Jonathan's Reviews > The Works: Anatomy of a City

The Works by Kate Ascher
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's review
Jul 01, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: nonfiction
Read from July 02 to 05, 2010

Ascher does an excellent job describing the infrastructure of NYC, which she breaks down into five categories: Moving People, Moving Freight, Communication, Power, and Keeping It Clean. This broad categories allow her to discuss everything from street construction to street cleaning, timing traffic lights to unloading container ships, New York's extensive steam distribution network to the water supply, and the post office to the power company. In all this, Ascher breaks her explanations into easily-digestible segments - usually two-page spreads - which are written in clear prose and illuminated with carefully-drawn illustrations. She addresses the expected (but still interesting) topics such as bridges, subways, and sewers, and manages several surprises. (My favorite is the 21-mile underground pneumatic mail-tube loop that the post office used to distribute mail to post offices around the city for fifty years.) I have two criticisms of this book is that, while as a technical description it is supreme, Ascher skimps on context or historical meaning. For example, Ascher discusses the invention of containerized cargo and how it works. The profound effects this had on the population of the city - such as the dislocation of entire neighborhoods based on the harbor work - is not mentioned. Connecting the story of New York's infrastructure and planning to human lives would give the remarkable feats she discusses more meaning, illustrating not only the benefits but also the costs. Finally, Ascher, formerly an administrator of the New York Economic Development Corporation, is all praise. There might be problems in the construction and administration of New York's infrastructure, but beyond the occasional sidelong reference to local politics, you'd never know it. Nevertheless, for anyone interested in what actually makes a megacity work, this book is a remarkable read.
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