The Mystery of the Thousand Missing Airbnbs

Casting doubt on Airbnb's data transparency

New York City, February 11, 2016

image★★★ The blinds opened on royal blue sky, on its way to daylight well before the 7 a.m. airport car was due. The younger boy dragged his comforter off the bunk and wrapped himself in it on the couch, complaining of the chill. Out in full morning, a loose tangle of cloud came blowing over the roofline of a building so fast it seemed like a steam plume. It was cold but not cold enough for desperation. Here and there people walked with parcels or bags swinging from their wrists, hands jammed in pockets. The wind played its tunes on the apartment building. At night, the air in the heater cabinet, above the controls, was frigid.

An Interview with Alexander Chee

Queen of the NightAlmost fifteen years after his remarkable debut novel Edinburgh, Alexander Chee is back with The Queen of the Night, a sprawling and operatic narrative following the life of famed soprano Lilliet Berne. Chee’s second novel, which he describes as an “alternate history novel,” is set in 1882 Paris and reimagines Second Empire Paris in startling detail. I interviewed Chee, who is currently on tour for the novel, over the last couple of weeks. If you’re lucky, you can catch him at your local bookstore.

Alex! There are lots of intelligent things I want to ask you about The Queen of the Night, but first can we take a moment to admire its spine?

Please let’s do.

It’s been almost fifteen years since the debut of your astonishing novel Edinburgh. The pace of researching and writing must be very different from what you’re going through now in anticipation of the release of your second novel. How do you feel? Are you getting enough sleep?

Thank you. I feel ok. I’m not getting enough sleep though. It’s like internet PTSD mixed with “every day is or isn’t Christmas.” Or it was. But now I’m so far past the place I thought I would get to, I feel like I can sleep maybe. I’ll check back in.

Several days go by.

Ok I’m still not really sleeping.

One week later.

I slept. It was exciting. I need more.

The Used Bookstore Will Be the Last One Standing

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A year ago, what might be the modest future of bricks-and-mortar bookselling arrived in Ridgewood, Queens, the neighborhood northeast of Bushwick that has been impolitely dubbed “Quooklyn.” Topos, at the corner of Woodward and Putnam Avenues, is sunny and small, with blond-wood shelves, plants in the window, a bas-relief tin ceiling, and a pointedly thoughtful selection of used books. There is no cash register; sales are logged by hand. Topos is also a café, and, although the coffee and pastries are better a few blocks away, at the Milk & Pull on Seneca, the coffee and pastries are incidental. People seem to just like hanging out among all the books.

On a recent Sunday, the morning after Winter Storm Jonas glazed the city with two feet of snow, Cosmo Björkenheim, who wore round glasses and a green plaid shirt, opened the store for business. He started Topos, along with a few partners, as an unofficial offshoot of Williamsburg’s Book Thug Nation, where he still works once a week. In previous eras, the Ridgewood storefront hosted a bodega, a thrift store, and a furniture-upholstering studio, but it had been vacant for five years when the bookshop moved in. In Greek, topos means “place”; in literary criticism, the word also refers to a traditional motif or convention—an abbreviation of tópos koinós, or “common place.”

“We bandied about at least fifty or sixty Greek words before we landed on topos,” Björkenheim said, standing behind the copper coffee bar. “Aletheia was one—truth. Another was from Greek myth, from the Odyssey, which I really liked. I’m going to write it for you, because it’s hard to pronounce.” On a note card, he spelled out, in careful block letters, AEAEA. “That’s the island where Odysseus and his men land, where Circe lives, and where his men are turned into pigs. It was on the way to Ithaca, like this place, in a certain sense. If you’re going north.”

“If you’re going to Ithaca, it’s on the way to Ithaca,” an artist named Kyla Chevrier, who took an Americano with milk, said.

Postiljonen, "How Can Our Love Be Blind"


It’s so close, the weekend. You can see it just out over the horizon. You can’t touch it yet, but soon. Soon! You didn’t think you’d get there but here you are, mere hours away. Just put your head down and do what you have to do and it will all be yours. I have faith in you. I know you can do it. Also, just like the last one we featured from them, this song is super pretty. Maybe it will give you that little push that helps you to the finish line. Enjoy. [Via]

New York City, February 10, 2016

weather review sky 021016★★ What looked like mist out the window was fine, drizzly snow, which lost all distinction from rain as soon as it hit the pavement. It accumulated only on the fake leather of a broken desk chair lying with the trash. Before long it gave up and went away, and some tentative sun came out, a white disc at the edge of a clot of thicker gray. By midafternoon everything had gone back to full lumpy gray. The wait for the third grade to let out was deeply chilly without quite being frigid; the four-year-old was grouchy but not grouchy enough about it to agree to take shelter in the lobby. The clouds broke again late, in time to spread painterly effects across the west, as if in conclusion of some more congenial day.

Streetcar Desired

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Last week, in his State of the City address, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to build something called the Brooklyn-Queens Connector—a sixteen-mile, $2.5-billion streetcar line along the East River that would connect Astoria, Queens, with Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The BQX, as it would theoretically be known, has the potential “to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” the mayor said, and “to generate over $25 billion of economic impact for our city.”

The idea that the people of the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront (and especially those in Red Hook) deserve a streetcar or light rail line has been knocked around for decades, but no one has ever been able to convene sufficient political and financial capital to move the project forward. Recently, however, a variety of community groups, technocrats, and real estate developers assembled a non-profit called the Friends of the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, which last summer commissioned HR&A Advisors, a real estate consulting firm, to conduct a feasibility study.

Such a proposal might seem frivolous, given that all five of Brooklyn’s busiest bus routes—the B46 (Utica), B41 (Flatbush), B35 (Church), B44 (Nostrand), and B6 (a mess)—are located far from the waterfront, and that weekday ridership on the bus routes closer to the river pales in comparison. (Not to mention that any route that would allow for both transfers to the subway and access to the waterfront would be absurdly circuitous.) Also, the project, which would cost at least $2.5 billion, wouldn’t be completed until (at the earliest!) 2024. All five of the aforementioned bus routes pass through New York City’s 45th District, which comprises Flatbush, East Flatbush, Flatlands, and a bit of Midwood and Canarsie, but Councilman Jumaane Williams said he was only peripherally aware of the BQX proposal. “I think it’s a creative idea, but I’m not sure what their transportation needs are over there,” he told me. “We have some real needs here, and I hope that we can also get some of that creative thinking.”

Proponents of the plan argue that the streetcar would connect people in high-growth residential neighborhoods like Astoria with high-growth commercial areas like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Sunset Park’s Industry City. Theoretically, it would also encourage further development in areas where, right now, public transportation is less accessible, like Greenpoint. That, in turn, will generate enough tax revenue to retroactively cover the cost of having built the line in the first place—the 7 train extension is cited as a precedent for this kind of “value capture” success. “This doesn’t actually cost the city any money to do,” Alex Garvin, an urban planner, real estate developer, and former deputy commissioner of housing and city planning commissioner who has long advocated for a Brooklyn-Queens streetcar, told me. “There are plenty of places that need more transit, but the money isn’t there. We need two more tunnels under the East River. We need to extend the Second Avenue subway line to the Bronx. But the money isn’t there to pay for those things.”

Delivery Interrupted

grocery8Once, long ago, but not that long ago, like the late nineties, in cities around the country, there was a startup that delivered groceries to people’s houses within thirty minutes—as fast as a Domino’s pizza, wow, amazing. It was such a great idea that this company was valued at almost five billion dollars after raising hundreds of millions of dollars in an IPO. But it turned out that building the infrastructure to run this service cost far more money than the company could make from charging people a reasonable fee to delivery the groceries they were too busy to retrieve, because they were doing things like going to restaurants or trying to beat out scalper bots to get Beyonce tickets. And so this startup, called Webvan, went bankrupt in what is generally considered one of the most violent incidents in the orgy of death that was the first dot-com implosion.

Roughly ten years, or two internets and one successful FreshDirect later, delivering groceries seemed like a great idea again, great enough to be its own company and not a side business like AmazonFresh, great enough to once again attempt to spread to every city in America, great enough to sweep aside the problems that killed it last time, great enough to merit hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital. But this time, it would be different, because instead of building warehouses and hiring employees, the idea would be built on the shelves of existing grocery stores and the backs of a servile labor force left rattled and underemployed by the Great Recession, unlike the people whose groceries an army of independent contractors would be retrieving and delivering:

Little Scream, "Love as a Weapon"


All this is is fun, and really, what more could you ask for? Nothing, that’s what. Enjoy.

A Poem by Laura Kolbe

Imagining Marriage: 1


The bellies of right whales, each krill
its jacket of mineral: one meal. The empties
on Tilghman Street: what they will make
in their next heat is maybe a whale’s glass cage,
is maybe the largest bulb in Reno, is certainly
a grey rash of nickels. Hello, goodly transmutation. Hello,
my onus, my many. Two can be many. One can be,
too. At any siren I still hail Mary, the pastor’s way
of saying thywomb like thyroid, fast and ill-accounted,
though now I am praying to the box of noise,
the string of women mimicked in its hosing peal—
the low one with her black nosegay,
the central matron strong as steel-cut oats,
the soprano, hem on fire, parched red,
smoke-gingered—all these are you
says the ambulance, when not saying
the more important Move. And yet to reduce,

The Fakelore of the Apache Wedding Blessing

akjshgagBefore I got married this past October, my father called and asked if he could read a poem at my wedding. I knew it from the wedding album on my parents’ bookshelf: Typed on a word processor in a California courthouse sometime around 1980, it was part of the stock ceremony the justice of the peace brought with him to marry my parents in my grandmother’s backyard. The reading, having been part of one ceremony, now struck my father as some material for a family tradition—something all our own, against the backdrop of a Jewish ceremony and some typical American reception conventions.

Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter for the other.

Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other.

Now there will be no loneliness, for each of you will be companion to the other.

Now you are two persons, but there is only one life before you.

May beauty surround you both in the journey ahead and through all the years.

May happiness be your companion and your days together be good and long upon the earth.

The poem in my parents’ album was titled “Navajo Prayer,” and, losing a lot in translation, I’d told my friends that my parents, a Bronx Jew and a lapsed California Protestant, had been married by a Navajo priest. But the first page of search results when I looked it up for my wedding revealed that it wasn’t ours at all. My father had unwittingly bought into an honored, and lucrative, American tradition: The embrace of the “traditionalesque.”