In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, as Clarissa Dalloway runs errands throughout London, the narration takes note of the sensory feast that she encounters: “the swing, tramp, and trudge” of urban life; “the bellow and the uproar” of music, yelling, cars, buses, and an airplane overhead. Clarissa famously revels in “life; London; this moment of June.” In the novel, “the city is full of people moving as an ecstatically amoebic organism,” Megan Garber writes, and this phenomenon is heightened by the warm day, which brings people from different classes and professions out into the street.
Summer exposes the best and the worst parts of living in a city—everything is bustling, parks are packed, nightlife sparkles, and people feel unencumbered. But the heat can make overcrowding oppressive, and warm-weather leisure also highlights the many inequalities of American urban life. The summer of 2020, when the coronavirus pushed activities outdoors and into public space even more than usual, made especially clear how “divides of class, ethnicity, and place” shape our cities, Spencer Kornhaber writes.
That makes the season the perfect time to pick up one of the recent books that have investigated some of the other forces that affect metropolitan life. In The Streets Belong to Us, the historian Anne Gray Fischer explains that the broad power that police have when it comes to misdemeanor offenses is rooted in the “sexual policing” of Black women. Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good offers a counterintuitive history of the freedoms the bicycle has brought to cities across continents and centuries. And the hot months reinforce how in the public sphere, bodies and desirability can be currency. “To be sexually available is to be receptive to strangers, the ways they both shock and help us; the same is true for living, fully, in a city,” Zoë Hu writes about Corinne Hoex’s Gentlemen Callers. Summer in America’s concrete jungles is a season for sweating in crowds, standing shoulder to shoulder with your neighbors, and jostling against the invisible pressures that move you all along.
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What We’re Reading
Adam Maida / The Atlantic
The great novel of the internet was published in 1925
“Mrs. Dalloway’s plot is deceptively simple. Over the course of a single day in June, Clarissa Dalloway—middle-aged, posh, the wife of a Conservative member of Parliament—runs errands around London to prepare for the party she will be hosting that evening. The day is sparkling, banal, momentous.”
Bryan R. Smith / AFP / Getty
The inequality of summer leisure
“To a greater extent than ever, city summer entertainment involves local public and semipublic spaces: sidewalks, stoops, parks, and, in the case of fireworks, the shared sky. The summer of social distancing will also be one of social closeness between neighbors, illuminating divides of class, ethnicity, and place—as leisure has always done.”
The Atlantic; FPG Archive Photos / Bettmann / Raimonda Kulikauskiene / Getty
The ideology of the bicycle
“Anyone who cycles does so because that’s how you get where you’re going mostly on your own terms, something that no other form of transportation allows for in quite the same way. Bicycle history may be complicated, but the reason it’s such a long history is not. Everyone appreciates a hint of self-determination.”
Detroit, 1965 (Photograph by Russ Marshall)
The deep roots of sexual policing in America
“While movements like #SayHerName highlight police violence against Black women today, The Streets Belong to Us shows us its deep roots in our history, our laws, and our cities.”
Salvador Dali / Museo Nacional Reina Sofia / Alamy
The conundrum of sexual life in today’s America
“The narrator’s romantic explorations are inseparable from the public sphere; she undertakes her trysts while stopping by the tailor or the butcher’s shop, in a kind of circuit of sexual errand-running. The fact that her counterparts are identified by profession reiterates sex’s concealed presence amid everyday modern life; it is no surprise that Charles Baudelaire, eminent theorist of the flaneur, is quoted throughout the book.”