Snow Day Reading: On Street Life, Hipsters and Brunch

jason grant a place called home

February 14, 2014, Washington, DC: I’m continuously inspired by the writers and thinkers who record their observations about the power of place and our changing cities. Two years ago, I posted a list called, ‘Writing About Place: A Reading List’ on my blog, Neighborhood Nomads. I’ve updated it intermittently in the Comments section since, and invite you to comment with your own recommendations today.

Here are some of the words that have crept up since my last update, now added to the running list. They’re long overdue odds and ends, all worth a read on an icy winter day…

“Genuinely engaging with an urban space means encountering and making room for an assortment of lifestyles and social realities — some appealing, some provocative, and some repulsive,” writes Thomas Chatterton Williams in a November opinion piece for the New York Times. But he fears this variety has been wiped from his city’s streets, and he blames hipsters for a dulled streetscape. In “How Hipsters Ruined Paris,” he says Paris is being ruined by “the banal globalization of hipster good taste, the same pleasant and invisible force that puts kale frittata, steel-cut oats and burrata salad on brunch tables from Stockholm to San Francisco.”

His conclusion: “The brunch is all the same.”

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“Twenty Minutes in Manhattan,” by Michael Sorkin, is a book that revolves around an enviably simple concept: the walk from home to the office. Layered on top of Sorkin’s everyday routine is a history of Manhattan’s buildings and blocks that reminds us to keep our eyes open and see the same old surroundings from a new perspective.

“My theory is that Villagers refuse perfect knowledge in order to retain the possibility of getting a little bit lost, one of the great pleasures of city life being the discovery of unknown places, with the chance of accidental encounters,” he writes. “Too much knowledge precludes this opportunity. We map the Village as more intricate, and larger, than it actually is to firm up its aura and extend its possibilities. We create it as a treasure hunt.”

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As part of a massive influx of people between the ages of 18 and 36 who’ve moved to Washington, DC since 2000, I was struck by the Washington Post’s “March of the Millenials” series last fall, as well as the range of fired-up, optimistic and thoughtful conversations that followed. The series depicts a city altered profoundly, in the form of housing challenges, the food scene, the baby boom and the neighborhood evolutions.

“Along with the growth has come buzz,” writes the Post reporters. “To longtime residents, the city feels different, in some places, almost unrecognizable. Once-dead streets are bustling, even after dark. High-rises are replacing aged structures and overgrown lots. Restaurants pop up overnight, like dandelions. Pedestrians have to look both ways for bicycles.”

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Just before New York’s mayoral election, New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman compiled some nuggets of advice for “Building a Better City” for the next mayor of New York. Kimmelman argued that beyond the specifics, the city needs a leader “in tune with what makes the city hum at street level.”

“New York’s neighborhoods need to remain magnets for young entrepreneurs, workers, artists and dreamers,” he concludes.

“That generation moves to the music of the streets,” he said. “The next mayor should, too.”

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Stories of home and moving captivated me this winter as we moved down the street and settled into a new house. “The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca” by Tahir Shah, reads like fiction and explores the headaches and triumphs his family faced in leaving London for adventurous and sometimes messy run-ins with culture, spirits and family history in Casablanca, Morocco.

“I was tired of our meager existence and the paltry size of our apartment, where the warring couple next door plagued us through paper-thin walls,” Shah writes. “I wanted to escape to a house of serious dimensions, a fantasy inspired by the pages of The Arabian Nights, with arches and colonnades, towering doors fashioned from aromatic cedar, courtyards with gardens hidden inside, stables and fountains, orchards of fruit trees, and dozens and dozens of rooms.”

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Post reporter Clinton Yates spoke up in the aftermath of the hyped publication of Mark Leibovich’s book, “This Town.” The photo gallery of “The Real Washington: Our Town Versus This Town” is absolutely worth a look, as is Yates’ article, “The Two Sides of Washington, DC.” He also draws warranted attention to the fact that continued focus on DC as “this town” hurts disenfranchisement efforts because it overlooks DC the city.

“It’s one thing to live and work in Washington, moving between both sides as needed to stay afloat,” he writes.” It’s another to break bread with those folks knowing full-well that they’ve been ignoring the rights of this city forever.”

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I’ve started writing about the value of dense and walkable cities a thousand times over, but my draft grows longer and more convoluted with each passing, relevant news story. Perhaps the topic is best left to Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” who asserts that cities work best when they “bring people together — on foot.”

“The walkable city is not just a nice, idealistic notion,” says Speck. “Rather, it is a simple, practical-minded solution to a host of complex problems that we face as a society, problems that daily undermine our nation’s economic competitiveness, public welfare and environmental sustainability.”

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Finally, “A Place Called Home,” by Australian stylist Jason Grant, is a beautiful coffee table book that I received this Christmas as a gift. At some point in life, I hope to publish something as gorgeous as this read. It’s the perfect antidote to an icy winter day, sure to have you flitting around the house, beginning new projects, and planning for summer in no time.

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What have you been reading? Share your own recommendations with fellow Neighborhood Nomads.

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