Monday, February 19, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #50: The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher

What makes a city work? Well, the easy answer is "people," but there are much more complicated answers about systems and expert knowledge and technology and history and infrastructure.

Those bigger answers can very quickly get beyond the understanding of laymen, but they don't have to. It's possible to explain what makes a city work on a level we all can understand. Kate Ascher did it, a little more than a decade ago, anatomizing the various central systems of New York City in The Works: Anatomy of a City.

My guess is that one of the bookclubs offered The Works back around 2005, when it was published -- probably Book-of-the-Month Club, since it's got that kind of high-minded seriousness to it -- and those days I was in a mode of grabbing every book that looked like it could possibly be of interest. (It was a glorious time: books were everywhere, I could grab more than I could read, and nothing had ever happened to take books away from me. Things changed, of course.) I finally read it this year, when as part of my Book-A-Day exercises I took a hard look at that lower shelf with coffee-table books that I haven't touched in at least five years.

Some of the details in The Works are probably out of date, particularly since Ascher included a section at the end on then-current plans to upgrade or repair the various systems, and those plans are now either accomplished or abandoned. (Farewell, ARC tunnel!) But I expect the general plan is still correct: a city with hundred-plus-year-old water mains doesn't change overnight.

Ascher divided her look at NYC infrastructure into five big chapters: Moving People (streets, subways, bridges, tunnels), Moving Freight (by rail or ship or air, plus a section on markets), Power (electricity, natural gas, and the yes-they-still-use-it surprise of steam), Communications (phone, mail, and wireless spectrum), and Keeping It Clean (water, sewage, and garbage). That's a lot of systems, many of which interrelate -- trash travels by barge on the waterways and conduits can carry more than one kind of pipe or wire.

The Works is a well-designed, highly visual book, with useful sidebars on every page and clean, easily-understandable graphics. Ascher's acknowledgements credit the design and imagery to Alexander Isley, George Kokkinidis, and a larger team, so they should get a lot of the love for making this an easy book to view and understand.

It's fashionable these days to hate on urban-dwellers, but cities are where most economic activity happens, and the engines of the modern world. Even if you have to drive your pick-up fifty miles to the closest Wal-Mart to go grocery shopping, The Works is a useful, informative book that explains how the vital infrastructure of the modern world operates in one of the most demanding environments today.

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