Jane Jacobs’s canonical 1961 treatise on city planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, begins with a thesis of community safety that would raise eyebrows today, in the common era of the NSA. Self-policing the streets, she argues, depends on three elements: the “clear demarcation” of public and private space; street-facing storefronts that act as “eyes upon” public throughways; and the continuous population of sidewalks. Cities, she proposes, ought to make “an asset” out of strangers.
As New York’s patron saint of neighborhood preservation, Jacobs undoubtedly had gentle intentions. She prevented a four-lane highway from razing Washington Square Park, another from dividing Lower Manhattan. Her analysis of the ways in which the design of public spaces can foster or frustrate community bonds continues to shape (and, some would argue, impede) New York housing policy and stock. But in an age of digital surveillance, this motion for keeping “eyes on the street” at all times takes on a decidedly ambivalent ring—in 2020, New Yorkers are already on camera everywhere south of Ninety-Sixth Street. These days, it feels just as urgent to ask after those sites where we might evade the stranger’s gaze. Enter the humble apartment rooftop, the canopy of city life that supports a social order all its own.
How do we center, in this postcolonial experience, not the perspective of the western European colonizer but the perspective of the indigenous, black, and people of color who were colonized? Even the very language of this concept — postcolonial — betrays a perspective still situated around the white colonizer.
So we begin with this question: How do you create meaning when the language itself undercuts the meaning you are trying to create?
James McBride's Deacon King Kong is a feverish love letter to New York City, people, and writing. The prose is relentless and McBride's storytelling skills shine as he drags readers at breakneck speed trough a plethora of lives, times, events, and conversations. The novel is 370 pages, but McBride has packed enough in there for a dozen novellas, and reading them all mashed together is a pleasure.
“Saint X,” Alexis Schaitkin’s atmospheric new novel, is ostensibly about a young American girl who goes missing while on a family vacation in the Caribbean. But it is more than that. The book also unpacks timely social and cultural issues — about grief, truth, white privilege and our murder-as-entertainment culture.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Shakespeare, the most canonical of dead white males, should feature in America’s culture wars. But why so prominently, both now and in earlier phases of the US’s struggles with race, class and identity during the 19th and 20th centuries? Why should Americans care so much about an Englishman who never visited its shores? In this sprightly and enthralling book, James Shapiro argues persuasively that 19th-century American textbooks, such as McGuffey’s Reader (1836), which had sold more than 120m copies by the first world war, and Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, played a major role in the process of domestication, for they excerpted many of the most celebrated speeches from Shakespeare’s plays. Reassuringly, it also helped that the language of Shakespeare resembled the familiar cadences of the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611.
And just like that, I was whole again,
seam like a drawing of an eyelid closed,
gauze resting atop it like a bed