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The Works: Anatomy of a City

Imagedbcgi_6 On the suburban boulevard where I grew up, a greenbelt with a creek a drainage ditch surrounded by grass ran the length of the street, and my friends and I spent hours there fishing for tadpoles, swimming in the ditch when it rained, and lounging in the huge under-the-street pipes during dry spells. A lot of drama happened at the ditch.  I remember a group of us getting scolded every whichaway by Sugar, an adult neighbor who had stalked over in high heels and a slip. Most likely the scolding concerned an infraction by someone's dog; this neighbor had a lovely yard and a dislike for pets, none of whom had never seen a leash in its life. Still, it was hard to listen, given Sugar's attire.

My seven-year-old is very interested in pipes, drains, grates, tunnels, and the like; one of his ambitions is to see the Hoover Dam. Last night we watched a TV show about the history of plumbing.  Needless to say, Junior would have loved a drainage ditch in front of the house. Meanwhile, for both of us, I bought the coffee-table book The Works: Anatomy of a City, by Kate Ascher, after seeing Jody Rosen's mention of it on Slate. The inside flap reads,

All cities, big and small, rely on a vast array of interconnected systems to take care of their citizens' most basic needs: keeping water bubbling through the pipes, traffic moving on the streets, power flowing to businesses and home. Largely invisible and almost always taken for granted, these are the basic building blocks of urban life.

Using short text and awesome graphics, Ascher's book examines the infrastructure of New York City, but, of course, you can apply what you learn to other cities and towns, too. Although The Works is written for adults, interested children will enjoy reading it with grown-ups and perusing it on their own, provided somebody is nearby to help with the vocabulary. It's no substitute for plunging into a fast-running creek during a rainstorm, but I think even Sugar would approve of sitting down with a good book—just not in her yard, please.


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Has Junior seen David Macaulay's "Underground"? And his "City", about an ancient Roman one, is fun too, especially for comparing new and old systems, and seeing how forward-thinking those old Romans were!

That's so funny you mention those videos! I was going to check out one or two at the library today. "Underground" will be first (if the libe has it)--I didn't know about that one. Thank you so much.

This is great! I've been looking for ways to introduce my kids to NYC -- my home town.

We love the city, too, and try to visit often. (I lived there for many years as well.) Lots of good information in the book--power, communications, moving freight--for young civil engineers and their parents and friends! Want to know about air cargo in NYC? It's in the book.

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