A Walk Around the Block: Stoplight Secrets, Mischievous Squirrels, Manhole Mysteries & Other Stuff You See Every Day (And Know Nothing About)
© 2020 Spike Carlsen
One of my favorite books to think back on is Scott Huler’s On the Grid, one man’s attempt to understand the various systems (electrical, plumbing, internet, sanitation, etc) that sustained everyday life in his neighborhood. Spike Carlsen’s A Walk Around the Block does much of the same thing, but it goes broader and breezier. Carlsen doesn’t do as much in-depth digging as Huler, but he’s also looking up more, and in addition to more casual chapters on the water system, asphalt, etc, he also writes about squirrels, pigeons, and trees, the other residents of our neighborhoods. Drawing on both interviews with his local technicians and background reading, A Walk Around the Block covers some familiar ground for me but is no less diverting for it.
A Walk around the Block is fun reading, and I don’t mean just infrastructure wonks like myself who read books on plumbing, electricity, and garbage disposal for entertainment. Think of it as more a social history, an exploration and celebration of the everyday, mixed in gushing advice on how to recycle more effectively or create an insect-friendly lawn. Despite my own reading in the general subject, I still learned a thing or two here; I didn’t realize how self-defeating a lot of recycling practices are, for instance. Lithium-iron batteries are constant fire hazards, and plastic bags used to group recyclables gum up the works something fierce. (Carlsen often ventures into advocacy: one chapter largely consists of appreciating bike infrastructure.) The chapters on squirrels and pigeons were an amusing novelty in an ‘infrastructure’ book, but they were fun to take on, and I was grateful for the author’s appreciation for trees not just as beautiful objects to admire, but as useful urban elements — in giving shade to pedestrians, in shielding the sidewalk from automobile traffic, etc. Carlsen truly gets into the weeds of neighborhood composition, writing about the history of asphalt, the prior and potential use of alleys, and the fate of roadkill. (In south Alabama, they apparently feed it to a gator conservancy. Who knew?)
It appears Carlsen has done book on wood, so I expect to see his name again, and am glad to have spotted this little title on the shelf. I love a title that makes the everyday come alive.
On the Grid: A Plot of Land, and Average Neighborhood, and the Systems that Make Our World Work, Scott Huler
The Works: Anatomy of a City, Kate Ascher