Episode 17: City by City

City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis is now available in our store: click to preorder City by City!

This new episode of the n+1 podcast celebrates the release of City by City. First, co-editor Stephen Squibb talks about the City by City project and why we love writing and reading about cities. Then, Brandon Harris discusses his essay on Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood’s cultural history, and gentrification in Brooklyn.

Hosted by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Audio Engineer: Malcolm Donaldson
Produced by Aaron Braun, Malcolm Donaldson, Moira Donegan, and Eric Wen
Graphics by Eric Wen
Music from Arthur Russell, Gang of Four, and Majid Jordan

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, subscribe via RSS, or download the episode (82.3 MB).

Episode Transcript


Malcolm Donaldson: Hi, and welcome to the n+1 podcast. My name is Malcolm Donaldson. Today, we celebrate the release of City by City edited by Stephen Squibb and Keith Gessen. We spoke to Stephen and one of the contributors, Brandon Harris, about what went into compiling the collection of stories and why we love to write about cities. Here’s Moira Donegan with Stephen. 

SEGMENT 1: Moira Donegan interviews Stephen Squibb about City by City

Moira Donegan: Hi. I’m Moira Donegan. I am here with Stephen Squibb. Welcome to the n+1 podcast, Stephen.

Stephen Squibb: Hi. Thanks for having me.

MoD: So Stephen tell me about the City by City project, because this has actually been going on for a while.

SS: Yeah, it has. It’s a project that is many years in the making, about five or so. It sort of came out of me and Keith having a similar idea separately from one another and then, I think, reading Emily Witt’s piece about Miami and the changes in Miami that reflected the economic landscape sort of demonstrated that this idea had some legs, in the sense of using the city as a sort of canvas against which to draw the outline or the image of the economic crisis. So that was the genesis and after five years it’s done.

MoD: I didn’t realize you guys had started out wanting to examine the cities through the lens of the financial crisis. Tell me a little bit more about what you were looking to achieve when you started out with that idea.

SS: Well I think that lots of people want to write about things like the financial crisis or economics, but there is often a sort of segragation of writing that comes from either experts or professional journalists in the field versus people who are just coming to the topic. So we were looking for a way of really bridging that and a way of anchoring a series of essays on the topic, and cities presented themselves as sort of nice, little, small, controlled units of analysis that would really anchor these things, so you didn’t have five essays on the history of credit default swaps or something, which would be great, but would not necessarily immediately connect with people. So by locating it in cities I think it allowed people to get a way into things.

MoD: Why do people love writing about cities so much, do you think?

SS: It’s funny. I often wonder if writing in general is just an urban medium in a certain way, because, which, obviously people write of course in the country too, but it seems like a lot of writing about the country or that takes place in the country is often defined against the city, or is about people who have left the city, so it does seem that it’s a longstanding thing that people in the city like to write, or like to talk about moving to the city, and I think that it just presents so many different angles and there’s so much indigenous content, to use a really terrible word, that I think people feel really engaged by, or they feel a certain degree of ownership over their cities. I feel like it’s in many ways the next-closest thing to writing about the self. Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable being like “Oh, here’s my memoir, or here’s my deeply revealing thing, but I can write about the city I live in,” which is sort of an empty signifier. You can fill it up with whatever it is about yourself that you’re really interested in. It’s a great feint. So people are like, “Oh, you’re writing about a city,” but really you’re just writing about yourself. It goes down easier.

MoD: You mentioned that possessiveness and autobiographical elements are present in a lot of these essays. Is it unfair to say that cities contain this provocation to narrativize? Because a lot of people who write about cities, as you mentioned, ascribe a narrative to them, the way that people ascribe narratives to their own lives. Also they are very distinct. You can’t read one of these essays—you can’t read “Miami Party Boom,” for instance—and have any idea that the character of Miami is the same as what Brandon Harris describes in his piece on Bed-Stuy. Does that make any sense? Does it seem fair or just utterly cliché to say that these places have characters? 

SS: I think that they do have characters. I think, unfortunately, that some of that character is getting less and less distinct. One of my favorite essays in the book is “The Making of Local Boise,” which is about how all of these cities now are turning to local culture, where it is local in the sense that it is produced locally, but the actual aesthetics of it are very similar. Farmers’ markets look the same everywhere, indie-rock doesn’t always sound the same everywhere, but nevertheless has a certain, if not uniformity, then consistency, such that you can imagine local versions of all of these cities, and the actual originary place where these cities are coming from gets lost in the shuffle. But fundamentally you are dealing with an architectural or a built environment that resists a little bit a total reduction to a common denominator. Whereas in the suburbs or any other part of the world you really are living in a situation in which every strip mall is more or less identical. So it’s a relative specificity, but yes, I agree certainly that they are specific.

MoD: The globalization that you’re describing strikes me as something that has very much to do with income inequality and the re-infusion of money and wealthy populations back into urban centers. Can you tell me more about what it means to the American city that moneyed cultures are being re-infused into urban centers?

SS: It’s a tough thing, because the flow of money toward certain cities—and sometimes we get the sense that all cities are having this gentrification moment, and not all of them are—the problem with the larger economy is that there’s no place that can guarantee that kind of return on investment that we used to see really consistently for the first half of the twentieth century. It’s very hard to get a place to park all your money. We see this with Apple. Now Apple is sitting on 180 billion dollars in cash, which is insane from a corporate governance perspective, you usually put that money into something which would then give more money back, but those opportunities for investment are so rare that a city provides one of the last places where people can make an investment where they imagine that they’re going to get returns like they used to get. This is why huge sections of Manhattan are now empty, because they’re held by empty condos which are owned by people not to live in, but as places to park their money where it won’t lose value. The city itself is becoming another asset that people can invest in as a way of guarding against the larger problem, which is that we basically reached max production. Without a redistribution of things we’re still going to have this problem. That makes certain cities incredibly rich, other cities less so, and that does tend to flow off into cultural produciton, so that you have a cultural field that is in some sense insulated from the larger patterns of the economy, because it’s so locked into this city economy, which is existing precisely in tension with the rest of it. So it’s possible to live in a city like New York, or like Boston, or San Francisco, or Seattle, and not feel the pinch in quite the same way. Part of the goal for the book was to get outside of those bubbles and see what else is going on.

MoD: What else is going on? What did you learn?

SS: Gar Alperovitz, in the interview that we did with him, has a wonderful phrase. He calls certain cities in the American Midwest “single-serving cities.” These cities were used the way we would use a pack of ketchup or a pack of salt. They were built for this massive industry of the middle of the Twentieth Century, and then once that industry was outsourced, either to other parts of the country or to other parts of the world, the city itself was basically thrown away. So you have all of these cities where the economic base has been totally hollowed out. Sometimes that creates opportunities for people to really rebuild the city in a better way. So Gar talks a lot about how Cleveland has built a series of worker co-ops that are really changing the fabric of what Cleveland means, but also you have situations where, like in Detroit, where basic services are so far scaled back that lots of other kinds of organizations and institutions are rushing in to fill that gap. Some of those are nice organizations and institutions, and some are less so. That’s entirely predictable, from a historical standpoint, that when you break down or privatize these services, or destroy these services, the services will get done, it’s just a question of who’s doing them and who’s accumulating power by doing them. So throughout America, like in Detroit obviously the police force, or in various other places you’re seeing—New Orleans now has an entirely privatized school system—you’re seeing these large-scale experiments in how these services are getting provided. Some of them are working, but most of them are not. It’s pretty dark out there.

MoD: Is there an alternative narrative to the American city besides this dichotomy in the way that we talk about urbanism in a lot of the US, between the post-industrial urban city in decline which you’ve mentioned—places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Detroit—and the big-money towns like New York, LA, San Francisco. Is there a middle ground for the US city? Is there a third way? 

SS: The argument about scale is unsatisfying. From an analytic perspective we don’t want to say that a 7 million person city has x or a 5 million person city has y, but you do see patterns about size and how that relates to the ability for a given city to maintain itself or not. For example, Boston is a small city, but until 2010 was the leading city for venture capital investment in the country, because it has MIT and it has Harvard. That’s one way of solving the problem. And you have other mid-range cities that are organized around smaller or specific industries that have managed to get through it, but usually, unless you have a housing market where the supply is limited in some way, so that the prices are pretty constantly rising, like in New York, it’s very tough for a city to find a place to hide money. So Chicago, for example, which does not have the sort of housing problem that a place like San Francisco or New York does, does not have also this corresponding incredibly overheated set of markets. So it depends. There are certainly lots of ways of running a city, but in America it does seem more and more like we have a pretty clear divide between the haves and the have-nots.

MoD: Do you have a favorite piece?

SS: I don’t. I think they’re all—

MoD: You love all your children equally.

SS: I love all my children equally. I think what I love about that book is that we did a pretty good job about varying the kinds of pieces that are in there. So it’s not all—Kirkus said at one point that some of these read like research papers. Which we took as a compliment. But there are some that feel really analytic and substantive and historical, and then there are pieces that seem really idiosyncratic and personal. I really love Phoenix. Phoenix is like eight hundred words. There’s also another short one I like about Lehigh Acres, Florida, which is just this massive, empty, sprawling housing development that’s the size of Orlando but has sixty thousand people living in it. The author’s like, “It’s the only ghost town of sixty thousand I’ve ever seen.” Because it’s ninety square miles, but everybody’s so spread out, and so many of the houses are empty. He describes driving through this place where every fifth house might be inhabited, but it’s this huge landscape of housing that’s totally empty. I remember when I read that, I was like, “this is crazy.”

MoD: Hi I’m Moira. I’m here with Stephen Squibb, editor of n+1‘s City by City. He is about to read to us from one of his favorite essays in the collection. Lehigh Acres.

SS: This is “Lehigh Acres, Dedicated Place” by Spencer Fleury.

I think when the end finally comes to America, it will look like Lehigh Acres. It never suffered a cataclysmic implosion, like the one that broke Detroit. It has no grand urban ruins to serve as a reminder of a great city that was. There is instead virgin space and frustration, weeds and snakes and slowly crumbling tract homes. At ninety-five square miles, Lehigh Acres, Florida, is a vast and largely empty preserve for the roughly eighty-six thousand souls believed by the Census Bureau to live there. This is more space than is contained within the city limits of San Francisco or Boston or Miami. It is slightly smaller than Orlando or Tampa, two nearby cities with three and four times the population, respectively.

Then again, Lehigh Acres may well be even bigger. Or maybe smaller. We don’t know for sure, because there are no actual city limits for Lehigh Acres. It is categorized as a “census-designated place,” which seems to mean only that people agree it has a name.

But is Lehigh Acres a place? I’m not entirely sure. It is freestanding sprawl. It cannot be a suburb in the literal sense of the word, because it doesn’t have an urb to be subordinate to. Nevertheless, even it is is not one, Lehigh Acres has the physical form of a standard-issue Florida suburb: meandering streets converge at a single entry point to avoid giving access to those who don’t belong. There are no sidewalks, because there is nothing to walk to. Few if any old-growth trees, because trees slow down the process of grafting row after row of identical stuccoed boxes onto the landscape. Deep front yards and generous setbacks keep company with expensive fences amid a lonely, indifferent quiet, broken only by a passing car or a far-off lawn mower, never by a human voice.

In Lehigh Acres, the effect is amplified by the unintended empty spaces between homes. Unused lots have long since reverted back to nature, and much of the built environment is uninhabited. It is the only ghost town of eighty-six thousand I’ve ever seen.

To a geographer, “place” is something distinct from “location.” Events and processes define a place. Place includes location but is not limited to it. It also signifies human influence and interaction. A single location can also be two different places on two different days or even simultaneously. But location itself is immutable, and it seems that location is all there is in Lehigh Acres.

With its enormous sky and broad stretches of wire grass and scrub palmetto, southwest Florida has the look of a frontier. When the sun is high and the cicadas are whirring, it is a bright and lonely landscape. In the 1950s, ads for Lehigh Acres ran in northern newspapers promising a brand-new home for “only $10 down and $10 a month.” The developers took the typical approach to infrastructure in Florida—grow fast and let the rest take care of itself—but applied it on an impossible scale. As a result, it is easy to drive through Lehigh Acres and not realize it. The emptiness sneaks up on you, uncoiling behind the generic trappings of Florida exurbia: scattered fast-food outlets, a handful of newish shopping plazas with plastic banners rippling from the rooftops in place of permanent signs, the commercial plumage of transition or decline. 

Take a random right turn off Lee Boulevard, the main drag, and pull into almost any driveway. You will find an abandoned house surrounded by a chain-link fence and wheeled gate, which itself is padlocked shut and secured by a thick, rusty chain. Weeds and wild grasses infest the yard and wedge the driveway apart, reclaiming everything for the snakes. Some houses have plywood nailed over the windows, as if the owners were hunkered down inside, waiting to ride out the next storm with their plastic jugs of water and pyramids of canned beans and peaches. Often they are separated from each other by a stretch of empty lots, parcels that were plotted but never developed. These lots are now just overgrowth, wide fields of knee-high grasses tended by no one, dry and brown from lack of rain, gratefully bending to even the gentlest breeze. Sometimes houses interrupt the spread of the weeds; in other spots, these subtropical meadows spill across entire blocks.

If you drive around long enough, you may also stumble across one of the handful of gated communities—lonely outposts in an encroaching wilderness, their gates often mere yards away from blighted starter homes and lakes of wild grass. But those gates are porous; beyond the guard shack, you might spot a patchy lawn or two, or faded green streaks of pollen caked onto someone’s pastel-yellow stucco, or a garage door that doesn’t close properly.

Lehigh Acres is not a place like Paris or Portland or Las Vegas or even Royal Oak, Michigan. It is not a neighborhood, because this would require neighbors. There are no public spaces to speak of. “Place” implies the existence of something unique, something that a visitor can latch onto and say, “Aha, yes, you see? This is unmistakably Lehigh Acres.” Yet nobody could ever, will ever, say this. 


SEGMENT 2: Aaron Braun interviews Brandon Harris about City by City

MaD: That was Stephen Squibb with Moira Donegan. Before we continue on, we’d like to mention that we have a new listener survey, and you can find the link on the “Episode 17” post nplusonemag.com. Next up is Brandon Harris, who contributed to the book a great piece on Bed-Stuy. Here he is in conversation with Aaron Braun.

Brandon Harris: In the era of the gentrification of certain spaces in central Brooklyn, it’s been convenient to call Bedford-Stuyvesant other neighborhoods that border it.

Aaron Braun: I see.

BH: Bedford-Stuyvesant’s one of the largest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. It’s a very humongous space. And it seemed like in the mid- to late-aughts, almost every year a few more blocks of Bedford-Stuyvesant would magically be called something else. And so it was only after living there for two, three, four years that I’d started to discover this, and then just searching Craigslist for new homes—if our listeners read the essay, they’ll discover I’ve lived in a lot of places in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I think five apartments—so I lived there for several years, and what Bedford-Stuyvesant conjured in the imagination of most of my friends, many of whom were white gentrifiers, middle- to upper-middle class to wealthy individuals, along somewhere in that spectrum, who didn’t have any roots in these spaces and were new to them, and often they were moving to majority black spaces, what they conjured when they heard the term “Bedford-Stuyvesant” versus, say, “Clinton Hill” or “East Williamsburg” I found really fascinating. And I slowly got a window into that by just examining my relationship with my roommate and our attempt to find a first home together in Brooklyn after graduating from college, which was a time that these sort of class differences between us that had long existed and had long been something that I think we were both capable of acknowledging became more complex. And I think ultimately over the course of a few years maybe even subsumed our relationship in sort of unspoken ways.

AB: There is this sense of differences in wealth becoming more obvious, just because I think there’s something about living that lifestyle that makes everybody . . . everybody can kind of create the sense of “oh I’m struggling, I’m hustling, I don’t have a lot of disposable income,” but the reality is that some of us have parents, we have, as you mention in the piece,  inexhaustible trust funds. And those kind of hidden differences start to come more to the fore.

BH: That’s not to say that wealthy people don’t have people that want to hold them accountable.

AB: Right.

BH: It’s just that I think the leash becomes a lot longer. And what that frees you to do as a young creative person in an increasingly unlivable expensive city I think is interesting. And so I think the piece kind of tried to explore some of those things. But then I also was interested in what actually is Bed-Stuy, why would we want to run from Bed-Stuy, what have the associations with Bedford-Stuyvesant been in the popular imagination. And so that allowed me the freedom to go forth and investigate some of the various cultural products that Bed-Stuy is known for in the piece. And then through that I think I discover that it isn’t just in our generation that Bedford-Stuyvesant’s essence has been up for debate, or its real identity has been something that wasn’t actively shaped and formed with various agendas in mind. I think the neighborhood became kind of an important New York neighborhood as various Dutch and German gentry, no pun intended, started moving there in the latter part of the 19th century, but it has long and rich roots as sort of a refuge for African Americans. Parts of the oldest free black communities in New York State may well have started in contemporary Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights as part of a settlement called Weeksville, which there’s a museum dedicated to in Crown Heights called the Weeksville Heritage Center, which I recently wrote about elsewhere. It was interesting because in my time living in Bed-Stuy I would walk in that part of the neighborhood, and I would pass the Weeksville Heritage Center, but I had no sense of what the museum was celebrating until you read the plaques and then you’re like, “oh wow, there was actually a black settlement here as early as the 1830s.” So many of the popular narratives about African American life in northern and Midwestern cities suggest that the great swell of African Americans moving north during the Great Migration is when these cities begin to take on a particular African American character. In the case of New York that’s not necessarily true. And I found it interesting, this kind of through line between the sort of beginning of Bed-Stuy as an African American space and its place in postwar culture as kind of a bulwark for African American life in Brooklyn specifically. And I certainly think that there are a number of really interesting cultural figures who sprung up, some of whom I talk about, perhaps the post popular of whom I talk about, in the piece. But they are only some of many others I could’ve chosen.

AB: How did writing about your own experience change your relationship to the neighborhood, change your relationship to that sense of yourself?

BH: That’s interesting because when I started the essay, when I actually started writing it, I was living in Bushwick at the time. And I was living in a hallway in Bushwick. But I was writing in my roommate’s room, which was not a hallway. And he had an actual desk. It was the middle of the summer. And it was funny because a lot of the questioning what Bed-Stuy is and isn’t had been percolating in my mind. I’d been working through it for years and years and years. I finally had the moment to kind of reflect on it. And while I was still working on the essay, I moved back to Bedford-Stuyvesant, and I moved in with some of the people I’d lived with previously in one of the apartments I describe in the piece. And so much of what I remembered was informed by conversations that I would have with them. It was just thrown into stark relief, what was actually happening in the neighborhood, because suddenly I had moved into a part of the neighborhood that was more radically gentrifying, further south and west from where I had been living. And so in terms of how it changed my own relationship to the neighborhood, you know, my life had changed. I’d started to form a career by that point, and so I could actually afford the kind of rent. I was paying in 2013, when I was writing this essay, the exact same amount of rent I had been paying in 2006, that I’d been so struggling to pay, that I went through a laundry list of things I had to do to pay. And some of the more embarrassing things perhaps I omitted. But regardless, that was really interesting to me, to think that, “oh no, I can’t afford to pay this amount of money to live in this space.” It was still a struggle. I was still on food stamps. But I could actually do it while not compromising my desire to be a writer and a thinker. And so that was really interesting for me. That certainly struck me, because a lot of the people I knew in my earlier years in Bedford-Stuyvesant had moved because they couldn’t afford to live there anymore. And they were a lot worse off than me then. So the notion that could they have afforded to live there now, when I was reflecting upon all of it many years later, it seems so obvious that they increasingly can’t. I just think about the time when I easily afforded an entire basement to myself for $450 on Kosciuszko Street. And there’s n+1 staffers who live on Kosciuszko Street now in new buildings down the street from that very apartment, which I also describe in the piece. But you know, that basement now costs a lot more. And what effect that has on the character of those communities. People have been talking about this stuff ad nauseam. It’s not new stuff at this point. But that said, it seems like there’s no notion in the popular imagination of how economic growth can occur in predominantly African American urban spaces besides this phenomenon. Like, where else in America are people coming up with solutions for some of the economic issues that plague these communities and people within them? And I think part of that is our unwillingness to broach the even larger and more ungainly reasons for the place that those communities find themselves in, whether it’s blockbusting or redlining or institutional racism or various forms of discrimination or the the legacy of public policy in big urban cities as blacks did move north in the early and middle part of the 20th century. So I think Bed-Stuy is a really particularly interesting kind of laboratory to explore all of those things, because so much of that has taken place. And I really think that essay only kind of skims the surface of a lot of that stuff, and certainly a lot of it is couched in my own personal experience in the neighborhood.

AB: How did you see the piece, if you had a sense, of kind of intervening into the existing conversation about gentrification? Because it almost seems like the conversation about gentrification has become another subject, a separate subject—how we talk about gentrification is kind of like . . . we talk about it as if it’s already a buzzword and talk about how that conversation is. So did you see that there’s a bit of a confessional tone in the piece? And I’ve noticed that a lot of writing on gentrification has that confessional tone. How did you see your piece in relationship to other pieces that had been written about gentrification?

BH: Well, I certainly wanted to suggest the ambiguity of my own position within the mechanism of gentrification. I’m a middle class black person from the Midwest who has no roots in Brooklyn, who is well-educated and seemingly has the ability to be the type of person that would pay these exorbitant rents that people want to charge increasingly in neighborhoods like Crown Heights and Bed-Stuyvesant. That said, I did not have the privilege of some other individuals to actually pay those rents upon arriving there.

AB: Like your roommate.

BH: Like my roommate. Nor did I have any real desire to become that kind of person. And yet, at the same time, there is a safety net that I have, that was simply I could always go home. I had somewhere else to go. I was from somewhere else. And so it was interesting to watch individuals who did not have that at all, and who were struggling to maintain their lives in a space where they’d lived since their youth or since they were born. I certainly encountered a lot of people like that the longer I lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and I increasingly watched them move to Ocean Hill, move to East New York, move to Brownsville, such as a Haitian family that I kind of briefly describe in the piece, that lived across the street. I think that there’s something unfair about that, to be totally frank. And I don’t know if it will ever be much of a political priority because quite frankly the people who are inconvenienced by the situation have very little political currency.

AB: You know, coming from a certain political perspective and also very much being a part of the process of gentrification, do you ever struggle with distinguishing between real fear, fear that’s rational, and fear that’s clearly kind of worked up by the things you hear from your parents, the things you hear on TV, the kind of culture at large? The fear that you’ve felt. I often walk into spaces as a gentrifier, and there’ve also been times when I’ve been mugged and I feel real fear, and at the same time I feel that I have a political responsibility to not be afraid when I walk into those spaces, because doing so would reinforce the sense that this is a dangerous neighborhood, that this is an unsafe neighborhood.

BH: I think that’s a fascinating thing that because I’m 6 foot tall and 230 pounds and of some sort of ambiguous ethnicity I may not be the best person to answer. Because I actually very rarely feel uncomfortable or unsafe in African American neighborhoods. For instance, I grew up in mostly black neighborhoods as a child. I have a very security-conscious, paranoid mother—she’s a two-time Obama voter who’s also a member of the NRA and has alarms and is one of these concerned black mothers who lived through the ’80s and lived through Reagan paranoia in the nightly news and would do anything to protect me and our loved ones. But I would hate to live with that kind of fear all the time. And so for the most part I haven’t. I have been afraid in the presence of black men I did not know. I don’t think in a way that was particularly colored by their blackness—more by their desperation.

But I do constantly find myself in the presence of whites who in very subtle ways, or with very subtle gestures, suggest their discomfort in majority black spaces. I just don’t think these things are cut and dried. I do think that people can sense when someone feels like a tourist or they feel like an outsider who’s entering a space, who has no cultural affinity with the space, when what they seem to represent is the forces of change and the forces of new money entering a space or entering a neighborhood. And I think that can make people apprehensive, I think that can make people feel uncertain.

AB: Well, thanks so much.

BH: Yeah, thanks for having me. Thank you all for listening. If any of you have gotten to this point in the conversation then I applaud you on your ability to wade through the muck that we’re creating.


MaD: Thanks for listening. This is the n+1 podcast. Our editors are Moira Donegan, Aaron Braun, Eric Wen, and Malcolm Donaldson. We would like to thank Dayna Tortorici and Keith Gessen and especially our guests, Stephen Squibb and Brandon Harris.

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