The Works: Anatomy of a City

anatomy coverI am in LOVE with a book.

I am in LOVE with a non-fiction book full of infographics and data.

And my students are in LOVE with it, too.

Miraculous, yes?

The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher is a book we have had on our kids’ bookshelf forever. Adam would occasionally pull it out and read it to them when theyexpressed even a smidge of interest about the subway, where water comes from, or how our toilet works. Even though it was a book he had studied during his architecture degree at Virginia Tech, the book is full of diagrams, infographics, and tables and charts that make it visually accessible, even to little kids. This book, chapter by chapter, breaks down the infrastructure of New York City. It is divided into sections of what the author calls the “most interesting but least visible” components of New York City’s infrastructure: Moving People, Moving Freight, Power, Communications, Keeping it Clean, and The Future. Within these sections are multiple chapters that highlight the most important component parts. For example, under the chapter Keeping it Clean the three component parts are Water, Sewage, and Garbage. Although the book focuses on New York City, much of it’s information is meant to be read as applicable to major metropolitan cities around the globe.

This semester in our freshman seminar course entitled City Seminar they are studying Consumption, Waste, and Recycling. The clever title some of my colleagues came up with while writing this curriculum last year was “From Transaction to Trash.” Love that. The first six-weeks of the semester we studied what it means to be a consumer, what kinds of consumers we are, and our consumption habits. The six weeks at present we are studying what happens to our “stuff” after we are done with it. Therefore, my students read Sewage and Garbage (34 pages of text) to explore what happens to our organic and inorganic waste in New York City.

The book, The Works: Anatomy of a City by Kate Ascher, is pure gold for many reasons. Let me list the top five:

1.  It  is a non-fiction text, therefore it’s golden for the implementation of the Common Core Standards for College Readiness.

2.  It is broken neatly into chapters and the chapters are broken neatly into sections. While this might sound elementary, it’s been a great model text to explain to students how to break down larger papers into smaller, more manageable sections when writing. It is also already broken down for you to divide the class up to work with parts of the text in small groups. Gold.

3. The infographics! The data! The charts! As a visual learner, I am in heaven in this book. Keep in mind, my engineering brain is probably equivalent to that of a rat’s. I was actually told via an aptitude test in 10th grade NEVER to become an engineer and to stick with journalism, teaching, or being an artist. As you can tell, either I listened, they were right, or both. But I GET THIS BOOK! I can understand complex concepts about sewage and landfills because there are awesome illustrations with clearly written captions that explain multiple parts. I have found myself telling folks about Combined Sewer Overflow. No joke. Solid gold for a visual learner, an emerging reader, or a slow-to-compute-when-thinking-of-abstract-engineering-concepts brain like mine.

4.  Each component section provides a small amount of text (maybe 4-6 paragraphs?) which is great for students to practice finding the main idea. Again. And again. And again. Gold for a basic reading skill applied to a more complex text so the students don’t feel insulted when I ask them to do it. It’s also been great to practice annotating.

5. Relevance: As New Yorkers, could there be a more relevant book? We coincidentally started reading Sewage right after Hurricane Sandy, and page after page related to issues that emerged in the wake of the storm. We learned that NYC has a combined sewer system, meaning that the storm water and the wastewater all travel the same system to sewage treatment plants. Did you know this overflows 50% of the time it rains? And with a hurricane…as we would say in Brooklyn, fuggedaboudit. Total sewage treatment mayhem. Poop going untreated into all our waterways. Here is a good homemade video of this happening right near my house in the Gowanus Canal here   after the tornado of Fall 2010. I showed this in class and my students were gagging when watching it. EVERYTHING we learned related to us. Golden!

I cannot recommend this book enough. Buy it for your friends, your kids, for any New Yorker or New York lover, and/or for your classroom.

Additional curriculum resources:

We also read the Issac Asimov short story “Strikebreaker” from his collection Nightfall and Other Stories when we studied sewage.

“The Story of Stuff” is a great short film and website for resources on our consumption practices and the afterlife of the objects we consume.

The essay “On Dumpster Diving” by Lars Eighner was great to discuss the relativity of the term “trash.”

Steven Mallon’s photo series, “Next Stop Atlantic,” of old subway cars being tossed into the ocean to become reefs is stunning.