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The History of Cities in 50 Buildings: The Renaissance Center

No one has taken as much blame for Detroit’s woes as the major American car companies who, through the early 20th century, concentrated themselves there to such an extent that the city’s name became a byword for the industry.

Despite the contradiction of an urban metropolis owing so much to an explosion in car ownership, for decades the arrangement worked reasonably well. But eventually, as the likes of Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors faltered – especially during the oil crises of the 1970s, when Japanese and European manufacturers gained the upper hand while homegrown ones responded with plant closures and massive layoffs – so the fortunes of the Motor City flagged.

Watching in dismay as his hometown turned hollower by the day, Ford chairman Henry Ford II had an idea: surely if all the car manufacturers – indeed, all the city’s industrial companies – got together, they could pool their resources and build Detroit out of its spiral? And so, in 1970, arose the non-profit organisation Detroit Renaissance, the city’s newest advocate for downtown – and, with its plan to kickstart the local economy by putting up the world’s largest private development, its most ambitious.

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

The History of Cities in 50 Buildings: The Original Starbucks

With more than 21,500 stores in 64 countries and territories, the Starbucks coffee chain has enjoyed the image of omnipresence for so long that jokes about walking across the street from one branch straight into another have themselves become clichéd. In certain cities, it’s simply the reality: Seattle, for instance, where the now universally recognised green mermaid got her humble start.

But when the very first Starbucks opened on 30 March 1971, its sign bore not a green mermaid but a brown one — and a more anatomically detailed one at that. Founders Jerry Baldwin, Zev Siegl and Gordon Bowker (friends from the University of San Francisco, all instructed in the art of roasting by Peet’s Coffee and Tea founder Alfred Peet) drew the theme of their new coffee company from nautical mythology, commissioning that first version of the company’s signature siren and picking a name out of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick – “Starbucks” having narrowly pipped the second-place contender, “Pequod”.

You can still see Starbucks’ original mermaid, baring her breasts and spreading her tails, on the window of the “original Starbucks” (actually the second location of the original Starbucks, to which it moved in 1977) at Seattle’s tourist-beloved Pike Place market. A site of pilgrimage for Starbucks habitués the world over, the store offers not just all the drinks on the company’s modern menu — from normal coffee and espresso to chai tea lattes and caramel Frappuccinos — but a sense of just how much the operation has changed over the decades.

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Sam Quinones

Colin Marshall talks with reporter Sam Quinones, who covered gangs, drugs, and immigration at the Los Angeles Times for a decade. He has written the books Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream, True Tales from Another Mexico, and the new Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.

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

The History of Cities in 50 Buildings: The Southdale Center

Behold the shopping mall – the built epitome, according to its critics, of the mindless, car-bound consumerism of white-bread suburban America. Yet Southdale Center, the first fully enclosed, climate-controlled collection of shops from which all the 1,100 or so similarly designed malls now standing across the United States descend, came from the mind of an anti-car, pro-pedestrian European Jewish socialist.

Victor Gruen, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, arrived in America in 1938 with high architectural aims. He soon launched a career creating New York City storefronts for urban businesses, like Ciro’s on Fifth Avenue and Steckler’s on Broadway, 14 years into which he received a commission to design something else entirely: a shopping centre 10 miles outside Minneapolis.

This job offered Gruen a blank canvas on which to realise his long-imagined utopian vision of an indoor city centre that would import the urbanity of his native Vienna into his fast-growing adopted homeland. Southdale itself went up as he had imagined it – but nothing else went according to plan. By the 1970s, Gruen had returned to Austria to live out his days having all-too-clearly realised what a suburban monster he’d created.

Though few built environments now seem as prosaic as that of the shopping mall, it looked downright radical when Gruen first came up with it. He first publicly submitted such a design in 1943, to Architectural Forum magazine’s competition “Architecture 194X”, which called upon modern architects to imagine the city of the post-war future. Alas Gruen’s entry, with its full enclosure and lack of a central square, struck even those forward-thinking editors as a bit much, and they sent him back to the drawing board.

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

Everything I’ve written about Haruki Murakami for Open Culture

Haruki Murakami

I began writing for Open Culture with a post on In Search of Haruki Murakami, a BBC documentary on the elusiveness of the novelist and his work. In the years since, I do believe I’ve written more about Murakami there than I have any other culture figure, Western or Eastern, living or dead. (Orson Welles probably comes in second.) Here are all my posts of Murakamiana (fueled by Murakamania?) so far:

See also my favorite Open Culture posts so far, a list which of course includes a bit of Murakami itself.

The History of Cities in 50 Buildings: Levittown

Levittown isn’t a single building but a development of more than 17,000 detached houses. The project – started in 1947 as America’s prototypical postwar planned community – has outlived its heartiest supporters and harshest detractors to stand today as something more complicated than a monument to the glory of the American dream, or to the blandness and conformity to which that dream led.

Like so much else in 20th-century America, Levittown began as a shrewd business move. The homebuilding firm of Levitt and Sons had specialised in upper middle class dwellings on New York’s Long Island before the second world war, only to be curtailed by the conflict’s enormous consumption of construction resources.

But then the founder’s son, William Levitt, came home from the navy with an idea: every young veteran returning to the United States would need a home. Couldn’t the mass-production strategies he’d learned putting up military housing give it to them?

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

The History of Cities in 50 Buildings: Pruitt-Igoe

If you propose a high-rise public housing project in America, your opponents will almost certainly use Pruitt-Igoe as a rhetorical weapon against you – and defeat you with it. The Captain WO Pruitt Homes and William L Igoe Apartments, a racially segregated, middle-class complex of 33 11-storey towers, opened to great fanfare on the north side of St Louis between 1954 and 1956. But within a decade, it would become a decrepit warehouse exclusively inhabited by poor, black residents. Within two decades, it would undergo complete demolition.

Whether you call Pruitt-Igoe’s short, troubled existence a failure of architecture, a failure of policy, or a failure of society, its fate remains bound up with, and reflective of, the fate of many American cities in the mid-20th century.

Even before the dust settled from the infamous, widely televised 1972 implosion of one of Pruitt-Igoe’s buildings (the last of which wouldn’t fall until 1976), the argument that the design had doomed it gained serious traction. Architectural historian Charles Jencks cites that much-seen dynamiting as the moment “modern architecture died”.

Other detractors used the occasion to hold up its architect, Minoru Yamasaki, for condemnation as a figurehead of all the supercilious, social-engineering modernists too high-minded and self-regarding to consider the needs of regular people. But on closer examination, Yamasaki comes out looking more like a victim himself.

Read the whole thing at The Guardian.

Los Angeles Review of Books Podcast: Laila Lalami

Colin Marshall talks with Laila Lalami, author of Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Secret Son. Her latest novel is The Moor’s Account, the story of a 16th-century Spanish expedition in search of gold in modern-day Florida through the words of an unusually eloquent Moroccan slave.

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

Notebook on Cities and Culture’s Guide to Los Angeles

NCC Guide to Los Angeles small

Notebook on Cities and Culture has ended, but here’s a final guide, which indexes by theme all its interviews about the one and only Los Angeles.



  • Glen Creason, Los Angeles Public Library Map Librarian and author of Los Angeles in Maps
  • Nathan Masters, writer on the history of Los Angeles and representative of Los Angeles as Subject for KCET and Los Angeles magazine
  • D.J. Waldie, author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir and Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles, and for 34 years the City of Lakewood’s as Public Information Officer
  • Chris NicholsLos Angeles magazine associate editor
  • Charles Phoenix, “Ambassador of Americana,” curator of vintage midcentury slides, and author of books like Southern CalifornialandAmericana the Beautiful, and Southern California in the 50s
  • Lynn Garrett, proprietor of popular online community Hidden Los Angeles and fifth-generation Angeleno
  • Matt Novak, author of Paleofuture, the blog that looks into the future that never was

Planning and transit:

  • David C. Sloane, professor at the University of California’s Price School of Public Policy and editor of Planning Los Angeles
  • Donald Shoup, UCLA urban planning professor and author of The High Cost of Free Parking
  • Brigham Yen, Realtor and author of the urban renaissance blog DTLA Rising
  • Tim Halbur, Director of Communications at the Congress for the New Urbanism, and former Managing Editor at Planetizen
  • Doug Suisman, architect, urban designer, and author of Los Angeles Boulevard: Eight X-Rays of the Body Public
  • Ethan Elkind, attorney and researcher on environmental law and author of Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail System and the Future of the City
  • Edward Soja, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Urban Planning at UCLA and author of Postmodern GeographiesThirdspace, and My Los Angeles: From Urban Restructuring to Regional Urbanization
  • Damien Newton, founder of Streetsblog Los Angeles

Architecture and design:

  • Alissa Walker, urbanism editor at Gizmodo and writer on urban design, architecture, and the cityscape — especially of Los Angeles
  • Christopher HawthorneLos Angeles Times architecture critic
  • Frances Anderton, host of KCRW’s Design and Architecture and Dwell magazine’s Los Angeles editor
  • Clive Piercy, founder and principal of design studio air-conditioned and author Pretty Vacant: The Los Angeles Dingbat Observed
  • Carren Jao, Manila- and Los Angeles-based writer on architecture, art, and design
  • Stephen Gee, senior producer at ITV Studios and author of Iconic Vision: John Parkinson, Architect of Los Angeles
  • James Steele, USC School of Architecture professor James and author of Los Angeles Architecture: The Contemporary Condition




  • Karina Longworth, film writer at the L.A. Weekly
  • Thom Andersen, professor at the California Institute of the Arts’ School of Film/Video and creator of the documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself


Neighborhoods and exploration:


Los Angeles Review of Books interviews:

  • Anna Stothard, author of the Venice-set novel The Pink Hotel
  • Josh Kun, professor in the USC Annenberg School and co-curator of the Central Library’s “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles”, and City Librarian John Szabo
  • Michael Krikorian, former Los Angeles Times crime reporter and author of the thematically related novel Southside
  • Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight, Bad Sex on Speed, and Happy Mutant Baby Pills
  • Sandra Tsing Loh, author of Depth Takes a Holiday and The Madwoman in the Volvo and host of The Loh Life on KPCC
  • David Grand, author of Mount Terminus, a novel of the birth of Los Angeles
  • Dana Goodyear, journalist, poet, and New Yorker staff writer

Marketplace of Ideas interviews:

  • David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times book writer and author of The Lost Art of Reading [first interview MP3] [second interview MP3]
  • Richard Florida, urban theorist and author of Who’s Your City? [MP3]
  • Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm [MP3]
  • John Rabe, host of KPCC’s Off-Ramp [MP3]
  • Luke Fischbeck, founder of Los Angeles experimental music group, art-creation unit, and engine of community Lucky Dragons [MP3]
  • Laurie Ochoa and Joe Donnelly, founding editors of the new Los Angeles literary journal Slake [MP3]
  • Alan Nakagawa, sound, visual, and installation artist, founding member of Los Angeles’ long-running, multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic arts collective Collage Ensemble, Los Angeles Metro public art executive, and very serious eater indeed [MP3]

Supplementary material:

Guardian Cities: Subway-station toilets, the true measure of a city

The size of the economy, the quality of the architecture, the activity on the sidewalks, the cleanliness of the streets: we can evaluate a city in any number of ways. But in my travels through North America, Europe and Asia, I’ve found no more telling indicator – and at times, no more important one – than the state of its subway station toilets, the true measure of urban civilisation.

Of course, to use this marker at all presumes a certain degree of development: not only must the city in question have a subway system, but that system must have toilets. Los Angeles, where I live, just barely clears that first hurdle (its long-awaited and much-delayed “subway to the sea” having resumed construction last year) but crashes right into the second. The LA County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which presides over 80 overground and underground stations, maintains a grand total of three toilets – none of which I use if I can avoid it – and didn’t reply to a request for comment.

Still, by American standards, Los Angeles doesn’t lag as far behind as it may seem to. A US city can count itself lucky if it has rail transit at all, let alone proper facilities. Part of the reason has to do with the country’s deeply entrenched fear of public amenity, as reflected by the words of political humorist PJ O’Rourke: “Note the mental image evoked by the very word public: public school, public park, public health, public housing. To call something public is to define it as dirty, insufficient and hazardous. The ultimate paradigm of social spending is the public restroom.”

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.