Purposeful Imperfections


Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint

Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint (cover art)

Jane Jacobs’s four recommendations for successful neighborhoods (p. 124):

  1. Streets and districts should serve a variety of industries and purposes.
  2. Blocks should be short and feel comfortable to pedestrians.
  3. Buildings should vary in age, condition, and use (a.k.a. “mixed use”).
  4. Population must be dense.

In a place like Denver, Colorado–where I live, and which, at the moment, is growing by leaps and bounds, especially in the urban core–Jacobs’s recommendations are commonplace in discussions about what the city should look like, now and in the coming decades. But her ideas weren’t always a given, in fact they were initially viewed as crackpot, dangerous, and unfounded. Having a chance to glimpse of the origin of these ideas, and to examine their first major applications, is reason enough to pay Wrestling with Moses a visit.

Luckily, Anthony Flint’s text is also a lively biography of an astounding person: a woman without a college degree who, beginning in the 1950s, exposed political, financial, and intellectual fraud at the core of some incredibly powerful institutions and individuals. Most famously, Jane Jacobs defeated Robert Moses, New York City’s “master builder,” multiple times at a point in his career where he was more or less untouchable. It was a fight that was about as David versus Goliath as it gets.

But Jacobs’s legacy had a much larger impact than saving her community from the wrecking ball. In the process of battling Moses’s widespread brand of urban renewal, Jacobs pioneered public participation in urban planning, proved that ordinary citizens can successfully challenge authority, and exposed the democracy-undermining practice of funneling public money into private ventures. Echoes of her community activism would resonate broadly in the civil unrest of 60s.

However unwittingly, though, Jacobs’s approach did lend itself to gentrification–take look at Greenwich Village today–and Flint is careful not to gloss over this, and other, critiques. Likewise, he shows that, for all of Moses’s missteps and heavy handedness, he was very much a product of his era, and, even then, some of his projects have paid dividends (the creation of New York City’s extensive park system is one example). It’s this complexity that gives both Jacobs and Moses a well-roundedness and, in turn, renders their relationship–which provides the backbone of Wrestling with Moses–all the more intricate, substantive, and fascinating. So, while this is a biography about a humble visionary who took on a giant and won, it’s also a book about how we live now, and, with the majority of the world’s population now found in cities, how we will live.


Harvard Lakes

Harvard Lakes (1).

Harvard Lakes (2)

Western Slope



Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (cover art)

In Wanderlust, the medium is a crucial part the message, as the text–like a long walk–digresses and meanders, exposing us to a vast array of ideas, experiences, and terrain. This rambling style, while hypnotic, often pulls away from a cohesive thesis, though I think that’s part of the point. Solnit seems to reject much of the tidy, virtual, and prescriptive ways of living that arose concurrently with walking’s decline, aiming to, if not wholly reclaim, at least remind us of the joys and necessities of moving, living, and thinking at three miles per hour. Whether it’s a hike in the mountains, a stroll down the Vegas strip, or a political march, Wanderlust is a compelling reminder of the role waking has played in our development–biologically, personally, culturally, artistically, and politically. Walking has gotten us this far, and, while its roles have frequently changed over the last few hundred years, it has persisted, though, in recent decades, just barely. Solnit brings a much needed awareness to what we’ll lose if we cast it aside entirely.


Fallbrook 1

Fallbrook 4

Fallbrook 2

Fallbrook 3

A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland by Rebecca Solnit

A Book of Migrations: Some Passages in Ireland by Rebecca Solnit (cover art)

Drawing parallels between her actual homeland of California and ancestral homeland of Ireland, Rebecca Solnit pens a prismatic travel tale, a journey that’s as much inward as outward and as much about the act of travel as traveling in a specific locale. Book of Migrations is a kind of history book, too, one that muddies the usual takes on the past by mingling the personal and the marginalized with the ascendant and traditional.

Throughout, Solnit attempts to situate herself and those she encounters in the landscapes she walks across, but footholds quickly give way, leaving, at best, blurry insights. Yet, it’s this indeterminacy that makes Book of Migrations so meaningful, as it reminds us, crucially, of the mutability of identity, a starkly contrasting take to the far more traditional notions of character and culture as sedentary and fixed. It’s this fluidity that Solnit wants us to embrace as, like travel, its importance lies in the journey–with its motion, change, and newness–not the destination.

Wood Works

Pancho (Hatch Work)

Oaxacan Door

My Struggle: Book Four by Karl Ove Knuasgaard

My Struggle: Book Four by Karl Ove Knuasgaard (cover art)

Book Four of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is situated amid that violent uplift from childhood to adulthood, when the world simultaneously expands and contracts. It’s a vertiginous time, when feelings of possibility and responsibility, invincibility and vulnerability play musical chairs in our psyche. Those places and moments from childhood–so enormous, profound, and permanent in our memory–often turn out to be small and imperfect when reencountered. This destabilization, while liberating, is also uprooting, and Karl Ove’s saga, this round, is one of wild experimenting, stumbling, and, as the subtitle suggests, dancing in the dark. It’s a period of contextualization, in which he tries desperately–via booze, via writing, via sex–to locate himself, and, throughout, he seems to be asking: how much of what I was will I still be?

Rising from the Plains by John McPhee

Rising from the Plains by John McPhee (cover art)

A wonderful geology primer, equal parts lyrical and erudite, what sets Rising from the Plains apart from other narrative science writing is the way in which it situates and negotiates people amid vast, ancient landforms. At the core is a character study of David Love: decorated geologist, native son of Wyoming, and a composite of wiseness, living history, and closeness with the land. Love is our very capable ambassador to the terrain in question, where the Rocky Mountains rise up from the high plains.

Having spent a half century surveying the land, Love bemoans our inability to fully appreciate it. Our behaviors–our insistent exploits–prove this time and again. In response, Love maps once unknown terrains, not for conquest, but in the name of understanding and awareness. Stubborn and principled, he devotes his life to the preservation of his homeland, readily owning up, however, to privileging industry over preservation early in his career. Perhaps most crucially, Love understands that things are rarely as cut and dry as they seem–be it an outcropping of rock or industrial development. People need to make a living, Love concedes, and the land can certainly provide.

But can we learn to utilize the bounties of our environment without destroying it? Are we willing to look beyond ourselves–remembering that, geologically, we’ve not yet lasted a blink-of-an-eye–in order to persist more sustainably? It’s this message of seeking a balance, of taking the very long view and gaining a more holistic perspective, that keeps Rising from the Plains as fresh and necessary as when it first appeared thirty years ago.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (cover art)

A lyrical fever dream that’s labyrinthine in subject and form, Under the Volcano is a book about trying to escape–one’s self, one’s weaknesses, one’s failures, one’s environment. It’s an experience that’s at once colorful and dreary, vast and oppressive, hopeful and hopeless, though ultimately a journey redolent of doom, a portent which grows at a dizzying rate with each passing chapter. It’s an obscured book, enveloped, as the title suggests, by massive shadows–a darkness that the central character, Geoffrey Firmin, wishes desperately to emerge from.

But Under the Volcano is not merely a document of Geoffrey Firmin’s demise. Sure, that’s the “plot,” but, true to his modernist roots, Lowry cobbles together a manic collage composed of shifting narratives, varied languages, ornate symbols, memories, inner conflicts, global collisions, a love quadrangle, and events of sudden violence, all of which are situated amid the wreckage of the Mexican Revolution and imminent war in Europe. It’s these types of tensions that permeate the experiences of Geoffrey, his half-brother Hugh, and his estranged wife Yvonne, as each struggles with what should be done, what can be done–with their lives, with their relationships with one another, and with these larger, looming conflicts that are consuming the world. Taken together, this vibrant tapestry of a text is a powerful consideration of one’s place and role amid life’s perennial chaos.


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