485 stories

How Noiseless Props Are Made For Movies And TV Shows

1 Share

Insider has been doing a whole series of videos on how movie props are made (view the entire thing here) and I found this one on how prop makers rely on noiseless props to be particularly interesting. To cut down on distracting on-set noise (so dialogue can be heard, for instance), they swap racquetball balls for pool balls, silicon chunks for ice cubes, and paper bags made out of coffee filter material for real paper bags. So weird to watch those objects in action without their usual sounds. (thx, caroline)

Tags: audio   film school   how to   movies   video
Read the whole story
7 hours ago
America City, America
Share this story

Radio Atlantic: How Germany Remembers the Holocaust

1 Share

Two years ago I published a book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America. The book explores how different historical sites across the United States—including monuments, memorials, and museums—reckon with or fail to reckon with their relationship to the history of slavery. After the book came out, one of the main questions I got from readers asked where public memory was being engaged with more proactively and thoughtfully than what we so often see here in America. I would frequently invoke Germany, citing the work it had done to memorialize the Holocaust. But there came a point where I realized that I was citing the memorials in Germany without having spent any time with the memorials in Germany.

So I traveled to Germany to examine its landscape of memory for myself. I visited the homes from which Jewish families were taken, the train stations from which they were deported, the concentration camps where they were held, the crematoria where bodies were burned.

I had conversations with Jewish Germans as well as Americans living in Germany, in an effort to understand how we might place the way America memorializes slavery in conversation with the way Germany memorializes the Holocaust.

What I learned is that the story of German memorialization is complex, multifaceted, and still evolving. Just like the story of America’s.

-Clint Smith

Subscribe here: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts | Pocket Casts

The following is a transcript of the episode:

Caitlin Dickerson: So what did you expect to find in Germany? I mean, were you essentially going to pick up lessons for the U.S.? Were you starting to become a little bit skeptical of Germany as this ideal for reckoning and atonement? I mean, what did you have in mind as you set out on this trip?

Clint Smith: I think in part, I went to Germany to put it in conversation with the process of memorialization here in the United States.

Dickerson: I’m Caitlin Dickerson. Today on Radio Atlantic, staff writer Clint Smith on the Holocaust, America’s legacy of slavery, and what it means to memorialize tragedy.

Smith: So it wasn’t necessarily to compare and contrast as much as it was an attempt to say, okay, “What’s happening in Germany, what’s happening in the United States? In what ways are these processes in conversation with one another?” America in so many places fails to properly memorialize and remember and account for its relationship to the history of slavery; what’s a place that does this well?

Dickerson: So where in Germany did you go to try to figure this out?

Smith: I went to a range of different places, including the House of the Wannsee Conference, which is this idyllic mansion outside of Berlin where the leaders of the Nazi party got together to outline and plan the contours of the Final Solution.

Clint: I’m here standing outside of the House of the Wannsee Conference. Already by the time they met here, people had been killed in mass murders—but this is where they would plan out how they would kill millions more. There’s a profound sort of juxtaposition between the scenery and the idyllic nature of it, and the terrible thing that was planned inside of it. Behind it is this lake with sailboats that are slowly passing by. The water sort of lapping against the shore. Can hear birds and wind chimes. It’s a strange thing. It’s a very strange thing.

Smith: If you could say your name and your position...

Deborah Hartmann: Okay. So my name is Deborah Hartmann.

Smith: And one of the people that I spoke to when I went to the House of the Wannsee Conference was Deborah Hartmann, who is the director of that museum. And one of the things we talked about in particular that I found really fascinating was the need to focus on not only the victims of the Holocaust, but also the perpetrators.

Hartmann: I think we have to learn something about the perspective of the perpetrators and not only about the perpetrators but also about the bystanders, and all those who were in a way involved. And this could be the neighbor who was not a member of the Nazi party, but who was just hanging around and had a nice view out of the window seeing neighbors being deported.

Smith: Which was so many people.

Hartmann: Yeah, of course.

Smith: It’s interesting, because I think part of what this place does, in some ways, is humanizes both the victims and the perpetrators.

Hartmann: Yes. And it is important, I think—because, of course, they were human beings as well. And, you know, in the afternoon, people who participated in the mass shootings wrote nice letters to their families at home.

Smith: They killed people in the morning, and wrote letters to their family and their children in the afternoon.

Hartmann: Exactly. And this is maybe what’s so difficult for us to understand. And to live with it.

Dickerson: She’s challenging, in a few different ways, the oversimplification of narratives around the Holocaust. And also: Humanizing the perpetrators is worth doing, because actually, human beings perpetrated this. It wasn’t fantastical characters of evil, but actual human beings.

Smith: Yeah; I think one of the things that she takes very seriously in her work is ensuring that we are not falling into the trap of reducing the people who are part of this history into two-dimensional caricatures of themselves.

Hartmann: And you know, then you suddenly see that the history is much more ambivalent, and it’s much more complicated. And today, I think that the Germans actually are very proud of what they have achieved in terms of confrontation, like with the past and coming to terms. But I think it becomes difficult when they feel—I don’t know, the term in English—maybe relieved. You understand what I mean?

Smith: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Hartmann: Because then it can turn into a very problematic direction.

Smith: This idea that “We’ve already done it.”

Hartmann: I mean, here you can see: Okay, this is still very challenging, I think, for Germans. Even in the fourth generation today. How can it be okay that my family was somehow involved in those atrocities?

Deidre Berger: I mean, there wasn’t really a confrontation until the ’60s, when the young generation started asking their parents what they did during the war.

Smith: Deidre Berger is an American woman who’s lived in Germany for many years. And both in America and in Germany, she has been deeply involved in Jewish organizations and Jewish advocacy groups, to ensure that Jewish people and Jewish history are accounted for. And the two of us got together on a chilly day in October at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in downtown Berlin.

Berger: And we had the Nuremberg trials in the late ’40s. There were the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt in the early/mid-1960s. And still, most perpetrators were never accused or tried or charged. And there was the attitude of “Let’s leave it behind us.”

This—this went right into the heart of families, and it tore families apart. And so they’d rather not talk about it. When I came to Germany in the mid-1980s, there was not much of a confrontation within families. So it took a very long time. A lot of the international climate was such that I think more of an understanding evolved, at least in the German political elite, of the importance of confronting the Holocaust, and also on the grassroots level.

So the 1960s is when the grassroots movement started in Germany to try and understand better what had happened in my town, what happened to the Jews. And there were quite a lot of good-minded Germans who pursued projects, who invited former members of their community who were Jewish, back to their towns. And out of this movement grew the idea that there needed to be a national monument. So it was a complicated conglomeration of interests that led to the establishment of this monument. I don’t know that there was one government who said, “You have to do this,” but it was an understanding in Germany that this was important to have a national symbol of recognition of German guilt for what had happened.

Dickerson: Clint, what does this monument—this symbol of recognition that she’s describing—actually look like?

Smith: So, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is a 200,000-square-foot memorial at the heart of downtown Berlin. And when I say at the heart of downtown Berlin, I really mean it. It’s almost as if a massive memorial to slavery was placed in front of the White House. That’s sort of the first thing you notice. And it’s made up of more than 2,000 stone columns that are of different heights. And as you walk through the stone columns, it’s almost maze-like. And the ground beneath the columns rises and falls like waves, and so at different points within the space, you know, you have different amounts of light. So sometimes as your body moves down, it’ll get darker and darker.

And I think it’s a place that is meant to be haunting and overwhelming. But what’s also true is that it is a place that has become such an enmeshed part of the landscape. People are driving to work, people are walking their dogs, people are running. There are people who have obviously come there to engage with the space. And so I would see people who were crying and holding hands, sort of gently touching the stones as if it could sort of transport them back to this moment. There were also small children who were playing hide-and-seek—and so different people engage with the space in fundamentally different ways. And I think in some ways, that’s inevitable. But it’s also something that rubs a lot of people the wrong way.

There are many people who’ve commented that the very name is too passive—the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. That it doesn’t talk about who did the murdering. There are those who say it’s too abstract. There are no names on the columns, but there are also those who believe that its size and its scale and its scope is unlike anything that any other country has ever done.

Smith: Do you remember when you first came here—when you first saw it and experienced it?

Berger: Yeah, when it was opened in 2005. I find it…very cold. And I’m not sure that I need this much concrete detail with all these stones to grasp the dimensions of this crime. But different people have different reactions. I think in the Jewish community, my reaction was fairly widespread. But on the other hand, I mean—I think there was a certain acceptance and degree of relief, almost, that there was a Holocaust monument that was finally erected in the heart of Berlin, very close to the German Parliament.

Smith: Oh, the German Parliament.

Berger: And that’s just on the other side, basically. And that was meaningful.

Smith: There’s nothing that Japan has built to account for Japanese imperialism of this scale. There’s nothing that the United States has built to account for a history of Indigenous genocide or chattel slavery. You know—this sort of thing at this size doesn’t exist anywhere [else]. And so different people fall on different ends of the spectrum about whether they think it is a space that is a net positive or not, whether it’s a place that does more good or more harm. And that was one of the things that I learned a lot from my conversation with Deidre Berger and others.

Berger: I’m not complaining, I think it is quite remarkable. Let’s keep in mind that in the center of a major city, a country acknowledges its guilt at genocide.

Dickerson: Berger talks about this desire already in the 1940s among some to move on and to forget. I’m interested in that impulse. I remember interviewing David Romo. He’s a historian of the U.S.-Mexico border and actually found that it was the U.S. Border Patrol that began using Zyklon B in its own gas chambers. That helped to inspire German scientists, who then brought them to Germany, turned up the potency of—of the solution and—and used it to kill Jewish people. He talked about amnesia and about forgetting as a response to shame—on both the sides of the perpetrators, but also the victims. It sounds like you’ve been thinking a lot about just how dangerous that can be.

Smith: Yeah;, I think that we have seen the direct implications of that. I mean, here in the United States, there was a very intentional, proactive attempt to distort and push aside the story of chattel slavery and what the Civil War was fought over. The idea perpetuated by the widows and the sisters and the mothers—who lost their husbands, brothers, who lost their sons, their nephews—that grief animated a desire to tell a very different story of who these men were and what they had died for. Because they didn’t want to remember their loved ones as someone who died perpetuating evil. They wanted to remember them with love. They began to talk about how slavery wasn’t central to the Civil War. How even if slavery had been central to the Civil War, it wasn’t even that bad; it was a benign or even a civilizing institution. And even if someone wasn’t actively perpetuating and disseminating misrepresentations about the Civil War and slavery, what there was was silence about it. And it’s interesting, because in Germany, there was its own version of silence after the end of the war—and it took generations before these monuments would be built. And this silence was eradicated.

Dickerson: Clint, you saw a lot of memorials while you were in Germany. Which ones stuck out to you most?

Smith: I remember the first time I saw the Stolpersteine, which are the brass stones that are placed in front of the former residences, or places of worship or places of work, of people who were persecuted and killed by the Nazis.

It was started by a guy named Gunter Demnig in 1996, whose own father was a Nazi soldier. And in many ways, this art project that he began seems to be a part of his own contrition.

And so these brass stones, these 10-by-10-centimeter stones, are placed in front of these homes—and they have the birthday, the death date, the deportation date of the people who were taken from these homes. This is the largest decentralized memorial in the world. And you’ll be walking down the streets of Berlin, and there will be two stumbling stones. And then you walk a little further down, and in front of another home there will be four. And in front of another home there will be seven. In front of another home, there will be 12.

Smith: Where are you from originally in the States?

Jennifer Neal: Uh, short answer: We moved a lot.

Smith: Got it.

Neal: But I tell everybody I’m from Chicago, because that’s the last American city I lived in before I left.

Smith: I met up with Jennifer Neal, who is an author and a journalist who lives in Berlin, calls Chicago home, and is a Black woman who is thinking about how Germany memorializes its past and is comparing it to how the United States is remembering its own past. And one of the things we talked about was the Stolpersteine and how prevalent they are, and in so many ways how effective they are.

Neal: I love that memorial, because it doesn’t give anybody an excuse to forget. And if you are one of those people who lives in the building that was formerly occupied by that victim, you see that every single day. And I think it’s one of the most brilliant memorials anywhere.

Smith: Hmm. Do you think that we could do something like that in the States? You know, I can’t help but wonder what a version of that tied to slavery would look like.

Neal: I mean, I’d be extremely curious to see what that looked like. I think in general, the United States hasn’t done jack shit enough to atone for slavery. I mean, where to begin? I think that’s the real question. I would love to see something along the lines of the Stolpersteine done in the United States, but I wouldn’t want it to stop there. I would want to see memorials like that all over the South and the North as well, to commemorate how slaves escaped from the South and went and moved to the North. I would love to see memorials like that to commemorate the victims who were forcibly sterilized in the United States.

I would love to see memorials to the victims of white flight and the housing crisis in Chicago. I would love to see memorials to the Great Migration. I would love to see memorials of all sorts like that. Will that happen? That’s where the question mark is.

Smith: It’s almost like if we did it, it would be the entire street—you know, because it’s 250 years. I mean, in front of Monticello. Like, what would that do to somebody when they entered that place?

Neal: Well, yeah; that’s a really powerful idea, because I know that a lot of the plantations have been rebranded as, like, venues for weddings and parties. And there are still so many people who don’t seem to understand or know why the U.S. Civil War was fought to begin with. And these plantations don’t really seem to be advertising what happened there. I think it’s also part of the problem.

Smith: But not everybody’s a huge fan of the stumbling stones or how ubiquitous they are. And Deidre Berger has her own complicated feelings about them.

Berger: Why should we be stepping on the memories of the victims? If anyone it should be perpetrators, although I’m not one for revenge or vindication, I don’t think we should step on people, whatever kind of person they were. There should be plaques on the wall. Why aren’t they? Because most of the owners of buildings wouldn’t accept, even to this day, a plaque saying Here’s where a Jewish family lived. And that’s the truth. And that’s not what people talk about. There’s a lot of reverence sometimes for this project that I’ve encountered, and people who work on it—sort of “I’ve done my penance now.” There’s enormous projections with this project on dead Jews.

Would it work in the States? I just don’t know. I’m not sure that it would, because there’s not a feeling of penance in the same way—of responsibility, unfortunately. And the time span [since the Civil War] is much further. I mean why shouldn’t we? But it’s the reality.

Dickerson: So, Clint, you went to Germany to better understand how it remembers the Holocaust and to put these two very different sets of circumstances in conversation with one another. In the United States, because of the very specific way in which slaves had been extracted from their homes and then were further separated from family, people pretty much know, right—as much as you and I do—that we’re the descendants of enslaved people. And the story often ends there.

You don’t have people who can walk around and tell their relatives’ very specific story from the beginning. I wonder if that plays a role. And can you talk about some of the other differences between the ways that they remember this past?

Smith: Yeah. You know, the most obvious is that there are still people who are alive today who survived the Holocaust. Another big difference is that in Germany there just aren’t many Jewish people left. Less than 200,000 Jewish people in Germany—which is less than a quarter of a percent of the population. And that’s very different than in the United States, where there are 40 million Black people.

Dickerson: Right. And I wonder, you know, did you come away thinking that anything like what’s happened in Germany could happen in the United States? And what would that take?

Smith: I think in the United States, it’s a question of scale, right? I mean, there are people in different parts of the United States who are building memorials and museums that are meant to directly account for this history. You know, I think about the Witness Stone Project in Connecticut, that was started by a group of middle-school and high-school educators who, along with their students—having been inspired by the Stolpersteine in Germany—would put down similar stones in places where enslaved people lived. And they’ve been doing that project for several years. It is happening.

And I think what is true is what I think is true in Germany: that the most meaningful monuments don’t necessarily have to be state sanctioned. I think so often, the most important memorials and museums and monuments are the ones that are created in local communities. And it is ordinary people who will be the ones to help this country see its history with clear eyes and honesty, even when this country tries to look the other way.

Dickerson: I mean will you continue to invoke Germany in your talks, and will you continue to think of it as a type of model for remembering the past?

Smith: I will continue to invoke Germany, though with a level of nuance and an additional acknowledgment of its complexity than perhaps I did before. And my hope is to continue thinking about this question. I’ve kind of become obsessed with how people remember the past.

Dickerson: I even wonder if this nuance makes it feel more accessible to Americans. You know, it’s not the case that all of German society rallied around these memorials, that everybody agreed that it was the right way to go. There’s something that makes it feel more accessible as a source of inspiration, knowing that it was fraught work. It still is today. And yet, you know, it’s been done again and again.

Smith: Yeah, it makes it feel less distant; it makes it feel less unachievable. You know, we’re in a moment right now where reckoning looks different than it has at any other point in my lifetime. Which isn’t to say it has been linear or perfect, or without backlash. But even amid the backlash, I think [it] still reflects an opportunity and a moment that is ripe for these sorts of memorials and monuments to come about.

Dickerson: Thanks so much, Clint. I really appreciate this conversation.

Smith: Thank you so much. I appreciate you having it with me.

This episode of Radio Atlantic was produced by A.C. Valdez and Theo Balcomb, with editing from Claudine Ebeid. Thanks to producer Ethan Brooks and our engineer, Rob Smierciak. I’m Caitlin Dickerson.

Read the whole story
11 hours ago
America City, America
Share this story

What We Can Learn from a Life Well Lived

1 Comment

As I explored the power of real, all-in hope to create change, I discovered the role it had played in my own life. I talk about this in my book Hope Realized as well as encourage people to “mine” their story for the ways in which hope has played a role in my free guide 5 Foundational Steps to Make a True Difference in Someone’s Life. Oftentimes, for good or for bad, it comes back to a person. One of those people in my life was Jim Belt, or as I called him, Granddad. As I write this, my family is preparing to celebrate the very full 98 years of life he lived following his passing earlier this week. This has reminded me of the hope he has brought into my life and what we can learn from as we seek to live meaningful lives.

Granddad was larger than life in many ways. He lived a full life–maybe enough for 3 or 4 lives by any normal measure. He was a Marine, an All-American soccer player among other sports accomplishments, a beloved physical education teacher, a Mr. Softy ice cream truck operator, an advocate for the mentally disabled including his own son Bobby, a painter, a pool manager, and so much more. More importantly, he was father, husband, friend, grandfather, and great grandfather to people who loved him dearly, even if he drove them crazy sometimes. Reflecting on the many roles he has played and the many stories I have been told, one common theme sticks out to me: he saw the God-given potential in people, even when they didn’t see it in themselves. To say it another way, he brought hope to many people, including me.

I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with Granddad when I was a kid. We did a lot things together, but more often than not it revolved around sports. As an athlete and former physical education teacher, he saw the value in athletics and wanted to pass that along to me, his grandson. We played many sports together from soccer to baseball to golf to tennis to basketball, just to name a few. Always the competitor and teacher, he would push me to give it my all and refused to just let me win. In fact, he told me many times that I would finally be able to beat him in basketball when he was 90. I never did beat him, and he was smart enough to stop playing me before he was 90. In the end, his goal was always the same: to help me be the best that I could be.

When I was an awkward middle school kid, I was lacking in self-confidence. Despite my lack of self-confidence, my grandfather believed in me. In almost every sport I played, Granddad told me, “if you keep at it, you could be a pro one day.” Looking back now, I am not sure I would have had the same opinion of my athletic potential, but my grandfather was unwilling to give up on me. He had hope for my life and my God-given potential. I never did become a professional athlete, but the words of hope my grandfather spoke into my life helped to shape the person I am today. I see my life through the lens of hope in part because of Granddad and others who believed in me and decided I was worth their investment. I am incredibly thankful for the hope Granddad helped to foster in me, and I know many others would say the same.

What can we learn from the life of Jim Belt and the role in played in my life and the lives of so many others? Many things, but one sticks out to me more than the others: we have an incredible opportunity to make an impact by bringing hope to others. In a world that struggles with hopelessness, we can be beacons of hope, seeing the God-given potential of the people in our lives. I am a testimony of the power this can have in the life of another person. In fact, it has helped to shape the way I see others and my passion for helping people reach their God-given potential.

Maybe you find yourself reading this and thinking, “sounds great, James, but I could use some hope myself.” Well, the great news is, I have found that bringing hope to others produces more hope in me. Our willingness to believe in the God-given potential of another helps us to rediscover the God-given potential that lives inside of us. I never asked my grandfather, but I would imagine he would have said the same.

Jim Belt, my Granddad, lived a full life that was meaningful not just because of what he did but also because of the hope he inspired in so many others. I can’t think of a better legacy. This same opportunity exists for each of us. We can be beacons of hope and in-turn become more hope-filled ourselves.

Want to find more hope and meaning? Take a page out of Jim Belt’s book and start bringing hope to others.

James Belt

If you would like pick up Hope Realized or the free guide mentioned above, click here for more information.

The post What We Can Learn from a Life Well Lived first appeared on James H. Belt.

Read the whole story
16 hours ago
America City, America
Share this story

The Washington, D.C., Drawings of Dhiru Thadani

1 Share

Every city needs someone to observe it, sketch it, master its history, and insist that its strengths be defended and reinforced. Sometimes the person who plays this role comes from the other side of the globe. That’s the case for Washington, D.C., with Dhiru A. Thadani (DEE-roo tuh-DAW-nee), who moved 8,000 miles in 1972 from his home in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, to begin studying architecture at Catholic University of America, about 3.5 miles northeast of the White House. He was 17. 

Already an apt pupil, Thadani had skipped a couple of grades in the British-founded school he attended in Bombay, graduating at 15. Briefly he attended a college there as well, intending to major in nuclear physics and chemical engineering, but soon dropped out. Fortuitously, he had been introduced, at the age of 5, to the art of drawing. A teenaged boy whom Thadani saw sketching scenes in Bombay’s lively streets—later a well-known local artist—handed him a piece of paper and a pencil and said, “Don’t let the blank paper intimidate you. Anyone can draw if it is their heart’s desire.” 

Thus Thadani began drawing, later adding oil painting to his repertoire. At 16, his paintings were put on exhibition. An American employee at Bombay’s U.S. Information Center saw them and suggested that Thadani travel to the states and study something that “combined my passion for art and aptitude for science—hence architecture.”

Union Station


“It was not love at first sight,” Thadani says of his introduction to the District of Columbia. “The city was in a recession and still depressed by the riots of 1968. It was a far cry from the boisterous urbanism of Bombay. The city felt both empty and unsafe. Public transportation was unreliable, there was no Metrorail, and students were warned not to walk alone off-campus. In Bombay, by age 10, I could go almost anywhere in the city by myself. By comparison, Washington seemed bleak.” 

Catholic University was rewarding, however, and when Thadani progressed to the university’s graduate school in architecture, the American bicentennial celebration pointed him toward a decades-long source of interest, bordering on obsession. “I did a research project on Washington and got a researcher pass to the National Archives,” Thadani says. “I was fascinated by L’Enfant’s visionary plan of the District of Columbia and the various later iterations.” With that, he was on his way to becoming an indefatigable documenter of the city’s design and planning. 

Library of Congress


At 67, Thadani continues to draw buildings, streets, landscapes, and droll cartoons—whether in D.C., which has been his home for 51 years, or on any of the five continents where the world-traveling architect has found work designing, planning, lecturing, and consulting. He is an avid mapper of cities and towns. 

During the second year of the pandemic, Thadani, says,  “I began making drawings to capture some of my favorite places and moments in the hometown of my adulthood.” Twenty-six of those pen and ink drawings have now been published with a succinct text in Washington Drawings: Abe to Zoo, showcasing one drawing for each letter of the alphabet. 

I first got to know Thadani in 2001 when he and I were in the initial group of the University of Miami’s Knight Fellows in Community Building. Dhiru was the standout in that program. Since then, I’ve watched—sometimes close up, more often from a distance—as he devoted himself to numerous projects. Among them: adding to the architectural and cultural attractions of the Seaside, Florida, town center; orchestrating books on Leon Krier, town-making, and urban design; reviving the Beall’s Hill neighborhood in Macon, Georgia, while retaining longtime residents; and trying to persuade officials in China to make their massive urban expansions more human-scale. (He produced some of the maps and drawings in my 2017 book, Within Walking Distance.)

Underlying Thadani’s far-ranging pursuits has been his years of involvement in the District of Columbia. Poorly conceived developments get him riled up. One distressing project in the 1980s was the World Technology Trade Center, which a developer wanted to erect in the form of twin buildings on both sides of 8th Street NW, connected by a bridge over the street. Thadani, conscious of the District’s urbanistic aims all the way back to Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s plan in the 1790s, was appalled by what was being proposed. 

The project, also known as Techworld, would encroach on the public right-of-way, impede vehicular traffic, and narrow 8th Street’s visual corridor from 100 feet to 60 feet. The three-story bridge would further intrude on the L’Enfant plan. There were protests from knowledgeable people, but the development team, claiming that the project would create a public space equivalent to that of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, prevailed. “The result,” Thadani declares, “was a dismal urban design failure.” 

United States Botonical Garden


From that experience, Thadani concluded that there was a need for an accurate plan, one showing the locations and shapes of all the buildings in the District’s core. That presumably would foster sounder decision making. “I naively decided to make such a plan,” he says. His goal was production of a Washington map modeled after Giambattista Nolli’s celebrated 1748 figure-ground map of Rome. It would delineate all the buildings and public spaces in Washington’s 7.5-square-mile “Monumental Core.” 

Work on it got under way in 1983. On Saturdays, people enthusiastic about his endeavor would donate their labor. “I would prepare a base block plan,” Thadani says, “and volunteers would walk the block and draw in the building footprint.” With black ink Rapidograph pens, he put the results on Mylar, and made the map complete to 1991, the bicentennial of the L’Enfant plan. 


Four years later he had his office in India scan and redraw the plan, converting it into computer-aided drawings. This made it easier to copy and distribute the plan. The CAD files were donated to the AIA’s DC chapter and offered for purchase. Sales revenue helped support architectural education in the District’s public schools. From start to finish, the project took 13 years. Thadani estimates that throughout his professional career, he has dedicated one-quarter of his personal time to service and advancement of the discourse on architecture and  urbanism.

His latest creation, Washington Drawings, is a crisp white hardcover, 8 inches square. By Thadani’s standards, it’s amazingly petite—just 64 black-and-white pages. By contrast, his 2010 book, The Language of Towns & Cities: A Visual Dictionary, contains 804 oversized pages. The heart of the new book is 26 two-page spreads, each consisting of a full-page drawing of a local scene and a few paragraphs of description. “I” is “Ice Skating Rink,” a depiction of what Thadani says is “one of Washington’s most beloved winter traditions”: skaters gliding across the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden ice rink. 

The rink’s location, on 8th Street NW, provides Thadani the opportunity to point out significant buildings in the corridor, including a former Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum, the National Archives, and the Hirshhorn Museum. He mentions the National Church that L’Enfant intended to place on the 8th Street axis; it was not built, but a century later Congress authorized the National Cathedral on Mount Saint Alban, visible in the city’s skyline. From the ice rink, it’s a short route to deploring the anti-urban intrusion of Techworld. Concisely, Thadani presents achievements of thoughtful urban design and the threat posed by ill-thought-out development.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial


“U” is represented by Washington’s magnificent Union Station, the Beaux-Arts rail hub that sprang from City Beautiful planning at the start of the 20th century. Designers and artists such as Daniel Burnham, Charles McKim, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., and Augustus Saint-Gaudens were invited to help fashion a built environment befitting a world capital. Burnham’s contribution was Union Station, where a vaulted 96-foot-high coffered ceiling and natural light from large Diocletian windows dazzle visitors. Completed in 1908 and now an important link in the Metrorail system, Union Station is experienced by 40 million visitors a year.

The subjects depicted in Washington Drawings range from the renowned, such as the Lincoln Memorial, to the surprising, such as the former presidential yacht (the USS Sequoia), docked in the Washington Navy Yard, to a striking visage of the African American advocate Frederick Douglass, who lived in Washington’s southeast quadrant from 1872 to his death in 1895. Thadani’s admiration of the District’s architecture and urban settings is married to a concern about everyday life and the city’s racial history. 

Even the boundaries of the District reflect a struggle over race. The District was planned as a rotated square, 10 miles on each side, on land ceded by Maryland and Virginia. Yet in 1847, under pressure from slave traders and slave owners, Virginia took back its portion when slavery was prohibited within the District’s borders. The District shrank from 100 square miles to a little over 68 square miles. 

Harsh racial undercurrents persisted into the 20th century. At the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in May 1922, Thadani notes, seating was segregated by race. The only African American speaker in the ceremony—Robert Moton, Booker T. Washington’s successor as principal of the Tuskegee Institute—was not permitted to sit on the platform with the white speakers. By intent, speeches at the memorial’s dedication did not address Jim Crow laws and the unfairness that black Americans faced at that time.

Frederick Douglass


It’s fitting, then, that Thadani includes in Washington Drawings not only a drawing of Douglass but also of the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in West Potomac Park and the Malcolm X Park in Northwest Washington as well as a tribute to the African Americans (both enslaved and free) who made it possible for antebellum Georgetown to function. Because of its Black heritage, Thadani notes, Georgetown has had dedicated Black congregations right up to the present.

At its most basic level, Thadani’s book is a testimonial to the influence of L’Enfant, the French-born military engineer who envisioned the federal city in grand terms—as George Washington repeatedly urged—rather than accepting the more modest dimensions favored by Thomas Jefferson. “In the spirit of democracy, [L’Enfant] allocated a generous proportion of land to public spaces for all citizens to enjoy,” Thadani points out. Sixty-eight percent of the land in the District’s center was apportioned to avenues, streets, squares, circles, and public reservations. In Thadani’s view, L’Enfant had the foresight to uphold “the importance of the public realm.”

A self portrait of the artist and architect


Thadani’s text is too brief to present every major element of the capital city’s development. Those who want a fuller picture should also read Andro Linklater’s The Fabric of America, a penetrating 2008 book about the expansion of the nation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Linklater gives much of the credit for the federal city’s layout to Andrew Ellicott, the brilliant surveyor and astronomer who completed L’Enfant’s plan after the difficult Frenchman was dismissed by President Washington. 

Linklater says L’Enfant’s “volubility, energy, and addiction to high drama enchanted and exasperated everyone he encountered.” Ellicott, a key figure in the early republic, brought L’Enfant’s unfinished project to its culmination. The overall story is both complicated and fascinating. Washington Drawings should motivate people to learn more about this important episode in the American experience. ##

Washington Drawings is published by Thadani Architects + Urbanists. The book and framed prints of its drawings can be obtained here.


Read the whole story
1 day ago
America City, America
Share this story

I’m not as upset as some by inaccuracies in entertainment based on historical events, but in real life Queen Charlotte wasn’t Black, right?

1 Comment

There is a theory out there about Charlotte having African ancestry and/or “African features,” but it’s mostly held by this one particular guy who’s a historian of the African diaspora, it’s not widely accepted, and even then de Valdes’ argument is that Charlotte’s African heritage came from a Portuguese royal marriage some 300 years previously - whether a 21st century observer would consider her black is pretty unlikely and really depends on how much credence you’re willing to put into a few hostile observers’ comments that were (in my opinion) just using racist sterotypes to insult Queen Charlotte rather than accurately describing what she looked like.

If you’re asking about Bridgerton and it’s spinoff, I think this is a case where the showrunners know that they’re building off this theory to create essentially an alternate history where Queen Charlotte and a number of other aristocrats are black, and those characters frequently discuss what it means to be black and trying to rise in British society, and so on.

This creative decision raises some tricky questions. On the one hand, there are real issues when it comes to representation on TV and ensuring that BAME actors in the UK have equal opportunity in their careers given the prominence of period pieces in British film and television. And ultimately, color-blind casting is completely harmless - the 2021 Green Knight movie was some of the best Arthuriana ever made, and no one cared or should care that Dev Patel isn’t a white Welsh guy.

On the other hand, as various black critics and commentators have noted, Bridgerton et al. isn’t a case of color-blind casting, but rather of color-conscious casting, where the actors’ race is a significant element of the plot. And this raises some potentially troubling issues about whether making a TV show about elite black aspiration and upward mobility in 18th century Britain can be squared with Britain’s history of slavery and the slave trade and the very real discrimination faced by black Britons in this period. For example, the real Queen Charlotte notably ignored abolitionist petitions directed at her, and was pretty harshly (and ironically, through some rather racist political cartoons) criticized for not partaking in the anti-slavery boycott of sugar. There was even a slave ship called the Queen Charlotte. Is this history sympatico with a portrayal of Charlotte as a racial trailblazer in British society?

How one weighs the relative importance of these issues to TV shows that are ultimately adaptations of romance novels more focused on Regency handjobs than the nuances of 18th century social history is a question that’s ultimately above my pay grade, and I feel it’s more appropriate for me to listen to what said black critics have to say (incidentally, let me recommend the YouTuber Princess_Weeks, who has some very good video essays on the subject).

Read the whole story
1 day ago
The least realistic thing about Bridgerton isn't the skin color its the fact that everyone has all their teeth
America City, America
Share this story

What’s Our Problem? by Tim Urban

1 Comment

Amazon link

I was a fan of Tim Urban and his page Wait But Why, and have been supporting him for years on Patreon. So I was excited to read his new book, subtitled “a self-help book for societies”, which finally came out after years of waiting. Alas, I was very disappointed with it.

My biggest frustration with the book is how he doesn’t live up to his own ideals. He spends the first part of the book describing how we as humans become smarter together by testing each other’s ideas in “Idea Labs” and learning from each other by really understanding different viewpoints. It’s the ideal of how science is supposed to work, as opposed to what he calls “Echo Chambers” where you only listen to ideas that support the beliefs you already have.

Alas, he falls into his own “Echo Chamber” in that his commitment to science and truth leads him to primarily listen to university academics, who have a biased viewpoint. In particular, he uses Jonathan Haidt as one of his main sources, and I have previously written about my issues with Haidt’s biased take on the Coddling of the American Mind. Haidt’s complaints seem like evidence to me of his own coddling, where he’s been treated as special and an expert his whole life, and doesn’t like his perspective being dismissed as irrelevant or out-of-touch.

And rather than engage thoughtfully with the complex problems around historic inequities that activists have brought to light, he doesn’t even mention them, instead focusing on the issues with cancel culture and its occasionally chilling impact on what people say in public. He clearly hasn’t done the work to understand their viewpoint (he only cites Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo as his sources as well as the Black Lives Matter website), instead setting up a straw man version of their perspective, and arguing with that.

I think the part where I lost it is when he centered the professor experience by lamenting that “dozens of scholars from around the U.S. have had their careers tarred or totally derailed” for questioning the social justice narrative. He doesn’t mention the millions of people who are in jail due to the War on Drugs that disproportionately targeted people of color, preventing them from voting and making it nigh impossible for them to get jobs. He doesn’t mention the millions of women who regularly lose their jobs for not deferring to their white male bosses. He doesn’t mention that just looking different than the standard Stanford graduate can mean not even getting a chance to interview. But professors losing their prestige?! Unacceptable!

While I agree that social justice activists can occasionally go too far and stray into fundamentalism, there are real problems with our society that are a result of never addressing these historical injustices. Urban tries to argue against the so-called gender gap by pointing out that people who do the same job with the same qualifications often get paid the same, but never questions why there’s a different distribution of jobs for women or people of color. He doesn’t acknowledge that after World War II, returning veterans used the GI Bill to go to college, but somehow Black veterans did not receive those benefits. Those newly college educated men used their salaries to secure mortgages to buy houses to increase the wealth in their families; Black families were blocked from receiving mortgages and buying houses. So, yes, two generations later, a child of a college-educated and wealthy family gets better jobs and paid more than somebody who isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair or just; people from certain populations aren’t just underrepresented, but were historically excluded from opportunities.

The part that’s so frustrating for me is that I was making similar arguments several years ago. I had no visceral understanding of these issues, so I took a distanced theoretical perspective, as Urban does. I did not engage with real people’s experiences that weren’t like mine, because I never had to, growing up in a sheltered suburb (as Urban did), going to Boston for college (as Urban did), and moving to Silicon Valley (Urban moved to New York).

But as the Black Lives Matter movement grew, I started reading. I read Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele to learn about stereotype threat. I read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander to understand the prison pipeline. After George Floyd, I committed to educating myself more on these issues and read several more books (and parts of several others like Isabelle Wilkerson’s Caste and Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands). More importantly, I offered my coaching services for free to Black professionals, and connected with several people who I mentor to this day. By hearing their stories and their frustrations, I have a much more visceral sense of what they face on a day to day basis that doesn’t get captured in statistics or academic studies.

The same applies to what women face in the tech industry. At one point last year, half of my women clients were facing a toxic situation of some sort at work where their boss was questioning their competence, giving their work to a more junior male colleague, or outright gaslighting them; for comparison, this has happened to less than 5% of my male clients. I know one woman of color at Google who was a finalist for nine jobs, and got none of them, and because they were internal jobs, she could see that a white man got the job each time; once or twice could be bad luck, but nine times feels like something more than that. These stories changed my perspective and led to me questioning the capitalist and colonialist narratives that are the inescapable foundation of American culture.

Urban had more resources than I did to do this sort of self-education and network building. He was writing this book full-time for six years, while I was building a coaching business and raising two kids. And for him to not do that work, and to not acknowledge the real problems that the social justice activists are engaging with, is disappointing and borderline irresponsible for somebody who wanted to address what’s wrong with our culture. He complains that the “silence is violence” and “inaction is racism” mottos are unfair, because he feels he shouldn’t be judged as a racist for staying neutral, but as Howard Zinn’s autobiography is titled, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

And that’s the crux of it – this is a several hundred page defense of why Urban (and his professor friends) aren’t racist. He builds the whole book towards claiming that “wokeness” and “cancel culture” are the biggest threats our society is facing. But I feel they are the biggest threats to his own sense of himself as a good person, because in his mind, good people aren’t racists (actual quote: “Growing up in a progressive suburb, I would have rather been labeled almost anything other than “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic”. In a progressive environment, these terms described the worst possible kind of person.”). Rather than engaging with the structural arguments being made by the social justice movement, he withdraws to “Science is good!” and “Free speech!” (which somehow only white people complain about, because people of color have always had their speech and actions limited in this country as Ta-Nehisi Coates memorably describes).

And despite Urban’s alleged commitment to “Idea Labs” where ideas are stronger when they’re questioned and tested, he has created a self-sealing Echo Chamber where he can dismiss any naysayers as “Low Rung” (less evolved) thinkers. He will only accept peer-reviewed papers as evidence, not people’s lived experiences, and if you get angry about that, it disqualifies you from having an opinion because then you’re an emotional person not a logical thinker, which neatly removes the need for him to engage with anybody disagreeing with him.

There’s an interesting discussion to be had on how to productively address the historical inequities identified by the social justice movement, because I do think that cancel culture can occasionally go too far, and that social justice activists have adopted a “purity” culture where anybody that has ever made an inappropriate comment or action in their life is branded as a bad person, with no chance to recover and learn. But this book is not that discussion, and I wish that somebody with Urban’s platform of millions of readers would have done better.

Read the whole story
2 days ago
All this. After reading the WBW post announcing it I was super disappointed in the substance of the book. I kept flipping back and skipping forward to see if I was missing some crucial detail.
America City, America
Share this story
Next Page of Stories