s Paris Dreambook purchased, after flipping through it over a generous cheese plate, from the well-curated and highly explorable Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar (the name alone…), located in a restored shopping arcade somewhat reminiscent of the Bradbury Building back in Los Angeles. Despite having sworn off purchasing books in the months before my move to Korea, I do make exceptions for volumes on cities (professional interest, surely you understand), especially when I personally like the writer (and my interview with Osborne about his Bangkok book remains one of my very favorites from the Marketplace of Ideas days).

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Apart from Quail Ridge Books, an event-intensive strip-mall bookstore beloved of no less a locally raised man of letters than David Sedaris (whose signed portrait, hung in the bathroom, reads “I was a monster in 2009”), Raleigh, or at least my experience of Raleigh, seemed to me less about books than about food. Calvin Trillin wrote at length about the struggle for the soul of North Carolinian barbecue in the New Yorker just the other day, naming Raleigh as “the line of demarcation that separates the two principal schools” of that culinary art form.

But ironically, North Carolina counts as the sole barbecue-oriented state we passed through on our road trip in which we ate no barbecue at all: we had it in Texas, we had it in Arkansas, and we had it in Tennessee, but we wholly missed out on both eastern North Carolina’s version, “where barbecue means the whole hog, chopped, with a vinegar-based sauce that is flavored with pepper,” and western North Carolina’s version, which “uses only pork shoulders, chopped (or, sometimes, sliced), with a sauce that is also vinegar-based but has been turned pinkish by the addition of ketchup or tomato sauce.”

We did, however, eat Korean food, or in any case an intriguing local version of Korean food. After ten days on the road, I’d worked up a mighty craving for even a simple kimchi jjigae (or especially a simple kimchi jjigae), and so we stopped in for lunch at Kimbap, a “Korean-inspired” cafe in what I understand to be the Raleigh’s most interesting current food neighborhood outside downtown. If the menu offered kimbap I didn’t see it, but the dishes we did find provided a tasty experience at the intersection of traditional Korean food and hardcore North Carolina locavorism. (Its kimchi had a refreshingly vinegary taste — a distant echo, perhaps, of the eastern North Caroninian love of the stuff in their barbecue?)

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We had a chat with the chef, a Korean-born, Michigan-raised adoptee who surprised us with the revelation that she’d never once set foot in the land of her ancestors (not to mention the land of our next residence) after her adoption. I insisted that she visit, if only because she seemed like the ideal person to enjoy a food tour there, but Kimbap has cleared the bar of two and a half years in business, keeping her busier and thus less able to travel than ever with its ongoing demonstration of the apparent viability of selling Korean cuisine to Raleighites.

But the market hasn’t yet reached a saturation point, as indicated by the restaurant’s chopsticks, which come in sleeves printed with directions for how to use chopsticks. If I’d seen that in California, I’d have taken it as an attempt at irony, but North Carolina didn’t strike me as a particularly ironic place. Even there, though, I wonder how long we’ll see this sort of thing. I can’t think of a single American friend of my generation unable to eat with chopsticks, but I get the sense that Asia itself hasn’t yet got word about how thoroughly their stateside usage has spread.

My own unhesitant (if not unusually skillful) chopsticking has drawn expressions of astonishment from certain Koreans in both their homeland and mine, a reaction often revealing more surprise than the one I get when I actually speak Korean — though I did score a twofer once when, at a Koreatown Korean Chinese restaurant (a distinct variant of Chinese cuisine, with dishes as signature as though much more defined than American Chinese food’s orange chicken and chop suey), I explained in that language to the middle-aged lady who suddenly appeared at my side two-handedly proffering a fork that, thank you, but I didn’t need one.

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We ate more often downtown, and you can’t talk about downtown Raleigh food, so I gather, without taking about Ashley Christensen, the well-known chef who runs seven popular bars and restaurants in the city. We got to four of them in the span of two days without really trying: Beasley’s Chicken + Honey, a sort of North Carolinian Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles; Chuck’s right next door, a specialty hamburger joint boasting myriad French-fry dipping sauces; Fox Liquor Bar, a brick-walls-and-bare-bulbs sort of place underneath Beasley’s and Chuck’s; and Poole’s, a new-wave diner open late enough for us to hit up after an event (although “late” in this case means midnight, a sign that downtown Raleigh has a little way to go yet, though huge swaths of Los Angeles suffer exactly the same problem).

Of course, I imagine that some hardcore Raleigh eaters and drinkers disdain Christensen’s restaurants in the same way that some hardcore Portland eaters and drinkers disdain the McMenamin’s establishments. But you know what? I’ve drawn great pleasure indeed from every McMenamin’s place I’ve visited, and at this point a visit to Portland wouldn’t feel complete without at least one. (It does boggle my mind, though, that with the Anderson School they’ve expanded into Bothell, Washington, the crappy suburb next to the crappy suburb where I went to high school.) Maybe, a few Raleigh trips from now, I’ll come to feel the same way about the Christensen empire.

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Raleigh’s other urban amenities I find it a bit harder to judge. Like many midsize American cities, it lacks even the most basic rapid transit system, though discussions have begun; in the doorway of a gift shop I found brochures detailing the pros and cons of rail versus bus rapid transit, though nothing will actually happen until 2026 at the earliest. I didn’t get the chance to ride the R-LINE, a nifty-looking free downtown circulator bus (albeit one that only goes in one direction and only comes every fifteen minutes). But we did stop by the also-free City of Raleigh Museum, whose maps and models on display give a sense of the city’s layout and how it developed. (I wish every city had one of those; I’d make them the first stop as a rule.)

As always, on American road trips or any other form of travel, the most memorable things come unexpectedly. I put the call out on Twitter for recommendations from Raleigh urbanists, and someone replied to suggest the Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh’s kissa, held weekly on the building’s bottom floor and modeled after the 1950s Japanese kissaten, “bars and cafes where music lovers could share their record collections with devoted and curious listeners.”

On the week we happened to attend, we drank wine while listening to selections from the formidable collection of Marshall Wyatt, proprietor of vintage-Americana label Old Hat Records, concluding our journey through America’s present with a plunge into America’s past. Toward the end of the evening, Wyatt pulled out a piece of vinyl to which he said he wanted to give a special introduction, one that would let him “say the three words every collector longs to say: only. Known. Copy.” Misuse of the word “unique,” a habit common to American speech, has started to grate on me after thirty years here (maybe that along has driven me to Korea), but here we had a genuine opportunity to use the word: a unique recording in a unique country.

The Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Farley Elliott

Colin Marshall talks with Farley Elliott, senior editor at Eater Los Angeles and author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History from Tamaleros to Taco Trucks, a hybrid history of and guide to everything one can buy and eat on a sidewalk in this city, from taquitos on Olvera Street to illegal backyard Burmese restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley to new-wave fusion food trucks of the likes pioneered by Roy Choi’s Korean-Mexican Kogi fleet.

You can stream the conversation just above, listen to it on the LARB’s site, download it on iTunes.

Diary: This American Road, Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville

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We pulled into Memphis at night and drove to Knoxville the following day, stopping in Nashville somewhere in the middle, then rolled on to North Carolina the morning after that. If you need to see the three biggest cities in Tennessee and have absolutely no more than 36 hours in which to do it, I can tell you how we did it.

We began with a bracing shot of déjà vu, dragging ourselves into the lobby of the Memphis Courtyard by Marriott that looked and felt in all respects identical to the lobby of the Oklahoma City Courtyard by Marriott in which we’d drank away the vibrations of the road the day before. At first I assumed the details would differ. Surely the Memphis instantiation of The Bistro wouldn’t have the same folksy chalkboard with its handwritten imperative to “Try Our Classic Oatmeal.” But it did indeed have the same folksy chalkboard — just propped up on the opposite shelf.

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I never tried their Classic Oatmeal. I always get excited about complimentary continental breakfasts at hotels (despite seldom eating anything from them but Raisin Bran), and at this point in life have come to expect them as a standard offering of the traditional hotel industry, perhaps the sole remaining reason not to go with an Airbnb 100 percent of the time (though I’ve noticed many Airbnb hosts raising their breakfast game lately).

Bizarrely, Courtyards by Marriott don’t offer a continental breakfast, an unexpected point of tackiness I pondered while drinking my three-dollar coffee from The Bistro. But the lack of free Raisin Bran meant a chance to eat at a downtown institution instead, and so we ended up Sunday-brunching at the Blue Plate Cafe, where we put away a few omelets under the happily vacant gaze of dozens and dozens of dog portraits, their painter one of Memphis’ very own.

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I find few activities as pleasurable as discovering an unknown downtown on foot, and I looked forward to seeing what Memphis’ had to offer with the aid of its historic streetcar lines. Alas, I found whole system shut down for renovation since a fire in 2013, and its rails and stations remain silent today.

So instead of my usual improvised downtown tour, we opted for a tour of the official variety: specifically of Sun Studios, which some might know as the place Elvis got his start, but others, people like me, might know as the place to which Youki Kudoh and Masatoshi Nagase make their pilgrimage in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train. Only one member of our tour group had managed to put together a credible 1950s rocker look for the occasion — pompadour, sideburns, cuffs, Converse — and he, not that surprisingly, turned out to have come all the way from Switzerland. Lucky nobody Japanese had turned up; they’d surely have eaten his subcultural lunch.

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Tennessee ranks as only the 36th largest state in the Union (and actually, it roughly matches the size of South Korea, though Indiana, number 38, gets closer), but it still takes between three and four hours to drive from its first city to its second. The high-rises and elevated freeways of Nashville (not to mention its scores of construction cranes, hard at the apparent work doubling the size of the city) came into view just as the desperation for some urbanity was about to get the better of me.

We’d also felt a desperation for nachos for some miles, and so made for an oasis in Midtown (not to be confused with Oklahoma City‘s MidTown) called, simply, Tavern, whose staff, seeming to sense our weariness, seated us in a corner circular booth of our own, poured us some restorative cider and sangria, and served us a heap of tortilla chips, cheese, guacamole and something called “angry chicken.” On the table stood a variety of hot sauces, three of which came in brown eye-dropper bottles labeled only “X,” “XX,” and “XXX.”

simpsons sunsphere

After dinner we took a walk through Music Row (small speakers embedded in whose sidewalk utility boxes pipe out the hits 24/7), ending up at the kind of third-wave coffee shop, built in the comparatively cavernous space of a renovated garage, that makes you wonder not whether you could move to its city, but how soon you should. It helped that, from what I could tell through their illuminated floor-to-ceiling windows, all the nearby condos (whether still under construction or very recently finished) looked comfortable indeed.

Part of me wondered if I’d see anything like it in Knoxville, but a bigger part of me — just like any thirty-year-old American male, and thus exegete of The Simpsons‘ 1990s golden era — wondered what I’d find when I made my own pilgrimage to the Sunsphere, at which Bart, Milhouse, Martin and Nelson once arrived fourteen years too late for the 1982 World’s Fair (and ultimately knocked over).

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I enjoy old World’s Fair grounds, and the park Osaka maintains at the site of Expo ’70 remains, for me, the old World’s Fair grounds to beat. Knoxville’s modest but pleasant equivalent doesn’t beat it, but there you can visit the Sunsphere’s observation deck and behold all of Knoxville laid before you for free, each vista’s accompanying display informing you of, say, the city’s title of red panda capital of the western hemisphere. (It reminds me of the non-free towers that overlook some Asian cities, especially Busan’s, though the Sunsphere boasts something called the “Icon Ultra Lounge” — currently closed, like Memphis’ trolleys, for renovation.)

If I lived in Knoxville, I’d live in the condo building with the best Sunsphere view, a converted candy factory from the turn of the 20th century with a chocolate shop on the bottom floor. As I stocked up on Sunsphere bars there, the owner excitedly told us about the coming developments in Knoxville’s own downtown revitalization, working in a sentiment I’ve heard in almost every city on this trip, and indeed almost every city in America from Los Angeles on down: “If you’d told me this place was going to come back to life ten, fifteen years ago, I’d never have believed you.”

Just one week left to support my venture in crowdfunded interactive urbanist-travel-cultural journalism on Byline

With one week left in the funding drive for “Where Is the City of the Future?”, my experiment in crowdfunded interactive urbanist-travel-cultural journalism here on Byline, allow me to address a seemingly simple question: why search for the city of the future in the first place?

As I’ve previously explained, for each $2000 raised by this funding campaign, “Where Is the City of the Future?” will produce an in-depth report one world city along the Pacific Rim, beginning with Los Angeles and Seoul and moving on to cities chosen by you, the supporters, from a selection ranging from Tokyo to Sydney, Vancouver to Jakarta, Hong Kong to Honolulu. (Those who support the project at the highest level can also name a Pacific Rim city, even one not already on the list, for inclusion.)

We’ve raised just over $500 so far — about a quarter of the budget for the first city in the series — but still have a whole week in which to put together the kind of amount that will make it interesting. That would require a comparison of at least three or four Pacific Rim cities, meaning a total budget of at least $6000 or $8000 — but of course, the bigger the budget, and thus the more cities the project can cover, the better.

Each city report from “Where Is the City of the Future?” will take a long form, running over the course of weeks and making use of not just writing and photography but other audiovisual media as well — videos offering a glimpse into the on-the-street experience in these cities, audio interviews with those who know them best, and a host of other possibilities besides — in order to get as deep as possible into as many aspects of these cities as possible: their architecture, their geography, their food, their urban design, their technology, their languages, their transit… the list goes on.

That very quality, above all others, strikes me as the reason to search for the city of the future: cities aren’t just subjects, but nexuses of all subjects. Whatever fires up your curiosity, you can explore, discuss, and learn about in the context of cities. And now that most of the world’s population has come to live in cities, they’ve become perhaps the most important context you can explore, discuss, and learn about most of these subjects in.

But you no doubt have particular things you’d like to know about each city, specific neighborhoods (whether real or metaphorical) you’d like to see explored. As a supporter of “Where Is the City of Future?” you can make your preferences heard: maybe in the ongoing conversation of the project’s Supporters’ Cafe here on Byline, maybe in a Skype or Google Hangout session with me directly, or maybe even face-to-face over the choicest food and drink in the Pacific Rim city of your choice.

Other benefits of supporting “Where Is the City of the Future?” include postcards I’ll send you from each of the Pacific Rim cities the project will cover; membership on the “Where Is the City of the Future?” mailing list, with regular updates on my urban travels for the series as well as a roundup of interesting news stories pertaining to the cities in the series; and a complete print collection of the “Where Is the City of the Future?” reports after the series has concluded.

But first, over the next seven days, we’ve got to get this thing funded! Thanks very much indeed for your time, attention, and, if I’ve done anything at all here to convince you of the project’s interestingness, support — which you can provide on the “Where Is the City of the Future?” page on Byline. I’ll see you on the Pacific Rim.

Diary: This American Road, Ozark

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Ozark, Arkansas — it sounds like the name of a freeway exit you’d take pains to avoid using, or the name of one of those forbidding small towns in movies where the main character’s car breaks down and Bad Things Happen but you ultimately kind of blame the victim because, come on, Ozark, Arkansas. But we took the Ozark offramp with the greatest deliberateness, aiming for an early dinner at Rivertowne Barbecue, which came recommended to us by a genuine Arkansas native back in Los Angeles. You’ll notice I linked to Rivertowne’s web site, the fact of whose existence alone I found reassuring: it’s okay, they know about the internet, this is modern, literate, non-lawless Ozark of the 21st century.

ozark square

Still, I had low expectations, less in the Deliverance sense than that I’d envisioned Rivertowne, which first opened in 2000, located in a dreary, auto-oriented strip the likes of which I’ve already seen more than enough of sprouting off and alongside Interstate 40, maybe between a Wal-Mart on one side and a Sam’s Club on the other. But we found it in a traditional, almost classical town square that looked to have hosted an event involving quite a few tents, trucks, and stands just an hour or two before. There, hung in the back of one of the trucks whose owners hadn’t yet finished packing up their wares, I noticed the first Stars and Bars of the trip so far. I wondered how wary I should feel at finally spotting this ultimate signal of Confederate pride, or whether it should pleasantly surprise me that I’d spotted so few so far, or whether any of it meant anything at all.

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Mostly I just felt hungry, and ever more grateful for the presence of Rivertowne with each downtown Ozark business, all already closed for the day by late afternoon, we passed along the way. When we sat down to eat, we found that the bustle inside the restaurant balanced out the utter quiescence of the town around it. Artifacts of vintage Arkansas life, including old street signs off the main drag of Commercial Street and a large metal oval mounted above our booth proudly advertising Grapette soda (with “IMITATION GRAPE FLAVOR”) surrounded us, with nary a banner of Dixie to be seen. A framed portrait hanging by the bathroom immortalized Rivertowne’s first paying customer. A high-heeled teenager in bright purple jeans came in with her family, the heavy makeup and first-place sash she wore attesting to a fresh beauty-pageant victory.

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In the unlikely event that I need to come by Ozark again, I’ll make a point of returning to Rivertowne. We speak often — especially often in election season — of the existence of not one but multiple Americas, each of which lives in ignorance and misunderstanding of all the others. I knew this road trip would take us through a host of Americas about which I personally have, to this point, lived in ignorance and misunderstanding, and the likes of Rivertowne, at the hour or indeed in the era when the emptied-out town square retains the form but no longer fulfills the function, provides a visually and sonically (they have accents here!) rich observatory of this particular America in action. And it also offers an equally satisfying plate of brisket, pork, ribs, and “Texas toast” superior, I might add, to the Texas toast I had at our last barbecue stop — in Amarillo, Texas.

Diary: This American Road, Oklahoma City

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I’d looked forward to our arrival in Oklahoma City, less because I knew anything about it than because it came after an eight-hour, three-state-spanning drive from Albuquerque, through what I mostly remember as a sense-deadeningly repetitive pastoral punctuated by vast fields of windmills. After that, I felt just about ready to settle forever in any place with “City” in its name. But National Geographic Traveler did also name Oklahoma City among the “20 go-now destinations” on its “Best Trips 2015” list, which fueled my suspicions that we’d find something genuinely worthwhile there.

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We found, on our first morning, the genuinely worthwhile Myriad Botanical Gardens, an acclaimed (and, coming from California, shockingly bum-free) public space in downtown Oklahoma City just across the street from the Devon Energy Center, the recently built 50-story skyscraper that, so far out of scale with any other nearby structure, pretty much constitutes the skyline by itself. On the opposite side of the gardens, a children’s pumpkin festival had got into full swing, providing perhaps the highest concentration of wholesomeness I’ve ever beheld first-hand. At every intersection, electronic voices offered — and repeated, and repeated — detailed descriptions of which streets we could cross and when. Professional downtown guides zipped by, their canary-yellow uniforms in perfect color coordination with their Segways.

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We passed through a few torn-up streets, but they’d been torn up, so the signs informed us, in the name of Project 180, a $176 million pedestrianization scheme, reaching the edge of a neighborhood called MidTown (yes, capitalized T). There we sat down, across the corner from a tempting ramen joint, for a cappuccino, hot chocolate, and “sparkling cold brew” among the bearded baristas, MacBooks Air, and Macklemore haircuts of Elemental Coffee. They’d even put up a stand of tools with which to tune up your bicycle while awaiting your drink (which will sometimes require, as the beards put it, a serious “time investment”). But you won’t have to worry about that if you use Spokies, the city’s bike share system, which has placed one of its stations right in Elemental’s parking lot. Clearly, the center of Oklahoma City, in common with many other greater downtown areas across America (some of which we’ve experienced on this very trip), has a revival going on.

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Still, mention the name Oklahoma City to anyone outside it — and surely some inside it — and they think of one thing and one thing only: the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Though only ten years old and in Seattle at the time, I still remember the day it happened, and from then on the disaster, for me as for so many others, stood for the city. I didn’t imagine then that I’d ever have occasion to visit Oklahoma City myself, much less the memorial grounds to be one day built on the Murrah building’s cleared footprint. But there I ultimately went, and there I saw the bronze gates, one representing the minute before the explosion, one representing the minute after. Between them stretches a shallow reflecting pool (dotted, dispiritingly, with pennies), and beside that stand 168 sculptural empty chairs. It ranks high among the massacre sites I’ve seen, lacking either the sinister feeling of Tlatelolco or the whole city of Hiroshima’s faint air of unreality. (The giant weeping Jesus across the street does go a bit far, but a Methodist church built it on their own property.)

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On a length of chain-link fence hang stuffed animals (the building’s day care center having infamously absorbed some of the blast and most of the news coverage) and photos of the victims. One studio portrait stood out for its now strikingly retro hair and lighting, and then for the dates below: 1971-1995, 24 years old, hardly more than a girl but not much younger than the bomber himself. The violence of the event haunts me less than the question of how Timothy McVeigh, clearly an intelligent young man of iron resolve and philosophical consistency, somehow arrived, through a seemingly coherent set of principles, at what he saw as the necessary step of car-bombing a federal building. (Incidentally, he did his planning in Kingman, Arizona, where we happened to stop earlier this trip for lunch at a barbecue place called Redneck’s.)

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I don’t want to overstate this point, but I’ve spent a great deal of this time behind the wheel trying to understand something more of America, and from that perspective I see McVeigh as not just a “domestic terrorist,” but a thoroughly American terrorist. Brought up on this country’s mythology, more than a few of us entertain the fantasy that we, too, might one day grow into tyrant-toppling outlaw. Many more of us harbor an inherent distrust and even perpetual suspicion of any visible center of power, especially one as colossal as the federal government of the United States: we think of the state as not Us, but Them. McVeigh certainly regarded it as Them, and as malevolent a Them as They come, insisting on describing his act in Oklahoma City as “morally equivalent” to the recklessness of the U.S. government not just at home (he framed his bombing as “counter-attack” in a war initiated by the United States at Ruby Ridge and Waco) and abroad: “Remember Dresden? How about Hanoi? Tripoli? Baghdad? What about the big ones — Hiroshima and Nagasaki?”

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Few Americans, I suspect, feel active guilt about the Dresdens, Hanois, Tripolis, Baghdads, Hiroshimas, and Nagasakis of the world, due to a tribally instinctive categorization of the foreigners there, even noncombatants, as Them rather than Us. (I admit to feeling no guilt myself at Hiroshima, less because I regard wartime Japanese as Them than because I regard the Americans who ordered the bombs dropped as an even more alien Them.) McVeigh abandoned that particular concept of Us and Them (to say nothing of “two wrongs don’t make a right”), and so the death of innocents in one place looked as unjustifiable, and so as justifiable, to him as the death of innocents in another — a sentiment with which all 21st-century American liberals would surely agree. For most of us, the less we think in terms of Us and Them, the more humane individuals we become. Timothy McVeigh, on the other hand, became the deadliest mass-murderer in American history.