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On cities


Aintzane Aboitiz


Marlise Moesch


Emilie Kilfoil


Book List 

Omar Zakaria

Mysteries of Pittsburg by Michael Chabon 


Chabon’s debut novel is my favorite type of novel. You’ll pick it up, you’ll struggle to put it down, and it will leave you thinking about it for weeks. The rare mix of great art and gripping entertainment. His sentences are slick and witty. The story is deep and charming. It’s a book with a big-heart and a sense that the world is mad.

Set over the course of a summer in Pittsburg, it tells the story of a young man, Art Bechstein, getting to know himself. His father is a gangster, and his life becomes a huge mess.

I’d recommend to anyone, and wish I could read it for the first time again. After that I’d point you to Chabon’s other work, my other favorites are Wonder Boys and the Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. 


Maximum City by Suketu Metha 


Bombay is a place like no other. The story of Metha’s return after 20 years to this beast of a city is the perfect MRI of the city’s chaotic soul. He captures not just the colors and smells of the city but the sly, carefree attitude of its people. It will make you understand the city whether you’ve been there or not. If you have, you’ll laugh at how well Metha understands it. And if you haven’t, you’ll itch to see this mega-metropolis for the sheer amount of character it . 

My dad is from Bombay, and I grew up going to visit my grandparents there. There are frustrating parts of the way that life in India works—there’s corruption, inefficiency, and just too many hassles—but this book showed me how to see the beauty in even the most convoluted of bureaucratic inefficiencies. Though much of this beauty still drives me nuts…

I’d recommend this to anyone going to India or looking for a riveting non-fiction read. 


Dubliners by James Joyce 


It’s hard to say anything about this book that hasn’t been said. It’s what made Joyce’s name before Ulysses, and a much better book than A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. 

In short, Dubliners is a chilling and beautiful collection of short stories. Most of them focus on the small moments that can change everything. And they’re about Dublin and what the legacy of imperialism has done to every street sign and house in the city. 

Joyce wanted to be singer, not a writer. But his voice was high and squeaky. I don’t remember where I read this. But I heard a story that one night at a bar one night, a small Irish man went up to sing. His voice was flawed and kept cracked. But in every note, you could hear the soul of Ireland and feel the sublime pain of the nation—or something like that. And you hear that desperate yet beautiful voice in every story in this collection.

I’d recommend to anyone, especially those who want to understand modernism and Joyce without wading through the doorstopper Ulysses, which is long, taxing read of pure genius. 


Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino


This is an artistic masterwork. It’s about all cities and about Venice. The novel is structured as a conversation between the the old emperor Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, where the great explorer recounts all the cities he has seen in his travels. Polo describes the cities in an ephemeral, almost surrealist manner. They are all impossible cities. Cities of labyrinths, of our younger selves, and even cities that exist on stilts. Cities that can only exist in the perfection of our minds. 

My favorite moment in the novel is when the great Khan asks Marco why he has not spoken of his hometown, Venice, and the explorer responds, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” This gets at a scary but wonderful truth: all human experience only exists in comparison to other experience. Consciousness is a game of analogy. This is the sort of stuff the books makes you think. 

The book will make you laugh and cry, and you won’t understand why. It deals only in truths that we all know in our hearts, but have never understood or been able to speak. Calvino plucks at weighty emotions that lie buried in every subconscious. The book is, in a way, a proof that all journeys form their destinations. 

It is a beautiful book. I’d recommend it to all, especially those existential types. And it’s pretty short, so no excuses…



Rock me on the Water by Ronald Brownstein 


This book focuses on one year in one place, 1974 in LA. This was the year where Chinatown and The Godfather: Part 2 came out. It marked the end of the Studio Era of Film. Spielberg and Lucas became giants in this decade, and the summer blockbuster was invented. This was the year when the Laurel Canyon music scene took off. Marking the shift from your classic Stones and Eagles rock-and-roll drug-fueled music scene to the more poetic, politically aware music of Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and Bob Dylan. And TV became good. Cops on NYPD: Blue now had complicated inner lives. M*A*S*H mocked the Vietnam war. And America fell in love with the everyone-hating Archie Bunker. Rock me on the Water is a portrait of a creative Mecca in its heyday. 

I’d recommend it to LA fans, people trying to understand the roots of the WGA/SAG strike, or just someone who watched Daisy Jones and the Six and wants to spend a bit more time in that world. 


Steps Across the Water by Adam Gopnik 


This is a simply wonderful book. Yes, it’s meant for kids, or young adults as people who want to suck all the fun out of being a kid call them, but it is a fantastic book. And above all else, it’s about the magic of New York City. 

I planned to reread a few pages to write this and found myself finishing the book. Gopnik captures the joy and magic of being a kid and breathes childish joy into a city that is sometimes much too serious. 

I’d recommend it to all kids, parents, and even my adult friends who just moved to New York. 


Amsterdam by Russell Shorto


This is the best non-fictional portrait of a city I’ve ever read. Shorto uses the story of Amsterdam to tell the history not only of modern liberalism but also to explain the roots of what’s become American capitalism. He uses little details of the city to explain the Dutch attitude. For instance, the large, curtain-less windows were a way for the Dutch people to show to their neighbors they had nothing to hide. All the townsfolk had to pitch in to drive the large foundation stakes of every house. This leads to the Dutch Masters glorifying the beauty of everyday life. Shorto loves Amsterdam, and you will too by the end of the first chapter. 

I grew up in New York, and this book more than any I’ve read helps explain where the New Yorker spirit came from. The independent, proud were-all-cramed-on-this-subway-car attitude that infects and blesses every inch of the city. 

If you’re going to Amsterdam, you have to read this book. And if you read this book, you’ll have to go to Amsterdam. That’s the amazing problem of books, they’ll change the way you see the world. 


Tell them of Battles, Kings, & Elephants by Mathias Enard


An enchanting book about Istanbul at its most grand. It the imagined story of Michealago’s time there in the 1500s. After rejecting Leonardo da Vinci’s plan, the Sultan Bayezid invited the Michealango. But there is no evidence he actually went. This makes the Enard’s story all the more interesting.

It’s hard to resist hoping this pseudo-historical fiction were true. 1506 was a fascinating time in Istanbul. It had just fallen under Ottoman control and was the fast-growing city in the world. It had a population of 250,000 while Rome had only 20,000. And this was just before European power overshadowed all else. It’s a story about the path history didn’t take. And it’s about art, architecture, and all connections—real or imagined—between the so-called West and East.

I’d recommend Enard’s short book anyone going to Istanbul or someone bored on a summer afternoon. It’s far from the best book, but it’s a lovely little portrait of a magnificent city and a brilliant man.

City of Thieves by David Benioff  


While some might hate Benioff for his ending of Game of Thrones or his loose adaptation of the Iliad in Wolfgang Peterson’s Troy, if you read this book, you’ll have trouble denying that this guy can write. This is a damn-near perfect short novel. 

The book is set in St. Petersburg (Leningrad) as it’s under Nazi siege. And you get a lovely sense for the grandeur and spectacle of this once-great city. The story is based on a story Benioff’s grandfather told him about life during the war. Benioff fills in many of the details with careful yet brilliant invention, leaving us with a charming portrait of two young boys becoming men in a Leningrad under Nazi siege. Their rite of passage: a hunt for a dozen eggs. 

The writing is fast-paced, funny, and never afraid of being sad. Most of us probably won’t be taking a trip to Russia for a while, so this novel is a nice substitute. 

Some may never pardon Benioff for butchering the end of Game of Thrones. But I’d recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction—especially those who need to learn how to forgive.


Their Usual Route

Taylor Adams



Today she holds her bag and not his hand. 

She walks soundless and slow, a sort of

marbled gait. The sun above, tired and luke-

warm, begins to smear its amber rust. 

She walks until she is like the sun. Only then

does she feel her freckled path, smooth-stoned,

feet caressed by a soft cheek of sidewalk. A left

turn and she swells with a duet of voices

and steel, an industrial hum rich like cologne.

She pauses to watch, buildings blooming from

black-brown mounds of concrete. The stoplight 

ahead waits to flash its familiar wink.


Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow

by Hamzi


E.P.C.O.T will always be a showcase to the world of the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.

— Walt Disney 


Before he relocated to a rural hospital, my dad worked in a residential community called “Celebration.” I was young, so I don’t remember much about the place, except that it had pastel-colored buildings, four-person bikes you could rent and ride around the wide esplanades, and many, many artificial water features. Its walkability was a welcomed rarity in Central Florida (a cartopia where Ford F150s can literally go to the beach). And, because Celebration is owned by Walt Disney World, trips to my dad’s hospital always felt like visits to a theme park. Those were the last of my Montessori days, when, for the sake of my developing childmind, everything was supposed to be fun, new, exciting. As on-the-nose as it was, Celebration was all that and more.


Celebration was the offspring of steadfast Disney-crats who wanted to make something of their founding father’s failed vision for a futuristic city in Orlando. Walt called his original plan the “Florida Project,” and the metropolis at the heart of it was named the “Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow,” or “E.P.C.O.T.”


The Florida Project was a monumental scheme, one Walt was devoted to accomplishing before his death. The entrepreneur’s foray into urban planning was ushered by a late-in-life anxiety for the future of his grandchildren, who were growing up in the turbulent sixties. The Project’s crown jewel, the E.P.C.O.T., would stand in marked contrast to the American cities that were rapidly becoming overrun by crime, poverty, and detritus. Vision-in-mind, Walt secretly bought up 28,000 acres of “virgin land” between Orange and Osceola Counties and deployed his team of Imagineers to build the perfect modern city.


At the time of its conception, E.P.C.O.T. was cutting edge. Employing a radial concept—wherein the center fans out like the spokes of a wheel to the peripheries via networks of public transportation—the city was imagined to be a series of concentric circles suited to varied functions. At its center, in a climate-controlled bubble, was the business district, its origin point a multistoried hotel for visitors. Surrounding the business district was the high-density urban housing, enveloped by a green belt of public space, and finally the low-density residential developments at the outermost ring.


In addition to being radial, E.P.C.O.T. would have also been a vertical city. At the uppermost level, the pedestrian would be king. In lieu of automobiles, people would move about via monorail and the WEDway People Mover, a technology that was already being tested at Disney’s Anaheim location. One level below the pedestrian tier would be a subterranean network of highways exclusively for cars. Finally, the lowermost level of E.P.C.O.T. would be reserved exclusively for supply trucks, hidden from public view. It was a high modern masterpiece, meticulously planned to the T.


Through the mid sixties, Walt and his Imagineers made significant progress towards actualizing E.P.C.O.T., including meddling in municipal government and crafting comprehensive press materials to announce the Project. Then, Walt died. His plans to build a community were abandoned, and the Disney corporation decided to stick to what it knew best. In 1982, E.P.C.O.T. was transformed into a self-referential theme park, now just called “Epcot.”


In the nineties, the Disney Corporation decided to revive some of Walt’s old blueprints. They created Celebration. In its heyday, Celebration was all the rave, a new urbanist triumph at the heart of a poorly planned city. The uniform homes boasted large porches that looked onto the broad, palm-tree-lined avenues. Ads simultaneously positioned Celebration as a future-facing community and one that is gently nestled in the innocence of the past, “a place where the biggest decision is whether to play Kick the Can or King of the Hill. A place of caramel apples and cotton candy, secret forts and hopscotch on the streets.” An array of amenities, from a spa-like hospital to an experimental school, attracted families itching to escape the atomized obsolescence of gated suburban neighborhoods and move to a community named for the feeling it aimed to evoke. Before it officially opened to new residents in 1996, the development had garnered enough attention that Disney had to hold a lottery to choose which families could purchase the first plots of land.


Now, decades after its founding, the community has lost its spark, engulfed by metastases of urban sprawl and corrupted by the influences of neoliberalism. In 2004, the Disney Corporation sold Celebration’s business sector to a New-York-City-based private equity firm, Lexin Capital, which immediately began to suck the community dry for profit. By the 2010s, following the economic recession, Celebration began to experience severe segregation, failing public services, and rising crime rates. Its new landlord was accused in court of neglecting maintenance to the point of some homes’ total disrepair. Damages were estimated to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. Today, the original town—still a small, dense community—is surrounded by freeways, fast food franchises, and architecturally boring buildings. From the outside, it looks like anywhere else in Orlando.


As Celebration grew out of its fantasy-phase, so did I. Where I once used to see the manicured lanes of Disney properties, I now notice the tacky run-off of the tourist economy. The visitors used to be an exciting international crowd of happy travelers. Now they’re everyday nuisances: loud, entitled, and always sunburned. Anything to do with the once-beloved theme parks I anxiously avoid, from the thousands of merchandise shops that clutter the roads to the sound of Disney fireworks heard every night from miles away. It’s a lesson I, and many others from my city, know well: anything shiny that touches Orlando will rust.


But a part of me (perhaps it’s the bushy-tailed Montessori kid still buried beneath this jaded twenty-three-year-old) still wants Disney’s dream to be real life. Yes, Walt is infamous for some of his problematic beliefs and actions, but his plans for Orlando were optimistic, thoughtful, magnanimous. Maybe my anger at Disney-goers stems from an envy that, if only for a couple days, they can really experience the promises of the Florida Project for the first time. Then, they can leave my city with the best of memories. To them, the illusion lives on: the gilding is pure gold.


I’m looking at one of Disney’s original plans for E.P.C.O.T. I’m not wearing my glasses, nor do I care to; I’m allowing my imagination to run wild in this urban planning Rorschach test. From above, the green plots of land on the outskirts look like the cosmically-designed petals of a ripe artichoke. I imagine the large homes there would have been striking, their surroundings pristine and quiet. I don’t linger here, though. Riding the linear bands of public transit, I’m pulled further inward, towards the tree-lined parks and then the high-density housing. I can hear my neighbor’s kids riding a four-person bike towards the green belt. I wave to the parents, as I inch closer towards the city’s nucleus. The energy inside the center is palpable. People brush past each other as they walk towards their offices. A few tourists venture outside their cozy hotel rooms to peruse the new products for sale. But they know not to overstay their welcome. The city is ours. Everything works in synergy towards our community, our future, our life worth celebrating.


Suddenly, I want to know where I am. Is this memory, fantasy, or reality? Is the dream of this city somehow alive? I put on my glasses to read the text at the eye of this strange organism. Staring back at me are the words “AIR-CONDITIONED COMMERCIAL CENTER.”


It’s a mall. It’s a fucking shopping mall.





Marvin Davis, “Site plan for E.P.C.O.T. showing the urban center and the transportation hub,” 1966, Collage with watercolor and colored pencil on photostat


Isa said she had written something in her journal about cities, a passage from All Souls Day, a book by Cees Notebloom, set in Berlin, written in Dutch, read by her in Spanish. She sent a translation, but said it wasn't a good translation. But she understood the quote in Spanish. I wanted to understand it too so then I sent it to Rodrigo. He translated it for me. He said too, that the translation is confusing because it is in Spanish too. But the part I understood, when he walks the city in the passage, is "everywhere hid an essential melancholy with which you could not continue much farther, but here it seemed as if that same melancholy established a connection with another element more rebellious and dangerous that perhaps could also be called melancholy." The part that seems relevant is that in moving through a city, lonely pieces connect with other lonely pieces, elements find their pairs. Maybe this means that our essential elements are matched and multiplied. The conversation connects to the cement and the next building to the next person. Our selves are reflected back to us. And maybe so too, in reading in translation, the passage has reflected back to me, what I already felt and thought true.

Two and a Half Days in Hong Kong
Friday, 8 September
19:05 Diego arrives from the airport
19:13 MTR (Hong Kong metro system) to Central 
20:05 Meet Cher (Hong Kong friend #1, met at pole-dancing class) for dinner at Peking Garden
21:30 Walk to Peel St for drinks
21:35 Eat the mochi brownies Cher made for us
21:39 Say goodbye to Cher, who must check if her friend’s flat flooded from the Black Rain the night before 
21:45 Play rounds of spot-the-difference on the bar’s pornographic arcade game
22:30 Run into a friend of a friend, that guy a friend fucked in a public restroom once, a DJ from that group I always go to 
00:30 Walk to Social Room for a Dragon Town event (trap hip hop put on a Hong Kong based creative group)
01:30 Take a break from dancing for Diego to draw on the bathroom wall
02:30 Walk to Faye Club in California Tower on Lan Kwai Fung (major nightlife street in Hong Kong)
02:58 Realize I lost my wallet
03:00 Walk around LKF looking for my wallet and run into more friends of friends and some of my university students
04:31 Give up
04:33 Buy some frozen yogurt from the Circle K (Hong Kong convenience store)
05:06 Head home in an Uber
05:39 Sleep, except Yuri, who will stay up all night on the phone trying to repair his fucked-up car in New York 
Saturday, 9 September
11:30 Wake up 
11:34 Realize Yuri never went to sleep
11:35 Yell at him
1:19 Buy some baked goods and coffee from the station bakery 
1:30 MTR to Shatin
13:47 Like 5HourEnergyDrinkHongKong’s Facebook page for free 5-hour energy drinks
13:54 Walk to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery (path to 20th century temple lined with Buddha statues, all with different poses and expressions)
14:47 Notice the monkeys in the trees, the monkeys on the building, the monkeys knocking shit over in the temple
14:15 Uber to Sham Shui Po 
14:37 Meet Anson (Hong Kong friend #2, met through mutual friend) for dimsum at Tim Ho Wan 
16:09 Chug our 5-hour energy drinks
16:15 Walk around the market alleys of Sham Shui Po, dig through every jade stall for the perfect piece, try to negotiate down prices through turns with the calculator, drink some street soy milk, seriously consider buying a used camcorder with a pink accent
18:47 MTR to Mong Kok 
19:10 Walk around Mong Kok, take pictures of the albino turtles on goldfish street, try pig ear noodles
20:20 MTR to Jordan
20:34 Walk along Temple Street, avoid compulsively stopping at the jade stalls, check out the sex shop, ignore it when Yuri asks Anson to point out the prostitutes on the sides of the street
21:08 Eat dai pai dong (Hong Kong open-air food stall)
22:22 Have a round of beer gifted by one of the workers
22:35 Walk further along Temple Street so that Yuri can try to find sketchy red-light areas through the dark alleyways
23:00 Get a 50-minute foot massage as a pregame
00:20 MTR to Central
00:44 Get into Iron Fairies through the back door 
00:50 Dance to the live band
01:32 Walk to Oma for a Magnetic Soul + Friends drum and bass event 
01:49 Dance until everything hurts
03:03 Walk Anson to the bus stop, watch the live stream of my niece’s figure skating competition in Colorado, take an Uber home
03:58 Cuddle altogether in my bed, even though there are three available beds, video call our friends, watch Rush Hour 2 since it’s set in Hong Kong
05:04 Drift off to sleep one by one, even Yuri
Sunday, 10 September
11:10 Wake up
12:04 Start a load of laundry
12:15 Yuri and Diego cook breakfast and clean the flat for me
13:23 Enjoy the lovely meal
14:20 Finish the rest of Rush Hour 2
15:00 Uber to Sai Kung for a beach day at Ham Tin  (CANCELED DUE TO POOR WEATHER) West Kowloon 
15:42 Meet Anson and her two friends at M+ (Hong Kong museum for visual art, design and architecture), tie the painting Yuri bought around Anson’s hair and make her walk around with it, question whether you’re looking at a butt or a knee 
18:02 Relax outside by the harbor
18:57 Walk to Tsim Shai Tsui
19:18 Wait for Diego to admire a snail
19:20 Ride the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour to Central
19:40 Take the tram to Causeway Bay
20:11 Grab a queue ticket for Hai Di Lao
20:49 Bring them to my favorite boba place in Hong Kong
21:37 Squish in the photobooth and never figure out how to tell when it’s taking the picture
21:55 Eat hot pot for dinner, marvel that it’s Diego’s first time and that he likes the bullfrogs
11:46 MTR home
12:25 Take a breather in my flat
02:30 Screen Yuri’s senior art thesis film on my projector
03:38 Show them my favorite spot on campus, bring some beers, sit in silence at the view from the roof (CANCELED DUE TO LOW ENERGY) Fall asleep in my bed
04:20 Sleepily say goodbye when Diego’s uber arrives to take him to the airport

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