Series

City by City

Today we inaugurate the City by City project, during which we hope to gather reports from as many American cities as possible, to see how things are going and what can be done. The first issue will include Baltimore, Seattle, Greensboro (N.C.), Milwaukee, and one rural area, northern Kentucky. Some of these essays are historical, some are personal, most are someplace in between, but all would, we think, stand as evidence of the centrality of the city to both the historical American experience and the contemporary one. The alternative, an unending asphalt tapestry of strip-mall standards and suburban subdivisions, is as unacceptable as it is uninteresting. And so we turn to the different moments and spaces that make up that strangely homeless formation that is the American city. We have no place else to go.

Read the full introduction.

18 March 2014

Nobody bothered to point out that if Trayvon had attacked his murderer, he would have had the law on his side. How many other times had policemen or others stopped him for nothing? How much fear can we endure before aggression starts to promise relief? Sometimes I envy those whose first instinct is to attack. By hitting back, they take an active role in shaping their lives. More…

17 March 2014

The city is the only metropolis in Idaho, a state conceived of primarily as a growth medium for racist extremists; libertarian nutjobs; the nonironic-hat-wearing degenerates who drive pickups and semis across the flyover imagined cartography of blue-state secessionists; and potatoes. More…

13 March 2014

Hartford is the ugly little truth that stomps around in the brain of the American people, the perfect inversion of Silicon Valley, a place with almost 400 years of history and no future. It is ten years younger than Boston, but nobody takes guided tours of its cobblestone. Technically in the middle of a megalopolis, you can stand in Hartford’s center and feel utterly alone. More…

12 March 2014

Even now, whenever I go there, New Orleans seems to be trying to draw me into some kind of conspiracy of signification. When I lived there, my apartment was on Independence, a one-way street. Two blocks over was Desire, a one-way street going in the opposite direction. It was things like that. More…

15 May 2013

By 2008, thousands of middle-class and rich people in Juarez, desperate to avoid shakedowns, murders, and kidnappings by cartel hit men, had begun packing up and fleeing to El Paso, where they bought houses and opened businesses. Their migration kept the northern side of the border economically afloat and turned Juarez into a pariah city—or worse, a ghost city that El Pasoans ceased thinking about. More…

25 March 2013

The mayor told us that the city would be holding a special council meeting so that both production companies could pitch their show ideas to the people of Whittier. We were invited to come and watch. “A reality show could be good for bringing attention to our little town,” he said, “but it does worry me, too. I don’t want to be some Alaskan Honey Boo-Boo.” More…

18 March 2013

Kansas wasn’t always this way. Until World War I, the state was a hotbed of radicalism: it produced figures such as John Brown and Mary Lease, and was a major base of operations for the Populist and Socialist movements. It is only since the 1990s that Kansas has become associated with a long row of reactionary ideas, leading many commentators to argue that the state took an abrupt right turn. More…

10 December 2012

So people in Reading find their own means of exchange and escape, and when the drugs stop working they turn to piercings and tattoos. This is only a temporary measure, because there is only so much skin on the human body, and only so many things that can be pierced. And when all the skin is filled and all the holes have been made they move on to other plans. More…

23 November 2012

For the small, longstanding music venues on the eastern edge of downtown—places like Mohawk and Emo’s, which helped establish Austin’s international reputation for live music—rising property taxes and the encroachment of high-rise condos mean the beginning of the end. The tension between the music scene and high-rise development is growing in the Live Music Capital. More…

21 November 2012

To grow up in Omaha is to confront the void. The Void should be capitalized, though, because it is a big deal. Here, the buildings are stout, the streets are wide, and there are twice as many bars as there probably should be for a mid-sized city. In the winter, when the surrounding farmland lies fallow, the only thing in your rearview mirror will be sky—ominous, gray-streaked winter sky with giant clouds hanging low. More…

16 November 2012

Manocchio’s prosecution seemed to me representative of the city’s recent transformation. In order to transform itself into an up-and-coming arts mecca and a good place to meet singles, Providence first had to shed its old reputation—of being a corrupt and dying city and a good place to meet mobsters. More…

17 May 2012

My parents moved us into an apartment complex in northwest Fresno called Cobblestone Village. This was the scaffolded edge of the city, only half a mile from where the suburbs disintegrated at the sandy banks of the San Joaquin. The apartments were surrounded by acres of troweled lots. A wide pit had been dug in one with I-beams and rebar sticking out of the dirt. More…

17 May 2012

As I put my shirt back on, it was explained that there used to be more women, “born women,” in our escort service. A lot of clients will want one, and we’ll run out early. Try to “up-sell” them. You can send a boy to a client who wants a girl. “You can?” He shrugged. “Once in a while. I tell ‘em, ‘Hey, a blowjob’s a blowjob.’” “Does that work?” “It has worked.” More…

15 May 2012

Maple Shade is a place that is pleased with its small-mindedness. It was and is a working-to-middle class town, proud of its outsider status as a blue collar island in a sea of richer towns: Cherry Hill, Moorestown, Haddonfield. “There’s a carload of people from Cinnaminson at the custard stand,” somebody would say while sledding on a hill. “Let’s help beat the shit out of them!” More…

19 August 2011

A family in the Powhatan collected Joseph Cornell boxes, which my mother once took Lucy and me to see. Lining a dark dining room, the boxes held frightening arrangements of clock faces, newspaper cuttings, and birds, which I was afraid might start moving. Looking at the boxes was like listening to adults talk to each other, overhearing some words I couldn’t understand, but whose feeling I could begin to guess at. More…

17 August 2011

The April 2008 issue of Forbes included Seattle in its list of “recession-proof” cities, citing manufacturing growth and declining unemployment. Amazon and Microsoft were still hiring. But that May something strange happened—with three new condo buildings in progress in South Lake Union, Vulcan rolled out an incentive program, offering to pay part of the closing cost for current renters who’d like to buy. More…

8 August 2011

I was born in 1986 in Mt. Auburn, an old annexed suburb just up the hill from Over-the-Rhine, and for the eleven years I lived there I was the only white kid on the street. It was the kind of street white Cincinnatians patronizingly call “black middle class“—as though if you’re black in Cincinnati, and you live in a neighborhood where only 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, you’re doing pretty well. More…

5 August 2011

In my parents’ eyes, founding a feminist club at my school had made feminism the x factor that would get me into a good college, which meant that when I told them I was going to sleep at P.’s house because it was the twentieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade and Operation Rescue was hitting DC’s abortion clinics at 6 in the morning and we had to be there first to keep the clinics open, they had to let me go, because feminism was my thing. More…

27 May 2011

The Cone Mills White Oak denim factory sits out past the college football stadium and baseball diamonds on the nether edge of downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. Named for a large tree on the property, it is bordered by narrow, numbered streets cluttered with eyeless and empty ranch-style houses that seem to clamor up to the factory gates, dusty “for rent” signs swaying in their freshly seeded front yards. More…

26 May 2011

M is a journalist in Kentucky who went through a nasty divorce a few years back. She was drinking white wine in those days and coping with an abusive ex-husband but she pulled herself together, went through rehab, and raised two kids who adore her. The kids are out of the house now, and M is six years sober. She lives alone in a small town along the I-75 corridor just south of Cincinnati. More…

24 May 2011

I spent most of my teenage years in Wauwatosa, one of Milwaukee’s oldest suburbs. In the 1960s, at the height of the city’s civil rights struggle, it was one of the hotbeds of racist resistance: when Father Groppi led a protest march into the town, he was met by Klansmen and other onlookers who waved signs reading “Keep Tosa White.” By the early 2000s, such explicit racism was rarely seen. More…

23 May 2011

The funeral came off without a hitch, in spite of the snow. It was as dignified as we could have hoped for and no one from the altar mentioned what had happened. I parked my rental car on Argyle Avenue, feeling a bit more alert than usual. In Atlanta, just after Thanksgiving, two gunmen robbed me of my station wagon and wallet; two days before Christmas I didn’t want to invite fate’s wrath a second time. I was back home in Baltimore. More…

23 May 2011

Americans have always been suspicious of our cities. Before the Civil War, writers competed to denounce them in the strongest possible terms, culminating in the twin Transcendentalist broadsides of Emerson’s Nature and Thoreau’s Walden. The latter prompted Henry James, himself no fan of the city, to describe its author as an “essentially sylvan personage.” More…

Image: City by City map. By Dayna Tortorici.