Life in Dog Ears is a new feature in which editor and obsessive reader Daniel Nash provides brief reviews and analysis of his reading list from the past month. Some selections are new, some are less new, and others are incredibly not new. Have a recommendation? Write Daniel at MPTimes@nwlink.com or tweet him @dlewisnash.
How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality, and the Fight for the Neighborhood
Peter Moskowitz | Urban Planning
This book was released March 7, and I waited more than a month for the Seattle Public Library to release my “hold.” By the time I finished, 30 people were waiting for my copy. Because of course they were. Seattle is well into the throes of gentrification. But what is gentrification, exactly?
Journalist Peter Moskowitz has attempted to move beyond snapshot headlines about new breweries and burgeoning populations of 20-something hipsters. He contends that gentrification is a predictable process, in which city policy encourages blight in specific neighborhoods -- sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes calculatedly -- and real estate investors move their capital into cheapened properties, often pushing out longtime working class residents.
This process is fleshed out through the retelling of gentrification in four cities, which all gentrified under different circumstances: New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Detroit through explicitly racist city planning and a burdensome tax structure, San Francisco as it continues to chase tech wealth, and New York City’s continuing hyper-gentrification of its outer boroughs.
Moscowitz’s writing is sometimes uneven, but his thesis is exceptionally well-researched and argued. The end result is a nonfiction book scarier than any Stephen King novel.
It’s tempting to relate Seattle’s gentrification to San Francisco’s, given the role of tech industry wealth in both cities’ real estate market. I advise readers to take a closer look at another metropolis: New York City. In another book, “Seattle and the Demons of Ambition,” former Seattle Weekly editor Fred Moody related the story of how one of the earliest settlement camps in the area posted the identifying sign “New York Pretty Soon.” It sounds like a funny anecdote about an overambitious pioneer. But a quick Google search of historical Census data shows that Seattle’s population growth from its foundation to today is almost identical to New York’s over its first 160 years. Our geographies are also eerily similar: Manhattan is constrained to an island, while Seattle’s constrained to an isthmus, both closely surrounded by communities on an island and nearby land. Provided an earthquake doesn’t do us in first, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine Seattle and its (not so) suburban crescent re-chartering as a singular megalopolis before the end of the 21st Century.
This comparison also gave me a new perspective on the recent University District upzone and the city’s larger Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda. Our required affordable housing percentages for developers who want to build taller are less than half of New York City’s 20 percent requirement, and Moskowitz notes that, even there, the affordability mark set by Area Median Income has been skewed upward by the highest earners. And state law precludes us from enacting anything like New York’s rent stabilization program, embattled as it is.
In the end, Moskowitz’s book left me feeling incredibly small, wondering, meekly, what the hell will we do?
Next Year, for Sure
Zoey Leigh Peterson | Fiction
Another new release, this novel caught my eye because of its unique premise: It tells the story of a monogamous couple that becomes polyamorous. I’m not polyamorous myself, but I have friends who are and I’m aware of the basic tenets -- unlike sex-oriented swinging, nebulous free love, or the crassly non-committal mid-’00s “open relationship,” polyamory is built on the idea of multiple romantic relationships carefully negotiated through constant communication. The major books on the subject (“The Ethical Slut,” “More Than Two”) are nonfiction, so I was immediately intrigued to see the subculture explored in fiction.
Like Cormac McCarthy, Peterson does away with quotation marks in her dialogue. Similar to McCarthy’s fiction, this choice creates a detached, almost fairy tale-esque telling of a woman, Kathryn, who encourages her long-term boyfriend Chris to ask a woman from the laundromat out on a date after he develops a crush. Unlike McCarthy, Peterson’s writing is readily accessible, and funny. There are a lot of moments -- Chris’ difficulty getting Emily on the phone to ask her out on a date, a sex scene presented in the form of a book index, quirky lines throughout -- that are laugh-out-loud funny. Not “type LOL silently into your phone” laugh-out-loud. Genuine laughs, ranging from chortles to guffaws.
Peterson experiments generously with presentation, as with the aforementioned index, phone calls presented as transcripts, and a chapter titled “What Everybody Wants.” It’s typically pitch-perfect for the scene, and rarely gratuitous. I also appreciated that the ending was not what I had predicted, even from 30 pages away. In the end, this is less a story about polyamory then a story about breaking free of self-imposed ruts, and expanding personal horizons.
That said, I was often bothered by the way Peterson coded her characters’ morality. Chris’ desire to have more than one girlfriend is made palatable by his infinite emotional affability, his near-asexuality, and a quality of childlike innocence. Throughout, the characters who are portrayed as good, as kind, as generous are exclusively some flavor of Pacific Northwestern liberal: either back-to-the-earth types living in communal houses, or underachieved intellectuals who constantly reference obscure authors and directors. Meanwhile, those portrayed as bad, petty, and withholding live monogamous lives in suburban households. One side character, literally referred to as “rat-faced” and “stupid,” only seems to commit the sin of not totally “getting” polyamory. Now that I think about it, she was actually pretty tolerant and nice.
A Place of my Own
Michael Pollan | Memoir/Architecture
Michael Pollan is almost exclusively known for his work regarding food and health (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” explored the problems of the food-industrial complex, while “Food Rules” and “Cooked” are more like treatises on eating more healthfully). “A Place of my Own” is the exception in his bibliography: A personal memoir about an unhandy man’s desire to build.
Sometime in the mid-’90s, Pollan and his wife moved from the city to rural Connecticut to make a home for their unborn child. Plagued by a desire to find a personal space to write, and also feeling increasingly trapped by a life concerned only with words and ideas he couldn’t see, feel, or touch, he resolves to site, design and build a personal “writer’s hut” in the woods behind his home.
The book chronicles the construction of Pollan’s office from beginning to end, and the memoir framework makes several aspects of construction accessible to readers like myself who share Pollan’s unhandiness. The war of egos between Pollan’s architect and hired construction assistant allows for a meditation on the bygone status of master carpenters. A custom windowsill becomes a source of high drama, and exemplifies how difficult it is to make a building that is both beautiful and practical. And Pollan discovers his desire to escape an idea-driven life is opposed by trends in architecture to make buildings more cerebral, and seemingly less practical.
I often walk to the Meadowbrook Pond, near my home in North Seattle. I’ve always enjoyed the public art in the pond, completed alongside it in 1998, particularly Kate Wade’s “Water Gate” on the southwest shore. But now I look at it and think about which beams are functional, and which are purely decorative. Or how the paint was likely meant to look aged, or how the structure looks more complete away from the water than it does nearby, and how those things invoke a sense of having discovered ancient man-made artifacts in nature.
This is my favorite part of Pollan’s book, and it’s what Pollan sought himself in writing it: A sense of connectedness to the built world and what it has to tell us.