“The Future is not Retro,” declares a recent Pedestrian Observation post that has been my metaphorical pea under the mattress for the last several weeks. Its tone is so bombastic and cavalier that the piece is difficult to take entirely seriously—much like another Alon Levy hot take, “The NTSB Wants American Trains to Be Less Safe,” or that infamous Market Urbanism tweet about rebuilding Notre Dame as a contemporary mixed-use skyscraper—but as an indicator of the way we urban planning nerds think and talk about cities, it should be taken very seriously, indeed.
Much of the post details Levy’s vision for the future of urban development, which goes something like this: In a few decades from now, the cities of the West—the largest of them, anyway—will look increasingly like the crowded, transit-oriented metropolises of East Asia. They will be crisscrossed by driver-less metros, whose stations will be surrounded by clusters of high-rise offices and residential towers, and be linked together by high-speed rail for zero-emissions, long-distance travel. Vacations will entail a bullet train ride to San Francisco or Miami instead of a road trip to some bygone natural wonder. (As for mid-to-lower tier cities, and the National Park Service, the outlook is rather grim—Levy fully expects those to shrivel up and die.)
So far, 2019 has seen the release of the new Dumbo, the new Aladdin, and the new Lion King—and a new Mulan, by the way, is in the works, too. All-mighty Disney used to inspire kids to sing about the “circle of life”; now they’ve got critics jeering cynically about the “circle of franchise reboots.” Et tu, Mickey? At least, Disney partisans can reassure themselves, creative bankruptcy is a relatively new look for the studio. In 2016, a year that wasn’t so long ago (best remembered, or forgotten, for a presidential election of biblical proportions), Walt Disney Animation released the surprisingly clever Zootopia, a thinly-veiled allegory for present-day identity politics and the millennial urban condition. Then November saw the release of Moana, a slightly-less-clever movie about a South Pacific teenage girl endowed with magical powers and a destiny to save the world.
I dabble in cryptocurrencies, occasionally. I hesitate to get too partisan on a subject the Internet takes very seriously, but it seems to me that the fairest judge of a coin’s value is the utility it provides to its holders. So Bitcoin is useful because everyone recognizes and accepts Bitcoin, Monero is useful because it facilitates anonymous transactions, Ethereum has that smart contracts thing going for it, and so on and so forth.
On the night I opened my browser to buy a ticket to see John Wick: Chapter 3, I had never actually seen any of the John Wick films before. Fortunately, the premise of this sequel-to-a-sequel isn’t terribly complicated: John Wick himself (Keanu Reeves) is a professional assassin who has run afoul of the High Table, a world-spanning secret society of assassins. Wick is a master of his occupation, which entails committing dozens upon dozens of grisly on-screen murders with improvised weapons.
My movie buddies–human repositories of John Wick lore and repeat viewers of all his films–assured me the movie’s selling point would be its fight choreography. And at first, it indeed wowed me: The action started out as quirky, exhilarating fun. But as the gun-slinging, knife-slashing power fantasy dragged on, I couldn’t escape the feeling that that initial novel spark was gradually devolving into empty spectacle.
A contemporary review of The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s biographical masterpiece.
Big City, USA, in 2019—where the traffic doesn’t move at rush hour, the roads are full of potholes, the mass transit is useless, and the schools and parks are overcrowded and falling apart—and despite all of that, the rent is still too damn high.
Some say the modern American city increasingly resembles one of those generic science-fiction dystopias, neatly divided into the privileged and the underclass, beholden to the whims of Amazon and Alphabet and other such faceless corporations. Well, screw that. It’s about time we fixed our cities so they started to work for us again. All we have to do is agree on our diagnosis and its proper cure—easy peasy, right?
I’ve heard a lot of ideas on how to give our cities a good government kick, ideas from property tax reform to zoning reform to congestion pricing to privatization. Most of them are just plain stupid, but a handful sound like they might work. You probably have a few ideas yourself (don’t worry, they’re some of the good ones—I promise.) That’s great, because we need more interested citizens like you. But before you rush off to moonlight as a civic activist, I’d like you to meet this interesting figure, a reformer who worked in New York City throughout much of the twentieth century.
His name is Robert Moses, and he will teach you some valuable lessons about how cities work.