Duck Duck Book

40 – the works
12.19.2006, 8:23 pm
Filed under: social sciences

The works : anatomy of a city / Kate Ascher ; researched by Wendy Marech ; designed by Alexander Isley, Inc.
New York : Penguin Press, 2005.
[307.1216 A813w 2005; six copies, one hold]

One of the magic things about cities is that they are incredibly, incredibly complex.  Even a pre-industrial era city was supported by dozens of important infrastructural systems: sewers, canals, marketplaces, streets, civic fortifications, communications networks.  Modern cities require even more layers of infrastructure, and it all has to be more or less reliably available in thousands (if not millions) of locations over a large geographical area.

The Works breaks down the different layers of modern U.S. city infrastructure into sections (moving people, moving freight, power, communications, keeping the city clean, and the future of civic infrastructure) and provides detailed explanations of how they work, using New York City as an example.  This use of New York City’s infrastructure to illustrate city infrastructure in general works well to provides a concrete basis for each chapter, but it also pulls readers into the story of one fairly enigmatic city.  For example, Ascher begins her explanation of how city postal delivery service works with a two page spread describing Manhattan’s pneumatic tube mail network (in operation from 1897 to 1953).  I found this fascinating, but I would guess it’s not a very good example of how metropolitan mail systems typically work.

In fact, while reading the book’s most New York-specific bits, I often wished that Ascher had made more of an effort to discuss them in the context of other cities.  There is a section on New York’s steam network, which heats buildings and provides steam for industrial use throughout midtown and lower Manhattan.  Ascher’s account of the history of the steam system, her description of its technical specifications, and her discussion of steam’s practical uses is both compelling and educational.  But although she begins the chapter with a note that New York’s is the biggest district steam system in the world, and mentions that there are steam systems in Paris and in at least four other U.S. cities, she does not disclose how common municipal steam systems are, nor does she discuss the circumstances under which they are practical, or explain their history in general.  Are they rare, or common?  When were they first installed?  What political and practical factors keep them operating, or not?  Outside of the specific example of New York City’s steam system, readers are none the wiser.

The strategy of using a specific city to illustrate how city systems operate is a good one, but I think it might have been more successful if the example city was more, well, typical of cities in general.  Of course every city is unique and has its foibles, but comparing Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Buffalo, Nashville, Iowa City, Austin, Bakersfield, or Spokane to the rest of the cities in the U.S. might be a little bit less of a stretch.

However, despite my frustration that The Works contributes to a worldwide conspiracy to make New York seem more important and fascinating than it has any right to be, I can highly recommend the book.  Each piece of the story of how city systems work is clearly explained with an intelligent narrative and beautiful, information-rich illustrations.  Many chapters shed a great deal of light on how cities operate — the discussions of rail freight, garbage collection and disposal, road maintenance and traffic management, radio and telecommunications, and electricity are especially illuminating.  The book’s organization is logical and easy to navigate, and the index is competent.  If you are curious to see how mail is moved, how sewers work, what causes potholes and how they are fixed, or how rolling stock is managed, The Works is an excellent place to begin your education.


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