Downtown Is for People

On the then-new phenomenon of dead downtowns.

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“It is not only for amenity but for economics that choice is so vital. Without a mixture on the streets, our downtowns would be superficially standardized, and functionally standardized as well. New construction is necessary, but it is not an unmixed blessing: its inexorable economy is fatal to hundreds of enterprises able to make out successfully in old buildings. Notice that when a new building goes up, the kind of ground-floor tenants it gets are usually the chain store and the chain restaurant. Lack of variety in age and overhead is an unavoidable defect in large new shopping centers and is one reason why even the most successful cannot incubate the unusual--a point overlooked by planners of downtown shopping-center projects.”

Fiction Pick of the Week: The Electric City

A group buys the city of Detroit with lottery winnings.

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"We stayed on our street all day for a couple of weeks, doing all the work we needed to do to convince people we weren’t a problem. We never got around to telling anyone that we’d bought the city, because we weren’t having the kinds of conversations where you’d bring that up. We told people we’d lost our jobs instead, that Detroit was cheap. They’d nod. We smoked up a lot and drank plenty of the lemonade stuff, which was yellow Crystal Light mixed with water and vodka."

Campaign

A peculiar dedication in a strange city.

"In the center of the square, the statue of our city's founder, astride his horse, appears to be newly buffed. His long calves, the thick rope of his braid, the gun in one hand and the basket of cherries in the other—symbolizing our affection for violence and fertility—all gleam. The cobblestones are liberated of their usual chaff and cigarette butts."

Garden at the Edge of the Other Side of the World

A young boy anticipates his own kidnapping.

"One day in school, they passed out flyers for parents at the end of the day and Mom told him that a boy from another school had been taken. A poor school, where even when you were young you walked home alone because your parents had to work all the time. A man came up to the boy and promised him treats, candy and a Happy Meal from McDonald’s but instead he brought him to an empty parking garage in Stuyvesant Town and there security cameras had lost sight of them, the boy’s hand still pressed into the man’s, his book bag carelessly unzipped halfway."

Ulysses [Excerpt]

In honor of Bloomsday, an excerpt from Joyce's masterpiece.

"A warm shock of air heat of mustard hanched on Mr Bloom’s heart. He raised his eyes and met the stare of a bilious clock. Two. Pub clock five minutes fast. Time going on. Hands moving. Two. Not yet."

The Men Who Flew Away

Three ambassadors find themselves on a familiar yet alien planet.

"He sees a red and white building that looks just like the pharmacy where he once filled prescriptions. He recognizes a squat building with a black awning and patio that looks similar to a restaurant where he and his wife once dined on Sunday afternoons. He spots a building that looks exactly the same as a bar all three men visited after their final training session at the space station across the city, sharing the last pitchers of beer they drank together before rocketing from earth."

We're Coming For Them

A study in building spaceships.

"Mostly, the spaceship builders did not come out of their trailers or houses, though our local guides claimed they didn't mind the occasional tour. They were so serious they could not see that others might laugh. Some of their grounds looked measured and neat; some were spilling over or scraped to dust. Most were single, a few married, some widowed or divorced. The married ones interested us most—what sorts of agreements had they come to? were the ships built for two?"

Counterparts

Joyce's classic study of a man at odds with the world.

"A very sullen-faced man stood at the corner of O’Connell Bridge waiting for the little Sandymount tram to take him home. He was full of smouldering anger and revengefulness. He felt humiliated and discontented; he did not even feel drunk; and he had only twopence in his pocket. He cursed everything. He had done for himself in the office, pawned his watch, spent all his money; and he had not even got drunk. He began to feel thirsty again and he longed to be back again in the hot reeking public-house. He had lost his reputation as a strong man, having been defeated twice by a mere boy. His heart swelled with fury and, when he thought of the woman in the big hat who had brushed against him and said Pardon! his fury nearly choked him."

Symbols and Signs

Russian immigrant parents attempt to visit their troubled son in a mental hospital.

"He excludes real people from the conspiracy, because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His in- most thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing, in some awful way, messages that he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme."

Where Will All the Buildings Go?

A story of unhappiness and creative outlets.

"Last winter, when she was supposed to be designing a parking garage for a luxury shopping center in McLean, she built a city instead. She got the idea when she was surveying the lot where the parking garage was supposed to go. In her leather pumps and peacoat, she stood on the flat expanse and looked out; the land was a deep brown, lightly marbled with snow. She walked the perimeter, her hands in her pockets, her heels sinking into the dirt, her breath a white cloud in the air. She felt on the edge of something."

The Weirdness [Excerpt]

A thirty-year-old Brooklynite on the cusp of supernatural adventure struggles with the strangeness of everyday life.

"Just a week ago he was on the subway, sitting across from a woman with a tiny dog in her purse, and as he watched her tickle the little goatish beard under its chin he made the mistake of beginning to think about the very existence of dogs in general. People have pets. He repeated it. People have pets. It began to become odd; the very concept of pet began to slide out of his grasp. How did it get to the point where we began to keep animals as, like, accessories? He spent pretty much the rest of the ride staring at the dog, thinking basically: Holy shit, human beings, the shit they come up with. When he got back to his apartment he looked up Dog in Wikipedia and lost the rest of the day. By midnight, he had somehow drifted to looking at videos of fighting Madagascar cockroaches, actually developing opinions on the cockroach-fight-video genre, cold, alone, uncertain as to what exactly had happened."

Jeremy P. Bushnell is a contributing editor to Longform.org.

On Such a Full Sea [Excerpt]

An account of Chinese residents in a future, dystopian city once known as Baltimore; excerpted from Lee's latest novel.

"Maybe Charters can easily forget what it's like out there, but we B-Mors and others in similar settlements should be aware of the possibilities. We shouldn't take for granted the security and comfort of our neighborhoods, we shouldn't think that always leaving our windows open and our doors unlocked means that we're beyond an encroachment. We may believe our gates are insurmountable and that we're armored by routines, but can't we be touched by chance or fate, plucked up like a mouse foraging along his well-worn trail? Before you know it, you're looking down at the last faint print of your claws in the dirt."

The World In the Evening

A narrator's strange daily life is fused with strange appearances from the natural world.

"Freezing, I sprang from bed and assembled, in darkness relieved only by a bluish gleam cast by the iceberg, sweaters, flannel pajama bottoms, my heaviest wool socks, and a down-filled coat suitable for an assault on Everest. For the iceberg that crowded my bedroom was no symbol of the world’s entropy or of a man’s estrangement from his kind, nor was it any longer a figment of the dreaming mind. (We don’t suffer cold in dreams, nor do we sneeze as I did twice while fumbling at my clothes.) Dressed, I drew aside the rime-stiffened curtain and gazed out on a flotilla of icebergs gliding solemnly down the flooded street. (To acknowledge, as you no doubt have, that I spawned one berg, a pack of them is easily granted.)"

The Wenceslas Men

An isolated apartment sitter sees apparitions of mysterious beings.

"And then, after a few days, I returned to the living room, to sit in the blank and quiet night and watch them pass in darkness. And after a few more nights, I crept closer to the curtains. One night, having left them closed, I peeled one back as the last of them passed. I watched them proceed down the street in their own strange strides, walking steadily, not turning a corner, not entering some structure, not vanishing in mid-air."

The Ground the Deck

Three London flatmates navigate work, identity, and class.

"Licia herself did not believe in restricting her lifestyle to her earnings, and was in the happy position of not having to. Her parents (The Parents, she called them, as if they were the only ones in the world) were forever buying her extravagant gifts and sending her hampers from Fortnum and Mason. Every spring and autumn, she and her mother went out to buy Licia a new summer wardrobe and a new winter wardrobe. If Licia were to peer from the top of a tall staircase, or teeter along a perilous rooftop, she would see The Parents waiting below, with mattresses spread out to catch her, duvets and goose down pillows. The feathers buoyed her steps; her feet, in their Italian leather shoes, never quite made contact with the pavement. She was always the one turning up the heat or throwing out two-day-old bread or buying white rum and vermouth to make cocktails."

For You We Are Holding

Disconnect and minutiae of modern urban life.

"In the end, we can be separated despite our best efforts at staying together. We can be separated by tragedy, then by arguments, by fair and unfair blame, by couples therapy. Then by divorce and new addresses. Now we are too far away and want to get closer. If we still owned a car we would park it up your street. If we owned a bike, we would ride it past your apartment. Instead there is only the bus, the cab, the train. There is only the running, sockless in our new shoes. All day we make the blue dot follow us to the places of our previous habits. They are all diminished now but we go anyway: Here is the park. Here is the restaurant. Here is the shop and the store and the bank. Tourists would need maps to find these places, but these are not the places tourists would think to find. We have lived here too long for their kind of maps. Our maps are stretched tight across our skin. We carry them everywhere with us so that when we are lost they might carry us."

Oscar and Veronica [Excerpt]

Two friends commiserate and reflect on their single lives.

"This was the first time she’d ever asked a man out on a date. She was from a small Midwestern town and had been brought up very old-school, very he holds the door open, he comes in to meet the parents, he makes the requisite phone call. But five years of liberal education—essays by Adrienne Rich, press conferences about Anita Hill, dormitories full of post–Gloria Steinem girls who spoke out loud about equality and in secret waited by their telephones—well, it had all confused the issue, for better or worse, and she crossed her fingers in her mittens. What would he say, what would he say?"

The Revolution of Every Day [Excerpt]

Squatters defend their home against police.

"Boards are wedged into place to bar doors and windows, apartment doors are locked, then everyone rushes downstairs and out the front door. Nena closes it behind them, little Carla standing behind her wrapped in a blanket, and they hear her slide down the heavy steel bar that braces that door. They’re twenty strong, together, angry, adrenaline pumping, and Amelia thrilling to it, even though she’s scared. Thrilled and thinking, finally, finally something is happening. Something, whatever it is. They’ve been waiting and here it is, it’s happening now."

Poet In the Schools

A poet's first day of teaching in an inner-city school.

"She looks at me through squinting eyes and waits. I drag out one poem about someone’s bad day, to let the students know that poets have bad days too, and that poets’ lives can be mundane and that poets’ lives can be like their lives, and that, therefore, they too can be poets. She takes a large black felt pen and crosses out words. I’m so shocked I just stand there speechless. I’d assumed we were all together in this old school in the depths of Brooklyn, hoping to reach and educate the kids."

Taipei [Excerpt]

Disorientation and dissociation in urban Taiwan.

On the bus Erin slept with her head on Paul’s lap. Paul’s father slept one row behind. It was around 10:30 p.m. Paul stared at the lighted signs, some of which were animated and repeating like GIF files, attached to almost every building to face oncoming traffic—from two-square rectangles like tiny wings to long strips like impressive Scrabble words but with each square a word, maybe too much information to convey to drivers—and sleepily thought of how technology was no longer the source of wonderment and possibility it had been when, for example, he learned as a child at Epcot Center, Disney’s future-themed 'amusement park,' that families of three, with one or two robot dogs and one robot maid, would live in self-sustaining, underwater, glass spheres by something like 2004 or 2008. At some point, Paul vaguely realized, technology had begun for him to mostly only indicate the inevitability and vicinity of nothingness.

Saturn Return

A young bartender attempts to make sense of where his life is going.

"A lot of people proclaim a need for independence, for space. And while I could attest to that, more than anything, I was a tiger dying amongst the sprawling jungle. I longed for a cage of my own. My apartment, a two bedroom overlooking the gentrification of Philadelphia, had a décor of my design. I picked out the furniture, including the Ikea futon I dubbed “death trap,” and gave every trinket and knick-knack their designated spots: high school diploma and Bachelor’s degree over my black computer desk, novelty shot-glasses along the top of my bookcase and various Buddha figurines, from flea markets in South Jersey, on my dresser and nightstands. And of course, my vinyl collection, a two hundred piece of my heart that took me to the dustiest, most allergenic music stores on the East Coast."

Kind Of Like You

A late bloomer works up the nerve to interact with a woman in his building.

"On his way down in the elevator he was joined by a woman who looked familiar, and as he glanced at her sidelong he tried to recall where he might have seen her. Sensing that she was being looked at, however, she turned to Archie with an expression of covert hostility, her gaze lingering just long enough for Archie to notice that her eyes were greenish brown with corners that tapered upwards. He also noticed that although she was not small, exactly, there was an un-robust quality about her, what his mother might have called 'peaked.'"

The Balcony Cliffs

Trying to maintain human relationships in a post-collapse underground city.

"Wick added special beetles and spiders and other precise infiltration mutations as he called them—so effective that even after the Company had cast him out and he had lost their protections, the strength of rumors alone protected him for a time. These creatures registered in my network of lines as pleasing nodes, unless I was angry with Wick, and then I thought of them as irritating, interfering knots in the system."