The Longreads Blog

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Image via YouTube
Image via YouTube

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

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The Slow Death of Restaurant Kitsch

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Tiffany-style lamps. Candy-striped uniforms and/or candy-striped tablecloths. And tchotchkes: tchotchkes as far as the eye can see. The 20th-century chain-restaurant aesthetic is immediately recognizable — but where did it come from? At Collectors Weekly, Lisa Hix digs into the history of restaurant kitsch right at the moment where its earliest proponent, T.G.I. Friday’s, is beginning to impose a minimalist, clutter-free look on its locations. Along the way, she unearths the surprising origins of Friday’s as a hip singles’ bar chain, closely aligned with ’70s sexual liberation movements and a new taste for cocktails:

The Commercial Appeal newspaper called it “a place with so much atmosphere you have to push it aside to get in.” Again, 20-somethings lined up for a table, and patrons mobbed the bar. This Friday’s became a hotspot for the Memphis counterculture, known for its boozy adventures, drug experimentation, and sexual subversion—including an underground queer scene. Bands played on a stage in back, while local rock stars like Big Star lingered at candy-striped tables under leaded-glass lamps.

“Friday’s was the first place in Memphis where you could actually go in and buy a mixed drink,” Rush Bowman, who took a job there as a bar-back before becoming a bartender, tells me over the phone from his home in the Dallas metro. “Before that, you’d had to take your own bottle to a bar, and the bar would hold on to it for you. They’d make your drinks with your own bottle and charge you a setup fee. Friday’s was first real bar in town, and the employees were young people with long hair, so they looked like the customers they were trying to attract.”

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Living With a World on Fire: A Reading List

Photo: U.S. Army/Flickr

Below is a guest reading list from Daniel A. Gross, a journalist and public radio producer who lives in Boston.

* * *

As a teenager growing up in Southern California, I remember looking up one day and seeing a fine white powder falling from the sky. It was the middle of summer, and for a moment I wondered, absurdly, if it was snowing. The flakes crumbled between my fingers and left streaks like flour on my clothes. They were ash.

Every summer, swaths of California burn. Grass, brush, trees and even houses go up in smoke. In the worst years, they drift back to earth in the form of a thin gray coating on windshields and awnings. On local TV, between late-night car chases and tanned weather reporters who know every synonym for sunny, I remember images of hillsides that glowed orange and black.

It’s fire season again. So far, nearly 30 major wildfires have torn through 12 states. As this year’s blazes seem to reach their yearly peak, here are four stories about risk and resilience in the face of fire. They’re a glimpse into the lives of those who fight fires, those who flee them, and those who rebuild, literally, from the ashes. Read more…

The Life and Murder of Stella Walsh, Intersex Olympic Champion

Stella Walsh, training in Cleveland, April 1, 1932 for the Olympic games. (AP Photo)
Stella Walsh, training in Cleveland, April 1, 1932 for the Olympic games. (AP Photo)

Rob Tannenbaum | Longreads | August 2016 | 63 minutes (15,868 words)

 

On the night she was murdered, Stella Walsh was in a great mood. The Cleveland resident spent much of December 4, 1980, thinking about her two passions: sports and Poland, the country she ran for when she won two Olympic medals. There was a women’s basketball match the next week between Kent State and the Polish national team, which Walsh helped arrange. Mayor George Voinovich asked her to be his proxy, and his office gave her a key to the city, which she planned to present at the game.

Walsh had planned to leave for Atlanta that day, on a trip with her co-workers at the recreation department, but two days earlier, she’d canceled her ticket, which she said was too expensive for her. She skipped work, slept late, went to the nearby Lansing Tavern in the early afternoon, then returned to the tiny home she shared with her bedridden 84-year-old mother Veronica. After dinner, without saying goodbye, she drove off to buy ribbons for the visiting Poles. She had a lot of money in her pocket, which rarely happened.

In Walsh’s brilliant career as a track and field star, she’d won 41 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles and set 20 world records in a range of events, from sprints to the discus throw. She was the first superstar of women’s track and field, a dominant performer who intimidated her competitors, and the only woman of her era whose box-office appeal matched a man’s. Walsh “is to women’s track what Babe Ruth is to baseball,” one journalist wrote.

In 1980, long after her last world record, Walsh was working for Cleveland’s recreation department at an annual salary of $10,400, which was the most she’d ever earned. She bought a bag of ribbons at the Broadway Avenue location of Uncle Bill’s, a chain of Ohio discount department stores, on the city’s southeast side. In the parking lot, men approached her, one of them holding a .38. Walsh, 69, was still remarkably strong. As she tried to grab the gun, a bullet scratched through her stomach and intestines, and severed an artery in her pelvis. The thieves ran off without checking the pants pocket where she had her money.

Walsh was unconscious when a policeman working security inside Uncle Bill’s found her face down in the parking lot. As the officer turned her over, a wig fell off, and he recognized it was Stella Walsh. He asked for an ambulance to be called, but the nearest one had a flat tire, which created a delay in her care. Instead, a police station wagon came for Walsh, and officers took her to St. Alexis Hospital, less than a mile away, where she died on the operating table. A hospital inventory of her personal property included $248.17 in cash, a 1932 Olympic ring, and a pair of falsies, as they were called, for padding her bra.

In the 25 years prior to her murder, little had been written about Walsh. Born as Stanislawa Walasiewiczowna—that’s the story she told reporters, though, like many aspects of her life, it turned out to not be true—in the rural Polish town of Wierzchownia, she’d had a groundbreaking athletic career. But she also had little charisma, made bad copy, and kept to herself. Although she’d lived in the U.S. since she was 15 months old and spoke almost without an accent, she’d won her Olympic medals for Poland. Even her nickname, “The Polish Flyer,” identified her as an alien. She didn’t experience any of the twilight glory that often comforts athletes late in life; there was no documentary about her, no Congressional Medal of Honor. While she was working for the city, handing out softball permits, her fellow pioneer and ’36 Olympic contestant Jesse Owens was making speeches and earning more than $100,000 a year.

“One of the great women of sport was murdered last night,” Walter Cronkite intoned on the CBS Evening News. “Stella Walsh, who was 69, was shot and killed in a Cleveland parking lot. No suspects have been arrested.” In Slavic Village, the Polish-American neighborhood where she spent most of her life, everyone knew and loved Walsh. She tended bar at a local tavern, coached young athletes, and was viewed as an example of Polonia’s greatest virtues. “Children were her life,” one friend said. “She loved to train them, and she always trained them to be winners.” She’d been “a Cleveland institution,” Mayor Voinovich told a reporter.

Because Walsh had been murdered, an autopsy was required. On the eve of her funeral, a Cleveland TV station went on the air with a news bulletin that rattled the city, then the country, then the world: Stella Walsh was a man.

The station’s claim about Walsh was incorrect. It was neither the first nor the last mistruth told about her. Because women athletes were carelessly documented in her era, and because she cultivated mystery, there are lots of conflicting statistics and incompatible stories about Walsh, ranging from when she arrived in the U.S. to how she died. As best as these tales can be sorted out or disproven, here’s the first full account of her incredible life. Read more…

On Barbs and Demogorgons: A Stranger Things Reading List

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In a summer marked by record levels of political angst, Netflix show Stranger Things accomplished an impressive feat. It tells a story of such murky ideological leanings that everyone — from the tinfoil hatters to the vegan socialists — just had to surrender to its expertly executed ’80s pastiche and satisfying emotional pull. (And, sure, all those adorable kid actors.)

Whether you’re still high on the show’s well-calculated nostalgia or already experiencing symptoms of Upside Down withdrawal, here’s a two-part selection of stories to keep you going: from deep dives into the design of the show’s title sequence to a sprawling interview with its creators. See you on the other side!

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The House Where You Live Forever

Photo courtesy of Alan Prohm.
Photo courtesy of Alan Prohm.

Amelia Schonbek | Longreads and The Awl | August 2016 | 28 minutes (7,065 words)

This story was co-published with The Awl and funded by Longreads Members.

 

On a bright afternoon in October 2013, Madeline Gins walked into the office of her architecture practice, in an unrestored loft building on the edge of SoHo, slightly out of breath. Before she arrived, the space—a large open room occupying the fourth floor of the building—had been so still that it was almost possible to forget about the two architects staring into computer screens near the back windows. Gins entered, and the atmosphere began to buzz.

“Is Joke here?” she called out, referring to her project manager — a Dutch architect named Johanna Post — by her nickname (pronounced yo-ka). Post had stepped out, but another colleague informed Gins that she would return before their next meeting. Gins exhaled and nodded. She and the small staff of architects who work in her office, called the Reversible Destiny Foundation, had been in a state of heightened urgency for months. They were rushing to complete a new project, commissioned by the high-fashion store Dover Street Market, which would soon open a location in a Beaux-Arts building in Manhattan’s East 30s. The facade would remain unchanged, but the interior would become a mish-mash, combining the work of a number of different artists and architects. Gins would build a large covered stairway connecting the building’s open-plan third floor to the mezzanine above. But Dover Street had given Gins far less space to work with than she initially thought she would have; her team was scrambling to make sure the project would both live up to her standards and be able to fit.

Assured that preparations for the meeting were under control, Gins walked over to a large table near the front of the room, stacked high with books and papers. In the center, a heavy glass orb sat on top of a slender vase; next to it was a fish tank filled with neon bouncy balls. The wall nearby was plastered with renderings of a project called the Reversible Destiny Healing Fun House. From a distance, it looked like a cluster of spheres and tubes, painted in red, pink, yellow, and blue. The interior view showed that these structures were hollowed out, and that together they formed the walls of the building, surrounding a big open room filled with mountainous, rammed-earth terrain. “Here, feel this,” Gins said as she sat down at the table, tossing me a piece of fluffy yellow stuff. “It’s natural sponge.” It had been a couple weeks since I’d first met Gins, and I asked her how she’d been. “Ummm.” She thought for a moment. “I’ve been everything.”

Gins, in her early seventies, gave the impression of a child trying to impersonate her grandmother: her blonde hair was fastened in pigtails, and her small frame was draped in too-big clothes in shades of deep red. Her face was clear-eyed and rosy, even as wrinkles rippled across her cheeks. She exhaled again. “You know, I have huge responsibilities,” she continued. “Pressing ones.” Most architects generally want to design comfortable, visually interesting buildings for their clients. Gins found that aspiration boring. Instead, her goal was to build spaces that would keep people from dying.

According to Gins’s elaborate theory of Reversible Destiny, developed over the course of a forty-five-year collaboration with her husband and artistic partner, Shusaku Arakawa, death may not in fact be inevitable. People are lulled into believing it is because they focus only on what has come before — the “thus-far obligatory downhill course of life,” according to Gins. Their brightly colored, disorienting dreamworlds, which look more like surrealist playgrounds than traditional buildings, are intended to jolt people out of their normal routines and force them to move through life differently. If people are unable to fall back on their physical and mental habits, Gins and Arakawa said, they will be open to new ideas, including the possibility that they can lengthen their lives and, eventually, resist death entirely. Read more…

Looking at Alaska: Six Stories About The Last Frontier State

Photo: Carl A
Photo: Carl A

When I checked my weather app yesterday, it “felt like” 114 degrees. Anchorage, Alaska, however, was 64 degrees. Our current heat wave is the only thing I can think about. I am on the verge of collaging pictures of glaciers. I carried a manuscript three blocks, and it started to fuse with my sweaty arm. I guess I have to take it on faith that cold places still exist, even if I am slowly melting. That’s where this reading list comes in: six stories about all the nuances of Alaska. Alex Tizon investigates a bizarre missing persons case. Eva Holland goes snowshoe-to-shoe with some of Alaska’s boldest babes. And newly minted memoirist Blair Braverman talks about her writing process and her team of sled dogs. Stay cool out there, readers.

1.  “The Mystery of Why People Go Missing in Alaska.” (Alex Tizon, The Atlantic, April 2016)

By all accounts, Richard Thomas Hills and Richard Bennett never met, though they did not live far from one another. So how did their lives–or rather, their disappearances–become so tragically intertwined? Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Credit: The Atlantic
Credit: The Atlantic

 

Below, our favorite stories of the week.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox. Read more…