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Van Alen Book Club

Photo: Zachary Tyler Newton

Van Alen Book Club meets the last Tuesday of every month (except December) in our street-level space. Our discussions, moderated by some of our favorite urbanists, use the urban experience in fiction and non-fiction as a springboard to ask how we experience cities, and how we want to make them in the future. Meetings are open to all, and include pizza, wine, and beer.

Location: 30 West 22nd Street, New York, NY 10010

Time: 7pm – 9pm

Questions? Email Associate Director of Research Andrew Brown

What We're Reading Now
What We're Reading Next
What We've Read
October 29, 2019

This Archctober, we’ll dive in to Richard Sennet’s ambitious argument for an ‘open city,” In a sweeping romp through philosophies, jumping from the backstreets of Jakarta to the Google headquarters in Manhattan, Building and Dwelling proposes the existence of a dialectical tension between ville and cité. In this sweeping work, he traces the dialectical tension between the way cities are built, and how people live in them, from ancient Athens to twenty-first-century Shanghai.

September 24, 2019

All over the world, wildlife is learning and adapting to live in environments fundamentally designed by and for human beings. In Darwin Comes to Town, urban ecologist Menno Schilthuizen gives us a glimpse into the exciting evolutionary changes happening in our cities. Join us for this enlightening and entertaining look at how our streets, highways, subways, parks, and buildings both big and small impact the many species that call the city home, and consider how that transformation could lead to more livable urban habitats for humans and non-humans alike.

August 27, 2019

Food is a constant topic of conversation in our city. In Urban Appetites: Food and Culture in Nineteenth-Century New York, the late Cindy Lobel tells the story of New York through gastronomy, focusing on how its shifting food landscapes and patterns of settlement and growth mutually affected each other. From ubiquitous public markets at the beginning of the 1800’s to upper-class restaurants like Delmonico’s at the end, Lobel explores the politics of foodways by questioning who can eat what and where. Through Lobel’s enlightening take on authenticity, abundance, and access to food in 19th century New York, we find a helpful framework to think about the places we buy, share, cook, and eat food today.

July 30, 2019

Continuing Van Alen Book Club’s exploration of technology and cities, we turn to Seth Fried’s sci-fi novel, The Municipalists. Blending the genres of comedy and crime, Fried gives us an epic buddy-cop story featuring an unlikely pair: Henry Thompson, a by-the-books urban planner and bureaucrat for a powerful government agency, and his sidekick, OWEN, a supercomputer-generated AI assistant with a love for people watching and a serious drinking problem. Together, Henry and OWEN must head to Metropolis and solve a troubling series of crimes all of which are connected to the urban planning policies of their employer and the city’s officials. Join us as we use Fried’s novel to reflect on the role of technology in society, the need for greater inclusion, and smart ways to ensure that cities are fair, just, and equitable places in the future.

June 25, 2019 

Does making a city “smarter” automatically make it a better place for everyone? In The Smart Enough City: Putting Technology in Its Place to Reclaim Our Urban Future, author Ben Green suggests that our reliance on tech can actually cause injustice and inequality to spread in our cities. Join us in June as we discuss Green’s book and consider the “smart enough” applications of new technology that can make cities more just, democratic, responsible, innovative, and livable places.

May 28, 2019

This May we’re reading Amanda Kolson Hurley’s Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City. The City Lab Senior Editor’s new book challenges the stereotypical view of suburbia by examining the surprisingly radical history of certain suburbs, some of which began as socialist, utopian, and humane projects. Hurley highlights the significance of such a discussion stating, “At a time when—it could be reasonably argued—the future of the country hangs on what suburbs do over the next twenty or thirty years, they show that bold social and architectural experimentation is no alien to suburbia.”

April 30, 2019

This month Van Alen Book Club will journey into Open City, Teju Cole’s celebrated debut novel. We’ll join the many wanderings of Cole’s protagonist, Julius, a Nigerian immigrant completing the final year of his psychiatry fellowship at Columbia University. As Julius navigates New York’s grid, we will discuss the various people and adventures he encounters and reflect on the profound impression cities can make when we adopt the lens of a “strolling spectator.”

March 26, 2019

Though Amazon’s HQ2 has been cancelled, larger questions still remain about the role of for-profit industries, the tech sector, and private development in the city’s future. This month, join us to discuss Kim Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. Fein’s book examines the origins and impacts of the city’s near bankruptcy in 1975, and suggests how heavily the lessons and memories of that period influence today’s strategies for economic growth and recovery.

February 26, 2019

Join our discussion of Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg. Throughout the book, Klinenberg, a sociologist and urban studies scholar, argues that supporting places where diverse groups of people can convene, converse, and connect is vital to forming strong communities. We will discuss Klinenberg’s many case studies (from Brooklyn libraries to Icelandic swimming pools) and share the places where we feel most connected to our neighbors and fellow citizens.

We are pleased to have Karen Kubey moderate our discussion. An urbanist and architectural educator specializing in housing and health, she co-founded the Architecture for Humanity New York chapter (now Open Architecture – New York) and New Housing New York, and was the first executive director of the Institute for Public Architecture. Trained as an architect at the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University, Karen began her career in affordable housing design.

November 27, 2018

Join us as we discuss a novel named one of the best books of the year by NPR. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue tells the story of Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant who has come to New York to seek a better life, but sees his hopes frustrated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and financial crisis of 2007-2008. As Jende’s outlook shifts with his changing fortunes and hardships, the novel offers a window into the immigrant experience in America while also illuminating the things that make people truly happy.

October 30, 2018

In conjunction with Archtober, Van Alen Book Club will read Witold Rybczynski’s Makeshift Metropolis. Looking back on a long career of thinking and writing about cities, Rybczynski considers trends and visions throughout the history of American citymaking, and asks whether any of those past ideas are relevant to a nation as diverse and dispersed as the U.S. is today.

This book club meeting is part of the Van Alen 2018 fall festival, City-Making from the Outside In

September 25, 2018

In Flaneuse, author Lauren Elkin combines her own tales of experiencing cities on foot, with those of other women throughout history who’ve done the same. In this conversation, we’ll explore the concept of gender and freedom of movement in cities, and question how to create cities that are more accessible and equal.

August 28, 2018

How will humanity adapt to the threat of climate change, for better and for worse? Sam J. Miller’s  novel Blackfish City imagines a future settlement in the Arctic Ocean where residents are accustomed to both remarkable feats of technology and engineering, and routine acts of crime and corruption. Join us as we use this intriguing vision of political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, gender identity, the consequences of climate change, and the unifying power of human connection, to discuss our own hopes and concerns for the future of cities.

July 31, 2018

On Tuesday, July 31st we delved into Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis. In 2002, Richard Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class, urging city-makers to improve their neighborhoods by investing in amenities that would attract young “makers.”Creative Class quickly became a handbook for mayors, developers, and planners, giving rise to walkability ratings, cultural attractions, and increased bike lanes. Yet over the same years, rents and urban inequality have skyrocketed. Throughout the discussion, we tackled Florida’s latest revision to his theory, asking what went wrong, and what we can learn to make cities better in the future. Our moderators were Thomas Angotti, Professor Emeritus of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at City University of New York, and Henry Grabar, Staff Writer at Slate Magazine.

May 29, 2018

Van Alen Book Club had an enlightening conversation about Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America Called by William Julius Wilson “the most forceful argument ever published on how federal, state, and local governments gave rise to and reinforced neighborhood segregation,” Rothstein’s history battles decades of public perception and misinformation and the myth of “de facto” segregation. The discussion was in collaboration with BlackSpace, and moderated by Traci Sanders and Amina Hassen, both urban planners at WXY Studio.

April 24, 2018

Van Alen Book Club delved into Ben Lerner’s metafictional novel 10:04. We followed the life and trials of the book’s unnamed, 33-year-old narrator as he juggles love, art, illness, and the prospects of his future, with New York City as both protagonist and backdrop. We followed his urban interactions—whether chatting with his agent along the High Line, or digesting a heart-wrenching story from a stranger at the Park Slope Food Co-Op—and considered the context and pace of the city as a shelter for complex experiences, and meaningful connections. Author and poet Jay Deshpande moderated.

March 27, 2018

In March, Van Alen Book Club talked about the future of food—eating it, cooking it, distributing it, and growing it. Our guide was chef Dan Barber’s The Third Plate, a thoughtful book proposing that environment, ingredients, and the future of our planet be prioritized ahead of diners’ demand. Together, we followed Barber’s systemic, somewhat foreboding deep-dive into the complexities of our current culinary choices, and traced the changes in culture and industry that would make a transformation of our food supply chain possible in an ever-evolving climate.

Using Barber’s vibrant anecdotes across farms, landscapes,and seascapes as source material and inspiration, we asked: Where will future food grow? What changes to food production will ensure sustainable access for present and future generations? What alterations in city living and everyday decision-making would contribute to Barber’s third plate, and a healthier planet for our future.

February 27, 2018

Join Van Alen Book Club for a discussion of Lizzie Goodman’s Meet Me in the Bathroom: Rebirth and Rock and Roll in New York City 2001 – 2011. Meet Me in the Bathroom is an ambitious oral history of the NYC ‘00s music scene, which produced such acts as The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Vampire Weekend, and LCD Soundsystem. Goodman’s compilation of interviews weaves a portrait of not only a moment in musical history, but of a rapidly changing city, told in a way that only someone intimately involved in the scene, as Goodman was, could do. The conversation was moderated by Dan Ozzi, staff writer and editor at Noisey, and Jake Cohen, PhD Candidate in Musicology, CUNY Graduate Center.

January 30, 2018

On Tuesday, January 30th, we continued our dialogue on climate change with a discussion of The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodell. Travelling across the world to cities that are particularly at risk, Goodman speaks with figures from climate scientists, to engineers, to real estate developers, painting a vivid picture of the increasingly dire discussion on sea-level rise. The discussion was moderated by Thaddeus Powlowski, Managing Director at Center for Resilient Cities And Landscapes at Columbia GSAPP.

November 12, 2017

On Sunday, November 12, join Van Alen Book Club for a boozy brunch edition of our monthly discussions of books on the urban experience. As part of our fall festival, U Feel OK?: Health & NYC, we’re reading the turbulent chronicles of the oldest public hospital in the United States as told by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Oshinsky in Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital.

October 10, 2017

On Tuesday, October 10, join Van Alen Book Club for a discussion on why a wide audience—not only design specialists—should care about architecture, and how we all experience and actively shape environments with Welcome to Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives, critic Sarah Williams Goldhagen’s most recent publication.

August 15, 2017

On Tuesday, August 15, join Van Alen Book Club as we continue to explore the planet’s changing climate with a discussion of Rachel Carson’s landmark Silent Spring, which is widely credited for launching environmental movements worldwide.

July 11, 2017

On Tuesday, July 11, join Van Alan Book Club for a discussion of The Drowned World by J.G.Ballard. As our own society grapples with the reality of climate change, Ballard’s 1960s work of science fiction offers an ominous depiction of our not-too-distant future.

June 13, 2017

Join Van Alen Book Club this June as we travel to 1950s Paris via Patrick Modiano’s In the Café of Lost Youth. Centered on a fictitious subculture circle inspired by Guy Debord and his urbanist entourage, the Situationists, this suspenseful short novel maps its four narrators’ memories across the multilayered public spaces of mid-century Paris.


May 9, 2017

The Van Alen Book Club is hosting a discussion of Manhattan Transfer by The New Odyssey: The Story of the Twenty-First Century Refugee Crisis by Patrick Kingsley. The book takes readers through the cities and landscapes traversed by its lead character, a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Sweden, whose vivid story is told alongside those of traffickers, aid workers, and bureaucrats.

April 18, 2017

The Van Alen Book Club is hosting a discussion of The City & The City by China Miéville. Set between two fictional (and rival) cities that occupy overlapping territory, it follows a police inspector as he investigates the brutal murder of a foreign woman. His case leads him to the border between the two cities—a border as cultural and psychological as it is physical. In the guise of a detective novel, the book explores spatial identity, social surveillance, and the idea that people may be more rigorous and effective at policing their own behavior than any external force.

February 21, 2017

The Van Alen Book Club is hosting a discussion of How Did We Get Into This Mess?: Politics, Equality, Nature by Guardian columnist George Monbiot. Like our work on the impacts of climate change, this book draws connections between ecology, equity, and governance. We’ll explore Monbiot’s challenge to corporate control of the environment and his solutions for moving forward in a precarious age.

January 7, 2017

The Van Alen Book Club returned with a discussion of Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos. This 1925 novel portrays a montage of New York City lives through the lens of class mobility, labor, sexuality, and the immigrant experience—topics that are increasingly relevant in our current discussions on the state of urban life.

November 6, 2016

Lionized and loathed, Robert Moses’ complex legacy is one that we live with every day, and it retold as a graphic novel by Pierre Christin and Oliver Balez. We discussed how Moses’ decades-long mandate allowed him to negotiate all levels of local, state, and federal control to reshape New York City through parkways, public housing, and more. We explored questions including: How does the format of a graphic novel engage readers in this topic? What histories are revealed or concealed? In the comic book world of 20th-century New York, who are the real villains and heroes? Discussion was moderated by Brooklyn-based writer Allison C. Meier.

October 13, 2016

The Van Alen Book Club discussed Christodora by Tim Murphy. Set in an iconic building in the East Village—the Christodora—the book portrays a bohemian Manhattan of sex, drugs, art, and activism from the early 1980s to the near future. Moving kaleidoscopically through the life stories of his characters, Murphy uses addiction as a persistent and radically reshaping force in a search for a feeling of home. We explored how a group of neighborhood dwellers transformed queer culture, created their own community, and shaped their lives amid such forces as AIDS and climate change. Discussion was moderated by writer and organizer Theodore Kerr.

September 13, 2016
Following a summer break, Van Alen Book Club returned in September to discuss Ghetto: The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea by Mitchell Duneier. The book traces the idea of the ghetto from its beginnings in the sixteenth century and its revival by the Nazis to its current contested meaning for urban America. We explored how the history of a single word has enormous implications for how neighborhoods and cities are perceived, governed, and designed. Discussion was moderated by writer and editorial staffer at The New Yorker magazine E. Tammy Kim.
June 13, 2016

How might tech-driven disruption approach such human concerns as aging and death? In this open meeting of the Van Alen Book club, we discussed the latest novel by urbanist favorite Don DeLillo. Zero K portrays a secret compound start-up where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Discussion was moderated by author and critic Jimmy Stamp.

May 10, 2016

Van Alen Book Club discussed Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. Bringing together narrative storytelling with rigorous statistical analysis, the book illustrates the dynamics of displacement among eight families in Milwaukee. We discussed Desmond’s vivid and unsettling portraits of families forced from their homes and how the book’s haunting image of urban poverty reveals the urgent need for housing reform.

April 12, 2016

Van Alen Book Club discussed Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the CityA city that has long fascinated urbanists, tourists, and locals alike, these days, Istanbul is also in the news: It is at the center of the Syrian migration crisis and is being reshaped by Prime Minister Erdogan’s aggressive development policies. Pamuk’s portrait of the Turkish capital is a deeply personal one, and served as our guide to this extraordinary city.

March 8, 2016

Van Alen Book Club discussed Black Deutschland: A Novel by Darryl Pinckney. Our conversation focused on how the settings of 1980s West Berlin and Chicago impacted the protagonist’s identity, addiction, and architectural career. Discussion was moderated by writer and freelance journalist Dotun Akintoye and photo conceptual artist Rin Johnson.

February 9, 2016

As we continue to explore how the built environment affects us in mind and body, February’s Van Alen Book Club discussed Kevin Lynch’s 1960 classic The Image of the City. We had a great conversation about how Lynch’s ideas about mental mapping and the ways we perceive cities continue to resonate today. The conversation was led by architect and urban designer June Williamson.

January 12, 2016

We opened 2016 with a discussion of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. The book offers an intimate retelling of one of the greatest movements of population in U.S. history: From 1915 until the 1970s, six million African Americans relocated from rural Southern states to urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. The effects of that move are still with us today, and we’ll discuss the individual stories Wilkerson writes about and the lasting legacy of the Great Migration. The conversation was led by activist, entrepreneur, founder of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and NYU professor of public administration Jewell Jackson McCabe.

November 10th, 2015

Does life “on the edge” spur creativity and artistic production? National Book Award-winner Patti Smith narrates eighteen “stations” that have defined her life, from a ritual Greenwich Village café to Detroit’s punk rock venues, Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico City, a meeting of an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin, and finally, a New York neighborhood defined by disaster and demographic, economic, and social shifts: Far Rockaway, where Smith now calls home. The conversation was led by journalist, author, and cultural critic Kathy Iandoli.

October 13th, 2015

This October, we segued from our September discussion of the fires that devastated the Bronx in the 1970s – and the policies and people who allowed that devastation to happen – to a narrative by a native of the borough: Marshall Berman’s On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. In it, Berman presented a history of “the crossroads of the world” that was both affectionate and sharply observed; his perspective provided some welcome insight on the debate about desnudas, pedestrian plazas, and how we think about public space in the city. The conversation was led by author Joe Flood.

September 8th, 2015

The book brings together our recent discussions on utopian smart city schemes and the jarring terrain of a city on the brink of collapse. We discussed the story of how a deal between the city and RAND Corporation resulted in an unprecedented computer-modelled withdrawal of fire protection service from the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The flames that engulfed neighborhoods in the following years embodied the vexing relationship between discrimination, technology, and civil service—challenges that are more relevant than ever today.The conversation was be led by documentary filmmaker Gretchen Hildebran.

June 9th, 2015

“When Speedboat burst on the scene in the late ’70s it was like nothing readers had encountered before. It seemed to disregard the rules of the novel, but it wore its unconventionality with ease. Reading it was a pleasure of a new, unexpected kind. Above all, there was its voice, ambivalent, curious, wry, the voice of Jen Fain, a journalist negotiating the fraught landscape of contemporary urban America. Party guests, taxi drivers, brownstone dwellers, professors, journalists, presidents, and debutantes fill these dispatches from the world as Jen finds it.” The conversation was led by Garnette Cadogan and Mimi Zeiger.

May 12th, 2015

“24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep explores some of the ruinous consequences of the expanding non-stop processes of twenty-first-century capitalism. The marketplace now operates through every hour of the clock, pushing us into constant activity and eroding forms of community and political expression, damaging the fabric of everyday life. Jonathan Crary examines how this interminable non-time blurs any separation between an intensified, ubiquitous consumerism and emerging strategies of control and surveillance.” Sarah Leonard, the senior editor at the Nation magazine, and a contributing editor to Dissent and The New Inquiry led the discussion on 24/7.

April 14, 2015
For our April meeting, we tackled Anthony Townsend’s Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia. The statistician, computer scientist, and blogger Ben Wellington (I Quant NY) challenged us to think about the staggering amounts of data that we create every day, and what happens when new technologies bump into old urban infrastructure systems.