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Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E27: London Rambling with John Rogers

Colin Marshall walks through Stratford, London with John Rogers, author of the blog The Lost Byway and the book This Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City. They discuss how one should approach one’s first London shopping mall, a built phenomenon that has changed dramatically over the decades; his memories of playing soccer with rotten fruit in Stratford’s Shopping City; whether knowing the “other” London requires you to first know the standard London; how “ramble books” got him writing about unwritten-about places; the importance of feeling proud of wherever you live; the unshrinking “London Book” industry, whose robustness possibly owes to the difficulty of pinning the city down; comparisons with Los Angeles, where myths and easy definitions go uncontested; when Leytonstone went from part of Essex to part of London, and what that meant; the historical John Rogers, who got burnt at the stake; what constitutes his walking “practice,” which has earned him a reputation as “the drinking man’s Iain Sinclair”; the richer connection to the environment you feel when walking, and the aid to thinking it provides; how he first began blogging about his walks, and how the activity took on elements of journalism; his curiosity about London places and place names, and how walking facilitates the accretion of related facts into knowledge; his use of pubs as “third places” and of samosas as walking fuel; the Orwellian enjoyment of hardship; and his memories of riding the Docklands Light Railway into the sunset when he first came to town.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

A Los Angeles Primer: Skid Row

I grew up thinking of the “inner city” as a byword for criminality, disrepair, inconvenience, and destitution. Only later did I realize that, outside the United States and much of the United Kingdom, the term and its international equivalents never picked up those off-putting associations. To most of the rest of the world, whose capitals’ established centers didn’t suffer the same extensive degree of postwar population drain, a city gets only more attractive (if exponentially more expensive) the farther in you go. But once-derelict downtowns all across America have enjoyed a renaissance of late, and Los Angeles’ downtown, once among the most derelict, now looks among the most promising. Walk through most of its neighborhoods, and you may well believe the hype; walk through Skid Row, a substantial piece of the old inner city spread for blocks and blocks from about 5th Street and San Pedro outward, and you begin to wonder.

The San Francisco of my early childhood left me with only a few memories, most of them having to do with the size and assertiveness of its homeless population. The situation there has improved, but then, when I saw it at three feet off the ground, I saw it at its late-1980s nadir — it had nothing left to do but improve. That sense memory of passing into an environment, no matter how otherwise stimulating, shot through with drug use, mental illness, aggression, and desperate poverty never quite left me. But anyone going to San Francisco back then would have expected to encounter all that; these days, in that city and others, you more often find it in unexpected pockets, or rather, you suddenly find yourself in those pockets. I think, to take one stark example, of Vancouver’s Hastings Street, onto which the city somehow steers what seem like all of its transients.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

Podthoughts: Talk to Me in Korean

Vital stats:
Format: lessons in the Korean language, Q&A segments, photographic vocabulary sets, explanations of how to say and how specifically not to say certain things, lessons on Korea’s many dialects, interviews, casual conversations, and even English-language discussions of Korean life
Episode duration: 1-25m
Frequency: weekly regular grammar lessons, with all that other material interspersed

매일 팟캐스트를 들어요. 매일 한국어를 공부 해요. 우연이 아니에요. 팟캐스트 듣기를 시작하기 직전에 한국영화 보기를 시작 했어요. 그때에 대학교를 이미 졸업한 상태이었는데 아직 대학도서관에 접근할 수 있었어요. 거기에서 무수히 많은 한국영화를 발견했어요. 사실은, 거기의 거의 모든 재미있는 영화가 한국영화였어요. 보면 볼 수록 한국문화에 관심이 많아졌어요. 결국에는 제가 한국어를 배울 수도 있겠다고 생각 했어요. 처음에 몇년 동안은 혼자 교과서로 공부했어요. 그리고 선현우와 최경은의 Talk to Me in Korean이라는 팟캐 스트가 [iTunes] 나왔어요. 이제는 로스 앤젤레스의 한인타운에 살고, 한국어 수업을 듣고, 한식을 먹고, 한국책을 읽고, 한국텔레비전을 보고, 한국친구가 많고, 한국인 여자친구도 있고 한국에 이사가기로 했는데 아직도 현우 선생남하고 경은 선생님한테 배우고 있어요.

And the aforegoing paragraph, basic though it may sound to any native Korean speaker, should stand as some evidence of the abilities I’ve developed listening to this podcast. Not that they came immediately, or even quickly; Talk to Me in Korean launched in 2009, and I subscribed the next year. Since then, I’ve listened to every one of the over 250 grammar lesson episodes they’ve put out, at least three times each. I’ve even reached the point where I put in an hour or two per morning transcribing their 이야기, or natural conversation episodes, to improve my listening and writing skills. I do still feel more than a little ashamed that my Korean, over six years after I began studying the language, sucks — but hey, before I picked up my Talk to Me in Korean habit, it blew chunks. Journey of a thousand miles, first step, etc. But why, you ask, would I take that first step at all?

Read the whole thing at Maximum Fun.

A Los Angeles Primer: The Bonaventure Hotel and Macy’s Plaza

My day downtown began at the 7th Street Metro Center. Many do, but when I got aboveground, I did something I’d never done before: I crossed 7th and entered Macy’s Plaza, the brick-encased shopping fortress at the foot of Charles Luckman’s 33-story MCI Center. Despite having passed it countless times, I’d never given it much notice, other than as a relic of the none-too-quickly bygone era in American urban planning, when downtowns across the country gave up on their neglected streets and did the best they could with spaces fully enclosed, precisely climate-controlled, and heavily monitored. Inside, I discovered that Macy’s Plaza itself had fared even worse than the ideas behind it, having degraded in the forty years since its opening into a hobbling assembly of wan materials, retail spaces either already empty or signaling imminent emptiness, and the most depressing day-care room I’ve seen in the developed world.

Los Angeles still presents its users with occasional moments like these, encounters with places that make you simply stand there and wonder how and why things got this way. “It is odd that the center of one of the world’s great cities should be occupied by a South of the Border tourist trap,” writes architect Charles Moore of Olvera Street, another downtown destination, and it makes no no more immediate sense that, across from the city’s busiest subway station, on a piece of real estate developers would kill (or at the very least, lavishly bribe) for in other urban cores, sits a deceptively small shopping mall on the brink of surrender, whose remaining attractions include, in sight of one another, a frozen-yogurt stand and a Radio Shack. Some of its decrepitude could be explained with the very same reason I decided to make my unprecedented trip into it: Macy’s Plaza, as Angelenos have long known it, will soon vanish.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

Podthoughts: The Titanium Physicists

Vital stats:
Format: topics in physics explained by physicists, to web comic artists and podcasters
Episode duration: 30m-1h20m
Frequency: one or two per month

The science podcast The Titanium Physicists [RSS] [iTunes], it may not surprise you to hear, sometimes references the web comic xkcd. The enterprises share not only a sensibility, catering to the now-proud “geek” culture, but, seemingly, a business model: xkcd creator Randall Monroe supposedly makes the lion’s share of his revenue by selling themed T-shirts, and The Titanium Physicists host Ben Tippett often pitches garments similarly branded in accordance with his own intellectual property. He comes right out and calls them “a little expensive” — $22.99 to $27.99, turns out — but then underscores their durability. I may have a weak grasp on most if not all of the ideas of physics discussed on this show, but I do know a thing or two about higher-quality and thus pricier yet long-lived garments costing, in the long run, less than cheaper ones. Witness my essays on the matter for Put This On.

Admittedly, I also don’t know who actually buys the T-shirts that keep all this internet content afloat, from web comics to podcasts to vlogs to MP3 albums to multi-user dungeons. I myself seldom have occasion to wear a T-shirt as my outermost, visible layer when not actually asleep, no matter how inflated my enthusiasm for the logo, joke, or URL emblazoned on its chest. Yet even now, thousands of human beings just like you and me order the T-shirts, and even hoodies, that subsidize the things we like to watch, read, and hear. I have similar questions about other supposedly popular wearables, such as Teva sandals: people buy them, obviously, but which people? Not that I claim total ignorance. We’ve all noticed that Tevas have achieved a strange prevalence in the science and engineering communities. In fact, I’d bet folding money that some The Titanium Physicists’ regular panelists — the Titanium Physicists themselves — have on Tevas even as they record. Don’t ask me how I know; at this point, I simply feel it in their voices. And that aside, I think even cold, hard Vegas odds would back me up, given the correlation between the percentage of a person’s life dedicated to the natural or applied sciences and the likelihood of that person’s wearing Tevas — or podcast- and web comic-branded T-shirts, for that matter.

Read the whole thing at Maximum Fun.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E26: New Meant Better with Jonathan Meades

Colin Marshall sits down in Marseille, France, specifically in the Le Corbusier-designed Unité d’Habitation, with Jonathan Meades, writer and broadcaster on architecture, culture, food, and a variety of other subjects to do with place. In his latest film, Bunkers, Brutalism, and Bloodymindness, he looks at architectural styles once- and currently maligned. They discuss how much his residence in Marseilles has to do with his residence in the Unité d’Habitation, to which “caprice” brought him not long ago; unapologetic building versus pusillanimous building; the lack of centralized planning that afflicts France, and what kind of built environment it has brought about; what makes Marseille “no longer the city of Gene Hackman and Fernando Rey”; the phases of the Unité, from its rejection by the workers for whom Corbusier intended it onward; the larger reaction to 20th-century social housing in France and Britain, and what it means that those countries have no taste for the sublime; which European borders he crosses and most immediately notices that “someone cares” about the buildings; what you miss by never having seen Portsmouth’s Tricorn Centre, which rose in a rebuilt city in a time when “new meant better”; how he finds no place boring, an attitude for which he may have received inadvertent training traveling through England with his salesman father; places as gardens of forking paths, leading to all manner of other things; real places, and the fiction places you by definition invent when you try to describe them; the “persona completely apart” he uses to contrast against the variety of places on display in his films; his ideal of satirizing everything; what went into his upcoming book An Encyclopedia of Myself, beginning with the “lie” of its title; whether he has ever felt fascinated by American places; what the French consider too “difficult” about his un-methodical work; and what hope we should hold out for a future Jonathan Meades film on Buenos Aires.

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Attica Locke

On the latest Los Angeles Review of Books podcast I have a conversation with Attica Locke, author of Black Water Rising and The Cutting Season, thrillers set in 1981 Houston and a modern-day Louisiana plantation in which converge various charged threads of American history and society. You can listen to the conversation on the LARB’s site, or download it on iTunes.

A Los Angeles Primer: Melrose Avenue

Architecture and design observer Frances Anderton mentioned loving not just Lincoln Boulevard but Melrose Avenue, two streets that would, at first, seem to have little in common: Lincoln, the oft-derided, “unplanned” linear heap of clashing commercial enterprises; Melrose, the world-renowned destination and longtime bastion of “alternative” shopping culture. And Melrose’s six miles seem almost manageable by comparison to Lincoln’s ten, though, like most of Los Angeles’ east-west streets, Melrose lays out an even more striking study in textural, cultural, and economic shift per mile traveled, and sometimes even per block. A visitor may expect a particular sensibility, but unless they target that visit quite specifically, they’ll find nearly all the sensibilities Los Angeles has to offer.

Hence the tendency of so many to entrust their experience to tour companies who, all day long, run various eye-catching vehicles, including London-ish red double-decker buses, through relevant stretches of Melrose. They pass close to institutions of current or former importance to the entertainment industry, stopping at the densest clusters of high-end shops, and slowing down for historic sites of celebrity misbehavior, confirmed or alleged. Their routes on Melrose usually go from west to east; if you travel the other way across the street’s entire length, an intriguing metamorphosis occurs before your eyes: dogs get smaller; signs advertising marijuana dispensaries and “gentlemen’s clubs” fall away; signs identifying the source of coffee beans rise up; stores offering old furniture, clothing, and objects in general grow ever more curatorial; hair salons decline slightly in number, balanced out by establishments dedicated specifically to eyebrow grooming.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

Notebook on Cities and Culture S4E25: Legitimate Media with Neil Denny

Colin Marshall sits down for a pint at Nelson’s Retreat, a pub on London’s Old Street, with Neil Denny, host of Little Atoms, a show about ideas and culture on Resonance FM. They discuss whether beer improves or degrades the quality of ideas discussed; how the show’s concept has changed over time, differently involving notions of science, culture, atheism, the Enlightenment, and the left; how he began podcasting, and then had to stand out from the sudden morass of skepticism-themed podcast; the different role of religion in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the difficulty of making any untrue statement about America; what effect the events of July 7, 2005 had on the formation of the show; how he conceives of his interviews as encounters with authors you read at the pub; the early inclusion of Jonathan Meades on the guest list, and how he represents the show’s ever-growing interest in place; whether you must polarize to truly gain popularity; the Little Atoms American road trip, and what it taught him about how best to think about America’s dually prominent scientific and religious enterprises; the American sense of place and the built environment versus that of England; how he sought out the semi-secret public gardens in the skyscrapers of San Francisco; how both of them changed the way they frame their core interests on their shows, but not the interests themselves; how he feels when he listens to his own early interviews, from back when he labored under the feeling of fraudulence then inherent to working outside the “legitimate media”; guests’ welcome yet troubling compliments of, “You actually read my book” or “You really listened to me”; and friends’ equally telling questions of, “Can you really talk to somebody for an hour?”

Download the interview here as an MP3 or on iTunes.

My Essay on Hollywood’s Hotel Café in F.A.M.E.’ US Magazine

Just a few songs into her set, the formerly Oakland-based Anna Ash admitted that she hadn’t yet emerged from the standard Los Angeles adjustment period. She felt especially unused, she emphasized, to still sweating in the middle of January, but had made enough progress to accept the idea of Los Angeles as simply “a different beast” from other cities. Enjoying a metropolis like this one — not that many metropolises resemble this one — doesn’t come naturally; most have to learn how to live well in it for themselves, picking up the knowledge essential to doing so however and wherever they can.

For music lovers, one bit of knowledge proves particularly helpful for the enrichment of their cultural life in Los Angeles: the existence of the Hotel Cafe, on whose stage I first saw Ash and her three-man band play. You’ve got to do a little work just to find it, given its location down a black-painted alley off Hollywood’s Cahuenga strip. Still, only by the standards of 21st-century self-promotion (especially as practiced Hollywood) does the place count as hidden; the management have put up a logo on the wall outside, albeit a tasteful one (especially, again, given the usual definition of taste in Hollywood).

Read the whole thing in the debut issue of the newly relaunched F.A.M.E.’ US magazine.