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The Works: Anatomy of a City [Paperback]

Kate Ascher
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Nov. 27 2007
Read Kate Ascher's posts on the Penguin Blog.

A fascinating guided tour of the ways things work in a modern city

Have you ever wondered how the water in your faucet gets there? Where your garbage goes? What the pipes under city streets do? How bananas from Ecuador get to your local market? Why radiators in apartment buildings clang? Using New York City as its point of reference, The Works takes readers down manholes and behind the scenes to explain exactly how an urban infrastructure operates. Deftly weaving text and graphics, author Kate Ascher explores the systems that manage water, traffic, sewage and garbage, subways, electricity, mail, and much more. Full of fascinating facts and anecdotes, The Works gives readers a unique glimpse at what lies behind and beneath urban life in the twenty-first century.


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Kate Ascher could not have chosen a much drier topic for a book than water mains, parking meters, railroad classification yards, and the other doodads of city infrastructure. But in Ascher's captivating book, The Works, the innards of New York City come alive. Wonderfully illustrated, the book combines text, maps, and other graphics to tell the story of the systems that keep America's greatest city running smoothly. How are traffic lights coordinated? How do potholes form and which areas have streets with the best "smoothness score"? How is mail processed? What happens when you flush the toilet? Ascher, who has a PhD in government from the London School of Economics and is now executive vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, dissects the colorful workings of all these systems and much more.

The Works contains a section on pretty much every aspect of the Big Apple's infrastructure. You'll learn the mystery of the shiny silver tanks that have become a familiar sight on New York streets. (They prevent moisture from damaging underground phone lines.) Ascher explains how the city's 23 million daily pieces of mail are processed. We also learn about the 27-mile underground pneumatic mail tube that used to carry canisters with 500 letters up to 30 miles per hour around Manhattan. Also interesting: the story of the nine-foot-long, 800-pound robot submarine that city engineers send to probe leaks in the Delaware Aqueduct--which, it might interest you to know, is the world's longest continuous underground tunnel. And you'll find out all about Colonel Waring and his "White Wings." A great coffee table book for New York lovers or anyone with a curiosity bone. --Alex Roslin --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"The Works is both a reference guide and a geeky pleasure."
-Time Out New York

"It's a rare person who won't find something of interest in The Works, whether it's an explanation of how a street-sweeper works or the view of what's down a manhole."
-New York Post


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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars I love books like this June 30 2014
By Dr. Tim Parker TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I love books like this, that explode both graphically and in words what goes on in, around, and under something. As with all of Ascher's volumes so far, this is along a similar line with lots of graphics (really well done!) and good readable descriptions to accompany the graphics. The subject of this volume, of course, is the city, and what goes on underground, in the buildings, the roads, and the infrastructure of a metropolis.

Younger kids will like the pictures, which are descriptive and explanatory enough that they won't have to read all the text to understand. Adults will like the descriptions in words, which cover all you could need from such a book. I like the two together! While this isn't the first of such a narrative book (and the subject of cities has been tackled in similar books in the best), this one puts it all together, well, just right! Other books I've seen are much heavier on the graphics and lighter on the text, which means some of the detail is lost. The graphics here are a support to the text, and there are quite a few, but I found myself wanting even more!

There's lots of basic information here, all fascinating, but it's the little nuggets of information about something associated with the city that makes this volume an interesting read. Whether you're settling in for an extended reading session, or just skimming a couple of pages to pass a wee bit of idle time, you'll learn something. And, after all, isn't both education and entertainment the reason we read?

The graphics are well done, which helps the narrative flow. By breaking things down, and looking at them individually, you can then appreciate the beauty or function of the larger picture, and Ascher dives into the nitty-gritty (sometimes literally) very well.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic work Jan. 11 2006
By I should be at the gym - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Imagine:

*an illustration of the special machinery used just to clean the ceiling of the Holland Tunnel.

*a sidebar on the "Poo-Poo Choo-Choo" that for years transported waste 2,000 miles (!) from NYC to a dump in Texas.

*a graphic showing payphone distribution density in all 5 boroughs.

*a drawing of the simple but effective interlocking bolts and cross-tie latching that keep the corrugated metal containers on barges connected to each other so upper containers don't slide off lower ones and fall into the water.

*a key to reading construction markings that crews spray paint on the streets.

Such drawings, historical tidbits, and facts are more abundant in this book than leaves in Central Park.

This book is exceptional. As the former Vice-chair of Manhattan Community Board 5 (greater midtown Manhattan), chair of its parks committee, and member of its land use and zoning committee, I can attest to the great value of Kate Ascher's remarkable accomplishment, "The Works." New York City's infrastructure--from garbage collection to traffic control; subway signaling to cable TV distribution among franchise-controlled territories--is one of the world's most multifaceted, and at times a curious mix of the high-tech and the antiquated.

Reviews suggesting that the text is for teenagers may be accidentally misleading. "The Works" by no means is for teenagers either *primarily* or *at the exclusion of* adults. Yes, the book--especially its more heavily-illustrated sections--will no doubt fire the imagination of many teens who have engineering, design, line drawing, architectural, historical analysis, or problem-solving aptitudes. (Have a teenager who loved Legos as a kid but has outgrown them? This book will probably make a good gift.) Just because the book is broad in scope and doesn't examine each urban work it covers with the detail of a textbook for electrical engineering students at M.I.T. doesn't make it merely for adolescents.

If you enjoy TV shows on The Science Channel or Discovery, shows like "Building the Ultimate," if you are a history trivia buff, if you just like looking at diagrams or line drawings of machinery and equipment, of you're fascinated by cities, or if it is simply the cast that you love New York City, this is a great book, and I highly recommend it.
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars learn how it all works--with diagrams! Jan. 10 2006
By R. Larsen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book has not left the coffee table. Everyone who has come over picks it up and inevitably remarks, "Oh, so that's how it works! I always wondered how they timed the traffic lights" or some such comment. This is a book you can return to again and again--one day it's telecommunications, the next, sewage. It contains so many answers to questions you never knew you had.

After reading "The Works," I now walk around New York with a completely different awareness of the incredible infrastructure that quietly undergirds the city: I constantly notice the design of fire hydrants, street signs, and man holes; I know what a "sidewalk neckdown" is; I understand how my water gets to me from the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskills through those crazy aqueducts (and they ARE crazy! they have a submersible submarine that perouses that thing for leaks!).

This book is a perfect gift for any man/boy/girl/hippo who likes to know how things work and likes to see them diagrammed in beautiful, scrumptious illustrations. I am one of these people.

But perhaps most importantly, this book made me forgive those terrible yellow trash trains that pull into subway stations late at night and immediately mean you will be waiting twenty more minutes for your train. I used to fear them. Now I know what they do. I forgive you, yellow trash trains.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Reference - Incredible Graphics Jan. 11 2006
By Louis A. Rodriguez - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I am a licensed professional civil engineer that worked for the Philadelphia Water Department for 10 years and I found this book to be an excellent piece of work. This book would be a great reference for anyone ranging from a high school student to an engineer/architech/planner. The book focuses on New York City so people from the northeast USA may find some of the topics hit close to home. However, the principles and diagrams in the book apply to most cities. One of the best book I've bought in a while!
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Like a pop-up book for grownups Dec 20 2005
By Dennis Mitton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I worked in commercial power for several years and until I read this book I still didn't know how electricity got from the power plant to the outlet in my shop to power my drill. Or why water actually comes out of the tap when I turn on the sink faucet. It's these myriads of questions that we take for granted that this book answers. Imagine these questions in reference to a city - New York City - and you've got a fascinating book..

The book covers every phase of public works including transit, power, communications, and clean-up. While the focus is on massive public works it's not just a book about technology but it personalizes the people who do all these jobs such as the engineers who climb the antennas on the Empire State Building for maintenance. The graphics are excellent and are a real aid in understanding how the systems work. The writing is clear and concise and very readable. After reading the book I have a new respect for the people who keep this largely invisible infrastructure running. Good reading.
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spectacular! June 8 2006
By Peter V. Wall - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As a designer in the New York metropolitan area, I thoroughly appreciate the effort that must have gone into making this book, and in particular its illustrations. They are detailed, accurate (as far as I can tell), and above all informative in a way that infrastructure diagrams from other books are not. It is noted that TW:AOAC's lead designer found inspiration in a chance encounter with famed statistician/graphic artist Edward Tufte - a credible claim, if this book is any indicator. Conveying so much about the city yet basking in white space, these spreads are consistently excellent. Ascher's writing, too, is impeccable, and while a free-market standpoint is appropriately engaged in her commentary, the invaluabity of New York's public bureaus is not given short shrift. Indeed, where politics have clouded issues of development for the city, Ms. Ascher has deftly surmised the issue and given it full and fair treatment. As a major in economics and a professional graphic designer, I am happily forced to recommend this book.
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